In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series, Assistant Professor Eva Snider recommends She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan.
If there’s one book you read about what it means to struggle with gender identity—or really, with any identity—make it Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There. She’s Not There is, at turns, joyful, hilarious, terrifying, poignant, and heartbreaking. It is, in a word, deeply human. Read this book if you are a fan of laughing, of wincing, of crying, of feeling.
Of course, there is absolutely no way I could be anywhere even close to objective when writing about She’s Not There. Like Boylan, I am transgender, and this book played a major role in my identity struggles. I would not be where I am without Boylan and this book. Additionally, Boylan is a Professor of English at Colby College in Maine—a state I consider as much my home as anywhere—and I had an opportunity to meet her and talk with her about She’s Not There while I studied at the University of Maine.
She’s Not There chronicles Boylan’s gender transition from male—born James Finney Boylan—to female. When Boylan began her transition, she was 40 years old, married with two children, and a published novelist. The memoir, then, revolves around her family, friendships, and professional life. In particular, her relationship with her children is a centerpiece, as they come to terms with having a parent living her life “in two genders.” Boylan’s close friend and colleague, Richard Russo, also plays a prominent role in the book, and he contributes an afterword that is crucial in tying the book together.
Parts of She’s Not There read like a guide to gender transition: what kinds of places you can shop, what kinds of questions you can expect to be asked, and so on. Thematically, though, the focus is on internal identity struggles, coming out and building a community of support, and the power of family. Like any good memoir, She’s Not There is not chronological—it jumps around in time quite frequently—but much of the early part of the book deals with Boylan’s coming to terms with her own identity. As the narrative progresses, Boylan deals with coming out to family and friends, meeting both resistance and support from various camps. The love of the people in Boylan’s life carries her through the process, and readers will find themselves lifted right along with her.
I’ve heard complaints that She’s Not There doesn’t address some of the darker and harder parts of a gender transition, and it’s absolutely true. Boylan addresses her own repression and some difficult family relationships, but the book mostly focuses on the positive side of her transition. There’s enough darkness in so many transgender narratives, though, that Boylan’s levity is a breath of fresh air. The joy of self-actualization is so often elided in favor of pain in similar memoirs, and I, for one, am buoyed by Boylan’s positivity.
Stylistically, She’s Not There reads like it was written by a novelist as much as a memoirist (Boylan published three novels as James). The frequent dialogue is casual, intelligent, even, dare I say, snappy. Chapters blend internal monologue and dialogue effectively. Perhaps most strikingly, Boylan has a deft hand when it comes to symbolism and imagery. Key moments in her life serve as motifs that she returns to consistently, weaving them into the story in consistently beautiful ways.
One line that runs through the story is the role of music in Boylan’s life. The title of the memoir is drawn from a song by The Zombies, and Boylan often connects her observations to songs that were important to her. If a memoir can be said to have a “climax,” the climax of She’s Not There comes when Boylan is being wheeled into the operation room singing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” as touching a moment as you will likely ever read.
Since writing She’s Not There, Boylan has become a public figure in the transgender community. She has appeared on Oprah and The Today Show, as well as been featured in documentaries. She followed She’s Not There with another memoir I highly recommend, I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir in 2008. Her latest book, Stuck in the Middle: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, is set to be released later this month. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of its publication, a new edition of She’s Not There with additional materials will also be released concurrently with Stuck in the Middle.
She’s Not There is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in gender identity and transition. When I came out to my parents, it was the very first book I recommended they read. Boylan was the first transgender author to reach the best-seller list, and there’s a reason why. But let me be clear: She’s Not There is not just for those with an investment in gender issues. It’s for anyone who has ever struggled with identity. In other words, it’s for all of us. It’s a beautiful book. Go read it, please. I’ll know you when I see you in the hallway with a smile on your face.
Boylan, Jennifer Finney. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. New York: Broadway, 2003. Print.