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She's Not There: A Life in Two Gendersby Jennifer Finney Boylan
Reading Group Guide
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 evolves into 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.
1. Do you feel that Boylan had a choice in becoming a woman to the world?
2. What responsibility does Jenny have for Grace and their children? What responsibility do they have to her?
3. Have you ever known someone who made a gender transition? How did the change affect people who knew the person before?
4. How central a role do you believe gender plays in our identity? How much different and in what ways do you believe you'd be if you were a member of the opposite sex? Do you think that some traits are inherent in one gender?
5. Discuss Boylan’s experiences buying a car and buying a pair of jeans. Have you witnessed or experienced similar situations? Do you notice the differences in expectations and attitudes in the ways people of other sexes are portrayed?
6. What role does humor play in Boylan’s life and in this book?
7. The title of the book, “She’s Not There,” is the title of a song that Boylan sings. What do you think the title means in this case? Who is not there, and when?
8. What is revealed about Boylan in her friendship with Richard Russo?
9. As a teenager, Boylan believes that love will cure him from his feelings. In what ways is Boylan saved by love? In what ways do people usually expect to be saved by love? How often is it successful?
10. Discuss the concept of “normal” as it relates to Boylan’s narrative, and to your expectations.
11. On her web site, Boylan remarks, “As I look back at the story of my own life, I occasionally feel that being born transgendered was the best thing that could have happened to me. While dealing with this condition made life difficult for me, as well as for my family, it's also true that I have been given a rare gift in life, the gift of being able to see into the worlds of both men and women with clear eyes.” Do you feel that you know more about these worlds as a result of reading Boylan’s book?
12. Boylan says that her first awareness of being transgendered occurred when she was about three. What do you remember about your earliest sense of your identity? How often do you feel that what the world sees in you is at odds with what you know to be true?
13. After reading the book, did you identify with Boylan more or less than you had expected?
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