Jan 10, 2011

Conundrum by Jan Morris

Conundrum by Jan Morris

I was tree or perhaps four years old when I realized I had been born into the wrong body, and I should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.
First published in 1974, Jan Morris’ Conundrum is a pioneer among transgender memoirs. Morris tells the story of her journey from man to woman: despite having known she wasn’t comfortable with the body she’d been born with from a very young age, it wasn’t until the age of 35 that she was able to begin hormonal treatment. And it was only at 45 that she finally underwent the surgery that matched her physical sex and her gender identity. By then, Morris was married and had children, but fortunately her family remained supportive all through her transformation. Reactions among her friends and acquaintances varied, but Morris was too happy to finally be able to be herself to pay the naysayers much mind.

Of course, none of this is to deny the very real and often life-threatening hostility that trans people throughout the world have to face. But as a comfortably off writer with a supportive family, and as someone who was socially privileged in many ways, Morris was insulated from much of that. Which brings me to something else: the fact that Morris was raised as a privileged white male in the first half of the twentieth century shows in many different ways in this memoir (as she eventually acknowledges herself). She’s someone who’ll dismiss ecology and conservationism as a fad and a denial of man’s mastery over nature (to paraphrase); who’ll say things like “Black Africa seemed everything I wanted not to be”, but then acknowledges that this is a result of her being “a child of Imperial Times”; or who’ll label the life of a gay couple as empty and futile because they couldn’t have children (I don’t mean to dismiss the plight of those who want children but aren’t allowed to adopt because of stupid, bigoted laws, of course. It’s just the assumption that children are absolutely necessary for anyone to lead a fulfilled life that gets on my nerves.)

A lot of what Morris says in Conundrum took me aback – but then again literature is important exactly because it invites us to empathise with people who are very different from us. And even as some of her views made me shudder, I appreciated her honesty, her candour, and her bravery in speaking of transgender issues at a time when this was even more of a silenced subject than it is now.

One of the most interesting aspects of Conundrum was the fact that Morris compared her experiences as a male and as a female in the second half of the twentieth century. There are several brilliant passages about how her sex change equalled a loss of social status. For example, she says:
We are told that the social gap between the sexes is narrowing, but I can only report that having, in the second half of the 20th century, experienced life in both roles, there seems to me no aspect of existence, no moment of the day, no contact, no arrangement, no response, which is not different for men and for women. The very tone of voice in which I was now addressed, the very posture of the person next in the queue, the very feel in the air, constantly emphasized my change of status.
And if others’ responses shifted, so did my own. The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.
But to my disappointment, Morris often shifts from acknowledging the powerful effects of gender stereotyping and the psychological consequences of being regularly patronised to a retreat into good old fashioned essentialism. Even more disappointingly, she also seems to genuinely believe that sexual attention of any kind, even aggressive and unwelcome, is flattering to women.

When all is said and done, Morris still idealises maleness; the “close knit societies of male traditionalism” that she was brought up to fit into. She says of her negative experience working for The Guardian: “I have a disconcerting feeling now that I disliked it because it was like working for a woman rather than a man.” And towards the end of the book, I’m afraid she crosses the line into magical penis territory with the following comment:
A neurotic condition common among women is called penis envy, its victims supposing that there is inherent to the very fact of the male organs some potent energy of the spirit. There is something to this fancy. It is not merely the loss of androgens that has made me more retiring, more ready to be led, more passive: the removal of the organs themselves has contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive and stimulating. My body then was made to push and initiate, it is now made to yield and accept, and the outside change has had its inner consequences.
Um. Right.

There is of course something to the idea that people change their behaviour according to how they’re treated; that expectations can change not only how we act in front of others, but even how we perceive ourselves. But I’m afraid this (to quote Wollestonecraft a few centuries ago) is just plain nonsense. Gender essentialism isn’t really something I see as a matter of opinion so much as a matter of facts versus misconceptions (speaking of which, I can’t wait to tell you all how awesome Delusions of Gender is). I very much resent the idea that the lack of a penis makes me more passive, but at the same time, I don’t want this resentment to blind me to the fact that someone like Morris might know something I don’t.

Conundrum made me wonder whether my frequent rants against essentialism ever come across as a dismissal of the entire concept of gender identity, and consequentially of the experiences of trans people. I hope not. I believe that gender is a continuum and not a binary, and that there are as many possible and valid identities as there are individuals. But I also know that as a cisgendered female, there’s a lot that I take for granted. And although I’ll never be convinced that there are insurmountable and innate psychological differences between men and women, I’ll readily acknowledge that I know nothing of the pain and discomfort of living in a body that doesn’t match who you feel yourself to be.

In the end, this book made me think about different ways of experiencing gender, which is exactly what I was hoping it would do. And although I might have sounded harsh when it comes to Morris herself, I want to clarify that I didn’t dislike her or look down on her. She came across as someone who was trying to wrap her mind around ideas radically different from the ones she had been brought up with, be it about race, about gender, or about her place in the world. The attempt may not be everything, but it’s certainly worth something.

(Have you posted about this book too? Leave me your link and I’ll be glad to add it here.)


  1. The lack of a penis makes a person more passive? This author has clearly never met my mother. ;)

    It's funny how I expect people who have been through eccentric, unorthodox transitional experiences, crossing race or gender, as in this case, to be more enlightened about prejudice and social constraint. Which Jan Morris does not seem to be. I'm completely with you, Nymeth, on the understanding of essentialism as a mis-comprehension of identity construction, and yet there is undoubtedly an essentialist frame of mind that is very powerful and still operative. What an unusual memoir this must have been, and a provocative one,too. And a really excellent review!

  2. You had me at magical penis! Seriously though while this sounds an interesting read (it's rare to find decent transgender stuff in the more mainstream arena), I'm not sure I agree with a lot of the ideas. Penis or vagina does nothing for characteristics like passivity, aggression, parking etc. I do agree that people often find themselves being moulded into roles imposed on them to a degree, but it's not that everyone is born into neat little compartments.

  3. I've never read anything like this and am not convinced that this book should be where I start. Although definitely thought-provoking, I think I'd end up angry at some of the statements... like penis envy being a common condition. Interesting paragraph though and I wonder if that's how the author really felt things. She's the one who has been on both sides, after all.

  4. I'm really interested in this book especially from someone who has gone from female to male. How he experiences life in comparison to both genders is a unique experience. Also, looking at the time period, we know that the topic and his surgery was not very common. Hell, it's not very common now. Our drag queens (I use the term "our" loosely) are pre-op.(Most drag queens use fake boobs in their shows; ours have real breasts). One is in her late forties perhaps early fifties. She has a magnificent body and perky breasts, but has even made comments during her shows about what it's like to see a dick when she undresses. I've talked to Diane about how it must have affected her, growing up in the sixties and seventies, and it's so brave. Other drag queen has the perfect physique of a female. She's slender and petite and everything works. Except if she's undressed.

    I have heard that it is so difficult and (of course) expensive to have gender surgery. It makes me sad. I can't imagine what these individuals go through every day.

  5. From some of the things you said, I was thinking this must be a lot older than it is, but I looked back at the date you mentioned...interesting.

  6. I think I would get really mad reading this, and yet of course it's good to know what other people think. ...

  7. I really do not know what to say here. The magical penis thing is oh-so-not correct.

    This is going to make for a great discussion!

  8. Ah, the old penis envy theory. Freud has a lot to answer for.

    I had never heard of this book before. It sounds really interesting, but I don't know whether I want to read it or not. Like litlove said, I would expect the author to hold a more enlightened position, but I suppose really she's just a person like the rest of us, holding sometimes stupid ideas or prejudices. And it sounds like you think it's still a worthwhile read.

  9. This intrigues because a good friend from college underwent transgender surgery about 10 years ago, and it's the best thing that ever could have happened for him. However, I think the author's attitudes would make me want to throw the book across the room!

  10. Penis envy? The bit where I'm supposed to be envious of someone with their vulnerable bits on the outside? ;)

    I had the same problem here; Morris does have a lot of issues stemming from being raised as a privileged white male, but I was also quite pleased to find her conception of sexuality included something approximating asexuality.

  11. Interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book! Funny how she talks about the pervasiveness about gender stereotyping (or acknowledges at least) but then equates passivity and yielding to penis envy :P Ummm. Right. That is about the only response I can come up with as well! And the line about women loving all sexual attention makes my blood boil.

    Like litlove I would expect someone who has experienced life while presenting both male and female would understand more the differences that both sexes face and be more understanding. Aubrey makes a great point though that we all have our odd ideas and prejudices and simply being trans doesn't remove those.

    Like you as a cis female I find it hard to believe and get annoyed at the statements about how we are innately one way or another and simply having a vagina makes me passive or something silly like that. I tend to believe more that for people who are trans their gender identity is off, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are more passive or less passive or etc than their birth gender. It just means they know they are female and not male. I can't really explain it but I do think it is two different things!

  12. Definitely a fascinating topic with a wealth of issues to ponder. The idea that any sort of sexual attention is a positive is something I've been contemplating more and more in the past years. It wasn't until I started reading YAL (in my mid-20s) that I fully realized the prevalence of this idiotic idea. It scares me that a trans woman would subscribe to this self- and gender- destructive idea.

  13. While the book does sound interesting, I, too, have a little trouble with some of the authors statements as you have paraphrased them. He sounds a bit insensitive to a lot of things, and I totally wouldn't agree that a lack of a penis makes me passive. I think this book would be interesting to me for the ideas it presents, and the story that it tells, but I can already tell that I would have trouble with the author's opinions on a lot of things. very balanced and thoughtful review, Ana!

  14. litlove: Haha, I could introduce her to several women I know as well. I had the exact same expectations you mentioned regarding how progressive and free of prejudices someone like Morris would be. In that sense, the book was pretty eye-opening! And it's amazing how strong essentialism still is in the 21st century. I can't wait to review Delusions of Gender to properly get on my soapbox about that :P

    Rhinoa: Yes, absolutely! You put it perfectly.

    Joanna: She did make me angry at times, but I found the book worth reading anyway! I think that has much as she experienced being both a man and a woman and therefore knows something we don't, she also interpreted her experiences through her own lenses if that makes sense. And those lenses are, like she admits, those of a "child of Imperial Times".

    Christina: She went from male to female, actually (sorry, just making sure you don't pick up the book expecting the reverse!). I'm not sure how things are now, but she mentions all sorts of barriers to surgery even for someone as well-off as her who could easily afford it. After years of hormone treatment and psychological evaluation, she ended up having the surgery abroad. The reason? Her British doctor demanded that she divorce her wife before changing her sex, or else they would end up being a married couple made of two females. Shock! Horror! :rolleyes:

    Amanda: The book isn't that old, but she was well into her middle-age when it was published. She was born in the 1920's, which I think explains her attitudes to some extent!

    Jill: That was pretty much my thought process here :P

    Veens: It's amazing that someone would actually say that, isn't it?

    Aubrey: Don't get me started on Freud :P I do think the book is worth reading despite all the issues. Like you said, she's only human!

    Karen: I did consider throwing it a time or two :P But I was glad I stuck with it.

    Clare: lol! Good point. I also really liked all the bits about her relationship with her wife. I'm not asexual myself but I DO think there's an excessive emphasis on passion rather than friendship and companionship in romantic relationships, so it was wonderful to read about something so different from that.

    Amy: I completely agree with you. I do think there's a difference between gender identity and conceiving of gender as a fixed category, even if I'm not always able to articulate it clearly. But this book got me worrying that I'll sound like I'm dismissing the first when ranting about the second, if that makes sense. I do tend to worry a lot :P Also, I did go into the book with the same expectations you and litlove mentioned, but yep, trans people are just as human as everyone else and thus have the same range of beliefs, worldviews as prejudices as cisgendered folks.

    Trisha: It's an absolutely infuriating idea, and yet it's everywhere :\ And it goes hand in hand with the idea that sexuality somehow makes females all-powerful and dangerous.

    Zibilee: Yep, she was definitely insensitive at times, but there was also a lot here to appreciate. I'm glad I managed to get that across, as it took me forever to write this review exactly because I wanted to make it balanced. So thank you for saying that!

  15. Great review, Ana! I liked very much your comment - "I believe that gender is a continuum and not a binary, and that there are as many possible and valid identities as there are individuals". I don't know whether that is the prevailing intellectual point of view, but it is an interesting way to look at things.

    I attended a talk by author Simon Winchester a few years back, when he narrated a humorous anecdote on Jan Morris. Winchester said that he was visiting James Morris who had written the book 'Coronation Everest' which was about the scaling of Mount Everest which happened at around the time of the British Queen's coronation. When Winchester knocked at James Morris' door, a middle-aged lady came out and smiled at him. After a bit of confusion, Winchester discovered that James Morris is Jan Morris now. I remember Jan Morris also coming to this literary festival I went to, but unfortunately, I couldn't attend her talk.

    One of the things I like about Jan Morris is her courage in doing what she did in a more conservative era and also writing a book about it frankly mentioning the things she misses from the time when she was a man and the things she likes when she is a woman. I admire her courage for this because both men and women could resent and protest against what she has written.

  16. I agree that essentialism based on body shape is misguided, but one thing I have heard in multiple accounts by trans people (and that I can easily believe) is that the massive overhaul of their hormone balances has a huge effect on their psychology and behavior, and that some of those changes do mirror stereotypical gender roles.

    There's a This American Life episode I'm thinking of in particular, where the whole show is devoted to the subject of testosterone. They interview a F-M trans person who talks about how the massive testosterone injections (right after a shot he had, like, 10 times the testosterone in his body than the average man), and how that affected his mind and body (in particular his sexual thoughts became overwhelmingly strong and disruptive to his life). They also talk with a man whose body, due to a rare disorder, could not manufacture testosterone, so he was completely devoid of it. Both interviews were fascinating if sometimes hard to listen to. Of course, this is not exactly gender essentialism since both men and women have testosterone and estrogen, and levels of both hormones vary among individuals so that there are women with very high levels and men with low levels.

  17. Ooh, I remember when Jan Morris had her sex change. It was scandalous and made headlines.

    Isn't it funny when people have a reaction to something (like Morris to her lack of a penis) and immediately assume that this is the normal reaction of all the members of their group? It reminded me of my favorite cartoon:

    Great review, Ana - so many interesting insights.

  18. Vishy: Morris includes quite a few experiences like that in the book - she said most of the time people just smiled and went along with it, which is great! Sadly, I don't think most trans people can report such positive reactions :\ Anyway, I absolutely agree with you about her honesty and courage, and I absolutely admire her for them!

    Emily: I do agree with you that hormones are different from traditional essentialism, but even so, I'm a bit sceptical about how much they really influence behaviour - there's just so much contradictory research out there! For every study with trans people or girls with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (a condition that causes exposure to very high levels of testosterone) that DOES find differences, there's another that doesn't. There's a fascinating overview of all this research in Cordelina Fine's Delusions of Genders - along with Vindication, I am DYING to find some time to review that book!

    Mumsy: lol. I love xkcd :D

  19. Let me rephrase my previous comment: I'm not sceptical about how much hormones affect behaviour at all, since I believe that we are our bodies and everything that goes on in them affects us. What I meant was that I'm sceptical about how much they alone affect behaviour in a way that more or less corresponds to traditional gender roles. There; hopefully that sounds slightly less awkward :P

  20. What an unusual book. I like the way the author is able to compare life from both sides. To be able to see life from a male and female perspective is an interesting view on life.

  21. I've been wanting to read this book for awhile now, but I don't think I still want to now especially after the penis envy bit. Hmmm. . . we'll see. I wonder how long had Morris lived fully as a woman before writing Conundrum.

  22. Magical? Really?

    *stares at pants*

    Maybe I missed something.

  23. More a comment about the author than this particular book. Jan Morris writes a lot of travel stuff and years ago (good Lord, more than a quarter century!) I read her book about her experiences traveling in Canada. I am always interested to see what foreigners think of my country. She was haughty, dismissive, and constantly critical. She traveled to Edmonton (where I lived then) in the winter and complained of the cold. I hated the book so much I actually destroyed it rather than pass it on to another reader.
    I resolved at that time to never read anything by her again, and am certainly not tempted to change that decision by your review.

  24. Sometimes Ana, I so wish I could be as mature and thoughtful as you are! Seriously, I think that's a wonderful point you made about taking some things for granted being cisgendered. And to tell the truth, I'm not sure that point would have hit me had I read the book...I'm afraid I might have been too busy being annoyed with some of her notions. I'm not sure I'll ever read this book, but now at least if I do, I will a "better" reader because of your review.

  25. Vivienne: It really is!

    Vasilly, please don't let me discourage you! I'd love to hear your thoughts. I think she wrote the memoir shortly after the surgery, which might explain some things.

    Jason: lol :P

    Shonna: Gah :\ That's disappointing to hear, especially as I was hoping that her travel books would be better or at leas more neutral than this when it comes to attitudes and prejudices.

    Debi: Pah! You know better than most just how much my wisdom and maturity leave to be desired :P I thought of you when reading some of the dismissive remarks about environmentalism... I knew you'd join me in wanting to throw the book against a wall then! But seriously, I think there's a lot here you'd appreciate anyway.

  26. The first sentence you quoted really points out from what an early age on we are aware of gender divisions.

    "magical penis territory"! :D Perfect term for it! To me, it sounds as if she had just read Freud. And I don't mean to be disrespectful either, but in the end she is a person and not infallible, experience with trasngender or not, and she might just be wrong.
    It's just that with memoirs, I have found that while reading about the experiences of someone who is in the middle of it all should get me closer to some truth, it may just actually get me further away from it. Does that make sense? I'm sorry it's so badly phrased. For example Iranian women memoirs emphasizing a Western essentialist notion.

  27. Coming from someone with a penis, I shall assure you that it has no magical powers :p None that I have discovered yet at least :/

    I'm sort of disappointed in this book myself without ever having read it. I guess I just get disappointed in anyone dismissing qualities of a person because of their gender just because of their gender :( But at the same time, this book DOES sound thoroughly interesting! Especially seeing when it was written...this topic was so much more less addressed back 40 years ago.

    And OMG you have Delusions of Gender??? I've been coveting that book!!! Can't wait to hear what you thought of it!!!

  28. Fascinating her comment about parking cars and opening bottles. Why is it that I always feel under pressure when parking a car? I'm always afraid to make a mistake and know that people around will think "it's a woman, typical". And of course being nervous makes me to likely to make mistakes.... grrr

  29. In defense of Morris, and even the ridiculous things she says that I don't agree with, she wrote this book at a time BEFORE the transgender movement existed and most representations of trans people (trans women in particular) were caricatures of "men" with beards in dresses. In order to be accepted within the mental health system in the US, you had to "prove" you were as gender conforming as possible, which for trans women meant embracing all of the outdated understandings of femininity. Morris is a product of her time, and I think it is slightly unfair to blame her "male privlege" (in quotes bc she no longer identified as such) on her professed understanding of gender roles. Patrick Califia has a non-fiction book called Sex Changes which examines early transsexual memoirs at length (the book itself is one of my favorites and is very, very good), so if you're interested in a more concentrated history of where Morris was writing from, I'd highly suggest it. Well, I highly suggest it if you have any interest in gender studies whatsoever.

  30. One of my goals for 2011 is to read more GLBTQ lit, so I am always looking for suggested reading. This one does sound interesting, but maybe I'll start elsewhere and keep this one in mind. I'm not convinced it's the best place for me to start.

  31. Bina: Yes, that's true of all memoirs - in the end, it's one person's experiences and it can't really be generalised beyond that. But I do value the fact that she's had experiences that I'll never have myself, and that they have given her insight into things I know nothing about.

    Chris, do give it a try anyway. I think you'd find a lot here that you'd like. Re: Delusions of Gender: I got it for Christmas and it's the best book ever :D

    Alexandra: That DOES seem to happen a lot, doesn't it? I loved that passage and all the others that retold similar experiences.

    Cass, I didn't mean to attack Morris at all, so I apologise if I came across that way. In fact, I've been doing my best to ask people who have commented saying they won't read the book because of its problematic aspects to reconsider. And I do have an interest in gender studies, which I never claimed would stop me from ever saying erroneous things. I also did not use the expression "male privilege" for a trans woman - I think she benefited from living an insulated, upper-class life, and that this shows in her attitudes in ways that go far beyond gender. But I realise that I probably didn't make that clear enough. My main point regarding gender was that she falls back on essentialism very easily, but that's common among all people, trans or cisgendered, men or women. And of course, even more so at the time when she was writing.

    Erin: I think it might work well, actually, at least from a chronological/historical viewpoint!

  32. Ana--I didn't think you did that, either, I just wanted to present the info. I think your review was great, actually. Sorry if my comment came across as a criticism.

  33. Cass, I'm the one who's sorry! I should NOT be replying to comments after distressing conversations with faily members on skype, as I'm likely to come across as Ms Gumpry McGrumps :S I WILL look for the book for sure, and I truly appreciate all the points you made.

  34. Great review

    Morris' 'penis envy' comments seem to me as the perspective of someone who has actually physically lost a penis and not gained a true clitoris, vagina and full reproductive system which is not the same experience of a cis woman who has spent her whole life with her correct genitalia.

    Though she has an unique perspective from both sides of the gender-as-social-construction fence, her experiences of how her physical genitalia affect her sense of identity are not a direct parallel to those of cis women, and I don't think she's claiming that she DOES speak for all women.

    This is one woman's personal account not a tract on gender, and I found it a fascinating insight into an experience I'd previously found a bit mistifying.

  35. Anna, I think you're right. I read the book Cass recommended above and it made a huge difference to my understanding of transgender experiences. Also, I would not use the insensitive wording I used in this post today, because I have become more aware of how there's a long history of using feminism as an excuse to perpetuate the marginalisation of trans women.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.