In recent years, Alexandra Heminsley’s life has not entirely gone to plan. After a struggle with IVF, a botched pre-natal DNA test suggested the baby growing inside of her was not her own. Weeks before her due date, she was sexually assaulted on a train. Six months after the birth of her healthy baby, her partner came out as a trans woman. As their marriage fell apart in the aftermath, Heminsley – with baby on lap – testified in court against the drunken stranger she said assaulted her. The judge found him not guilty.
These are among the tumultuous events that lead to a reckoning with her physical self explored in Some Body to Love. And yet, when I mention to Heminsley that her life has been extraordinary, she politely challenges me. “I think one of the things I’ve learned from writing the book is how much of what I’ve been through is experienced by other women,” she says, over Zoom, from her bright living room in Hove. In writing about them, Heminsley has shared a story that LGBT+ families across the country will recognise.
Some Body to Love covers a lot of ground. Heminsley takes a magnifying glass to the relationship she has with her body, stretching back to an adolescence riddled with the chronic pain of undiagnosed hypermobility right up to occupying a post-partum self she barely recognises. In the process, she looks at the impact of her previous two memoirs – Running Like A Girl and Leap In, about running and swimming, respectively. There was still, she tells me, more to discover. “There were some things that were just so blindingly obvious to me. Having been through so much physical pain during my teenage years had, of course, left me slightly disconnected from my body as a source of physical pleasure. I had never thought about that, even during the whole of Running Like a Girl. It was amazing to me that you can get that far away from your actual self and your experiences.”
What Heminsley did have to acknowledge, though was “the recently experienced difficult stuff” that caused that “pivot”. At a time when the subject of trans rights frequently makes the headlines, it is her ex-partner D’s transition that has – in her own words – been “picked out” by the press. We speak a morning after an interview on Women’s Hour caused a social media skirmish that left her feeling like a “dog-chewy tennis ball that was just being lobbed around Twitter”.
It is not easy territory that Heminsley wades into, although she does it with care and undeniable love. She and D co-parent their son, moved in together during lockdown and continue to be very close – even though their marriage is untenable. Heminsley says that being granted D’s blessing to write the book was “the most sisterly thing she’s done, to say ‘Go and find your voice, do what you need to do.’”
Part of Heminsley’s isolation in the wake of D’s transition was the lack of other stories like hers out there. As she writes in the book, “it is a dark day when Kris Kardashian seems relatable” [Kardashian’s ex-partner, Caitlyn Jenner, transitioned in 2017. “People want trans people and their transitions to be how they’ve been portrayed in film and TV for time immemorial, because that’s how we can understand them. And that’s not especially helpful because it is very often not realistic,” she tells me. “Most people don’t know that they know trans people, they are just like the nice lady in the post office, or whatever, who are just having a decent life and getting on with things.”
“One of my main motivating forces in writing the book was not necessarily just to find women who had trans women in their lives, but to find the families.” Heminsley continues. “To say: ‘This shape is valid, it exists, you are happening in this world and there is space for you. You haven’t done anything wrong and you’re not alone’. It was reaching those people to help give them a high five in the sky.”
That may seem like a grand ambition until one realises that it’s what Heminsley’s writing has long done for women and their body confidence. She receives messages from readers who are relying on her accounts to get through marathons, to recover from break-ups and to process grief. In Some Body to Love, though, she becomes her own beneficiary of her words, when she saw an Instagram upload of a Post-It note-laden copy of Running Like A Girl, quoting a sentence: “I could redefine who I was and who I could be.”
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”I had no recollection of writing it but it was exactly what I needed to hear at that point,” she tells me. “I sent the beam out there and I felt the beam reflected back at me when I was in the events and in the process of writing Some Body to Love. It emboldened me to tell my tale.”
Three memoirs on, and while Heminsley replies “never say never” when I ask if this will be the last time her life appears between the covers, she is working on a couple of novels. There’s also multiple television production companies chomping at the bit to bring Some Body to Love to the small screen. “I don’t know how I feel about it,” she tells me. “Because on the one hand it’s really exciting, you get the chance to speak to a bigger audience and to people who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a memoir. But also so much of what I’m trying to do with the book is to shift the story away from the kind of 9pm-drama-with-the-reveal-on-the-Monday-night-episode. I would definitely need a lot of reassurance before I sold those rights.”
There is an expectation, in the field of motivational memoir, that by the end of the book the author will have found a new way of living. Certainly, Heminsley achieves that, but as she is keen to point out, the changes in her family have given her a new “responsibility that will go on for life”. Nevertheless, once I’ve finished the book, it is her description of a gruelling hike in Norway – where, in spring 2019, she began to figure out the structure of Some Body to Love – that stays with me. “I had come through it,” she writes of the difficult experiences of the past few years. “I felt like a building which had suffered a terrible fire… Anything which didn’t matter had simply burned away over those two years, but what remained was so solid I knew I could trust it.”
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Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin