When Jamie Peebles, a friend of more than forty years whom I met at Hampshire College, told me she was transitioning, I immediately put my foot in my mouth: I asked her if she was having a sex change. Graciously, she informed me that it was not a sex change, that she had always been female but just didn’t realize it. In fact, she’d always thought she was a man until one night, “like a bolt of lightning,” at age 63, she realized that she was a woman. Her ex-wife and two daughters had no idea. Her life imploded.
Jamie was a year into the process and in rough shape when she told she was transitioning. I immediately knew it would be a good story and approached her with the idea right away. But she was not sure she wanted to be the subject of a film. I was still, first and foremost, a friend. I listened to her, encouraged her, and was there for her. But I’m also a documentary filmmaker; I know a good story when I hear one. Most trans portraits I’d seen were about a person’s life post-transition. But Jamie was in the middle of her transition. During our conversations, I kept saying to myself, “please, let’s make this film!”
By summer’s end she had agreed that documenting her transition could do some good. We would produce and film it together. I would direct and edit. This collaboration became The Second Life of Jamie P.
Jamie is a brilliant television engineer who built Al Gore’s Current TV and Jerry Laybourne’s Oxygen Media. She’d been a college professor, a filmmaker, a photographer, and a home builder. But her knowledge of the technical end made our work much easier. Since she was in the Boston area and I was in New York, I asked her to record personal video diaries about the ups and downs of her journey. I was there with my camera for major milestones, like taking her to breast augmentation surgery in Boston and being in the operating room, and filming her confirmation surgery in California, which was performed by Dr. Marcie Bowers, a world-renowned surgeon who is transgender.
I had quite a few internal battles with myself being both her friend and her director. I supported her as best I could,. Thankfully, our decades-long friendship fostered a deep trust. She knew I would not take advantage of her vulnerability, so she was willing to open up to our cameras.
I knew if she recorded the most poignant moments, they would move audiences. For example, when she returned home from the breast surgery, she called me crying on Skype. While in the hospital, she had been misgendered three times, first by the anesthesiologist, then twice by surgical staff. “How could they think I was a guy?” she asked incredulously. I was stunned and angry on hearing how poorly she’d been treated. With as much love as possible, I suggested: “If you can get yourself to record a video diary, it will be very important.” She did it, it’s in the film, and it’s very moving.
But there were plenty of humorous and happy moments too. After complications from confirmation surgery made her incontinent, a catheter was inserted and she wore a drainage bag. In the video diary, she bitches about having to buy clothes to hide it. When the bag leaks and wets her underwear, Jamie just laughs. When she gets home, the sheets are in the dryer. “So I decided to rinse my panties and dry them in the microwave,” she reports. “When I opened the door they were on fire!” she tells us, laughing hysterically.
Jamie is doing much better now. She’s had some facial surgeries and has less dysphoria. The scene in the film when she has electrolysis is priceless. It begins when Jamie applies numbing cream, then covers her face with plastic wrap. Laughing, she says: “I think I look much better. It hides the wrinkles.”
At the end of the film, two years after filming ended, Jamie records one more video diary wearing a lovely blue-print summer dress. With a smile on her beautiful face, she tells us: “I want you to know I’m really doing well. I don’t even recognize the person you saw in the movie. I guess I’m still a work in progress. Maybe we all are.”
The Second Life of Jamie P is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. Click here to watch the trailer.
Roger Sherman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, photographer, and author in New York. He runs Florentine Films with Ken Burns.
Roger offers a brief and moving account of how he walked with a woman during the time of her transitioning. The most evocative line is this: “I don’t even recognize the person you saw in the movie.” This brings me close to tears. There is light at the other side of the tunnel, and when one arrives there, looking back is just dark shadows where nothing is quite visible.