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She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders

Like many people who enjoy reading, I have lots of books in my to-be-read pile. It seems like it’s rare that I get a chance sit down and enjoy a good read. On the other hand, the time I spend going to and from work is sort of dead. A few months ago, it dawned on me I should try to listen to audiobooks during the commute. I tried listening to podcasts in the past, and enjoyed them, but there are so many podcasts, it was hard to find the ones that were interesting, or if I did find them interesting, then they were likely to be years outdated.

When looking for books to listen to, I looked at the ones in my to-be-read pile and tried to figure out what I wanted to read, but didn’t have time for. She’s Not There was the first one I tried. I’m an aficionado of biographies and autobiographies, but I’m also curious about transgender people, since their lives seem quite removed from mine, and I thought reading this book might give me a better appreciation of the difficulties they go through.

First thing I want to say is that this is well written, and since this was an audiobook, it was also well narrated by the author. As Boylan has been a college English professor for decades, it’s not very surprising that it was well written. I wanted to point this out because some of the autobiographies I’ve read, while the people may have interesting lives, that doesn’t necessarily translate into great writing. Where others write about things that happen in their lives, Boylan writes stories about her life. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes this book much more appealing. The famous axiom among writers is, “Show, don’t tell.” Boylan shows, while others tell.

While most of the book is written in fairly typical timeline, from when Boylan was a boy growing up to decades after coming out as trans, there are a few temporal excursions along the way. They don’t distract, but they enrich the story. An example of this is at the beginning of the book, where she writes about picking up a couple female hitchhikers in Maine, and she thinks one of them might have been a former student of hers that dropped out.

The chapters where she writes about the process of transitioning were very informative. There’s a section were she relates seeing a therapist and getting diagnosed as being trans. I think much of it was expository for the benefit of the reader/listener, because the doctor explained the options of transitioning versus not transitioning, what to expect during transition, what to expect afterwards, the names of doctors who specialize in trans surgeries, and so on. Some of the things I hadn’t considered with regard to transitioning are the redistribution of body fat after going on hormones, and that the sexualities also frequently transition because of the hormones. It’s all quite fascinating.

At the end of the audiobook, there are two afterwords; one by the author Richard Russo and one by Boylan’s wife, Grace. Both explain their initial reactions to Boylan coming out to them, then how they grew to understand what she was going through. Each had their own take on it, with Russo being Boylan’s colleague, but with Grace being her wife.

It might seem strange, but it seems as much a biography of Grace as it is an autobiography of Boylan. Though Grace is the pseudonym, it’s apt considering she was nearly as affected by the author’s transition as author herself. Both Grace and Boylan have a hard time explaining their relationship. They got married as a man and a woman, but after Boylan transitioned they remained married and in love. Neither considers herself to be a lesbian. Some may think it’s complicated, but my humble opinion is that it’s a great example of the phrase, “love is love.”

While I think this book is good read for transgender people, it’s probably a bit better for people who are friends or family members of someone who is transgender. The way Boylan expresses her innermost thoughts, her hopes and dreams, her fears and insecurities, it’s difficult not to empathize in some way. The other characters in the story, from crazy relatives to funny colleagues, make the story more relatable, since many of them will remind the readers of people in their own lives.

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