Q & A: Two Lives, Jennifer Finney Boylan

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan ’80 (Broadway Books, 2003) is the true story of a man who becomes a woman. Since early childhood, James Finney Boylan felt he was living in the wrong body, but he kept this feeling a secret from those closest to him for much of his life. He went on to become a loving husband, a responsible father, an admired professor, and an acclaimed comic novelist. After spending more than 40 years as a man, he decided to change his gender with the support of his family, friends, and several doctors. In her column in Newsweek magazine, Anna Quindlen wrote that the book “is a very funny memoir of growing up confused and a very smart consideration of what it means to be a woman…But it is also about how good people can be.”

 

Q: In the past you’ve published several works of fiction. What prompted you to write a memoir?

 

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: Well, in some ways it would have been wiser not to write a memoir, as the book has meant giving up a large measure of my privacy. On the other hand, there were too many good stories here, and if you’re a writer, that’s what you do, you write. I couldn’t not tell these stories.

 

Q: How does your book address some misconceptions by the general public about what it means to be transgendered?

 

JB: Clearly, the book shows that this is something a transgendered individual struggles with throughout his or her life. It’s also clear, I hope, that this has nothing to do with being gay or lesbian. That’s about sexual orientation; being transgendered is about identity.

 

I hope what’s also clear is that this isn’t about being masculine or feminine; it has nothing to do with affect. What it’s about is maleness, or femaleness, which is something else entirely; the root causes of transsexuality are believed to be genetic. And genetics is a matter separate from fashion. Janet Reno and Dolly Parton, for example, represent two different forms of being female. While one might question their sartorial styles, no one would ever argue that either of them is not a woman. I moved forward with transition not in order to be either Janet or Dolly, but to be Jenny Boylan.

 

Q: Your writing often involves comic situations—even your memoir, which deals with several serious issues. Would you talk about the role of humor in your books—and in your life?

 

JB: It’s odd that Americans are so highly suspicious of comic writers; we tend to think that humor is an inappropriate response to intellectual and emotional issues. But I have always felt that humor is a much more complex emotion than tragedy—or at the very least it should be recognized as a very close companion of sorrow. I think being right in that seam between what is comic and what is tragic is a very good place for a writer; it’s the place where most of us spend our lives, anyhow.

 

Q: Some of the most touching portions of your memoir deal with your relationship with your partner, Grace, and your children. How has changing genders affected these relationships?

 

JB: My children have been almost entirely unaffected by this change, so far anyway, although partly that’s because we worked very hard to make sure their passage would be as trauma-free as possible. But on the whole my children have demonstrated the resilience typical of the very young; they were the ones who, early on, decided to change what they called me to “Maddy”—a hybrid of Mommy and Daddy.

 

My relationship with Grace is more difficult to discuss. She was faced with a choice no one should have to face. In order to enable the person she loved to become herself, she had to give up what was most precious to her.

 

Since my transition we have all continued to live as a family, and, on a good day, what we retain—our love for each other, our friendships, our lives together—outweighs what we have lost. They aren’t all good days, though.

 

Q: Your memoir includes a brave letter you wrote to the Colby community about being transgendered. What was the reaction?

 

JB: The college community’s reaction was a mixture of love and support on the one hand, and complete indifference on the other. There were virtually no negative reactions, and I did receive lots of positive feedback. At the same time, Colby’s President, Bro Adams (and a former administrator at Wesleyan), suggested that this was a “nonissue” for the college, that it was basically a private matter, and that to the degree it affected Colby at all, it was pretty obvious that the proper thing to do was to support me as a professional and a colleague.

 

I have to make the point here that there are tens of thousands of transgendered people in this country, and that someone going through this transition is hardly the unheard-of thing it might have been 50 years ago. On the whole the country has become more sophisticated regarding gender issues. I was not the first transsexual most people in my community had heard of, or met. And believe me, if people get this in rural Maine, they can get it anywhere.

 

Q: Friendships have played an important part in your life. You write frankly about your friendship with Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Richard Russo, who initially found it difficult to accept you as a woman. Was this hard to write about?

 

JB: It was important for me that my memoir not be self-congratulatory and narcissistic. So I included my relationship with Rick as one of the three major stories in the book and allowed his initial “dissent” with me to stand in for all of the readers who, although they may well be liberal-minded, open-hearted individuals, nevertheless have serious reservations about what they see as the moral consequences of my “choice.”

 

That it was not a “choice” and that Rick came to understand this, was important. In telling the story of Rick and me, I hoped to show how people do come around to support the people they love, even when it’s difficult.

 

The joke I tell sometimes is that seven years ago, when Russo and I shared a small office in the English department at Colby, one afternoon we said, “Okay, by the year 2002, one of us will become a woman, and the other will win the Pulitzer Prize.” And so we flipped a coin. And he lost.

 

Q: You’ve appeared on television on The Oprah Show and Today, and you’ve been the subject of a number of interviews and editorials. What has it been like to get so much attention?

 

JB: It’s a little unnerving. At the same time, the public response has been extraordinary. I get hundreds of e-mails a day from people around the world. The ones that touch me the most aren’t the ones from other transgendered people, which are actually a fairly small fraction of the whole; they’re the ones from other people who have their own issues, their own struggles, people who are hoping to find the courage to follow their own journeys, whatever they are.

 

Q: Your courses are very popular with students at Colby. In fact, students proclaimed you Professor of the Year in 2000. What do you hope to share with your students?

 

JB: My own experience as a transgendered person has exactly zero relevance to my role as a teacher. My students aren’t there to talk about me; they’re there to learn about American literature or fiction writing or screenwriting, and it’s my job to help them learn what they need to learn. I mean, if students see me as a good role model, that’s fine, but I think there are a lot of good role models besides me.

 

In the long run, to my students as well as other people, the fact that I’m transgendered is probably the least important thing about me. Maybe it’s unusual, but what’s more important is what makes me familiar: that I’m a writer, or a good teacher, or a parent, or a friend.

 

Q: Has your writing style or material changed, now that you’re openly a woman?

 

JB: I think the biggest change in my writing is not going from a supposedly “male” style to a “female” one—whatever that might mean. I think it’s going from the voice of someone with a secret to the voice of someone without one. I think my voice is more relaxed and measured now. But who knows? Maybe this is as much about being 45 as it is about being female. I mean, when I published my first novel I was barely 30. Fifteen years later, what can I tell you? I’m tired.

 

Q: What writing projects do you have planned for the future?

 

JB: I hope to return to fiction with my next project. I have another set of autobiographical pieces in store, but I think I’ll pause before writing another memoir.

 

Q: Near the end of the book, you and one of your sons talk about the possibility of a miracle. Do you believe miracles can happen in life?

 

JB: Anyone who has raised children or fallen in love knows that miracles happen every day.

 

In my own way, I’m actually grateful to have been given this odd condition. While it was the source of great melancholy, both for me as well as for the people I love, it’s also been a gift. I’ve had the unique opportunity to see into the lives of both men and women. Isn’t that what we do in life, try to take the thing that is our greatest sorrow and make it into a strength? What I’ve learned, though, is that miracles don’t happen without help. In my own case, it was all made possible because of the faith and support of the people that I love.

 

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David Low

David Low '76 writes about arts and culture for the Wesleyan magazine and Wesleyan Connection. He is associate director of publications in the Office of University Communications. He is also a published fiction writer. E-mail: dlow@wesleyan.edu