Janet Mock’s new memoir is a radical reimagining of the coming-of-age narrative

One of a kind.
One of a kind.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In 1997, Janet Jackson opened her album The Velvet Rope with the declaration “that we all have the need to feel special. And it’s this need that can bring out the best in us, yet the worst in us. This need created the velvet rope.” The velvet rope represents both internal struggle and interpersonal division. How does one feel whole as an individual while also being recognized as fully human by others? The most normative bodies—white, heterosexual, male—are societal defaults for normal: This is what privilege means. Meanwhile, others have to work harder to be seen either as normal or as special. Jackson makes that work visible as a black woman; her velvet rope divides, but can also bind individuals together.

Twenty years later, Janet Mock’s memoir Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, is the perfect cross-genre companion to The Velvet Rope. Both Jackson and Mock share an empowered vulnerability and vision, a nuanced lens through which their art interrogates the self and society simultaneously. Just like in Jackson’s music, Mock’s book grapples with internal dilemmas and grants the reader access to private moments in order to illuminate places where her story, though distinct, might touch ours.

Mock centers her own sex-positive, black, feminist, transgender experience and holds up a mirror for other black transgender women rarely reflected in the mainstream. She also masterfully extends a black feminist lineage devoted to transforming the world through collective action.

To collectively act—whether black or not, trans or not—we first must listen to black women. In the words of black feminist activist Flo Kennedy, “Recognition of…similarity… can hasten the formation of alliances to combat forces which advocate the suppression of many for the aggrandizement of the few.”

For a reader like me (white, cisgender, and male), Mock and Kennedy both drive home the importance of seeing and hearing others—stepping out of personal experience, changing focus, recalibrating the lens. We all just want to be seen, to feel special. But first we have to learn to see differently.

Surpassing Certainty masterfully balances the specificity of Mock’s sex-positive, black, feminist, transgender experience with the things so many of us share: self-doubt, navigating late adolescence, leaving hometowns, searching for love, deciding how much of our lives to reveal to others—and how soon. From college and grad school to internships and early jobs in publishing, Mock learns to understand the subtle intricacies of her voice, her body, and herself before ultimately entering her thirties renewed.

Yes, Mock’s life includes aspects that might not directly mirror our personal experiences, but she asserts that her story remains, in its own way, universal. Make no mistake, however—this is the new universal. And it’s messier than the previous universal narratives you might have read in high school English class. But coming of age in America can’t be defined by Holden Caufield anymore. The world is changing, and it’s time we change along with it.

Balancing the personal and political, Mock minces no words when calling for an interrogation and an indictment of violence against sex-positive black feminist transgender women. In the US in 2017, 11 trans people have already been reported murdered or violently killed that we know of; almost all trans women of color. Laverne Cox has rightfully named the ongoing violence against transgender women a “state of emergency.” Against that backdrop, Mock’s book is a piece of revelatory resistance, celebrating everyday successes and illustrating the “danger of a single story” that acknowledges trans women of color only in the face of tragedy.

Mock doesn’t shy away from her own privileges, either. Her “passing privilege” positions her as an exception to the discrimination, ridicule, and violence other trans women typically face because she is able to “pass” as a cisgender woman. Staying silent about her identity guarantees her safety. By coming out publicly as trans again and again, she turns that “exceptional” status into a hopeful example for others. By simply being visible, she helps create a more inclusive narrative.

The title Surpassing Certainty, borrowed from feminist author and advocate Audre Lorde, stands for a number of different and connected things: a place or location beyond normative knowledge; the ongoing process of bettering oneself; a striving, an intention, a call to arms. Mock’s writing performs its own title: It surpasses certainty, from exception to example, from experience to theory, from learning to lens.

The Velvet Rope ends with “Special,” a song that cuts to silence mid-track while Jackson announces it as a “work in progress.” To me, this has always symbolized how the work of seeing oneself as special while also pushing for broader recognition is a never-ending process. Surpassing Certainty exists in that period of silence—it is an affirmation in the middle of a journey (Mock’s) that is also designed to let the reader know we’ll be ok on our own individual journeys. And echoing Jackson’s lyrics, Mock tells us to never let anyone tell us we’re not strong enough.

In The New York Times Magazine, Mock recently said that she doesn’t feel completely comfortable being seen as solely a trans advocate. “[W]e cannot use my single experience, because all it does is flatten everyone else’s experience and turns us into a monolith,” she said. If her story is used as only representative of the trans experience, she’s right. But I don’t believe this is a story simply about the trans experience. It’s about being vulnerable and hoping the world might see you as special. Mock breaks our basic representational mirror into a million pieces and offers us each a shard reflecting how our own experiences are similar, not just reaffirming their differences.

By the end of Surpassing Certainty, Janet Mock is no simple advocate or exception. She’s a teacher, a guide, a literary alchemist. “When I use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid,” Lorde once said. Similarly, Mock redefines and surpasses her own fears, inviting us all to listen and then do the same. Janet Mock holds up a velvet rope, lets us in, and ties us together. And we’ll never be the same, certainly.