Growing Up Haunted

By Liz Fisher

"The world is full of Exes, of Priors and Formers, people who can never quite live in the present," Jennifer Finney Boylan says in the first chapter of I'm Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted. What is it, she wonders, that allows some people to move on while others remain stuck in the past? "Maybe… you do it by writing poems, by trying to tell your ridiculous and and incomprehensible story."

In order to tell the reader her story, Boylan takes us back to the summer of 1972. She, her sister and father are in a VW on the way to see their new house. Jenny is not yet Jenny, she is the thirteen-year-old James. As readers of her bestselling memoir She Not There will know, Boylan is a trans woman. While She's Not There is a story of transition, Growing Up Haunted is a story of Boylan's adolescence, family and, yes, ghosts.


Boylan's writing is evocative. The reader comes to know, intimately, the nooks and crannies of the family's crumbling Victorian mansion, as well as the ghosts which James comes to believe occupy it. Her words, even when the subject matter is heart-crushing, are laced with a humor that makes this a more than enjoyable read.

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At the center of the book right along with James is a quirky and complex family. When we meet James' eccentric and loud grandmother, better known as Gammie, in the second chapter she is dressed as Madame Cabash in front of a crowd of neighborhood children at James' birthday party. Her final words to the children before, much to their relief, James' mother interrupts are, "That is where pizzazz comes from. YOUR BOSOM!"

James mother is a quiet, yet loving presence throughout the book. We also meet James' father, the man who enthusiastically made the decision to purchase the aptly named Coffin House much to James' dismay, and James' wild and too cool for the world older sister, Lydia, who is fifteen when we first meet her. Throughout the course of the book, both her father and her sister will be lost to Boylan in different ways.

Jenny as James, like the ghosts in Coffin House, has both people and experiences that tie her to the world and secrets that keep her from fully being a part of it, living out of phase with the body she inhabits. In one particularly memorable scene, James hears a ghost in the attic while trying on Lydia's wedding dress. In the process of investigating the ghost, James is almost caught in the dress and ends up locked in the attic rather than risk discovery.

Though we spend much of the book in James' childhood, through the early years of James marriage to wife, Grace, we also get flashes of Jenny as she is now, trying to reconcile who she has become with who James was. "Back then," she says of life as James, "I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me, but I did know this much: that in order to survive, I'd have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden."

At its core, that's what this book is about. It's about growing up as someone you aren't and finding ways to reconcile that with the person you become.  Tales of ghosts bind the narrative together, ghost sightings are a constant in young James' life and the book begins and ends in the present day with Jenny's experience at a haunted hotel, but this memoir is less a ghost story, and more a reflection on growing up with a sense of otherness as perceived by yourself or those around you. It's about navigating that otherness and eventually finding a way to be true to oneself. And, as Boylan says, "when it comes to ghosts, or gender, you're pretty much on your own."