A Year Without a Name

A Memoir


By Cyrus Dunham

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A "stunning" (Hanif Abdurraqib), "unputdownable" (Mary Karr) meditation on queerness, family, and desire. 

How do you know if you are transgender? How do you know if what you want and feel is real? How do you know whether to believe yourself? Cyrus Dunham’s life always felt like a series of imitations—lovable little girl, daughter, sister, young gay woman. But in a culture of relentless self-branding, and in a family subject to the intrusions and objectifications that attend fame, dissociation can come to feel normal.

A Lambda Literary Award finalist, Dunham’s fearless, searching debut brings us inside the chrysalis of a transition inflected as much by whiteness and  proximity to wealth as by gender, asking us to bear witness to an uncertain and exhilarating process that troubles our most basic assumptions about identity. Written with disarming emotional intensity in a voice uniquely his, A Year Without a Name is a potent, thrillingly unresolved meditation on queerness, family, and selfhood.

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I COULD TRY to tell a story that ends with resolution, but the only way to succeed would be to lie. If I lied, I would be whole at the end of the story. Wholeness would be possible. I might superimpose alienation onto every moment of my life leading up to self-acceptance, as if denial and repression are not so powerful that they create their own truths. Then, upon narrative completion, I would correct the condition of never having felt at home in my body. I would find personhood, once and for all, hospitable and harmonious. I would be an individual, an adult, a man.

But I have, at many moments, believed I was a woman. And in that belief, which did not leave any space for doubt, I was a woman. What is womanhood, anyway, beyond a belief that constitutes itself?

I will never have been born a man. I do not propose this as a universal truth. Some other people I love feel differently. I may pass as a man someday, but I will know in my gut that I had to convince myself I was allowed to have that passing, that I sacrificed for that passing, that passing feels like a betrayal of everyone who ever loved me as a woman, for being a woman. And maybe I will always wonder if that passing is just a trick, a lie. The trick might be a deeper truth than the girl, the woman, or the man. The trick itself might be who I am.


My name was Grace. The first thing I remember is a purple morning glory out a window. The second thing I remember is slugs on the wall of a shed. My mom had me when she was forty-two. She tried hard to have me. She had a green piece of paper with all the names my parents almost named me. My mom wanted to name me Esther and my dad wanted to name me Kay. They agreed on Grace. They only put one boy name on the list, Cyrus, which sounded like Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of rebirth.

My mom’s ancestors were Jewish and my dad’s ancestors were Puritans who I imagined wore only black and lived in wooden houses where there was nothing soft to sit on. Puritans had names like Hope, Mercy, and Patience, which were similar to my name. They were ideas, not things you could touch. This distinction became important to me: Grace was an abstract noun; bird was a concrete noun.

My mom went to a psychic when she was having trouble getting pregnant with me. The psychic told her there was a baby boy waiting to enter their family. The psychic said the baby boy had chosen them because he had things he wanted to teach them. My mom told me that story often. It made my face get hot. I wondered if the baby boy was me.

My mom is a photographer and my dad is a painter. My dad and I drew together every night. When we finished a drawing, we each signed it on the bottom right corner. His signature started with the letter C, which looked like a mouth opening up and spitting out the rest of the letters. I couldn’t spell so I copied his signature, except I started mine with a G, which I wrote like a C with a tongue. I liked to draw Gs walking across the page with their tongues getting smaller and smaller until they became Cs. I liked imagining myself as my dad when he was a little boy. I looked at old pictures of him standing on the beach and pretended I was inside his body.

My sister is six years older than me. She had wavy blond hair and she liked the things I hated, like makeup, dresses, and jewelry. She kept a pile of dolls and I kept a box of superheroes. She gave me her old dolls and I used my grandpa’s old tools to saw their arms and legs off, unscrew their heads, and drill holes in their torsos. I did the same things with my superheroes, then put the different limbs back together to make creatures that were part doll and part superhero.

My sister liked to paint my face with eye shadow, blush, and lipstick, dress me up, and take photos of me. She put red glitter on my eyelids. The glitter was in the shape of lips, stars, and hearts. I parted my lips and held my breath while she snapped through Kodak disposable cameras my parents had bought for her at the drugstore.

We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every Saturday morning. I liked the arms and armor section, with its rows of metal men and horses. I liked how the armor was big and heavy, but there were little drawings of flowers scratched into the surface. I pictured myself running through a forest, with armor for skin.

When we drove through other parts of the city, I hoped for red lights so that our car would stop and I could see into the windows on the lower floors of apartment buildings. Later, I fantasized about the rooms I’d seen and imagined I was part of another family, but a son instead of a daughter. It scared me that I only got to be one person the whole time I was alive. Even if I had been reincarnated, I couldn’t remember who else I’d been.

At school, I was only friends with boys. Kids made fun of the boys who only played with girls, and those boys’ parents were embarrassed by them. My parents were proud of me because I was a special, tough kind of girl.

I had short hair I slicked back in the bathroom with water, and a heavy leather jacket my mom bought for me at a thrift store. I sat with my legs spread wide and picked the scabs on my knees until they bled. At home I stood in front of the mirror with my shirt off and my arms crossed, lifting my chin up like men in magazines. For a while I told my sister and my parents that I wanted to be called Jimmy, which was the nickname of the actor James Dean and of my mom’s best friend, whom I never met because before I was born he died of AIDS. No one agreed to call me Jimmy, but I still liked to say it out loud to myself in the mirror. “Hi, my name is Jimmy,” I would say, then repeat it three more times, to make it even. “Hi, my name is Jimmy. Hi, my name is Jimmy. Hi, my name is Jimmy.”

During the summer, we left the city and went to a house across from a lake, which was connected to another lake. The lakes were called Twin Lakes. I loved the summer because we left the windows open. I could hear crickets at night and birds in the morning. When I could hear the outside through the window I didn’t feel like I was trapped or like I was going to die, even though I knew everything would die eventually, including the sun. My dad had told me that someday the sun was going to explode and get so big that it would swallow up the earth. Then it would shrink and turn red. After that the sun would get cold and dark, then disappear. But by then everything I knew and loved would already have been destroyed.

In Twin Lakes there were older girls who lived up the road and invited me over. They had me pretend to be their husband or boyfriend, which meant I took my shirt off, kept my shorts on, and lay on top of them moving my hips back and forth while they made noises. I held my hand between my legs like a penis. This made a tingling feeling start in the bottom of my back and move out through the rest of my body. A girl in the neighborhood had a teenage brother with short hair he dyed bleach blond and a red convertible. He sped home late at night to the end of the dirt road they lived on. He wore tank tops and a seashell necklace. When I was alone in the yard behind the house I rolled my sleeves up and walked back and forth pretending to be him.

I went to a camp near Twin Lakes where one of the counselors had long, wavy hair and big boobs. I stayed close to her, asking her how she felt about her parents, her friends, and boys. She said I was a really good listener and that she could talk to me in a way that was different from how she talked to other people. I loved listening to her. It made me feel important. She let me stay with her while the other kids did activities. We made up reasons, like that I was sick, or that she needed my help with something. Once while it was raining out she let me lie on her chest in an empty tarp tent. She whispered in my ear how special I was, four times. “You’re so special,” she said. Special. Special. Special. Special.


I​ NOTICED ZOYA right away. She was standing in a group of friends, outside a half-demolished art deco hotel in Pune, the city where she grew up, smoking under a veranda. She wore trousers and a high-collared shirt and smoked with her arms crossed in front of her, on guard. She had big eyes, somewhere between probing and alarmed. I zeroed in on her.

Almost immediately, I was ready to devote myself to her. Devotion is the closest thing I’ve known to a stable gender, insofar as our gender is a set of rules we either accept or make for ourselves.

We met on January 26, 2017, six days after Trump’s inauguration speech and two days before my twenty-fifth birthday. I’d just driven from Mumbai to Pune, the second city of Maharashtra, with my friends Akhil and Prab, with whom I was traveling in India. Akhil and Prab were both there visiting relatives. They were also both nonbinary and transfeminine, and for this reason, the trip was divided into two chapters: familial first, gender transgressive second. I followed along for both. Whenever my bodily claustrophobia grows unbearable, I seek new lovers, new locations, new friends. So be it. Novelty is the longest-lasting short-term coping system I know of.

Zoya and her friends stood under the hotel’s former carport. Half of the hotel’s exterior walls were missing. You could see into the rooms, like a dollhouse. The hotel had been turned into an art space, where Akhil would be performing that night. Ruins of luxury repurposed for culture.

Throughout the afternoon, I took inventory of everything Zoya said: She was born in Pune but hadn’t lived there for nearly a decade. She had gone to school in England. She was a writer. So far, no indication as to whether or not she would be attracted to me, which was the primary information I was searching for.

In the early evening, I took a seat in the back row to watch Akhil do a version of the performance I’d seen them do many times now, both on this trip and before. They have an uncanny ability to stand in front of a room and, with a quick scan, assess the alienations and resentments of the crowd. In between recitations of poems about the tangled pain of gender and colonialism, they offer impromptu sermons. As they preached toward different demographics represented in the audience, I catalogued my own supposed identities. Woman: I’d already failed at that. Were I to become a man one day: I’d calcify into an apathetic voyeur, so protected by privilege as to be incapable of feeling. White person: my subjectivity was irrevocably distorted by my violent inheritance. This calculus made failure feel inevitable, resistance an impossibility.

At some point during their performance, Akhil paused and summoned me to the front of the room to read a few short poems. Zoya was in the front row. I averted my gaze. It was humiliating to follow Akhil onstage.

As a teenage girl, I’d stood behind the podium in debate tournaments and wielded language to assert my intellectual superiority. I spoke in neatly constructed paragraphs with clear arguments. One of the privileges of white girlhood was feeling entitled to prove that I was the best. I was taught to believe that winning would correct for centuries of oppression. Girlhood loomed larger than my own power.

Now, with my girlhood dissolved and no clear alternative in place, I felt the least entitled to take up space I ever had. The specter of sexism no longer fueled me. I wasn’t technically a man, but if I ever successfully embodied masculinity, I’d stay standing in the corner watching, my hands crossed behind my back, where men should be. My friends and lovers would know not to call me forward.


When, around the age of five, I began to recognize myself in words, I was afraid of the words that described me being found out. The words were always in my mouth. They felt like part of me. My parents and their friends cherished me for being a little girl. I knew I was a pervert. I was tricking them.

When I figured out how to spell the words I held in my mouth, I wrote them over and over until they filled up the page. “I’m gay I’m gay I’m gay I’m gay. I’m gay I’m gay I’m gay I’m gay. I’m sick I’m sick I’m sick I’m sick. I’m gross I’m gross I’m gross I’m gross. I’m a boy I’m a boy I’m a boy I’m a boy.” Then I ripped the pages up and flushed them down the toilet.

The first person I devoted myself to after my mother was a girl in my class named Anna who wore a pink bow in her hair every day. She had long brown hair. She liked to draw, or play with dolls, or sit in the corner of the playground and wait for people to come to her. She didn’t like to get dirty or be rough. Boys tried to wrestle with her, and it was my job to protect her. We sat near each other on the rug while our teachers taught lessons, and we found ways to touch each other when no one was watching. We also kissed when we could. At home, my sister found a piece of green paper with a heart and Anna’s name written on it. I had copied the shapes from the name tag on her locker; I was still learning to spell. My sister told me it wasn’t okay because we were both girls.

I learned the word “desire” and I knew having it meant I wasn’t innocent. I saw a blond girl in a pink bikini at the public pool near my cousins’ house in New Haven. I went to the locker room and threw up. In the attic bedroom at their house, I had a dream about the girl from the pool being underneath me, her arms and legs tied to the bed. I’d only seen people tied up like that in movies where women got kidnapped or held hostage. In the dream, she loved me. For days after I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t stop replaying the dream.

The grown-ups around me had no idea what was happening inside my mind. But I knew what to say to make them love me. It was so easy to impress them. All I had to do was ask questions, listen closely, and ask more questions. Adults were lonely and wanted someone to talk to, even if it was a child. I taught myself how to engage in conversation while replaying my secret thoughts. The distance between the inside of my mind and the world around me grew.

The times I liked best were when I could be in my mind without anyone interrupting me. In these private moments, I could replay things that had happened to me: the girls up the road, the camp counselor who said I was special four times. Special. Special. Special. Special. I could also imagine moments that hadn’t happened: kissing, holding down, and tying up girls I’d never met, in faraway places like tropical islands, or motel rooms, or the classrooms of Catholic schools. I couldn’t not replay them: four, eight, twelve, or sixteen times, the numbers kept me clean.

When I fixated on a girl, I’d list and describe every interaction we’d had: instances of physical contact; what she’d worn each day of the year; the days she’d been absent; every word she’d spoken to me. I wrote her reverent letters. They were carefully observed character studies, meditations on her insecurities, hopes, dreams, and fears. Without the courage to reveal myself, I destroyed the letters upon their completion. Writing toward someone helped me break out of my own obsessive monotony, if only briefly. I didn’t need her to know. I just needed someone to reach toward.


After Akhil’s show, a group of us went to a Persian restaurant where we smoked hookah on a wooden porch. I sat down next to Zoya. When she spoke, she used uncommon words with many syllables. She chain-smoked. She said she was an alcoholic, said she was kidding, then said she was serious. She told me about a conspiracy theory that the CIA had introduced the water hyacinth to the river systems of the Indian subcontinent to intentionally desecrate native species so that communities would be dependent on American exports. She looked at me earnestly and said, “How can you think about anything besides climate change?”

Right now, all I could think about was whether my desirability would be more enhanced by my hair falling in my face or resting tucked behind my ears.

“It’s hard,” I said. “To think about anything else.”

When the restaurant closed, we went to a bar down the road, where drunk straight people danced to house music. A white man put his arm around my shoulders and asked me whether I liked Indian women. Zoya observed the interaction, visibly disgusted. Hatred of men, particularly on the part of a woman whose affirmation I longed for, made me that much more determined to cling to femaleness.

The bar closed, and Zoya took a group of us to her parents’ house—a marble-floored flat in a tall, modernist building on the edge of town. Her mother greeted us at the door in a nightgown, trailed by two fluffy orange cats. We all sat on the balcony. I listened to other people’s conversations and continued to drink, unsure of what else to do.

More people arrived, and I snuck away to snoop around her family’s apartment. I looked at the books on her bookshelf—classics of feminist autofiction; photographic and cinematic theory; tomes of Indian history I wasn’t familiar with. I looked for family photos in the living room. I looked for any evidence to help me shape myself into someone she’d desire.

I brought Akhil with me to the bathroom, where I forced them to analyze the likelihood of Zoya’s interest.

“How do I know if she likes people like me?”

“Why, because you’re white?”

I assessed myself in the mirror. I worried I looked too much like a boy. From another angle, I worried I looked too much like a girl. I knew I would tilt myself in whichever direction Zoya preferred.

I was binding my breasts, but their curve was still visible under the fabric of my shirt, a mound of flesh pressed under elastic fabric. The immediate urge was to cave in, hunch over, round my shoulders forward so that the breasts were protected, if not entirely hidden. Any insinuation of my breasts undermined my capacity to believe I was desirable.



  • "Cyrus Grace Dunham is such a tender, open, and nuanced writer, and his book allows itself to be messy and complicated in the name of unflinching honesty. A stunning account of both longing and belonging, A Year Without a Name made every corner of my heart sing."—Hanif Abdurraqib, New York Times bestsellingauthor of THEY CAN'T KILL US UNTIL THEY KILL US and GO AHEAD IN THE RAIN
  • "Cyrus Grace Dunham has written a classic memoir-passionate and clear eyed and unputdownable. I've never seen a gender journey rendered in more tender, riveting detail. Bravo to this extraordinary new voice."—Mary Karr, author of THE LIARS' CLUB, CHERRY, LIT, and THE ART OF MEMOIR
  • "Cyrus's book is raw, beautiful and uncompromisingly honest: a slippery, vital account of gender, family and the longing to be real. I read it with my heart in my mouth."—Olivia Laing, author of THE LONELY CITY and CRUDO
  • "A work of extraordinarily intimate confession rendered in startling, sparkling -- and addictive -- prose. With erudition, frankness, and eloquence, Dunham braids a propulsive narrative momentum together with exquisite particulars of daily life. This book, simply put, summons a private and deeply pleasurable exchange with its reader. In the grand tradition, it keeps us company."—Jordy Rosenberg,author of CONFESSIONS OF THE FOX
  • "A Year Without a Name is staggering, intimate, and astonishing; you can't help but be awed by the end of it. I'm grateful for the journey this memoir took me on, for what Dunham illuminates about loving ourselves and others."—Bryan Washington, author of LOT
  • "Cyrus Grace Dunham's memoir is unflinching. His unsettlement about gender is profound, his writing about it genuine and affecting. A Year Without a Name let me travel with Dunham on his difficult, sometimes treacherous, sometimes beautiful, always memorable path."—Lynne Tillman, author of MEN AND APPARITIONS
  • "Dunham's deeply felt, forthright, lucid accounting of the complex process of determining who they are is astonishing in its intimacy and generosity, and serves as a reminder of how difficult, but how necessary, it is to be honest with ourselves about who we know ourselves to be."
    Kristen Iversen, NYLON
  • "An honest, reflective reckoning well worth reading."—Tomi Obaro, BUZZFEED
  • "'Devotion is the closest thing I've known to a stable gender,' Dunham writes in this deeply intimate memoir. Lucid, unvarnished prose makes the book compulsively readable even as it wrestles with the weightiness of transition and identity."—O MAGAZINE
  • "Raw and powerful."—VOGUE
  • "It's a quick read, but punchy--nearly every sentence is sharp, full of importance, at once deeply intellectual and ethereal. Dunham navigates how confusing gender is: how useless it can be while also existing as an essential facet of identity. Dunham stays true to their unfinished story by packing a lot of meaning into just 176 pages but never reaching concrete conclusions. But the concrete would be antithetical to the story; Dunham lives in the truth that all of us are unfinished, forever growing and learning. This in itself is a very queer frame of thought."—REWIRE
  • "Shifting between identifying as Grace and Cyrus, Dunham gives readers an honest look at gender transition, solidifying their fresh voice in a crucial national conversation about gender and identity."—TIME
  • "A profoundly honest memoir written in succinct language that often has the power of a punch and resists tying up tricky situations in a neat bow."—ELLE
  • "Not all memoirists reckon with themselves as severely and provocatively as Dunham does, particularly when it comes to the weight, responsibility, and, at times, unwanted consequences of a name...A Year Without a Name teaches us that gender identity and names are not as static as we might have thought. In fact, both are more like the process of self-discovery - slippery, complicated, ongoing."—BUSTLE
  • "An anti-memoir, set against the idea that Cyrus, or you, or I, must believe one consistent story about our life...For Dunham, exploring gender and sex means exploring embodiment and uncertainty. They live in-and have sexual feelings within-a body that won't settle down, that does not seem to want to take clear form. It's a body, Dunham discovers, that needs to be valued as a kind of chrysalis."—THE ATLANTIC
  • "CyrusGrace Dunham has written a complicated, necessary addition to the transliterary canon. Readers get to know Cryus as Dunham getsto know Cyrus, and the memoir makes clear that one's journey to figuring outtheir gender is a messy, life-long process."—ADVOCATE
  • "In a scant 176 pages, Dunham pens a surprisingly wide existential exploration of what it means to be human; an honest, beautiful memoir that isn't afraid to live in the unknown."—SarahNeilson, LitHub
  • "His writing about family and notoriety is the richest and most perversely fascinating in the book, because it makes you feel queasy for finding it so magnetic. Fame is addressed with the same conflict and emotion that Cyrus devotes to his queerness and gender transition."—THE CUT
  • "Candid and compassionate, this book offers a view of one person's trans experience that defies categorization as much as it defies resolution. Elegant, eloquent, and deeply personal."—KIRKUS REVIEWS
  • "Cyrus Grace Dunham is a mess, and they aren't trying to hide it. In their new memoir, the writer and activist complicates accepted narratives about transgender folks - ones that are steeped in binary, essentialist notions about gender identity. Dunham isn't afraid to share their uncertainty about the source of their discontent with identity, whether it's more social, more physical, or a combination of both."—OUT MAGAZINE

On Sale
Jun 1, 2021
Page Count
192 pages
Back Bay Books

Cyrus Dunham

About the Author

Cyrus Dunham is a writer and organizer living in Los Angeles. A Year Without a Name is their first book.

Learn more about this author