Jennifer Finney Boylan’s father came from a generation of men who didn’t cry in front of others. That’s why the anecdote in her new memoir, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, about seeing her father cry for the first time is especially poignant.
Her father was watching a TV show, and in one of the episodes, a pet bloodhound dies. The Boylans had raised many dogs themselves by this point and were no strangers to difficult goodbyes with beloved pets. Still, this death was entirely fictional. It was happening on screen, not in real life.
“When I turned to look at my father when the show was over, I was shocked to see that tears had rolled down his cheeks and that he was silently crying,” Boylan writes. “I had never seen my father cry before. He wiped his eyes.
“ ‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s sad.’ ”
Dogs, Boylan realized, were ideal avatars for explorations of love throughout her life.
This kind of emotional display was uncommon among men not only in Boylan’s family but also in the suburban 1960s and ’70s culture in which she was raised. At the time, Boylan—many decades away from coming out as transgender—looked to the family patriarch for instructions on how to be a man. The emotional strictures of maleness that she saw all around her were already a concern.
“When you were a kid like me, who is female at heart but no one knows that . . . you’re wondering if your father is the person who’s going to be able to show you how to be in the world,” says Boylan, now 61, from the apartment in New York City where she lives for part of the year. “The idea of being in a world where I couldn’t express emotion more effusively was going to be a challenge for me.”
The Boylans were not a touchy-feely family, she says, but a lot of love existed between them. In adulthood, Boylan has come to realize that one of the ways her family could express love and loss—and one of the ways she could express love and loss—was through their pet dogs. For example, it may be too difficult to say to an older sister who has left for college that her absence hurts. But the family dog, who is also mourning the sister’s absence, intuitively understands.
Dogs, Boylan realized, were ideal avatars for explorations of love throughout her life. Good Boy begins with Boylan’s childhood as a boy in rural Pennsylvania and ends in the present day, when she is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University, married to her wife, Deedie, and the mother of two 20-somethings. Along the way, Boylan explores how dogs can teach us about all kinds of love: romantic love, familial love, love between friends and, most importantly, self-love.
“It’s hard to talk about love without people rolling their eyes, which is just funny if you think about it, because we all know that there is probably nothing more important in the world then loving each other and expressing the love that we feel,” says Boylan. “And yet it’s the thing that we’re probably the worst at.”
Through every section of Good Boy, Boylan shares one life lesson from each of her seven dogs. Playboy, Sausage, Matt the Mutt and others taught Boylan about coping with unrequited love, learning self-respect, reconciling a lifetime of struggle with her gender identity and accepting herself in the face of widespread cultural bigotry.
“Dogs accept you for who you are, no matter who you are, when you can’t accept yourself.”
“Dogs accept you for who you are, no matter who you are, when you can’t accept yourself,” she says. That particular lesson is crucial for Boylan, who unveiled herself (a more fitting phrase than “came out,” she thinks) as transgender at age 40.
Boylan has written about her gender journey in several other memoirs, most notably 2013’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders—the first bestselling book by a transgender American. Good Boy is not exclusively about transgender issues but rather the transformative journey every human goes through in a lifetime. However, Boylan’s experiences as a trans woman, and as the parent of a trans child, are woven throughout.
Chloe is the family’s only dog at present; she lives in Maine with Deedie while Boylan teaches at Barnard. The family adopted Chloe in 2017, at age 12, when her previous owner became ill. Eventually, it will be time to say goodbye to Chloe, too.
“Sooner than you know, there’s this thing with a gray face that’s looking at you, saying, ‘You promised to take care of me when the time comes,’ ” Boylan says. “And then you lose the dog, and you weep your brains out.”
In fact, it’s not so different from losing the humans we love in life. “That, in miniature,” she says, “is the process that we go through again and again and again.”
Author photo © Dan Haar