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Review: She’s Not There – A Life In Two Genders 10th Anniversary Edition

She's Not ThereThe first time I picked up Jennifer Finney Boylan’s autobiographical work, She’s Not There; A Life in Two Genders, I was in a pretty terrible place. I hadn’t yet dared to use ‘the T word’ to describe myself, but I was starting to get very close. I paged through it in the Barnes and Noble parking lot while an early November snow began to come down. “This is either going to be so strange that I know I’m on the wrong track, or it’s going to be way too familiar and then I’m in big trouble.” I think you can guess where it landed.

For anyone unfamiliar, She’s Not There traces the author’s life from her time as a young child up to just after her full gender transition. Within she describes the strange disconnect between her body and spirit with regard to gender and the impact this had on her life. The first half encompasses her attempts to escape her innate feminine identity, while the second outlines her personal transition from a male life to a female one. While she spends time on the mechanics of transition, she frames the stages in the context of her personal life, her family and friends, and the overall impact to an existence that continues to progress independent of the changes she is making. The new edition includes an update to inform the reader what she has been doing for the past 10 years and the long term effect of her transition. Also included are afterwards by her closest friend, the novelist Richard Russo, and her spouse Deidre who appears as ‘Grace’ in the novel.

The first read, two and a half years ago, was fantastic for me. Someone was finally speaking my language, and in a way that was very easy to understand, even though the lingo was all very new to my experience. Funny, engaging, poignant, and a little heartbreaking; I identified strongly with every word right up to the point where she decided to go back to the therapy that culminated with, “That evening just before sundown, Grace was in tears, her heart broken in two.” It hit me hard; my own worst fear about this whole identity question business by far. Beyond my personal experience, the remainder for me became a “What to Expect When You Are Expecting to Transition” manual; a little peek into the future about what might be in store.

The 10th Anniversary edition came out and found me moved on considerably from that shaky, frightened male sitting in his car. Now a great deal of the book was very identifiable to my personal experience as I rocket toward my surgery date, and I was able to read it much differently. My original intention was to just read the updates, but after browsing the first chapter, I found myself pulled in again, now certain that I had probably missed much in spite of my highlighting and note taking from 30 months prior. I’m very glad that happened.

No longer hungry for basic knowledge about transgender life, I was able to appreciate how much of the work was devoted to impact her transition had on everyone around her. Most transition stories have a sense of very selfish self indulgence about them that is inherent to the process. She manages to transcend this and is cognizant how the people in her circle and periphery are affected on a very personal and emotional level while holding true to the very real necessity of taking action before the situation becomes unmanageable. This perspective gives readers unfamiliar with transition as well as those who may be embroiled within it a global view of the process.

This is clearly not a work that is intended to be a ‘how to’ for transgender people and the people in their lives. While it gives sufficient detail to impart clear understanding, it remains a biographical account. From my point of view, this makes it a much richer read as the story is character driven narrative within the broader context of fairly unusual circumstances. Much like the TV series Lost, the questions of why are far less important than what happens to the people we come to identify with.

The last chapter update, and the sole reason I originally intended to pick this up to begin with, would have made this worthwhile on a standalone basis. It can’t be easy to pick up where one left off in a work a decade prior, but she makes it seem effortless. I won’t share the details and spoil the ending (for the most part), but I feel it well conveyed the personal evolution she experienced after a full decade plus of female life. There were a few powerful moments that brought tears to my eyes as she revisited her childhood home, the Coffin House, but overall the message was one of hope for those with the tenacity to proceed in a generous and conscientious manner. I loved the last line, cleverly tied to a moment in her childhood, that simply reads, “He’s not there”.

I will stick with my original recommendation that this is an excellent read for anyone at all interested in gender transition, and for those who may not, but enjoy a well woven autobiography. Although not always true of most autobiographical accounts, the story alone is so well told that it would stand as a work of fiction and remain equally as compelling. I’m very looking forward to reading and reviewing her follow on work on the subject titled Stuck In the Middle With You that tackles the very difficult subject of parenting while undergoing transition and after.

My original review is here.

About michellelianna

I'm a transgender woman now in the maintenance stages of transition having all the electrolysis and surgery one can reasonably be expected to undertake. While busy exploring my new world, I took to blogging about it with dubiously popular results. I don't have quite as much to say as I used to, but I'm not quite done yet either.

12 responses »

  1. You know, I have to say that I had the reverse attitude after reading this book. It seemed to me that the Author had a more or less privileged life before transition and that not much had changed after that. The two characters I felt for (not the author) in that book were the salesperson at the support meeting who stopped coming (and may have finally committed suicide) and the other person who had the op and was all alone.

    In fact I was so angry that I finally started my long term Real Life Trips and Gender Transition for Innocents. See the intro of the 2nd one for a reference to the idea of a “How to” book. Both are still ongoing projects.

  2. Jessica McIntosh

    I read this after I figured out I was transgender and started my transition. Somewhere less than two months after I figured it out. Her perspective helped me out tremendously and gave me hope. This is a wonderful book for anyone new to being transgender.

    • Timing sister! Same as me – 2 months after reading I was sitting across from Dr. M- saying, “I think I might be transgender and need to do something about it.” 🙂

      • Jessica McIntosh

        *giggles* Before I read this I had already talked to my general therapist and possibly my psychiatrist. I told them I am transgender and I need a gender therapist.I jumped into my transition without reservations and went about as fast as I could. In literally a week I went from questioning to knowing then coming out to my wife and getting started. I went fulltime about 6 months after that week.

  3. I just read this book last weekend, for the first time. Like your first time, I found the story “way too familiar,” and while I already know I’m in “big trouble,” reading it did make some feelings a little raw for a few days. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it forced me to think more realistically about what I’m headed towards. As you note, the book is as much about how her transition affected those she cared about; and that’s something that’s hard to think about when you’re in the middle of what is, in a lot of ways, a very selfish process.

    • It really gave me pause the same way. In the end though, it changed nothing about what I had to do, but I think reading it made me more aware of my surroundings, and honestly, it made a huge difference in the ease of my transition.

  4. I read her book at the reccomendation of my therapist. i told her at our next session the book gave me the strength to embrace the “transgender” label, and stop all the internal struggles I’d been battling with.

    • Isn’t it so hard putting that label on yourself for the first time? Unlike Jenny, I was not able to think of myself in such a definitive term. My very last avoidance was thinking of my gender identity as “liquid”. Finally I had to admit that it simply didn’t flow to the male end of the pool.

      • It was something I’d always known about myself; it was just a matter of self acceptance I suppose.

      • Jessica McIntosh

        The more I read about other transgender people the stranger my transition feels. I embraced the label four days after I first started questioning. I always knew I wasn’t a typical “guy” and had embraced that for more than half my life. I simply never knew how far that went till that week.

  5. Jessica Hightower

    “she’s Not There”, was the first TS related book I ever read and I found myself reaching for a high-liter underlining many sentences, thoughts and ideas where I was just nodding my head and thinking, “me too”!

    It was a great book and I will be buying the new release and will read it front to back. Thanks for the great write up on the book!

    • Thanks Jessica! I still have my old highlighted copy, but sometime in the coming out process I threw away all my sticky notes because I thought they were silly. Kind of wish I saved them because it’s so hard now putting myself back in that mindset and having that feeling of being utterly screwed by the universe. I would very much recommend reading it again – it was such a different read this time, new material aside of course. 🙂


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