Book Review: She Had Been a Tomboy
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A mother’s loving story of helping her daughter survive anxiety and embrace her true self
Grace came out to her parents as a transgender woman when she was in her twenties.
“She has always been my daughter,” Sandra Bowman says, though she admits the information surprised her. She delivers this story with poise and conviction, and the reader feels throughout that we are receiving unfiltered truth.
Though Grace’s gender is clear, the memoir dwells in the ambiguity of her transition. For the first three-quarters of the book, Sandra refers to Grace during childhood and young adulthood with a boy name and the words “son” and “he.”
It’s not always obvious when a child is transgender. Though Grace herself would later say, as an adult, that she had known herself to be a girl at three or four years old, she didn’t give many clues at the time. Yes, she liked roughhousing, toy trucks, and climbing into the treehouse—but all because she was a tomboy!
At puberty, she withdrew from other girls, stung by the impossibility of “wanting to be included among them.” She began to understand that she was “in the wrong body,” and that’s when, according to her mother, she “stop[ped] moving forward emotionally.” Grace was diagnosed with attention, anxiety, and mood disorders.
Grace entered the world at two-and-a-half pounds, born three months premature, so fragile that her parents were barely allowed to touch their newborn. In adulthood, she’s six feet, five inches tall. Of course, a person’s height doesn’t imply whether their gender is valid, nor does Sandra suggest it does.
Rather, the imagery about body size feels important to the memoir because it reflects Sandra’s feelings as a mother. Grace’s size has always been remarkable. At first, Sandra struggled to keep an impossibly tiny infant alive, then worried over an emotionally troubled teen and a twenty-something adult who continued to have a large presence in her life.
Sandra and her husband have a second child who seemed “trouble-free” in comparison. This son received her undivided attention in “two magnificent but fleeting years.” As a teen, Grace refused to get her driver’s license, so her parents chauffeured her everywhere, dragging their other child along.
This son had his own emotional needs, of course, but he didn’t show them. Of this son’s struggle, Sandra says she simply did not see it and was “incapable of detecting the imbalance” in the attention she paid her two children.
As a young teen, Grace began to figure out her transgender identity. Although she couldn’t find much information in the early 2000s, she discovered that “this way of being has existed always in the world.” But she wasn’t out yet. On multiple antidepressants, she slept at her high school desk. “Her shoulders bend inward. Her expression is shattering, engulfing. Her face is misery itself.”
She came out to her father first, fearing her mother’s rejection. “But actually from me?”Sandra exclaims in retrospect. “This is something I cannot comprehend. When? Ever! have I not been unyieldingly frantic to…to prove, to reassure, that I will not drop [the ball?]” Sandra read about what it means to be transgender. Then, she worried. How would Grace—whom everyone had always known as a boy, who is unusually tall, who didn’t yet “pass” as a woman—live happily and safely?
On the other hand, giving support is complicated. Grace was still emotionally suffering, and, as a form of “tough love,” Sandra and her husband allowed her to go to a homeless shelter.
Around this point in the memoir, when Grace was newly out as transgender, Sandra’s narrative switches to using her child’s new name and begins referring to her as her daughter. The switch may have felt a little difficult to Sandra, even if she accomplished it rapidly, and some of the seams are evident in her memoir’s wording. Even on the last page, she refers to “him, my daughter,” someone who has been “both” a son in the past and a daughter in present and future.
Readers will be pleased to hear that this story comes with a happy ending. It is possible for transgender people to be happy—to transition gender, to find love, to manage their illnesses, and to begin to truly live. This book tells us about this evolution, or at least one version of one person’s story.
This parenting memoir is primarily about how a mother perceives her transgender child. While almost all the anecdotes focus exclusively on Grace, in a sense the story is more about Sandra. It’s about what Sandra knew, when she knew it, how it made her feel, and what she feels she did right and wrong as a parent.
One thing I don’t know (and wish I did) is whether Grace wanted her mother to write this memoir about her mental illnesses and her gender identity—exactly this way, or at all. I wonder, if Grace had written a letter to include in the book, what she would have said.
A big topic the memoir leaves open-ended is the link between Grace’s emotional wellbeing and her gender. The author made the right choice not to speculate too much about causes. After all, people may suffer anxiety before, during, or after they come out as transgender, and anxiety can have causes entirely apart from gender. It’s hard for a person to sort out the origins of their own feelings and behaviors, and their parent is one step removed from that subjective experience.
She Had Been a Tomboy makes clear that diagnoses of anxiety and depression are not identical with being transgender. This loving family memoir can help other families understand the distinction between mental health issues and being transgender.
Every individual and family experiences their own struggle for authenticity and wholeness in their own way. Sandra Bowman’s enthusiastic love and her dedication to her daughter’s happiness shines in this memoir.
Genre: Nonfiction / Biography & Autobiography / LGBTQ+
Print Length: 268 pages
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