Jonas, right, and Nicole Maines, both 18, in Denver, CO, on Oct. 10, 2015.
Bill O'Leary—The Washington Post/Getty Images
October 22, 2015 5:59 AM EDT

When Jonas Maines tried to read a draft of his family’s story this past summer, he got through only the first few paragraphs of the prologue before throwing it across the room. “I couldn’t touch it again,” says the 18-year-old identical twin of Nicole Maines. “It brought back memories of hearing the way my dad was treating Wyatt. It brought back feelings of anger, frustration and confusion. It was just a little too much for me.” For nearly the first decade of her life, Nicole lived as a boy and was called Wyatt by her brother, her parents Wayne and Kelly, her friends and her teachers. But Jonas says he always knew he really had an identical, yet divergent, twin sister.

Becoming Nicole, written by Pulitzer winner Amy Ellis Nutt, is a transgender girl’s coming-of-age saga, an exploration of the budding science of gender identity, a civil rights time capsule, a tear-jerking legal drama and, perhaps most of all, an education about what can happen when a child doesn’t turn out as his or her parents expected–and they’re forced to either shut their eyes and hearts or see everything differently.

“It’s pretty hard on me, and it’s hard to read,” says Wayne, who played the villain for a time as he refused to accept how his child felt. “But there’s a lot of men out there who don’t understand. They’re impacting children all over the country. And we need to help them.” His comments echo a cautionary through line in the book.

In an era when there are more high-profile story lines than ever about what it means to be transgender, the twins-ness of Nicole’s narrative gives the nature-vs.-nature debate a compelling jolt; she has grown up looking at a mirror image who–cruelly, to her–feels at home in his body.

“It’s a gnawing feeling,” says Nicole, now a college freshman in Maine, of the male body she once lived in. “It’s scary when people tell you that who you are isn’t what you are.” The book makes it clear that the fear ripples out. “This was a story not just about Nicole, who knew exactly who she was,” says Nutt. “All the family members had to find themselves.”


This appears in the November 02, 2015 issue of TIME.

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