In their first book, “A Year Without a Name,” Cyrus Grace Dunham presents a poignant memoir. Dunham compels the reader to begin to understand the daily struggle that comes with identifying as beyond the gender binary. Throughout the book, Dunham becomes more and more able to articulate their identity, eventually settling on the term transgender.
Throughout the first part of the book, Dunham describes the intense pain they experienced as they fought internally to put their dysmorphia into words, often in relation to romantic partners. On a recent trip to India, Dunham pursues a woman who is portrayed as beautiful in an almost surreal, deified way. After making an advance that is rejected by the woman, Dunham writes, “I was drunk enough not to feel completely spurned, but ashamed I hadn’t known better. I felt like a little girl, too self-conscious to get anything right. And also, like a man. A boundary crossing, despicable man.”
This specific excerpt lends insight into several themes of their story. Dunham uses substances to try to escape the agonizing reality of existing in the body they were born. Eluding sobriety allows Dunham to escape the crippling shame they feel regarding the desire they feel towards women. These feelings of shame are at their worst during sex, and often result in Dunham disassociating. But in spite of the trauma experienced during sexual encounters, Dunham is able to connect with many partners during “A Year Without a Name.” These interactions are some of the books most calm paragraphs, when they are able to exist comfortably around loved ones. With one lover, “She wrote and I read next to her; every fifteen minutes or so, she’d take a break and kiss me on the cheek,” Dunham writes. “It was the first night we spent together that we didn’t drink. When she was done I pulled her to bed, where we stayed until sunrise, talking.” Dunham clearly treasures these peaceful, reassuring moments during such a turbulent time.
Through Dunham’s recollections of their childhood, they reveal the intense pain that has been present in their life for so long. Though at times these anecdotes are crushing to read, they allow the reader to grasp the difficulties Dunham has experienced with dysmorphia from a young age; they have never felt at home in their own body.
Glimpses of Dunham’s torturous childhood contrast with their more recent obsession with the male physique; they focus on how to appear more like a man, while still struggling to provide a name for themselves in the excruciating instances in which they must.
As the dysmorphia worsens, Dunham begins to open up to a few individuals, and is able to finally find the words to describe both their condition and themselves. The word transgender is used but once in “A Year Without a Name,” which emphasizes the harrowing journey it took to reach that term. Dunham chooses the name Cyrus from a list their parents had made prior to their birth — Cyrus was the only option had they been born a boy. This act of naming then empowers Dunham to undergo transitional surgery, and to finally be able to introduce themselves not as Grace, but as Cyrus. In “A Year Without a Name,” Dunham is bold enough to bare even the most harrowing and horrifying moments of their experience as a transgender man in today’s world. With this striking work, empathy for Dunham and for those in similar situations can be felt by any reader.