Book review: ‘Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders’

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Review by Terri Schlichenmeyer
  c.2012, University of Wisconsin Press $26.95 U.S. & Canada; 259 pages  You knew there would be pain. No doubt about it, change was going to hurt. It would require, if not tears, then a kind of ripping of your soul, a new way of life, an alteration of outlook. You would no longer be a smoker, a drinker, a nail-chewer, a sweets-addict. You would be giving up… but you would be gaining so much more. It was change and, good or bad, it wouldn’t be easy. For author Joy Ladin, pain was exactly the reason for change. Pain had accompanied her for most of her days, but in her new book “Through the Door of Life,†she explains a journey that was, for her, long overdue. Joy Ladin “never much wanted to live.†Born into relative privilege, Ladin had a good childhood, but death “seemed close.†Ladin remembers thinking that the idea of dying was exciting, while life was not because life, at the time, was spent in the wrong body: Joy Ladin was born a boy. “I spent my childhood trying to be what people wanted me to be,†she says, which worked, outwardly. Few noticed or knew that Ladin was struggling, so adept was she at tamping down feelings of sorrow. At 17, while away at college, Ladin met her “life partner,†to whom she confessed her inner turmoil. The woman was undaunted; they married in 1982. Ladin’s wife made it clear that she could accept Ladin’s transsexual feelings but not a transition, and they started a family within the decade. Ladin took pride in being a father. But in 2005, everything began to fall apart. Ladin started having panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. No longer able to withstand the soul-crushing pain of living in a body that was all wrong, she shaved off the beard she’d had since puberty, began taking hormones, and tried to maintain a dual life that would satisfy her wife, three children, her God, and her colleagues at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. And slowly, Joy Ladin began to embrace the woman she knew herself to be. “Through the Door of Life†is a bit of a conundrum. It soars with celebration, then drops like a stone into an abyss of angst. There are self-depreciating, bitter-sweetly humorous passages, followed by wailing rants that hurt to read. There’s love in here, and hate that’ll make you gasp. And, repeatedly, author Joy Ladin gives you all this in the space of a page or two. Despite that repetition, what readers will appreciate most, I think, is that Ladin pulls no punches. We’re given a front-row seat at the difficulty — and shaky triumph — of being true to one’s self despite the costs. Yes, there are bumps in this story, but Ladin’s honesty is hard to beat. “Through the Door of Life†is deep and thick with thought, emotion, and pain, but its cover should clue you in on the kind of read you’ll end up with. That kind of Joy should make you want to change your schedule to read this book.   The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,500 books.