Author Jennifer Boylan Discusses Experience with Gender Transition at Harvard Radcliffe Lecture


Author Jennifer F. Boylan discussed her experience with gender transition and the themes of revision and reinvention at a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study lecture last Thursday.

The lecture, titled “The Heisenberg Variations: Imagination, Invention, and Uncertainty,” centered around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or the inability to experience your work the way your audience does, and how it applied to her journey of self-discovery and authorship. After her speech, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo joined the conversation.

Boylan began her lecture by describing the difficulty of transitioning to living openly as a woman.

“I thought about my parents. I thought about the clear and escapable fact that I was female in spirit and how in order to be whole, I’d have to give up on every dream I’ve ever had,” Boylan said.


According to Boylan, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle suggests that the “act of observing something changes the thing being observed.”

“It’s a handy way of describing the difficulties of knowing anything for certain,” she explained.

Boylan connected the principle to her relationship with her appearance.

“I remember being a teenager high on multiple bong hits and staring into the mirror for so long that I no longer recognized the thing reflected as me, which sounds just like another amazing drug tale except for the fact that in this, I was not wrong,” Boylan said.

“The person that I saw there was not me, not by a longshot. I would spend many of the years that followed resorting to one desperate measure after another in the hope — always monstrously improbable — that one day, against all odds, the reflection in the mirror would show my face,” she added.

Boylan said her English professor at Johns Hopkins University, John S. Barth, helped shape her passion for writing, which helped her understand her identity.

“Sometimes I’ve been asked how I’ve made that transition; I can only say that above all else, the most important way I found of making sense of my life was by seeing it as a story, by finding the thread of narrative that brought sense and reason to what otherwise felt like chaos,” she said.

Boylan later discussed Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical composition, Goldberg Variations, referencing the Heisenberg principle once more.

“In 1981, at the age of 49, Gould returned to the Goldberg Variations. He said of at least one of the variations that he had recorded in his youth, he could no longer recognize the person who had played it,” Boylan said.

At the end of her lecture, Boylan described the inspiration behind the piece.

“Hermann Karl von Keyserling — for whom J. S. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations — was once described as a cheerful man of sin who kept a harem of ladies with 354 bastards. It’s also said that he had trouble sleeping at night,” she said.

“You can imagine the Count tossing and turning at night, wondering which bastard was going to show up next,” Boylan joked.

—Staff writer Laasya N. Chiduruppa can be reached at