In recent days with the media blitz involving Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, our culture has been super saturated with the “T” issue. It’s gotten to the point where we respond – “So you’re transgendered, and what else is new?” Of course, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan was written over ten years ago when transsexuality was still a relatively unknown phenomena. The only sex change operation that was common knowledge was former GI, Christine Jorgensen, who went to Sweden for the surgery in the 1950s, an act which was considered an anomaly. In those days, when the public was exposed to some “guy” dressed up “pretending” to be a woman, it was a situation to be mocked (at least by some).
Jennifer tries to express her “journey” in a humorous manner which is especially difficult since this is such a serious issue, even though it is not a totally unique occurrence. According to the best estimates of science, between 1 and 5 per cent of the population has transgendered tendencies. That means that in a room full of 20 to 100 people, there will be at least one person who considers themselves the wrong gender. In a world of about eight billion, that’s about 800 million individuals who identify with the opposite sex. Research in the Netherlands indicates an estimated one out of 1200 natal born males undergoes sex reassignment surgery. If considered a medical condition, there are about 40,000 in the US who have already had surgery and many more who still struggle with the issue, making it more common than cleft palate and MS. With the current acceptance of LGBT issues, affirmed by the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, it is important to remember that it is illegal to discriminate against a male/female or female/male. However, this does not keep bullies at bay illustrated by the increased violence experienced by the transgendered population – from assault and battery to murder to police brutality to self incrimination leading to a high suicide rate. With more celebrities openly acting upon their inclinations to switch genders, hopefully the future will find more tolerance on a subject which is currently not widely accepted.
In a way, this is a sad story of a little boy looking out at the ocean “praying” that he can find a love which will cure his inner urges. Eventually he finds that love, throws away his female clothing (and with it his female yearnings) and pursues his new life. For a while it even works, but his inner woman’s voice is still there and eventually her roar cannot be ignored. Perhaps James/Jennifer’s worst moments are sharing the news with his/her mother, wife Grace, and best friend Rick. The actually surgery was a relief – a natural ending to a journey preordained at birth. The fact that Jennifer Boylan had so much support from her peers is amazing, although there were those who were openly disgusted by her actions (such as Boylan’s sister who considers her dead). A bigger picture is revealed in the Afterward by Richard Russo who struggled with his best friend’s change from James to Jennifer even as he provided the necessary support. The reader gets the feeling from Russo’s words that some of the more unpleasant consequences of Jennifer’s actions are glossed over by the author, but perhaps the omission of these negative confrontations is a matter of self preservation.
Although a well told, compelling narrative, at times Boylan jumps back and forth between past and present which tends to be jarring for the reader. Despite some confusion at times, there are several important reoccurring highlights from the past, such as when James is involved in a car accident in his Junior Year of High School and the police officer shines a light in his eyes and asks “Are You Okay?” – a question repeated numerous times throughout the book. There are also several important messages mixed into the narrative. One key element is the idea that being transgendered is an identity crisis and has nothing to do with sexual preference. In other words, being a transsexual does not make one gay. So when Boylan and Grace decided to remain married, it was not a decision based on sex, but a way to keep the family unit together. Jennifer’s two young children seemed to easily accept this new relationship with their father, referring to her as Maddy as a way to identify a parent who was half mommy and half daddy. They intuitively knew that Maddy was the same person as before. Grace, who felt gypped over losing a husband, did not want to also lose her best friend. While the relationship between the couple changed, the love remained.
At this point in Jennifer’s life, post op, her political activism involving the transgender phenomenon has lead to additional books, various articles, and numerous speaking engagements. Other autobiographical accounts include Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (2013). Boylan is currently teaching at Barnard College at Columbia University and appears as a friend and consultant for Caitlyn Jenner on the reality television series I Am Cait. She has also published young adult literature under a pseudonym.
While I feel a better title for this memoir might have been “He’s Not There”, this book is a good choice for anyone curious about transsexuality and a must read for those who are affected by this issue. In a way it’s a coming of age story, even if the self actualization doesn’t begin until Boylan reaches the age of 43. Four stars.
This review also appears on Goodreads.