Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book review: "She's Not There; 10th Anniversary Edition" by Jennifer Finney Boylan

I've reviewed many books in my day.  I've done them on TG Forum and in my teaching jobs. 

I received a message from Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan asking bloggers to review her two new releases.  The first is She's Not There; 10th Anniversary Edition and the other is Stuck in the Middle with You.  Both were released a couple of days ago.

I agreed to do so.  The review of Stuck in the Middle with You will happen when I finish reading it.  Funny that.

As my fanatical readers will recall, I met Professor Boylan at the Keystone Conference, where she spoke.  She was kind enough to sign a copy of her book for me.  Full story here.

She told me to call her Jenny, so having said that, I will do so for the rest of this review.  Even though it's kind of informal.  But then again, so is this blog.  So there.  Nyah.

Disclosure:  She's Not There changed my life, and I'm a bit of a fan-girl.  That said, I'll be as impartial as I can... and as a professional educator and editor I can do impartial VERY well.

Right.  So what does one say about a book so many have already reviewed and read?  A quick search of the net reveals reviews by the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. 

Well, that's easy- by discussing what I found in the book, and what it meant to me, and answering three important questions:

1) Why should someone who may be Transgender read this book?

2) Why should someone who ISN'T Transgender read this book?

3) Should the loved ones of a Transgender person read this book?

Ok, I encountered this book for the first time several years ago.  This was back when I was deep in denial.  I'd just finished reading Josh Kilmer Purcell's  I am Not Myself these Days, which is about a former drag queen.  A friend recommended I read Jenny's book as well.  So I did.  Never admitted to it to her though.  No, I'm not proud of that.

If you've never read it, (and if you haven't shame on you!  Run out and buy it right now.  I'll wait.)
She's Not There is Jenny's Journey.  She starts in her youth in Devon, PA (maybe two miles from where I sit typing this) in a Haunted House perfectly named Coffin House.  She discusses how she reacts to people.  And to herself and the growing knowledge of who she truly is.  Her journey has many interesting Ports of Call, including Ireland and exotic places like... Baltimore. 

And, not to spoil it, it discusses her transition to inevitable Womanhood.  She discusses how it affected her wife and friends.  Oh, did I mention she's friends with Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo, and that he ALSO wrote an afterward to the book?  No?  Well I just did.

Jenny's prose is extremely engaging and draws the reader into her life.  I felt like a confidant, not a reader.  When I finished, I was left with a sadness... that I was leaving a friend behind.  I wanted to know more.  Fortunately, she had the second book available-  I'm Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted.  That continued the story and explored different themes.

That story now continues in Stuck in the Middle with You.  Which, as I mentioned, I am reading, and will review.  And I'm savoring that book, btw.

Scholarly Enough?

So.  Reading Jenny's book was a very personal journey, and not just because of her prose style.  To drag a cliche screaming from the vault, it was like a Bomb went off inside me.  She Knew!  She knew how I felt... and that was dangerous.  Very.  After all, there was the denial thing.  I spun into a bit more of a depression until I managed to bury the feelings.  And when Sophie emerged some months later, I re-read the book.

Her story is like so many of ours.  Most of us know the pain she felt.  That said, the way she dealt with it is comforting.  The fact that she managed to rise above all the possible issues is nothing short of incredible.  Is hers a typical transition? 

IS there a typical transition?

No.  She was very fortunate, and she know it.  She gives all credit to her family.  Speaking of family, the new 10th anniversary edition has a new preface by the author and an afterward by her wife, Deidre. 

That's the bit that even people who have read the book before have not read.  So... is that bit alone worth the price of purchase?  I'll come back to that one.

So, the answer to question one:  Why should someone who may be Transgender read this book?

Because she tells our story.  Extremely Well.  So if you know the story, why read hers?  Because it's in the telling.  The WAY it's told.  The WAY she approaches it all.  She mixes pain and humor brilliantly.  One moment you're wallowing in her pain, the next laughing at an absurdity deftly chronicled.  One hell of a ride!

Why should someone who ISN'T Transgender read this book? 
See above.  If a cisgender person wants a window to our world, to understand how and why we are, this book is perfect. 

Should the loved ones of a Transgender person read this book?

Absolutely.  There are other books out there that address this audience very specifically (Helen Boyd's come directly to mind), but the reasons I cite above apply here as well.  Then there's the wonderful example of Jenny's wife and her perseverance.

Remember I mentioned that she wrote an afterward?  Bingo!  Her afterward is short, but powerful. In it, she discusses her side  of the saga.  She also discusses the feedback she has received, and she makes a very good point about it.  What was that point?  Read the book.

So, are the additional bits worth the price of repurchasing the book for people who have the previous edition?  (at your favorite local bookstore, naturally- keep them in business!)  I say Yes.  Jenny brings the story up to date and it's like catching up with an old friend.  Also, the aforementioned part by Deidre really lends the book perspective and another layer to ponder.  We can look into their lives, and feel maybe a little bit of comfort.

Comfort.  Ours is a lonely path.  Many times we sit alone, crying to ourselves and wishing the pain away.  Others have done this as well, though, if not all of us.  The greatest gift that books like She's Not There give us is to show us that we aren't the only ones who feel this way.  And sometimes, it can all work out.  And even if it doesn't, well sometimes we can laugh away the pain.

That's the joy of Reading.  Of Stories.  And of this Book.


  1. Thanks for posting this review. She's Not There is a terrific book. Jenny is an excellent writer, smart, honest and funny. She chronicles her journey so well.

    I hope more people outside the transgender community read She's Not There and get to know this amazing person.

  2. Sophie,

    Your writing style is amazing. It is straightforward and digressive, engaging and frustrating, aggressive but calming, disjointed but so cohesively you that I simply enjoy going along for the ride.

    You are not a simple person and your writing can not be read casually. You force the reader to pay attention.

    You may be at your best doing book reviews.

    Thank you.