represents the second chapter of the memoir, Shes Not There:
A Life in Two Genders, which is © 2003 Jennifer Finney Boylan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
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(late summer, 1968)
I was born in 1958, on June 22nd, the second
day of summer. It was also the birthday of Kris Kristofferson and Meryl
Streep, both of whom I later resembled, although not at the same time.
One day when I was about three, I was sitting in a pool of sunlight cast
onto the wooden floor beneath my mothers ironing board. She was
watching Art Linkletters House Party on TV. I saw her ironing
my fathers white shirta sprinkle of water from her blue plastic
bottle, a short spurt of steam as it sizzled beneath the iron. Some
day youll wear shirts like this, said Mom.
I just listened to her strange words, as if they were a language other
than English. I didnt understand what she was getting at. She
never wore shirts like that. Why would I ever be wearing shirts like my
Since then, the awareness that I was in
the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mindnever,
although my understanding of what it meant to be a boy, or a girl, was
something that changed over time. Still, this conviction was present during
my piano lesson with Mr. Hockenberry and it was there when my father and
I shot off model rockets and it was there years later when I took the
SAT and it was there in the middle of the night when I woke in my dormitory
at Wesleyan. And at every moment as I lived my life I countered this awareness
with an exasperated companion-thought, namely, Dont be an idiot.
Youre NOT a girl. Get over it.
But I never got over it.
Our house had been built in the middle of
a tract of land that had been a failed Quaker settlement in the 1800s.
In the 1960s the remains of the cobblestone road threaded through the
thick forest, connecting the ruins of five or six stone houses. Most of
the old mansions were missing their roofs. Trees grew through the living
room floors. In the center of the forestwhich was known as Earls
Woodswas the elaborate, destroyed mansion of Pennsylvanias
former governor. The mansion, which had been gutted by fire, still had
a lot of its old furniture in it. The burned-out house stood on the banks
of a lake where sometimes I went fishing by myself. I had mixed feelings
about fishing there, though, in spite of the giant brown trout that occasionally
jumped out of the water and made a splash that echoed in the woods like
a gunshot. It was scary, sitting there by the lake, the burned house on
the bank behind me. I felt like I was being watched.
Sometimes I played a game in the woods
called Girl Planet. In it, I was an astronaut who had crashed on
an uninhabited world. There was a large fallen tree I used as the crashed-and-destroyed-
rocket. The thing was, though, that anybody who breathed the air on this
planet turned into a girl. There was nothing you could do about it, it
just happened. My clothes turned into a girls clothes too, which
should give an indication of exactly how powerful the atmosphere was.
It changed your clothes! Once female, I walked through the cobblestone
woods, past the abandoned houses, until I arrived at Governor Earles
mansion, which I started to try to fix up. It took years, but eventually
I had a nice little place put together. By the time astronauts from Earth
came to rescue me, I had grown into a mature woman, a college professor,
occasionally playing piano in blues bands, kissing my children goodnight
as they lay asleep in their beds. My rescuers would say, Were
looking for James Finney Boylan, the novelist. We found his rocket all
smashed up back there in the woods. Do you know where he is, maam?
Im sorry, I said. Hes
I did not know the word transsexual
back then, and the word transgendered had not yet been invented.
I had heard the word transvestite, of course, but it didnt
seem to apply to me. It sounded kind of creepy, like some kind of centipede
or grub. In my mind I sometimes confused it with the words that described
cave formations: What was it again--transves-tites grew
down from the top of the cave; transves-mites grew up from
But even if I had known the right definitions
for these words, I am not sure it would have made much difference to me.
Even now, a discussion of transgendered people frequently resembles nothing
so much as a conversation about aliens. Do you think there really are
transgendered people? Has the government known about them for years, and
is keeping the whole business secret? Where do they come from, and what
do they want? Have they been secretly living among us for years?
Although my understanding of the difference
between men and women evolved as I grew older, as I child I knew enough
about my condition to know it was something Id better keep private.
This conviction had nothing to do with a desire to be feminine;
but it had everything to do with being female. Which is an odd
belief, for a person born male. It certainly had nothing to do with whether
I was attracted to girls or boys. This last point was the one that, years
later, would most frequently elude people. But being gay or lesbian is
about sexual orientation. Being transgendered is about identity.
What its also emphatically not,
is a lifestyle, any more than being male or female is a lifestyle.
When I imagine a person with a lifestyle, I see a millionaire playboy
named Chip who likes to race yachts to Bimini, or an accountant, perhaps,
who dresses up in a suit of armor on the weekends.
Being transgendered isnt like that.
Gender is many things, but one thing it is surely not is a hobby.
Being female is not something you do because its clever, or postmodern,
or because youre a deluded, deranged narcissist.
In the end, what is, more than anything else, is a fact. It is
the dilemma of the transsexual, though, that it is a fact that cannot
possibly be understood without imagination.
After I grew up and became female, people
would often ask mehow did you know, when you were a child?
How is it possible that you could believe, with such heartbroken conviction,
something which, on the surface of it, seems so stupid? This question
always baffled me, as I could hardly imagine what it was like not
to know what your gender was. It seemed obvious to me that this was something
you understood intuitively, not on the basis of what was between your
legs, but because of what you felt in your heart. Remember when you woke
up this morning--Id say to my female friendsand you knew you
were female? Thats how I felt. Thats how I knew.
Of course knowing with such absolute certainty
something that appeared to be both absurd and untrue made me, as we said
in Pennsylvania, kind of mental. It was an absurdity I carried
everywhere, a crushing burden, which was, simultaneously, invisible. Trying
to make the best of things, trying to snap out of it, didnt
help either. As time went on, that burden only grew heavier, and heavier,
The first time I remember trying to come
up with some sort of solution to the being-alive-problem was about
1968, when I was staying in a summer house in Surf City, New Jersey. A
hurricane was blowing up. My parents were away, watching my sister ride
horses, and I was being tended by my dipsomaniac grandmother, Gammie,
and her friend, Hilda Watson, a tiny woman from North Yorkshire who was
as deaf as a blacksmiths anvil. Since it was nearly impossible for
Hilda to hear even the loudest sounds, most of the time she sat in a chair
wearing a startled expression; when she was aware she was being spoken
to she made a soft whooping noise, similar to the squeals of a guinea
pig. My eccentric Aunt Nora was there too, who liked to make sock puppets
as a gesture of love. One time she made me, out of one of my fathers
black socks, an octopus with a mustache and a red top hat.
On the day the hurricane hit, I had taken
a walk underneath the boardwalk. It was as close to infinity as I could
imagine under there, the row of pylons and boardwalk stretching as far
as I could see. All around me were the echoes of the ocean and the howling
wind and the seagulls and the rain, the smells of creosote and tar.
I was taking a big walk. On
the big walk I was going to try to solve whatever it was that was
wrong with me. I walked down the dark tunnel of the place-beneath-the-boardwalk
trying to figure out what the deal was with being alive. I knew I wasnt
a girlby then it was clear that girls and I were different. And
yet, clearly enough, I wasnt a boy either. What was I? What was
going to happen to me if I didnt stop wanting to be a girl all the
That afternoon under the boardwalk, as the
hurricane blew up, I tried to think about what I could do to solve the
problem. This whole wanting-to-be-a-girl-all-the-time business was eating
up a lot of my time. But what could a person do, if she wanted something
I got as far as a fishing pier and I left
the tunnel of the below-the-boardwalk place and I climbed out on the jetty
next to the pier. Waves were already crashing up angrily against the rocks,
and rain was starting to fall. The wind whipped my hair around. I sat
on the furthest rock and looked out at the sea and watched the ocean for
a long time.
And then, I thought, Maybe you could
be cured by love.
Even then I think I was aware of
how corny this sounded. Still, I believed it to be true. If I were loved
deeply enough by others, perhaps I would be content to stay a boy.
I walked back to the apartment with this
newfound awareness surrounding me like a caul. I would start with my grandmother.
I opened the door to find Gammie and Mrs. Watson playing gin, and drinking
vodka. Gammie was describing the night of my fathers conception.
Best screwin I ever had! she shouted. I stared at her.
Whats with you? Gammie
Nothing, I said. Mrs. Watson
was listening to the Zombies on the AM radio.
Nobody told me about her/ What could
I do/ Well, nobody told me about her/Though they all knew/Well, its
too late to say youre sorry/ How would I know, why should I care?
/Please dont bother trying to find her/ Shes not there...
It was odd that Mrs. Watsonor any
of these womenwould be listening to the Zombies, as they were all
classical music fans.
Why is Hilda listening to WFIL?
I asked, curious.
Sssh, said Gammie. She
thinks its classical.
The disc jockey, Jerry Blavetttthe
Geeter with the Heater broke in. Surf City was being evacuated.
Everyone was encouraged to get in their cars and head for higher ground.
The hurricane would arrive by nightfall.
We have to leave here, Aunt
What? said Gammie.
Theyre evacuating the island,
my aunt repeated.
Oh, are you going to fall for that?
said Gammie. Nora, you are like a scared chicken!
They say were in danger,
Aunt Nora said.
Oh, shut up, Nora, said
Gammie. Outside the wind howled against the window panes.
Whoop? Whoop? Whoop? said Mrs.
Watson and adjusted her hearing aids, which suddenly blasted with feedback.
She looked like shed just received an electric shock.
Nora says we should LEAVE. Like SCARED
We arent leaving? Aunt
Nora said, disappointed.
Cluck cluck cluck, said Gammie.
I just stood there, looking at my grandmother.
I liked her enormous gaudy earrings, and wondered how old Id have
to be before my parents would allow me to get my ears pierced. Then I
remembered. I wasnt going to be thinking that way anymore.
Whats with you? said
Nothing, I said, and went to
I had brought with me to the seashore a
magic kit I had been given for my birthday. I sat crosslegged on the wooden
floor and messed with it. There were all sorts of tricks to learn. There
was the Disappearing Egg. Card tricks. A set of sponges that traveled
through plastic cups.
I sat there for an hour or so trying to
get the Disappearing Egg to disappear. It seemed easy enough. You put
the egg in the holder, then you covered it with the lid, said a few magic
words, and lifted the top. With the proper amount of pressure, the egg
would adhere to the ovoid lid and become hidden in its depths.
But I couldnt get the egg to cooperate.
I broke the first one I tried, and had to go out to the kitchen and get
the carton of eggs out of the refrigerator, as well as paper towels to
clean up the mess. I had to move stealthily in order not to be seen by
Gammie, who, if she saw me stealing eggs, would insist that I come over
and sit on her lap, where she would pinch my cheek and announce that I
was Gammies little Apple.
I struggled with the disappearing egg for
a long time. The problem was that the egg wouldnt stick to the lid;
it kept falling out and smashing on the floor, calling the credence of
its disappearance into question. I tried lining the lid of the chamber
with adhesive tape, in order to make it stick, but this didnt work
For a while I wondered if the problem was
my magic words. Id been using Abracadabra. The instruction
manual invited the apprentice sorcerer to make up ones own magic
words, so I tried the trick with a variety of alternatives as well: Presto
Change-o. Voila. And so on. I even tried being imperious with it. I COMMAND
YOU TO DISAPPEAR.
But it didnt disappear.
By ten oclock that night the wind
was screaming outside. Rain hammered against the window. I lay on my back
in bed. Gammie had forgotten dinner, which was fine with me, since when
she did remember it would unquestionably be a big potful of chicken a
la king. She loved to make chicken a la king, made it every time she babysat
me. Since her full name was Ethel King Redding, I assumed theyd
named it after her.
Gammie, Hilda, and Aunt Nora were out in
the living room having this discussion:
Gammie: Hilda, do you know where youd
GET--- (inhale, pause, exhale--) --if you wentdirectlyEASTfrom
Mrs. Watson: Whoop? Whoop? Whoop?
Aunt Nora: I think we should leave. I think
were in danger!
Gammie: If you went EAST from Surf City,
Hilda! Where do you think youd get?
Mrs. Watson : Hm. Whoop? Mm. England? Whoop?
Is it England youd get to?
Mrs. Watson : Oh, no, I dont think
it would be
Mrs. Watson: Portugal? Perhaps Portugal?
Gammie: SPAIN! That is where you would
wind up. SPAIN!
I came out of my room and stood by the
Aunt Nora said, I think we should
leave. Im afraid!
Gammie looked at her and rolled her eyes.
Dont listen to her, Jimmy. Shes just a chicken. A SCARED
CHICKEN! Cluck cluck cluck.
I think we should leave too,
I do, I said.
If you think Im driving back
to Philadelphia in this pouring
Aunt Nora took a look at me. She saw something.
Ill drive, she said.
Oh you will not, Gammie said.
Dont be an imbecile.
Whoop? said Hilda.
Were going to pack up and head
home, Aunt Nora shouted at Mrs. Watson. Mrs. Watson adjusted her
hearing aids. They squelched. Theres a hurricane.
Mrs. Watson nodded. Entirely sensible,
You all go, said Gammie. Im
Were all going,
said Aunt Nora. Either you go, or you die, she said. For a
long moment, Aunt Nora and Gammie stared at each other.
Jimmy, Gammie said at last.
Go get the vodka.
Years later, Gammie announced that when
she died, she wanted to be a cadaver. She donated her body to Jefferson
Medical School. When youre dead, youre dead, she
explained. She talked her friend Hilda into being a cadaver, too. It was
something they did together. At the time, I was horrified by this, by
the idea of my grandmothers corpse being the private concern of
a first-year medical student in Philadelphia, opening her up and holding
her liver and her heart in his hands. Did he know, as he examined her
innards, that this had been someones Gammie, someone who once danced
on top of pianos, whose first husband nicknamed her Stardust?
Now Im less bothered by all this,
though. Maybe shes right, when youre dead, youre dead.
I dont know.
I looked out the back of Gammies Dodge Seneca as Aunt Nora drove
us out into the storm. The boardwalk was visible as a dark shadow against
the threatening sea.
Youre Gammies little
apple, Gammie said from the seat next to me, and pinched my cheek.
The windshield wipers slapped against the storm. I looked at my grandmothers
earrings, and at Mrs. Watons wedding ring. Thirty-three years later,
after I became a woman, my mother gave me Mrs. Watsons ring. Hilda
and Gammie had been dead for thirteen years at that point. The ring has
two big diamonds and eight little ones.
Whoop? Whoop? Whoop?
Aunt Nora looked at me in her rear view
mirror. Its all right, Jimmy, she said. Were
going to be safe now.
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