Janet Mock is having a pivotal moment. Since her personal story went public in 2011, Mock is everywhere. Top newspapers and magazines have run feature articles about her, and she has given talks at academic institutions and community organizations. She has appeared on major talk shows on television including her now infamous misunderstanding with Piers Morgan. In a few short years, Mock has catapulted the discourse on gender from the confines of the LGBT arena into the living rooms of all Americans. That discourse is now front and center with the release of her book Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (Atria Books, 2014), an intimate, moving memoir that propels identity politics from the abstract into the real.
Redefining Realness is blunt and unapologetic. Mock does not shy away from unpleasant memories. The book comes alive in chapters describing her complicated, but ultimately loving, relationship with her parents, especially her father. Her observations of the absurd disparities between life in Hawaii, California, Texas, and New York are astute and often witty. And when Mock writes about her trans friends we know we are privy to a world that is grossly misunderstood and mischaracterized, such is the power of her honesty and empathy.
Part I is about Mock’s nomadic childhood in Honolulu, Oakland, and Dallas. The writing in this section is clunky and unmusical. But one could also see it as a section told by a child trying to find her voice as we move on to a stronger Part II covering Mock’s tumultuous school years after her return to Honolulu in the mid 1990s. Part III is the most confident and self-assured section that is an unflinching flashback into, as Mock writes, “work that involved me excavating what it meant to me to be me“.
Redefining Realness is, however, not without its disappointments. For a memoir as deeply personal as this, Mock has a tendency to come across in a somewhat clinical manner, simply detailing the facts as they happened. She could have infused the book with a greater emotional substance and punch. Even in the final pages, as we sit with Mock in that hospital room in Bangkok awaiting her gender reassignment surgery, we don’t know what she felt when she saw the surgical instruments, or what images collided in her mind or what feelings pulsed in her heart as she touched herself post surgery.
Redefining Realness straddles the fine balance of wanting to be an approachable book for a diverse audience. Some parts of the book may read as LGBT-101 or Trans-101 for those who don’t know a lot through their own lived experiences. Mock also decries “tried-and-true transition stories tailored to the cis gaze” contradicting the book’s major buildup to her own transition. She wants to undo “the systematic othering of trans women as modern-day freak shows”. In the end, Redefining Realness skillfully identifies and critiques our expectations of “real” but one wonders if it actually redefines realness.
Redefining Realness aims to “report on the barriers that make it nearly impossible for trans women, specifically those of color and those from low-income communities, to lead thriving lives.” It successfully accomplishes the first part of that goal. But how Mock is leading a thriving life is either playing out in real time in her media appearances or it promises to be the subject of her next book. However minor the shortcomings of Redefining Realness, Mock and her memoir richly deserve their place in LGBT legend. “It’s a journey of self-revelation,” Mock writes. “I was seeking reconciliation with myself.” Now that she has reconciled with herself, she has left us breathless with the question: what happens next?