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Review: ‘My Son Wears Heels’ By Julie Tarney

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer

The first day your toddler said he could dress himself was a day you’ll never forget. And you had to hand it to him—he did try. By the time he was done, part of his outfit was out of season and the other part was out of style, the colors were painful together, and nothing matched except his bright eyes and proud grin. You figured he’d eventually learn, and so would you—just as Julie Tarney did in her new book My Son Wears Heels.

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My Son Wears Heels by Julie Tarney, 2016, University of Wisconsin Press (uwpress.wisc.edu), 213 pages, $24.95.

Though Tarney had known since he was born that her son, Harry, was a unique little guy, she was still taken aback when he asked how she knew that he was a boy.

Harry was just two years old then, and Tarney thought it was a normal question for a child that age. But his next comment—that he was a girl “inside my head”—sent her to her parenting books.

Tarney had no real frame of reference, other than a well-used copy of Dr. Spock. She was the eldest of two girls, born in Wisconsin to a mother who was controlling and distant; even if she could have asked her late mother about parenting concerns, Tarney probably wouldn’t. Instinct told her that there was nothing to worry about, though she fretted that Harry was gay. She also worried that she’d somehow ruin him if she didn’t completely support his free-spiritedness.

As he grew up, Harry’s creativity grew, too; he loved to play dress-up, experiment, and pretend. Wigs and shoes were his passion, but he also liked skirts. Although Tarney successfully prevented him from wearing any of that in public, by the time he was 10 years old, Harry had his own fashion sense and had gotten bullied for it. He knew he was different, but he was too young to articulate how.

At 14, Harry came out as gay. Through the years, while Harry worked to understand more about himself, his mother went through a period of personal acceptance, too. She discovered that she could be a single mom and survive. She learned that loving herself wasn’t a bad thing—and that she could never “screw up” her son by loving him.

At its most basic, My Son Wears Heels is a good book. It showcases how one mother encouraged her son to openly explore who he was, and how his journey fostered an understanding of hers. And if that was all there was in this book, you’d probably be very happy. But instead, there’s a lot of plumping-up in this tale.

Author Julie Tarney drops product names like she’s in a grocery store, sometimes right down to the ad tagline; that’s often followed by minute details that seem inconsequential, as though they’re merely filling conversational silence. Add recreated dialogue from episodes that happened more than 20 years ago and, well, continuing can be a challenge.   

Again, great premise, good story, but too much fluff. If that bugs you, too, then take a pass. Unless you can overlook all the padding, My Son Wears Heels is no shoe-in.

Tarney is scheduled to appear at Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center in Houston on November 5.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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