A Review of Conundrum* by Jan Morris (Signet, 1975, $1.50)
*a puzzle or riddle
A man changes into a woman, and “she” is to be on TV. I am enticed, but my desire for the bizarre is disappointed. No freak this but rather a fortyish, tweed-and-collar, English gentlewoman. Jan Morris is well-spoken, calm and solid. Readers will not find “erections, sperm and orgasms” in her book, he says, but rather the story of the conundrum, or puzzle, of her prior life as a man, and its solution.
It is hard to understand James. He was not a transvestite, not a homosexual, not a case of mistaken gender at birth. He was transsexual, a condition historically viewed as a psychological confusion. To James it was an accident of gender, keeping him from his true identity. This awareness, a quiet feeling that something was wrong, was with him at the age of 3. At 46, he resolved the conflict and became a woman. James was a traveler and, as a professional correspondent, crossed continents and scaled Everest. Yet it was Jan Morris who completed the most important journey, that to the woman hidden inside the man. To me it seemed the quest for the anima. [See story on Jung — Ed.] This is her story for us.
James had a pleasant childhood, went to Oxford, served in the army, and then enjoyed a career as a journalist and a life of travel and excitement. Eventually he married, and it was his wife Elizabeth who understood his dilemma and encouraged the sex change itself. They had five children and, by any standard, a successful and loving marriage. But he was never satisfied with his successes and, though he tried to reconcile his confusion, his alienation from his own maleness became more severe. In Jan’s words, “. . . I was living a falsehood. I was in masquerade, my female reality, which I had no words to define, clothed in a male pretense.” He was aiming for a “more divine condition, an inner reconciliation”: to be a woman. The need was not specifically sexual; James felt, rather, that he had the dispositions, feelings and sensibilities of a woman and that he was out of harmony with himself.
Visits to doctors did not help. Most considered it a psychological deviation, a few even suggesting that he act out his fantasy with women’s clothes. One doctor finally gave him hope and a treatment: prolonged doses of hormones and eventual surgery. At 40 he began and, thousands of pills later, a mixed gender James emerged, still a man but now with the subtle secondary sex characteristics of a woman.
This created confusion for friends and strangers alike. In these days of unisex clothing, slacks and a sweater were no clue. Some thought him a homosexual; others assumed him to be a woman. Going through New York customs, he didn’t know whether to enter the male or female frisk line. A pause, and finally, “Move along there, lady!” helped him decide. Happily the frisk wasn’t thorough. A salesperson didn’t know whether to show him lady’s or men’s suitcases. A maid in Mexico merely asked what sex he was. He showed her his bosom and she gave him flowers on his departure. “Are you a man or a woman?” asked the Fijian taxi-driver. “I am a respectable middle-aged English widow,” he replied. “Good, just what I want,” and the taxi-driver put his hand on James’ knee.
James became increasingly “womanized” until at the age of 46 he was psychologically and physically prepared for surgery. Jan has now emerged and is triumphant in her satisfaction. The surgery “. . . gave me a marvelous sense of calm, as though some enormous but indefinite physical burden had been lifted from my shoulders.” “I can only report that having experienced life in both roles,” Jan writes, “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 women.” The differences are good and bad. As a woman she finds “. . . If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming.” Further, the established and confident journalist, once male, must now defer to men in conversation. But she also writes, “. . . if the condescension of men could be infuriating, the courtesies were very welcome.” She also found society far kinder and more indulgent to women. “She can speak more trenchantly for she is less likely to be answered back.” Finally, she had the personal pleasure of being female in form.
The sight and movements of her new self delight Jan, though she admits she is less attractive as a female than she had been as a male. The physical change also brings more subtle differences. As a woman she feels less forceful and concludes, “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 contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive, thrusting, and muscular. My body was made to push and initiate, it is made now to yield and accept, and the outside change has had its inner consequences.”
Jan Morris now feels completely in touch with the female sensitivities she felt she always had. And there are new sensitivities. She cries more easily, better appreciates colors and textures, and feels she is experiencing new responses to all stimuli. Walking down a street may be now more intriguing for the windows and interiors they reveal than for the outline shapes of architecture that James would have admired. World affairs, she assures us, have lost the same importance, and in her writing it is people, not places, that interest her.
Some of her appraisals disturb me as a woman. I reject her identifying many of her personal feelings with womankind. I couldn’t help but be flattered that she judges the female superior, yet I was disappointed in her acquiescence and enjoyment of some of the lesser ‘pleasures’ of womanliness, such as doors opened and problems solved by men. These reactions are not really important in considering the value of Conundrum. The vantage point gained through the resolution of James’ puzzle is a most unique view into the differences between the sexes. Luckily, it happened to an author.