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On James and Jennifer
Jennifer Boylan's (English) bittersweet memoir, She's Not There, traces her journey from man to woman.
   

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Jenny Boylan (English) speaks about her memoir, being transgendered, where her writing goes from here.
   

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Of James and Jennifer: Jenny Boylan's bittersweet memoir, She's Not There, traces her journey from man to woman

By Kate Bolick '95

She's Not There

She's Not There
Jennifer Finney Boylan (English)
Publisher, 2003

There was a moment on The Oprah Winfrey Show this spring that embodied, for one charged instant, much of the anger and confusion likely to be provoked by English Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan's bittersweet memoir, She's Not There.

The day before, Winfrey's entire show was devoted to the story of how Boylan went from being a man to being a woman. The follow-up show posed the question, "When a husband becomes a woman--what becomes of his wife?" Winfrey's guests talked for a while about the heartbreak and difficulty that come with watching a loved one undergo such a radical transformation and the tension began to build until, finally, Winfrey leaned toward the camera and asked, "So what do you think, ladies? Is it selfish to just up and turn yourself into a woman or what?"

The studio audience erupted in applause and vigorously nodding heads--one great tidal wave of female vengeance. Boylan, appearing as relaxed as a person could be under the circumstances, nodded along, her long blond hair glinting beneath the lights. It's a question she's thought a lot about.

As Boylan reports in her forthright, moving and characteristically funny book, from the time she was 3 years old, "the awareness that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind"--yet this knowledge was inextricably fused with the fear of what it would mean to others. For one thing, "knowing with such absolute certainty something that appeared to be both absurd and untrue made me, as we said in Pennsylvania, kind of mental." But more than anything, it meant risking the love of the people who meant the most to her--her parents, sister, friends, and then, as time wore on and adulthood encroached, her wife and children.

Growing up, most of us struggle to accept who we are; Boylan fought to accept who she wasn't. "What I felt was, being a man might be the second-best life I can live, 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."

And for the most part, she was happy. As anyone who knew her as James could attest, he was funny and buoyant and boyishly handsome, in an early-John Lennon sort of way. As a child he decided that maybe he could be "cured by love" (a fairly Beatles-esque notion, come to think of it) and throughout his adolescence optimistically held tight to this idea, keeping his secret at bay with jokes and high spirits and energetic ambition; after college he edited a humor magazine, soared through graduate school, became a writer and moved to Waterville to embark on what proved to be a satisfying and successful teaching career at Colby. Along the way, he fell in love with the woman he calls Grace in the book, and, finally having found his cure, set about raising a family. Together they had two sons.

At one point in the book Boylan writes that it was her mother's "legacy of cheerful wit" that sustained her. It sustains Boylan's four previous books as well, and now her memoir, which manages to infuse a complicated and difficult story with a generous dose of levity. And comedic writing, as Boylan would tell you, is not nearly as easy as it looks.

Another author might have taken the relatively underexposed, highly misunderstood topic of "transgenderism" as an occasion to preach to the masses; yet another might have incorporated reams of scientific research and explanation as ballast. Boylan, however, relies on nothing but her candid, comic voice, even eschewing the temptations of dramatic effect. Not long before he met Grace, for instance, Boylan took a trip to Canada, checked himself into a motel and put on some women's clothing. "I combed my hair out and looked in the mirror and saw a perfectly normal-looking young woman. This is so wrong? I said to myself in the mirror. This is the cause of all the trouble?"

The moment is ripe for a discursive rumination on identity (which this English professor is trained to do). Instead Boylan concludes, "I thought about settling in one of the little villages around here, just starting life over as a woman. I'd tell everyone I was Canadian. Then I lay on my back and sobbed. Nobody would ever believe I was Canadian."

Yet Boylan never treats her story, or the people it implicates, lightly. Our culture has become more relaxed, relatively speaking, around the idea that gender might be mutable, but that doesn't change the shocking trauma and sense of betrayal that take place when someone you love--your long-time devoted husband, no less--actually undergoes a sex change. If the women in Oprah's studio audience were outraged by the "selfishness" it took for a man to become a woman, just think how Grace felt.

And Boylan does, with great sensitivity, presenting Grace as a generous, devoted and understandably conflicted person. Her pain is keenly palpable, as is that of friend and former colleague Richard Russo, who wrote an afterword to the book. As the characters react to the losses they are undergoing and as the genuine love they are discovering emerges, Boylan's narrative becomes more and more heartbreaking--though never overly serious. It's a delicate balancing act, and one that Boylan manages with great, brave finesse. Russo tells us he has witnessed a great love story. So have we.

 


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