A Review of Conundrum
by Jan Morris
New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich
Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin
When I am Juliette, my female persona, I never feel like a transvestite. I feel instead like a somewhat different human being. My thought processes are a little different than Bill's or William's, my feelings, beliefs, and memories are different, I walk, talk, and eat differently, I have different tastes, habits, and even dreams.
Though I sometimes feel the electrically erotic charge of entering a forbidden zone or telling a dangerous truth when Juliette emerges and begins to dress, dressing itself is not a specifically sexual activity for me as I have heard it is for many TVs. I do not get a sexual thrill from the swish of her chiffon, the smell of her make-up does not make me hard, a day in heels does not prime me for orgasm. Further: I have been Juliette while dressed as a man or undressed altogether quite as often as I have been Juliette while dressed, and I have also been Bill in drag, when I feel silly, oafish, and embarrassed. When I am Juliette I am not I, but someone else who feels calm, fulfilled, and, in a strange way, home.
When I read about James Morris's dilemma as an energetic and successful male who knew himself to be female, that special part of me hums in empathy. "I myself see the conundrum in another perspective," the person who was James and became Jan explains,
for I believe it to have some higher origin or meaning. I equate it with the idea of soul, or self, and I think of it not just as a sexual enigma, but as a quest for unity. For me every aspect of my life is relevant to that quest not only the sexual impulses, but all the sights, sounds, and smells of memory, the influences of buildings, landscapes, comradeships, the power of love and of sorrow, the satisfactions of the senses as of the body. In my mind it is a subject far wider than sex: I recognize no pruriency to it, and I see it above all as a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit.
So as Juliette I see the problem as one of being who I truly am at that time, recognizing that at any given moment I am making up creating the truth that is my life. Surely everybody does as much, but for most of us, and for me in most of my days and hours, that truth is not so palpable.
Morris, one of midcentury's more successful British journalists, had felt his feminine self astir from early childhood. In fact, he felt altogether female, save for his anatomy. While he grew up, however, there was little option afforded him to living the best life he could as an alien in his own body. Therefore, live his life he did: monied and privileged, with an Oxford education, he did a stint in a gentleman's British army unit and then became a foreign correspondent, working for The Times of London, the Manchester Guardian, and the Arab News Agency in Cairo. He climbed Mount Everest with the 1953 British expedition, met with Che Guevara and Kim Philby, and traveled the world writing books and articles. He met a woman with whom he communed deeply, married her, and fathered five children. Then, at 35, he began a course of hormone treatment under the care of Dr. Harry Benjamin; ten years later, in 1972, he underwent sex reassignment surgery and became, with Christine Jorgenson and Rene Richards, one of the world's most famous transsexuals. Conundrum, the autobiography of Morris's first 45 years, relates the story with care, insight, and verve.
As I say, Morris's understanding of her predicament reflects feelings I have had myself. For me as for Morris,
gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music, it is a spring in one's step or an exchange of glances, it is more truly life and love than any combination of genitals, ovaries, and hormones. It is the essentialness of oneself, the psyche, the fragment of unity.
Like Virginia Prince, the grande dame of American male-to-female (MTF) transgender expression, Morris sees that "Male and female are sex, masculine and feminine are gender, and though the conceptions obviously overlap, they are far from synonymous." She dips into history and mythology, quotes from C. S. Lewis and Sir James Frazer, and finds in Juvenal, Hippocrates, the Chukchee Eskimo, and the lives of the Abbé de Choisy and the Chevalier d'eon, her lineage of women in men's form. She refers to her surgeon as a magician, and indeed her book is replete with images of holy men and transubstantiations.
For me, personally, Conundrum is a moving and satisfying volume. Juliette and I both read it, lying in bed the past cold mornings saying, "Yes, yes, it is like that, it is just like that." And yet I have two reservations.
First, I am not so unified as Morris. She may have been all Jan all along, biding her time till she could assert her own dominion over the body and the life that first belonged to James. But I am more multiple than she, and Juliette as far as I can tell from my perspective at mid-life will always have to share the form with Bill, William, Master Billy, and other, equally real personas.
Second, I am bemused that someone who has experienced life in so difficult a form, and who has been such a successful traveler to exotic lands and psychic spaces as either James or Jan has been, should express such small understanding of other people living their lives on other social fringes, whose sufferings and despairs may be fully as severe as hers were.
Though I believe, on the basis of no particular evidence, that she knows better than she writes, Morris repeatedly lumps together homosexual and effeminate men; she seems aloof from the mentally disturbed; and she takes an almost nineteenth century British colonial view of the unwhite masses. Though she is for me a rather charming writer, she is also frankly and traditionally Anglo-Welshophilic; and while she tells her tale with intelligence and grace, the supercilious gloss with which her prose is overlaid prevents Conundrum from shedding much light on the conundrum as other people might experience it, and prevents it from being the really helpful book it might have been for all the other women in Western societies who are living in men's bodies, fully or only partly transsexual, who cannot or will not or simply do not choose as she did. Conundrum, in fact, is really is an autobiography written by a famous travel writer about her most astounding voyage. That is saying a very great deal, but that is also all it is saying.
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