Cyrus Grace Dunham’s “A Year Without a Name” Is an Affecting, Imperfect Exploration of Identity

In August, Cyrus Grace Dunham published an essay in the New Yorker, ‘A Year Without a Name: Was the problem gender or me?’ The piece is about the year Dunham grappled with their desire to transition, to move from Grace to Cyrus Grace. This piece is beautiful; it is gentle, calm and assured, it unfurls towards something new and exciting. It explores the meaning of names, the far-reaching significance of being able to call yourself and be called by those around you. In the essay, Dunham confronts their physical needs, explores their consciousness, and considers the gravity of the task of inventing a name that can represent a connection between the two.

Often, we talk about novels that should have been short stories. Dunham’s book of the same title, A Year Without a Name, feels like a memoir that should have been a personal essay. The book is the essay, expanded with long, self-questioning passages and contrived dream journaling that are so tenuously connected and, at times, contradictory, that the work becomes almost incoherent. The book is diaristic but unlike most works of that form, this book seems to lack true vulnerability.

Dunham asks question after question in the book. “Why wasn’t I strong enough to exist inside Grace? Did I hate myself? Did I hate my family? Did I wish to kill my former self and begin anew? Was I so naïve as to think that a new name could shepherd me into a new existence, one that hurt less?” But this questioning is so laboured and incessant throughout, that it starts to feel manipulative. By asking so many questions (of gender, of fame, of sex and relationships, of power) Dunham avoids ever having to offer any answers. If this memoir was purely about the self, this process of questioning without answering might represent some universal vulnerability, our insatiable quest to know ourselves, but the book is ultimately a personal response to power and this is a subject that warrants true accountability. “Did I think a new name would cut the cord between me and my whiteness, my power, my access?” In this way the questioning quality of the writing feels like a performance rather than an investigation, a means for Dunham to avoid responsibility, to talk their way out of imagined or unspoken accusations.

Again and again this book seems to not be grappling with the nature of gender or identity but struggling with not being powerful, with not knowing how to be at all times the most wanted and the most special, with having grown up in a family defined by cultural capital (Dunham’s parents are both successful artists, and they have had acting roles in their sister’s film and television projects. Their sister’s success is spoken of often without her ever being named in the book). This, too, is all interesting matter for a memoir but Dunham fails to make any interesting connections, to take their experience of the toxicity of fame and reach any conclusions that might reveal something to a reader who has not grown up in that world of privilege and art and accolades.

Dunham grew up being told they were special (they tell us this repeatedly) and then realised that perhaps they weren’t, or not for the reasons they were told, and at a certain point, it is difficult to root for them or to indulge their torture over this. None of us are special. Cyrus does not reach for this conclusion as much as they work constantly and deftly to deny it. They are not trying to rid themselves of the allure of specialness, they are looking for a way to believe they are superior to everyone else, only in a way that makes sense to them, or a way they can feel good about.

Dunham starts the book in India, one of the few countries in the world with a legally recognised third gender, where cultural conceptions of gender have not been entirely defined by the colonial binary. But while Dunham references their friend’s poetry performance ‘about the tangled pain of gender and colonialism’ and meets a lover who confronts their involvement in the “colonial fantasy” – ‘“would you like a camel ride? Would that add to this fantasy, make your experience that much more authentic?” they avoid actually engaging in a critique of that colonialism themselves. “It was becoming clear that she, like me, struggled with a secondary, analytical voice that prevented her from taking total pleasure in anything.” Dunham never deconstructs their own privilege, they are only ever aware of it. Their time in India seems only an extension of their life at home: they visit the homes of wealthy art patrons, they get drunk, they have sex.

“I’d been accompanying my parents to events of this nature since I was a little girl, and I knew how to stay in character: polite and grateful, curious and engaged, self-assured and humble. The only difference now was that I hoped to cut the character with masculinity. To channel composure, I pictured an unassuming, handsome man with his hands in his pockets, leaning against a wall, unafraid of having no one to talk to, immersed in observation.” Consistently it feels like Dunham doesn’t want to deconstruct the dynamics of their oppression but rather manoeuvre around those dynamics enough to be comfortably adored.

Their perspective on gender remains profoundly white and wealthy. To combat their gender dysphoria, they buy a convertible. “I felt angry every time I had to drive somewhere, even the post office or the gas station, in my dad’s old gray Camry. It was dull and unwieldy, even dysphoric.” They continually conflate their discomfort with their privilege with their gender dysphoria. Dunham’s experiences of gender dysphoria will resonate with many readers who did not grow up among fame and wealth but they never recognise that. It is clear that Dunham values their community. They are connected to many close friends and lovers. In the text though, everything remains somewhat transactional. They value what their friends offer them and what they offer their friends. There is no evocation of community beyond this, no suggestion that gender, even gender ‘difference’, can be a unifying experience. To do so would be to admit that they are the same as everyone else and Dunham clings doggedly to the notion that they are special, even as they are aware of the ego behind this motivation.

Dunham is vulnerable with their identity in this work. Their exploration of self is far-reaching and rigorous. But in this exploration there is never the possibility of embracing not knowing. That they might never know, with certainty, every facet of their identity. That perhaps, we are not always entitled to knowing every detail of other people’s impression of us. It is this missing intellectual vulnerability that limits the work. All literature, all human lives, must at some point face up to the fact that some things cannot be known. Some people call this gap God, some people simply acknowledge the limits of human consciousness, the limits of our brains ability to understand themselves, but there is and will always be a crevasse, at the very end of our self-knowledge. For me, good art accepts that gap and leaps into it, with no knowledge, whatsoever, of what will happen when they do. Dunham won’t make that leap until they know exactly the results.

I do not want to suggest that Dunham isn’t remarkable. They are the things they speak of craving to be: they are intelligent, they are a good and loving friend, they are handsome and poetic. But the ways we are special as individuals are also the ways we are the same as a community, both a queer community and an emotional community of people who read.

This book affected me often – it was striking how many of the scenes or thoughts from Cyrus’ adolescence resembled by own, experiences I was once certain made me strange or, as Dunham describes, ‘perverted’, scenes I had mostly forgotten until I read this book, and which I wasn’t aware I had still subconsciously internalised as evidence of my perversion. I have never gotten to speak so deeply with someone about these experiences and that, certainly, was a gift. Even when I speak to non-binary friends, it is a different type of conversation than reading this book, where Dunham is extremely candid about their fears of self. But ultimately, Dunham addresses their reader with such scepticism and accusation that the reading experience is alienating. It is as though Dunham thinks the reader is the gatekeeper to their gender transition, when in fact, the audience is nameless to Cyrus as the writer, we offer them nothing but our attention.

In the final paragraph of the New Yorker essay, Dunham lands where they need to. “Cyrus is a sign, and he may not last. And, still, I am him now. I need to be him now.” They accept temporary knowledge, fallible knowledge. There is a an external momentum in this last line that is absent from the book. A willing, submission to something outside of their total control.

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Oliver Reeson is a non-binary essayist and screenwriter from Melbourne, Australia. They created and wrote the web series Homecoming Queens for SBS On Demand.

Oliver has written 2 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Absolutely brilliant review. Incisive, fair, thought-provoking.

    I’m a long-time huge fan of this site and I think the writing at AS is overall very good, but it feels special m when I’ll read an article and think, “I could’ve been reading that in the New Yorker”. This was definitely one such piece!

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