(You Don’t Know) The Half of It
If you’ve been in Nashville long enough, chances are you may have seen Bobbi Williams, who has occasionally contributed to this publication. The original run of her column provided a sometimes-humorous, always clear-eyed view of the world through the eyes of a trans woman.
It’s somewhat less likely that you will have met George Wilkerson, the co-author of their recent memoir, (You Don’t Know) The Half of It. These days, it’s far more Bobbi than George, but once it was otherwise, and this book tells the stories of those days, George’s days, from the perspective of Bobbi. Right … Bobbi was (or is, perhaps, but we’ll get back to that) George for most of life, part one.
If that’s confusing, I know… I’m sorry. Bobbi’s humorous memoir of George’s outer life, and her inner experience of it. A taste from the very first lines: “One afternoon, when the fog of my presence has momentarily lifted, I get George to tell Mother our secret. ‘There’s a girl in me,’ he says, his eyes following the wooden spoon slowly stirring the pot.” And with that, the story begins.
The scene is so simple, yet so powerful, I cannot help but imagine a child in just this position, saying just these words, expressing something profoundly difficult for even an older person to grasp in a simplistic way. And this also sets up the literary device that is the heart of the entire book: the girl inside George telling his story from youth, through tumultuous college days and a fascinatingly varied career, up to the moment when there’s finally more of Bobbi than George.
In this book, we are given a lens into the inner life of someone struggling to ascertain identity at a deep level, delivered as they grow and develop through what were already dark times for LGBT people in America. Bobbi gives us a taste of the disapproval George received when even a hint of her was present in childhood.
But we also get a window into the hidden life of the child who sneaks into their mother’s dresser and secretly imagines who things might be like. We also see, years later, a George who, having exhausted the thrill of his mother’s and sister’s wardrobes, concocts a scheme that will ultimately land the seventeen-year-old a night in the clink and a felony charge of grand larceny (it was later dismissed).
For those unfamiliar with the culture and mores of the late-1950s and 1960s, reading of George and Bobbi’s school days and college years will be an eye-opener, to say the least. But in their story, we generally find someone who managed to get lucky a lot—not in the bedroom, but in terms of situations that could have derailed their story entirely.
It’s impossible to summarize the story, as the trail through life is as eclectic as Geoge and Bobbi, with work settings as diverse as writing and teaching, performing sketch comedy, working in Africa for big oil, and writing technical manuals for companies like Dell, General Electric and others.
We see the struggle not only with gender but sexuality—is Bobbi a lesbian, the book will wonder? We follow George and Bobbi through relationships, marriages, parenting—life in general. And the book is poignant, because it is authentic and forthright, pokes fun at its subjects and recognizes their flaws.
And by exposing the inner life of a supremely complicated individual it certainly hammers home the ancient truth—you never REALLY know what’s going on inside someone’s head. We get an immediate insight into the way George presents, and the ways in which Bobbi is concealed, or conceals herself. And at times we see Bobbi as puppet master, guiding George as a wizened voice. We even see Bobbi save George’s life—and that scene perhaps more than any other highlights my one reservation about this book.
The book’s chief device—that there’s George and Bobbi—is explained as such in the forward. This is not a case of multiple personalities or mental illness, Bobbi (or is it George) writes. But there are moments throughout where it definitely seems like there are two individuals with their own sometimes diverging interests.
So when George is contemplating ending it all, Bobbi writes, “I know where he’s going, but I am not about to go with him. And so I force myself to the forefront and pry deeper. And what I find is telling, because it is something he has never admitted to himself. I had to bring it into that place where he and I are one.” Then the two have a moment, and then Bobbi observes, “For a long time, no thoughts pass between us, but I can feel he is lost, and I wait, and after a while, he gets up, puts the pills away, and goes back into the house.”
Now, I’m not saying I’m worried about Bobbi. My one reservation is that, with half a world full of people still convinced that being trans is a mental illness, reading an account like this could strengthen their convictions. Such people don’t understand things like literary devices. Luckily such people also don’t read, so I’m not too worried.
To get your copy of the book and to meet the author, head out to Parnassus Books in Nashville on June 30, 2018, at 2:00 p.m., where Bobbi will be holding an event.