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BOOK REVIEW

A divided life finally made whole in ‘I Heard Her Call My Name,’ Lucy Sante’s memoir of transition

The acclaimed cultural critic and artist turns her observant eye inward

Lucy Sante, author of a new memoir of transition, "I Heard Her Call My Name."Jem Cohen/Penguin Press

Lucy Sante is a critically acclaimed writer who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books among other publications. She has written books such as “Low Life” and “The Other Paris,” which uncover the gritty urban landscapes of New York City and Paris.

But in her memoir “I Heard Her Call My Name,” her patient, observant eye is cast inward rather than outward. For all of her vast knowledge of bohemian life and downtown culture, she turns here to a subject she knows best, despite every attempt to evade accepting it: herself.

In 2021, at age 66, she wrote an email with the subject “A bombshell” to roughly 30 close friends. The text revealed that, despite having lived as a man since birth, imagining herself as a woman was “the consuming furnace at the center of my life.” It was repression, she said, that “kept me from seeing the phenomenon as a coherent whole.” This memoir chronicles her path from that carefully suppressed yearning (“thought pasted to my windshield”) to the living embodiment of that belief.

Indeed, with its focus on gender transition, this is a timely but timeless memoir. As pundits and politicians amplify the conversation around this topic with hot takes and fear mongering, it’s increasingly difficult to conduct a nuanced discussion on the subject. Sante’s memoir is not a polemic nor does she attempt to universalize her experience. Beyond gender transition, it’s also as much an immigrant’s story as well as a chronicle of Catholic upbringing and the story of a curious person aching for a cultural community. At its heart, “I Heard Her Call My Name” is a poignant but forceful portrait of a life liberated from shame and fear.

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Sante pulls no punches in the telling of her story. From the jump, there is no preamble; she spares no time launching into the fact of her transition. During the pandemic, she downloaded and began playing around with FaceApp, altering personal photos so that the gender was swapped. This triggered “one shock of recognition after another.” Upon seeing decades of snapshots of herself cast as a woman, not a man, Sante writes, “That’s exactly who I would have been.” As she refers to this awakening throughout the book, “when my egg cracked I simply stopped being able to lie to myself.” There was no going back.

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Without formal chapters and without introduction, the book reads like one lengthy confession. The memoir toggles back and forth between past and present. Anchored by the elation and awkwardness of what Sante refers to as her “pink cloud,” that early period of her life openly lived as a woman, Sante offers an unsparing portrait of childhood, shuttled between post World War II Belgium and the United States, with her immigrant parents, ever mourning for their stillborn daughter and incapable of fully embracing their curious only child, Luc. The weight of the past is offset by the levity and liberation of her current state. This structural choice carries the reader through the memoir’s bleakest moments. We’re better able to pay unflinching attention and absorb the bitterness of Sante’s life without any reassurance or handholding on the part of Sante. It’s also her frank and inviting voice that hooks the reader.

Unsurprisingly, given her long career, Sante flexes her muscle as an archivist. In the present, she’s “looking for things I could use — maybe looking for my tribe.” But, dredging the past, she presents evidence of her longstanding denial through an examination of her peripatetic childhood followed by the Jesuit high school in Manhattan that gave her the chance to escape her suburban New Jersey life.

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This escape was cut short by her expulsion. Almost miraculously, she is accepted to Columbia University, which brings her back to the city in the early 1970s, where she came into her own with a community of literary and artistic friends that ranged from the writer Darryl Pinckney and the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch to the artists Nan Goldin and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

She eventually worked at the revered New York Review of Books and became a critic in her own right after years of working at the legendary Strand Bookstore. In many ways, this life felt like as much an act as her performance of masculinity. She recalls, “I published various kinds of literary journalism in magazines and newspapers, and rigorously avoided the word I. The act was something of an impersonation. I was playing a character more worldly and sophisticated than I actually was.” Despite writing a memoir called “The Factory of Facts,” she dodged “self-depiction because I didn’t want to be seen and I didn’t want to be seen because I didn’t know who I was.” And yet, “work had always been my refuge from the rest of my life, hence divorced from gender.”

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With this memoir, the personal and the public lives merge. Living in transition was akin to “a gray interzone, somewhere between genders and perhaps realities. It reminded me of the interval between languages I’d had to pass through every day when I was first learning English.” Gaining fluency and confidence, Sante has found her footing. “Transitioning is not an event but a process, and it will occupy the rest of my life as I go on changing.”

Emblematic of someone who has straddled cultures, languages, and genders, Sante’s bold devotion to complexity and clarity makes this an exemplary memoir. It is a clarion call to live one’s most authentic life.

I HEARD HER CALL MY NAME: A Memoir of Transition

By Lucy Sante

Penguin Press, 240 pp., $27

Lauren LeBlanc is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.