Conundrum: Pioneering Trans Writer Jan Morris on Gender, Identity, Belonging, and the Integration of Body and Spirit
By Maria Popova
“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” Virginia Woolf observed in her astute reflection on gender. “The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided,” she wrote more than half a century before modern psychologists came to see that psychological androgyny is essential for creativity. And yet while the mind might thrive on such fluidity, our bodies — bodies that encode so much of our psychological and emotional reality — are born into a biological binary. So what happens to the person ripped asunder by a psyche and a body cast in different genders?
That’s what the celebrated Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris (b. October 2, 1926), a pioneer who helped make a home for the T of LGBT in the popular imagination, explores in Conundrum (public library) — her stunning 1974 memoir of transitioning from James Morris, an accomplished solider in the British military during WWII and a daredevil reporter, to the Jan she knew she was since childhood.
Writing a decade after the start of her medical transition, Morris begins at the beginning, mapping her interior landscape with the same sublimely lyrical prose familiar from her writings about the external world. Reflecting on her childhood as the youngest of three brothers in a family soon rendered fatherless, she writes:
I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.
I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano, and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. The round stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalagmites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head. My mother was probably playing Sibelius, for she was enjoying a Finnish period then, and Sibelius from underneath a piano can be a very noisy composer; but I always liked it down there, sometimes drawing pictures on the piles of music stacked around me, or clutching my unfortunate cat for company.
What triggered so bizarre a thought I have long forgotten, but the conviction was unfaltering from the start. On the face of things it was pure nonsense. I seemed to most people a very straightforward child, enjoying a happy childhood. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly, spoiled to a comfortable degree, weaned at an early age on Huck Finn and Alice in Wonderland, taught to cherish my animals, say grace, think well of myself, and wash my hands before tea. I was always sure of an audience. My security was absolute. Looking back at my infancy, as one might look back through a windswept avenue of trees, I see there only a cheerful glimpse of sunshine… More to my point, by every standard of logic I was patently a boy. I was James Humphry Morris, male child.
This self-discovery of yet-to-be-named Jan under the pouring piano was monumental, but its tumult was silent — a sacred silence that lasted for decades. Morris writes:
I cherished it as a secret, shared for twenty years with not a single soul. At first I did not regard it as an especially significant secret. I was as vague as the next child about the meaning of sex, and I assumed it to be simply another aspect of differentness. For different in some way I recognized myself to be. Nobody ever urged me to be like other children: conformity was not a quality coveted in our home. We sprang, we all knew, from a line of odd forebears and unusual unions, Welsh, Norman, Quaker, and I never supposed myself to be much like anyone else.
James was already a solitary and self-conscious child, but this unspoken secret imbued the aloneness with a special loneliness, a bone-deep nonbelonging to the rest of humanity. Young Morris “wandered lonely as a cloud over the hills” and, like Oliver Sacks, who used the telescope as a tool for connection amid loneliness, peered through a telescope into the seething cauldron of life unfolding all around — ordinary life of unexceptional normalcy, to which everyone else seemed to naturally belong. Morris writes:
The people I could see from my hilltop, farming their farms, tending their shops, flirting their way through seaside holidays, inhabited a different world from mine. They were all together, I was all alone. They were members, I was a stranger. They talked to each other in words they all understood about matters that interested them all. I spoke a tongue that was only mine, and thought things that would bore them. Sometimes they asked if they might look through my telescope, and this gave me great pleasure. The instrument played an important part in my fancies and conjectures, perhaps because it seemed to give me a private insight into distant worlds.
In a sentiment that calls to mind what Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers the very same year that Morris was finalizing this book (“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”), Morris adds:
Wherever I looked I could see some aspect of myself — an unhealthy delusion, I have since discovered, for it later made me feel that no country or city was worth visiting unless I either owned a house there, or wrote a book about it. Like all Napoleonic fantasies, it was a lonely sensation too. If it all belonged to me, then I belonged to no particular part of it.
My emotions, though, were far less distinct or definable. My conviction of mistaken sex was still no more than a blur, tucked away at the back of my mind, but if I was not unhappy, I was habitually puzzled. Even then that silent fresh childhood above the sea seemed to me strangely incomplete. I felt a yearning for I knew not what, as though there were a piece missing from my pattern, or some element in me that should be hard and permanent, but was instead soluble and diffuse. Everything seemed more determinate for those people down the hill.
This perpetual puzzlement would never quite leave Morris and would come to be the defining dilemma of her life.
I’ve always wondered whether the timing of Morris’s memoir was fortuitous happenstance or a deliberate decision aligned with the groundswell of cultural change at that moment: In 1974, the year the book was published, the mental health bible known as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was revised to finally cease classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder — the beginning of a tidal wave in both psychology and popular culture, sweeping in an increasingly nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality, and gender identity. It is from the precipice of this tectonic shift that Morris writes:
Nobody really knows why some children, boys and girls, discover in themselves the inexpungeable belief that, despite all the physical evidence, they are really of the opposite sex. It happens at a very early age. Often there are signs of it when the child is still a baby, and it is generally profoundly ingrained, as it was with me, by the fourth or fifth year. Some theorists suppose the child to be born with it: perhaps there are undiscovered constitutional or genetic factors, or perhaps, as American scientists have lately suggested, the fetus has been affected by misdirected hormones during pregnancy. Many more believe it to be solely the result of early environment: too close an identification with one or the other parent, a dominant mother or father, an infancy too effeminate or too tomboyish. Others again think the cause to be partly constitutional, partly environmental — nobody is born entirely male or entirely female, and some children may be more susceptible than others to what the psychologists call the “imprint” of circumstance.
She points out the vital difference between the transgender experience and homosexuality or transvestism — while homosexuality means falling in love with and experiencing sexual desire for people of the same sex, and transvestism is predicated on the enjoyment of dressing like the opposite sex, neither entails a desire to actually change one’s sex. Transsexualism, on the other hand, is not about sex. What is at stake, Morris argues, is something larger, deeper, and more elemental — something of which the sexual body is an indelible part but only one part. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rilke’s immortal words about the body and the soul, she writes:
Transsexualism … is not a sexual mode or preference. It is not an act of sex at all. It is a passionate, lifelong, ineradicable conviction, and no true transsexual has ever been disabused of it… 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.
As Morris grew older, this irreconcilable spiritual tension became unbearable and she came to feel that her life was bedeviled by perfidy, her true female identity masked by a false and ill-fitting male exterior. In a beautiful testament to the life-changing, life-saving power of an accepting environment, she recounts an existential turning point:
Oxford made me… It remains for me … an image of what I admire most in the world: a presence so old and true that it absorbs time and change like light into a prism, only enriching itself by the process, and finding nothing alien except intolerance.
Of course when I speak of Oxford, I do not mean simply the city, or the university, or even the atmosphere of the place, but a whole manner of thought, an outlook, almost a civilization. I came to it an anomaly, a contradiction in myself, and were it not for the flexibility and self-amusement I absorbed from the Oxford culture — which is to say, the culture of traditional England — I think I would long ago have ended in that last haven of anomaly, the madhouse. For near the heart of the Oxford ethos lies the grand and comforting truth that there is no norm. We are all different; none of us is entirely wrong; to understand is to forgive.
But quite apart from its profound empathic rewards, Morris’s story radiates enormous insight into some of the most universal and most central questions of the human experience, above all that of self-creation — whether and to what degree we get to shape our own personhood and identity. More than four decades ago, Morris reflects on one elemental aspect of this question — the shifting fault lines of sex and gender:
I wonder if, by denying physical sex a supreme importance in my life (for such of course must be one moral of my epic) I am ahead of my time. I notice that a change of sex surprises and excites the middle-aged far more than the young, and I wonder if this means that sex is past its heyday. It has long lost the sanctity it commanded in our grandmothers’ day. Degraded by publicity, made casual by tolerance, defused by post-Freudian psychiatry, made unnecessary by artificial insemination, it is already becoming a matter not of the spirit but of the mechanism.
Peering into a future that is now a prominently present present, she adds:
Sexual intercourse will always remain a pleasure, of course, but I suspect it will become a pleasure entirely functional, like eating or drinking; and I am not the first to discover that one recipe for an idyllic marriage is a blend of affection, physical potency, and sexual incongruity.
Gender is a different matter. I foresee the day when scientists can evolve a reproductive system of choice, so that parents or more likely Governments can decree the sex of anyone, or organize the sexual balance of society. It will be harder to systematize gender. It is a more nebulous entity, however you conceive it. It lives in cavities. It cannot be computerized or tabulated. It transcends the body as it defies the test tube, yet the consciousness of it can be so powerful that it can drive someone like me relentlessly and unerringly through every stage of life.
We are all, of course, products of our place and time in many ways — a fact imbued with inescapable wistfulness whenever we consider the contrast between the finitude of our allotted lifespans and the infinite possibility of the future. It is with this wistfulness that Morris wonders nearly half a century before Transparent and today’s heartening groundswell of growing acceptance of trans people and compassion for their singular plight:
Would my conflict have been so bitter if I had been born now, when the gender line is so much less rigid? If society had allowed me to live in the gender I preferred, would I have bothered to change sex? Is mine only a transient phenomenon, between the dogmatism of the last century, when men were men and women were ladies, and the eclecticism of the next, when citizens will be free to live in the gender role they prefer? … I hope so. For every transsexual who grasps that prize, Identity, ten, perhaps a hundred discover it to be only a mirage in the end, so that their latter quandary is hardly less terrible than their first.
She returns to the crux of the quest — her own quest as a trans woman at last living out her true selfhood, and the general human quest to inhabit our most authentic identity:
I believe the transsexual urge, at least as I have experienced it, to be far more than a social compulsion, but biological, imaginative, and essentially spiritual, too. On a physical plane I have myself achieved, as far as is humanly possible, the identity I craved. Distilled from those sacramental fancies of my childhood has come the conviction that the nearest humanity approaches to perfection is in the persons of good women—and especially perhaps in the persons of kind, intelligent, and healthy women of a certain age, no longer shackled by the mechanisms of sex but creative still in other kinds, aware still in their love and sensuality, graceful in experience, past ambition but never beyond aspiration. In all countries, among all races, on the whole these are the people I most admire: and it is into their ranks, I flatter myself, if only in the rear file, if only on the flank, that I have now admitted myself.
In a closing passage evocative of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — a staple in Morris’s childhood home — she adds:
But if my sense of isolation has gone, my sense of difference remains, and this is inevitable… I can never be as other people. My past is with me, and there is more to come. For to my journey there was always that trace of mysticism, madness if you will, and the unity I sought, I know now, was more than a unity of sex and gender, and reached towards the further vision… So I do not mind my continuing ambiguity. I have lived the life of man, I live now the life of woman, and one day perhaps I shall transcend both — if not in person, then perhaps in art, if not here, then somewhere else. There is no norm, no criterion, and perhaps no explanation.
In the introduction to the 2001 edition, Morris sums up the rewards of that ambiguity beautifully:
I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science or of social convention. I thought it was a matter of the spirit, a kind of divine allegory, and that explanations of it were not very important anyway. What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels.
Conundrum remains an exquisite read — a rare gift of empathic insight into an experience which most of us will never have but which is strewn with elements of the struggle for belonging, acceptance, and authenticity that most of us face daily in one form or another.
Complement it with spoken-word poet Lee Mokobe on what it’s like to be transgender, Hannah Arendt on the power and privilege of outsiderdom, and the wonderful Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress — one of the loveliest LGBT children’s books.
Published June 30, 2016