In 1953, James Morris, 26-year-old correspondent for The Times of London accompanied the team that scaled Mount Everest and got a scoop which confirmed his promise as a superb journalist. After a distinguished career on British newspapers, he went on to write 11 keenly perceptive travel books.
But behind the assurance of the gifted writer lay the torment of a man haunted by confusion and ambiguity. Since childhood, Morris was convinced that he had been born female by nature if not by sex. Nonetheless, he married and became the father of four children.
Then, with the understanding and approval of his wife Elizabeth, in 1964 he began a series of hormone treatments to reduce his masculine characteristics and to replace them with the secondary sexual characteristics of a woman—soft, hairless facial skin, swelling breasts. In 1972 he took the final irreversible steps of transsexualism in a Casablanca clinic—the surgical removal of his male genitalia and fashioning in their place the organs of a female. James Morris became Jan Morris.
In the just-published Conundrum, Jan Morris has written an eloquent account of her remarkable odyssey. In it she has explained her motivations and her experiences with a fine writer’s sensitivity, while reserving to herself details of many intimate matters, particularly with respect to sex. While still preserving this area of privacy, she discussed her transformation with PEOPLE’S James F. Jerome on a recent visit to New York.
What are your earliest memories of feeling transsexual?
I was about 3 or 4 years old and was sitting under my mother’s piano. She was playing, I think, Sibelius, and this bizarre conviction came to my mind—that there had been some mistake, that I was in the wrong body.
Did your sense of being an “impostor” persist through childhood and school?
Yes, I believed I was some sort of sham, a living lie, because I wasn’t what I seemed to be. My daily prayer was, “Please God, make me a girl.”
When did you first learn that there might be medical or surgical alternatives to your masculine role in life?
I’m bad at chronology, but I had read vaguely, as everybody else had, of Christine Jorgensen [an American male who underwent a sex change operation in Copenhagen in 1952]. The first time it ever came home to me as an actual physical possibility was here, in New York, when I saw Dr. Harry Benjamin, a pioneer in this matter—who didn’t say, I must hasten to add, “Go ahead with this.” On the contrary, he counseled me to try and live it out, my life as a man, if I could. But he did make it clear to me that such a thing—changing sex—was possible. And later on he prescribed the particular form of hormone that best suited me.
What feelings did you have about courtship and marriage as you approached early manhood?
Very confused and ambivalent. And I suppressed a lot of feelings, looking back on it. And then, out of that morass I was rescued by the fact that suddenly I discovered Elizabeth and a great love, far above sex and gender, one which has lasted ever since.
How would you describe the difference between sex and gender?
I have never had any doubt about my gender. It seems to me that I was feminine from the start. I felt it deeply. That was a constant. The trouble was not that at all, but that my gender had imposed upon it what I thought to be the wrong sex. Sex is just a matter of the body. Gender, on the other hand, is actually nearer the medieval idea of soul.
Did you try first psychiatry in attempting to resolve your dilemma?
Yes, but it was a fruitless path. I don’t believe there has ever been—nor has anyone claimed—a “cure,” if that is the word, for this problem.
What causes a person of one sex to believe he or she has the opposite gender?
Nobody knows. In some cases it may be constitutional; it may have happened to the fetus in the mother’s womb. In others it may be the result of the environment and the upbringing of the infant. In my case, I don’t believe that the environment was responsible. It’s a mystery to me—a conundrum.
When did you decide to undertake surgery to complete your sex change?
Once I seriously started the hormone treatment, both Elizabeth and I realized that something had to be done. I used to think that maybe I could somehow survive in a half-way condition. But as it went on, that became just impossible. I knew that surgery would have to be the end of it.
What were the changes in your personality that you became most aware of as a result of the hormone treatment?
I certainly got gentler, rather nicer I think. My outlook changed; I got much more concerned with people and less with the grand sweep of things. I became more passive. Exactly what you’d expect.
Was there an accompanying shift in your creative work, in the style of your writing?
I think there was. I became concerned with the details of human interactions, because for the first time really I didn’t feel so detached from humankind. I think that, like other writers, I formerly sublimated sexual feelings which I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge, and I directed them into objects, mood, places, sounds.
How did you let people become aware of the fact that you were becoming a woman?
It was easier in England than it might be in most other countries, because it has remained a very tolerant country. For a while I pursued a double life, supposedly male in one place, presumably female in another. I gradually and cautiously and carefully leaked it out about me.
Is the transition to womanhood now complete in all the details of your day-to-day life—the clubs, the clothes?
I think so. I could no longer pass as a man, even if I wanted to. A halfway condition was impossible.
Do you still have uncomfortable moments meeting an old friend?
I don’t try to hide the past. It’s been an interesting life. But most of my friends are kind, sensitive people and they wouldn’t want to drag it out.
What are your living arrangements now with your former wife and the two younger children?
Obviously we had to become divorced, but we still love each other very much indeed. Inexplicably, if you like, the children love me. We sort of live half together, half apart. I have a flat in Bath where I have my library and write my books. Elizabeth has a farm in the Black Mountains in south Wales, which is just an hour and a half away. And then we share an old building in north Wales. I spend about half the time with them. The two younger children have never really known me as a man, properly. Everyone has taken me to be a woman for so long that they are very used to it. I hope love’s enough to conquer all.
Have you encountered any instances, even trifling ones, of social prejudice against women?
Oh yes, it’s inescapable. But it’s always from stupid men. I have encountered nothing that I have resented from intelligent men.
Have your professional relationships with editors and publishers changed?
No. And I would hope not. I’d be ashamed if they had. Why should it make any difference?
What are you presently working on?
The third volume of a vast trilogy about the Victorian British Empire; it’s the centerpiece of my life. I’ve been working on it for six or seven years. [Two volumes were published by James Morris.]
Are there ever any regrets?
Absolutely none. A veil has been removed from between me and other people, that sense of impostorship.
Why did you write Conundrum?
I think of my experience as extraordinary, magical, and in some ways very beautiful. I have tried to sum up this experience in what aspires to be a work of art. It concerns identity and sense of self, realization and fulfillment. This journey that I’ve just completed seems to be the journey to end all journeys, doesn’t it? It places all other journeys in perspective…from one side of humanity to the other.