Novel: She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption
Authors: Jonathan S. Williams & Paula Stone Williams
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Genre: Biographies > Memoir > LGBTQIA > Gender Studies > Christian Bible History & Culture
Page Count: 216 Pages
My Rating: 5 Stars
Bio of Jonathan S. Williams (From Forefront):
“Jonathan is the Lead Pastor at Forefront. He serves on the board of the W/ Launchpad, an organization dedicated to starting progressive Christian Churches. He also serves on the board of Left Hand Church in Longmont, CO. He holds an M.Ed from Eastern University in Urban and Multicultural Education.
Jonathan is a writer who covers religion and spirituality, current trends, and LGBTQIA inclusion and justice. Jonathan has written for the Huffington Post, Faithfully Magazine, The Christian Standard, and many more. Jonathan has been featured in the New York Times, the Christian Post, and in Rebel Storytellers. He’s spoken at national events including TEDWomen18, Wild Goose Festival, W/ National Conference, Eastern Christian Conference, and Exponential National Conference.
In 2016 Jonathan was named one of the “Top 40 Leaders Under 40” by Christian Standard Magazine.
Jonathan currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, Jubi and two daughters. He enjoys a good beer, a better story, and despite years of disappointment, roots for his beloved NY Mets. He just released his first book, She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption.”
Bio of Paula Stone Williams (From Publisher’s Author Page):
“Paula Stone Williams is a nationally known speaker on gender equity and LGBTQ advocacy. She is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado, and a therapist with RLT Pathways, Inc.”
In Her Own Words (Photo and Self Intro from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/opinion/transgender-today/stories/paula-stone-williams)
“We are often defined by names, titles, gender. I am Rev. Dr. Paula Stone Williams. I was a national Evangelical leader in a large Christian denomination. I preached in some of the biggest megachurches in America. I had a pretty sterling reputation, but then I transitioned. Everything I spent decades building was gone in a week.
As you grow older sometimes a path no longer feels like an option. It calls relentlessly toward the elusive land of authenticity that is always just over the horizon. You have built kingdoms, slain dragons, saved the world, but is time to go home, even if you’ve never been there before. It is time to walk through the door of the place that looks like it has been expecting you.
Paul became Paula. I spent a lot of money and devoted a great deal of energy to add an “a” to my name. I am happier, more peaceful. Close friends say I am a better person. (I am not sure how I feel about that. Was I really that bad before?) I am comfortable in my own skin, as though I have finally come into my self. But the storm of my transition has left a road full of boulders and branches.
I did not realize how many people saw me as a strong, gentle male presence. I have left them fatherless. They grieve my passing. Like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” I protest “Hey! I am still here.” But they cannot see me. I want to scream, “Don’t you get it. Paul was never here.” But they saw what they saw and they are sad, angry, hurt. They feel abandoned. I must respect their grief.
Nothing about transitioning is easy, but then a call almost never comes as a moment of, “Oh joy!” It more often arrives with a terrified, “Oh no!” You ignore a call at your own peril. This was a call that demanded attention, water breaking, contractions every minute. So I answered it. That is what I chose to do with my one fragile and precious life. I’ll let you know how it turns out.”
Book Description (From Publisher’s Book Page):
“Jonathan S. Williams was three months into pastoring a new, evangelical church plant when his father confessed a secret: he was transgender. His father, Paul, a prominent evangelical pastor, soon became Paula, and Jonathan’s life and ministry went into a tailspin. Feeling betrayed by his mentor and confidante and scared that his church would lose funding and support if Paula’s secret was exposed, Jonathan sunk into depression and alcoholism.
She’s My Dad explores Jonathan’s long and winding journey toward reconciliation, forgiveness, and acceptance of his father as well as his church’s journey to become one of the few fully LGBTQ-inclusive, evangelical churches in America. Jonathan and Paula offer insight and encouragement for those with transgender family members, empathizing with the feelings of loss and trauma and understanding that even being LGBTQ-affirming doesn’t mean the transition of a family member will be easy. Jonathan writes of his family’s continuing evolution, the meaning of remaining loyal to one’s father even when she is no longer a man, the ongoing theological evolution surrounding transgender rights and advocacy in the church, and the unflinching self-scrutiny of a pastor who lost his God only to find God again in his father’s transition.”
Westminster John Knox Press reached out to me and asked if I would read and review She’s My Dad. Not knowing anything about the book, but knowing the publisher was a Christian publisher, I accepted their offer to read She’s My Dad, and I am grateful I did. I tend to look over reviews before I begin reading a book that I accept or request to read and review. I read some of the reviews of She’s My Dad and was horrified by the heartlessness expressed in some of the reviews. You’ve read the books’ description, which is a shared memoir between Jonathan and Paula, so there is no need for me to further speak to Jonathan and Paula’s story. My only thought as I read She’s My Dad, emotions aside, is that I felt Jonathan and Paula might have written personal memoirs or had equal parts in their biography.
An excellent example of this is a book titled Why I Left: Why I Stayed written by Tony and Bart Campolo, father, and son, which gave equal voice to both father and son in writing their separate stories together. I bring Tony and Bart’s memoir up as an example as to how I believe She’s My Dad may have been written while being mutually inclusive to both Jonathan and Paula. The stories of the Campolos and the Williams are similar but different at the same time. And I will leave it at that.
Life is strange, and ironically, I finished reading She’s My Dad while on a plane from SC bound for Brooklyn, NY for vacation. I knew Jonathan was the lead pastor of a church in Brooklyn, and I was thinking what a great opportunity it would be to attend his service and have some time to talk to Jonathan about She’s My Dad while I was in Brooklyn, before writing my review. Unfortunately, due to conflicting schedules, we were unable to meet each other’s available time frames. Nevertheless, Jonathan has agreed to participate in an author interview on my blog within the next three-four weeks. So, please check back for my interview with Pastor Jonathan S. Williams.
Not all of the reviews I preread about She’s My Dad was negative. There were just as many, if not more positive reviews. However, what deeply disturbed me was that although Jonathan had lost the man he had known as his father for approximately thirty-six years when Paula came out as transgender, several reviewers were dismissive of Jonathan’s emotional journey. Jonathan, married with two children, ages four and six when the man Jonathan’s children had known as Grampa would eventually become GrandPaula. There is heartache in Jonathan and Paula’s story, a pain experienced by both Paula and Jonathan. There was also humor that readers will never experience by only reading the negative reviews that dismissed Jonathan’s pain and struggles to accept the loss of his father through Paula’s transition, and opting not to read She’s My Dad.
I cried, I laughed, and I felt empathy, which is something we need more of in our world today. Jonathan was a 3rd generation Evangelical pastor. Early in the memoir, Jonathan was talking about his family legacy and shared some humorous stories from his mother’s earlier days about New York:
“My mother and her three sisters toured the country, raising support for churches in New York. They sang about the love of God and how New Yorkers needed that love more than ever.” – Jonathan S. Williams
Did you laugh? Maybe if you are a New Yorker you did not laugh, but I went to kindergarten in Yonkers, NY and spent intermittent periods of my youth in Albany, Schenectady, Poughkeepsie, Wappinger Falls, et cetera. New York continues to feel like home to me which is why I attempt to return yearly. And yes, I laughed.
“My mother inhabited New York but never truly lived in New York. Her family considered the largely Catholic makeup of the area to be dangerous, given that “Catholics weren’t Christians at all and worthy of damnation.” – Jonathan S. Williams
I laughed again. However, the humor does not stop here, while the reader of She’s My Dad encounters humor, there is also raw honesty, anger, confusion, denial, grief, loss, understanding, and yes there is love. Some of the negative reviews of She’s My Dad were insensitive, particularly the ones that critisized Jonathan, or complained about there being too much church and scripture within She’s My Dad.
As I have already pointed out, Jonathan is a third generation pastor, Paula is a pastor, Jonathan’s grandfather was a pastor. The Church has been Jonathan’s entire life, just as it has been Paula’s whole life. Including the Church, and scripture was an essential part of telling their story. There would not have been a memoir had the Church been omitted from She’s My Dad. Try writing a memoir while leaving the majority of your life out of your book. There will be no book, just as there would not have been a memoir had Jonathan and Paula omitted the Church. Every book regardless of whether it’s a memoir, fiction, or non-fiction must include a backstory. The Church was Jonathan and Paula’s backstory.
Others believed that “Christians wouldn’t get it,” or in one of the reviews I read, the reviewer suggested that Jonathan’s journey contained life-issues that don’t touch pastors—self-doubt, depression, anger, despair, and all things human. What belief system honestly holds these ideas to be true of the men and women who choose to become the Church’s representatives for God? If anyone believes that Pastors, Ministers, Reverends, Bishops, and clergy are without feelings and emotions. Or that they don’t have any internal struggles of their own regardless of whether they are similar to Jonathan and Paula’s experience, or divorce (of which I have personally known married pastors who divorced and were not turned out by the Church), or any other battle that you and I experience as parishioners of the Church. If you believe this you are disillusioned.
If you are a member of a church where the head of your church denies having their individual crosses to bear, your pastor is failing you, and failing the church as a whole by keeping his or her struggles and emotional battles secret. People are people, regardless of calling. Cut us, and we will all bleed red, and that includes the heads of Churches. I have read that pastors were not supposed to get depressed, and I’ve sat and listened to a Christian tell me that “Anxiety is a sin.” Both depression and anxiety, as well as other mental health issues, are handed down to us genetically. In She’s My Dad, we learn that Paula suffered from depression and anxiety throughout her life. Why would it be implausible for Jonathan to not also suffer from depression and anxiety, particularly when discovering his entire life had not been as he believed it to be?
Shockingly I also read “transgendered people wouldn’t want to read the book as a transgendered person.” Why would anyone suggest this? I would ask the reviewer if they missed the alarming statistic that 41% of the transgender populace attempt suicide, or perhaps this was the part of the book that you skipped over? She’s My Dad is the book to be read by all, whether you are transitioning, or it’s your mother, father, brother, sister, or you merely want to grasp a more unambiguous understanding of what people go through during a transition. To be clear, transitioning does not only affect the one going through the process; it changes the entire family dynamic, in the immediate and the extended family, as well as friendships and colleagues. There was a time when those who loved another of their same-sex had an extremely high percentile rate for suicide. We love who we love; it’s that simple. From a very young age, Sunday School and the Church tell us we are ALL created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), without exception.
Others opined that Jonathan came across as selfish, inflexible and whiney. Let’s look at this up close and personal for a moment. Paul, before transitioning to Paula was Jonathan’s father whom Jonathan had followed in his Evangelical footsteps, and he was Jonathan’s best friend and mentor. He was Jonathan’s hero. They shared a bond as father and son that many never share with their fathers or their mothers. Jonathan’s entire life changed as he worked through the stages of grief that all of us go through upon losing a loved one. It took Jonathan some time, and there is no pre-determined timeline for getting through the stages of grief. However, Jonathan gets there. As traumatic and gut-wrenching as Paula’s journey has been, Jonathan’s transition has been just as gut-wrenching and painful.
Life deals us blows that are unexpected, and we never see them coming. There are stages for making our way through these times, regardless of the cause. Self-awareness and acceptance do not come overnight; sometimes it takes years to find our way back to the comfort of our lives just as it did for Jonathan and Paula. But they each eventually make it through the darkness, and Jonathan’s love renews itself again for the man that was once his father but has now become Paula. At one point, Jonathan acknowledges to himself:
“I was proud of her transition. I was proud of the fact that her waking up to greet life was a courageous act known only by few. That made me happy for my father.” — Jonathan S. Williams
Time heals all wounds for most people who face the unexpected; time and the ability to work through to understanding the other’s place and feelings. Paula’s transitioning affected all aspects of Jonathan’s life. He had to stand before his church and share his story with his congregation; he had to admit to them that he did not know how to get through this blow. He was lost. The hierarchy of the Evangelical Church abandoned him; although, the church he pastored chose to support Jonathan for the most part. And then Jonathan and his wife had to help their two young children walk through the transitioning process themselves. Jonathan said it best:
“There’s no playbook for telling your children that their grandfather is now a woman. There’s no playbook for telling your children that their father is in the middle of a crisis brought about by mourning his father, who is no longer present as a father, but is still alive, and is technically still a father … It gets complicated.” — Jonathan S. Williams
She’s My Dad is a heart-wrenching memoir of letting go of what once was and moving forward with the new, over time, step by step, and day by day. I repeatedly use the words of Lin Manuel when I say, “Love is Love is Love is Love.” Jonathan and Paula’s memoir is chock full of every emotion known to humanity, and as a reader, I experienced every one of these emotions as I read She’s My Dad. Regardless of the 1-3 star negative reviews, you read when deciding if you want to read one of the most honest and vulnerable memoirs written, I strongly recommend that you overlook the negative and read She’s My Dad, and decide for yourself. And remember as Jonathan says so well:
“The harder one falls, and the later in life, the longer it takes to heal. The scars don’t go away.” — Jonathan S. Williams
I have provided a TED video of Jonathan and Paula together that penetrated my heart, and perhaps it will penetrate yours as well.
Thank you to Westminster John Know Press, NetGalley, Jonathan S. Williams, and Paula Stone Williams for the opportunity to read and review She’s My Dad.