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Stuck In the Middle With You

stuck%20in%20the%20middle%20with%20youAfter I begged for a review copy of Jenny Boylan’s 10th anniversary edition of She’s Not There, I received a pleasant surprise in the box. Also included was a hardcover copy of her newest offering, Stuck In the Middle With You: Parenting in 3 Genders. Now, I’ve come to notice that my book reviews are about as popular as my mother-in-law when she cracks open a can of sardines on the plane, but I can’t let this go without saying something about it. After all, it was pretty fantastic.

The format of Stuck (what I’m going to call it in lieu of the usual convention of using the acronym SITMWY:PI3G for economy of letters) ran a little differently than She’s Not There in a few ways. For one, instead of a strictly linear narrative, there are interviews with several personages of greater or lesser note on the topic of parenting. I thought these were good additions to the topic, but I’ll speak more on them later. The rest was a direct continuation of the first work, though this time with names reverted back to original to unprotect both the innocent and directly affiliated. Fortunately she explains this well enough that even the most easily confused among us can follow.

I’m going to start with a huge positive about this work. For those of us who have been through, are in the middle of, or contemplating transition, the Jenny we met in She’s Not There was the cats ass in the transgender world. While suffering the same dysphoria most of us are familiar with, she still managed to survive, marry and stay with her partner, and worked her way into stellar career as professor, departmental co-chair, and author. Add to this that she seems to have achieved total passability microseconds after kicking off transition, and got to go on Oprah. In Stuck, however, we get to see a different side of Jenny that I found far more gratifying and endearing.

In her new work, she is willing to show her vulnerability in issues outside of transition allowing the reader, or at least myself, to have a far easier time identifying with her. Aside from living what would appear to be a picture perfect life in a very non-Stevenkingesque Maine making delicious sounding pizza all the time, she recounts struggles that many of us are well familiar with. Children who bring us to the edge of insane rage, the feeling of having one’s heart walking around outside their body and seeing it crash into a gully, and even the temptation breach years of celibacy out of a yearning to finally test drive the new equipment. Where we admire and seek to be like the Jenny from She’s Not There, we can feel like the Jenny in Stuck really is one of us.

The interviews I have mixed feelings about. Each of them explored a different aspect of the parenting experience and came from very different points of view. While each was enlightening in and of itself, I did feel that a few of them only had the most loose affiliations with the overall theme of the book. While gold in a general book about perspectives in parenting, some shown through as tarnished silver in a book that sold itself as being about parenting in 3 genders as the subtitle suggests. My favorite was the interview with Dr Christine McGinn, and I’ll be honest, I skipped ahead and read this first before anything else. I can also admit I’m biased here as she is going to be doing my surgery this fall, and any insight I can get about someone who is going to poking and snipping around in an area I’m super sensitive about is going to make me feel better.

Her writing, as always, is very engaging and continuously invites the reader to keep moving forward without resorting to hackneyed tactics like cliff-hangers. She paints a vivid picture with her words, and there is great clarity of what she is trying to convey. At the same time, the material is very thought provoking, allowing the readers to imagine themselves in her shoes, creating a minor conflict as whether to continue reading on or ruminate for a little bit. I like this because it’s suited for any mood; something harder to accomplish than commonly acknowledged.

This book is very much for you if you are transgender, transgender with children, or simply a parent of any gender demographic. The common experience translates across all. If any of these are you, I would highly recommend picking this up and having yourself an enjoyable and educational read. If you are confirmed childless, single, or either and cisgender, this may not hold your interest to the same degree as the aforementioned populations. It is not for me to say you will not gain anything from this as I think it would broaden your horizons and worldview, but I can’t guarantee the same level of enjoyment if the material is too foreign. I would imagine very few readers of this blog fall into that category, but still.

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.

Conditions to Transition

I saw a newsfeed come up on Jenny Boylan’s FB updates that seemed to cause a lot of hullabaloo. Rather than get lost among the many dozens of commenter’s, I thought the notion deserved a little more thought than a quick “yeah!” or “here are 17 points of disagreement that will never be read”. Imagine, me with opinions! I’ve become such a cheeky lass in my middle age.

The big issue was that Jenny congratulated a FB trans friend for having the courage to decide not to transition, or at the very least delay it until a later date. Yes, yes, I can hear you gasp from way over here, but stay with me a moment, because it’s the reason behind the gasping outrage I would like to discuss. It does hit a nerve though, doesn’t it?

We all know no one transitions on a whim, waking up one morning, stretching, and thinking, “yeah, I think today I’ll start living as the gender other than the one I had been.” I can only speak for myself, but until I was able to come to terms with my identity, make the leap forward to do something about it, I was seriously starting to lose it. If I could look into a parallel dimension and view the me who decided to tough it out as a male, I’m very sure I would be looking at a wretched wreck of a human being, probably jobless and single but due to a much less amiable path. Ugh. No way! If it looks like I’m going out either way, I’m at least doing it as me. Those of you on the path of transition know what I’m talking about.

Here is why it strikes a discord when we hear of those who decided not to transition, or worse yet, changed their mind mid transition. It can be frightfully invalidating. After all the endless explanation to everyone affected by our transition, defending the absolute necessity in the face of all catastrophe, anyone can point to this person and say, “well, she didn’t have to do it, are you sure you did?” It was a real piece of work convincing yourself to begin with, then everyone else, and right there is an example to the contrary. It’s hard not to get rankled by the concept. It falls in parallel with a gay man saying he acknowledges his homosexuality, but is sticking with women.

Where I understand naary feelings this idea engenders, and I do get them as well, I also have to acknowledge that we don’t really know what it’s like to be in those shoes. In mortal terror of both the devil and the deep blue sea, sometimes going with the known evil is all a person can muster. They certainly aren’t doing it to give you a harder time with it all, but making the best possible decision in alignment with their capabilities. We know what it’s like to be hanging on by a thread, and sometimes that thread is all we have until the right time comes.

Did this person have courage to make this decision? I think so. Think about it and take your own sensibilities out of the picture, because really, aside from a little kick in the cred, it doesn’t mean much to you. They got to the point where they were able to admit being trans. They probably already told a whole lot of people about it. They may have begun the process. Then to go back and decide not to continue. Ugh! No one who knows is going to look at them the same again. Everyone is going to wonder when the shoe is finally going to drop. The specter of transition out of necessity to survive always lingering, just waiting for the right moment of mental weakness. It takes courage and grit to know thyself and chose the other path. I’m reasonably certain it is not any less bloody than our own, but without the benefit of at least being you. I don’t understand it. I just don’t have that. I can admit it sounds much harder than anything I would like to do though.

At the end of the day, no matter what our feelings are about it, this person is going to do what is best for their situation. Whether we agree, disagree, hate them, applaud them, or ignore it completely, it doesn’t matter. On that point I think we can all agree from experience.

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