A Year Without A Name
I picked A YEAR WITHOUT A NAME off the New Reads display at my local library without realizing that Dunham was one of The Dunhams. Not that it would matter, really--I'm not that familiar with their sister's work. But I think this book probably lands better if you read it without the social media/celebrity gossip baggage some folks are more aware of.
I found this book quite moving and relatable. There are interesting passages about not just gender identity but mental illness, friendship, love, how we relate to and care for each other, how to exist in a world that doesn't understand us or make a space for us. In some ways Dunham's experiences are quite different from anything I've ever lived, but in some ways I really saw myself in this work, in a way that made me feel like a valued part of a community.
I was particularly interested in Dunham's exploration of what it means to be transmasculine and anti-patriarchal at the same time. If you've had experiences that lead you to be suspicious of men, if you have doubts about masculinity and fear the ways in which male privilege harms people you truly care about, it's so difficult to embrace that aspect of yourself without feeling like you're in some way betraying your beloved friends and your own values. They don't offer any easy answers, but sometimes asking the questions is more than half the battle.
The book is loosely organized and scattered, which felt at times frustrating to read and at times true to the experience of mental illness, anxiety, and fractured self-knowledge that Dunham writes about. I think... there is always the possibility that a memoir could have been organized differently. A different editor would have shaped the narrative differently. But this way felt good and satisfying to me, although I understand some folks might not enjoy it as much. It feels true to the heart of the narrative that it should bounce through time, introduce characters and then drop them, circle around something without saying it out loud.
Dunham's prose is at points workmanlike and at points stunningly beautiful. Here are a couple of my favorite passages:
'My own feelings about the surgery were too convoluted for communication, a lust I didn't have words for, yet. ... My brain monologue sounds like this, spoken in a cacophony, not a linear progression of ideas: My breasts have felt invasive since they started to grow; every time I remember they are there, which is constantly, I am defeated; I have the right to augment my body in order to make it livable; the only reason I need surgery in the first place is because the tyrannical gender binary has made me believe that my breasts are incompatible with my felt gender; if I was truly transgressive I would be able to tolerate the simultaneity of my breasts and masculinity and see them as co-morbid rather than contradictory; the surgery itself is born from a legacy of mainlining gender-deviant people into having bodies that conform to white, colonial myths of manhood and womanhood; the surgery was developed from a legacy of medical experimentation on the bodies of intersex and gender-nonconforming children; the fact that I can access the surgery is dependent on my ability to perform the mental "capacity" to prove that I am sane enough to get it; those unable to perform "health" are excluded from the very same surgery.
So proceeds my monologue, bolstered by compulsive research and information consumption, because I cannot face the immensity of my own longing.
What can I say? I want it. Is wanting enough? I need it. Is needing enough?'
and, in contrast:
'I dreamed in the middle of the night that I woke up and a red hummingbird had pushed her way, beak first, through the sutures. I lay on my back and watched her buzz around my room in the predawn light. I stood up and walked over to the screen door, opened it, and watched the hummingbird slip out, down, and over the hillside.'