"In a landmark book, an extraordinary young woman recounts her coming-of-age as a transgender teen--a deeply personal and empowering portrait of self-revelation, adversity, and heroism. In 2011, Marie Claire magazine published a profile of Janet Mock in which she publicly stepped forward for the first time as a trans woman. Since then, Mock has gone from covering the red carpet for People.com to advocating for all those who live within the shadows of society. Redefining Realness offers a bold new perspective on being young, multiracial, economically challenged, and transgender in America. Welcomed into the world as her parents' firstborn son, Mock set out early on to be her own person--no simple feat for a young person like herself. She struggled as the smart, determined child in a deeply loving, yet ill-equipped family that lacked money, education, and resources. Mock had to navigate her way through her teen years without parental guidance but luckily with a few close friends and mentors she overcame extremely daunting hurdles. This powerful memoir follows Mock's quest for identity, from her early gender conviction to a turbulent adolescence in Honolulu that found her transitioning through the halls of her school, self-medicating with hormones at fifteen, and flying across the world for sex reassignment surgery at just eighteen. Ever resilient, Mock emerged with a scholarship to college and moved to New York City, where she earned her masters degree, basked in the success of an enviable career, and told no one about her past. It wasn't until Mock fell for a man who called her the woman of his dreams that she felt ready to finally tell her story, becoming a fierce advocate for girls like herself. A profound statement of affirmation from a courageous woman, Redefining Realness shows as never before what it means to be a woman today and how to be yourself when you don't fit the mold created for you"--
Mock is an accomplished writer and her story broke my heart. What she had to overcome to become ‘real’ was huge- the bullying, the poverty, the abuse- but her determination won over it all. She paid for all her hormones and surgery herself by being a temporary sexworker, undergoing GRS at 18 by flying, by herself, to Thailand. Despite all this, she never feel sorry for herself or makes it sound like she did anything remarkable; it was simply what she had to do. It’s a flowing narrative that didn’t allow me to put it down until I was done, and it made me glad to know that she has found herself at a place where she is ‘real’ and happy.
This book is a memoir that focuses mostly on her youth, starting with her memories as a young child in Hawaii, through moving to New York City for graduate school. Ms. Mock was assigned the gender male at birth, but never felt connected to that; she felt like a girl. Her story is fascinating, surprising, and at times heartbreaking. It can almost read like fiction, because it was difficult for me to realize that someone could experience what she did and come through it not just to survive, but to thrive.
Ms. Mock faced many disadvantages growing up, but she also recognizes that she had some things that other trans youth do not have. Early on she found her best friend Wendi, who was also trans, and helped her to not be alone at school. She is a very smart person and was able to earn a scholarship for college. Her family was supportive of her as she took more steps to make sure that her actions and appearance matched how she felt – she was not thrown out of her home when she shared her reality with her mother. That’s powerful.
Her writing about accepting who she is, and especially about what it means to be a ‘real’ woman, made a strong impression on me. This idea that we value trans people more if they ‘pass’ for cis people, or that someone is lying if they don’t share that they were assigned a different gender at birth, places cis as the center of ‘normal’ when in reality being cis is just common. This sentence, coming on the second-to-last page of the book, is one I want to embroider and hang on my wall: “We must abolish the entitlement that deludes us into believing that we have the right to make assumptions about people’s identities and project those assumptions onto their genders and bodies.” Spot on.
I should say that I’m not used to Ms. Mock’s style of writing. I’ve read loads of memoirs, but most of them are written by comedians, and thus have a very different feel. I think she finds her stride about three chapters in (although who knows in what order she wrote the book), but I nearly stopped after the first chapter because the writing was so very … descriptive. At times I felt like there was some sort of adjective word count she felt she had to hit, that I was reading a book that suffered from a lot of ‘tell not show’ sentences. It’s not the type of writing I generally like to read, but the story behind all of those words was so interesting and powerful that either I figured out a way to accept the style, or it became less prominent as the book went on. No matter – I’m very glad I stuck with it.
Of course, despite what seems like an overnight success, Janet’s life was not so different from any other trans woman, looking to cope with the struggle of her own identity. She talks about growing up in a world where being trans was not something you took pride in, or even talked about with anybody outside your immediate family. It was a world of dehumanizing depictions found in popular culture, usually played for laughs, for shock value, or trashy titillation.
Her story has all the hallmarks of the trans experience. She recalls being caught and scolded for wearing a dress at the age of thirteen. She remembers telling her mother that she was gay, unable at that age to separate gender identity from sexuality. With no concept of a trans identity, the idea of a thirteen year old boy becoming a girl was nothing more than a fantasy. Somehow, she still managed to express that fantasy with Wendi, who was the first to do her eyebrows and makeup, and who continues to serve as her makeup artist today.
Janet was fifteen when she told her family that she wanted to be called Janet, following that up by declaring to her teachers and classmates at school that ‘she’ was to be called ‘Janet’ and ‘she’ would be wearing dresses to class. For the most part, her acceptance at school was positive, but there were challenges, such as the chemistry teacher who continued to refer to Janet as ‘him’ and as ‘Charles’ at every opportunity, and the principal who scolded her for dress code violations.
More than anything, Janet’s story is one of triumph. She acknowledges the challenges, the disadvantages, and the issues she faced, but never dwells on them or lets them dictate her story. Instead, she constantly takes charge of her life, insisting that her mother take her to the doctor for hormone treatments, coming out to her first boyfriend, and then coming out to her estranged father with a touching, heart-felt letter and a copy of her yearbook photo. When she talks of her father writing back to tell her she “looks nice,” I’ll admit to shedding a few tears, even if he goes on to caution he’ll need time to come to terms with ‘Janet.’
There is some darkness to her tale as well, particularly surrounding her life as a prostitute, but she owns that life, owns her choices, and almost justifies them as a means to an end. She doesn’t sensationalize it, even if it does end with a Pretty Woman type proposal (which she rejects), and it is here that Janet steps outside her own story to talk about the risks of suicide, HIV, and rape.
Ultimately, Janet’s story is a journey of self-revelation, of understanding who she is inside, and of taking steps to realize that on the outside. It’s an extraordinarily emotional tale, raw and honest, but at the same time polished and profound. She doesn’t try to make herself out to be the perfect woman, and makes it very clear she never set out to be any kind of role model. Instead, Janet shares with her past, invites us to reminisce, and promises a brighter future – something to which we can all aspire.
Originally reviewed for Frock Magazine
To me, it feels like Janet is writing to educate. Janet succeeds in weaving her memoir with education to help inform readers of issues affecting trans people and cis people. At one point, I especially felt that she was entreating teachers and counselors to be better allies. Throughout her memoir she cites sources (naming the sources in the text, opening the door as wide as possible so you can find out more), explains terms, and compassionately describes sexism, feminism, and the behaviors that hurt and help young men and women who are affirming their gender. Although I'm already on board with the information and intent, I think it's a good book for someone who is just learning about these issues like myself.