We just have to get used to our new normal.” So says Kim Kardashian West in the March 15 premiere of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the E! family soap opera that just kicked off its 10th season. She was referring to the divorce of her mother, Kris Jenner, and stepfather, Bruce Jenner, after 23 years of marriage. But as is nearly always the case with the show, there is far more to the “reality” of the situation than what is captured by cameras. Consider that Bruce himself used the same phrase to describe the adjustment his 10 children and stepchildren are making since he shared the deeply personal truth he has been hiding for more than 50 years: He is transgender. Except that when the former Olympian said it, according to someone who has spent time with him lately, “he kind of joked, ‘This is really a new normal.'”
There is no question that’s true. In the nearly two months since Jenner, 65, made headlines around the world with the news that he is transitioning from male to female, multiple sources tell PEOPLE, his kids have been supportive, even as there has been considerable hurt on both sides surrounding the famed decathlete’s life-changing decision. (In keeping with advice from experts, PEOPLE is taking its cues from Jenner’s family in regard to the use of male pronouns.) “The whole family went through a rough patch,” says a Kardashian insider. “It’s naturally a difficult thing to process and work through.”
The family dynamic had already shifted in a major way in the wake of Bruce and Kris’s split (see sidebar). “The divorce caused a divide, but Bruce’s decision to share his transition has caused an even greater divide,” a KUWTK production source says of Bruce’s plans to document his journey, both in an interview with Diane Sawyer and in a docuseries of his own. Jenner – who spends most of his time in his secluded hilltop Malibu home and described himself as “lonely” in the season premiere – addressed the strain directly, lamenting to stepdaughter Kourtney, 35, “I feel so separated. The Kardashians over here, the Jenners over here. Little me in the middle. Sometimes it’s a little bit tough.”
Among the factions: Jenner’s children from his previous marriages – Cassandra, 34, Burt, 36, Brandon, 33, and Brody, 31 – who had known about the possibility of their dad’s transition “for years,” says a source close to them, and had just begun to repair their relationship with him after he had largely been absent during his time with Kris. “It was extremely hard for them to let him back in their lives after barely having any contact with him after he married Kris,” says a close source who has spent time with them recently. “They can’t believe they finally got their relationship on track, and now they have this crazy extra layer to deal with. But they are very supportive.”
On the other side are his stepdaughters Kourtney, Kim, 34, and Khloé, 30, who “were the last ones let in on it all,” says the Kardashian insider, adding that their relationship was already strained by the split from Kris: “There were weeks when they didn’t hear from Bruce, and they all kind of felt [that Bruce] ditched them. They were just hysterical when it all really came out.” The two daughters he shares with Kris, Kendall, 19, and Kylie, 17, “are having a hard time with the transition,” adds the family insider. “They’re very supportive, but it’s just not an easy situation.”
Despite more than a year of tabloid reports surrounding Bruce’s transition, the insider says, there was significant denial among family members in the face of Jenner’s changing appearance. “Everyone thought he was trying to feel young, that kind of thing,” says the family insider. That’s not an uncommon reaction among families of transgender people, says Mary Andres, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Southern California. “Denial usually comes first,” she says, often followed by anger “connected deeply to a loss of control: ‘How will I explain all of this to my friends? You are forcing me into a process I didn’t choose – to come out as a partner, child or parent of a trans person.'”
It’s a struggle Kris, 59, has dealt with directly. The reality-TV matriarch “just couldn’t emotionally handle it all when he finally came out with it,” says the family insider. “Regardless of whatever signs there were, it’s a really hard pill to swallow. She truly went through a mourning period. And they don’t really talk now.” For his part, “Bruce feels like Kris is used to getting her own way, and going ahead with his transition was not probably part of her plans,” adds the source who has spent time with him recently.
After keeping his truth a secret for more than five decades – and “taking a backseat in his own life,” as the source puts it, while Kris called the shots during their marriage – the 1976 Olympic gold medalist is now going his own way for the first time in a long while. He has chosen a new name, an insider tells PEOPLE, but is not yet ready to share it, and he is proceeding at his own pace, just as experts advise. “He has learned a lot just over the past year about what transgender means,” says the source. “Trans people can identify as female and still be a jock, and do all the things that are generally thought of as more masculine. It seemed reassuring to him that he could correct his gender to what it’s supposed to be but not have to give up or change everything else about his life.”
As he continues to find his way, he has remained firm in the belief that “he wants this to be his story,” a friend says of the single star, who spends most of his days in a quiet routine of Starbucks stops, golf and time at home with close friends and family. As for the idea that he was dating one of Kris’s best friends – a central plot point of the premiere of KUWTK – “it seems more like he confided in her,” says the insider. “She would buy him feminine things he wanted. They had some kind of special bond.”
Initially Bruce planned to document his journey with an E! series, but that plan was put on hold after he was involved in an accident on Feb. 7 that resulted in a fatality. (No charges have been filed; see box.) “For Bruce to decide to share his journey took a lot of psychological strength, and he acts more fragile now,” says the production source.
The accident came just when Bruce was finally feeling “free,” as a source previously described his new state of mind. First aware of his feelings as a young teen, for years “he had other people buy his clothes, and it was very private,” says the friend. “He dressed as a woman.” He was also attracted to women. “His marriages were no shams,” says the friend. As each of his first two marriages – to Chrystie Crownover and Linda Thompson – was ending, Bruce sat down with his soon-to-be ex-wife and told her his true feelings. Both times, his exes were supportive, says the source who has spent time with Bruce, and both times, they encouraged him to do what would bring him happiness. But then he would “start second-guessing himself over whether it was something he really wanted,” says the source, wondering whether “it was more of a transvestite thing” – dressing in women’s clothing – “or a transgender thing.”
The third time he married, to Kris in 1991, “he liked how in charge she was of everything – it made him feel like he didn’t have to worry so much about his identity, who he was. Kris was in charge, and he was just along for the ride.” Then, nearly three years ago, around the time of his son Brandon’s wedding, “he just had a feeling of ‘enough,'” says the source. “Enough trying to fool himself and others, enough of letting other people dictate how he was going to live.”
Ultimately, that’s what matters for all who care for Bruce. These days “he seems happy that he can live his life the way he feels he’s intended to,” says the family insider. “His kids all love him very much and would do anything for him.” And Bruce returns that sentiment. “Do I think they still love me?” he said recently to the source in his circle. “Of course I do. I know they love me and will always love me.”