Adam Polaski

'She's Not There': An Essential Book in My LGBT Education

Filed By Adam Polaski | July 26, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: book review, Colby College, Grace Finney, Jennifer Finney Boylan, LGBT education, Richard Russo, She's Not There

book_cover.jpegA few weeks ago, I was in a used bookstore in Alexandria, Virg. trying to find some of the stories recently named to The Good Men Project's list of Best LGBT Books of All Time - books with LGBT themes chosen by LGBT writers. As an aspiring LGBT advocate, I felt pretty silly after reading their list and realizing I've only read a handful of the books that had apparently helped shape our movement.

But once I browsed through the store, I wound up settling on a book that didn't make the list: Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. The storekeeper, a woman in her 30s, excitedly offered the book when I asked if she had any recommendations. "It's about the author's transition," the woman told me. "But it's about more than that! It's a beautiful love story, and it's funny, and...," she cut herself off with a sigh. "It's one of my favorites."

I'm glad I took the storekeeper's recommendation, because over the next week, I breezed through She's Not There and marveled at Boylan's life.

Boylan didn't transition from her male identity of James Boylan, the Colby College professor and successful author with a wife and two children, until her late 30s. The book takes us through Boylan's early life, transition, surgery, and the responses she received from nearly everyone she knows.

Boylan doesn't gloss over the challenges of transitioning. In an understanding way that doesn't seek to villianize them, she explains that she faced perhaps the most resistance to her transition from her wife, Grace Finney, and best friend, author and Colby colleague Richard Russo. Some of their reactions are startlingly uncomfortable to read, because they're unique to anything else I've read - neither fully accepting nor fully rejecting, but somewhere in that messy in-between. In this passage, Russo professes his support for Boylan and yet unabashedly declares his preference for "James" over "Jennifer."

Your circumstance as a transgendered person is not a story, and I don't mean to suggest that it is, but we did agree on the deck that night that there are times when we've made decisions about "who to be." I agreed (then and now) that I've invented (to some significant degree) the self that I use to face the world with. I am, to that extent, a fictional character; the reason I'm reasonably content with the self I created, perhaps, is that, while I'm not an open book, neither am I diametrically different from my fictional self. The reason you became uncomfortable in your created stuff is that it contained something so far from an essential truth that you couldn't live with it. A change was needed. Granted. Here, you insist, is the real me, the me I've kept a secret all these years.

And yet the real you seems mannered, studied, implausible. Your claim that Jenny is real may be true, but it seems almost beside the point. That Jenny is the real you is something that I have to take on faith, because the evidence of my senses suggests the opposite. You may have chosen to be James every day for all those years, but the fact is that you got so good at it that the rest of us can't quite make the shift. You say you were miserable, but that's not what we witnessed. You say Jenny is the real you, but we see an actor learning a role, getting better at it all the time, but it still feels like a role.

It's not that we want you to remain in jail. We just prefer the other story. The one where you seemed happy, where Grace was happy. (That you were miserable we have to take on faith; that Grace is miserable now seems beyond question.)

And yet, somehow, despite this honest discomfort (which Boylan doesn't chastise but rather accepts as a necessary phase of her friend's and wife's own concurrent emotional transitions) the trio makes it beyond Boylan's surgery. She is still a loyal and devoted parent to her children, still a talented and insightful professor. She moves from "Daddy" to "Maddy" to "Mommy" for her children, and from "Wife" to "Sister" for her wife.

She's Not There was published almost exactly eight years ago, on July 29, 2003. But despite its age, the story is a fabulous introduction to trans identity. I understand that Boylan's story does not seek to be solipsistic - the life plan for all transsexuals. But reading her story works toward more fully understanding trans identity. She expertly communicates the challenges of transitioning while speaking to its necessity and unveiling its joys.

As a young writer working to expand my horizons about the full spectrum of the LGBT community, She's Not There is an important title to have on my shelf. So, members of the unofficial Bilerico book club - what should find a place on my bookshelf, too?

Tomorrow, Jillian Weiss, who recently reread She's Not There, will discuss her response to Boylan's story - how revisiting the book is different from the first reading, and how her individual experiences have contributed to a different perspective on the book from my own.

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Sounds fascinating. I've put it on my list of books to get hold of.

TRiG.

I have to say that, as a woman who is also trans, I really didn't connect with Ms. Boylan's book (although I actually think the followup is better). It's too breezy, and didn't connect with any of the pain and complexities I experienced in transition. She's Not There is 'transition light,' which is why I think it was popular. Most readers don't want to deal with messiness, self-loathing and hurt.

A multi-part memoir of transition which I greatly prefer is one that appeared on the Internet 7-8 years ago. It's no longer online, but you can still access it through the Way Back Machine at: http://alturl.com/meben

It's called "Ghost of an Ideal Life" by an Australian trans woman under the name Julie Simpson. I think it's a much better written, thoughtful, heartfelt and emotionally charged work than Boylan's. Even though it never appeared in print, it had a profound impact on me, on my experience of myself and on connecting with trans women as women in a way I never did with She's Not There. Just my opinion, yours might vary.

I read Ms. Boylans' book right after it came out in the Summer of 2003.
I used up a whole box kleenex and went through several bottles of wine that summer night. I cried and cried. I had this to look forward to.

But things turned out different for me than Jenny.
I am not a college prof. and the wife didn't stay and eventually she died from her second bout with cancer. I got my surgeries. And I found someone new. Our stories are all different. Our stories are all important.

To Gina, I agree. Ms. Boylan was trying to appeal to a mass audience. She was trying to put a brave face on TS people. If she went on at any length about internal pain and self loathing I think she would have lost her mainstream audience. Who shows up at a pity party? Her approach was better I think. Put a brave face on it and work out the messy details with your therapist. Try to use humor and insight without being too self deprecating. People appreciate a sense of humor over a sad story. A smile over a sad story. Even if it does hurt to smile and tell them tale.

As TS people we know about the self loathing and pain. And as I read the book, I filled in the blanks and a lot of kleenex. Especially, the moment of crisis at the RR tracks. Stuck there, unable to move. That happened to me multiple times. I loved my wife, more than my own life and it gave one pause. IS this really right for me? Of course, in the end, it was for me, and it was for Jenny too. She kept her wife and my wife seemed to drift away and I had to watch. Eventually, I found another woman, who is trans, and we now are building a new life together. 7 years together this month.

Jenny and I are both lucky, we made it.
We who have made it should not forget those who haven't made it and those looking down the long road of transition and saying what I did at that time. "How in the hell am I EVER going to do this?"
Well, you figure it out as you go.
Just like life, one day at time.



Ms. Boylan pretty much acknowledges in She's Not There that she's not exactly connected to her emotions... and I think it shows in the book. The only scene I really loved in it (and which had a lot of depth) was when she met the trans woman who was in stealth, had previously dated her (when Jenny was young) and worked in the fashion industry. I thought that woman's defensiveness, bitterness and paranoia were beautifully rendered and far more real than the carefully packaged rest of the book.

Why is it difficult, even ugly emotions get labeled as a pity party? I prefer to call them deeply human. Again, I invite you to read Julie Simpson's online book with all its intense feeling, struggle, longing and uncertainty and compare it to Ms. Boylan's.

Adam,

One thing I'd encourage you to frame your reading of Ms. Boylan's book through is that she fails to address the privilege and classism that are at play in her reflections on what it means to transition.

Ms. Boylan was and is a professor at a very liberal school in New England where she had earned tenure and immense job security. She had both a steady, well paying income and no concern about loss of job. She was not at risk of losing her home, her support system etc. in the way many trans people are when they transition. This places her in an extraordinary position of privilege that is not afforded most trans people.

On a personal note, I was partnered to a trans man for 8 years, including much of his transition, so I've seen first hand how very different the experience is for someone lacking the types of resources Ms. Boylan had at her disposal.

While I found the book educational and enjoyable, I've struggled then and in hearing her speak that she's failed to acknowledge this.

-Heidi

One of my very favorite books! Glad you found it, Adam.

First of all, if Ms Boylan's book helped enhance yours (or anyone's) awareness of trans issues -- then that's wonderful. Mission accomplished. And given its mainstream mandate -- perhaps it will make its way to more library shelves where people (cis and trans) looking for information may find it.

But--and excuse me for sounding a little dour now--there are just *so many* trans autobiographies out there. Films, novels, comics, etc. And in many ways that's great! I'm with Mao on this one: let a hundred flowers bloom!

But, for me, they all tend to cluster together into a kind of holding pattern of similarities: most of them, more or less, follow the same framework of life-telling before and after transition. Although the jokes may vary, the common elements of recognition, confession, transition, and (more or less) acceptance end up being the Kubler-Ross equivalent of premeditated patterns for a very complex experience. And so, unfailingly, many trans people reading these works say, "DIdn't really match my experience."

I think what made 'Ghost of an Ideal Life' so fabulous was its raw, bloggable content, compared to the edited cleanliness of Boylan's book. I'd like to see more trans writing that verges away from the autobiog genre. I'd like to see more diverse portrayals of the trans-experience than the naval gazing repetition of personal history from 'earliest memory' to 'the day I told person x". Trans writing needs more diverse voices, IMO.

And more autobiographies written by people other than non-write middle class transitioners (not that they don't have a lot to contribute also). I think one of the reasons I liked the Simpson autobiography better also has to do with the length of time she lived as a woman post-transition before writing the book.

So many autobiographies center around transition... a subject that's interesting to a lot of people (especially non-trans people) but which can take a long time to digest and process. Same thing with so many of the guests Oprah and Tyra had on their shows... they're overwhelmingly people who transitioned within the past several years. I'm more interested in people who transitioned, have lived their lives with some varied perspectives and have had the time and experiences to comment on this fascinating journey and where it leads. Boylan has never had to, for instance, find a new partner since transitioning nor even go on job interviews, nor live in any degree of stealth, nor really process in print how her womanhood fits in with that of cis women and, especially, no mention of what making love as a woman is even like for her. Simpson includes all of these several times over and it makes her experiences far more rich from my viewpoint.

Hi. It's me, JFB. I'm grateful for these comments, and for these readers. A couple things worth mentioning at this late date. 1). I would not acknowledge that I am out of touch with my emotions. That seems like a truly strange observation. I'd say I've suffered long and hard, and managed to survive, with my family intact, through hard work. We are all still together, and we all still love each other, and it is by hard work and love that this is possible. How anybody could read SNoT and conclude otherwise is a mystery to me. 2) I am a part time English teacher married to a part time social worker. I have never had tenure in 25 years, and our lives have been plenty precarious. Being trans Nd coming out was a desperate roll of the dice, and we feares for the future,as SNoT makes clear, I hope. 3) the book, however is written in a spirit of humor-- but it is the humor of recently dried tears. I have always believed that the most terrible and hard truths are really only expressible through comedy, and anyone who does not speak this language is going to find SNoT hard to understand. For me, looking back now, the book seems unbearably sad, even though we all survived. But it is a sadness which only people with a sense of humor can feel.

I have been grateful for the many, many people who have written me to say this book saved their lives, or opened a door to trans experience for them. It is, in the end, just one family's story, and there are many, many stories out there, and they all need to be told. There will be a 10th anniversary edition of SNoT in 2013, with an update chapter and a new essay by my wife, "Grace." That same year there will be a new book from me about being a trans parent. Both books from Random House. I thank everybody for their good words, and send everybody love.

I am the bookstore owner who recommended this book, and wanted to comment on why I love it as much as I do. My family and I have always active supporters of the GLBT community, but I have limited interactions with transgendered individuals. So reading Jennifer Boylan's book was interesting for me for BOTH perspectives - Jennifer feeling uncomfortable and unhappy living daily life as someone she is not meant to be (and I think everyone can relate to that in one way or another), and also Grace and their friends having to cope with with someone they love as is, needing to be someone different. I think this book talks more about the externals of the transition, which was unique to what I have read in the past.

Anyway, I am glad to hear some new recommendations for reading, and Alex, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

So glad you found this! It was an excellent recommendation