Photo: Courtesy of the author
Rowan Jetté Knox’s Memoir ‘One Sunny Afternoon’ Starts on a Dark Note
In a Q&A about his latest book, the Toronto author talks about the trauma that precipitated a mental health crisis, his transgender wife and son and his female-to-male transition / BY Kim Hughes / September 14th, 2023
Memoirs don’t come more candid – or freighted with a more incredible afterward – than Rowan Jetté Knox’s One Sunny Afternoon: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing. The follow-up to Jetté Knox’s 2019 bestseller, Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family, the new book begins in May 2020 at an Ottawa hospital where the author – emotionally overwhelmed and feeling suicidal – begs for help.
From that spiritual nadir, Jetté Knox embarks on a path to explore and finally recover from the long-untreated trauma that caused it: intense childhood bullying at school (among other horrors, Jetté Knox was set on fire by classmates) that led to substance abuse and addiction, as well as sexual abuse. The narrative is propelled by a raw and chronological recounting of that journey, which resulted in a diagnosis of complex PTSD.
“One minute I’d be fine,” the author, 47, writes in a typically unvarnished passage about undergoing therapy. “The next I would say something accidentally profound … and the tears would start flowing. I have a hard time crying in front of others – another by-product of my childhood. Did [my therapist] have any idea how broken I really was, and what a project I would become?”
What triggered the breakdown on that fateful day in May was the culmination of ruthless social media attacks on the first book, which told the story of Jetté Knox’s 11-year-old son, who came out as transgender in 2014, and his spouse, who came out as transgender a year later. “The person I thought was my son was not a boy and the person I thought was my husband was, in fact, my wife,” he wrote in a recent Toronto Star essay. Though Love Lives Here painted a picture of a stable, loving family, to some in the trans community, Jetté Knox – then a cis woman – was sucking up too much oxygen online and in the press. Trans haters, meanwhile, just hated.
Not long after One Sunny Afternoon was completed, Jetté Knox came out as transgender, too. First printings of the new book will carry the name Amanda Jetté Knox, rather than the author’s chosen name of Rowan Jetté Knox. “But I’m working right now with a label company to create stickers that I can bring to book signings and sell to raise money for charity that will put the name Rowan over the name Amanda on the cover very nicely,” he chuckles.
An afterward to the book will address Jetté Knox’s transition. As he tells Zoomer from his hometown Toronto, you are never too old to find your true self.
Kim Hughes: This book is breathtakingly honest. Did you ever question the wisdom of putting this out into the world?
Rowan Jetté Knox: My entire life has been about sharing my own experiences to help other people. I started doing that in rehab as a teenager. We would go to schools, community centres, and 12-step programs and speak to young people about addiction. I have one rule when I write: if what I am going to write will harm someone else, I’m not going to do it. I’m putting this story out there because I really want to help people, not to get attention or to harm someone else.
KH: Is that why you don’t name anyone from the alt-right, despite saying in the book that faction was particularly nasty to you online?
RJK: Yes. I’m not going to play the same game back. I have four kids, aged 16 to 26, and I have always felt that, as a parent, I must lead by example. Just because someone is terrible to me doesn’t mean I have to be terrible back. That doesn’t help anything. It just makes the situation worse. Like Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” I live by that.
KH: Compassion is a word that comes up a lot in the book. Push comes to shove, is it humanity’s most important quality?
RJK: Yes. Empathy is the starting point for compassion, and that is the ability to feel for others, to put ourselves in their shoes. Compassion is that extra step where we are compelled to help other people. Without that, we are lost as a society. We are so often stuck in our own lanes and not thinking about the bigger picture, which means we’re divided. If we could just remember that we have so much more in common than different, it would bring us together more.
KH: In the book, you connect the dots between the abuse you endured on social media and your eventual breakdown which pushed you to suicidal ideation. Why were you so heavily targeted?
RJK: The suggestion was that I was taking up too much space even acting as an ally to a marginalized group, in this case the trans community. Even though I am trans, I wasn’t at the time. I wasn’t even being honest with myself. That was the spark. But what snowballed from there was tearing me apart as a person, rather than to say, “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this that way.” That opened the door for alt-right figures to get in there and have their say. Plus, this was during the pandemic. People were stuck at home. And everyone was scared and frustrated and here was this opportunity to blow up.
KH: What’s your expectation of social media with this book? Are you prepared to deal with whatever comes up?
RJK: I’m sure there will be some backlash as I am taking aim at how some people choose to have discourse on social media. There are a lot of nuances in this book, and I don’t think social media does nuance very well. I am prepared to deal with it. I’ve done a lot of work on myself. And, as I say in the book, it wasn’t social media that almost killed me. It was my own trauma that almost killed me. But that trauma was triggered by social media. I have addressed that trauma and I have employed a social media manager. I am still posting my own stuff, but my manager goes through the comments and email from my website and just sends me the good stuff. That frees up my time and energy for better things.
KH: Where do you expect to find this book filed in bookshops? Memoir? Self-help?
RJK: It’s a memoir. There are many very good self-help books out there and I’ve read many of them. This is a personal account of how trauma shaped me and how I’ve come back from that. I’m not an expert; I’m the person sitting across from you telling you his life’s story and hopefully giving you some comfort in knowing you’re not alone.
KH: The New York Times recently reported that the number of gender-affirming surgeries in the U.S. nearly tripled from 2016 to 2019 as access broadened. Is this recent increase because trans people across millennia had to deny their identity or risk being ostracized or even killed?
RJK: Absolutely. A common analogy is left-handedness. There was a time when left-handed people were forced to write with their right hands, my mother among them. When being left-handed was finally deemed acceptable, the numbers spiked. I am a young Gen X, and I’m hoping I’m on the tail end of the people who, had we come out sooner, would have been forced into conversion therapy because that was the only option for people like us. There was the odd person who came out publicly in the 70s and 80s, but then there was the Jerry Springer-era, when trans people were made fun of, or made out to be deceitful, harmful, and perverted. That kept a lot of people in the closet. So yes, I think more positive visibility has been key, which was what I was hoping to do [with the first book] as someone with a trans partner and a trans kid: put it out there and show we are not that different from everyone else. The lives we lead are typical in many ways.
KH: But even having said that, what are the statistical odds of three members of the same family being transgender?
RJK: It’s not as rare as you might think. As I write in the book, I was immediately attracted to Zoe [his long-time spouse] when we met prior to her transition. I had never been attracted to a male. I had dated males because I was supposed to. But I fell head over heels, and I think it’s because she always had that [female] essence. Queer people tend to find each other. Talk to people my age or a bit older and they’ll tell you they hung out with the queer kids even without anyone saying they were queer. In my family, you have two trans people who have one trans kid out of four. It’s not that unusual. Laverne Cox is a twin; she is trans, and her twin is a gay man. It tends to run in family.
KH: Where does hostility towards trans people come from?
RJK: Disinformation. Part of my work is studying hate groups often seeded by social media. A disinformation campaign goes out from an anti-LGBTQ group. That’s picked up by people who maybe don’t have alternative sources of information about LGBTQ people. What they spread becomes misinformation: they’re not intentionally spreading lies but they’re still spreading lies. I’ve been called a groomer, a child molester. And for what reason? Being trans and having a trans child that is now 20 years old? That is apparently enough for someone to believe that, based on my identity, I am all these terrible things. And if one group can lose their autonomy, other groups can, too. I am always sounding the alarm about this. It’s not just about LGBTQ people. It’s about all people.
KH: One of the most interesting passages of your life is happening now, as you medically transition. But that came after this book was written. Is a third book in the cards?
RJK: I didn’t think I had a second book in me! I am living a very different life than I was even a few months ago. Life can really take you by surprise. Even today, at 47, I did Pilates, kick boxing and a meditation. Yesterday, I was in Ottawa driving my son to Peterborough, Ont., helping him move and running up and down flights of stairs. All I could think was, ‘I am in better shape now than I was 10 or even 20 years ago.’ It’s a reminder that it’s never too late to do something you want to do. It’s never too late to transition or get in shape or move somewhere and start a new life. I am so happy to be in this stage of my life and I’m going to be writing about it one way or another. My greatest hope with this book is that someone who is in a challenging place in their life reads it and says, ‘There is hope for me.’ Honestly, there is nothing special about me. I’m just someone who carried a lot of pain around from my childhood. And If I can figure it out in my 40s, anyone can.