An opera scholar reflects on how protest and disrupting the norm have shaped her life.
If you follow the life and work of Jennifer Finney Boylan — through her courses at Barnard, her bestselling books, her columns in The New York Times, or her appearances on programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show and I Am Cait — you’ll know that she is a tireless crusader for LGBTQ rights, a prolific writer, and an ardent dog lover. Canines, in fact, are a central theme in Boylan’s latest memoir, Good Boy: A Life in Seven Dogs (Celadon Books), which chronicles her life pre- and post-transition via the family dogs that bound (or waddle) in and out of the scene. These pets — from a portly Dalmatian nicknamed Sausage to a randy mutt named Matt — are constant presences in Boylan’s life as she grows up and struggles to reconcile with her identity. Throughout the book, Boylan moves characteristically between humor, heartbreak, and pointed critique, revealing a tender portrait of the young boy she was and the woman she became. We caught up with Boylan to discuss Good Boy, the value of examining our former selves, and what animals can teach us about being human.
You wrote about your relationship with your dog Indigo in your opinion column for The New York Times in 2017. Did that piece plant the seed for Good Boy?
Jennifer Finney Boylan: What’s funny is that I’ve been a newspaper columnist for a long time, and at one of my first jobs, the editor told me you can write about anything you want, just don’t ever write a dead dog column, which I guess is a cliché. And that’s just what I did with that New York Times column. And it hit a nerve with a lot of people.
I think what struck me about writing about dogs is that it’s impossible to talk about dogs without talking about love. But love is something that we’re actually not that good at talking about. It makes people roll their eyes; it makes people squirm. And yet when you talk about dogs, it’s as if things that are awkward come more easily. For a transgender woman, looking back at the boy that I used to be can also be really awkward. I know a lot of transgender women don’t speak of their younger lives this way, and I respect that, but I certainly do, and the dogs were a big part of that life. It was also a way of reconnecting with that boy I used to be — a boy who now exists only in memories but who still feels very real to me.
Dogs help us express love that we’re too awkward to express. Maybe we learn something about how to love each other in modeling the love that we see in dogs.
How has writing this memoir helped you explore your own identity and transformation?
You don’t have to be an old person to feel a sense of disconnection from your own history. There’s not a Barnard student who hasn’t looked in the mirror and seen the face of someone who they might not immediately recognize. And in some ways, we want that out of a Barnard education. But at the same time, it can be very unsettling to not have a sense of continuity with your own history. And transgender people do have a kind of before and after. Writing is one way to make that connection between who you are and who you’ve been.
Good Boy is about the dogs I’ve had pre-transition, but it’s also about the good boy I was. There’s the dog of my childhood when I was a really little boy; there’s the dog when I was a teenager; there’s a dog for when I was in college; there’s a dog for my early 20s; there’s the dog for being a boyfriend, a husband, and a father. All of those are male identities that I experienced before transition, and, in a way, it’s very healing to make peace with that person and to forgive him for all the ways he messed things up. The dogs were a device I used to get at this bigger truth. The dogs were a source of strength, constancy, and inspiration but also a source of comedy. A lot of these dogs were terrible dogs: I had a dog who stole the Thanksgiving turkey off the table when our backs were turned; I had a dog who would bite people; I had a dog who would chase after cars.
You’ve written several novels and memoirs, including your bestseller She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. Did this one feel different to write? And if so, how?
When I wrote She’s Not There, almost 20 years ago now, I thought I’d publish this one book, then go back to writing fiction. I was trained as a novelist and still consider myself a novelist mostly, yet what I’ve become known for is memoir about the transgender experience and also the column I publish in The New York Times. Yes, I have written fiction since my transition, but it feels a little different, a little closer to the edge. It’s also true that there’s as much invention in memoir and as much truth in fiction as there is in any other genre. But this book felt different because I was revisiting a part of my life I don’t think about that much, a time before transition. It gave me a chance to think about my family and to write about a wonderful cast of characters, because I really was raised by a series of eccentrics. And then all these dogs. I feel sometimes that I grew up in a Charles Dickens novel. In a way, this memoir is less about me than it is about the people around me and the dogs that we all loved.
What do you think piqued your interest in writing more nonfiction? Is there a connection to what was happening in your own life?
The big difference in my life was not really going from male to female — the big difference was going from someone who had a secret in the world to being someone who had almost no secrets. If you’re a person who’s living in the world with profound atomic secrets, it takes a big emotional toll on you, and it can really absorb a lot of your energy in life. Your secret goes everywhere with you; it’s like a big invisible slobbering Saint Bernard. Do people know I was wearing a dress right before this? Are there any impressions from the clip-on earrings I was wearing on my earlobes that people can see? Did I get all that mascara off of my eyelids? The thing about coming out as trans — as hard as it was — suddenly I had all this free time. I didn’t have to devote myself to being a secret agent anymore. So, that’s one of the gifts of transition. Like I said, my journey from male to female doesn’t exactly overlap with my journey from fiction to nonfiction, but you could make a pretty good case that it does.
What do you think people can learn from animals?
It’s very easy to romanticize dogs and other animals and see in them just what we want to see. It’s a very human-centric view to think that an animal’s job is to teach us lessons, and yet the relationship between pets and ourselves is complex in that we do teach each other things. We teach them not to pee on the floor, and they teach us how to love. It seems like a fair trade, doesn’t it?
Sometimes when I’m talking about the transgender experience, I show people the American Sign Language sign for it, which is a flower made out of your fingers, facing downward, that you place over your heart. You then bring it outward into the air, turn it around so that the petals face the sky, and the petals open, and then you put it back in your heart facing the new direction. I learned it since losing so much of my hearing a few years ago. It’s not as much a sign about being trans as it is about the human experience. We all have something in our hearts that we’re afraid to share with other people, and the job of life is to get it out of the place where it’s trapped inside you and bring it out into the sunshine where you can thrive. Dogs can help us do that; dogs help us express love that we’re too awkward to express. Maybe we learn something about how to love each other in modeling the love that we see in dogs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.