In Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Janet Mock tells the story of her childhood–spent between Hawaii with her mother and the mainland U.S. with her father–living in poverty and being exposed to the harsh realities of drug use, domestic violence, and infidelity. While coping with these hardships at a young age, she also grappled with the realization that her inner identity didn’t match her male body.
As her mother’s first son and father’s namesake, young Mock (birth name Charles) felt unable to live up to her father’s expectations of masculinity. After she and her brother Chad moved to Oakland from Hawaii to live with their father, Mock became acutely aware of the differences between her brother and herself. Her brother was brave, athletic, and daring where Mock was sensitive, cautious, and meek. Her femininity was a source of shame and derision, making her an easy target for schoolyard bullies and sexual predators.
When her father moved the family to Dallas so he could sober up with the support of his parents and siblings, Mock finally found stable female figures in her aunts. She began to experiment with her image by growing out her hair, trying on feminine clothes, and creating a female alter ego named Keisha. When Mock returned to Hawaii to live with her mother again, she gradually began her male-to-female transition. Hawaiian culture has a history of accepting gender fluidity, and Mock found role models in her hula teacher, new friend Wendi, and other transgender women who found a modicum of acceptance by performing in drag shows or offering their bodies on Merchant Street. Throughout her transition, Mock had to discover and nurture the facets of her real self while responding to the reactions of her family, friends, and society.
Transgender issues are more visible than ever thanks to public figures such as Caitlin Jenner, Jazz Jennings, and Aydian Dowling as well as shows like Transparent and Becoming Us. While this publicity has helped further the public understanding of what being transgender means, much of the focus has been on white middle- to upper-middle-class people and their families. Mock highlights the intersectionality of growing up impoverished, mixed-race (her mother is Hawaiian, her father is black), and transgender in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. All these parts of her identity led to discrimination throughout her life and challenged her to overcome other people’s opinions. However, she owns the privileges she has enjoyed, such as having the unconditional love and support of her family, having transgender friends as a teen, and being conventionally attractive.
Mock spends more than a few pages considering what “realness” means for the transgender community. As a teen, she took pride in her ability to “pass” for a cisgender female due to her already-feminine features. “Passing” doesn’t just grant a transperson acceptance in society, but could be the difference between life and death. We live in a world where some who are transgender live in fear of being killed for expressing his or her gender. Mock expresses shame at her former feelings of superiority while illustrating the hierarchies that exist within oppressed communities. When you grow up with the message that you aren’t worthy enough, you’ll latch on to any trait that makes you valuable in the eyes of others.
Mock doesn’t shy away from opening up about the morally questionable things she did on her way to becoming the woman she is today. We tend to want to hear happy stories about people overcoming the odds, but the truth is any journey has bumps along the way. Mock’s honesty makes her story all the more accessible. She isn’t a golden goddess without sin; she is human, just like the rest of us. Her hardships are as pivotal to her journey as her triumphs, and make her success that much more impressive.
Mock’s gorgeous yet simple writing and soul-baring storytelling make for a gripping memoir that also teaches you about the unique struggles within the transgender community.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Lip Smackers