Sunday, April 28, 2013

"She’s Not There, A Life in Two Genders” by Jennifer Finney Boylan, a review.

Well no one told me about her the way she lied
Well no one told me about her how many people cried
But it's too late to say you're sorry
How would I know why should I care
Please don't bother tryin' to find her
She's not there . . .

Facebook is one helluva thing, innit?  A few weeks ago I saw a notice on my “news feed” from a Facebook friend, a woman I’ve never met except through her writing but really admire, Jennifer Finney Boylan.  She was announcing the imminent publication of a tenth anniversary edition of a book she wrote, titled, “She’s Not There, a Life in Two Genders” with an invitation to trans bloggers to write a review in return for free, advance copies.  “Free books?” I thought to myself, “Cool!  Free is a good thing, especially when it’s about books!”  So I sent a Facebook message to Ms Boylan telling her about my rarely updated blog and my willingness to give this reviewing thing a try.  “Finally,” I thought, “my minor in Literature pays off!”

I only half expected this to bear fruit.  I figured my blog was too obscure, with too small a readership to interest a big publishing house like Broadway Paperbacks, a division of Random House no less, so I was pretty surprised when it showed up in my mailbox about a week ago.  They also sent me a copy (hardcover!) of her latest, “Stuck In The Middle With You, A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”  Schweeet!  I’ll write about that one when I finish reading it.

So I started rereading “She’s Not There” from the new edition.  I'd originally read this book back in 2006, the year I started therapy and, eventually, hormone therapy.  I remember reading and identifying with the things she wrote even though the circumstances of my life were so different from hers.  I puzzled about this a bit but didn’t pursue it.  I certainly had a lot of other, more important things to deal with back then.  I do remember thoroughly enjoying the read.  I’ve always loved books and the escape they offered back when I was a kid but this wasn’t so much of an escape, because it rang so true to me.  The cure to that, however, was that she is so damn hilarious.  There's a lot in there that is really funny.  In a good way, one that doesn't hurt people.

I used a more critical eye this time.  After all, that was the assignment!  One of the first things that struck me was how rereading the stories and vignettes still deeply reminded me of my emotional state before and during my transition.  This is one of the things Prof Boylan does very well in this book.  Each chapter in Part 1 very effectively illustrated an aspect of the dysphoria that so many transgender people feel.  Fear, of being relegated "into a life of lurid marginality.”  Longing, playing “Girl Planet” in the woods.  Self loathing and depression.  Despair. “People can’t have everything they want, I thought.  It is your fate to accept life being someone other than yourself.”  Same stuff I went through.  It’s uncanny.  She wrote it well enough to trigger the same, to engage my emotional memory of the time before I made my choice to live rather than end it all, and after.

One of the most common complaints from trans people is that cisgender people (cis being opposite of trans) “just don’t get it.”  Pretty much all cis people find it impossible to imagine what it would feel like to have a mind that sees itself as a sex/gender that isn’t reflected in their physical selves.  There’s no frame of reference available to them, a mismatch like that is incomprehensible.  Richard Russo, in his afterword that was included in the original edition, describes one of a novelist’s gifts as being able to imagine and bemoans the fact that his imagination seemed to fail him, and Jenny, when she first came out to him.  Imagination, however, still needs a basis, even if it’s a flimsy one, to build upon.  “She’s Not There” truly succeeds in giving that basis, and provides an escape from the stereotypes that so demean and dehumanize trans people, by carefully and accurately illustrating the emotions that come with being trans.  That’s why the book struck so close to home for me even though our lives were so different and I think this aspect of her stories will give cis people a foundation on which they can build their imagination and understanding, if they’re willing to do the work.

The most endearing part of this book is, as Russo noted, that it’s a love story above all else.  Like a true romantic, Jenny wishes and believes love will cure her.  When she finds Grace she feels that she’s finally found the love that will save her, and it does save her, but not in the way she thinks it will.  My wife was devastated when I came out to her, much the same way as Grace was, if not worse.  It’s very true that when a person transitions, there’s nothing but loss for their spouse.  It’s sad, the way Greek tragedy is sad, people flailing away trying to make reality work and losing almost everything anyway, with apparently no one at fault.  Reading “She’s Not There” back in 2006 gave me the hope that my relationship will survive, that our love would prove stronger than the forces that would inevitably beat against it.  Rereading it now, 7 years later and still married (we celebrated our 25th anniversary last September) I look back with gratitude at the hope and grace the book gave us.

Richard Russo’s afterword was a brilliant addition to their story.  His thoughtful analysis along with his narration of the dramatic events after Jenny’s genital surgery added a point of view that would have left “She’s Not There” incomplete were it not included.  I love his writing anyway, and this is a definite bonus.

Prof Boylan’s new epilogue updates the book to cover the ten years since she transitioned.   Happy endings all around, it seems.  Yet this is one of the things that I thought could have been done better.  She writes with a comedic voice; the humor is ever present and makes for an easier reading of a complex and potentially oppressive subject.  But, like in all comedic work, it seems she wants everyone to have a sense of “happily ever after,” even though many, many trans people, trans women and trans women of color especially, live far from “happily ever after” lives.  Boylan mentions this in the original afterword, noting that she “blithely skips over unpleasantness.”  In this she does a certain disservice because many in our community have to deal with unpleasantness, sometimes ugliness, even from those who should love them the most, on a daily basis.  I think it would do people good if they could feel a little bit of that for themselves so they could more understand the costs of being trans.  She makes little over the huge amounts of privilege she’s been granted.  It isn’t until Russo’s afterword that we see a juxtaposition of her privilege against someone who has very little.

Well let me tell you 'bout the way she looked
The way she'd act and the colour of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool
Her eyes were clear and bright
But she's not there

Revisiting a book I read long ago is not something that I avoid.  I love going back, sometimes, visiting old friends, even if they’re fictional.  I really enjoyed visiting with Jenny and her family once again, just as I enjoy reading the posts she writes about her family on Facebook.  Her story is one of hope, and love and optimism.  Indeed, I think a gender transition is one of the most potent manifestations of optimism there is.  It’s an, “It Gets Better” video in paperback and in that way gives a great deal of value to the trans community, but it's much more than that.  Prof Boylan’s genius is how brightly she illuminates the emotional turmoil that transsexual and other transgender people have to deal with, giving a clear window into what is so hard to imagine and understand by so many outside the trans community.  On that basis alone the book is very worth buying.  In addition, she shows that love and commitment, and a healthy sense of humor, can indeed create a permanent thing out of an iffy chance, to make real the girl that wasn’t there.


“She’s Not There” written by Ron Argent, ©1964 by Marquis Music Co. Ltd., admin. In USA by Parker Music (BMI)

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