Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

The Best Trans Autobiography Ever Written

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | July 27, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: book review, Colby College, Grace Finney, Jennifer Finney Boylan, LGBT education, Richard Russo, transgender books

book_cover.jpegYesterday, 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?"

Rick blushed.

"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.

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That says a lot about our respective preferences and needs in literature and film... I can't stand Blade Runner (yes, even the director's cut) and think it mostly ruined the core of the brilliant book it was based on... Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep."

And I didn't find "She's not there" joyous... I experienced it as glib, somewhat emotionally shallow and packaged (and most importantly, a work I didn't feel emotionally vested in). More like a Lifetime Channel movie... pleasant, smooth, prettily photographed, and something to give you a wistful smile. Yes, there are a lot of not very good autobiographies by trans people. But most of them aren't writers nor terribly literary people, they're just trying to communicate their complex experience and I give them props for that. I've read a lot of them as well and, as with many books, might find there's only a brief section or observation (or even observed moment) which I take from the book.

I ask you to read the Simpson "book" I linked to in the other thread. Yes, she's a different person from Boylan... a young transitioner, and not a lesbian, not an academic (although ultimately successful in her career) and she transitioned in a different country at an earlier time. I've read and re-read it a number of times and it never fails to move me and have me thinking about my womanhood and journey. After re-reading Boylan's second book I tried going back and having a second read of She's Not There and, about a third of the way through, found I was too unmoved by it to read it again.

I just look forward to the day when we have a truly great trans writer -- a trans writer who writes about other things besides My Life as a Trans Writer/Professor/Etc. Until then, I still say that all of these autobiographies follow more or less the same template, although perhaps not as markedly so as narrated above. It will continue to be reductive for trans identities if the self-serving autobiography continues to be the only genre for 'explaining' the experience to an audience. As I noted in my comments on another thread, I applaud Boylan's contribution to education and information. Her book is very light and accessible, and therefore non-intimidating for someone looking for an 'introduction'. Nonetheless, it's also about someone surfeit with material goods, ensconced in job security, and who is rather proud of her 'passability'. The 'humorous' passage cited above is all about reminding the reader as to how well the author 'blends in' (at a bar no less!). Perhaps this what makes the storyline feel featherweight and breezy as some described? It seems like all of the author's problems are tissued with money and prestige. An English professor writing a story about being an English professor? The 'trans' element might seem to come across a the quirk factor for publication.

But I have doubt the book will find its way into many people's hands. And that's a tremendous accomplishment. I just anticipate the day -- and I know it will come -- when trans writers will do more than write about being trans writers . . . and we'll just be writers.

We'll have to agree to disagree, Gina. I read the the autobiography you mentioned, and found it too filled with the usual chronological inventory and explanations. She sounds like a fascinating person, but not a professional writer, and I found myself losing interest, as you did with Jenny Boylan's book. As far as calling Jenny Boylan's book "glib," which means insincere, I think a lot of people would disagree with your assessment, like Augusten Burroughs, Janet Maslin and Anna Quindlen, who all wrote good reviews of the book. I respect your opinion, and if you didn't find it interesting, so be it, but I can't agree except with your point that we have different tastes. .

FYI 'Glib' also means "easy and unrestrained" and that was the meaning I intended.

I could care less what Augusten Burroughs thinks about it... he has a rather fetishistic view of trans people and transition (as witnessed in some of his own writings about his own gender issues). Neither am I terribly impressed with the views of writer/critics who don't have some kind of direct experience with and real perspective of trans issues. Yes, Boylan is a professional writer and Simpson isn't... so what? I've read hundreds of books by competent professional writers I found not terribly informative and certainly not engrossing.

Again, Simpson very sensitively discusses (in detail) sexuality, her experience living in the world as a woman, her very personal connection/disconnect with her body present and past, some very complex work issues she faced, abuse from her partner, her experiences with sexism not to mention her intense feelings of both humiliation and connectedness which transition brought her. And I think she does this with a brutal honesty I experience as being absent from Boylan's book which I found to be a bland, rather white-washed view of transition. Wow, at the end of SNT, before she goes to bed she's putting containers of yogurt in her kid's lunch... and that's supposed to be her big statement on attaining everyday womanhood?

I'm not saying Jenny Boylan is a bad writer (again, her follow up was a more interesting work), but I reject anyone saying "She's Not There" is any kind of special book about the trans experience (other than it was featured on Oprah) much less "the best." (intended as hyperbole or not). Nor would I ever recommend it to a friend in hopes of giving them unique perspective on my trans issues (and I'm also a white, late-transitioning trans parent). And that's the most personal lack of recommendation I can give. :(

You're making the assumption that the best trans-biographies are only written in English. You might try one that isn't directly reflective of your experiences as an academic, etc.

Well, I sense that her title for the article is probably hyperbolic, in the sense that one steps out of a movie and says "That was the best movie ever!"

That aside, I'm sure that she'll be sure to learn another language and search the respective literature for TS autobiographies to validate her opinion. That or have someone translate the many TS autobiographies in different languages in other markets into English for her.

You have a better one in Francais or Ivrit or something, Emily? Out with it, woman! We wants to read it.

Jill, you've hit on some of my favorite parts of the book. Yes, it does not represent the experience of every transsexual. But how could any book? Boylan never writes anywhere that her experience is the experience of most transsexuals. But that doesn't make her story less important, less interesting, or less significant in helping people understand the diversity of the trans community.

While it isn't an autobiography, the book I recommend the most to anyone who wants to read about what it is like being in *my* head, is Julia Serano's Whipping Girl. I grant that it isn't 100% what I might say myself, but it is as close as anything I've ever seen written by anyone else.

Another book I recommend, though not without having to explain a disclaimer in it as meaning the author is not claiming to have a T2M experience, that provides a kind of a picture of what it it like assimilating in accordance with societal expectations pre-transition, is Norah Vincent's Self Made Man. Norah is not a trans-friendly person, but she actually, and unintentionally, captures the feel of what it is like being a woman inside who is trying very hard to appear to the world as a man.

I have come to know Jenny rather well over the years and found her to be a very funny and smart person, who is very likable. She has always been very supportive of TAVA's issues, even though she is not a veteran. I haven't had the chance to read the book yet, and I'm afraid that my friendship with her may affect my opinion.

Having said that, it sounds like this maybe close to another "YATA," "Yet Another Transsexual Autobiography." (Trans men autobiographies usually do not fall into the "YATA" category.) Sadly, many TS woman autobiographies seem to have the same format: "I knew I was really a girl when I was little. I had a bad childhood. I struggled after school. I saved my money. I got surgery, and when I stepped off the surgeons table, birds were singing, the sun was shining and all was right with the world." A "YATA." Knowing Jenny, I doubt it will follow that format a 100%. But, those who read this can confirm that or not.

Renee Thomas | July 27, 2011 9:13 PM

" . . . Boylan never writes anywhere that her experience is the experience of most transsexuals . . ."

No, in fact she was and continues to be scrupulously honest in her personal assessment that she herself was indeed lucky. I, on the other hand, have likewise scrupulously maintained that, "no, Boylan you chose well." This conversation forms one of the motifs of a correspondence that started between us late in 2005. She relates that she is well aware that the choices of others, her partner Deedie, her mother (may she be remembered for a blessing) even Colby's administration (in its choice to retain her) have set the path upon which she has walked these several years now. Perhaps the truth of this gentle disputation lay someplace in between. Yet the one common thread is that those who love, value and respect us must be free to make the choice to remain in our lives . . . or not. You see, it is also a truth that many of us, far too many of us, have or will encounter depths of loss that Jenny (I continue to hope) will thankfully never experience.

So long as the phenomenon of gender and gender expression is so poorly understood in the stilted terms of a false dichotomy and so long as we continue to transition across that liminal space, we will be cut off from those that we deeply love but who long longer love us.

At what cost?

This question haunts me still.

Despite the knitting together and healing of the dispirit threads of the self which follows transition, one is never separated from the real cost of making this journey. If you possess at all a sense of responsibility, of guilt for those you deeply love who could not make the crossing with you, to transit this boundary alone leaves scars. For us and those who loved us, they are scars that will never fully heal. To those who of necessity must follow, we share a cautionary tale.

A wise woman I know has offered . . .

" . . . Somebody (else) needs to say this--

Sometimes being your "authentic self" is really goddamned hard, and winds up stripping the bark and most of the leaves off a person, leaving them, you know, hysterical raving naked. I am surely no advocate for mendacity in life. But therapists--and lots of people--accept that "living your truth" is its own reward. True enough. But it's its own punishment too. Sometimes."

I subsequently expanded on her thought . . .

"I would add with real respect and empathy that unless your therapist has walked in the shoes of "Live Your Authentic Self" he or she doesn’t really know what they're suggesting. Be sure - be goddamned sure, because losing everything is a very real possibility. While it’s true you can and will survive, it can often be a very lonely walk. Whatever strength I may have gained in all of this I would gladly give back to again rest peacefully in my former partner’s embrace and proudly revel in the accomplishments of our children . . . first hand.

I would spare you that pain . . ."

That wise woman?

Jennifer Finney Boylan

Hey you all. Jennifer F.B. here. I am glad that SNoT continues to touch people. As I've noted elsewhere, it's a book with plenty of faults--which the 10th anniversary edition in 2013 will try to correct--but I am gladdened by how many people say it has touched them, or saved their lives. The only comments I don't understand are the ones from people who find it glib, or easy, or overly joyful. I find it terribly sad, in spite of its levitating heart. But I think only people who speak the language of comedy in a literary sense-- who see irony and humor as the only way to express truly profound and ,melancholy truths-- will agree. And really, that's not every reader. Reading it now, the suffering and sadness in it to me feel unbearable, even though we all survived. I think there is even a line in the book, "How else should we express our sadness? Tears?"

Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer. I'm looking forward to the 10th anniversary edition. (omg, has it been that long? Tempus fugit etc.)

thanks for a lovely synopsis, dr. weiss. i'll read it.

Loved your story about the DADGAD tuning, Jenny. You had me dreamin' of John Spillane and the Mad Woman of Cork . . .

Ah if you did, if you did, even if you did
Suffered from a broken heart
Got off to a poor start
Maybe you fell apart
That doesn't mean you have to be paying the price forever
I'm going to set you free

My friend emailed me asking about I'm Looking Through You a couple of years ago. She's a Beatles fan. Her book group did She's Not There a few years before that. She's a big Zombies and Life Aquatic Fan, too. Tomorrow night it's the Kane Sisters and Edel Fox. I'll be thinking about you. Oh, the stories I could tell~

As someone who commented on Adam's piece and admitted my struggles with the book as not representative of the average trans experience, Jillian's piece reminded me of one of the reasons I loved it. I read the book at a time in my life I was partnered with someone who had recently come out to me as as a trans man. I was young, and still grappling with what this meant as a partner and for our relationship. Enter: JFB's book. Jenny's book was and remains one of the best pieces of writing I've read that accurately reflects some of what it means to be the partner of someone who transitions. I read the book and found myself devouring the sections touching on Grace's experience. It moved me to the point of tears more than once, particularly to know I was not alone. I still find myself recommending it first when other SOFFAs (particularly partners) ask me about books that helped me.

Jillian- I agree totally. I loved your line:

"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. "

I have been there too. And when I stand there I am grateful.

Go to amazon and order “Purple Hearts and Silver Stars” by Janice Josephine Carney Maybe the second best! Self-published without editing it is an honest take On my life from John Joseph into Janice Josephine

I guess I'm wondering why we're having two whole threads bringing up a not-terribly controversial 10 year old book? This was initiated by someone who sounds as if he hasn't read a lot about trans people said he liked the book... yeah, and so? If we had a thread by a non-trans person who said... "wow, I just saw this movie called 'TransAmerica' and it's essential viewing for anyone interested in trans issues" I suspect we'd say... why is this news and, moreover, what else do you have to judge it against? I'm glad Adam wants to educate himself about trans issues, but why is thread-worthy at this point in time? There are LOTS of other trans-related cultural issues which could be discussed... so, good, you're exposing yourself to the trans community. So every time I read a John Rechy book should I write about all the gay stuff I'm learning?

Adam thought it would be interesting to compare our readings of the book, since we both read it recently. Sounded like a good idea at the time. Anyway, I'm kind of glad we did because I got to hear about Julie Simpson's book and some other interesting ideas about trans narrative.

This book was the second I read in the summer of 2008 (the first was _Whipping_Girl_) just after I began transition.

As someone in a reasonably similar position to the author - married and employed by a university - I could draw a lot of parallels. In many ways, it was a how-not-to guide for me, though, as I saw recounted there scenes I wanted to ensure I did not see repeated in my own marriage, and I have largely been successful.