Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Acts of Forgiveness: Faith Journeys of a Gay Priest” by Ted Karpf— Coming Out as a Gay Priest

Karpf, Ted. “Acts of Forgiveness: Faith Journeys of a Gay Priest”, Toplight, 2019.

Coming Out Gay as a Priest

Amos Lassen

In the 1980s in America, coming out as gay as a father and husband was difficult. Coming out as gay as a priest meant  controversy, contradiction, and challenge. As he came out, Reverend Canon Ted Karpf faced social and romantic journeys as a priest of the Episcopal Church. Hos book spans the years from1968 to 2018, Karpf and he shares his memories, dreams and reflections on living a life of faith during a period of social and political tumult. His narratives are poetic meditations on lasting values and meaning in which we are reminded that “we are neither abandoned nor alone, and that forgiveness is a fulfilling way of living in a world of contradictions.”

Karpf’s journey was one of hope and through it we get a look at a man who was given every reason to abandon the God who loves him but still continues to mov forward. His  faith neither leaves nor abandons God— it finds hope in the tensions that all of us have in common. His life evolved from unformed possibility, through great trials, to his remaining a loving, forgiving, contributing person. He pulls us into his life letting us accompany him on his journey through which we learn to introspect and that forgiveness is a way of life.

Karpf was the victim of child abuse who dealt with the painful process of accepting who he truly is “while married to a woman with two children and finding clarity for his religious beliefs in relation to his own personality and sexual identity.” I marveled at how he found his self-acceptance and his place in the world and that religion is so much more than preaching and Bible study. That inner power that so many of us seek is within each of us. We see that we can indeed integrate acceptance and love for the LGBTQ community.

Karpf’s conversational narrative is very real along with his blunt honesty about his failings, concerns, and his need to wrestle with the demons of his past. Karpf’sinvolvement with the Episcopal church as well as World Health Organization and the American government brought about awareness and programs that assisted those suffering from HIV/AIDS. We find here a man who has been able to rise above the obstacles in his path and this book is a fine way to see how to move through the adversities of life.

“The Endless M: Autobiographical Essays” by Dustin Hendricks— A Family History

Hendrick, Dustin. “The Endless M: Autobiographical Essays”, Dustin Hendricks, 2020.

A Family History

Amos Lassen

Dustin Hendricks shares the memories of his life with us beginning with hismysterious upbringing in rural Oregon where he is loved and protected by his grandparents, yet he never fully fits into the small town that they believed would shelter him. Hendricks “examines his earliest and most powerful memories, his family and their secrets, his relationships and the scars they leave, and his own choices and mistakes, chronicling a winding and uncharted path to self-acceptance and the truth.”

Written with a sense of humor and wit yet with also tenderness and sincerity, he looks athis home town to and captures small-town Oregon with its ladies’ luncheons, youth groups and family gatherings as it fights to live against the backdrop of a dying industry. Hendricks tells his story with honesty and openness and his intelligence and self-awareness are seen throughout. His journey of self-discovery is real and compelling and kept me turning pages as quickly as possible.

“The Endless M” is both a coming of age story and a look at the many ways our families both love us and injure us. While we do read of anger, it is handled in a fair way. We read of the choices and decisions faced and the limitations that went along with them.

The book is a collection of essays that are based on memory and filled with detail revealing the humanity of the heart.

“Warhol” by Blake Gopnik— Warhol and His World

Gopnik, Blake. “Warhol”, Ecco, 2020

Warhol and His World

Amos Lassen

Writer Blake Gopnik’s “Warhol” is the definitive biography of  Andy Warhol, one of the most influential artists of any age.

To many people, Andy Warhol is known for his paintings of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. Pop Art and Warhol  have become synonymous but behind public image, there is a complex and multi-faceted man as Blake Gopnik show us his depth and dimensions. He was a man whose art depended on the way he lived and who he was and we get the details here. Warhol was the child of a  working-class Pittsburgh family who was the child of immigrants to. Hs early career years were in commercial art but later he became completely and totally immersed in the career and “performance” of being an artist. This brought him international fame.  He tried to stop biographers from writing about his life and because of that primary sources are hard to find. It has not been easy to put together an accurate or complete image of the artist

Gopnik’s “Warhol” fills in the gaps through its access to Warhol’s archives. He gives us a man who remains fascinating after his death and we see that in Warhol’s many contradictions. He was known as sweet and caring to his loved ones but  he was also a manipulator. His thoughts ran deep regarding avant-gardist but loved schlock and kitsch; he was both a sinner and a faithful churchgoer, a skeptic, and a cynic.

“Warhol” is the most intricate picture of a man who fit no categories and many categories. His work still has a deep effect on society and culture. We gain exegeses of the artist’s influences and techniques in 976 pages. It is a pleasant and fast-paced read that kept me turning pages rapidly and the only problem that I have is that in the pre-publication edition that I have there is a lack of illustrations. I expected them to be there.

Gropnik used the archives and collections held by The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh along with 260 interviews with friends, lovers, colleagues, and acquaintances to write this, He also read 100,000 period documents. Gropnik writes: “At its best, Warhol’s art always balanced on the edge between satire and reverence, whether its subjects were soup cans or celebrities.” We go into the sources of Pop Art and learn of how difficult for this movement to get started. Warhol was a hard worker who was driven.

Warhol explored other areas beside his pop art and avant-garde filmmaking. He was a  magazine editor, tried acting and was a portraitist to the wealthy and powerful. His thoughts were “outside any artistic universe whose laws would allow boxes to exist. Warhol always wanted to make work for a world where x and not-x would be true at the same time.”

Perhaps what we really realize is the humanity of Warhol. He loved cats and was often lonely even when surrounded and he was an obsessive collector and shopaholic. He was a kind person unlike his persona of coldness. He was a decent person. Yes, we learn about the artist and we also become aware of  mid-20th Century art and culture.

This book might not be for all readers—  there is a lot to read through so those who are not really interested in Warhol might find it tedious. I found it to be the opposite.

“Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor— A Portrait of  a Friendship and  Philip Roth

Taylor, Benjamin. “Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth”, Penguin Books, 2020.

A Portrait of  a Friendship and  Philip Roth

Amos Lassen

In “Here We Are, writer Benjamin Taylor shares about his long, intimate friendship with novelist Philip Roth (1933-2018). Roth was already considered as one of America’s most esteemed living novelists when Taylor, a founding faculty member of the New School’s Graduate School of Writing, met him in the mid-1990s. Roth’s past had already been through two miserable marriages, many past lovers, and debilitating health concerns. Roth was “irascible and mercurial” but he was also very real and very candid.

Taylor captures the essence of Roth’s charmingly enigmatic humor and complex behavior perfectly. He shares his memories of their friendship, writing about their quiet, often amusing moments together. Unfortunately, Taylor tells us that “A lot of conversation got squirreled away.” Taylor quotes Roth throughout and he was there for Roth throughout his declining years. This book is his poignant reflection on his experience with Roth and what their friendship has meant to them both. What is really fascinating is Taylor’s statement, “I can’t be the first gay man to have been an older straight man’s mainstay.” He goes on to say that Roth was searching for a “beautiful young woman to see to him as Jane Eyre looked after old Mr. Rochester.” Instead he got Taylor and they became very strongly attached to each other. They loved each other but they were not lovers.  Taylor describes their relationship as was “a conversation neither could have done without.”

As we have come to expect from Benjamin Taylor, this is a beautifully written book that is both a portrait of Roth and a meditation on friendship and loss. Philip Roth’s place in the canon is secure, but what is less clear is what the man himself was like. Through Benjamin Taylor’s memoir, we see Roth as a mortal man, experiencing the joys and sorrows of aging, reflecting on his own writing, and doing something we all love to do: passing the time in the company of his closest friend.  Taylor presents us with a glorious ode to friendship and shows how it can brighten everything we do.

Roth encouraged Taylor to write this book and gave him “explicit instructions not to sugarcoat anything and not to publish it until after his death.” Taylor’s memoir will be the definitive account of Philip Roth. It is almost as if Taylor has resurrected Roth ad I was shocked as my opinion of Roth that I had was very, very different from the Roth presented here. Yes, Roth was rancorous and tender, funny and sweet.

Like that friendship, this account is loyal and kind and very funny.  The laughter turns into tears as we near the end.  Taylor revives Roth’s presence while at the same time gives us a study of two very different men coming together because of a shared set of obsessions and mutual comforts. 

“Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader” edited by Don Bachardy and James P. White— An Introduction to Isherwood

Isherwood, Christopher. “Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader”, edited by Don Bachardy and James P. White and with an introduction by Gore Vidal,  Picador Reprint, 2020.

An Introduction to Isherwood

Amos Lassen

“Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader” is a wide-ranging collection of fiction and nonfiction and a perfect introduction to the author’s writings.

 The quotation from Stevenson that is the title of the book is placed as the epigraph to this selection of works by Isherwood. Included here are selections that span Isherwood’s  life as a writer from the early days in Berlin to the last days in Hollywood. Editors Don Bachardy and James P. White include the short novel “A Single Man” as the final selection. It is considered to be the finest of Isherwood’s novels and that one whose style and content delineate an ending to life and art in a beautiful way. The other selections in the book include fictional, biographical, critical and spiritual writings that help the reader get a picture of Isherwood’s life from his own creations.

We see how he imagined a world of love and freedom in an era when that life was hidden in ways that are difficult to comprehend in the twenty-first century. His friend Gore Vidal, to whom Isherwood dedicated A Single Man, states in his introduction: “throughout Christopher’s life and work – and he made the two the same – he never ceased to attempt the impossible: to say exactly what a thing was and how it struck him in such a way that the reader might grasp it as he himself did, writer and reader as one in the ultimate collusive act of understanding.” 

This selection of his works captures that and presents it to readers everywhere. 

“My Guru and His Disciple” by Christopher Isherwood— Isherwood’s Worldliness and Holiness

Isherwood, Christopher. “My Guru and His Disciple”, Picador Reprint, 2020.

Isherwood’s Worldliness and Holiness

Amos Lassen

Christopher Isherwood’s “My Guru and His Disciple” is his portrait of his spiritual instructor, Swami Prabhavananda, the Hindu priest who was his guide for some thirty years. This is also a book about worldliness and holiness in Isherwood’s own life. Isherwood was known for his sexual excesses, all-night drinking bouts, fast cars, scriptwriting, intellectual bouts and his six-month period of celibacy and sobriety. 

He was driven by both sensuality and spirituality, abandon and discipline and in his book he writes about the passionate dialectic between these drives. Here is a memoir of Isherwood’s apprenticeship in Vedanta practice and a loving portrait of Prabhavananda. We read of the beginnings of the settling of eastern wisdom teachings on western shores in southern California. Isherwood writes of his struggles with Vedanta practices and ideas and of his homosexuality and sexual adventures. We move between reflective historical and personal accounts and excepts from Isherwood’s diaries. But the book is mostly about Swami who Isherwood devotedly loved. He was a real person who does not seem to have an ego hang-ups. He was patient with and devoted to his students but he “didn’t stand in the way of the light” or put his mind in the way of things – he let it shine through everything he did. The Swami’s selflessness was his deep love, simple ease, warmth, sense of humor and patience.

This is a book of confessions that gives insight into Isherwood’s complicated character based partly from his diaries and his progress of ‘enlightenment’ through the guidance of a Hindu holy man whose own authenticity was perhaps dubious. “My Guru and His Disciple” is an enlightening that has improved with age. I first read it many years ago and found it boring back then. Isherwood was not too good at the Hindu discipline and only took it up when he couldn’t find another source of entertainment. He was unaware of the perplexities to be encountered in inner searches for the meaning of life and so on, or to be unaware either that no ultimate answers have ever been found, other than that every individual has to discover his own. There are several  prolonged speculations, uncertainties and lapses and these made it hard to follow at times.

It is hard for me to understand how a man like Isherwood with such literary talent desired to leave the material world behind and follow an Indian holy man into a Hindu cult. Isherwood never was completely successful in renouncing worldly pursuits, especially sexual relationships, though he briefly took up residence in the temple and aspired to be a monk. Nonetheless, his friendship with the guru was strong enough to withstand a return to his hedonistic and heretical lifestyle. The two men shared a complex relationship. Isherwood adored and revered the man and had an ordinary friendship with him that lasted over thirty years.

“Cuban Son Rising” by Charles Gomez— Keeping a Secret

Gomez, Charles. “Cuban Son Rising”, Koehler Books, 2020.

Keeping s Secret

Amos Lassen

As a journalist Charles Gomez dug up the truth but deep inside, he hid a life-shattering secret. As a Latin American Correspondent for CBS News, Charles Gomez has covered stories in 23 Latin American countries and the Caribbean. He covered the Nicaraguan Civil War, the ouster of dictator Anastasio Somoza, the Civil War in El Salvador and the Mariel Boatlift in Cuba. He has interviewed Fidel Castro, Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza, El Salvadoran President Jose Napolean Duarte, Jamaican President Edward Seaga,  ​​and Ferdinand, Imelda Marcos and many others.

He has worked as an NBC News West Coast Correspondent and has covered two national conventions (RNC-1972 and DNC-1988). He also worked for WPLG-TV in Miami, WBBM-TV in Chicago, WNBC and WWOR in New York City and is the recipient of an Emmy Award for news (1993) and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Journalism.

Gomez faced down dictators and he seemed to be at the top of his profession.  He is the son of a Cuban immigrant who was terrified to expose his sexuality and AIDS diagnosis and he found himself spiraling into depression and drugs— this nearly destroyed him. Gomez’s memoir “Cuban Son Rising” is an honest and raw memoir  that shares his lifelong battle to overcome stigma and self-loathing and he does so in detail. Gomez’s story includes interviews with despots and the front lines of civil wars to his quiet struggles seeking his father’s acceptance. He lived a lifetime of anxiety and regret but now Gomez embarks on an emotional journey with his father to his homeland. He worries about being rejected by his father and we are with him as he hopes to survive and triumph over the fear that has held him back on a personal level.

“What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life” by Mark Doty— Biogaphy, Criticism and Memoir

Doty, Mark. “What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life”,W.W. Norton, 2020,

Biography Criticism and Memoir

Amos Lassen

Writer Mark Doty brings together biography, criticism, and memoir as he explores his personal quest for Walt Whitman. He says that he has always felt haunted by “Walt Whitman’s bold, perennially new American voice, and by his equally radical claims about body and soul and what it means to be a self.” In “What Is the Grass”, Doty traces “the resonances between his own experience” and Whitman’s life and work. Whitman asks “What is it then between us?”. Doty searches for an answer, both externally and internally. He meditates on desire, love, and the poet’s enduring work which is a radical experience of transformation and enlightenment, queer sexuality, and an obsession with death and the love for a great city and the character of American speech. Through close readings with personal memoir and illuminated by wonder, Doty shows the power of Whitman’s presence in his life and in the American imagination. What we have is a conversation across time and space, a look at the “astonishment” that Doty finds in Whitman, and his attempt to understand Whitman’s vision of human possibility.

I believe that many gay men have read all or parts of ‘Leaves of Grass’ looking for the lines, that speak to me as a gay male. I understood that such lines of poetry were there and I wanted to know what another gay male, a poet felt about desire. Doty proves that he can give a scholarly look at the work and then write about in ways we can all understand. He delves into the meaning he sees of various passages that Whitman is not afraid to write about and thereby expose.  Doty covers “the etymology of words used and the newness of their use in his collection, the edits he makes over time, the typeset of his words, the quiet, blank spaces, his innovations, and the movement and placement of various passages in different editions.”

Doty sees Whitman as a man both of his time, and out of his time. He further explores Whitman’s family, his readings, his mentors, his motivations, his influence on writers who came after him, and his drives. He writes of Whitman’s genius and how that genius changed the face of American poetry as well as that of the world.  

I once met Mark Doty when he was the guest of the Little Rock, Arkansas library system. Here was a man who inspired me with his poems and who never hid his sexuality. The transparency of his writings show him as both a strong and weak person (like all of us). I was very proud to shake his hand.

As he looks at various passages from Whitman, he says he feels Whitman is speaking directly to him and to the rest of us. Whitman is present in all of our lives and we see that in how his poetry remains relevant through the ages. What Doty captures so beautifully is Whitman’s genius.

Reading Doty, we learn how to read Whitman closely as he shows us how the poems reflect incidents in his own life and those of his  contemporaries. Doty’s own ruminations on art, queerness, humanism, and the American experience are woven into Whitman’s life and vice versa.

Doty’s life and words are on a par with Whitman’s. He examines Whitman’s life, work, worldview, and his cosmic theology. As he does, he takes us into his own life in candid episodes. Language comes alive and we see meaning and purpose in the world. What the two poets share the most is faith in language. Doty’s relationship with Whitman is intimate in its “reality and in all that it imagines”.

“What is the Grass” is a sublime read that is fully of grace and intimacy. It made me feel alive again while being quarantined and I was reawaken to the power of language and the beauty of words.

“Heaven” by Emerson Whitney— Understanding Relationships

Whitney, Emerson, “Heaven”, McSweeney’s, 2020.

Understanding Relationships

Amos Lassen

At the center of Whitney Emerson’s “Heaven” is their desire to  understand their relationship to their mother and grandmother. These were Whitney’s first look at  womanhood and all of its consequences. Emerson retraces a roving youth in prose that is deeply observant and  psychedelic but using the work of thinkers like Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and C. Riley Snorton to unite transness and the nature of selfhood. 

This is an expansive examination of what makes us up, looking at what kind of role childhood plays in who we are. Is it possible to exclude causality and whether or not our bodies really belong to us. Emerson moves between theory and memory in order to explore these.

Emerson Whitney traces intellectual and emotional research, writing, and observations on gender and bodies through their family history. They make statements about femininity needing to include more and that gender really does not belong to anybody any longer.  We explore what’s ‘natural’ about the ‘unnatural’ and all the problematics of that. Whitney is rigorous with their mind and soul and asks how much of heredity is suggestion and how can anyone pinpoint the impact of nature or nurture when examining a human being. Emerson asks if it is better to simply listen and exercise unconditional acceptance as well as love. This is the story of the generational links between mothers and daughters. 

 Whitney is totally aware of the texture of moments that describe their own history in a way that holds back on what wasn’t understood at the age when something happening or isn’t remembered, or isn’t the focus; and yet, what they write makes everything important. 
Emerson includes many personal moments that become essential and public as their story mixes with theory on gender, sexuality, childhood, and psychology. 

Whitney turns coming-of-age inside out as they examine selfhood in relation to their mother, adds a layer of theory, and delivers a memoir that will stay with the reader long after the book is closed.

This is a frank and absorbing examination of transness, brokenness, mothering, femininity, embodiment and truth. 

“Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary” by Tom Rastrelli— Living a Double Life

Rastrelli, Tom. “Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary”, University of Iowa Press, 2020.

Living a Double Life

Amos Lassen

Tom Rastrelli shares  the clandes­tine inner workings of the seminary and gives us an intimate and unapologetic look into the psychosexual and spiritual dynamics of celibacy.  He writes of  the “formation” system that perpetuates the cycle of abuse and cover-up that continues today. 

While at college, he came under the guidance of a charismatic college campus minister as he was trying to reconcile his homosexuality and childhood sexual abuse. He felt called to the priesthood and so be­gan the process of “priestly discernment.” Priests welcomed him into a confusing clerical culture where public displays of piety, celibacy, and homophobia hid a closeted underworld in which elder priests preyed upon young recruits. Rastrelli went deeper into the seminary system seeking healing, hoping to help others, and striving not to live a double life. He had been trained to treat sexuality as an addiction yet he and his brother seminarians lived in a world of cliques, competition, self-loathing, alcohol, hidden crushes, and closeted sex. The “for­mation” intended to make Rastrelli a compliant priest and this what helped to liberate him. By demanding celibacy and damning homosexuality, the Catholic Church condemns its best and brightest priests to lives of hypocrisy and shame. Rastrelli shares his struggle with heart, wit, and courage.

“Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary” lets us know what to expect and it is quite an emotional read.  I became angry at the Church hierarchy that allowed the things described here to continue to go on for decade after decade. Those at the top, the only people who could have possibly stopped the kind of abuse described by Rastrelli, allowed it to continue and covered up for the criminals by transferring them from parish to parish or seminary to seminary every time it appeared that the truth was in any danger of being exposed. I am simply unable to understand how anyone can remain a member of the church knowing his. At the beginning of my teaching career, I taught at a Christian Brothers boarding school in Louisiana where the brothers were quite proud of the fact that they had hired a Jew. I will never forget some of the things I saw there going on between the brothers and between some of the brothers and their students. The story finally broke and two of the brothers are now serving life sentences in prison.

This is Rastrelli’s personal story. He was a naïve gay teenager who called to the priesthood. He’s a handsome man, and as a young man he was targeted by an authority figure in his parish church that was eager to take advantage of his confusion about his sexuality and the role of gay men in the Church. Having survived that relationship, Rastrelli was immediately targeted by a mentor-priest of authority at the seminary where he would spend the next four years of his life. During these four years, Rastrelli struggled to live up to the Church’s celibacy requirement while being sexually abused and exploited by some of the very people responsible for his physical and mental well-being as a seminarian. 

Somehow, Rastrelli managed to survive the seminary experience and become a Catholic priest. Father Rastrelli began to question the hypocrisy of the church elders and came to understand that the corruption and cover-up of the predatory sexual nature of some of his fellow priests came from the top down and went all the way to Rome. He received no support from his Archbishop when he exposed what he had witnessed and what happened to him personally. Rastrelli’s desperate cry for help left him suicidal and facing a nervous breakdown.
This is a sad story that does not end well for Rastrelli or the Church even though Rastrelli has a new career. What is so infuriating is the way that the church hierarchy continued/continues to hide the sexual abusers in its ranks and create thousands of new victims year after year.  

Rastrelli writes with a commitment to hon­esty understanding about the meaning of faith. I was not shocked about what I read aside from being surprised that Rastrelli has put it down in print.