I participate in a book group held at a local Unitarian Church. Though we usually choose our own books, in honor of LGBT History Month (October), both book groups at the church decided to read She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan, about a James who became Jenny. As expected, the book was fascinating, but I also found it warm and even funny.
In the opening chapter, Jenny picks up two young girls who are hitchhiking and realizes that one of them was her student (she’s a college English professor) back when she used to be a man named James. It’s a surreal sort of situation, and she doesn’t know what to say…and the girl never recognizes her. From there, the memoir flashes back to her earliest memory, at age 3, the first time she realized that others saw her as a boy, even though she knew she was a girl.
The story continues through James’ young life, as a child, teenager, young adult, and beyond. He knew all along that he was really female inside but struggled to conform to others’ perceptions of him as a male. It’s a fascinating story of an almost unimaginable internal battle. As a child, he came up with the romantic idea that perhaps when he fell in love, that would cure him of these strange feelings of not belonging. And he did eventually fall in love, with Grace who would become his wife, and he really did believe for a while that love was his cure.
I think that is the most heart-breaking aspect of this book – the absolute true love that he and Grace feel for each other. They have a happy marriage and two wonderful sons whom they both love. But eventually, Jim can no longer ignore the fact that he always feels wrong, out of place and in the wrong body. He finally breaks the news to Grace (who is shocked) and begins the long, difficult process of fully transforming into a woman, eventually getting gender reassignment surgery.
Seeing inside the emotional life of a transgendered person and the people who love her is absolutely fascinating, something that I’d never even considered before. Jim’s journey to become Jenny is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. Making the story even more interesting is the fact that his best friend is fellow author Richard Russo (yes, that Richard Russo) who writes an afterword to the memoir. And, yes, she even includes before and after photos that captivated me.
Although everyone in our book group thought the book was interesting and it sparked a great discussion, not everyone liked the book equally. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though. I loved Jenny’s writing style – warm, funny, self-deprecating – which helps to put the reader at ease in this unfamiliar territory. The other aspect that makes it stand out is Jenny’s unfailing optimism and positive attitude. In fact, that bothered some readers – that she didn’t struggle even more with this transformation – but she attributes her attitude to her mother’s upbringing and acceptance of her, and there are other transgendered people in the story who don’t have that love and acceptance and are far less well-adjusted, to show how difficult this life can be. Overall, I found this book to be an excellent example of the best kind of memoir – one that tells a fascinating story in a way that makes the reader feel as if she knows the author personally.
300 pages, Broadway Books