Book Review: Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey between Genders

Joy Ladin’s memoir follows her path from unhappy little boy to Orthodox woman

For author Joy Ladin, pain was the reason for her change. Pain had accompanied her for most of her days, but in her new book Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey between Genders (University of Wisconsin Press) she explains a journey that was long overdue.

Born into relative privilege, Ladin had a good childhood—but death “seemed close” and she “never much wanted to live.” Ladin remembers thinking that the idea of dying was exciting while life was not, because life was spent in the wrong body. Ladin was born a boy.

“I spent my childhood trying to be what people wanted me to be,” she says, which worked temporarily. 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. They married in 1982 when 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, 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-deprecating, humorously bittersweet passages, followed by wailing rants that hurt to read. There’s love that lulls you into a pleasant state, and hate that’ll make you gasp. Ladin gives you all this in the space of a page or two.

Despite that repetition, what readers will appreciate most is Ladin’s resistance to pulling punches. We’re given a front-row seat at the difficulty and shaky triumph of being true to one’s self, despite the costs. There are bumps in this story, but Ladin’s honesty is hard to beat.

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