Yesterday, Adam Polaski wrote about his impressions of the book "She's Not There" by Jennifer Finney Boylan. He said that, while it doesn't seek to portray the life plan for all transsexuals, the book "expertly communicates the challenges of transitioning while speaking to its necessity and unveiling its joys."
And yet, some commenters said it was too joyful. Esteemed Projector GinaSF noted that she didn't relate to the book, because it was too breezy, and didn't connect with any of the pain and complexities she experienced in transition. I had a different experience: it is the best trans autobiography ever written.
As a professor whose specialization is trans workplace law and policy, I made it my business in my graduate school years (2001-2004) to read every trans book I could lay my hands on. There weren't too many in those days, and the project was funded generously by my boyfriend, who took to the project with zeal. It seemed as if every day a box was arriving with more books, many of which were transsexual women's autobiographies. I probably read about thirty transsexual women's autobiographies.
At first, I read hungrily, eager to learn about other trans people and their lives, and how they connected with my own. By the tenth book, I began to tire. The books appeared to be all the same, with chapters on How I Wore My Mothers' High Heels When I Was Three, My Church Said I Was Going To Hell, Electrolysis Hurts But Therapy Is Worse, I Was A Sex Object, Men Are Impossible And Women Are Worse, My Life Of Unending Rejection And Pain, and The Knife Fixed All My Problems. By number thirty, I vowed to chew off my arm rather than read another transsexual woman's autobiography.
It's not as if I didn't have a life that included pain and rejection. Here I could trot out the heart-sickness of my little son being taken 200 miles away, losing my job and not being able to find another, having no place to live, being laughed at and threatened on the streets of New York, being someone's mistress because I was available to be bought and desperate for human contact after being abandoned by friends and family. But my favorite quote in the world is from Horace Walpole: "Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel." Yes, trans people experience pain and rejection, but that's not all we are. To quote my friend Jos Truitt from Feministing, in "I Am Not Your Tragic Trans Narrative":
"It seems whenever there's a profile or personal narrative of a trans person in mainstream media it has to be somehow tragic. And I'm so over it. Because I think we're amazing."
This book doesn't gloss over the "challenges," as Adam called them. It deals a lot with the pain of being trans. But Boylan doesn't do it with a sledgehammer. She does it with a scalpel.
I'm no writer. I've tried, and the results are truly awful. I can write a description of anything. But I can't make the skeleton move, give it muscles and skin and hair, the right clothes, and have it talk to another person in a way that reveals anything about them or the world. "Hi, how are you," the dialogue would run. "I wonder if my wife and son will still love me after I tell them about myself." "Uh, I don't know." "Okay, well, then, thanks for the vote of confidence, I have to, uh, go to the head doctor now, bye." Okayyyy. Pretty flat. It says it, but it doesn't describe it. Now what? Uh, I don't know?
I wouldn't urge someone who doesn't know law to file their own legal brief or do their own cross-examination. It looks easy when done right, but it ain't, and you can wind up thinking about it in jail or while scraping up a $10,000 fine for frivolous pleading. There ought to be similar consequences for bad writers.
Here's how it's done right:
"As I walked through the woods, sometimes, I worked on the "being alive" problem. I'm still transgendered, I thought. Even though my life has been transformed by love, I still feel like a woman inside. At every waking moment now, I was plagued by the thought that I was living a lie. It was there on the tip of my tongue as I taught my classes; it was there as I made meatballs for the woman I loved; it was there as I took the car through the car wash and shoveled the snow and built the fires and played piano and flipped pancakes. It was fair to say I was never not thinking about it.
...How am I going to tell her? I wondered as I walked among the pine and maples. This would destroy her, would destroy us, would destroy all the gifts we have been given.
Sometimes I'd think, Say are you insane?
I'd get back to the house and Grace would say, How was your walk?
Good, I'd say. It was good. My children would come over and wrap their arms around my knees. Daddy's back."
Perhaps it's just because I've had the same experience, but it rips my heart out every time I read this. It's not heavy handed. But "breezy" it's not. There are many other passages where the pain is multiplied by understatement, by words that don't seems to belong, by an emotion seen fleetingly under the surface, like a brief glimpse of a shark fin in Jaws.
Even the humor is inflected with extreme sadness, like the time she speaks to her closest friend, colleague and writer Rick Russo shortly after her transition. I've been called by the wrong pronouns and dissed off-handedly plenty of times by people I knew and loved and needed and who dropped me like a hot brick. It hurt, a lot. But I could never say it like this:
"One afternoon, Russo and I were back in the Seadog in Camden, drinking Old Gollywobbler.
...A waitress came by. "Can I get you anything?" she asked.
"I'll have another pint," Rick said, "And get him whatever he wants."
The waitress looked confused. "Who?"
"He's talking about his invisible friend." I said.
"Do you want anything, miss?"
"I'll have another one too." The waitress walked off.
Rick looked at me, strangely emotional. "Sorry," he said. "You're not invisible, Boylan."
"Well," I said. "Thanks."
"Are we okay?" Russo said. "You and me?"
"I don't know," I said. "Some of those e-mails we swapped were kind of awful, I think....I mean, you, some kids from Gloversville, New York, the glove-making capital of the world, who winds up a famous novelist? -- you think I'm implausible?"
"Okay, it's definitely the wrong word."
...I was yelling at him now, and I paused to catch my breath. "But I'm not a work of fiction. I'm your friend, and I need you."
Russo was quiet for a long time....He drank from his pint. "You know what it is? If learning is hard, unlearning is harder. You just have to be patient, all right? I'm a slow unlearner."
"I nodded. "Don't worry, Russo," I said. "We'll always have Paris."
The humor here isn't ha-ha funny. It's poignant, cut with the sadness of losing a close friend who can't understand. And yet, it's perfect for the experience of this trans woman who's also a creative genius and award-winning author and professor. True, this doesn't communicate the experience of a down-and-out trans person on the streets who's lost everything and no one will give them the time of day. But it resonates with that part of everyone's experience where we've lost the people we loved and it hurts down deep in your heart in a way that you can't explain to anyone, or at least anyone who'll listen and really understand.
When I first read this book in 2003, I was struck by how different it was from all the other transsexual autobiographies I'd read. It wasn't long and tedious. It didn't try to put everything into one book. It wasn't boringly chronological. It didn't sound like a tragic trans narrative. But it was tragic and comic and touching and conveyed alienation in a way that requires you to turn the page. And yet, I had to read it in bits, because the emotions it produced were so strong that I needed to sit and just feel myself for a while.
This summer, I'm re-reading the book because I started kayaking. I love going out into nature, to take a break from politics and law and students and emails and the persistent knock-knock-knock of a community in desperate need. I scull for a while, and then drift while reading a chapter here and there while the dense green of the forest floats by. I'm in a very different place than I was in 2003. I'm a full professor, not a penniless graduate student with child support obligations that I was struggling to meet. I have some wonderful friends, no longer a stranger in a strange land. I've been able to help move the trans community along a little bit in its quest for respect and rights, while back then I wondered if I could even get a job, let alone help anyone else. The book strikes me differently. It's my past, instead of my future.
Having transitioned in the 90s, and reading The Transsexual's Survival Guide, I was well prepared to expect the worst. While the book contained hopeful notes here and there, it was pretty much a downer, but the author was completely right about my experience. It was awful, but it was right. By 2003, however, the environment for trans people was starting to change. I was cautiously optimistic about the future, though scarred by my experiences, and still angry a lot of the time. When I first read "She's Not There," I found myself struck by the many times that the book echoed my own experience, by the gentle humor found in this well of loneliness. I was still a penniless grad student, and didn't have much hope for more, but I was growing tired of the tragic trans narrative, the constant poorly-written retelling of the evils of this cruel world. I was ready to make a life for myself, to throw off the crutches of victimhood. This book caught me just at the right time. It told a story of fall and redemption, and made me see what that redemption looked like. It wasn't being made whole. It's living a life with major pieces discarded from the jigsaw puzzle and lots of new ones substituted in such a way as to make a new and perhaps more beautiful picture, though you still occasionally look in mirror and see a monster.
If I'd read it at the beginning of my transition, I would have tossed it aside. I was a victim then, and not just in my own mind. I was inundated by the unbelievable ferocity of the world, and startled to see that there was far more to lose than I had ever thought, that there were a hundred, a thousand levels down of degradation where people were living, that I could never have believed in my life as a white middle-class male lawyer.
This summer, however, I see it as a classic. Its value doesn't lie so much in its narrative of fall and redemption, which I've now experienced to some extent. What I love about it this summer is its exquisite capture of those turning points, the crystallization of the moments in time when you know something about life that perhaps no one will ever really understand, at least no one who's cisgendered. There's a wonder there, a standing on the edge of a secret chasm in a secret cave in a secret mountain that no one but you will ever see.
She's Not There reminds me, somewhat incongruously, of that favorite passage in my favorite movie. Perhaps it's no wonder that this is my favorite passage. There's a theme here, don't you think? It's the director's cut of Blade Runner, where the android marked for termination, who was only trying to live but in the process had killed lots of people, gives his death speech to the detective who finally tracked him down, left wondering whether he had done the right thing.
The key line, and one that I found echoed in She's Not There, though in a very different way, is this one: "I've seen things you people would never believe." This book makes you believe it.
UPDATE: Ms. Boylan has written to note the following:
"A 10th anniversary edition of the book is planned for 2013, which will include an update as well as a short piece by my spouse, known as 'Grace' in the book. Know that we are all still together, and in love.
Concurrent with the updated edition of the book we call SNoT will be a new book from me, a memoir of "parenthood in two genders" titled Stuck in the Middle with You. It will speak about the differences between motherhood and fatherhood, and talk about bringing up our sons. My thesis: having a father who became a woman helped make my sons, in turn, into better men.