In 2011, Amy Ellis Nutt ’77 was a reporter for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey and a recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize when she read a remarkable story in The Boston Globe about a family in Maine who had adopted identical twin boys at birth.
One of the boys turned out to be a transgender girl, and writer Bella English’s feature captured how Kelly and Wayne Maines moved from confusion and fear to acceptance, love and fierce advocacy on their daughter’s behalf. “I thought it was a wonderful story,” Nutt says. “I wanted to know more.”
Coincidentally, the family reached out to Nutt through a mutual friend and asked if she might be interested in telling their story in book form. “When I started reporting on the Maines family, their journey was still unfolding, the science of gender identity was (and is) still being learned and the fact that Jonas and Nicole were identical twins was a chance to study the intersection of nature and nurture.
As a journalist, I thought this was exciting enough,” Nutt says. “But during these years, society changed so much, with transgender conversations entering the mainstream. That’s something I couldn’t have anticipated.” When Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family wa released last fall, it quickly became a best-seller, and the book landed on several “Best of 2015” lists.
Nutt is a Smith College medalist who now reports on science for The Washington Post. Her previous books include Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph and The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, co-written with Frances Jensen ’78 [SAQ, Fall 2015].
Here, Nutt talks about Nicole and her family, gender identity and the process of immersive reporting.
This was an ordinary family in an extraordinary situation . . .
I fell in love with the Maineses immediately—Kelly and Wayne and their then 14-year-old children, Jonas and Nicole (born Wyatt). They were all hanging out together in the living room of their small house, so comfortable together. I asked Nicole what she enjoyed doing, and she said she liked to make videos; within an instant, we were crowded around a laptop as she showed me her work. I saw immediately how irrepressible Nicole was, how likeable and how wonderfully ordinary.
. . . And the journey they never expected to take.
Neither Kelly nor Wayne had ever heard the word “transgender” when the kids were young. Kelly began this journey with a simple Google search: “boys who like girls’ toys.” The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said that we live our way to answers. That’s exactly what happened here: A family lived its way into answers, each in his/her own way.
Each member of the family had a unique journey.
Because Kelly’s family background had been dysfunctional, she didn’t have clear expectations about what a “perfect family” looked like. She knew these children were a gift, and she was going to be their fierce protector, whatever the situation demanded. It was much harder for Wayne. He came from a close-knit, conservative working-class family, and he’d had a specific idea of what the American Dream looked like. Jonas, meanwhile, was Nicole’s translator. As soon as he had the vocabulary, he knew that the person everyone called his “brother” was really his sister. It was Jonas, age 9, who said to Wayne, “Dad, let’s face it: You have a son and a daughter.”
The problem for transgender people isn’t within—it’s without.
Nicole always knew exactly who she was. Even when she lived as Wyatt, she described herself as a “boy-girl” or “girl-boy.” She asked questions like, “When is my penis going to fall off?” or “When do I get to be a girl?” When the children were still quite young, Nicole hit Jonas, explaining it was “because he gets to be who he is and I don’t.” Her experience of herself didn’t match her anatomy or the world’s expectations. That mismatch is what made things so difficult for her.
Anatomy, gender identity and sexual orientation are three distinct processes.
We are still learning the science of gender, but we know it begins in the womb. We all begin our lives asexual. Then, at about six weeks in utero, our sexual anatomy is determined, largely by hormones. It’s not until six months that the brain masculinizes or feminizes. That appears to be a complex process, with hormones again playing a crucial role. Even identical twins, who by definition have the exact same DNA, have separate amniotic sacs and umbilical cords. This means they have distinct prenatal environments.
A story like this takes time.
The family didn’t want the story told until the children had graduated from high school. During these years, I made countless trips to Maine, I got to know the family intimately and I was by their side in many, many different contexts. They always invited me to stay with them, but I never did. I never wanted them to forget that I was writing a book about them, and that some of that was going to be difficult. Wayne said that reading the early chapters of the book—about the years when he hadn’t accepted Nicole—were extremely painful. But I think he recognizes how important it was to tell the whole story, for other families who might be in a similar place.
I had to change gears when writing this book.
I shaped the book chronologically, but this required weaving in the scientific context and personal histories in a way that feels natural. This requires slowing down, pulling back and being reflective—something you don’t have room for in a newspaper article. Wayne had saved everything, so I had access to therapy notes, medical records, the kids’ drawings and stories and family videos of bath time, of meals, of playtime—all these ordinary moments that he’d captured. I even had the sonogram from when the kids were in utero. It was an absolute gift for a writer.
Word choice is critical in writing about transgender issues.
Ordinarily, I would use only the pronoun or name that matches the person’s identity, not their gender assigned at birth. But this was a story of an entire family’s experience. With Nicole’s permission, I wrote the book exactly as her family experienced her: as Wyatt, using male pronouns, until she renamed herself Nicole in fifth grade.
This story is universal.
We are all more than our categories, more than our physical bodies, more than how the world sees us. Nicole is more than transgender. She’s an actress, she’s a comedian, she’s an over-the-top nonstop talker. And she’s deeply loved. This book is first and foremost a love story.
Smith nourished everything I use as a writer.
Everything I’ve drawn upon in my career was nourished at Smith. While there, I read endless poetry, and I also studied astronomy and geology and spent hours in the science library. My years at Smith were such a fertile time for me. Without that ability to roam widely and freely through different subjects, I would not be where I am today. It’s been a driving force in my life.
And Smith is still doing right by students.
I’m incredibly proud of Smith College for its transgender admission decision. The school did exactly the right thing when it said, “If you identify as female, Smith is for you.” It’s not a women’s anatomy college. It doesn’t matter what students look like under their clothes. Smith is on the right side of history here.
Ali Benjamin’s novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, was a 2015 National Book Award finalist.
SAQ, Spring 2016
Senior House: Haven
Major: English and philosophy
Influential Professor: “The late Patricia Skarda, professor of English and my thesis adviser.”
Favorite Memories: “‘Traying’ down the banks of Paradise Pond in the winter; late-night talks in front of a blazing Haven House fire; my last moonlit night as a Smith College student.”