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Birnbaum v.

Jennifer Finney Boylan

Our Boston correspondent chats with novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan about going on Oprah, the differences between being a female writer versus a male writer, and her best-selling book about becoming the woman she always was.

Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote (as James Finney Boylan) the well-regarded novels The Constellations, The Planets, and Getting In, as well the short story collection Remind Me to Murder You Later. She has taught at Colby College for 17 years where she was voted Professor of the Year in 2000 and has, until recently, been co-chair of the English Department. She is an accomplished pianist and lives with her partner Grace and their two sons in Maine.

Boylan recently published She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, her memoir of—using her own metaphor—emigrating from the country of her birth, maleness, to the brave new free world, for her, of being a woman. In the book’s afterword, Richard Russo (who is Boylan’s best friend) astutely observes, “According to Flannery O’Connor, the fiction writer’s material falls into two categories: mystery and manners. The latter are, for the most part, observable human behaviors, often socially constructed (like gender some would argue) while the former, which reside at our human center, constitute the deeper truths of our being. These truths we often keep secret, because to reveal them makes us vulnerable. To my mind, an even deeper mystery than the secrets we keep is the mystery of the way our hearts incline toward this person and not that one, how one soul selects another for its company, how we recognize companion souls as we make our way through the world in our awkward bodies that betray us at every turn. This is not the special dilemma of the transgendered person; it’s all of us.”

What Russo eloquently suggests, Jennifer Boylan straightforwardly unpacks—some of these mysteries of the heart and the kinds of secrets we keep, and yes, how our awkward bodies can betray us. But what her book and the conversation that follows exhibit most vividly is the charming ordinariness that encompasses the life of Jennifer Finney Boylan, against a backdrop of a culture not quite prepared to deal with her anywhere on the sliding scale of normalcy. She is a buoyant rebuttal to the old Pennsylvania Dutch saying, “Ve are too soon old and too late schmart.”
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: I do it regularly [the drive from New Hampshire to Boston]. What is it like for you to drive down from Maine to Boston?

Jennifer Finney Boylan: Whenever I come to Boston I feel kind of like I am rejoining the rest of the country. There is a sense of, “Oh all right, [here’s] America.” But the remoteness of Maine is what I like about it—it’s what once in a while drives me crazy. It’s a long drive to anywhere from there. But I have been living up there for 17 years now, which seems hard to believe given that I moved up there thinking it would be just for one year.

RB: See.

JB: Exactly.

RB: [laughs] No feeling of aversion, “Oh my god, traffic jams, crazy drivers, rude people?”
Boylan, by Robert Birnbaum
JB: No, not really. When I was a guy I would get very frustrated and very very angry with things quite rapidly. And part of that is just testosterone and part of it was that I was a very ill-at-ease person. So things would just get under my skin. Back in the old days, even before the Big Dig, I used to get lost and I used to get frustrated and I really don’t have any of those sensations anymore when I drive here. Of course, I have been coming here long enough so that I know my way around. I love Boston and I love Cambridge. I love coming down here. I love going out to dinner. We don’t really have restaurants [laughs] in Maine.

RB: Really?

JB: You could drive about 25 minutes to an Olive Garden. And there’s going to be a line and it could take you up to an hour, hour and a half to get into the Olive Garden.

RB: So what’s the big deal?

JB: About?

RB: Your life—what’s the big deal? Why do people find it so fascinating?

JB: You know it’s funny, I think most people who have found themselves drawn to She’s Not There are not people who are particularly interested in how to have a sex change. If you are a transgendered person you already know all this stuff and in fact there are a lot of other books that have a much more complex or heart-rending narrative to them. People who have come to my book, I think, are concerned with the larger question. Which is, “How do you live an authentic life? What sorts of sacrifices will it take from you and from the people around you in order to become yourself? And how do you find that courage? How do you find the strength to do something that truly seems impossible?” And I think those are questions that everybody asks. Because whatever your dragon is—if you will pardon me using Joseph Campbell imagery—everybody has some sort of dragon they have to slay. People find the story of somebody who changed their identity in what seems like a dramatic way—people find that moving and it relates to their journey, whatever it is.

I am hoping that people become more familiar with these issues and more articulate about them. Not only for the sake of making the lives of transgendered people easier, but also in terms of being able to understand that people can change their lives, and that’s a noble goal. RB: Here’s the “Yeah, but…” It’s a pleasant surprise to me if this book has broken out of the ghetto that it would seem to be placed in such as a gender-studies manifesto, whatever that is.

JB: Right.

RB: If that’s happening that’s great. But still—am I imposing my own bias? This is viewed as bizarre, and odd and discomfiting because it is about the murky area of sex and gender?

JB: No. The book has broken out of that ghetto, to some degree. This is the first best-selling book by a transgendered American, which is something I am very proud of and it means that—

RB: —you’ll have the clout to sell your novels?

JB: Well, maybe. What it means is that it’s a book that is reaching a larger audience. And it is hard to break out of the subculture of gender studies or whatever. But yes, the reason why people find issues pertaining to transgendered people or transsexuals are particular hard to talk about is because they are about sex and gender. They are about those things that we are generally inarticulate about. And what needs to happen is that my story is one story of a transgendered person. There are a lot of different stories and—

RB: Some of which are told in Amy Bloom’s book Normal.

JB: Right, and the more of these stories that get told I am hoping the more comfortable people will be, and learn to talk this language. Because a lot of people have this. I mention in the book there is up wards of 40,000 people, more than have multiple sclerosis. It’s something that lots of people have and lots of people are dealing with and the overall arc of what happened to me is fairly typical. So I am hoping that people become more familiar with these issues and more articulate about them. Not only for the sake of making the lives of transgendered people easier, but also in terms of being able to understand that people can change their lives, and that’s a noble goal.

RB: Yes. Does one use ‘transgendered’ and ‘transsexual’ interchangeably?

JB: I freely admit this is confusing. Transgender is like an umbrella term. It includes all sorts of people who are gender variant. Of whom one example of such persons are transsexuals: people who have a physical disconnection between their brain or their spirit and the body that they’re in. And seek to change that body. There are other people who are also transgendered. You can include drag queens, cross dressers, hermaphrodites.

RB: You include hermaphrodites?

JB: Well [sighs] the better word is now intersexed, depending on who you talk to. The door ‘transgender’ is pretty large. And there are some people who include intersexed in that and other people who say it is really a different area. What I know is that I use the word transgender because if you are transsexual you are also transgendered although the reverse isn’t true. What I also know is that the word transgendered is a more pleasant word.

RB: [laughs]

JB: Because what this is not about is sex. Ironically. It’s not something salacious. It’s not about a sex change operation.

RB: Being salacious would make it bad?

JB: Well, people get fixated on the operation because it seems so revolting and amazing.

RB: It seems painful.

JB: Actually, it wasn’t painful, to tell you the truth.

RB: You had the good drugs.

JB: Well, the drugs were good and also—

RB: [laughs]

JB: —my main memory of the surgery was being incredibly happy—being surrounded by people who loved me, including my partner Grace and a cartoonist Tim Cryder, and my friend [Richard] Russo. If you think about the operation it’s like—I compare it to getting a divorce. The operation is like the day you go to court. And some judge says it’s official. But a divorce is really all the stuff that happens before that. So if you are transgendered and you are actually changing genders, the important stuff has already happened and quite frankly if I’d never had the operation, how would you know?

RB: [pause] I wouldn’t know. Except I read your book.

JB: Well, there is that. And in fact a lot of people opt not to have the operation because it’s expensive, it’s—

RB: Final?

JB: The finality is the wonderful part of it. But it’s a trauma within a person’s life. There are plenty of people, particularly people born female, who feel the need to become male for whom the operation can cost upwards of a $100,000.

RB: Well. Imagine that! Penises are more expensive.

JB: Exactly [laughs] People who are in that situation—a lot of those guys just think, “Well I’d rather spend a $100,000 dollars to live in Italy for five years. Or 10 years.”

RB: Right. Good thinking. Parts wear out. Memories can be forever.

JB: Seems like a good investment, doesn’t it?

RB: How does this sound? It strikes me that this is a hyper-sexual culture. Even the ‘60s, which were considered an era of decadence and licentiousness, weren’t as drenched with sexual reference, story, image everywhere. Does that sound apt?

JB: Maybe I should just let you finish that thought.

RB: So what I want to contrast that with is with all that sexual stuff in the air, so pervasive in the culture, why is it that people are still uncomfortable talking honestly about sex?

JB: In some ways there is a lot of sex in the culture but it’s teenage sex. It’s adolescent sex. It’s crazed—

RB: Hormonally driven?

JB: It’s the crazed sexuality of the 15-year-old that has become our national understanding of sexuality. A true understanding of sexuality is really something that comes with wisdom.

RB: Meaning that it almost comes too late.

JB: [both laugh ] Yeah, exactly. There is an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying [adopts an accent] “Ve are too soon old and too late schmart.” [both laugh heartily] But I think that’s what’s in the culture now. Sex is everywhere. But it’s [searches for a word] stupid.

I can’t tell you what the future holds for Grace and for me. Sometimes I bristle a little bit in that one of the common reactions I get from some people is, “Oh, well Grace must be a saint.” RB: I feel odd that I don’t find Britney Spears and Janet Jackson sexually captivating.

JB: Who? Who are these women? Just kidding.

RB: Although Jennifer Lopez had some allure. Maybe it’s the exotic Latina thing?

JB: It’s the butt, I think

RB: [laughs]

JB: But the thing is that maybe this accounts for why people are still uncomfortable talking about it, but if the subject is what happened to me, what happened to me is a thing wholly separate from images of intercourse and sexuality with high voltage.

RB: It’s about gender and identity.

JB: It’s about identity. It’s about peace between what is in your heart and what is in your brain. And some people are shocked to find that my partner Grace and I have stayed together.

RB: Well, aren’t you?

JB: I wouldn’t use the word ‘shocked.’

RB: In the book, you expected it or understand that this a frequent outcome of sexual reassignment—that couples generally don’t survive this.

JB: Look, Grace and I were put into a situation where we were faced with two equally unpleasant choices—with very little middle ground. One choice was for Grace to abandon the person that she loved most in the world at the very moment of that person’s deepest crisis. [pause] That’s one choice. And the other was that she would help the person that she loved in a process that would by its very definition take that person away from her. Or take much of that person away from her. And there was very little middle ground. This is the choice that most couples in which one of the members is transgendered find themselves. [sighs] Many people do separate because it’s just too weird and it’s impossible. And I can’t tell you what the future holds for Grace and for me. Sometimes I bristle a little bit in that one of the common reactions I get from some people is, “Oh, well Grace must be a saint.”

RB: [laughs]

JB: “What you put her through.” In fact, Oprah said as much to me. I said something about how I was hoping that Grace would do the favor—

RB: You just bristle?

JB: Well yeah. And I want to say, “It’s a surprise that your soul mate would be there for you, no matter what?”

RB: I hear that question as being at least thoughtless, if not [very] insulting.

JB: Exactly. Many people say the true hero of my book is Grace. And I have to say Grace is a heroine. There is no two ways about it. Although she herself can’t stand that kind of talk. There shouldn’t be room for only one hero. And to conclude that this is really the story—in other words, this is not the story about the husband that became a woman. This is the story of woman who became herself. And if you only see the story as a husband who did something selfish and insane and whose wife stood by her nonetheless then to me you are missing the point. Which doesn’t denigrate Grace’s heroism or her love at all.

If we think of a transgendered person in general, we think of a sad case. We think of some person who is deeply screwed up who we can at best pity. And people need to know that that ain’t right. RB: As I was reading and after I read She’s Not There, I thought, “Oh I would really like to know Grace’s story.”

JB: Uh huh.

RB: It would be interesting to hear what she would say. And then I thought that she might not have much more to say than your representations of her. It feels like you spoke well for her. If she wanted to write a book, she would have.

JB: That’s exactly right. Grace, she thought about participating in some of the media stuff. And the people at Oprah were begging her to be on the show.

RB: [laughs] Right.

JB: Grace said the only reason she would do it would be as a favor to me. And I said, “You, you’ve done me enough favors, right?” I didn’t want to write a book that was self-congratulatory and full of how wonderful I was. I wanted to capture the real pain of a couple going through this. And there are couple times in the book where I had to give voice to Grace and to allow her to her to be articulate about the pain that I was responsible for. So I hope I captured Grace accurately. But I also say that there are very few books, in fact I’d say there are no books, particularly for the spouses who are going through this.

RB: If I remember correctly, in Amy Bloom’s book where she had gone to a cross-dresser’s convention and she gave some indication that the wives, when she got them alone or to speak frankly, were not all pleased with their situations. But normally no one asked them.

JB: Exactly. There are two sides to all these stories. And I didn’t want to tell a story that only made me look good. And it’s also true, quite frankly, that I would not have been able to get where I am had I not had the support of the people that love me. Particularly Grace.

RB: OK. You have laid out a very special circumstance. You are a much-loved teacher. Have a partner who loves you, clearly been very supportive and is smart and honorable and honest and you are in an academic environment which has supported you. And the at least public part of your correspondence with Russo exhibits a very dialectical exchange on this compelling but difficult problem that is also presented to long-standing and good friends. And you are by nature articulate and expressive. And so you seem to be able, in most cases, to say what is on your mind and in your heart. It seems as if there might only be a small gap between your emotions and what you present. All of this suggests a very special situation.

JB: Yeah, and as I said earlier there are a lot of stories and they all need to be told. A lot of people’s stories don’t work out this way. There are a lot of people’s stories who are like this.

RB: Really?

JB: Yeah. A lot of people. That’s not to say their story is my story. But if we think about transgendered people we tend to think of Herman Munster walking around in a dress and everyone going “boo hoo hoo.” And in fact most transgendered people look pretty much like the gender that they are, they have adopted. Most of us have jobs and families and live extremely familiar lives. And one of the reasons I felt strongly about publishing this book, even though it would have been smarter to keep my mouth shut, is that there should be a good example, someone for whom things did work out.

RB: I’m still back where you said, “It would have been smarter to keep my mouth shut.” In your life have you done that smarter thing?

JB: I have not kept my mouth shut, no.

RB: In your whole life?

JB: [laughs] Well, I certainly kept a secret until—if I say name a transgendered American, we are going to go, “Uh—

RB: Rene Richards.

JB: OK, that’s the one.

RB: Christine Jorgensen?

JB: So those are the two. And both of them present significantly different faces of what the experience of transgendered person can be like. And if we think of a transgendered person in general, we think of a sad case. We think of some person who is deeply screwed up who we can at best pity. And people need to know that that ain’t right. And that, as I said, there are tens of thousands of people who have this and have survived their own lives and that story needs to need told.

RB: I want to go back to the point where the notion of living an authentic life was brought up. I don’t think any people use that terminology, “living an authentic life.” It’s not part of American discourse. It’s not even an issue for a very large number of people. Right or wrong?

JB: Maybe people don’t use that phrase. I think people know what that means. People know the difference between truth and a lie. And I think people know when they are living a lie. Many people feel that their life is a lie. And that’s a phrase people would use. Sure.

RB: That’s not a simple difference. Living a lie and looking to live an authentic life are very far apart.

JB: OK, what’s the difference?

RB: Living a lie is an immature complaint. It signals a finality and the thinking is over. People don’t say, “I am living a lie, how am I going to get out of this?” It’s expression of resignation, “I’m living a lie.”

JB: So people who think that don’t think about how to get out of it?

RB: I don’t think they think about it. I think they may wish to get out.

JB: I think they do. When people feel trapped—

RB: They get depressed and are prescribed various pharmaceuticals. And then they continue.

JB: [laughs] Well, should I be in the business of speaking for people? I don’t know. We are both imagining people out there. People who are in this room here in Boston. Feeling trapped is something a lot of people feel. And seek to change their lives through ways other than medication. They do that by finding a relationship or changing their relationship or they change their lives by getting an education, by moving.

RB: Losing weight.

JB: Losing weight seems like a superficial thing and it’s not. Changing a relationship, changing where you live. Finding or losing religion as the case may be. These are things that a lot of people do in response to feeling that they are not alive.

RB: I may be cleansing myself of a certain kind of urban cynicism but some of these things seem so faddist. If you see them presented on talk shows and newspapers and self-help books. Carbohydrates are now the latest key to improving your life. And then we have current insults about SUV drivers. Before it was NASCAR dads and soccer moms and Volvo station wagons—there is a trivialization where [people can no longer identify what the root of their problems are]—are they doing something because it may really improve their lives or they have been sold on something [or convinced they belong or don’t belong in some silly contrived category].

JB: In a way this relates to what we were talking about the stupidification of sexuality. There has also been a stupidification of philosophy itself. There has been a stupidification of the very process of attempting to attain wisdom. So that by having—trying to learn more about your own soul now it means you don’t eat carbs or you go to a spa and have a wrap and a massage.

RB: Or listen to Anthony Roberts’s tapes?

JB: Right, yeah. I don’t think anything is—I don’t think I can be in the business of decrying the state of the popular culture. It seems too easy.

RB: Yes, or sophomoric in the literal sense.

JB: Or the state of education or even popular culture. What I know is, here is a very particular thing that I had. And I dealt with it in this particular way. And—

RB: So that of course makes you feel good.
Boylan, by Robert Birnbaum
JB: We were saying before how things went well for me because of a number of strokes of luck and I will be the first to admit that there was a lot of luck in this. But I will also say that to some degree I did have some control over what happened, by acting with responsibility and competence. Also, I was surrounded by people who loved me. Maybe that’s not a stroke of luck. It’s such a cliché to say to people that love can change the world. I don’t know if it can change the world but it can certainly make a huge difference in an individual life.

RB: Yes [pause] I don’t want to forget about Melanie.

JB: Let’s not forget about Melanie.

RB: She’s the counterpoint story. She is the woman that you share your room with when you are having your sexual reassignment surgery.

JB: Melanie is a woman for whom everything possible went wrong. To some degree it is left to the reader to decide to what extent Melanie is part of the reason that things went wrong. To what extent did she go about her transition carelessly and haphazardly? Or to what extent is she simply the victim of people who didn’t get it? And who weren’t there for her.

RB: I was horrified at the response of her family and her partner. I cannot imagine—

JB: Yeah, because it’s horrifying.

RB: Whatever her agency was in her situation, who could overcome—

JB: No one deserves what happened to her. I wasn’t aware of a lot of what was going on with her while I was in the hospital and I was on Demerol and enjoying life to the fullest. [laughs] Without chemicals life would be impossible. When I finally got out of the hospital, Rick and Grace began to tell me the story in little pieces and it was really only about six weeks after, at home when I was with the two of them, Rick and Grace telling me the story of Melanie. I was amazed and horrified by it. I had known that Rick was going to write the afterward. I had hoped that he would. I had asked him and he said, “Sure.” And I said, “You mean, ‘Sure. Just like that, sure?’“ And he said, “Yeah.” I had sent my part of the book off to the publisher in late September. At the beginning of October I still hadn’t seen Rick’s part. I am getting ahead of myself. He did say to me, “Why don’t I do the Melanie story?” And I said, “OK.” So when I wrote the main part of the book I didn’t tell the Melanie story very much. So I gave that to him. And he was able to use it in a very different way by comparing the two of us and our two experiences. And the way in which he perceived the two of us.

RB: And his confession that he almost ignored Melanie when he had a feeling she was in trouble—that was very honest. I don’t know that I would have admitted it.

JB: Yes. That he wanted to, at many points, to say, “Be a man.”

RB: I am thinking about when he almost leaves at the hotel room door when there is no answer but he believes she is there inside. Just dropping off what he was dropping off even though he sensed trouble.

JB: Yes. I did like that line where he wanted to say to the doctor, “This is not my transexual. Jenny Boylan, that one’s mine. This one, [Melanie] she’s yours.”

RB: [laughs]

JB: But yeah, it’s worth saying as long as we are updating the record here that Melanie has landed on her feet. Her family has become much more accepting and she is engaged to be married in December and I am to be one of her bridesmaids. I think she is going to be fine.

RB: Are you looking forward to the wedding?

JB: Are you kidding? It’s going to be great.

RB: Do you like weddings?

JB: I have been a best man, now I’m going to be a bridesmaid. And I hope to write a piece about it for my next book.

RB: Speaking of books, were there other titles that you considered?

JB: Oh yeah. That takes us into a whole different place. For the longest time I wanted to call it Gender Immigrant. Which turns out to be a very academic title.

RB: You can pretty much assure yourself that the word ‘gender’ in a title will render it academic.

JB: [makes snoring sound] Please, I just dozed off for a second. There is a part of the chapter about Ireland in which I talk about all the Irish songs that I knew. In fact the place I started, most of the chapter I took out, was the thesis that changing genders more than anything else is like emigrating from one country of your birth to a new country. And you make this difficult crossing and you reach a new land where you speak with something of an accent and, to beat this metaphor to death, you could say I have gotten my green card as a woman. Occasionally, I still dream of the green fields of the country of my birth. I don’t really miss being a guy, but it is my history. So I think of it. So, anyway that was where the book began and it was full of Irish songs of changing gender of which there are many, in fact. Usually stories in which a man is disguised as a woman are always stories of fun. It’s always comedy. Stories in which a woman disguises herself as a man are usually stories of intrigue and nobility—usually disguising herself to be with the one she loves or to escape some dire situation she is in. There is an old song called “The Handsome Cabin Boy “ in which a woman disguises herself as boy and sneaks away to sea where both the captain and the captain’s wife fall in love with her and in the end she becomes pregnant. And the captain’s wife says something like, to her husband, “Well it was either you or I who betrayed the handsome cabin boy.” So for a while I called this book The Handsome Cabin Boy.

RB: [laughs]

JB: Then someone told me about the Chris Elliot movie. But literally, “She’s Not There” is a song that haunted me. It was very close to the end when I came up with that other title.

RB: I thought We’ll Always Have Paris would be good [it is the caption of a picture of Russo and Boylan].

JB: That line came in very late and I almost didn’t put it in because I didn’t want people to think that there was any kind of romantic relationship with Russo and me. And then in the end I decided not to worry about it just because it was a funny line. In that picture I am standing below Russo so as not to make him look like the tiniest man in the world. We’re the same height in the picture but it is only by trick photography.

Liberals were not necessarily better than conservatives, Democrats were not necessarily better than Republicans. People of deep religious faith were not necessarily worse than agnostics and atheists. Gay and lesbian people in some cases were no better equipped to understand transgender issues than deeply straight friends of mine. RB: I thought perhaps What’s The Big Deal? might be a good title.

JB: Right. In fact the first lines of this book originally were, “So I went and had a sex change. Most people were nice about it.” And editors kept coming back to me and saying, “It may not be a big deal to you but there are plenty of people for whom this is a big deal. And you have to explain what this is all about.” What was funny is that the first chapter in the book was one of the last to come in. The first chapter had to do a lot of jobs at once. And had to do them seemingly effortlessly. We had to begin with the fact of my womanhood already established so for the fourth or fifth line I pick up some hitchhikers and they say, “How far are you going ma’am?” So someone else from the very beginning of the book recognized my womanhood as indisputable. And yet I am also looking back from that position remembering being a guy and—

RB: Your editors are assuming that someone will pick up this book and not looking at the jacket start reading it not knowing that you are transgendered?

JB: People are going to have to know that but if I had begun that first chapter with me being a boy—it’s the husband who became a woman. In other words people will see me as a man doing this heartless thing. Where as if we begin that first chapter with the reader unconsciously in many ways accepting me as a woman, in the same way that it might be easier for you to accept me as a woman than my high school friends whom I will see here while I am in Cambridge. They have that history. And so if I started the book with the second chapter, with my earliest memories of being a boy, the reader would perceive me very differently. So I had to begin there and also establish the fact that this was going to be a funny book and there would be painful moments in it. I also establish the fact of Russo. I even establish the children. And very cleverly, I hope this isn’t cruel to point this out, Grace is not in the first chapter, because if people see me as someone who married someone who suffered that changes their view of the narrator. So all that stuff had to be done in that first chapter. And what was amazing was that at the last second I just picked up these hitchhikers and it was kind of handed to me, literally.

RB: Most of the time we can have a good sense of how people will respond to a story but I think not always. In a special story like this which hits lots of notes that people aren’t familiar with, do you really know how they are going to read it, no matter what you do?
Boylan, by Robert Birnbaum
JB: I had no idea how people were going to respond to this book. I think the publisher was more than a little nervous in that if you state this is the story of someone’s sex change, the very first thing people think is, “Yuk.” And another reason why the cover was very hard to come up with was because the art department (I later found out) was deeply concerned with something called the ‘ick’ factor. In the end I think they came up with a very upbeat joyful cover. It was a book that when you go to the idea of people changing genders, you do enter this area where people including, for instance, Russo find themselves surprised by elements of their personality that are more conservative than they thought. Or more liberal. I found that it was very hard to predict people’s reactions when I was in transition. Liberals were not necessarily better than conservatives, Democrats were not necessarily better than Republicans. People of deep religious faith were not necessarily worse than agnostics and atheists. Gay and lesbian people in some cases were no better equipped to understand transgender issues than deeply straight friends of mine. The cliché to some degree is that women are more accepting than men of changes in gender. But one of the people who was least supportive was my sister. One of the people who was most supportive was my conservative, devout, not-particularly-young mother.

RB: There is a scene where you go to your mother’s house and meet her friends.

JB: She lives on the Main Line in Pennsylvania, so they had this very high society tea to unveil me to all of her friends. And her friends are, of course, deeply worried that RuPaul is going to be there.

RB: [laughs]

JB: Or Michael Jackson, or something deeply scary. And when it turns out it is only me, and that as a woman I am shockingly normal and though tall, of course, but very familiar to people, the first reaction of one of them was, “For heaven sakes Jennifer, you make a damn fine broad.” And they did, in fact, go from being deeply nervous and uncomfortable to wanting to sell me Mary Kay products in about half an hour, really. To some extent I got to see how good people can be, some people. I saw a very good side of people.

RB: The immigrant metaphor is compelling and the fact that you experience difficulties with people who knew you as a male. I think about the immigrants who succeed and the friend who knew them when they were scrapping and hustling and they know them now, and there is this “Who does he think he is?” reaction.

JB: Right, lace-curtain Irish. I’ll tell you what, there is a lot of that for me now. And to some degree there are people who would make the argument that I’m not transgendered any more. And that what separates me from most other women my age is rather minor at this point. Excepting perhaps history, which is not a minor thing.

RB: Is this a kind of club? You lose your membership because you are a woman?

JB: In a way. That’s not my argument but I have heard that argument made. If I try to figure out that stuff my brain just starts to melt. It says F on all my legal documents. I generally don’t think about transgender issues so much anymore except when I am having a conversation like this one. Or talking about the book and it means that mostly I have what most other people have. Which is the ability to wake up in the morning and not have to think about what your gender is and to concentrate on things like my children and my job and my students.

People ask me if the difference in my work—if there is a difference between a woman writer and man writer? I guess if there is a difference I am the experiment and the control. I don’t know if I believe in such things. It seems to emphasize the very kind of stereotypes and clichés you want to get out of. What does it mean? That women write about flowers and perfume and men write about robots or something. RB: The book has been out over a year and now in paperback. How much of your life does it occupy still?

JB: This is the story of person who goes from having an amazing painful secret to someone who lets go of that secret and begins a life that is in some ways much more normal. But it is also true that things like talking about the book and being on television and all that does occupy a fair amount of my professional life right now. This won’t last forever though.

RB: It is your choice.

JB: Yeah, it is my choice. For now I am glad to be someone in the public eye. We were talking before about role models, that there aren’t that many good examples of relatively well-adjusted transgendered people out there. Here’s a kind of an odd thing, an ironic thing. Most transgendered people when they get to where I am vanish from view. And even the well-known ones like Rene Richards get to a certain point and say, “Enough is enough, I’m done with that.” You could name dozens and dozens of gay and lesbian Americans off the top of your head but transgendered you can maybe name half a dozen if you’re not in academia or in gender studies. And it’s because the people who have gotten to a certain point of safety having made the transition in one piece tend to disappear. They go back into the rest of their lives. Which means that people who are young and first dealing with this problem have no one to turn to. Almost by definition the very people who should be able to serve as role models and help these people are not around. And the only people they have to turn to are people like themselves. Or else a lot of the people who are public examples are narcissistic, or are in trouble, or one way or another have not made a successful transition. So it’s almost built into the condition that if you make a successful transition you disappear from a position where you could help anybody.

RB: You wear a number of hats including the fact that you are a writer. You’re a novelist. And part of what you do is publish books. Now you have written a book about something that is very personal to you. You will write more books, so you can’t really disappear. You can come and go every few years or so—

JB: But the books are going to be around. Somebody did say to me that well given the fact that had you not written this book, nobody would ever know at this point. Except within your immediate circle. Most people would never know. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was going through my transition was, “Whatever you do, don’t become a professional transsexual. Don’t come out as a transsexual. Come out as a woman.” Because you don’t want to be seen in that way. Jan Morris, whose transition was 35 years ago, is still thought of as that transsexual author. Even though she hasn’t written about her gender stuff for 35 years. The fact is that if you are a writer you tell stories. And there were too many good stories for me not to tell them. It was never even really a choice not to write the book. It’s what I do. It’s like milk coming from a cow. [laughs]

RB: You mentioned another book. Non-fiction?

JB: The next one is a book of non-fiction. Also on gender. I don’t have a title. I have a subtitle. Right now it’s called And She Was: A Woman’s Boyhood. I love that. I think “And She Was” is not quite vivid enough. Although if you know the Talking Heads song it makes more sense.

RB: It doesn’t flow trippingly off the tongue.

JB: Yeah, it deals with boyhood.

RB: OK, when do get to what you are really about, which is writing fiction?

JB: I have another novel in the works. So that should be the next book after the next collection of essays.

RB: What’s the status of your novels? Are they in print?

JB: No, not in this country.

RB: Not in this country?

JB: They are in print in the U.K. My second novel The Constellations I could take or leave but I wish someone would bring back The Planets. I adore that book. I don’t think I could ever write that way now but it’s a very—that book is by someone who is deeply troubled but also deeply happy. That first novel I wrote when I was in my late twenties.

RB: That would be a time in life when one could be both. [laughs]

JB: I felt very crazy when I wrote that book but also felt very loved and the book has nice tension between the kind of madness of the universe and a quite sentimental view of the world. There is a sense that love will save us.

RB: You have reread your work since your, uh, reassignment?

JB: No.

RB: So when you say I don’t think I could write like that now, what is that based on?

JB: The thing is, people ask me if the difference in my work—if there is a difference between a woman writer and man writer? I guess if there is a difference I am the experiment and the control. I don’t know if I believe in such things. It seems to emphasize the very kind of stereotypes and clichés you want to get out of. What does it mean? That women write about flowers and perfume and men write about robots or something.

RB: It seems like there should be a difference.

JB: If there is a difference between my work then and now it’s probably more the result of being 46 rather than 29. The other thing I would notice, and this is why I said I could never write like that now, I don’t think I could write—The Planets is powered by this deeply nervous highly energetic slightly manic, very manic voice. Right now I feel very much at peace and at rest. I am still a pretty energetic person and still have the same sense of humor, but I don’t have the same—if there is such a thing as the voice of a person who has a secret, that’s the voice that I have lost. If that’s a resource, I’m sorry to have lost that resource. But I have lost a lot of resources and—

RB: How about that Pennsylvania Dutch saying, there’s a title there.

JB: [with accent] Ve are too soon old and too late schmart. [laughs]

RB: Too late smart. Anyway, you are still teaching?

JB: Still teaching at Colby, as a professor of English and teaching mostly of the things I have always taught—which is writing and a little bit of literature.

RB: Did you happen to attend the commencement this year?

JB: I did.

RB: What was the reception to Russo’s commencement address? In fact why was he chosen, a mere writer and former college professor seems an odd choice. Aren’t commencement speakers usually captains of industry or some such?

JB: His daughter was a senior and more importantly—

RB: He won a Pulitzer prize?

JB: All of that is there. He is a friend of the college, he has been on and off the faculty for years, his daughter was a senior. And HBO had recently finished filming Empire Falls and it was filmed in our town of Waterville and half of the population was in that movie and it was the most exciting, ever, ever to hit that town.

RB: So he should run for office.

JB: And because he was so very generous about making sure that the movie was shot in Waterville and Skowhegan and about having it done in Maine, people got a lot of work. So he was a local hero. And I think people in mill towns are grateful that somebody has finally given a shit about them and someone has given a voice to the struggle of people living at the outer edges of the Rust Belt.

RB: I can see why the town would be pleased with him but colleges usually see the world a little differently. Robber barons or war criminals.

JB: It was just one year.

RB: [laughs] Right.

JB: There were years we had Bill Cosby, Bush senior, then Robert Dole.

RB: I can’t imagine Dole speaking at college campus.

JB: It was during the ‘96 election. He basically gave his stump speech.

RB: So what was the reception to the speech?

JB: Dole or Russo? [laughs]

RB: Russo.

JB: People loved it. He knows Colby and he gave some very good and in some ways very old-fashioned advice. He said, “If you can fall in love; If you can get married; If you can have children.” [pause] It seemed like good advice.

RB: It was being circulated on the Internet like a samizdat. It was funny and sweet and poignant,

JB: Here’s a joke I tell on Russo. I can share this with you. This didn’t happen but the joke is: People say what about Russo. I say, “OK, 12 years ago, we were sitting in the office one day. We used to share this little office. And I said, one afternoon, we made an agreement one of us would become a woman and the other would win the Pulizter Prize for Fiction. So we flipped a coin and he lost.” [both laugh]

Right now I feel very much at peace and at rest. I am still a pretty energetic person and still have the same sense of humor, but I don’t have the same—if there is such a thing as the voice of a person who has a secret, that’s the voice that I have lost. RB: So how far off is the next book?

JB: My agent got it this week, I have not heard back from her yet so it could be I’ll get a call and she’ll say, “Boylan, this isn’t going to work.”

RB: She’s Not There sold, yes?

JB: Yes.

RB: Doesn’t that mean something?

JB: That’s pretty good. The question is whether people, having read She’s No There, will want to read more of the same?

RB: Is it more of the same?

JB: People will find the voice similar. It’s not the same because they are different stories and different material. I do feel in unique position of being able to talk about the experience of men and women and what lies between them and to examine that with a sense of irony and humor and I hope wisdom. I’m grateful and it’s a lucky thing that I have that insight when most people who have that insight can’t write about it.

RB: One would hope that the critical community sees that.

JB: She’s Not There got really nice reviews, mostly. I don’t want to say I was surprised but I have written things I have liked almost as much that critics hated. Maybe people have been a bit deferential to transgendered people. Book reviewers who are generally intelligent people understand that this is something that they don’t know anything about. And so there is a certain—they certainly gave me a lot of credit. I am hoping that credit lasts for more than one book [laughs]

RB: It’s a good story, well told.

JB: Well thank you. I hope so. It turned out not be an easy story to tell. Even though I came in as a novelist…
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum