Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Review of "The Secrets of My Life" by Caitlyn Jenner
Note: In my review of this memoir I'm going to follow the author's lead, using male pronouns for Bruce 'pre-transition,' and female pronouns for Caitlyn 'post-transition.' I also want to note that - though I've seen the odd episode - I don't watch 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians', haven't read the Vanity Fair article about Jenner, and don't follow the innumerable stories about Jenner in the media.
In 1976 Bruce Jenner won an Olympic gold medal for the decathlon, earning the title 'World's Greatest Athlete.' In photos, it's clear the champion was well-built and movie-star handsome. No one would have guessed that Bruce hated his body, feeling he was stuck with the wrong (male) physique. Almost forty years later, in 2015, Bruce publicly transitioned to his true female gender, becoming Caitlyn Jenner. In this book Caitlyn tells her story.
From the time he was in elementary school, Bruce felt like something was wrong with him. He was dyslexic, with "massive reading difficulties", and dreaded going to school. He was also drawn to female attire and - when alone in the house - would put on his mother's dress, slip on his sister's shoes, apply a dab of lipstick, and gaze into the mirror.....feeling "something was right about this." At that time, in the 1950's - the word 'transgender' was far in the future - and Bruce had no vocabulary to describe his compulsions. Thus he was bewildered, uncomfortable, and intensely secretive.
Bruce soon discovered he was a gifted athlete and threw himself into sports, in part to distract himself from his gender concerns. As a youth Bruce took up water-skiing, basketball, football, and track and field - becoming a high school star. It was at Graceland College, though, where Bruce set his sights on the decathlon. With the strong encouragement of college Coach L.D. Weldon, Bruce started to train for the ten decathlon events: the 100 meters, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump, the 400 meters, the 110-meter hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin, and the 1,500 meters. According to the author, "You can lose yourself in that [practice]. Whatever thoughts you have inside don't go away, but they do go numb."
At Graceland College Bruce met his first wife, Chrystie, who supported him emotionally and financially as he trained to be a world class competitor. In secret, Bruce would don his wife's clothes, and when Chrystie discovered this in 1973, Bruce told her about his gender issues. Chrystie was shocked, but Bruce (disingenuously) told her it was 'a phase', and matters were left like that as Bruce continued training.
Once Bruce won the gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, he had many financial opportunites: he became the 'face' of Wheaties; appeared on talk shows; did a special with Bob Hope; dipped a toe into movies and TV series; became a broadcaster for a number of network sports shows; and traveled around the country giving motivational speeches. For various reasons - including his gender dysphoria - Bruce and Chrystie grew apart and separated. Attempts at reconciliation failed, and the couple divorced in 1981, leaving their son and daughter - Burt and Casey - essentially fatherless.
Meanwhile, Bruce met Linda Thompson, an actress and songwriter who happened to be Elvis Presley's former girlfriend. Bruce and Linda dated for several years, married in 1981, and had two sons - Brandon and Brody. While married to Linda, in the early 1980s, Bruce was "struggling with the issue of [his] identity more than ever." The author writes about those years, "I seek every opportunity I can to cross-dress" and "[I] get my hands on a couple of wigs." Fearing Linda would catch him, Bruce told her that he identified as a woman. She didn't understand, was shocked to see him in female mode, and their marriage ended shortly afterward. Once again, Bruce essentially abandoned his children.
Bruce was very unhappy by the mid-1980s, so he isolated himself in a small house in Malibu and lowered his public profile. Bruce started seeing a therapist named Trudy Hill and got electrolysis - a long term, painful procedure - to permanently remove his facial and chest hair. Bruce's trusted friend, Wendy Roth, helped him purchase women's clothing and wigs. Bruce also started hormone therapy, which gave him womanly breasts. Jenner writes, "Obviously.....when you have your beard removed and the effects of hormones kick in, people are going to notice." In addition, Bruce sometimes ventured out and drove around dressed as a woman. The writer states about that era, "I am now almost forty. I feel good....[having] allowed the woman inside me to live and breathe." BUT, Bruce greatly feared discovery - afraid of what his kids would think and doubtful of obtaining employment if he was exposed.
Feeling he needed to bring 'Bruce Jenner - Olympic champion' back into the public eye, Bruce discontinued hormone therapy in 1990 and started dating Kris Kardashian, who was in the middle of a divorce. Bruce and Kris married in 1991, and - according to the author - had a loving, sexual relationship (at first). Jenner notes that Kris knew about his cross-dressing and permitted it.....but not at home. Thus, Bruce packed wigs, make-up, and womens' outfits when he went out of town for promotional talks, and dressed up in his hotel at night. He would then walk through the lobby and go for a drive wearing ladies' garments.....a terribly risky venture.
According to the author, Kris got him back in the gym and 'helped restore his image and credibility.' She also reveled in being married to a high profile celebrity. For his part, Bruce was a caring stepfather to the Kardashian kids - (Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, and Rob) and a devoted dad to his two daughters with Kris (Kendall and Kylie). In recent years, Jenner - who openly admits to being a terrible father to the first four Jenner children - reached out and established affectionate bonds with them as well.
Bruce, Kris, and their brood rubbed along pretty happily until 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians' - which debuted in 2007 - became a runaway hit. Jenner observes that he was depicted on the show as, "....the well-meaning but confused and helpless father and husband. I get love but little respect." Jenner also observes, "I believe that the more successful [the show] becomes, the less [Kris] needs me and "[it's] more obvious.....that Kris wants me out of the house as much as possible." Moreover, the scads of people in the house during the show's filming afforded Bruce little privacy - and he was desperately lonely amidst the crowd.
By 2013 Bruce had separated from Kris and moved into a house in Malibu. He had a tracheal shave, to reduce the size of his Adam's apple and - despite elaborate efforts at secrecy - was exposed on TMZ....to his great embarassment. Bruce contemplated suicide at this time, but spoke to his pastor and rallied. By 2015, Bruce decided to make the transition to female. At the time, the author contemplated, "How am I going to do this without being subjected to even more worldwide ridicule than I already have been? The idea of a man becoming a woman is still shocking and weird to people, ghoulishly funny."
Thus, Bruce contacted his former publicist, Alan Nierob, who arranged for an interview with Diane Sawyer and an article in Vanity Fair magazine - both respected forums in which Bruce would tell the world he was becoming Caitlyn. Prior to the publicity, Bruce confided his plans to his family - sister, mother, children, and step-children - and to his management team.....all of whom expressed support (though Bruce suspected not everyone was completely sincere).
The author thought, "I want to look as physically a woman as I possibly can" and went on to have facial feminization surgery, a breast augmentation, and "The Final Surgery" - a vaginoplasty (conversion of penile tissue into a vagina).
Towards the end of the book, Caitlyn writes, "I have written this book to help us see that there is no right way to be, no wrong way to be, or any way to be except who you are." Caitlyn talks a great deal about her support of the LGBTQ community, especially transgender individuals - who experience frequent discrimination....and even violence. Caitlyn knows that her position as a high profile transgender person gives her a platform to try and effect change.
For people interested in the 'dishier' parts of the book, here are a few tidbits:
- During his motivational speeches, Bruce dressed in a suit and tie.....but had a bra and panties on underneath.
- Jenner says about O.J. Simpson, "[Knowing him] a litle bit goes a very long way because of his endless braggadocio" and "[O.J.] is the most narcissistic, egogentric, neediest, asshole in the world of sports I had every seen." Jenner believes O.J. murdered Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and asserts that Kris's ex-husband, Robert Kardashian - one of O.J.'s lawyers - wouldn't have minded if O.J. was convicted.
-Kris controlled all the money during their marriage (though she generously bought Bruce a Porsche) and scrutinized his credit card purchases with a fine tooth comb.
- Of the Kardashian clan, Kim is the most accepting of Caitlyn's transition, while Khloe is having the most difficulty with it, and barely speaks to her stepfather. (Caitlyn notes that she told her kids it's fine to call her 'dad.')
-Caitlyn is not particularly interested in sex with either women or men.
-Caitlyn is a lifelong Republican, though that party is not renonwed for its open-mindedness towards LGTBQ issues. (On her Instagram, Caitlyn takes Donald Trump to task, telling him to 'call her.')
-Rumors that Caitlyn regrets making the transition are a complete lie.
I read this book out of curiosity. I had seen Caitlyn promoting the book on morning TV and read an excerpt in People magazine....so when I saw the book on the 'new arrivals' shelf at the library, I snagged it. In my opinion, this is a sincere depiction of Caitlyn's experiences as she remembers them. Caitlyn's story is compelling, and helped me better understand people who have gender dysphoria. I felt great empathy when Caitlyn talked about her shame, fear, loneliness, and isolation - which reverberated through the years and affected every relationship she had. I hope Caitlyn's story provides help and comfort to people who have issues similar to hers.
That said, the book's writing (I assume by co-author Buzz Bissinger) is on the lower end of adequate and the story includes a lot of fluff and padding. Still, if you have an interest in (or are curious about) the subject, you'll find something here.