A common thread runs through Jennifer Finney Boylan’s rich and varied body of work: the malleability of identity and the nature of change. With perhaps her best-known book, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, she opened a window into the trans experience, using her own life as an example.
In her newest book, Good Boy, she considers the stages of her pre-transition life—from childhood to her 40s—organized by the dogs she lived with during those years. “My days have been numbered in dogs,” she says in the introduction, then goes on to describe both the dogs and the days, starting with Playboy, an unreliably housetrained Dalmatian who adored her father and caused the rest of the family great embarrassment.
The author’s portraits of Playboy and the other six members of the canine cast have a ring of truth to them. The dogs, however, are relatively minor elements of the story. Together, they form the scaffolding for the subject she’s really exploring: her journey from son and husband to wife and mother.
Toward the end of the book, Boylan writes: “Maybe that was my problem, my inability to separate the tragic from the absurd—but then, the condition that I’d been carrying around in my heart since childhood almost guaranteed that I’d see the world in those terms.” That condition was her sense of otherness, of having a secret that was too radioactive to share, of being a fraud—essentially, of not being the person others saw. The refrain “You are not you” echoes throughout.
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One particular incident perfectly captures that juxtaposition of the tragic and the absurd. Boylan, who at that point was a middle-aged man named Jim, takes a walk in the Maine woods behind his house attired in a Fredrick’s of Hollywood white lace dress with a hanky hem, heels and wig, fully made up and appropriately padded. Lucy, the family’s dog, stayed close “to see how all of this was going to end.” After hearing something moving in the forest, Lucy barks, then takes off, leaving Boylan to contemplate meeting one of his neighbors dressed as he was. Instead, the heavy footsteps turn out to be those of a moose. “The large, ungainly creature stepped toward me and then paused. She looked me in the eyes and froze. We both had the same thought: Wow, you’re really hideous.” After the moose wandered off, Boylan sat on a fallen tree and “began to sob, about as hard as I’d ever wept in my life.”
At the time, Boylan’s family—wife Deedie and sons Zach and Sean—were unaware of the author’s secret self. Every brief, superficial transformation from male to female made it clear that living with such a bone-deep secret was becoming completely untenable. Yet, he was terrified of losing his family if he took the steps required to live as the person he knew himself to be.
You don’t have to share this gender conundrum to understand the very real terror it represented, or to empathize with the decisions Boylan faced.
If you prefer stories to proceed in a tidy, linear fashion, Good Boy may be a challenge. Boylan skips forward and back, shifts time frames, loops and circles. Yet, persevering is worth the effort—doing so will give you plenty to think about. It will also reinforce what every dog-lover knows: dogs make life more bearable in ways too numerous to count.
Excerpt: On the Magic of Dogs
When we talk about dogs, it is not uncommon for people to say things like They love us unconditionally! Their hearts are so pure! But to be honest, I have rarely found this to be the case. When I was a boy, for instance, there was a German shepherd named Gomer who lived on a farm near our house. Most of his days were spent at the end of a heavy iron chain. If he’d been given the option, it was clear enough: Gomer would have torn me apart like a Walmart piñata. The only thing unconditional about Gomer’s feelings toward me was his bottomless hate.
But his owner, Joy, saw in him an adorable rascal. Who’s a good boy? she asked the terrible Gomer, feeding him a piece of raw steak she’d obtained specifically for this purpose. Who’s a good boy?
In the years since, I have known lots of people whose love has been focused solely on other questionable creatures, some of them evil, such as Gomer, and others just sad and floppy, dogs with all the sentience of a used ShamWow. But oh, the adoration that my friends have had for these wuffly creatures, and with what profound devotion they’ve arranged their days around their needs. One friend of mine has a dog that is kind of like a miniature sloth, with unsettling bits of dried-up Alpo congealed into the fur around its mouth, a creature whose paws for reasons I do not understand can never touch the ground and who must be carried like a clutch purse from spot to spot. She calls him her “little man.” She’s always telling me about how much Bingo loves her, how Bingo’s the only one who understands her, how her life would be empty were it not for the radiant adoration little Bingo sends forth.
I am not in the business of questioning the love that anyone has for anyone else, so let’s agree: whatever she and Bingo have going on is their own sweet business.
But if you ask me, the magic of dogs is not that their love for us is unconditional. What’s unconditional is the love that we have for them.
Listen: If we’re going to talk about dogs, we’re going to have to talk about love, and the sooner you get your mind around this, the more irritated with me you can be. I’ll try to be brief.
I’m pretty sure that if there is any reason why we are here on this planet, it is in order to love one another. It is, as the saying goes, all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
And yet, as it turns out, nothing is harder than loving human beings.
From Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs © 2020 Jennifer Finney Boylan, published by Celadon Books.