What Freudian Psychoanalysis Gets Wrong About Trans Identity


Freud figured everybody wanted one. “It consists in attributing to everyone, including females, the possession of a penis, such as the boy knows from his own body. And: the boy’s estimate of its value is logically reflected in his inability to imagine a person like himself without this essential element.”

There’s a lot, as they say in grad school, to unpack there. But the phrase that I come back to is “a person like himself.” Freud assumes that men and boys are the default human. If you’re female, you must spend your days in lamentation that you somehow arrived on earth without the factory settings, and that penis-wise, we’re like the playthings in Toy Story. “If you don’t have one,” counsels cowboy Woody, “get one!”

That women might consider ourselves the default human, or, God forbid, that in fact there might not even be a single way of being human, seems not to have crossed Freud’s mind.

Since penis envy is a concept with its supposed roots in childhood, though, it is worth noting that the only default humans I ever encountered in elementary school were bullies and assholes. Most of these were boys, but there were a few girls in that cohort too. They always got their way, those characters.

I didn’t hate the one I had. It was pleasant enough if you wanted one, which I didn’t. I guess the thing I would compare it to, really, was like having a St. Bernard dog for a pet. There were times when it made demands, and then there was the problem of what we might refer to as the drool. Other times, it was adorable: a big, sloppy, goofy presence that merely wanted, as they say in Ireland, “to live a life given over totally to pleasure.” In the years since, I’ve known a lot of men, and more than a few women, who have wanted to live their lives like that too: like penises. They do just as they please. Are they happy, people like that? I don’t know. A lot of them look happy, anyhow.

If you have a theory that does not bring kindness and compassion to people who are suffering, what you really need, more than anything else, is a new theory.

Anyway, most of the time mine just lay there like a St. Bernard puppy, exhausted, sated, fast asleep.

“All this seems to show,” Freud writes, “that there is some truth in the infantile sexual theory that women, like men, possess a penis.” And: “They develop a great interest in that part of the boy’s body. But this interest promptly falls under the sway of envy. They feel themselves unfairly treated.”

I did feel myself unfairly treated. There I was, with a penis that I did not want. I didn’t hate it, or write it angry poems in which I told it you are a caul that blinds my sight. It just didn’t make any sense. I was clearly a girl; I mean, as they say in psychoanalysis, duh. I’d known this from the age of five or six, from the languid afternoon when I lay beneath my mother’s ironing board, and she said, as she steamed my father’s shirts, “Some day you’ll wear shirts like this,” and I thought, What? Seriously?

Unlike lots of trans girls today, it never occurred to me back then to say out loud the thing that was in my heart. These days, I look at young girls out and proud, taking puberty blockers, wearing dresses to school, buying My Little Pony lunch boxes. It just amazes me. The closest I ever got to that was one time when I got frozen, sledding at Woojee Trousdale’s house, and I started crying because of the cold. Her mother took me in, set me down by the fire, dressed me up in her daughters’ clothes until I warmed up. When at last I’d thawed, she suggested it was time for me to go home.

But I didn’t want to go home.

I guess it would have been easier for me if I’d been born later, or if I’d had the courage to state the truth when I was a child. But what’s the point of this kind of thinking? It’s kind of like saying, Life would have been different if I had a time machine. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t know if it would be better. Mostly I’m grateful for the life I’ve had, even with all the trouble.

Sometimes, I’d see men naked in locker rooms or skinny-dipping in a pool, wreathed in careless contentment. When I lived in Ireland—this was in the late 1990s, when I taught at University College Cork—I remember huge men standing nude before the mirrors at the gym, shaving the thick cream from their pink faces as steam from the showers drifted around them like fog. On these and so many other occasions I would look on in wonder, and try to imagine what it might be like to be a creature such as this.

I don’t know cis women who’ve ever experienced penis envy as Freud described it. But as a woman born with one, all I can say is, I know exactly what he meant. Why yes, I did feel myself unfairly treated.

In the movie Zelig, the title character says, “I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”

We’d wound up in Olympic National Park, my friend Peter and I, at the tail end of a long road trip that had begun at my parents’ house in Devon, Pennsylvania. We’d taken the blue highways the whole way, stopping en route at places of interest to stoned-out goofballs, which, let the record show: we were.

At Vent Haven, a museum for retired ventriloquist’s dummies, I stood in a room full of carved figures, all of their voices fallen silent. This was in Kentucky. “Ventriloquists get very attached to their figures,” our guide explained. “After they die, they want to make sure they have a good home.” She laughed nervously. “They don’t want anybody else’s hands working the controls!”

I laughed, too, although it occurred to me then that this was exactly what it was like, being a man. You had to waggle the eyebrows, use the deep voice. On certain occasions you even had to make the penis do its thing. Sometimes this was easy for me, and sometimes not. It all depended on whether I could forget myself. On a good day, the woman I was with filled my thoughts: how much I loved her, how much I wanted her to feel happy. Other times, it was impossible not to look at her and wish that she was a mirror, rather than a human.

One time, after I had tried and failed to forget myself, I’d just rolled over on my pillow in exasperation. “Darn these things!” I said, like my penis was a temperamental Model A Ford that had failed to start, even though I’d turned the crank. The girl that I was with thought that was very funny.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It happens to everybody.” I thought, “Yeah, well. Not to you.”

Before I went out west with Peter, I’d spent June of that summer house-sitting my mother’s house, back in Pennsylvania, while Mom was off in Germany, where she’d been a child. It was the first time she’d been back since the war. I spent those weeks en femme, day after day. It was the first time I’d really been able to be myself without interruption for a long time. It had been glorious, and deeply frightening.

I’d shaved my legs for the first time that June, a process that turned out to be a whole lot less fun than you’d think. A month later, I was faced with the awkward experience of having to keep my friend Peter from noticing the fact that I’d shaved my legs. One day, in Yellowstone, I’d jumped into a swiftly moving stream, and found myself briefly borne off by the current. When I got myself back on land, I was afraid Peter was going to notice, all at once, that his friend had legs like Sharon Stone.

But Peter didn’t notice. The hairiness of my legs wasn’t a topic that concerned him.

*

I’d broken things off with my psychoanalyst just before I left New York to house-sit Mom’s place. He had a practice in one of the tenement buildings on Broadway and 125th Street, right where the number 1 train emerges from the tunnel. Once a week I’d walk up there and lie down on his couch. The very first time I went there it took me virtually the whole session to say this sentence out loud: I have juh juh juh juh gender issues. Sweat poured off of me. My whole body shook, like I was riding the Wild Mouse in Ocean City.

It was just like in the cartoons, me lying on a couch, my analyst—let’s call him Dr. Fernweh—staring at his notepad from his chair adjacent. He held a pen to his lips. Sometimes he licked its tip. Dr. Fernweh had cold blue eyes and a gray goatee. I wish I could say he had a Viennese accent, but he didn’t. Actually, there were long, long minutes in which he said nothing at all. He did that thing where he waited me out, like someone fishing for marlin. Eventually I just started talking, but only because I was embarrassed. I felt bad for him, not having anything to say.

Was my mother overbearing? he asked. No, she was sweet and literary—a bookseller in the days before she met my father. Would I describe my father as remote? No: he was an all-around good guy, gentle and loving. “Would you describe yourself as depressed?” Not really. Only when I’m sad.

My psychoanalyst’s ears pricked up when he heard about my sister, who rode horses. Our family’s lives revolved around her when I was young. Were you jealous of your sister? he asked. I said yeah, I guess. I could almost hear him thinking, Aha!

Did you ever feel like you wanted to be your sister?

I lay there, dumbfounded. Be her? Why would I want to be my sister?

Perhaps you wanted her life?

Even now, forty years later, I would like to push a baked bean up his nose. My sister is a lovely person; she lives in England now, a scholar on the history of the book. But I have never wanted her life. The life I wanted was my own.

But I was convinced by Dr. Fernweh that this was my problem; somehow, bereft of love, I wanted to be my sister.

How could I have known back then that being trans isn’t the result of envy, or loneliness, or you know: polymorphous perversity. It is, instead, a thing that God has given us: like the blue potato, or the duck-billed platypus. As such it is not a complex for theorizing. It is a wonder of nature.

That’s what makes me sad about psychoanalysis. My doctor didn’t want to make me happier; he wanted to lower a complex superstructure of behavioral speculation over my head, like I was a toucan and he had the world’s most fascinating birdcage. Never once did he say, Well, here’s what you might do in order to find solace. Maybe that wasn’t his job; I don’t know. But that’s the thing I needed. Instead, in so many ways, psychotherapy set me back years and years.

Once, in frustration, I asked him, well what about transgender people? What are some of the paths people have followed in order to find their happiness? He licked his pen. Then he suggested I might take out some books from the library.

In 1854 Drs. James Bovell and Edwin Hodder injected a forty-year-old man with twelve ounces of cow’s milk. They had a theory: milk would transform, within the body, into white corpuscles. Dr. Henry Cotton, a half century later, also had a theory: mental illness was the result of infected teeth. In order to help his patients, he pulled them all out.

History is full of bright ideas: bloodletting with leeches, drilling holes in the skull.

My thought is that if you have a theory that does not bring kindness and compassion to people who are suffering, what you really need, more than anything else, is a new theory.

Maybe the problem wasn’t psychoanalysis as a whole so much as Dr. Fernweh himself. But what do I know about psychiatry? I’m probably the wrong guy to ask.

*

After the long trip west, Peter and I wound up at my sister’s house in Portland, Oregon, for a few days. She was then living in an apartment one floor above a guy who played the bass for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

Picture1 Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, 1982.

After a few days at my sister’s, Peter and I headed up to Seattle, where we met up with friends from college: Tom, and Maggie, and Dan. Tom had worked in a factory that made replicas of old flintlocks; Maggie played the mandolin. Dan, with whom I’d had a radio show back in the late 1970s, was just getting started now in the world of video production. We were all twenty-five, plus or minus: a bunch of misfits casting around for whatever came next. One day, in Seattle, Tom and I wound up at a grocery store, where the video game Frogger was brand-new. Hour after hour we poured quarters into that machine, making the frog leap from lily pads onto the swiftly moving logs. When the frog died, a big skull and crossbones appeared on the screen.

In the evenings, we went to a place called Dick’s for hot dogs.

Then we went out to Olympic National Park. We hiked in on a boardwalk through the tropical rain forest: huge trees, shiny moss, slugs the size of hamsters. As we walked, blackness descended on me. It was clear enough that I was never going to be able to do anything in this world unless I dealt with the transgender business: I would never be able to write, I would never be able to be in love. But what could I do? I’d tried psychoanalysis, and it had left me more miserable than when I began.

What I thought, as we trudged west through the deep forest, was that I’d gone about as far as I could go.

As we walked, somebody came up with a funny bit of business about the size of the one I had. They slapped their inner thighs to indicate its length. They spoke my name: James—slap! slap! Boylan! Then, my friends would laugh, but only because it was clear, maybe, how much I hated this. I guess it was pretty funny, if you were not me.

At a ranger station in the lush wilderness I saw a young woman in a ranger’s uniform, a Smokey the Bear hat. She looked so much like me, if I had been born female, that I was stunned into silence. Even my friends noticed it. She looks more like your sister, Peter said, than your sister! The ranger showed us a hand-drawn map of that part of the park. There was a place on it marking the location of an old cemetery on the banks of a lake. The location was marked with the same skull and crossbones we’d seen in Frogger a few days before, after the frog died.

Some of the early settlers were buried in that graveyard. “Could we go and see them?” I asked. The ranger girl looked at me funny. “Why would you want to see the cemetery?”

“To see where they wound up,” I said. “Those early explorers.” Considering that she looked so much like a nether me, that ranger girl was strangely oblivious to the way I identified with those people. But they’d come all this way. Then they couldn’t go any further.

My friends weren’t interested in finding any overgrown graveyard, either. And so we continued walking west.

We arrived on the beach near sunset. The Pacific Ocean crashed before us.

Peter and I pitched a tent not far from the North Ozette River, a broad creek that emptied out onto the sand. Later, as I lay in my sleeping bag, I heard the sound of its clear waters, rushing toward the sea.

*

In June 2020, author J. K. Rowling posted an essay in which she explained her reasons for speaking out about gender issues. “Woman is not a costume,” she wrote. “Woman is not an idea in a man’s head. Woman is not a ‘pink brain,’ a liking for Jimmy Choos, or any of the other sexist ideas now touted as progressive.” She concludes: “Biological sex is real.”

I agree with all of that. I am not female because of an idea or a costume. I don’t own any Jimmy Choos, which I am told is a kind of shoe. And my brain is gray, same as hers. The thing that makes me female is the same thing that makes her female: a sense of self, deeply rooted in neurology and experience. Being female is not an idea for me; it is a fact. But it is a fact that cannot possibly be understood without imagination.

Which is a thing you’d think that the person who came up with the idea of a three-headed dog named Fluffy, for instance, would have in good measure.

Is being female about having ovaries and a uterus? Well, sure, except that the world is full of women who’ve had hysterectomies.

Is being female about having breasts and a clitoris? Well, sure, except that the world contains women who’ve had mastectomies, or clitoral circumcisions.

Is being female about two X chromosomes that you can’t even see? Well, sure, except that the world contains women—like those afflicted with androgen insensitivity syndrome—who have Y chromosomes and never even know it, humans whose genetic makeup contains as many variations as a fugue by Bach.

It would be nice if the line between male and female were simple. But gender, like the universe itself, is all gnarly. Clownfish can change their sex. So can reed frogs, green sea turtles, slipper limpets, and central bearded dragons. These creatures—like me— do not change sex in order to hurt Ms. Rowling’s feelings. We do so because nature demands it. Because we are, like so many things on this earth, wonders of God’s creation.

I’m going to believe in a better J. K. Rowling, not the one that she is, but the one she might still become. As one of my favorite authors once wrote, “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

Who wrote that? J. K. Rowling, of course.

In the morning I woke to the sound of the ocean and crawled out of the tent to find the horizon gray in the early light of dawn. I had lived on the East Coast almost my entire life; the Pacific Ocean filled me with wonder. It still does, actually.

The ocean was filled with crags; off to the right was a huge outcropping of rock with a cave in one side. The waters of the North Ozette River glided across the sand.

I stepped into the water. It was cold. A few steps in, the ocean floor disappeared beneath me, and now I was swimming in those blue waters. I headed straight out, toward Japan. Big swells lifted me up then fell again. I banged my knee on a submerged rock. It hurt.

It’s not really my problem that I am someone for whom others have no theory.

I treaded water for a moment and turned to face the shore. All my friends were standing there, watching me. Dan gestured with his hands. Come in, James. Why don’t you come in. Another wave picked me up.

When I finally got back on land, Maggie gave me a towel. “I don’t think it’s safe to swim here, James,” Dan said. “The undercurrents. You might get swept away.”

I couldn’t tell him that getting swept away would have suited me just fine.

Later that day we got high and waded out to the crag with the cave. It was a big womblike space, with an arching ceiling, tide pools on the floor. Dan and Tom and I sat down on the rocks and looked at the sea anemones and hermit crabs. Everything echoed in the cave. Now and again a wave would crash through the entrance. Light rippled on the ceiling.

“The anemone of my anemone is my friend,” I said.

“Hey,” said Tom, in glee. “I made a hermit crab change its shell!” He was a small man with merry eyes, his head shaved nearly bald. Tom and Dan sat there for a long time playing with the anemones and the hermit crabs. They watched the crabs scamper around; they tricked them into wrapping their pink tentacles around their own fingers.

They were so entranced, those boys. What would it be like, I wondered, as I looked upon my friends, to be able to lose yourself in something other than yourself? Was Dan or Tom so much happier than I? I was pretty sure they didn’t spend hours privately agonizing over the fact of their own embodiment. But what did I know? They had problems of their own.

The thing they had, and I did not, was not a penis; it was the ability to be in love. Dan once told me that, when he was single, having sex was just about the best way he could imagine of getting to know someone. But that was the very problem: I was too frightened to allow myself to be known.

I was twenty-four and, for all intents and purposes, still a virgin. It was pretty clear by now that the thing that was wrong with me was not a thing that could be solved.

The tide was coming in. If we waited long enough, it was possible the entrance to the cave would be underwater. But Dan and Tom weren’t concerned. They were exactly where they wanted to be. Their voices echoed in the cave. Yo, said Tom, with delight. It has a mouth in the middle!

I looked at those men with envy and sadness, and an anger burned in my heart.

Later, as I walked on the beach with Peter, we ran into a ranger, an Indian from the Ozette Reservation just a few miles to the south. “What do you do?” Peter asked the ranger.

“I control the tides,” he said, matter-of-factly, and then roared.

It was a deep, hearty laugh. I had never heard anything like it.

“Did you see the eagle?” he asked us. “There was an eagle flying.”

I shrugged. I hadn’t seen any eagle. “I was looking down,” I said. What I was kind of thinking, actually, was fuck you. Fuck the eagles. Fuck the tides.

“Well,” said the ranger. “If you always look down, you won’t see the eagles.”

I wanted to tell him, I don’t always look down. But then I wondered whether this was true. I was so consumed with trying to solve the mystery of my own impossible life that I was pretty much blind to everything.

In the meantime, the ranger had turned and walked away. A moment later he’d faded into the forest and was gone.

Twenty years later, I was wheeled off to surgery on a gurney. My wife and my friend Rick were at my side. “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair!” I sang. “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair!”

The intern wheeling me away looked entertained. “She’s singing,” he observed.

“Is that—typical?” asked Rick.

The intern shrugged. “We get all kinds of reactions,” he said.

A few years later I was watching some movie on cable TV. I forget which one. But all at once, there was a naked man on television. I hadn’t seen one for a while. I looked upon his junk and thought, Will you look at that! It struck me with wonder: the penis, and the scrotum, swinging around like the giblets you’d yank out of a Thanksgiving turkey.

I did not, at that moment, feel myself unfairly treated. What I felt more than anything else, was a vast sense of relief. It seemed like a long, long time ago, when I was sad.

*

We struck our tents and hiked back through the rain forest to our car. We didn’t see that ranger girl again, although as we passed the lodge, I looked around. I thought to myself, Someday I’ll come back here, as a woman, and I’ll hike through those woods and find that cemetery. I’ll stand by those graves and say Thank you.

I said that to myself that summer, August 1982. But I’ve never been back.

*

Twenty-five years later, walking through Morningside Heights, I saw Dr. Fernweh walking south on Amsterdam, not far from the Hungarian Pastry Shop. He hardly seemed to have aged a day: same black glasses, same gray goatee. I was thunderstruck. Here he was, after all these years! I wanted to rush up to him and say, Doctor! Doctor! It’s me, Jenny Boylan! I did it! I’m happy!

Which I am, most of the time. Although, like anyone else, I have my bad days too. But most of the trouble I find in the world doesn’t have anything to do with being trans. It comes from being female, a soul who, even now, some individuals see as something other than the default human.

It is hard being around people without imagination. But it’s not really my problem that I am someone for whom others have no theory.

“The programme of becoming happy,” Freud writes in Civilization and Its Discontents, “which the pleasure principle imposes on us, cannot be fulfilled, yet we must not—indeed, we cannot—give up our efforts to bring it nearer to fulfilment by some means or other.”

Dr. Fernweh looked at me.

I waited for him to find the spark of recognition, for him to see his former patient, now an older woman, at peace at last.

But he just walked on. It didn’t matter to him whether I was happy, or not. What did he care? I was no one he had known.

__________________________________

on the couch

Excerpted from the anthology On the Couch: Writers Reflect on Sigmund Freud, edited by Andrew Blauner. Copyright © 2024. Available from Princeton University Press.

Jennifer Finney Boylan



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