Janice Josephine Carney‘s Purple Hearts and Silver Stars is unique among transgender memoirs for many reasons. First, it is not written in narrative form. It includes poems, essays, short stories, journal entries, play excerpts, and “rants.” Secondly, these various writings are not in chronological order.
It begins with “Book One: My Personal Journal in the Weeks Before and After My Gender-Confirming Surgery,” which gives us a naked glimpse at the meaning of this surgery for her.
The next section, Book Two, includes poetic essays from creative writing workshops. “Book Three: The Transition as My Marriage Was Coming to an End” outlines in painful clarity the losses that so often accompany the gain of one’s true gender.
Book Four, the last section, is by far the longest. Subtitled “Finding Me: My Life as Janice Josephine Carney,” its length — perhaps unintentionally — illustrates the freedom and open-endedness of her present and future.
Not only is the form of the book unique, but the subject is as well. As the world strives to understand the transgender experience, one important caution is not to lump us all together. Just as with any gay or bisexual person (or straight person, for that matter), each transgender person has a different childhood, a different adolescence, a different journey through the fear and shame and loneliness.
And the author shows us her unique self in all of her singular glory: deeply thoughtful, passionate, angry, loving, expressive. And, above all else, distinctively beautiful.
She is able to illustrate the longing present in many transsexual lives. “All I want is to feel whole, to feel like a human being,” she writes in her journal as she approaches her surgery. Through other journal entries, poems, and other writings, she shows us what she wants out of life, what matters to her, and, most of all, how her experiences have shaped her.
The line in the book which most spoke to me is this: “I am lost in a past I never had.” She writes of being saddened by her “lack of a past as a little girl.” Even as she moves toward the wholeness of which she dreams — and for which she has worked very, very hard — her past will not transition with her.
I was also deeply moved by the poem “They Died as They Lived.” She writes about Laden and Laleh, the Iranian conjoined twins who underwent separation surgery shortly before her own surgery, and relates her own experience to theirs. She writes:
Janice and John
We agreed to separate was worth dying for…
If my heart stopped beating, if my lungs stopped breathing
If I only had a few hours being whole
A whole woman, one soul, one body, one brain
Oh yes! It would have been worth dying for
But the author’s story is wider than her transsexual experience. She is also a Vietnam War veteran, still processing that experience. She is an ex-husband still mourning the loss of her marriage. She is a father, navigating her changed relationships with her children. In the end, this is a book about a human being who has faced more than her share of struggles, and who has landed on her feet.
She has also landed in a decidedly spiritual place. She says, “I have a very personal conviction that being a transsexual is a spiritual experience.” She cites the yin/yang concepts and the Native American two-spirit shaman as inspirations for her “belief that being a mix of the two common genders is a blessing.” She writes that “forming a strong spiritual base” helped her to overcome “a world of lies and deceit, alcoholism, and overwhelming depression.” This base is evident throughout the book. The various writings are profoundly spiritual, laying bare the connections among human beings, our Creator, and nature.
Carney calls her book “a mish-mash of emotions” and says, “I deeply hope that the readers of my book feel the pain, loneliness and isolation I felt.” Dr. Milton Diamond, who wrote the foreword, agrees that the author was successful in this goal. “I know of no other collection of [transgender] writings,” Diamond says, “that offer the intimacy and insight in how this sort of a life FEELS.”
I agree completely. As a transgender man — even one safely on the other side of transition — I wept over many parts of this book. “When will it be my time to live?” she asks; and, “Now can I overcome the battle scars?” “I am lonely, please let me in!” she cries; and then, more softly: “I wonder if a life of loneliness is the price I will pay for finding inner peace.”
She says she wrote this book “as a means to express my experiences as a transsexual and my life-long struggle to find peace in my skin.” When she writes, “I have grown into a beautiful woman,” I know she has found that peace and I know the world is a better place for her having done so.
Any story of deep change resulting in deep peace is powerful, and Carney has found ways to bring the reader right into her depths with her, right into her changes, right into her peace. The non-narrative, non-chronological form adds much to this ability. Gender transition is not a narrative experience, nor is it as chronological as it may seem to those outside the experience. Her writings let us into her thoughts, hurts, and vulnerability in a way no narrative could.
This is not a sanitized story, edited by retrospect, heavy with lessons, chronological and neat. This is a real story of a real woman with more insight and courage than most of us could ever imagine. Her long walk toward wholeness is laid out on the pages unashamedly. Accepting her invitation to walk with her for just a little while is a grand gift.
Benjamin Thiel lives in Iowa with his wife, Mary Vermillion, author of the Mara Gilgannon series of lesbian mystery novels — and with whom he co-wrote All the Changes: A Marriage Transitions, a dual memoir about his gender transition.