One of our favorite books of October, Becoming Nicole, rather coincidentally landed right in the middle of the transgender zeitgeist. Bruce Jenner has just become Caitlin, and Amazon’s Transparent swept the Emmy award, but journalist Amy Ellis Nutt began her work on the moving story of the toddler who always knew he’d been born in the wrong body long before any of the above. Here she talks about how and why she wrote her exceptional book.
When Wyatt Maines, an identical twin, was still a toddler, he asked his parents when would his penis fall off. Neither Kelly nor Wayne, a conservative, middle-class husband and wife, knew what to say to their child and for the next decade, Wayne would avoid facing a truth that Kelly knew she needed to embrace long before him. Wyatt was transgender. Kelly wasn’t the product of a typical nuclear family, so she had no idealized concept of who her children should be, and perhaps that’s why it was easier for her to say that nothing was wrong with Wyatt – he was just different – and her job was to figure out how to help him be happy and safe. So before Wyatt would legally change his name to Nicole, and before Nicole would be harassed by another student in the fifth grade, Kelly began where so many modern parents do when they have questions they don’t know whom to ask. She Googled the words, “Boys who like girls toys.” It was the beginning of a journey that would take the family through the medical, educational and legal systems, that would change them, push the parents apart, and then eventually pull them together again. It was a journey that would leave them scarred, but unbroken.
Nearly four years ago when I first thought about writing Becoming Nicole, I wondered how much interest there would be in reading a book about a transgender child.
Then I met Nicole and her family.
I remember sitting in the small living room of the house in Portland, Maine, where Kelly and the twins had been forced to move and live apart from Wayne after the Orono school system failed to stand by Nicole. We had just begun to get to know one another when I turned to Nicole and asked her what she most enjoyed doing. Her dark brown eyes lit up and she practically giggled as she plopped down next to me on the couch and showed me one of the videos she’d recently made of her brother and friends play-acting.
That’s when I knew Nicole and Jonas and Kelly and Wayne were the same kind of people everyone knew. There was nothing odd, nothing off-putting, nothing secretive or furtive, angry or disillusioned about Nicole, Jonas and their parents. This was actually a very ordinary family – an incredibly warm and thoughtful family – that had to face extraordinary circumstances. Each of them had their own flaws and gifts, each traveled a different path to understanding, and all of them had a story to tell. I not only wanted to write this book, I couldn’t wait to write it.
My own interests as a journalist have their seeds in my academic background studying philosophy, especially the philosophy of mind. In short, I’m fascinated by what and how people come to understand who they are. An important part of that process for this book was understanding about the science of gender. Here were identical twin boys, with the exact same DNA. How could they be so different that one identified as a girl and the other a boy? What I learned, and what I knew would be important to share with readers, was that gender is not something fixed, or static or simple. It is dynamic, and it is a brain process, and it begins before birth. By six weeks in utero, our sexual anatomy is set. But not until six months does the brain “masculinize” or “feminize.” In other words, sexual anatomy and gender identity are processes, occurring prenatally, and months apart in the womb. Myriad influences from the environment, we now know, can affect which genes become “expressed” and which “silenced” – if we grow up stressed or anxious, shy and retiring, develop diabetes, become obese or eventually died of heart disease, and the environment in the womb, even for identical twins, can be different depending on where the fetuses are positioned. Nicole and Jonas have identical DNA, but clearly both had different molecular switches for gender identity. Jonas’s brain masculinized, Nicole’s did not.
I knew from the beginning of my work on Becoming Nicole that this book was, at its heart, a biography not of one individual, but of a family. Families, like individuals, have identities, and I knew that the Maines’s story wasn’t just about how to understand, or accept, or raise a transgender child, but rather, it was about how a family raises itself. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that “we live our way to answers.” That was never truer than it was for the Maines family. Their lives have touched me deeply. It was a privilege and an honor to tell their story, and at the end of the day I came to realize, how could I not? As Nicole once wrote: “Stories move the walls that need to be moved.” I hope her story – their story – does just that.
Shop this article on Amazon.com