Depersonalization in transgender autobiographies: Christine Jorgensen

Zinnia Jones

(Depersonalization is a dissociative symptom experienced as sensations of feeling “unreal”, distant from one’s emotions, separated from the real world, and robotically going through the motions of life as if acting out a script. Learn more about depersonalization in part 1.)

 

“I have never been such a real person”: Christine Jorgensen

Christine Jorgensen transitioned in 1951, making tabloid headlines the following year as one of the first trans women to come out about her transition. Her 1967 autobiography features extensive notes on how her feelings changed when starting and stopping hormone therapy, as she discovers greater self-confidence and a feeling of finally being “a real person” (Jorgensen, 1967).

Hormone therapy and rapid reduction in “listless” feelings

Jorgensen describes her initial attempt at daily oral estrogen therapy with one tablet of “high-potency” ethinyl estradiol. After 8 days, she reported a “not unpleasant feeling” of her lifelong listlessness and fatigue having suddenly abated.

After taking one tablet a night for a week, I believe it was on the eighth morning that I awoke with a strange, though not unpleasant feeling. Also, there was a sensitivity in my breast area and a noticeable development. Beyond the outward physical signs, another curious thing had occurred during the previous few days. The great feeling of listlessness and fatigue, which often seemed to be with me even after a full night’s sleep had disappeared. I was refreshed and alive and no longer felt the need to take little cat naps during the day. (p. 78)

These feelings of “sluggishness” soon resumed after Jorgensen had stopped taking estrogen for a week, and once again decreased when she began to receive estrogen injections.

Then, Dr. Hamburger asked me how I felt since I had discontinued the estradiol, a request he’d made of me during my first visit to his home. I told him that for the first week, I’d felt fine, but after that, the old fatigue and sluggishness returned and I found myself somewhat depressed again. (p. 95)

The report made it clear that these early tests didn’t allow a definite conclusion but we knew that the first few injections of female hormones brought my energy back at a startling rate. (p. 96)

For five months, I’d been living successfully and happily under the doses of estrogen, and it was time to prove the correctness of these doses by eliminating them altogether and observing my reactions to their withdrawal. I remember that I was distressed at the thought of doing without them, but since I’d pledged my complete cooperation, I agreed to the next phase.

The hormone tablets were discontinued for several weeks and I was upset physically and mentally as the male hormones, no longer suppressed, took over again. Almost at once, the old fatigue and disturbing emotions returned. If I hadn’t clung to the hope of final success which Dr. Hamburger had instilled in me, I might have reverted to complete discouragement and despair, but I trusted him implicitly. (pp. 101-102)

Feeling newly “alive” with estrogen

In correspondence from October 1950, Jorgensen states that she feels “better than ever before” as a result of hormone therapy. She specifically notes that when her “male chemistry was inert”, she “became alive”. As a result, she felt newly capable and confident in living her life.

The doctor said that he definitely believes the hormone injections are doing wonderful things for me, I have gained over 6 pounds, now weigh 116, and look and feel wonderful. He said that I respond to estrogens remarkably well and I feel better than ever before. …

The high doses of estrogens I had received were suppressing or canceling out the effects of the male hormones which my body produced. When the male chemistry was inert, I became alive and vigorous and felt fully capable of meeting my responsibilities and problems with competence. (p. 101)

Finally being a “real person”

In a letter to her family from June 1952, Jorgensen contends that she “never did fit into life before”, but is now a “real person” following her transition.

Your hope that I shall fit into the scheme of things and of life is unnecessary, simply because I have never been such a real person as I am today. If we all want to be truthful, I think we would admit that I never did fit into life before. (p. 118)

From detachment to a greater sense of agency and investment in life

Jorgensen credits her newfound “healthier mental outlook” for the confidence to pursue her interest in photography.

In scanning the magazines, I’d noticed that color photography was virtually nonexistent in the Scandinavian countries at the time. I didn’t sit back in fear as I had done before, but with new assurance (no doubt due to a healthier mental outlook), I gathered my samples one day and boarded a streetcar which jostled into the heart of Copenhagen. (p. 96)

In an October 1951 letter, she proclaims that she is no longer “the shy, miserable person who left America”.

As you can see by the enclosed photo, taken just before the operation, I have changed a great deal. But it is the other changes that are so much more important. Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I’m in marvelous spirits.

Half the time, people in shops call me “Miss” or “Mrs.” and it doesn’t embarrass me because I’m not afraid of people any more. (p. 107)

Feelings of imprisonment, self as nothingness, and finding one’s self

In a letter, Jorgensen notes that she was especially moved by a quote from author André Malraux on “our very prison” and the development of our selves from out of “our nothingness”:

P.S. I came across the following quotation just recently. It’s by André Malraux, but I wish I’d written it! I’m adding it to my little notebook of favorite quotes, and thought I’d like to share it with you.

“The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that; from our very prison, we should draw from our own selves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.” (p. 108)

Jorgensen’s reported experiences – coming “alive” and feeling like a “real person” following hormone therapy, escaping from a miserable life in a prison of nothingness, and finally discovering her self in defiance of that nothingness – all bear similarities to the emotional symptoms experienced by sufferers of depersonalization. Additionally, the clear correlation between administration of estrogen and rapid remission in these symptoms indicates a hormonal role in trans people’s experiences of depersonalization. With this gender-affirming medical treatment, Christine Jorgensen was able to pursue a confident and successful life for herself, in a world where she previously felt out of place, listless, and unreal.

Next: Contemporary descriptions of depersonalization in gender dysphoria from Jamison Green, Imogen Binnie, and more.

Have you experienced depersonalization symptoms like these? Tell us about it in the comments!

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References

  • Jorgensen, C. (2000). Christine Jorgensen: A personal autobiography. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press.

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
This entry was posted in Depersonalization, Gender dysphoria, History, Psychology and psychiatry, Transgender medicine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Depersonalization in transgender autobiographies: Christine Jorgensen

  1. Pingback: Depersonalization in transgender autobiographies: Jamison Green, Imogen Binnie, and more | Gender Analysis

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