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Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”

There’s something downright depressing about Juliet Jacques’s account of her transition from male to female, because Jacques himself is depressed, at least when he’s still a male. And, still, Jacques’s Trans is also transformative, exhilarating, uplifting. It’s the mixture of the two that will have you riveted to the story much of the time, not because it is voyeuristic (it is not) but, rather, because another human being has acted courageously, written about it so that others may be informed, and mostly come out the other side of the operation into a better world than he knew before.

Parts of the book appeared in The Guardian, as the process was unfolding, and now we have a much more complete story of the author’s life with the expanded account. But where to start with this review? Perhaps with this revelation once Jacques’s old life has been closed. “While certain male friends felt like I was leaving them, some female ones felt I was joining them.” That’s quite lovely, expansive in a beautiful way. Dare I say the best of both worlds, explained sequentially? Perhaps even better, Jacques’s relationship with his parents—once they were able to get beyond their initial shock that he was going to undergo gender transformation—became the most positive that he had ever experienced. They came around and accepted him for what he was and convinced him to return home and live with them during the two months recovery from the operation.

Before that, things were quite different. Jacques states that at age ten, he knew that something was not right. He was depressed, alienated from others, and enjoyed cross-dressing in the privacy of his own house when others were away. Later, he gathered transmemoirtogether bits and pieces of gay and trans life, mostly from reading and watching movies. The gender fluidity he observed at certain clubs (once he was in high school and the university) also offered him a new awareness of possibilities. But, still, the self-questioning that he had known for years persisted: “Why don’t you have any friends? Why doesn’t anyone love you? Why don’t you enjoy the gay clubs? You’re not really ‘gay,’ are you? Why aren’t you getting out of this cross-dressing ‘phase’? What happens when your parents find out? Why are you so depressed again? Wasn’t getting out of Horley [the small town near Gatwick where he grew up] supposed to fix this?” By this time, he’s attending the University of Manchester.

After university, he’s pretty much decided that his gender dysphoria has to come to an end. He wants to be a writer but isn’t particularly successful with that career—at least initially. Jobs of any kind are difficult (this is at the turn of the century), though he frequently has brief periods of work for the NHS (Britain’s National Health Service). He enjoys playing soccer with the guys but is increasingly unhappy with his body. Finally, after some years, he decides that he wants to be transgendered, a process that is covered by the NHS but involves years of psychological checks and balances. (His depression has continued, he’s suicidal, but these traits he believes are because he is still a male.)

Thus the process finally begins, after a fairly lengthy period of time dressing and going out in public as a woman (with all the negative humiliations that means from males who themselves are often confused about their own identities). Once he makes the final decision, he writes a very sensitive letter to his friends, most of whom respond positively. And—equally important—he begins writing about the entire process for The Guardian. The prolonged stages required before surgery include changing his name to what he wants to be called in the future—Juliet Jacques—and all his legal documents (we never learn his birth name). Then there’s electrolysis to eliminate facial and body hair, followed by training to raise his voice. When those are completed, he gets the go ahead for hormone treatment, which will finally be followed by surgery. All of these stages are supported with psychological therapy in order to determine that he genuinely wants to transform into a woman.

There are plenty of asides to his work and accounts of his non-sexual relations with others. He/she includes numerous examples of others who have undergone the difficult transformation. One man decided that he wanted to reverse the process. Fortunately, that was before surgery, so it was possible. And, sadly, there are references to the high frequency of those transgendered people being murdered. (Transgendered males appear to be more of an attraction and a threat to straight males than gays.) Just before his own actual surgery, he states, “I just want this fucking thing [his penis] off my body,” sounding quite definitive.

There’s plenty of post-operative pain to endure, the need to frequently dilate her vagina so that it will not close up, and phantom-limb sensations about her excised penis. She’s jobless for a period of time, mostly dependent on her parents and the state for support. But, finally, things turn in the right direction. As she sums up, “After I finished the Guardian series, I felt so burnt out. I scaled back my social life and Internet presence, and my feelings about the transition changed. I became so angry about how long the Real Life Experience took, and how difficult it was. Writing this book, I arrived at a more nostalgic attitude about certain aspects of my life, particularly my pre-transitional explorations of gender.”

Although Juliet Jacques states that she still feels like an outsider, Trans: A Memoir is a very brave book. My admiration goes out to Jacques and anyone else who undergoes the process.

Julie Jacques: Trans: A Memoir

Verso, 311 pp., $26.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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