This was an extremely difficult read. There were several times where I had to put it down, wipe away the tears, and distance myself from the emotions it pulled to the surface. This is a story full of sorrow and pain, not a lot of hope, and only a few fleeting moments of happiness.
A Life Shaped by God: Calpernia grew up part of a strictly religious family. It wasn't necessarily a cult environment, but one with moral, ethical, and physical restrictions that it may be okay for an adult to choose, but which should never be forced on a child. Although loved by her family, their faith - and its condemnation of her very being - haunts her every waking moment. It is never okay to question her gender or her sexuality, and the only release she has to look forward to is that of death . . . with the certainly of Hell waiting on the other side. There's a passage early on that I think sums up this aspect of her childhood better than anything I could use to describe it:
"It was so easy for people who preached against homosexuality, I thought. They were hardwired to already like the opposite sex, and built to attract its attention. All they had to do was connect the dots, color inside the lines, and they were heaven-bound. I hadn't even been given any crayons."
A Life Shaped by Gender: Calpernia's struggles with her gender identity are front-and-centre in even her earliest memories, and the way in which it emerges is interesting. Her deeply religious mother is loving, but very plain. There are no pretty dresses to catch Scotty's attention, no beautiful lingerie to try on, and no makeup with which to experiment. What's more, with limited access to TV and equally limited exposure to the 'normal' world, there are no icons of exaggerated feminity in his life to envy or admire. Her femininity is simply a part of Scotty. . . something begging to be exposed. It isn't until well over halfway through her story that Calpernia first visibly embraces her femininity - and, coincidentally, it's the first moment of true (if sadly tained) happiness we get to share:
"I felt so beautiful, in exactly the way I wanted to be: erotic, powerful, and a little scary. My gestures were slow, expressions of internal struggle. I was damaged. I wanted to fuck someone. Kill someone."
A Life Shaped by Force of Will: While Calpernia is loved by her family, she is never supported or encouraged by them. Her childhood friends were few and short-lived (the abandonment of Jerry and Crystalline still breaks my heart), and the only other adults in her life are members of the church - judgemental and cruel. Every decision in her life is hers, and she owns them all, regardless of how they turn out. When she finally finds love, it's because she reached out, took a chance, and allowed someone to get close. Even when that love is cruelly destroyed in an act of vile hatred, it is Calpernia who pulls herself together; stands bravely before the media, the military, and the justice system; summons the courage to continue living; and ultimately chooses to share her story, warts and all.
"At about the same time a glittering crown was lowered onto my head, Calvin swung the bat at Barry's sleeping face, again and again, until the man I knew was no more."
As depressing as Calpernia's story is, this is also an amazingly courageous story that absolutely commands your attention and respect. It's never self-pitying, and never asks the reader to do anything more than witness the events (even if it does leave you wanting to hold her hand). Almost too sad to be a true story, this a powerful work by a wonderful writer who effortlessly connects with the reader by laying bare those emotions we all share, yet find so difficult to talk about. Even though I see a lot of myself in Calpernia, I'm honestly not sure I do (or ever could) possess the force of will necessary to carry me through even a portion of what she's experienced.
If you're at all interested in the human experience - all questions of faith, gender, or sexuality aside - then this is a story worth encountering.