As James Morris, the author was the dashing journalist who covered the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953 for The Times of London; a member of the elite and quintessentially male 9th Queen's Royal Lancers ("famous for their glitter and clublike exclusivity"--p. 27); the husband who married Elizabeth, fathering several sons. But, as the writer says in the first sentence of the book, "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 [James was sitting beneath his mother's piano], and it is the earliest memory of my life."

Realizing he was a member of a tangled (a favorite word of the author) group of transsexuals, James felt himself trapped in a conundrum of gender (he felt and considered himself female) versus sex (he was genotypically and phenotypically male). "To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial; it is soul, perhaps, it is talent it is the essentialness of oneself" (25). (Morris goes on to quote C. S. Lewis's Perelandra.)

After some fruitless interactions with the medical profession, Morris travels to Casablanca in the summer of 1972 to undergo sex-changing surgery and becomes Jan Morris. Unlike many if not most transsexuals, post-operatively Morris fared quite well emotionally and has, to date, been quite happy with the change (see below). Jan Morris's writing is as humorous and eloquent as James Morris's was. She describes (magazines like Rolling Stone and publishers like Random House and thousands of readers have never cared what gender or sex was holding the pen) how life changed in clubs, restaurants, and in taxi-cabs, where Jan met the first man to kiss her, post-surgery, "in a carnal way" (151). (Morris records that "all I did was blush.")


As the chronicle of one sensitive and highly literate man's journey from manhood to womanhood, Conundrum offers much commentary on the states of mind of a transsexual, a highly polished writer undergoing the humoral, mental, emotional, and cultural changes of such surgery. As Jan writes in "As to sex" (in: Pleasures of a Tangled Life, Random House (NY), 1989, pp. 8-13), "As to sex, the original pleasure, I cannot recommend too highly the advantages of androgyny" (8).

I used this text successfully in a college course on identity, which Morris describes so: "I see now [before the sex change] that, like the silent prisoners-- "the poor convicts of the nineteenth-century silence system" the author mentions in the preceding chapter, p.39--I was really deprived of an identity . . . I realize now that the chief cause of my disquiet was the fact that I had none. I was not to others what I was to myself. I did not conform to the dictionary's definition--'itself and not something else' " (40-41).

All Morris wanted "was liberation, or reconciliation--to live as myself, to clothe myself in a more proper body, and achieve Identity at last" (104). It took courage but it was worth it and Conundrum reads like nothing more, and nothing less, than a successful odyssey of the sexual soul.


Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Place Published

New York



Page Count