I went to Barnes and Noble on a cold late morning to look for something else all together. I was finally at the cusp of understanding myself and had ceased my avoidance of the topic. My preliminary research told me that True Selves was the best introduction to things transgender. I don’t know why I assumed they would have it. They did not. I did myself a favor by typing ‘transgender’ into the clunky store search engine that is heavily biased toward Nook offerings. The only thing in stock was a biography of someone I had never heard of. I picked it up anyway and cashed out.
I read the back cover again in the car and leafed through it, noting some basic similarities to my own life. I rationalized. Either this was going to hit home and I’d be driven closer to what I suspected but not quite ready to admit, or I would not be able to identify with her story and would broaden my investigation into my identity issues. In retrospect I can’t believe how dense I insisted on being, but it is important to the context in which I read She’s Not There; A Life in Two Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan.
I’ll speak to my bias first and get that out of the way. While no two lives are exactly parallel, the author’s experiences pre-transition and my own had enough similarity that I was able to immediately identify with her. Her easy, flowing writing style spoke directly to my preference that could have easily made this a one day read even if the experience wasn’t pegged to a voyage of self discovery. I’m sure exceptions exist, but it is difficult to imagine any American MtF transgender woman not responding favorably to this book and feeling a kinship to the author as a result.
What I enjoyed the most in the pre-transition portion, roughly the first half minus the first chapter, was the authors ability to convey her struggle in wrestling with a pre-aware transgender identity. This may also be bias, but her familiar attempts at self-correction were poignant but painful to read as she displayed a great deal of candor in describing the awkwardness, false hope, and self deception I was so familiar with. Many transgendered people, and myself included, face overwhelming temptation to take a revisionist approach to our pasts. In the comfort of the present, it seems nearly ludicrous to not have known ourselves and destination. The author pushed past that and managed to capture those moments true to form, as near as the reader can tell in any case.
Transition and after, the second half of the book, read just as smoothly. In the context I was reading, it was almost a guide of what to expect when you are expecting to transition. Hungry for information, it became less of a story than a manual for newly self discovering transsexuals. Reading it this way does her story a great disservice. I read it the first time in a mad grasp for fast knowledge, a second time to take notes for my therapist, but came back a third (unprecedented for me since The Hobbit back in fourth grade). On the third read I was able to come back to the overall story and read as it was intended. In this respect it was as moving and impressive as the first.
From a strictly transgender perspective, this work is wonderful in both providing a wealth of information in a very personal narrative. Because of that, it also brings a great sense of comfort. Jenny struggled, found herself married and a parent, and yet managed to transition and the world did not come to an end. I did find some of the physical aspects of transition to be slightly glossed over, but the capture of the emotional and social components well made up for it. It was gratifying to have her concentrate on the truly hard parts.
One of the reasons I picked this for my first review, other than sentiment for the first transgender work I read, was that I have no criticism to add. I do, however, have a small word of warning. The author, Jenny, is very passable. A trans reader should bear this in mind and consider some of her experiences may be atypical for those of us who were cursed with more stereotypical male features. This is not the authors fault as she tells her story as an autobiography and can only speak to her own experience.
I’m not going to bother with a scale based rating system in my reviews, but I will conclude by reaffirming that this book was excellent. In addition to speaking to my own condition of existence, I have found that it makes a superb introduction to transgender for cisgender people. I have loaned my copy out enough times that I bought a second. The feedback I received from my cisgender friends and family was overwhelmingly positive as both an enjoyable read and as real world validation of the experiences I have been trying to relate. I understand a 10th anniversary edition is coming out shortly with new material and I will be picking it up.