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


She's Not There: A Life In Two Genders

Author: Jennifer Finney Boylan
Publisher: Broadway

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Relatively speaking, Jennifer Finney Boylan (formerly James) enjoyed a smooth transition from manhood into womanhood: As co-chair of the English department at Colby College, a small liberal-arts school in Maine, she received support, even encouragement, from administrators, faculty members, and students. Her successful surgery was performed by one of the world's most highly regarded specialists: "If you're in the market for new genitalia," she joked to her closest friend, novelist Richard Russo, "you really don't want to shop in the bargain basement." And her immediate family stayed together, with her wife Grace present through each agonizing step, and her two young boys inventing the affectionate new hybrid "Maddy" to describe their androgynous parent. But the gender-jumping still left emotional wreckage, which speaks to the incredible hardships dealt to most transgenders, not to mention those poor souls who choose to remain caged within their own mismatched bodies. Stories of botched surgeries, suicide attempts, and pained interventions from loved ones are scattered like landmines throughout She's Not There, Boylan's candid and exuberantly funny memoir of self-actualization. The medical, professional, and emotional risks are clear from group-therapy sessions and adjacent hospital beds, which made Boylan's determination to go through with the surgery courageous and perhaps tragically necessary. From early childhood, when James entertained girlish fantasies and engaged in secret cross-dressing, he never felt comfortable within his own skin. Those feelings didn't change when he met and married Grace–whose name would be far too on-the-nose if the book were fiction–yet he was at least partially redeemed by love, and felt content with a quiet life as a teacher and widely admired novelist in rural Maine. But ultimately, Boylan's femininity intensified to the point where she could no longer live as a man, no matter how much the change would upend her marriage and other relationships. The most powerful section of She's Not There takes place over the roughly two-year period when Boylan went on sabbatical from teaching, started taking estrogen doses, and slowly eased out to the world as a woman. In simple and direct language, Boylan describes an extraordinary metamorphosis, from the devastation dealt to Grace to the actual physical and emotional changes. ("One pill makes you want to talk about relationships and eat salad. The other makes you dislike the Three Stooges.") An outsider might fairly see Boylan's decision as the height of narcissism: In order for her to blossom and feel whole for the first time, she gives up a perfectly enviable life, "gypping" Grace out of a husband and receding from close friends like Russo, who initially responds to the news with a bitter e-mail exchange. Russo came around, and he contributes a touching, compassionate afterword, but Boylan doesn't sugarcoat the reality that her marriage has been permanently altered, with Grace hitched to an involuntary and humiliating sacrifice. A superb primer for understanding the transgender impulse, She's Not There feels at once liberating and regretful, embracing honesty in all its messy forms.