She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders

She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders

4.4 13
by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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The provocative bestseller She’s Not There is the winning, utterly surprising story of a person changing genders. By turns hilarious and deeply moving, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores the territory that lies between men and women, examines changing friendships, and rejoices in the redeeming power of family. Told in Boylan’s fresh voice, She&…  See more details below


The provocative bestseller She’s Not There is the winning, utterly surprising story of a person changing genders. By turns hilarious and deeply moving, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores the territory that lies between men and women, examines changing friendships, and rejoices in the redeeming power of family. Told in Boylan’s fresh voice, She’s Not There is about a person bearing and finally revealing a complex secret. Through her clear eyes, She’s Not There provides a new window on the confounding process of accepting our true selves.

“Probably no book I’ve read in recent years has made me so question my basic assumptions about both the centrality and the permeability of gender, and made me recognize myself in a situation I’ve never known and have never faced . . . The universality of the astonishingly uncommon: that’s the trick of She’s Not There. And with laughs, too. What a good book.” —Anna Quindlen, from the Introduction to the Book-of-the-Month-Club edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
James Boylan grew up feeling that he was a woman trapped inside a man’s body; in his early forties, he chose to risk everything, including his marriage, to pursue another identity. This journey is the subject of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. How could James—who renamed himself Jennifer—explain to his wife, Grace, and his best friend, the novelist Richard Russo, that he hadn’t felt at home in his own skin? The most moving parts of the book are the e-mail exchanges with Russo that Boylan reproduces verbatim. As much as Russo wants to believe his friend’s account of himself, he doesn’t find the character of Jenny credible: “Here, you insist, is THE REAL ME, the me I’ve kept a secret all these years. And yet [it] seems mannered, studied, implausible,” Russo writes. Russo misses the old familiarity: now, he explains in the afterword, he guards against small slips (“he” for “she”) that reveal how much he wants James back.

Noelle Howey remembers her father, Dick, as a distant presence in her childhood; he would come home, fix a drink, and retreat to his corner of the living room. So Howey feels that she gained rather than lost a parent when Dick divorced her mother and became Christine. As Christine, she was “kinder, nicer, tidier, better with children, interested in flowers and birds and chick flicks,” Howey writes in Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods - My Mother's, My Father's and Mine. It was “like the transformation of Mr. Hyde into Miss Jekyll.” Yet she wonders, “If all these wonderful traits were inside my father all along, why was gender the only means to let them out? Why wasn’t loving me—or my mother—enough?”

(Kate Taylor)
The Washington Post
Boylan's depiction of femininity, as James becomes Jenny, is fascinating and often hilarious.—Judith Warner
The New York Times
Although this story is by no means pain-free (one friend commits suicide), Ms. Boylan places her emphasis elsewhere. What she accomplishes, most entertainingly, is to draw the reader into extremely strange circumstances as if they were utterly normal. It's easy to feel, as Mr. Russo apparently did, when being told by his friend's doctor that sexual reassignment surgery and novel writing require similar precision. — Janet Maslin
Publishers Weekly
Boylan is 45 years old, but for more than 40 of those years she was James Finney Boylan. A Colby College professor and author of four books of fiction, Boylan has a good comic ear, and that humor keeps the book, which tells the story of Boylan's passage from male to female, on track if somewhat trivialized: most scenes are breezy and played for laughs. When Jenny is attacked by a drunk outside a bar, it goes largely unremarked upon; how does the man who always wanted to be a woman feel when suddenly assaulted for being just that? And when the reader is given an insight into Boylan's feelings, the news is often delivered secondhand: during a conversation with a therapist, in a letter sent to colleagues or during frequent visits with her best friend, novelist Richard Russo (who also provides a touching but similarly lightweight, afterword). Boylan's friends and colleagues pat her on the back for her courage, and yet we get hints this is only half the story: Boylan's adoring mother is mentioned often, while a disgusted sister warrants only a short mention within a brief paragraph. Boylan may be choosing to accentuate the positive, but this leaves the story feeling incomplete, which is odd given the book's striving to feel whole. The book is frequently poignant ("As it turns out, we're all still learning to be men, or women, all still learning to be ourselves"), yet those moments don't cut to the quick of the story it has to tell. (On sale Aug. 26) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Can someone who is not transsexual understand the thoughts and emotions of a person who is? In this revealing autobiography, Boylan (English, Colby Coll.), an acclaimed writer of such novels as The Constellations and The Planets, hopes to convey these complex feelings to the public. With bluntness and sincerity, Boylan opens up about the 40 years she spent living as a man, about being trapped in the wrong body, the awkwardness of never feeling appropriately dressed, the desire to live outwardly as the opposite gender, and the overwhelming longing to fit in with the mainstream. This, as she points out, is especially true when the majority of the public's knowledge of transsexuals comes from "the small fringe of the community that feels driven to behave badly on The Jerry Springer Show." Boylan names each chapter after a significant moment in her life, highlighting momentous occasions or episodes of self-discovery. Often humorous and illustrative and always enjoyable and enriching without being preachy, Boylan selflessly offers the reader all the painful details of her life as sacrifice for a better appreciation of what it means to be transsexual in today's world. Her book will do more for raising awareness of the transsexual experience than Jan Morris's Conundrum. Recommended for all libraries and special collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/03.]-Mark Alan Williams, Library of Congress Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The limpid, soul-rich story of novelist James Boylan (Getting In, 1998, etc.) becoming Jennifer Boylan. From early on, Boylan says, the idea "that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind-never." In the beautifully guileless way he has of describing his feelings, he recounts wearing women's clothes-"I'd stand around thinking, this is stupid, why am I doing this, and then I'd think, because I can't not." Because he has mercifully inherited the buoyant optimism of his mother, an optimism that will serve him well over the years to come, he is able to recount, with comic aplomb, such tidbits as, "Earlier in the evening I'd sat on a chair in that room wearing a bra and reading Lord of the Rings." He was 16. He figured if he had sex, then his sense of himself might change, or if he fell in love, maybe then. Well, he does fall in love, with the remarkable Grace, and they have children, and he gets tenure and high marks from his students at Colby, and develops a close friendship with novelist Richard Russo, also teaching at Colby. And he still wants to be a woman. In writing as sheer as stockings, artful without artifice, he explains the process of becoming Jennifer: both the physiological, which has a comfortable tactility, and the emotional repercussions among his nearest and dearest. These aren't so easy-his wife's saying, "I want what I had"; his children thinking of him, in the midst of hormonal makeover, as "boygirl"; Russo telling him that Jennifer "seems mannered, studied, implausible." Yet they all manage the sticky web of circumstance-this mysterious condition-in their own fashion, and that makes them lovable. There's a particularly poignantmoment, when they're attending a wedding and Grace turns to Jennifer, asking if she wants to dance. Serious, real, funny. Told so disarmingly that it's strong enough to defang a taboo. (Photographs)
From the Publisher
She’s Not There, the Running with Scissors of sex-change stories, brings irreverence and a merrily outrageous sense of humor to this potentially serious business.”
—Janet Maslin, New York Times

“Beautifully crafted, fearless, painfully honest, inspiring, and extremely witty. Jennifer Finney Boylan is an exquisite writer with a fascinating story, and this combination has resulted in one of the most remarkable, moving, and unforgettable memoirs in recent history.”
—Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors and Dry

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The exuberant memoir of a man named James who became a woman named Jenny.

She’s Not There is the story of a person changing genders, the story of a person bearing and finally revealing a complex secret; above all, it is a love story.
By turns funny and deeply moving, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores the remarkable territory that lies between men and women, examines changing friendships, and rejoices in the redeeming power of family. She’s Not There is a portrait of a loving marriage—the love of James for his wife, Grace, and, against all odds, the enduring love of Grace for the woman who becomes her “sister,” Jenny.
To this extraordinary true story, Boylan brings the humorous, fresh voice that won her accolades as one of the best comic novelists of her generation. With her distinctive and winning perspective, She’s Not There explores the dramatic outward changes and unexpected results of life as a woman: Jenny fights the urge to eat salad, while James consumed plates of ribs; gone is the stability of “one damn mood, all the damn time.”
While Boylan’s own secret was unusual, to say the least, she captures the universal sense of feeling uncomfortable, out of sorts with the world, and misunderstood by her peers. Jenny is supported on her journey by her best friend, novelist Richard Russo, who goes from begging his friend to “Be a man” (in every sense of the word) to accepting her as an attractive, buoyant woman. “The most unexpected thing,” Russo writes in his Afterword to the book, “is in how Jenny’s story we recognize our shared humanity.”
As James evolvesinto Jennifer in scenes that are by turns tender, startling, and witty, a marvelously human perspective emerges on issues of love, sex, and the fascinating relationship between our physical and our intuitive selves. Through the clear eyes of a truly remarkable woman, She’s Not There provides a new window on the often confounding process of accepting ourselves.

Author Biography:

JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN is cochair of the English department at Colby College, where she was voted Professor of the Year in 2000. As James Finney Boylan, she wrote the critically praised novels The Constellations, The Planets, and Getting In, as well as a collection of short stories. She lives in Maine with her family.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
She’s Not There, the Running with Scissors of sex-change stories, brings irreverence and a merrily outrageous sense of humor to this potentially serious business.” —Janet Maslin, New York Times

“Beautifully crafted, fearless, painfully honest, inspiring, and extremely witty. Jennifer Finney Boylan is an exquisite writer with a fascinating story, and this combination has resulted in one of the most remarkable, moving, and unforgettable memoirs in recent history.” —Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors and Dry

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She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read Jennifer's book when my son told us that he was transgender and was switching genders. Her book helped me to understand how my daughter was feeling and what she was going to go through. It is a very moving and enlightening book. Thank you for writing about you and your family, and for being so honest. Your book was easy to read and understand. THANK YOU!!! You are wonderful!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
College students enjoyed this read. Light -hearted and comical, the book changed many students' minds against the socially constructed, dichotomous nature of gender in our culture. Rather than criticizing Boylan for being selfish in her decision to change genders, students began to think that perhaps the question should be re-directed: How can society be so selfish as to disallow transgendered individuals the options to become who they are?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I saw Jenny on Oprah. I decided to read the book. This book changed my mind and point of view on transgenders. I actually feel as though I know Jenny now. It is a book about being faithful, having courage and love. Good book highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading this book I realized how very much we all have in common with each other. I also realized that fear has a way of keeping us static in our lives. This book motivated me into making great leaps in my life-finally! Thanks Jen, I owe you a big one!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was one of the most interesting, thought provoking and wonderful books I have read in my life. James, Jennifer and Grace as well as Richard Russo are simply fantastic and special people. Thanks Grace for being a first rate human being, thanks Richard for defining FRIEND and thanks to the children for being children and part of the epoxy that holds these special people together. And Thank you Jennifer for having the guts to do what was right, become you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed learning about Jenny's struggle with her gender. It also makes you examine what it means to just be your self. It is well-written and takes a light-hearted and humorous approach to a serious topic.
IanWood 6 days ago
I swore after my last outing with this author that I wouldn't read another, but I'd forgotten that I'd ordered this book from the library, so I gave it a whirl in the hope that it would be better than Stuck in the Middle With You which I reviewed negatively back in October 2015. It wasn't! This one just arrived at my excellent local library, and so, hoping it would be more focused upon what I was interested in, I plunged in. The problem was that this was just like the other (or that was just like this!). It was just as dissipated, random, lackluster and as meandering as the other one was. This disappointed me. Like the other book, this one was all over the place, starting in 2001 with a random encounter with two girls, one of whom had been a student of the author's when she was a both a professor of English and a he. This had taken place two years before the publication of the book. The second chapter referred us back to 1968. The third jumped up to 1974, then there was a weird interlude, after which we're off to 1979, and then to 1982. No. Just no! I confess I don't get this "Nauseating Grasshopper" technique which, as a martial art, would undoubtedly be a deadly and disorientating fighting style, but which is nothing but irritating and off-putting as a literary conceit (and I use that last word advisedly). It's the same kind of thing which was employed in the other book and at a point just 50 pages in, I started to realize that I had little interest in continuing to read this despite the engrossing and important topic. I only ever had two English professors (post high school) and both of them were great in their own way. How this English professor can write a book about a n important and fundamentally interesting topic, yet make such a pig's ear out of it is beyond my understanding. Perhaps it's precisely because it was written by an English professor that it's so bad. Perhaps you have to have a certain distance from the language in some way I can't quite define, to be able to execute a story successfully in it. If the skipping around like a cat on a hot tin roof had revealed anything, I could have maybe got with it, but it didn't. This wasn't a coherent story, not even remotely. It was an exhibition (and I mean that in the most derogatory sense) of miniatures - of impressionistic paintings in water colors that were so lacking in definition that they were essentially meaningless stains on old, discarded canvasses. They conveyed nothing, and I can no more recommend this than I could finish it. I wanted to learn just what had gone on with this guy who was really a girl, and I wanted to hear it in her own words, but I couldn't because she's not there.' This review first appeared on Ian Wood's Novellum
DaBee More than 1 year ago
I loved it. It is so real, moving, and inspirational. I truly admire Jenny and her journey towards becoming her real self. Would recommend this to anybody!
Guest More than 1 year ago
What, really, is the essence of gender? How does it intersect with some of the universal human experiences--love, or the seeking of it; friendship; the nurturing of children? How, if at all, is Jennifer Boylan different from James Boylan as a beloved and popular teacher? To what extent is being the person he was/is--including, prior to 'outing' his transexualism, a sensitive person inhabiting a body that didn't fit his concept of himself--part of what makes him able to be so effective with students? What fascinating questions! How lucky we are to have this gentle and intelligent book to enjoy, and perhaps to shed some light on these and other questions about what it means to be human!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The last thing I want to read is another tell-all by a transsexual. As a 'trans' person myself, and researching this subject in academia to boot, I have read a thousand books on this. I found myself tired to death of hearing about the details of putting on Mom's high heels or Dad's wingtips at age three. But a friend gave me this book and commanded 'Read!' Despite myself, I found myself enchanted by the author's nuanced, delicate brushstrokes. The interrupted chronology and the short story format gives an experience of core samples of a life itself interrupted by social stigma and a staggered path towards self-awareness. I have never read a more intriguing account.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book recently at a friend's suggestion, and although unsure of what I would find within the pages, I became completely attached to Jenny ... and James before that. This story is an amazing true-to-life recollection of one of the hardest things a man could ever imagine dealing with, until he faced it and found out how strong that made him. Jenny is a powerful writer, her words brought her feelings to life. As a new social worker I have never worked w. transgendered individuals, but appreciate the opportunity given to me in these pages to learn and understand the experience of becoming a woman, when one isn't *born* one. Thanks, Jenny!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do I believe in God. Well, yes I do. And I also believe the chaos you are experiencing comea from you fear.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Okay.So I didn`t read the book but I heard the story on Oprah. And okay so im underage ever so slightly.But the story was amazing. Really. Read the book and tell me what you think so I can read it when im 18.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NO! When has normal become chaos, why does it seem like people should question their very own gender, and even more confounding is WHY ARE WE SUPPORTING THESE CRAZY MIXED UP PEOPLE?! If anyone is reading this who claims to be a Christian ask yourself this, DO YOU BELIEVE IN ALMIGHTY GOD AND THAT EVERYTHING HE MADE, INCLUDING MANKIND, IS GOOD? If so, then you know God does not make mistakes, YES, every man and woman He created is GOOD! So be really careful when you start feeling empathy for someone who questions his or her gender, because in essence you are questioning almighty God who has declared that all He created is GOOD.