She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan
I am not usually one to pick up a book about being transgendered. I am not someone who feels drawn to read memoirs about the ongoing struggles someone had while being transgendered. I am not an impassioned gender scholar or really any kind of gender scholar. Nevertheless, from the first moment I encountered Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There I was absolutely transfixed, fascinated, amused, and completely unable to put it down.
She’s Not There tells how James became Jenny after a lifetime of knowing he simply was a woman. As Boylan puts it, it wasn’t a decision on par with which socks to wear on any given day. He just was a woman, simple as that. Gender is so often taken for granted as something solid that you “just know” and being transgendered turns that assumption on its head. What if you “just know” you’re a woman but you are pretty obviously physically male? She’s Not There chronicles that exact “what if” while also telling the remarkable story of Boylan and his/her wife, Grace, and his/her best friend, novelist Richard Russo.
To put it succinctly, this book was unquantifiably riveting. I can’t say what made it so fascinating, aside from the curiosity factor (becoming a woman physically is itself a curiosity and I’ll willingly admit my own fair share of curiosity about being transgendered and what that means), but I can tell you that the writing was pitch-perfect. Boylan seems perfectly comfortable in the sheer oddness of her life story, retelling all the moments that led to his decision to truly become a woman with a refreshing candor and humor. This is no weepy story of how she was shunned by her family and community because of her condition. Rather, it is a love story where being accepted and loved for who you are inside trumps all other considerations.
In fact, the sheer tonnage of acceptance that Boylan was confronted with with she went public with her gender is the most shocking thing in the book. Only in one short paragraph does she remark on how her sister could not accept what Boylan was (or was becoming) and it is over before you even know it. I’m not sure if this was a style decision — as I said, this book is far from weepy and primarily tells the bright side of the story — or a reality of being transgendered at Colby College, but it made the whole book much more readable. Additionally, it almost negated the oddness of the story itself. Everyone in the book accepts Boylan’s transformation, so the strangeness of a man becoming a woman is not particularly pronounced. It is treated more as a matter of course by the time Boylan does make the decision to physically become a woman.
She’s Not There was that rare book that I literally could not put down. Every moment I had, I would crack it open and every moment I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. After four years at a women’s college where transgendered students were viewed more like a hot-button issue than truly individuals, it was extremely refreshing and elucidating to read more about the personal side of being transgendered. I highly recommend this book as I seek out its sequel, I’m Looking Through You.