Last night at school, my student Amelia had a question. “As writers,” she asked, “do we have to feel shame for liking books written by celebrities? Because —” She cast down her big brown eyes and gathered her courage. “I love them.”
Her timing was excellent. Just that morning I had received a link from my friend of 37 years, Naomi Shihab Nye, an internationally beloved poet, teacher, and peace advocate. As far as email goes, Naomi is a frequent forwarder, often passing along petitions, open letters, and Kickstarters for righteous causes, as well as poetry news, pictures of her grandson, catalog sales, and info for events in D.C. that are not just around the corner as she seems to think.
This time it was a link to an article titled, “The week Kim hit rock bottom and finally made me realize I no longer wish to keep up with her or any of the greedy, cynical Kardashian clan,” by Piers Morgan in The Daily Mail.
In fact, Naomi and I had just spent a weekend immersed in all things Kardashian and Jenner, so Morgan’s screed fit right in. But as it turns out, our conclusions were a bit more complicated.
It all started when I was assigned to review the new Caitlyn Jenner memoir. Because I’ve gotten known among book-section editors as a very fast reader, I’ve ended up with a sideline in books that have to be read and reviewed in a single day. This happens when a book is embargoed – i.e., nobody gets a copy — until its publication date. Among the authors, I’ve encountered in this fashion are Snooki, Hillary Clinton, Teresa Guidice, Bruce Springsteen, Alec Baldwin, and now… Caitlyn Jenner.
My editor told me I would receive “Secrets of My Life” on Monday, April 24, with a drop-deadline of 7 p.m. to turn in a piece titled “Ten Things We Learned About Caitlyn Jenner.” In preparation, he wanted me to watch the Diane Sawyer interview with Jenner on 20/20 Saturday night, and the new episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” on Sunday in which Kris Jenner would reportedly give her outraged reaction to the book.
I was game – but what was making me even more game is that this happened to be the weekend Naomi was coming to stay with me on her way from teaching poetry at the Maine state prison to giving a pep talk to the finalists in the NEA Poetry Out Loud competition in DC. Knowing of Naomi’s passionate interest in both dead celebrities, like Heath Ledger and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and living ones, like Tom Waits, Jennifer Aniston, and renegade royal Prince Harry, I imagined she wouldn’t have a problem with my viewing assignments. And I was right.
When Diane Sawyer ran some clips from Jenner’s program, “I Am Cait,” I said, “Wait – what? She already had her own reality show?”
“She sure did,” Naomi confirmed, the long single braid that drapes semi-permanently over her left shoulder bobbing as she nodded her head. “I saw every episode.”
“Wow,” I said. “How was it?”
“Good!” Naomi said, “It was her and her transgender pals talking about prejudice and acceptance and destiny. They would visit young people who were having a tough time, sometimes parents of kids who had killed themselves. It really had some substance. Not just romance and fingernail polish.”
If you say so, I thought, still a tad skeptical.
But between Naomi’s endorsement and Diane Sawyer’s sympathetic depiction, I was feeling a lot less dismissive about Caitlyn Jenner’s book than I had before. As it turned out two days later when I sped-read it for my piece, “Secrets of My Life” is actually pretty good, giving real and rare insight into the intensity of gender dysmorphia. Has it ever been communicated more starkly than it is by the story of Bruce/Caitlin?
From the time he was 10 years old and first got into his mother’s closet, Bruce Jenner, already a gifted athlete, had a hard time thinking about anything else. The intensity of his focus on sports, and ultimately his pursuit of Olympic gold, he calls “The Grand Diversion” – the only thing powerful enough to get his mind off the thoughts that were driving him crazy.
Once he had won his medal, and had no other focus except to represent the American Dream incarnate with his Wheaties sponsorship, his pretty blond wife and his brood of smiling children, he tumbled into decades of dislocation and misery, including two divorces, a failure-to-launch acting career, and four kids he never paid enough attention to. (His lackluster fatherhood is one of many shortcomings he admits; he may be the least defensive celebrity of all time.)
By the time he met Kris, Bruce had spent four-and-a-half years transitioning, had poured tens of thousands of dollars into painful electrolysis treatments and was sporting size 36B boobs. He was living as a virtual recluse due to a combination of depression and fear of the media. In despair, he decided to give manhood one last shot. That’s when he was introduced to Kris, who was trying to re-invent her own life after a messy divorce from the late OJ lawyer Robert Kardashian. And they fell in love, at least at first.
“She saved me,” he says more than once in the book. The giant, happy, blended family was not just a photo-op, he claims, it was real, and dives into detailing his 6-hour carpool route when all the Kardashian and Jenner offspring were still in school.
But then came the TV show. The show, he explained, changed Kris into a different person, the “Momager” as she called herself, with so much control over the lives and fortunes of her family members that it became impossible to relate to her. With the show replacing all else at the center of the family, indeed, the universe, Jenner drifted to the margins, then back into his obsession with gender re-assignment, and this time, decided to go for it.
Having watched “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” the night before, I could see what he meant about the show. Most of this episode was about whether the Kardashian brother Rob is mentally healthy enough to continue his spin-off show, or whether he and wife Blac Chyna might actually exacerbate their problems by working them out on the air. His sisters, whom I am unfortunately not savvy enough to tell apart, did not seem like the right people to give advice on this topic. Watching them in their empty white living rooms and designer-fruit-bowl kitchens with their perfect hair and make-up calling their brother to discuss the almighty show made me feel like I might need not just a gender change but a species re-assignment, as I commented to Naomi.
Great hilarity ensued. Naomi is that most excellent kind of friend, the kind who laughs at your jokes.
As for Caitlyn’s book, Kris seems to have gotten the wrong idea. “I’m done with her,” Kris said angrily. But really, the portrait is mostly positive. What is she so mad about? Or is she just pretending to be mad to increase ratings? As soon as I started grumbling about all this, my daughter Jane hushed me up. As she points out, Kardashian bashing is nothing new. That Piers Morgan guy is a little late to the party.
What is unexpected and newsworthy is what a sympathetic, even dear, person Caitlyn Jenner is. I know she voted for Trump and has said some un-PC things about this and that, but she’s all about the learning curve. I’m holding out hope she’ll transition in her party affiliation too.
So, Amelia, my famous literary friend and I say go ahead and do your school project on Mindy Kaling’s memoir. (Which, I must admit, I’ve already read. It’s not bad.)