Non­fic­tion

What We Will Become: A Moth­er, a Son, and a Jour­ney of Transformation

  • Review
By – January 13, 2020

If there is but one les­son to be learned from Mimi Lemay’s coura­geous book, What We Will Become, it is to lis­ten to our chil­dren. Not mere­ly to lis­ten but to hear them, to clear away our pre­con­cep­tions, and see the world through a child’s eyes.

Named Em at birth, Lemay’s mid­dle child res­olute­ly declared him­self a boy from age two. This book chron­i­cles Lemay’s family’s jour­ney as their house­hold evolved and adapt­ed; it is the unspar­ing sto­ry of los­ing a daugh­ter and gain­ing a son, Jacob.

The book is the sto­ry of three gen­er­a­tions; in addi­tion to her son’s jour­ney, Lemay chron­i­cles the dis­so­lu­tion of her par­ents’ mar­riage, and her own expe­ri­ences of being raised by an ultra-Ortho­dox moth­er. The three strands of the sto­ry come togeth­er in the clos­ing chap­ters of the memoir.

Grow­ing up, Lemay was inde­pen­dent and unafraid — with­in the stric­tures of ultra-Ortho­doxy — to chal­lenge reli­gious author­i­ty when she felt intel­lec­tu­al­ly stymied. While study­ing at a pres­ti­gious sem­i­nary in Eng­land, Lemay dis­cov­ered a library of lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. In order to study there, she need­ed the per­mis­sion of her edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion. Her head of school was staunch­ly opposed to sec­u­lar learn­ing; still, Lemay made her case to him and ulti­mate­ly gained access. This led to her deci­sion to attend college. 

Dur­ing those years Lemay broke through the con­straints of her Ortho­doxy, first by dis­pens­ing with her for­mer dress code and then by fore­go­ing the cus­toms of eat­ing kosher. While these acts are pre­sent­ed as spon­ta­neous, one can glean that her years of ques­tion­ing author­i­ty, of feel­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly and intel­lec­tu­al­ly con­strained, led to the moment when she could claim her right to make her own choic­es, includ­ing mar­ry­ing a non-Jew­ish person.

Em’s rebirth as Jacob is giv­en full con­text by Lemay’s explo­ration of three gen­er­a­tions of seek­ers. Lemay’s moth­er’s con­ver­sion to Ortho­doxy is just as intrigu­ing as the author’s deci­sion to leave it. Lemay’s broth­er forged a path from pious yeshi­va stu­dent to beloved sec­u­lar uncle. In accept­ing Jacob for who he was, the author’s nuclear fam­i­ly moved through emo­tion­al tur­moil to peace and under­stand­ing, ground­ed on their sol­id foun­da­tion of love. More than any­thing else, this is the sto­ry of how one boy per­sist­ed with the lan­guage and tools of a child to con­vince the adults around him that the iden­ti­ty he pro­claimed was right­ful­ly his.

Discussion Questions