Introduction to Looking Beyond the Mountains
Linda Jean Hammond was born June 2, 1956 in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Like many families from the Eastern Kentucky coal fields in the 1950s, the Hammond family moved to Ohio and then to Indiana in search of work. Also, like many Kentucky mountain families in the 1950s, Linda’s family moved back to Eastern Kentucky after less than a year "up north." The place and situation they returned to was familiar but no less difficult to survive in than before.
In Linda’s first six years, her father Floyd Hammond was often away from the family, sometimes job-hunting, other times on drunken binges. When Floyd was drunk at home, he often became violent and cruel. When Linda’s mother Christine would see Floyd staggering toward the house, obviously drunk, she would call out for the children to hide. They would run to the bedroom and crawl under the old iron bed and listen to their father banging on the door. On one occasion, Christine made a birthday cake for one of the children. Floyd poured salt on it and then placed the eyeballs of a slaughtered hog on the icing. Among Linda’s memories was the time her father tied the children’s puppies in a sack and slammed them against a tree, killing them all.
When Linda was six years old and in first grade, her father was killed in a car wreck, leaving Christine to raise five children with little help. They lived in small rental houses with no indoor plumbing and very little food. Many times Christine went without food so the children would have enough to eat. At one point the family received federal "commodity" food each month. Linda and the other children found a hole in the "commodity building" through which they could reach in and pull food items from the building.
In spite of her rough childhood, Linda did well in school and had many friends. In the seventh and eighth grade she was a cheerleader and played softball with the boy’s team. At seventeen Linda quit school and took a job at a greeting card factory in nearby Berea, Kentucky, working on the shipping dock, loading and unloading trucks. Her co-workers accepted her as a genial young woman who could lift and load freight as well as they could. Linda was still working at the factory when medical tests confirmed that she was not a girl after all, but a boy who had been born with "ambiguous genitalia."
At age 25, the young man named himself Steven.
And that is just the beginning of Linda/Steven Hammond’s story.
I think many serious readers will be drawn to this book and to the ideas implicit in it. Clearly, college and university scholars interested in gender studies will find much to discuss here. Many people will identify with Steven’s story of family dysfunction in the midst of relentless, grinding poverty. Some may be shocked by the grim details of the effects of a violent, profane, alcoholic father upon a family that barely had the resources to survive, let alone the resources to flee their dangerous situation.
Our nation’s economic system was part of the plight of the Hammond family. Floyd Hammond was one of millions of American workers who, in the boom times of the post-World War II era, were forced to leave their rural and small town homes and move to industrial cities to find employment. Such realities form the backdrop for the story of the young factory worker Linda Hammond who became Steven Hammond, a courageous person who would one day write a book about his unique life.
One of the most moving passages in Looking Beyond the Mountains occurs when Linda reveals to her family and community that she is now Steven. It was not easy for Steven or his family and community members to deal with such news. Local people who had known Linda all her life had to rearrange themselves on many levels—psychological, emotional, social and religious, to name a few—in the process of shifting their affections to the new Steven. Steven’s account of how most local people rose to the occasion and accepted and supported his transition is inspiring. For me, the most moving passage in the book is the description of the deep sense of loss that Steven and the people around him felt when they had to say goodbye to Linda, who had been their friend and neighbor for twenty-five years.
I have enjoyed talking to Steven and reading his written words in the years that I have known him. He and I both are hillbillies. We share much of the old vernacular language of Appalachian mountain people. To some degree, we both grew up in a late form of oral culture whose origins reach far back in time. The early drafts of Looking Beyond the Mountains featured some colorful phonetic spelling of certain words. I am pleased to see that the years Steven has spent writing and re-writing this book, followed by professional editing, have not diluted the original flavor of his language. Steven’s writing style is his own. His story is presented in short takes, with memories, thoughts, scenes and anecdotes combined in a patchwork design. Many of these short pieces give quick, often comic, portraits of several vivid characters in the Sand Gap, Kentucky community. Steven portrays the local people of his home community in respectful, affectionate terms.
Steven first shared his remarkable story with the public through newspaper articles and television interviews, including an appearance on Oprah in July 1988. He felt that, as interesting and useful as the show had been, his real story had not been recognized. Steven wanted, and still wants, people to know that his life-long struggle with gender identity began with, in his words, "a medical error" when he was born. As Steven describes in this book, his male genitals were in place but they were hidden by a fold of flesh. Steven has never thought that he experienced a physical "sex change" when he became an adult. His physical change was "a surgical correction of a birth defect." Psychologically and emotionally, however, Steven did indeed experience profound personal change.
Looking Beyond the Mountains is the story of Linda Jean and Steven Hammond, told in Steven’s own words.
— Gurney Norman, author of Kinfolks and Divine Right's Trip