Jennifer Finney Boylan
Last fall I sat down to read my 2003 memoir, She’s Not There, in preparation for a new, 10th-anniversary edition. I returned to that book in the same room in which it had first been written: the study of a summer house, in the heart of winter. From outside came the sound of snow against the window glass, the warp of the water below the ice in Long Pond. I remembered hearing those sounds 10 years before as I sat in that place and looked out the window at the Maine winter, searching for the words to describe my “life in two genders.”
This exercise in time travel put me in mind of an old Amish expression: “Ve are too soon olt und too late schmart.”
I know there are plenty of people who, looking back at their younger selves, have had occasion to think, “Man, what you don’t know could fill a book.” However, I’m unique in that the book filled with the things I don’t know is an actual book.
She’s Not There, allegedly the first bestselling work by a trans American, was the first in a trilogy I wrote about gender. The second, I’m Looking Through You (2008), concerned my parents’ haunted house and the ways in which the living, too, can wind up haunted, especially by the phantoms of their younger selves. The last in the series, Stuck in the Middle With You, hits the shelves this week; it addresses the differences between being a mother and being a father and considers the time when I was betwixt and between the binary poles of gender, the parental version of the schnoodle or the cockapoo.
My boys, who were 6 and 4 when She’s Not There was begun, are now a college freshman and a high school junior, respectively. It’s my hope that having a father who became a woman has, in turn, helped my sons become better men.
Looking back on my life from the vantage point of my 50s, I’m aware that the woman I have become in middle age is perhaps less the result of hormones than of a lifetime spent telling stories. It was the writing of those books that, more than anything else, helped me understand the narrative of my own life, and those of other women like me. This isn’t a truth unique to transgender authors: It’s all of us; we write, at least in part, to learn the meaning of the stories in which we ourselves are the characters.
When I was a teenager I searched the library in vain for the story of a person I might resemble. To whom could I turn? Tiresias? Jan Morris? The Amazing Kreskin? Back then, a trip to the library was fairly certain to result in a book that was wrong about people like me, and not just a little bit wrong, or accidentally wrong, but completely, willfully, shockingly, hilariously wrong. Some of those books are still out there. Just before a recent lecture at a library in Maine, I was stationed in the stacks as I was waiting to go on. Before me, at eye level, I found a book published in the early 1970s about the transgender experience, one that, as far as I could tell, does not contain a single fact. I remembered reading it in college and thinking, “This doesn’t sound right at all.” But at age 19, who was I to challenge the wisdom of a published author, someone who, even though she was not trans herself, was hailed as an expert on the topic?
Without much in the way of dependable narrative or contemporary myth, there were ways in which I felt, in my teens, as if I did not exist. Talk about phantoms: Surely, if there were no books about lives like my own, I was fated to live a life in which I could only be invisible.