James Morris (1926-2020), later Jan Morris, was likely the greatest travel writer in the English language of his generation.
As the only reporter on Everest with Hillary, he brought down Fleet Street’s scoop of the century on the morning of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Three years later, he broke the news that the French air force (and, by implication, the British as well) were colluding with the Israelis to attack the Egyptians in the 1956 Suez War, a historic scandal that brought down Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
Morris went on to write dozens of superb travel and history books, often romanticizing the British Empire. He was a model of Tory masculine glamor: handsome and 6’4″, a British Army officer at the end of WWII, a war correspondent, and a superb prose stylist.
He was also likely the first already famous person to undergo a sex change operation, and was ever after known as Jan Morris.
I read his memoir Conundrum in 1994, figuring it would be informative in a Tiresias sort of way about sex differences.
Instead, it was unintentionally revealing about transgenderism. He mentioned that since he’d started taking estrogen, he paid more attention to fabrics when shopping, but that was it. Basically, Morris sounded in his own memoir like he’d always been a highly masculine guy and still was, even after the hormones and surgery.
Morris begins his memoir:
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, and it is the earliest memory of my life.
But there’s nothing after that to document that assertion. Morris was about as much of a little girl on the inside as, say, David Niven, whom he rather resembled in nature and nurture.
So that was the beginning of my skepticism about transgenderism.
Now his daughter has written a tell-all about Morris for the Times of London:
Jan Morris was a trans pioneer — and a cruel parent
The reporter and travel writer’s gender reassignment caused a sensation in the 1970s, but at home she refused to answer her children’s questions. The Jan they knew was neglectful, bullying and sexist, writes her daughter Suki Morys
Saturday December 10 2022, 6.00pm GMT, The Sunday Times
I’m going to skip over a lot of the personal resentments of the daughter, but know that Morris left her and her four kids out of his will. Maybe he had a good reason, though? So I don’t pay that much attention to celebrity family drama of the Joan Crawford “no wire coat hangers” sort: you can never tell whether you’ve got the full story or not.
… I have only one vision of my father as a man. A memory of looking through a window and him walking up and down behind a lawnmower on our large lawn, whistling. It’s a vision I cherish because it seems so calm and gentle and homely; just a vision of normality. Things were about to change, though.
The transition started in 1964, when, after meeting Dr Harry Benjamin, an endocrinologist and an early researcher into transgender people, she began taking strong female hormone pills. Her final operation took place in 1972, when I was eight. It’s difficult to differentiate between the transition itself and other influences that moulded my life, but I do know that, despite the transition, not because of it, Jan had a huge effect on me.
The first time I knew of anything unusual, I was sitting on a sofa in our house in north Wales. I don’t remember my father being there, but I was about five or six, so he could well have been. I was told that I mustn’t call my father “Daddy” any more, but must call him “Jan”. I piped up that Jan was a woman’s name and was immediately told that in Scandinavia the name is used for both men and women. That is true, and is presumably why “Jan” was originally decided upon.
That is all I was told. Whenever I called “Daddy”, there would be no answer, and slowly the word was lost from my repertoire. …
My mother effectively became a single parent to me. All my brothers were away, and Jan only visited at weekends. …
Gradually the hormones changed Jan’s body. She had rhinoplasty, and I recall kissing her nose gently while her face was plastered up. By then she was dressing in women’s clothes, and I was embarrassed by the awful dress sense more than anything else. I never felt any femininity in her.
I was totally bemused by it all but, as children do, just accepted it. There was never a moment when she was a man and then suddenly a woman; it was a gradual process. It is to my mother’s great credit that she never conveyed any worry or pain during what must have been an extraordinarily difficult time for her.
So my memories of Jan are nearly all of her as a woman. She was quite distant, but there were moments of closeness. …
I used to worry that I might wake up one morning and want to be a man, because nothing had ever been explained. I never discussed it with my brothers.
I never looked on Jan as a parent. I had my mother, and I didn’t have a father. That was it. I was told to call her my aunt, but I never thought of her as a relative. Jan was just Jan, a rather imposing figure in my life, whom I loved but who, frankly, wasn’t very nice to me.
Through my teenage years I’m sure people at school must have known about it all, but nobody ever mentioned it to me and so I didn’t mention it. I didn’t like taking anyone to the house, partly because I was worried about their reaction to her but also because of Jan’s reaction to them. I would never know whether she was going to be downright rude, flirt in a painfully coy manner or just be totally indifferent. It was almost always very embarrassing.
As I grew older, even more confusion took hold. I read Conundrum, Jan’s memoir, which was published in 1974 and serialised in The Sunday Times, and the story didn’t quite fit for me. Now I have read more of Jan’s books, I have come to the conclusion that, other than the portrayal of place, all her accounts are pretty much fantasy. More than a little artistic licence was used in all her articles and books. She romanticises anything that is remotely emotional, because she never talked about anything emotional. Of course, this is the writer in her, but at times I feel it is so inappropriate.
In Conundrum, Jan writes about the death of my elder sister, Virginia, who died as an infant. She writes that when Virginia was in hospital, my mother and Jan lay in bed together holding hands, tears running down their faces. …
The reality, as my mother told me, was that my sister lay dying in hospital and Jan refused to go with my mother to visit her. … Jan’s words, then and ever after, completely failed to show any understanding of her pain. She had no empathy. My mother had no explanation for Jan’s behaviour.
Elsewhere in Conundrum, Jan writes that, as a four-year-old boy sitting under a piano while his mother played, he realised he “was born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl”.
When I started Conundrum, I believed that early part, but when I finished, I went back and reread that opening and didn’t believe it anymore.
I always felt it was far more likely that he thought he would like to be like his mother. His father had been gassed in the war and was to die soon. From Jan’s account he obviously had PTSD, so his mother would have been a strong role model.
There was something far more confusing, though. Jan had a very specific view of what constituted a “woman”. First, a woman should train to be a secretary, next get married, then have babies and finally look after the family. In other words, a completely sexist view. I was brought up knowing this was what was expected of me; I was given no alternatives. My mother was this character.
Quite recently, since society has shifted and gender is top of the agenda, Jan talked of how gender was fluid, but that wasn’t at all what she was talking about at that time. She specifically stated she wanted to be a woman, and she had a “sex change” so that she could be one.
M to Fs tend to hold the most ferocious sex stereotypes imaginable.
As I grew older, I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that Jan wanted to be a “woman” when her view of “women” was totally the opposite of what she was. She wasn’t at all maternal; she struggled to even give her own children a hug, stiffening to a board when we tried. She couldn’t cook, I never saw her clean anything and she certainly didn’t want to stay at home and be with her family. She disliked the very idea of “family”. The honest fact is that she didn’t want to be a woman, at least not the way she saw women. And still I couldn’t talk to her about it all; I just got shut down.
What did she want to be? I believe she wanted to be someone totally different from anyone else, a woman who was the centre of attention because of her difference. She was no ordinary woman, as she believed the rest of us were. She was always talked about, always put on some pedestal. Her ego was massive, with people constantly rubbing it. She was a woman who enjoyed being in a man’s world because she stood out. I can’t blame her for that, but Jan certainly did absolutely nothing for womankind. Think of what she could have done; and, if she hadn’t wanted that role, fine, but at least bring your only daughter up to believe she could do anything at all, and praise her for doing so. Instead, she did the opposite.