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Giving up the ghost

Boylan on childhood in a spooky house, and things that haunt us all


Whats more real: the ghosts or the blonde? - JAMES BOWDIN
  • James Bowdin
  • Whats more real: the ghosts or the blonde?

When Jennifer Finney Boylan's new book arrives, I flip inside the dust jacket and there, along with a description of the memoir, is her photo. She looks a bit like Meryl Streep, with strawberry blonde hair a color I've always envied, but never achieved.

Now, hair's not the only thing to envy about Boylan. She's authored 10 books, counts Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo as her best friend, works as a college English professor, and has been on Oprah three times. Dang.

Still, I'm stuck on her hair.

I ask my husband, "Do you think she's pretty?"

He raises an eyebrow. "I suppose," he says.

"Does she look younger than me?"

He groans. "I don't know. But if she's famous, she's probably had some work done."

"Yeah," I say smugly.

Then the irony hits.

"I guess she has," I say, smiling. "She used to be a man."

I imagine Boylan or "Jenny" as she's known now might smile, too. She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, her bestselling 2003 memoir about transitioning from male to female, laid bare her wicked sense of humor.

"Humor was what enabled me to survive," Boylan writes in an e-mail interview. "It's no surprise that trans people can be funny; your life is ... defined by a fundamentally absurd condition."

It's a condition of which she's been aware since childhood, when she first identified herself as a girl inside a boy's body. And it's a theme she explores again with humor in her latest work.

I'm Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted is the story of her early life as James in a Victorian home shared by her family and a series of ghosts. We meet her father, mother, sister and eccentric grandmother along with disembodied footsteps, a blue mist, a woman in the mirror and an entity known as "the conductor."

In the book, Boylan includes a disclaimer explaining that memoir is "an impression," not "a photograph," and that the story "contains occasional elements of invention."

So are the ghosts real?

"Oh, I think everybody believes in ghosts of some kind or another," sayss Boylan. "After all, the ghosts I am talking about are not really the Scooby Doo variety; they are the ghosts of the human heart."

Ahh ... another of Boylan's specialties. Though she could have written a lurid or overly sentimental tale, she peers into her characters' hearts in a way so genuine, you can't help but relate. She's written a carefully crafted work about coming to terms with her history as an "ex-man" and with the friends and family who are part of the journey. It touches larger themes like the need to be true to one's self, the difficulty of harboring secrets, the pain truth can cause and the power of love to endure.

"I think we all know what it means to be haunted, even if we don't believe in ghosts," Boylan says. "So that's a thing I think about how do we make peace with those ghosts?"

Jennifer Finney Boylan reading and booksigning
Tattered Cover LoDo,
1628 16th St., Denver
Thursday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m.
Visit or for more.

Jennifer Finney Boylan at the Colorado Gold Rush
Transgendered Conference
Adam's Mark Hotel,
1550 Court Place, Denver
Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 21-24
Visit for more.

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