“What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation” by Mimi Lemay— Returning to the Past to Move Forward

Lemay, Mimi. “What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation”,   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

Returning to the Past to Move Forward

Amos Lassen

I love reading memoirs,  especially memoirs that are so honest and so real that they move me in many different ways. Mimi Lemay’s “What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation” is such a memoir. Yet this is so much more than a memoir—it is an odyssey, a life a guide to understanding and an examination of a life and the culture that shaped that life. Lately we have had many memoirs written about and/or by transgender children. We have heard from mothers on how they learned to deal (or nor to deal with a child who is different from other children) and we have had memoirs about those who chose to leave the faith in which they were raised. Now we have the story of a mother who struggled with both issues.

Mimi Lemay and her husband welcomed their daughter Em to the world and to their family. From the time he was two and half,  Em told his family that he is a boy and then became Jacob. Having a transgender nephew, I understand how the Lemay’s world was rocked by this and, in fact, I saw much of my sister in Mimi Lemay. How does one accept the fact that the child they gave birth to is not the child it was thought to be?

As Lemay struggled with this knowledge, she looked back into her own life as she tried to find why what was going on with her child that caused her to reexamine her past and her own struggle to live an authentic life as she knew it to be.

Lemay tells her story in alternating chapters in which we learn about the Jewish faith and those traditions that were part of her life. She grew up in a Hassidic family with her mother and two siblings. Her father was not present but because had not given her mother a divorce, her mother had to support her family. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is based on tradition and faith that are the ruling way of life. Every aspect of her life is actually dictated by the ancient rules of Judaism which set Lemay’s role as a female and is predetermined and preordained from birth until death. Like all of us who are raised in the Orthodox tradition, she  struggled  with what Judaism demanded of her. Ultimately she decided leave her religious community and this also meant that she left the very strict gender roles that are integral to orthodox Judaism.

Divorce among the Orthodox is a whole other world and Lemay’s mother was forced to deal with “the indignity of being unmarried in a society that values women as mothers and wives.” As a young girl,  Mimi was fascinated by the fact that Torah study for girls is limited and she was filled with questions which probably would never be answered. She was a good student at school but she desired more freedom. Traditional Orthodox Jewish education requires separation of the genders. She heard about a place in England where girls were taught and learned like boys and together with them but because she was not from a good family (we see again that divorce is looked down upon), her admittance was denied.  On her own, she wrote the headmaster and was accepted but she was still filled with questions which she had to learn to put aside. Questions often lead to safe-isolation and as we follow Lemay’s life we see her search for authentication increase yet she found a soulmate who agreed to let her study and they were engaged to marry. When his indiscretion with another woman was discovered, the engagement was cancelled and she went off to college and left orthodoxy behind and she married a man, Joe, who was not Jewish.

You might wonder why all of this background is necessary. I recently read that Lemay’s plans were to write about being a parent to a transgender child but as she thought about it, she realized that she was looking at her own life which also needed to be told if she were to honestly discuss her child. The stories play on each other since the goal is to find the true self.  “Each story sheds light on the other.”  (As I write this, I am continually aware that what Lemay writes provokes a great deal of thought). Mimi wanted to and was prepared to help her son live an authentic life and this was a time when there is not much agreement on how a transgender child is to be raised. Though the two dialogues we have here, we see into the heart of a mother and her child and the family that believes that one must live authentically. There is a great of love and courage in the words we read.

We really have nothing else available about transgender children as young as Jacob making this a very important book. This also the story of a mother and family who are able and willing to cone together over radical so that a child can be who he is. I did not go into what Lemay has used to raise Jacob because you can read that here easily enough. Besides I did not want to spoil the read for others.

Today Jacob is nine-years-old and thriving. While Lemay is now non-orthodox, she believes in God even after years of anger, confusion and frustration. As a gay somewhat observant Jew, I am blown away by this book and I will laud it whenever possible. We all have journeys and as different as they may be, there are stops along the way that we all share. Transformation is part of it and how we are transformed depends upon how we make the journey and what we face as we do. Jacob, his mother Mimi (and the entire Lemay family) are still on their journey and while I am almost home, I cannot help but see those similarities we share. I wept, chuckled and smiled as I read much as I did on my journey and much as has done the Lemay family. I am in wonderful company here.  I must quote Mimi Lemay here when she says what we all know, “There are people who are different among us, and having these unique experiences is precious. They need a village to support them. Their story is important to our human experience.”

“I hope people will get comfort and feel they are not alone. I hope they will realize the world is changing, and people are fighting hard for their kids. I hope they will be buoyed up and inspired to continue on the road they’re on to support their kids. There are so many rewards to affirming a child, no matter how difficult it seems. I hope the book gives the parents of transgender children the strength to be that person who stands between their child and the world, so their child is allowed to be who they are.”

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