I try to avoid forming preconceived notions, but when I was asked to review Jamie Johnson's Secret Selves, I felt a twinge of skepticism. It is a self-published book by a first-time author, and I initially feared I might be facing a painstaking slog through its 328 pages. However, like most forms of prejudice, my preconceived notions were completely unfounded.
Secret Selves, subtitled How Their Changes Changed Me: A Mother's Story, is the true tale of a mother whose two sons both underwent transforming life experiences. Johnson's first-person narrative relates how helping her sons grow through their changes allowed Johnson a transformation of her own.
One son, Joey, suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), causing him to cycle through a number of alter-ego personalities that range in demeanour from harmless and cute to frighteningly menacing. Johnson’s other son, Kip, began life as Jamie's daughter, Jul, and must undergo the complicated process of gender transition from female to male. The two stories are deftly woven together in a quasi-linear fashion, with succeeding chapters linked thematically in a comfortable and easy manner.
As I also identify as trans, I naturally expected Kip's story would resonate more than Joey's. However, Johnson’s prose and pacing quickly drew me into the entire family saga. As she paints a frank and honest picture of her family's challenging history, this flow is maintained even as the subject matter becomes emotionally difficult.
I was struck in particular by one chapter, in which Kip comes out to his mom about his need to transition from female to male.
After reading about this particularly tense and emotional scene, it is easy to conclude that Johnson could have taken the revelation better. But then I recalled the similar conversation I’d had with my mother, and I wished she could have handled my news as well as Johnson handled Kip’s.
I think this speaks to the reason Johnson wrote the book: by sharing her experience, Johnson hopes Secret Selves helps parents of kids like Kip and Joey be the best parents they can be.
Secret Selves is not the story of a magically perfect wonder-mom who always gets everything right at first try. Rather, it's the story of a regular wonder-mom, who simply loves her children unconditionally and does her best to handle the challenges that come with having exceptional kids.
Too many parents of kids like Joey and Kip live in hushed silence about psychological disorders and about transgender issues. Or worse, they allow their misunderstanding to shatter what should be an unconditional bond of love between parents and their offspring. Tragically, many kids like Kip and Joey are disowned because their parents lack the tools to properly understand their "secret selves."
The book also conveys plenty of useful facts and anecdotes that help educate about the FTM transition process and about DID from a parent's perspective. But the primary lessons aren't factual in nature — they are emotional. Johnson's Secret Selves
teaches that we must always love our kids for who they are, not for who we want them to be. And, when having kids, like when picking up a fresh book, be prepared to ditch your preconceived notions.