Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Keeping On Keeping On” by Alan Bennett— Diaries and Essay, 2000-2015

Bennett, Alan. “Keeping On Keeping On”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Diaries and Essays, 2005 to 2015

Amos Lassen

Alan Bennett’s third collection of prose, “Keeping On Keeping On” is hilarious, revealing, and intelligent. It is made up of Bennett’s diaries from 2005 to 2015 including his much celebrated essays, his irreverent comic pieces and reviews. Taken as a whole, it reflects a decade in which Bennett had four major theater premieres and the films of “The History Boys” and “The Lady in the Van”. This is a classic history of a life in letters.

Bennett writes about the injustices of private education, Maggie Thatcher and the creeping erosion of the British National Health Service as he shares what it was like to become famous. He shares his feelings about those he calls “the hypocritical English” even though he comes from a working family that was also hypocritical. He is amazed by his own ‘success,’ both as an entertainer and as a moral crusader. He writes about justice, or “fairness” and about being simply being ordinary (the way he sees himself). He loves churches, country life, picnics and he really loves, as we see here, reminiscing.

Bennett abhors commerce and the public commercialization of standard rights and feels that the right of entry to public buildings, mainly National Trust properties and libraries should be run by private companies. Bennett has something to say about politicians and sees Thatcher as evil even though her electorate loved her. He sees Tony Blair as a traitor.

Bennett writes with wit, insight, honesty and a rage against injustice and fakery and has interesting thoughts on some major events. He makes us think and causes us to laugh (with him). He believes that there is hope that the world is civilized and humane.

“A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back” by David Hallberg—“The Most Exciting Male Dancer in the Western World”

Hallberg, David. “A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back”, Touchstone, 2017.

“The Most Exciting Male Dancer in the Western World”

Amos Lassen

David Hallberg was the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer. “The New Yorker” described as “the most exciting male dancer in the western world” and his new boo, “A Body of Work” takes us on an intimate journey through his artistic life up to the moment he returns to the stage after a terrible injury almost cost him his career.

His childhood is an all-American story that was hurt by intense bullying. Hallberg’s memoir takes us deep into his life as an artist as he wrestles with ego, pushes the limits of his body, and searches for ecstatic perfection and fulfillment.

Quite basically, this is a book about creativity. Hallberg shares themes of inspiration, self-doubt, and perfectionism and we are with him as he attends daily class, goes through rigorous rehearsals, and triumphant performances and searches for new interpretations of ballet’s greatest roles. He also shares the loneliness he felt as a teenager leaving America to join the Paris Opera Ballet, the ambition he had to tame as a new member of American Ballet Theatre, and the reasons behind his decision to be the first American to join the top rank of Bolshoi Ballet and working with an artistic director who would later be the victim of a vicious acid attack. Later as Hallberg performed throughout the world at the apex of his abilities, he suffered a crippling ankle injury and unsuccessful surgery leading to an agonizing retreat from ballet and a reexamination of his entire life. It is the emotional intensity that makes this such a fascinating read and the artistic insight that we get here is amazing. Here is a story with all of its passion, wisdom and vulnerability.

“The Inheritance of Shame” by Peter Gajdics— “Curing” Homosexuality

Gajdics, Peter. “The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir”, Brown Paper Pres, 2017.

“Curing” Homosexuality

Amos Lassen

Author Peter Gajdics spent six years in conversion therapy that attempted to “cure” him of his homosexuality. He was kept with other patients in a cult-like home in British Columbia, Canada where he was under the authority of a dominating, rogue psychiatrist who controlled his patients by creating and exploiting a false sense of family. The author’s parents had tormented pasts. His mother had been incarcerated in a communist concentration camp in Yugoslavia after World War II and from which she had managed to escape. His father was an orphan in war-torn Hungary. This memoir explores the themes of childhood trauma, oppression, and intergenerational pain over a period of decades and we see the damaging repercussions of conversion therapy and are reminded that resilience, compassion, and the courage to speak the truth indeed exist within us all.

This is an in-depth account of the author’s triumph over a psychotherapy system that was designed to eradicate personhood. We shockingly read of Gajdics’ fondness for the very therapist who abused him. He suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome that most survivors of conversion therapy experience.

Gajdics struggled with family rejection and loss of self while he recovered from the deep wounds put on by him by anti-gay “therapy.” He presents a powerful argument against conversion therapy. This period was one of malpractice and corrupt psychotherapy in which we see the trauma of conversion therapy and the homophobia.

Lately much has been written about “crazy therapies” and the unproven, unusual, and downright strange psychological counseling and therapeutic practices that patients have been subjected to. Gajdics uses journals, official documents, medical records and recordings to share his bizarre story in a shocking narrative and then shows how he was able to reconnect with his parents and siblings. He was the youngest of five children who were raised near Vancouver. His parents were observant Catholics and he was raised in the culture of the church knowing that his parents would never accept him as a gay individual. As a young adult, after selling his body, he realized he needed psychological counseling. He was able to get Next, Gajdics received a referral from the Health Authority for a Dr. Alfonzo, the only psychiatrist that was accepting new patients.

He was highly skeptical of Dr. Alfonzo from the start. The doctor insisted that all his patients needed medication, which he overprescribed and believed that only he could be the “savior” for his patients through cutting edge “Primal Therapy, Rebirthing, and Reparative Therapy” that offered a cure for homosexuality. The doctor maintained controlled residential living in community homes. Due to the medication Gajdics was prescribed he gained 40 lbs. and felt that there were demons inside of him. Gajdics stayed in Dr. Alfonzo’s care for nearly six years even though r4eparative therapy was eventually discredited and therapists were advised not to practice it. In 1998, Gajdics was contacted by an attorney for the College of Physicians and Surgeons regarding formal complaints filed against Dr. Alfonzo.

In the first half of the book, we get a detailed account of Dr. Alfonzo’s disturbing behaviors and unconventional therapeutic methods. He also used his residential patients for free labor. After blaming his parents for all his problems, they began reconciliation and his parents welcomed Gajdics back in their lives after he discontinued therapy with Dr. Alfonzo. Gajdics describes his family history in detail and we learn that he applied for Hungarian citizenship under his father’s name, toured Europe in 2004 and wrote of his father’s decline and death, and his mother’s escape from the communist concentration camps during WWII.

This is an amazing story of a brave man who speaks out and who after a bizarre and terrible ordeal is able to accept and love himself despite what he has had to endure.

“Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years” by Nicholas Frankel— Wilde’s Final Years

Frankel, Nicholas. “Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years”, Harvard University Press, 2017.

Wilde’s Final Years

Amos Lassen

In “Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years”, writer Nicholas Frankel challenges the traditional view of Wilde as a broken, tragic figure, a martyr to Victorian sexual morality, and shows instead that he pursued his post-prison life with passion, enjoying new liberties while trying to resurrect his literary career. This is in conflict with the account that Wilde’s final years were spent in poverty and exile on the European continent following his release from an English prison for the crime of “gross indecency” between men.

Frankel shows that Wilde left prison in 1897 after two bitter years of solitary confinement determined to rebuild his life in a similar way to the life he had followed before his conviction. He was unapologetic and even defiant about the crime for which he had been convicted. In Europe’s more tolerant atmosphere, he could begin to live openly and without hypocrisy.

Frankel also challenges earlier misunderstandings of Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas who was the great love of his life and with whom he hoped to live permanently in Naples, following their secret and ill-fated elopement there. He shows how and why the two men were forced apart, as well as Wilde’s subsequent relations with a series of young men. The book pays close attention to Wilde’s final two important works, “De Profundis” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, while, at the same time, details his nearly three-year residence in Paris. Despite repeated setbacks and open hostility, it was there that Wilde attempted to rebuild himself as both a man and a man of letters.

We are reminded that Oscar Wilde was a serious man of ideas, as well as a clever and witty author. Frankel has done deep research and gives us  detailed insights yet into Wilde’s experiences in prison, the time spent at Berneval-sur-Mer, when it seemed that he might revive his literary career, and the subsequent months when he reunited with Alfred Douglas, their eventual separation, and Wilde’s slow decline.

This is a major critical biography written from the perspective of social and intellectual history. After his release from prison Wilde consciously shaped his life and work “as a provocation and a rebuke to Victorian pieties and cruelties and hypocrisies.” Below is the book’s Table of Contents:

Prologue

  • Part One: The Prison Years, 1895–1897
    • Fettered and Chained
    • From the Depths
  • Part Two: Oscar Wilde in Exile, 1897–1900
    • Release
    • The Pursuit of Love
    • The Ballad of Reading Gaol
    • The Seduction of Paris
    • A Confraternity of the Damned
    • The Solace of Spectatorship
    • Decline and Death
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Illustration Credits
  • Acknowledgments

Index

 

“Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary” by Jonathan Lerner— Youthful Radicalism

Lerner, Jonathan. “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary”, OR Books, 2017.

Youthful Radicalism

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Lerner’s memoir looks at his youthful radicalism. He is precise and unwavering about the cost of resistance and rebellion without sacrificing his idealism. Against the background of the Vietnam Era, Lerner looks a the impulses that led a small group of educated, privileged young Americans to turn to violence as a means of political change. He also shares the true story of an intellectually adventurous but insecure gay man who is immersed in the macho, misogynistic and physically confrontational environment of the Weathermen.

Known as the Weather Underground, the Weathermen, or Weatherman unleashed a series of bombings across the United States that attacked the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the U.S. State Department, among many other places. At its height, the organization consisted of several hundred people, all committed to violent change face-to-face battles with the police.

Lerner invented himself as “minister of propaganda” for the movement and participated in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba and observed the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee. He later reinvented himself as a high-rolling gay hustler, His journey took from idealism to destruction and beyond. There have been others memoirs written by members of the Weathermen but none has explored the history of the group with such honesty as Lerner does. He was there and now sees the Weathermen very differently. He shares unbelievable true stories bringing us the closest we will ever be to revolution. Lerner’s life is an account of “idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology”. His perspective as a gay man is unlike anything we have ever read about the Weather Underground. This is , as Michael Bronski has said, “a brilliant and moving analysis of one of the most significant moments in American history”. It is written with passion and wisdom and is a self-questioning depiction of Lerner’s youthful radicalism. By telling his particular story of life at the far edge of the 60s and 70s counter culture, he is precise and unstinting about the wages of resistance and rebellion without sacrificing his continuing and moving idealism.

“Homo Odyssey: Adventures of a World Traveler” by Brent Meersman— Seventeen Countries on Six Continents: A Travel Memoir

Meersman, Brent. “Homo Odyssey: Adventures of a World Traveler”, Bruno Gmunder, 2017.

Seventeen Countries on Six Continents: A Travel Memoir

Amos Lassen

In always look forward to a new book by Brent Meersman and I must admit that “Homo Odyssey” stole my heart. It is part autobiography, part social theory, an immersive study of sexual desire and the cultures that shape it and it is written with brutal honesty. Meersman throws sentimentality out of the window and becomes both tender and vulnerable as he gives us his memoir of gay life and sexual desire .

We are reminded that sexual desire “morphs with the times”. Meersman is both self-critical and cruelly objective in this deeply personal account that looks intimately at what it means to be human. His stories transcend gayness as they are stories about man as he makes his way through life and we immediately see that it is not difficult to identify with and to feel the human condition.

The next paragraph is quoted from the blurb of the book since it says everything so much better than I can.

“A gay Muslim in Berlin, a young gay man bewildered and lost on the highways of Los Angeles; a rent boy in Shanghai; a holiday romance in Mexico; a man from Dakar in a bathhouse in Paris; a love hotel in Tokyo; a darkroom in Rio; a hamam in Syria; the burning ghats on the Ganges; Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Shinto and atheist; legal and illegal … blazing through 17 countries on six continents…”

“Homo Odyssey” is an edgy, often very funny travel memoir that allows us to see the world and ourselves differently than we ever have before. We read how men are sexually attracted to other men who live in different parts of the world and how they see themselves. This is about survival in hostile places and how we have made it to where we are today.

 

“Afterglow (a dog memoir)” by Eileen Myles— Rosie, the Pit Bull

 

Myles, Eileen. “Afterglow (a dog memoir)”, Grove, 2017.

Rosie, the Pit Bull

Amos Lassen

In 1990, Eileen Myles chose Rosie from a litter on the street, and connected instantly and Rosie became central to the writer’s life and work. They were together for 16 years. Myles was totally devoted to her dog and when Rosie died Myles felt empty. In “Afterglow”, she gives us a look at their relationship and the bond that they shared. She begins this memoir on an imaginary talk show where Rosie is interviewed by Myles’s childhood puppet to give us a “critical reenactment of the night Rosie mated with another pit bull, from lyrical transcriptions of their walks to Rosie’s enlightened narration from the afterlife” and we see what it means to be dedicated to a pet. I could easily relate to this and was reminded of the twelve wonderful years I shared with my Jack Russell Terrier, Sophie.

Myles explores the grieving process in its various aspects and shares what it is to lose something that one cars so deeply about. While this is a book about a dog, it is also a book about life. Myles, Rosie and the reader explore the themes of “geometry, gender, mortality, evil, aging, and plaids” together and we see a new kind of prose. We look at love and loss over and over again in an entirely new reading experience. As Myles mourns her dog here, she takes us into her thoughts and her visions as we read about the closeness a master and her dog shared as she, along with the reader, question our purpose in life and why we are here. This is more than a read, it is a total experience.

“Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz” by Fred Hersch— The Life of a Sideman

 

Hersch, Fred. “Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz”, Penguin, 2017.

The Life of a Sideman

Amos Lassen

Fred Hersch is a jazz pianist, composer, activist, and educator whose talent as a sideman (a pianist who played with the giants of the twentieth century) who defied the boundaries of bop, sweeping in elements of pop, classical, and folk to create a wholly new music. This is his memoir and it is the story of the first openly gay, HIV-positive jazz player and a detailed look into the cloistered jazz culture that made such a status both transgressive and groundbreaking. We also get a profound exploration of how Hersch’s two-month-long coma in 2007 led to his creating some of the finest, most direct, and most emotionally compelling music of his career. Here is a look at post-Stonewall New York and a “narrative of illness, recovery, music, creativity, and the glorious reward of finally becoming oneself.”

“Just Your Average Guy” by Paul Jason— Gender and Gender Equality

Jason, Paul. “Just Your Average Guy”, Beaten Track, 2016.

Gender and Gender Identity

Amos Lassen

Now that transgender people have begun to see a bit of acceptance in modern society, many are writing books about their journeys. In this memoir, we read

About the conflicts, the traumas and the breakdowns that he has experienced as a man who is closeted,, a family guy who tries to balance his straight sexuality with his trans side as a man who crossdresses. He shares his personal thoughts on crossdressing without going into self-psychoanalysis as so many others have one. This is his journey of self-discovery in which he reflects back on the lonely struggles of coming to terms with his crossdressing in a pre-internet era.

When he began dressing as a woman years ago, he felt terribly guilty about it. He was afraid all the time that someone would catch him crossdressing (wearing his mother’s clothes). When he moved out of his parents’ house, he began building his own closet, yet the fear and that guilt came with him. He went to great lengths to protect his secret and we really feel the fear that he felt. It is interesting that

there was no sexual element to his crossdressing, as well as no deep-seated gender confusion behind his identity. Crossdressing never aroused him nor did he ever want to become a woman. He was never aroused by crossdressing, and never felt the urge to become a woman. He simply takes comfort in the clothes and the cosmetics, and finds a sense of peace in his crossdressing, without ever forgetting who he is beneath it all. He writes about double standards and carefully explains that he is quite simply a man who likes to dress as a woman. He simply wants us to understand that.

When I lived in Arkansas, I went to a gay weekend in the small town of Eureka Springs and it just happened that weekend there was a meeting of straight male crossdressers. It was a fascinating experience to speak to the guys (who ranged from truck drivers to stay at home dads) and to learn their feelings on dressing as women while otherwise maintaining straight lives. Writer Jason’s views are also fascinating especially because he writes about how it was before we had the Internet and access to so much.

We do not yet live in a world where men are free to live in have peace and we can only hope that we are moving in that direction. The more that we read and understand, the more likely we will gain that new world. I admire Jason’s honesty in telling his story and I can only hope that as many people as possible will read it.

 

“Being Green: A Colorful Journey by Howard Green— A Memoir

Green, Howard. “Being Green: A Colorful Journey”, Page Publishing, 2017.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

Howard Green grew up in the 50s and it was rough. His father was abusive and his mother was insane. It was a time when there were no role models for young gay boys and homosexuality was not spoken about as freely as it is today. Being gay back then caused people to think of mental illness. Green hid from himself and from society. He married to disguise his feelings but the inner pressure got to him and he entered a mental institution for a month. It was only through his inner strength and perseverance that he was able to accept who he was and turn his life around and what a turn that was

Green became a successful film publicist in Hollywood and worked with such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, John Denver, Jack Lemmon and many others.

As you read what he writes here, it is easy to sense his confidence and his honesty. It was not easy to gain self-acceptance and how Green went about it is inspiring. Now, in his book, he looks back at his life and lets us see how he did along with the many hurts and bruises he felt. Reading this is akin to Green begins with his troubled past and childhood and he shares how his sad childhood affected his struggles in his adult life. He overcomes adversity, falls in and out of love and builds a successful business. He was able to attain his dreams while remaining humble.

As someone who is now editing his own autobiography, I can tell you that writing about oneself is not easy. Green wonderfully balances “the ups and downs, the triumphs and tragedies, the loves found and sometimes lost, with a certain wry humor and a fearlessness in not allowing himself to come across as a victim or having an inability to point the finger at himself if he somehow fell short”. He writes with total honesty and allows us into his life as if we have always been there.