What does it mean to be a trans woman? What’s transition for trans women like? These questions have been on many minds the past few months, and have spawned TV shows and movies, not to mention a huge number of Tumblr blogs, YouTube channels, and personal essays devoted to the topic (including some by yours truly). Yet even in this deluge of media, there’s something about the intimacy and depth of the book-length memoir that allows a reader not only to view a person’s experience from their perspective, but to live with that perspective for an extended period of time in that reader’s own imagination, as close to walking in another’s shoes as one can get.
Two new memoirs by trans women — Trans by Juliet Jacques and There Is Room for You by Zoe Dolan — have been published this year, additions to what can now be properly called a trans memoir genre. Both books challenge aspects of the standard trans narrative, the need to justify trans women’s existence, and the idea that transition is a heroic act. By looking at previous memoirs, from Jan Morris’s Conundrum from 1974 to Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness from 2014, it’s clear there’s been steady movement away from exploring only the most titillating aspects of transgender experience — but of course, trans women’s lives have always been deeply complex.
In There Is Room for You, Dolan brings with her not just a life filled with exciting experiences, but also an ear for engaging prose. Dolan came to public knowledge in a New York Times profile, published while she was on the defense team in the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. Her memoir traces her route to discovering both her passion for law and her trans identity, with a backdrop of an addiction to sex that wreaked havoc on her life until she was able to control it.
One of the telling features of trans memoirs is that they tend to frame their narratives around an inciting experience that moves them to tell their story, which conditions how the reader experiences the rest of the book. For Mock, it’s revealing her trans status to her future partner Aaron; for Jennifer Finney Boylan in She’s Not There from 2003, it’s an encounter with a hitchhiker who turned out to be a former student who knew her before transition. For Dolan, it’s a list of 25 facts that she wrote on Facebook, which she references throughout her book. It starts with “1. My first word was 'more' – and little has changed ever since,” continues with, “17. I had transsexual surgery in Bangkok,” and ends with “25. I have almost died several times. I am glad I’m still here.”
In between, Dolan recounts adventures from Egypt to the Netherlands, usually connected in some way to an attractive man, as she winds up in the Queen Boat nightclub in 2001 when 52 gay men were arrested, including her friend Mahmoud, many of whom were subsequently sent to prison. This experience gave her the resolve to become a lawyer after years of intensive Arabic study, and to eventually defend people accused of terrorism as part of her private practice.
Dolan has led a varied and fascinating life, and her lively prose (she trained as a playwright at NYU) imbues her experiences with even more energy. This is in full display in an excerpt of the book published by The Guardian, in which she describes “Cinderella Syndrome” — withdrawing from men who were attracted to her because of her trans status — which she experienced until she met a dashing Italian man in the Netherlands named Adriano. When he rejects her after he finds out she’s trans, Dolan writes: “I had stayed past midnight to dance a little longer with Adriano, which I should never have done. I had lost track of the ground while soaring through the sky. It was glorious, until everything fell apart. My gown had turned to rags, and I was covered in soot.” This is the kind of evocative writing that characterizes There Is Room for You and makes many parts of the book thrilling to read.
It’s also glaring that Dolan doesn’t hew to one of the standard conventions of trans narrative, whether in memoir or other forms, which is to spend significant amounts of time dwelling on either the reasons why someone is trans or the minute details of their transition. Dolan treats her transition experience as one of many significant events in her life and hardly discusses her childhood or why she ended up being trans. This is a departure from trans narratives that came before her.
At the same time, the Facebook list that frames the book also contributes to its lack of cohesive structure; Dolan’s restlessness bleeds into her narrative. There Is Room for You can easily be three memoirs — about a trans woman, a recovering sex addict, an international defense attorney — but Dolan’s attempt to combine all three elements, at times in a single paragraph, creates both unnecessary confusion and an inability for the reader to sit with her experience before she’s on to her next adventure. Dolan constantly shifts backward and forward in time in the middle of telling stories, which already pulls the reader from her narrative, but is even more confusing in a trans memoir because one is constantly having to figure out the state of her gender as she skips around.
As a self-published book, There Is Room for You sometimes feels refreshing in its lack of professional polish, but there are also times when it feels indulgent, especially as the story moves away from Dolan’s trans self-discovery and toward her passion for law, expecting her reader to follow along. As she discusses how judges affect cases by choosing which evidence is admissible, Dolan uses a specific case as an example and writes: “What I want to share with you are examples of this mechanism at work. So here’s what happened at the Ibrahim trial – all of it,” then devotes multiple pages to discussing the case.
This is when There Is Room for You feels less like an autobiography and more like a criminal law lecture. While a trans memoir doesn’t always have to be just about trans experience — as trans women are so much more than their transgender identity — it’s also important that an autobiography maintains its focus, and Dolan spends too much time on law and not enough on her lived experiences. Dolan’s idiosyncratic style allows us to peer into her mind in an unfiltered way, but doesn’t create that feeling of wholeness that comes from reading more fully reflective works by previous authors. The best memoirs leave you feeling like your mind has just been fed the most lavish meal. Dolan certainly has all the ingredients to create this type of experience, but in There Is Room for You, it feels as if she doesn’t have the patience.
For readers who are curious about the nuts and bolts of gender transition, Juliet Jacques’s Trans is as direct as its title, opening with details about the author’s gender reassignment surgery, then proceeding to discuss her gender evolution in roughly chronological order, with forays into trans theory and media criticism, as well as Jacques’s passion for football. Based on a series of articles that she originally wrote for The Guardian, Jacques tracks the details of her transition through the National Health Services (NHS) in England.
The odd thing about Trans is that even though it spends a lot of time dealing with the mechanics of transition, the book does so in a largely matter-of-fact way, devoid of the extended and emotional inner monologues that attend this event in previous trans narratives. For a British audience, the book is as much about how the British health care system treats a transgender patient as it is about the specificities of Jacques's transition, since the author spends a lot of time discussing the various doctor and therapist visits and bureaucratic hurdles she needed to go through before she could undergo the therapies and surgeries she needed. For instance, here’s a typical exchange in the book, as Jacques visits a voice therapist who asks her to make some sounds then prints some charts:
“You’re at 133 Hz,” he said. “Ninety to 130 is usually considered male, so you are at the very highest end of that.”
“Doesn’t that make it androgynous?”
“No, that’s 160 Hz at the lowest. Try again.”
I imagine that these kinds of details would be of interest to people who haven’t lived the transition experience, but these scenes don’t offer a lot beyond a step-by-step recounting of the medical process. In an epilogue at the end of the book — written as an interview with the author Sheila Heti — Jacques discusses her desire to counter media portrayals of transition as a mythical hero’s journey. “To me,” Jacques writes, “it didn’t feel like that, rather a bunch of hoops to jump through while working in boring jobs.”
The ghost of Morris’s Conundrum, a breezy heroine’s tale that’s been ensconced as the canonical trans memoir, seems to haunt the book, but Trans accounts for neither more recent memoirs that portray gender transition as self-discovery without glossing over its difficulties, nor the fact that bureaucracy and office drudgery don’t exactly make for thrilling reading. It’s as if in trying not to objectify her life by turning herself into a hero, Jacques underestimates both the potential of her own existence beyond her status as a trans woman and the reality that many trans people see transition as a route toward self-acceptance.
Even Jacques is aware of how ordinary her life can seem. “Occasionally, I found myself wishing the street abuse would escalate,” she writes, “or that the medics would block my path, or that someone close to me would cut me off, just so I’d have more ‘colour’ in my articles.” Jacques encounters plenty of obstacles in Trans, from harassment to her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, but she consistently distances herself from her experience, using both the step-by-step accounts of her medical transition and criticism of various trans-related media as tools.
Apart from the medical account, Jacques devotes many paragraphs to discussing trans media, theory, and history, which will be of interest to people who haven’t been exposed to a lot of trans-related work — but ultimately feels out of place in a book that’s framed as a memoir. Jacques explicitly states that she wants to write like Julia Serano in Whipping Girl, a book of criticism that has become the standard reference point for many trans women. But in trying to shoehorn this kind of writing into a memoir, Jacques further distances herself from her reader, as she leaves me wondering why I keep reading about the lives of others in a book that’s supposed to be about her own.
Jacques writes in her epilogue, “Initially, I wanted to directly address the readers about their expectations for trans narratives and how they’ve been conditioned to read them. But the format of the memoir is so personal […] I needed to find a middle ground.” Yet by attempting to question the memoir as a form while at the same time hewing to some of its strictures, Trans ends up feeling halfhearted, neither the book Jacques wanted to write nor the book that readers expect of a trans memoir. The form of the memoir may have its drawbacks, but it also endures because the best examples of the genre allow readers to closely identify with authors who’ve lived lives so different from their own.
While Dolan's and Jacques’s narratives both have limitations, they do reveal how transgender lives are endlessly complex, covering ground that’s distinct from previous memoirs by trans women. And by challenging how memoirs have been written in the past, they also demonstrate that the trans memoir has become a developed enough genre that it has conventions to be challenged. But even as previous memoirs established those conventions — like describing transgender feelings in childhood, or presenting transition as the culmination of a journey — there are also numerous ways in which the lives they depict are vastly different.
Among published works since Morris’s Conundrum in 1974, Mock’s has been the only recent book-length autobiography written by a woman of color. It tells the story of someone conventionally attractive who medically transitioned at 18. Deirdre McCloskey’s Crossing from 1999 is the tale of a renowned economics professor who transitioned at 53, is over 6 feet tall, and has enormous trouble passing. While both stories fall under the genre of trans memoir, the struggles they relate are almost entirely different from each other. As transgender intersects with race, sexuality, economics, and beauty, it’s as though each element refracts trans lives and makes for an endless combination of deeply complicated pockets of experience.
Then there’s the challenge of trying to explain the nature of transgender identity itself. In an afterword to Boylan’s She’s Not There, her good friend and acclaimed novelist Richard Russo writes: “The problem, as this memoir illustrates, is that the transgender person’s experience is not really ‘like’ anything.” As a result, these memoirists spend copious amounts of space describing how they came to be trans, even as there continues to be an elusive quality to their recollections. It’s as though in the end, there can’t be any other explanation for a person being transgender than the fact that she is, just as a vast majority of people are cisgender just because they are. Yet it’s always the minority’s burden to explain herself because her experience is rare, while the majority’s experience, even if it’s just as mysterious, is widely known and therefore doesn’t require explanation or justification.
McCloskey’s analytical mind comes closest to concretely describing the experience, as she uses the metaphor of migration to describe the movement from male to female: “Most people would like to go to Venice on vacation. Most people, if they could magically do it, would like to try out the other gender for a day or a week or a month […] But only a tiny fraction of the crossgendered are permanent gender crossers, wanting to become Venetians.” Migration is a powerful metaphor in that it captures both the mystery of how a person decides to cross the border of gender as well as the enormous challenges in doing so. And gender migrants, like their geographic counterparts, come with different sets of privileges and disadvantages that aid or interfere with acclimation to their new roles.
Like the immigrant who can’t get rid of her accent, McCloskey’s own struggle to acquire a “female” voice leads to many people considering her an interloper in the land of women. The power of Crossing lies in the incisiveness with which McCloskey describes her experiences as well as her perspective — unique among memoirists — as someone who has enormous trouble passing. When she discusses the rejection of her family and her experience of being committed to a mental institution after she decides to undergo facial feminization surgery, McCloskey unflinchingly recounts how different trans experience is for those who feel themselves to be women, but are perceived so staunchly as male by others that their transgender status is equated with severe mental illness.
Compared to McCloskey, Boylan recounts a gentler transition into womanhood, preserving her marriage and core friendships. She also speaks not McCloskey’s analytical truth, but the poetic truth of someone who had built a career as a novelist by the time she transitioned in her forties. She communicates her experience not only through metaphor, but also by writing as though we as readers were reliving her experience with her.
The early parts of She’s Not There are particularly effective, especially in the way Boylan writes about how her transgender feelings expressed themselves when she was a child. “Sometimes I played a game in the woods called ‘girl planet,’” Boylan writes. “In it, I was an astronaut who crashed in 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.” Games are a near-universal part of childhood, and Boylan uses hers to illustrate what was both typical and rare about her experience, ably and touchingly bringing the reader into her world.
Boylan’s narrative is also peppered with a sly humor that is a trademark of her work – she recounts her best friend Russo observing, “You love that place between what’s funny and what’s terribly sad.” For instance, Boylan writes of her early cross-dressing experiences: “Wearing my sister’s and mother’s clothes wasn’t exactly satisfying, though. For one thing, it was creepy, sneaking around. Even I knew it was creepy.” Boylan’s gentle comedy makes her not just an entertaining narrator but a deeply disarming one, in her ability to find humor in life’s obstacles. There are times, though, when the humorous tone of She’s Not There reveals a hesitation to unearth what must be recesses of emotion under the surface. If a memoirist’s job is to dig deep, then Boylan’s humor sometimes feels like an impediment, though certainly a beguiling one.
The person who thus leaves herself most vulnerable is Mock, who lays her life bare in Redefining Realness without being overly sentimental or self-objectifying, as she recounts incidences of childhood sexual abuse, parental violence, and sex work to fund her gender reassignment surgery. The most effective parts of Redefining Realness are those that move away from the factual and at times didactic realm of trans education and into the murky territory of Mock’s inner life, as her memoir becomes a venue not just for communicating her experience to others, but for discovering the resonances of her life for herself.
Mock’s most painful recollection is the time when she had to appear in a transgender porn video so that she could pay off the balance of her gender reassignment surgery, an episode she recalls with harrowing clarity and restraint. “I know that excluding it from this chronicle of my life would be cowardly,” she writes. “It would mean I was actively erasing a part of my journey. Why tell your story if you’re not going to tell it in its entirety?” This chapter of Redefining Realness illustrates its greatest achievement — Mock’s willingness to expose parts of herself that are the stuff of sexual fantasy, without any sense that she is doing it for spectacle. I’ve read few authors like Mock — James Baldwin and Joan Didion spring to mind as signposts — who can slice so deeply to the core of their experience yet present the cut in such an evocative and insightful way.
We’ve come a long way from the breeziness of Morris’s Conundrum, where a type of euphoric writing clearly obscures her struggle. Morris wrote in 1974: “When I woke each morning I felt resplendent in my liberation. I shone! I was Ariel!” More than 40 years later, her words seem replete with overcompensation, especially when authors who came after her have so minutely explored many recesses of transgender life in their own ways. Over time, transgender memoirists have felt less and less of a need to justify their transgender feelings or mask the pain of their experiences. They have also steadily felt less of a need to portray medical transition as a profound, landmark event, choosing instead to view it as one among a set of important experiences. Clearly, transgender identity is both so enormously complex and gender such an embedded part of human interaction that there is plenty more to be said, shown, and written about transgender lives. These memoirs don’t just show how varied the experiences of trans women can be, but point to transness as a deeply powerful lens through which to view human possibility.