"In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court." By Brittney Griner, with Sue Hovey
You might be thinking, "Brittney Griner has some nerve writing a memoir! She’s 23 years old! She can’t even get a rental car without paying the extra underage fee!"
But "In My Skin" is no ordinary memoir. When you reach the end, you realize this is just the beginning for Brittney Griner. The more she laments her past struggles, the more you realize her story is still unwritten. "In My Skin" is not about some 23-year-old’s life experiences. It’s about 23 years of being denied authentic life experiences.
What makes "In My Skin" an inspiring read rather than a depressing one? Brittney’s resilience. What makes even the mundane details of a 23-year-old’s life interesting? The cowardice and prejudice of institutions and individuals who systematically repressed them.
"In My Skin" is timely, fierce, and intimate. The reader is granted unfiltered access to Brittney’s mind and thoughts. "In My Skin" sets the record straight. The story unfolds organically like the play-by-play of a live basketball game. The raw emotions behind it pour out in beautifully complicated, unpurified form.
We all know Brittney was bullied. It is no surprise that she started experiencing feelings of depression at an early age. But what you might not have known was that Brittney also had a sense of self-acceptance over her developing sexual orientation and gender identity at an early age.
When her sexual orientation was made public after she turned pro, social media was abuzz with "Duh!" or "In Other News: Water is Wet." But those who construed the revelation as Brittney "coming out" underestimated Griner – she came out in high school, first to her mother then her father (a strict Vietnam vet who would check the mileage on the car he gave her as a means of discipline).
Brittney explicitly informed Baylor University head coach Kim Mulkey that she was gay when she verbally committed during her junior year of high school. Griner was assured that her sexual orientation would not be an issue, but she ultimately learned this assurance was merely a song and dance.
Why didn’t she transfer? It’s complicated. She loved her mother who was battling lupus and valued their proximity. She had a couple of male friends (i.e. "lesbros") at Baylor with whom she was very close with. And overall the town of Waco was good to her – except for that frustrating incident when she was spotted at a movie theater smooching with her girlfriend and an informant decided to notify Mulkey, who in turn tried to persuade Brittney to keep that part of her life more private.
Repression is a recurrent theme in "In My Skin." Brittney never hid her queer sexual orientation and gender identity among her teammates and the community during her time at Baylor University. But Baylor is a Baptist-affiliated university that expressly denounces all forms of sexuality besides heterosexual marriage.
When Brittney told Mulkey that she was gay during her recruitment in high school, Mulkey disingenuously responded:
"Big Girl, I don't care what you are. You can be black, white, blue, purple, whatever. As long as you come here and do what you need to do and hoop, I don't care."
Perhaps "Big Girl" should have done more research. But keep in mind, Griner did not even foresee college in her future plans at all until basketball became a fixture and vehicle for her life’s path relatively late in her development compared to other players. So you can excuse a teenager for being so naive as to take a coach’s word at face value (when said coach is understandably doing everything she can to procure all 6’8" of her talent).
Once Brittney arrived at Baylor, she was never quite explicitly told to check being gay at the door. Mulkey – who Griner says she loves more than she probably knows – never chastised or tried to change Brittney’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But she put unfair pressure on Brittney by playing the "Why put your personal business out there for people to talk about?"-card. Griner is conflicted about Mulkey’s stance – she wonders if Mulkey was trying to protect her from the inevitable prejudice of others or if she was trying to protect Baylor’s conservative ideals and image.
This made Griner feel deceived (because of what she was told during her recruitment) as well as used at times. Baylor lauded her services as an athlete but treated other parts of her almost like a dirty secret. And since all media requests for collegiate athletes are vetted in advance (not just at Baylor), Brittney’s true self was indeed kept secret and out of press articles until she turned pro.
Griner leaves the reader under the impression that even in the present moment she is still resolving her thoughts and feelings about Baylor and Mulkey. She hopes she has sparked or can spark a change in their views. Griner is wise and introspective and doesn’t simply write off Baylor wholesale or cast Mulkey as a villain but rather has a sense that while her situation was unjust it was also very complicated.
Griner exhibits maturity in revisiting all these complications throughout the book, but with a dash of Holden Caulfield-esque spunk, calling out blatant phoniness when she sees it.
Throughout, Griner is not shy about exploring her love-hate relationships, including the one with her experience at Baylor. All in all, it’s a juicy story with an uplifting overarching message.
One area of the memoir I would have liked more insight, however, occurred when addressing the topic of forgoing the 2012 London Olympics. She acknowledges that there was speculation that she declined a spot on Team USA in order to avoid potential protests or challenges from other countries on the grounds of her gender. Griner writes:
"I have every intention of playing for the United States at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, if I'm selected for the team. And if some country wants to issue a challenge, bring it on. I don't have anything to hide. I'll do whatever I need to do, prove whatever point I need to prove, so I can play. And then maybe everyone will finally shut up."
Griner conveys pretty clearly that other reasons determined her decision. For one, participating in the Olympics would cut into the free time she would have over the summer break to spend with her ill mother. She also explains that she was understandably tired after a long 40-0 championship season for Baylor her junior year. And although she wasn’t explicitly discouraged from participating, Griner implied that even Mulkey seemed to prefer that she rest up for her final collegiate season instead of going to London.
While Griner’s account of the decision leaves the reader satisfied that it was not made out of any fear of gender testing, I would have liked more thoughts on the public speculation. The issue was in the air in 2012. For example, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya was subjected to gender testing after speculation arose from her dominating win of the 2009 IAAF World Championships 800-meter run (she went on to win silver in London). While Semenya had been subjected to gender testing before (and passed) based on the appearance of her external genitalia alone, testing of her internal anatomy and endocrinology reportedly revealed that she is intersexed.
I would be curious if Griner is aware of these rare but not unprecedented cases. However, the memoir does not explore the issue at length, instead, focusing on more important elements like Griner’s self-identity, thoughts and feelings.
"In My Skin" is a thoroughly enjoyable and inspirational read that would undoubtedly uplift those who can relate to Griner’s experiences as well as educate those who may not.
Marty Maguire, Author of the short memoir eBook "American Psychonaut" available on Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo. You can follow him on Twitter @MartyMaguire (https://twitter.com/martymaguire).