She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders – Jennifer Finney Boylan

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders – Jennifer Finney BoylanShe's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan

This is the exuberant memoir of a man named James who became a woman named Jenny. A Colby College professor and author of four books of fiction, Boylan has a good comic ear, and that humor keeps the book on track.

Back in 2006 when I was only selling pre-loved books using eBay, before I dreamed of having a website of my own, I received an email from a customer looking for useful books for her partner. He was in the process of going through gender reassignment and wanted to read books that might possibly have a bearing on living life as a different gender.  I couldn’t help with the list of books or even suggest any more but I’ve never forgotten that exchange of emails. You can see the original list of books sent to me here, I received permission to publish it seven years ago.

Along with that I’ve never lost the interest in gender reassignment and what it might possibly feel like. I will never find out with firsthand experience as I don’t want to be a man permanently and the operation isn’t reversible. The only way I can know what it might possibly be like is by reading other people’s accounts. This book is one such account. I’ve struggled to know which gender to use when referring to Boylan, I’ve tried to use the gender at the time of writing and hope it doesn’t confuse you too much.

She’s Not There illustrates many of the things I learned earlier this year in my Creative Nonfiction class. Boylan messes with the timeline a little to make it work better in book form. She invents dialogue to illustrate what is happening and skips over unpleasantness. Boylan sometimes dramatises certain events to make them more readable and sometimes puts in emails to show us some correspondence actually did happen.

Things I’m taking out of this book. Having spent most of his life trying to come to terms with the fact that he felt female in a male body, James Boylan was having therapy. At one point the gender specialist said to him

You’re a transsexual. The condition isn’t going to go away over time. It’s going to get worse.

The upshot of the whole conversation was that Boylan should have a gender reassignment while young, single and without children and he should be yourself. This is a good lesson for anyone to take away, always be yourself it’s too hard to be someone else.

Boylan spent some time in Ireland listening to the Irish songs and just getting to know people there. He decides the best way to understand gender shift is through diaspora. I think what he was saying is that if you change countries you might get some idea of what it is to live as the wrong gender.

Boylan spends a bit of time talking us through as hormones change the body and he starts going from male to female. It’s interesting as we get to see the muscle and fat distribution changes. The weight seems to remain the same. We also get to see the sex drive from both male and female points of view. And then there’s this fabulous discussion about breasts and how males and females view them. And then there’s the operation, but no, just read it yourself.

At one point Boylan wanders into a shop to buy a pair of jeans as a female. As a man he walked in gave a couple of measurement details and walked out with a pair of jeans. As a female there was a lot more to consider and this is all looked at on page 155. I won’t go into the discussion on makeup or fashion, I’ve never really understood either of those.

There are many reasons to buy and read this book. Whatever your reasons it’s well worth it. Boylan was a writer and a professor of English long before the gender reassignment. This shows in the prose and in how the book is put together. I enjoyed it for many different reasons, some of them I’ve detailed above and some purely for the writing alone. Because I totally recommend it I’m giving you the affiliate link here so you can buy it or not as you choose.

One last thing before I let you leave. One of the reasons I bought this book is because of the person who wrote the Afterword. Richard Russo wrote Empire Falls, a book I scribbled a few words about in 2011. It was a fabulous book with some really hard issues to face. When I first saw his name here I thought back to that book. But when I finally came to read She’s Not There I’d forgotten entirely and couldn’t remember why Russo’s name was familiar. It was only quite some time into the book when Boylan asks Russo to read some of book, Empire Falls, and then quotes a small portion that it all came flooding back. Somehow that made the events in the book that much more real to me.