Review: Leaving Normal

Leaving Normal: Adventures in GenderLeaving Normal: Adventures in Gender by Rae Theodore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Leaving Normal, Rae Theodore writes honestly about the experience of growing up between the gender lines and the slow journey toward self-identifying as a butch lesbian. Told in present-tense episodes, the story goes from the elementary school playground to the confused world of college and beyond. While it’s a deeply personal book about specific experiences, Theodore’s honest descriptions and highly emotional language bring the feelings right to your heart as you’re reading.

This is another one of those books that’s a relatively quick and easy read but caused me to pause and slow down at various moments. I found myself pausing at the end of each chapter and just appreciating the images Theodore uses to describe the emotions. While I’ve never been misgendered or had to hide my sexuality from my friends and family, I could relate to Theodore’s descriptions of feeling out of place.

Childhood and adolescence are rough for anyone who doesn’t fit into the many boxes society has—gender, sexuality, race, religion, culture, etc. When I was about nine or ten, I realized that a lot of the kids who used to include me no longer looked my way and I didn’t know why; I think a lot of kids have experienced the pre-adolescent recognition that there’s just something about you that’s different from the other kids, something that sets you apart and, you realize, might get you in trouble. Like Theodore, I spent the years of my adolescence and beyond trying to mold myself to fit others’ expectations of me. Like Theodore, I had to realize the importance of being true to myself.

“I imagine everyone has their own truth they carry around in the middle-most part of their bodies, maybe wedged in between the second and third rib right beneath the heart. It probably looks something like a rod of plutonium, all silvery gray and shiny. Illusive at times, volatile at others. For when you are not in tune with who you really are, who you were born to be, there’s bound to be some tumult.”

While this is a book about being different in a specific way, anyone who’s felt any sort of different will be able to connect to Theodore’s story—and that’s a powerful feeling, let me tell you.

Theodore’s honesty is truly gripping. Ultimately this is a book about one person’s experience and view of the world, but it’s written in a way that allows each reader to take something away from the reading. For me, it was refreshing to read a “coming out” story that doesn’t focus on the romance, but on the journey toward self-love. I think different parts of the story will resonate differently for each person. For me, it was the description of dealing with depression that really gripped my heart. Like Theodore, I spent years on anti-depressants, both enjoying the ability to live my life unencumbered but also disappointed in the ways medication left me with a general numb feeling. Ultimately I, too, ceased to be medicated; the experience of pulling myself up out of my natural depression was both moving and grueling. I’ve found it hard, even years after ceasing medication, to describe the way depression flits in and out of my life, particularly in the fall and winter months, but Theodore explains this beautifully:

“That’s the thing about depression. It’s wispy, fine, feathery, flyaway, the fizz from a soda pop can. It’s smoke and mist and spider webs that can’t be contained in a single cupped hand or pulled from the sky like a star on a string. It’s a thousand layers of nothing that weigh more than a pile of bricks. It’s a quilt stitched from squares of fog and fuzz and shadow and jet black crow feathers that presses down on me like a lead apron.”

Theodore turns to her individual understanding of prayer, despite not having a traditional Christian relationship with God. I often turned to prayer in my early years of depression, seeking answers. Like Theodore, I found that the only way to pull myself out of depression was to accept myself as I am and learn to love myself.

Yes, this is a book about specific issues, but it’s also a book with a powerful message. The most revolutionary thing you can do when you’re different—a gender non-conformist, a gay person, a person of color, a person struggling with mental illness, etc.—is to make the choice to work at loving yourself. It’s not easy, and often you will slip back into your old ways. Sometimes it will be easier to hide. But the journey toward self-love, toward “unbecoming everything” what isn’t of you, is one that’s worth the fight.

As other reviewers have said, Leaving Normal is truly a book for everyone who has ever felt ashamed, left out, marginalized, and alone. This is a book for anyone who is open to seeing the connections in our individual experiences. This book is for anyone who’s tired of trying to be “normal” when it doesn’t really exist.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Rae Theodore’s blog in recent months, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to read and review this book.

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