Photo: Courtesy of Vivienne Ming
In a 2004 photograph of Evan and Norma from their Carnegie Mellon days, the couple sits near a tableau of stone Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The statues adorn the Indian Room of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, an architectural ode to education around the world. Though they don't know it yet, the location is fitting: In 2011 Norma and Vivienne Ming will cofound Socos, one of the nation's most intriguing educational start-ups, which uses algorithms to give teachers measurements of each student's grasp of the material—whether it's Biology 101 at a local community college or basic arithmetic in a K-12 classroom—without the use of notoriously biased standardized tests.
But here in Pittsburgh, 2004, educational innovation is a mere glint in Norma's and Evan's eyes. They're still in the thick of their dissertation research, and the heady days of new love. At 32 Evan has shrugged off his boyishness; his face is chiseled, his build muscular, thanks to the intense training regimen P90X. In the photo, Norma's energy is radiant, her brown eyes shining. But Evan's expression is inscrutable.
"It's hard to even imagine that person now," Ming says, looking at the photo.
Norma Ming, 40, reaches down to lift her and Vivienne's 2-year-old daughter, Thalia*, onto her lap. From the next room comes a steady din of yips and yeehaws from Baxter*, the Mings' 5-year-old son, who's busily building with Legos. The family's Bay Area home is cozy and classically Californian—their front window looks onto a lineup of similar Craftsman bungalows, each shaded by the street's long procession of oak trees. The scent of breakfast blintzes still hangs in the midday air.
As Ming recalls the early days of Evan and Norma's relationship, she moves from a chair in front of the sunny window to the living room couch, then to a kneeling crouch beside the coffee table, effusive when she describes Norma as a young student and somber when she speaks about Evan, whom she mostly calls "me" but very rarely refers to as "he." On a dozen occasions over the span of a few hours, the couple relays nearly imperceptible gestures of encouragement—a smile, a two-word prompt, the discreet removal of a child from the room—when part of the story of Vivienne's transition feels difficult to discuss. Norma is the keeper of dates—"No," she says at one point, "That was 2004, not 2003"—and, today, the cradler of babies, and as Thalia's eyes begin to droop, Norma and Vivienne retrace the timeline of Evan's final years in the muted tones of naptime.
The searing depression Evan endured in San Diego had, by grad school, dulled to a chronic ache—one that made social interactions taxing and sleep a distant dream. "I had terrible insomnia," Ming recalls. "I'd stay up for hours thinking, 'Oh, let me wake up different tomorrow.' And I'm an atheist, so that was particularly pointless—but under the right circumstances, you beg for anything from anyone."
Evan threw himself into school, saddling himself with a backbreaking course load. And he grew ever closer to Norma. "There was a date early on," Ming recalls, "where we were starting to reveal things to each other. I told her, 'I have a deep, dark secret—maybe someday I'll share it.' Of course I wasn't ever planning to. But Norma made me happy, and I was successful at school, and I thought, 'I'm going to go with this, I'll be the best husband I can be, and I'll find happiness in that.'" Soon they were engaged.
Around this time, in the spring of 2005, Evan did a seemingly inconsequential favor for a classmate. "When you're a graduate student," Ming explains, "you're desperate to find people to be in your experiments. So when I was asked to be in one that examined the effect of antianxiety drugs on heart health, I said yes. It was several months' long, and involved taking pills with no idea whether they were placebos, and answering lots of questions. I didn't feel anything, but at the end, when I met with the doctor overseeing the study, he said, 'You're in the treatment group; you've been taking Celexa. Has anything unusual occurred?'"
Indeed, something unusual had occurred, which Ming, in hindsight, now attributes to the medication. On October 19, 2005—Evan's 34th birthday—he and Norma were preparing for bed when he said, apropos of nothing, the thing he had never said to anyone: "My secret is that I wish I were a woman."
Next: Norma's surprising reaction
We Hear You!