She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Reviewed by Becky Haney, Spring 2012
She’s Not There is an outstanding memoir by Jennifer Finney Boylan about her journey as a MtF transgender individual. Boylan’s story is much more than just that, however. Readers travel back in time with Jenny as she shares her childhood, teenage years, and part of her adult life living as a male, named James.
It seemed Jenny knew from a very young age that the gender she felt didn’t match the body she was born with:
“since then, the awareness that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind—never, although my understanding of what it meant to be a boy, or a girl, was something that changed over time” (19).
For most of her life, Jenny lived as James and hoped that those feelings would just go away, and if she was able to find happiness, that might happen. When Jenny was still living as James she met and fell in love with a woman named Grace whom she eventually married and had two sons with. After several years of marriage and a successful career as a college professor, Jenny finally said “enough is enough” (120) and realized she needed to share her feelings with her loved ones. Boylan gives a very honest presentation of her transition and how her family reacts to it.
The memoir is filled with a lot of great insight into the trans community. For example, Jenny explains “[B]eing gay or lesbian is about sexual orientation” and “[B]eing transgendered is about identity” (p. 21). I think that is very important for people to realize when trying to understand the trans community. Jenny explains that most people have a hard time distinguishing between sexual orientation and gender identity (123). For some reason many people just associate the two together. For example, someone asked Jenny (when she was still living as James) if she would still remain married to Grace after she went through the surgery, and would that make her a lesbian? For Jenny it was easy she said growing up she was just always so intrigued by women that she didn’t believe it would change just because her appearance changed she was still the same woman, so she does not feel as though she is a lesbian (124). As a society it seems to be very important to try to compartmentalize people into groups based on their gender, race, class, etc. I think this story does a good job of trying to eliminate that practice.
One of my favorite parts of the story occurred before Jenny had the surgery but during the time of taking hormones. Jenny described all the changes that occurred during this time and she said a lot of them were painful and sometimes embarrassing. She describes the period from 2000-2001 as the “boy-girl” stage. She said there are three steps with the MtF transformation (before surgery) that go like this: Step 1- “Hey that guy looks a little weird”, Step 2- “Hey that person looks really weird” to Step 3- “Whoa that chick is ugly” (p.151-152). It was very refreshing that Jenny had such a great sense of humor through her transition. This easily could have been an extremely depressing story but the fact that Boylan took a lighter approach and added a sense of realness to her writing made it much more enjoyable and memorable.