Book Review: She’s Not There

I haven’t gotten totally confused by the end of daylight savings time — I know it’s not Tuesday. But I don’t think I’m likely to have time for a book review on Election Day. So, special this week, we have "Tuesday Book Review, now on Sunday!"

The book is She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, by Jennifer Finley Boylan. It’s a memoir of her life as a maile-to-female transsexual, her attempts to overcome the feeling that she was supposed to be female and of the incredibly loving response of her wife and friends to her transition.

This is not a book I would have picked up just from browsing the bookstore shelves, but a friend recommended it, and I’m so glad she did. It’s very well written — Boylan has written several novels — and a touching love story.

I admit, when Boylan tries to describe why she needed to make the transition, I still feel like I’m blind and she’s trying to describe color to me. She writes about, as a young man, asking women what it felt like to have breasts, and how baffled they were by the question. I share that bafflement. She’s clearly proud of how much she looks feminine, her skills at dressing and wearing makeup, but there are lots of genetic women who don’t look feminine and even as teenagers weren’t especially concerned with their appearance. But any argument I can make, she has already raised, which is disarming.

Boylan writes that she felt she was supposed to be a woman even as a child, but thought that everyone would reject her if she made the transition. So he lives as a man, and marries and has children. And in spite of his loving family, and his successful career, and hobbies he loves, he eventually decides that being a man isn’t something he can live with, and so makes the transition to living as a woman. And the tragedy of it is that having waited so long, his decision affects — and hurts — more people than it would have if he had done it at 25. And the blessing of it is that her wife and children and mother and colleagues and friends respond with love and acceptance. (Her sister cuts off contact.)

There’s one passage from the book that struck me as the heart of the story. It’s after James (later Jenny) has visited a therapist, who tells him that he’s a transsexual and encourages him to live as a woman, noting that it will be easier as he’s young and unmarried. But that’s not what he wants:

"I wanted to learn how to accept who I wasn’t.

"What I felt was, beling a man might be the second best life I can life, but the best life I can live will mean only loss and grief. So what I wanted was to learn how to be happy with this second best life… I still believed that it was a life full of blessings. People can’t have everything they want, I thought. it is your fate to accept a life being someone other than yourself.

"I don’t think this is so crazy, even now. If I could have pulled this off, I would have."

I don’t understand how a life as rich and full of blessings as Boylan describes her life pre-transtion could be unbearable, even if it is "second best," but I’m totally convinced by her writing that she found it so, that she would not have put herself and her loved ones through the difficulty of her transition unless she found it impossible to continue otherwise. I do wonder about what would have happened to Boylan if he had been born 100 years earlier. If he lived at a time when transsexuality wasn’t generally recognized and sex change operations were an impossibility, would he have drunk himself to death while insisting that he was happy? Or would he have been happy, living his life as a man?

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