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She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan

She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders - Jennifer Finney Boylan

This is definitely an interesting book: the memoir of a transgender woman who made the transition in her early 40s, after marrying a woman who had no idea of her gender issues, having two kids, and building a career as an English professor in rural Maine. It seems to be pretty heavily fictionalized, which makes for entertaining reading, with lots of dialogue and some moments of comedy.

But for all that this is a memoir about the author’s personal journey, I found her emotions understated and inner world underexplored, and couldn’t help wondering if this book was published too soon – hitting the bookstores just over six months after the conclusion of its final chapter, and only a year after the author’s surgery. Once you factor in the time for editing, printing, marketing, the whole publishing process, she would barely have had time to process her feelings and experiences before writing about them for public consumption. So it’s no wonder she often felt a bit inaccessible to me.

I did enjoy reading this; Boylan can certainly tell a good story, and some of the self-contained chapters about colorful characters she meets along the way (the hitchhiking girls looking for a pit bull, the dysfunctional vending machine lover from the support group) are gold. I also enjoyed her portrayal of her relationship with Richard Russo, who struggles mightily with having his best friend suddenly turn into a woman – it’s rare to see a portrayal of adults actively engaging in and working on their friendship in this way, or even having friends important enough to them to make the effort. There’s a lot of raw emotion in these sections that must have taken courage on both their parts to put out for the world to see.

But while I can see the benefit of this book in increasing acceptance of transgender folks, I felt in a way that I understood what it means to be transgender less well after reading it – I didn’t really get from Boylan’s writing why gender was so important to her, what parts of herself she felt she couldn’t express as a man. What does being a woman mean to her? It would have been nice also to read more about the differences between being a man and being a woman: where she talks about this it’s all pretty obvious stuff (as a woman she feels more physically vulnerable, and clothes shopping is way harder). Was there anything she disliked about being a man, other than the fact that it didn’t match her sense of identity? Any unexpected advantages to being a woman? Did she actually start cooking more post-transition, or was it just mentioned more often? Did household roles change at all?

And then there’s her relationship with her wife, about whom Boylan writes a lot. “Grace” (not her real name) is blindsided by the whole transgender thing, and understandably heartbroken – whether they divorce or not, she’s losing her husband.

She sticks around, out of what increasingly seems to be grim determination rather than any real desire to be in this marriage, and even as Boylan herself seems increasingly ambivalent about the marriage as her sexuality shifts (by the end both are heterosexual women). The later chapters are written with a sense that the two will probably split up someday, and it seems like Boylan is okay with that – or perhaps just pretending to be, since these conversations were presumably ongoing as the book went to press. But when a look at some of the author’s recent op-eds showed that the two are still together, this did not seem to me a happy ending – for all Russo’s portrayal of their relationship as a great love story in his well-written afterword.

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The other thing that troubled me about the book is the level of fictionalization. In her note at the end, the author admits that “certain moments in it have been gently altered – by compressing or inverting the time line, making various people taller or shorter, blithely skipping over unpleasantness, inventing dialogue, as necessary.” Particularly notable to me, after having read Tim Kreider’s essay about accompanying Boylan to her surgery, was the fact that nowhere in either of the accounts of that trip in this book was he ever mentioned, an omission that makes the journey seem lonelier and more intimate than it apparently was in real life. How many other friends were also present and unmentioned, and how many other changes did the author make?

At any rate, I did find this a worthwhile read, but of the books I’ve read about transgender issues so far, I think Becoming Nicole might be the better choice for readers on the outside looking for greater understanding.