When nine-year-old Jacob Lemay stood up to address Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren at CNN's LGBTQ Town Hall last month, attendees were struck by his confidence.
But a new memoir, "What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation," by his mother Mimi Lemay explains her transgender son wasn't always that way.
To recount her family’s journey, Lemay uses the pseudonym Em to refer to Jacob during the time before he picked his new name. He also gave his mother permission to use the pronoun she to refer to him until the moment he transitions.
By age three, the child Lemay thought was her middle daughter was showing signs of depression and declaring, "I am a boy.” For the next year, the child's symptoms of depression and anxiety deepened as his parents' fears intensified.
“I think Em had lost her courage in some sense — like she had gotten signals from us and from people in school that she was expected to be a girl,” Lemay says of her son before he transitioned. “She was giving up. She was closing down.”
Just before his fifth birthday, he chose the name Jacob and hasn't looked back.
Lemay's poignant new memoir tells that story and weaves into it the parallel struggle that she experienced as a child in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where she too felt unable to fulfill her own aspirations. While Jacob was struggling to claim the boy he knew he was, she was plunged into memories of trying to be the girl she knew she could be — a girl suppressed by the ultra-Orthodox faith that taught her a woman was not as important as her husband.
One key moment of realization for Lemay came when she was informed of statistics about transgender youth suicides and then went to an expert for help for the first time.
“All of a sudden, it's not so much, ‘Can we get through to the next month without any trouble at school? What can I do to make my child happier today?’ ” she says. “It was, ‘What can I do to keep my child alive?’ ”
The book jumps back and forth between stories from raising Jacob and her own childhood. She says leaving the faith was a blessing because Jacob couldn’t have survived in the community she grew up in.
Because of her Orthodox faith, she says she initially felt like “God was taking my child” when she realized her son was transgender.
But she later realized God has given her the “most beautiful gift” of a child who is authentically himself.
One of the key lessons in her and her son’s story is that you don’t need to choose between faith and accepting people — regardless of how they identify, she says.
Her advice to parents in similar situations is to listen to the advice of the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics: Support your child from the beginning.
“It's important, especially with young children, to let them know that you may be adjusting, but you aren't sad because they became who they truly are and are now actualizing their potential,” she says, “but that you have some attachment to some old memories that might be difficult to let go.”
Book Excerpt: 'What We Will Become'
By Mimi Lemay
That parenting would transform me was expected.
I wore those changes on my skin and felt them course in the marrow of my bones.
I was thirty-two when my first child, Ella, was born. My outline metamorphosed into something rounder and softer, my eyes became rimmed with the dusky purple of sleepless nights, and my previously stick-straight dark hair sprang into unruly waves, as if to mirror the onset of entropy in my life.
The internal changes, however, were far more vast— what might best be described as a benign case of possession.
I found that the heart that beat inside my chest was no longer my own. The organ had been all but replaced by that of one, two, finally three little beings whose joys and sorrows would forever steer my emotions in a way I’d be helpless to resist. In a word, I’d been hacked.
But even this loss of self, to an extent, I saw coming.
The unexpected changes happened in the realm of my senses. I noticed it when Ella was about nine months old and had taken to scuttling about our hardwood floors like a hybrid lightning bug / vacuum cleaner looking for objects to place in her mouth.
Joe was in the kitchen assembling the last of our new kitchen cabinets, while I was clear across the house in the sunroom stacking blocks and shelving books. Ambient noises of traffic and nature wafted through the open window, mixing with the drone of the electric drill.
Suddenly, my ears pricked, and my spine tingled. I called out to Joe: “Honey, you dropped a screw on the floor.” One quick pass turned up nothing. “You dropped a screw,” I insisted. “Check again!” Sure enough, there it was, a one-inch screw that had rolled under the cabinet, just within reach of a tiny pincer grasp. “How the hell did you hear that?” Joe asked. “I don’t know,” I answered truthfully.
On reflection I decided it was only natural that the body that had prepared me so comprehensively to give birth had equipped me to keep the product of that birth alive. From now on, formerly ignorable, undifferentiated sounds would trigger messages in my inflamed amygdala. Danger! Danger! synapses would fire.
Therefore, it never fails to amaze me that with my new sensory upgrade, I missed the moment itself.
I cannot tell you precisely when everything changed for my middle child, Em, and therefore for us.
I do not have a journal entry labeled The Day of Great Revelation or The Afternoon I Began to Lose Her.
While I can recall several of those early moments, the very first one eludes me. It has blended, shuffled into the deck with all the others, because, unlike the case of a choking hazard, my early warning system failed me.
I can only offer a vignette, one of a subsequent many, that could have been this watershed moment, but I cannot time-stamp it.
Because, even though I must have heard it happen, I don’t think I was listening.
The moment I hear the cascade of Cheerios hit the hardwood of our dining-room floor, there is little doubt in my mind exactly what has been done and, furthermore, whodunnit.
The rapid-fire pttt-pttt-pttt reminds me of a sudden Amazonian rainstorm, pellets the size of dimes hitting wide lush leaves. I close my eyes, lingering in a crouch over Ella’s school bag that I’m packing, unwilling to confront the cleanup ahead.
“Mama?” Em’s gravelly voice wavers. “Mama?”
Big sister Ella, in the role of both defense and prosecution, cuts in. Accusatory: “Em knocked over the cereal, Mama!” Softening: “But she didn’t mean it.”
“I dudin’t mean it.” Em takes the cue from her three-foot-tall advocate in pigtails and overalls.
The baby gurgles, delighted, straining against the bouncer that rocks wildly as she kicks her feet. She nearly spills out in her efforts to reach the migrating rings that are settling into the far reaches of the room.
“I know you didn’t mean it.” I’m weary, and frustration creeps into my voice: “But like I told you many times, Em, when you wiggle around in your seat so much, you are going to knock things off the table!”
Like a well-timed punch line, Em tips off her chair and into a pile of Cheerios.
“I’m sorry, Mama!” Her voice sounds panicky and I instantly regret the sharpness of my tone.
Em starts to walk around, bending to pick up fistfuls of the cereal that is by now turning to powder under her feet— baby Godzilla wreaking havoc on downtown Tokyo.
“Em, Mama will clean up. Girls, please get your coats on!” She ignores me as she stubbornly continues to pick up cereal, her little brown Mary Janes now covered in a fine dusting of oat. Crunch.
“Go!” I bark, and Em jumps. “Get your coats and sit on the couch now!” They scramble, and I follow with my eyes as spectral Cheerio footprints make their way across the living-room rug. “You don’t need to yell, Mama,” says Ella and her voice sounds teary. Even baby Lucia, the youngest of the three sisters Lemay, looks at me agape, momentarily still.
I change the subject. “Why don’t I put a show on for you while I clean? Sofia the First? Which one were you watching last night? We can finish it.”
Ella’s face brightens. These days, this new-breed Disney show about a spunky princess and her enchanted amulet is everyone’s favorite. The episode resolves just as I toss the last Cheerios from under the radiator and lean on my broom handle to rest. The credits are rolling, and Ella and Em begin to waltz to the music. Despite the November chill, the bright morning sun pours in through the large living-room windows, dappling their dancing bodies with flecks of light. I feel a penitent tug on my heart. These inconveniences are just that, minor blemishes in a world that is just as it should be.
Ella, ever in charge, says, “Look, Mama! I am Pwincess Sofia and Em is Pwincess Amber and Woozy is . . . what are you, Woozy?” Lucia, owner of the nickname, grunts. “You can be the bunny Clover,” Ella decides.
“Ella,” I caution her automatically. “Take turns being Sofia with your sister, okay?”
Em cuts into the exchange: “I not be Sofia,” she announces. “I not be Amb’a. I be James.”
“You can’t be James,” Ella declares. “James is a boy.”
“Ella,” I say wearily, heading off this skirmish at the pass, “let Em make her own choices, love.” Thankfully, Ella seems ready to move on. “Mama, who do you want to be?”
“Let’s see . . . hmm . . . not Sofia’s mom — too obvious.” I hoist Ella’s backpack onto my left arm; the baby, now strapped into her bucket seat, I grab with the right. My keys and cell phone are tucked under my armpit. I am a morning mom, battle-ready.
“But I a boy.” Em speaks softly but clearly.
“Ooh! I know!” I clap my hands. “I’m Minimus! The unicorn!” “He is not a unicorn, Mama.” Ella is scornful. “Unicorns have horns. Minimus does not have a horn. He is a flying horse.”
“Okay! Okay! Don’t hurt me!” I raise my hands in a pretense of fear. Our eyes meet, and we giggle.
We tumble out the door and into our day. Sunshine bleaches memories of spilled cereal, castles of our imaginings, and things, once out of the package, that cannot be so easily squeezed back in.
Excerpted from What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay. Copyright © 2019 by Mimi Lemay. Published and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on November 7, 2019.