Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Yes, You Are Trans Enough: My Transition from Self-Loathing to Self-Love” by Mia Violet— Not Fitting In

Violet, Mia. “Yes, You Are Trans Enough: My Transition from Self-Loathing to Self-Love”, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018.

Not Fitting In

Amos Lassen

Mia Violet shares her deeply personal and witty account of growing up as the kid who never fitted in. Now at age twenty-six at 26 she has come to understand that she was ‘trans enough’ to be transgender. She had never before had the language to understand why. Her childhood and early adulthood were filled with bullying, heartache and a botched coming out attempt, counseling, Gender Identity Clinics and acceptance. Here she faces the ins and outs of transitioning and she explores the major questions in the transgender debate and confronts what the media has gotten wrong. She takes us step by step through her quest to obtain personal acceptance and realness.

Mia Violet is brutally honest in this memoir and gives us a look into the lives of trans people. As she does, she corrects the mistakes and misinformation of the media. She shares her story by talking about the ups and the downs and we see that transitioning can be a life long process with many life-changing experiences that can lead up a happy existence. Violet is a good writer and knows how to use humor to tell her stories.

This is a book that cries out to be read. I was totally amazed at the amount of information here and there were moments that I was moved to tears.

“Raising Rosie: Our Story of Parenting an Intersex Child” by Stephani Lohman and Eric Lohman— The Title Says It All

Lohman, Stephani and Eric Lohman. “Raising Rosie: Our Story of Parenting an Intersex Child,”, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018.

The Title Says It All

Amos Lassen

Eric and Stephani Lohman are the proud parents of Rosie who at birth put them into a situation that they were not prepared for. Rosie was born intersex, “a term that describes people who are born with a variety of physical characteristics that do not fit neatly into traditional conceptions about male and female bodies “. The Lohmans were pressured to agree and consent to normalizing surgery on Rosie. They were concerned but were given no alternatives to the procedure. Now they have written about what they went through in a book that is both a memoir and a guidebook.

We read of their experience of refusing to have Rosie operated on and how they raised a child who is intersex. We read how they spoke about the condition to friends and family, to Rosie’s teachers and caregivers, how they plan on explaining it to Rosie when she is older. This story is powerful and uplifting and is most certainly a very important book.

We can only imagine the many decisions that the Lohmans have had to make and will continue making. They see Rosie and her body as hers and she is the only one who has control over it.

The Lohmans fought for Rosie and continue to do continue to fight for their child. They faced many doubts but they agree that they are doing the right thing. Because of their love for their child, they listen to what she says and allow her to grow. They teach her that her body is nothing to be ashamed of.

There is a great deal of emotion in the text and I found myself tearing up several times as I read. It is not only the fascinating aspects of the story that kept me reading but the prose with which it was written. I could actually feel love in each sentence.

“Jewish, Gay & Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany: Uncle Alfred Flechtheim’s Unexpected Legacies in Art, AIDS & Law” by Michael Hulton— A Look Back, A Look Forward

Hulton, Michael. “Jewish, Gay & Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany: Uncle Alfred Flechtheim’s Unexpected Legacies in Art, AIDS & Law”, Kieran Publishing, 2018.

A Look Back, A Look Forward

Amos Lassen

Michael Hulton brings together two fascinating eras and gives the reader a new perspective with which to address art and the law. As Hulton recounts the life of his great uncle and art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, a gay Jewish man in the decadent avant-garde movement during the Weimar Republic through to Nazi Germany, he gives us a look at homosexual history, how it was recognized in society from the end of the 19th century through its “coming out phase” in the 1960s.

He finds parallels between the denial of the holocaust and AIDS skepticism. Hulton is a medical doctor who was personally involved fighting for AIDS recognition and treatment. We also gain details about economic spoliation in Nazi Germany and his own pursuit of art restitution on behalf of his late uncle’s family. We get an unexpected legacy of law and art that gives Hulton the means to donate his share of his restitution inheritance to HIV research and Jewish organizations.

Hulton’s parents were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who met in wartime London. His father came from a well-off background. His aunt had married an eminent art-dealer, despite his homosexuality, which his father recalled with evident disapproval. Hulton became intrigued by this, and by his parents’ backgrounds. He graduated from Cambridge University as a doctor and settled down to a career in anesthesia in Toronto, until the eighties, when the AIDS epidemic surfaced. He found that the parallels with the Holocaust were overwhelming and began a part-time medical practice that led to AIDS activism and relocation to San Francisco. Unexpectedly, lawyers contacted him about his long dead great uncle, explaining the potential for restitution of his property lost in the Nazi persecution. Thus began a new career. The book traces the biography of his enigmatic flamboyant great uncle, and his own autobiography, with the amazing parallels of his own story and his newly discovered family history.

“In Search of Pure Lust” by Lise Weil — A Visionary’s Memoir

Weil, Lise. “In Search of Pure Lust”, She writes, 2018.

A Visionary’s Memoir

Amos Lassen

The seventies were quite a time in this country and those of us who were there remember the decade as one of pulsing sexuality. This was the world that Lise Weil came out in. She founded “Trivia: A Journal of Ideas”, a radical feminist literary and political magazine, in 1982, which she edited for nine years and brought her into the worlds of publishing, writing and activism. Her memoir is so much more than just her story; it is also a look at the 70s and 80s as experienced journalistically. After living in that world for 15 years, a friend invited her to a Zen retreat and big changes were soon underway. She began to self-examine and she learned a different approach to desire than the one she was used to. She realized that she was not only on a search of pure lust but also in search of pure love.

This is quite a candid memoir and Weill has something to say about everyone including herself. She was a visionary feminist and as we read we share that with her. We get a mixture of the personal and the political and understand that it is impossible to split those with Weill. She came into what was known as the golden age of the lesbian feminist movement, a time “when we lived the belief that we were reinventing culture and society from root to flower.”

Weil’s memoir is both a history of an age now gone and a tribute to a time when one could become someone just as she did. I found it fascinating how the intellectual and the erotic come together in the women’s movement. It was a time when women embarked on their quest for freedom from the patriarchy they felt roped them in. The revolution of that movement was shared by women who have become icons. Weil has recreated vivid scenes though which she often moves through time and space freely and we follow her easily. We also see her transformation when she eventually finds her way to meditation and self-reflection.

It was Lise Weil and all the other radical feminist writers of that time who pushed the envelope after having challenged themselves, each other and the world. The battles that were fought often brought forth freedoms including the freedoms that we have today. I feel so much wiser for having read this.

“The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness: A Memoir” by Graham Caveney— Coming of Age in the Seventies

Caveney, Graham. “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness: A Memoir”, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Coming of Age in the Seventies

Amos Lassen

Graham Caveney was raised in Lancashire, a small town in the north of England that was known for its football team, its cotton mills and its deep roots in the respectability of the middle class. He was confused by his adolescence and spent time reading Kafka and listening to the music of the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. In fact, this was how he escaped even if just in mind but when a mentor noticed this about him, everything changes.

In this memoir, Caveney looks back at that time and tries to reconcile his past and present as he looks at, the challenges and awe of adolescence, music, and literature. we see his anger and despair in his gorgeous prose and it is here that he finds some kind of redemption. Written with raw emotion, He shares the power of the arts in his memoir and he makes us sit up and listen.

At first, it seems that “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness” is a memoir of abuse by a seductive and manipulative priest and revered mentor but it is so much more than that as it gives us a look at “a working-class Irish family blindly under the spell of the Catholic Church.” It is both a heartbreaker and a brilliant look at growing up. Caveney gives us insight into the British class system, traditions, rituals, ways of life and habits of thought as he takes us slowly and surely into the world of abuse by the church. Yet we also get a tender and sensitive story of adolescent male friendship, unspoken parental love and redemptive power of music.

Caveney’s sexual abuse by his headteacher for years pushed him into an adult battle with alcoholism and depression. He waited until his parents were gone to write this. They were devout Catholics and so proud of the headteacher (himself a Catholic priest) taking what they thought was an academic interest in their son. Caveney positions his repeated sexual abuse into the landscape of an early Eighties adolescence and resists reaching easy conclusions as he attacks the contradictions of his adolescence. He is very angry yet he is also able to be humorous. Here he was— “a clever, awkward, nerdy, only child of devoutly Catholic working-class parents in Accrington, Lancashire, he was groomed by a priest at his local grammar school in Blackburn, and then sexually abused by him.”

Caveney doesn’t mince words and through his use of vocabulary brutality, we better understand what he went through. We also see the importance of music here and it is in another world; totally apart from Caveney’s experience with his abuser. On the other hand, his interest in literature was a tool his abuser used to win him over. He hits us hard through the moments of abuse, the emotional trauma and the long-standing guilt that he has had to deal with and it is impossible not to see the impact of sexual abuse.

“Because: A Lyric Memoir” by Joshua Mensch— A Memoir in Verse

Mensch, Joshua. “Because: A Lyric Memoir”, W.W. Norton, 2018.

A Memoir in Verse

Amos Lassen

Joshua Mensch gives us a devastating story written in verse about his experience with childhood sexual abuse. He explores the power of adults who prey on the children in their care. When Mensch is ten years old, he first meets Don, the charming director of a youth wilderness camp and a lifelong friend of his parents. What then follows is a harrowing account of sexual and psychological abuse, told from the evolving perspective of a child just entering adolescence. We read a series of scenes that present the changing and uncertain landscapes of childhood memory. This is a powerful story with complex characters that looks at the vulnerabilities and dangers of childhood.

We read of abuse, violations of trust and the deeply damaging effect of both of these. Here is a deeply personal poem in which Mensch uses language to tear down our defenses while at the same time he shares truth. As I read it, I moved back and forth between tears and laughter and I realized that Mensch was speaking directly to the shar3d experiences in our lives. These include “the desire to feel free, coming of age intellectually and sexually, and embarrassment at speaking of wrongful sexual encounters”. What we really get is the loss of a child and the birth of a poet—a “clear-eyed, humane look back at the horror of abuse”. We see the horrors of sex abuse through the eyes of a victim in precise, casual detail as we read the years-long, predatory relationship of a teacher and his student. We are witness to the devastation of the sexual acts themselves as well as the dance of seduction that the adult uses to lure the boy to him with promises of affection and belonging and knowledge.

“Out of Step: A Memoir” by Anthony Moll— A Sense of Self

Moll, Anthony. “Out of Step: A Memoir”, Ohio State University Press, 2018.

A Sense of Self

Amos Lassen

Anthony Moll’s story is one of a working-class bisexual boy who ran off to join the army in the midst of two wars and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era.  If you have ever wondered why a pink-haired queer would raise his hand to enlist in the military as his country is going to war, this is the book for you. If you have never wondered that, this is also the book for you. This is the book for everyone interested in having a good read and that it is set against the backdrop of hyper masculinity and sexual secrecy makes Moll’s queer coming-of-age story all the more interesting.

Today Moll is an educator and writer. In his memoir he shares his life going through his military service and he shows how the army both breaks and builds relationships, and what it was like to explore his queer identity while, at the same time, coming to terms with his role in the nation’s ugly foreign policy. Moll was a punk, nerdy, left-leaning, poor boy in Nevada who left home for the first time to become an adult. When he returned to civilian life, he was forced to address a world more complicated than he was raised to believe. His story is one of finding his identity in the face of war and changing ideals.

Moll writes with raw emotion, humor, and “unselfconscious reflection” as he shares the peace he’s made with himself, in spite of and even because of his unconventional choice to enlist. This is a personal story that is compelling and wonderfully told.

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments

A Note on the Text

Marks

What September Left

Headlines from the Reno-Gazette Journal the Morning of September 11, 2001

Wrong as Two Boys, Pt. I

Muscle Memory

Great Basin

Bachelor Enlisted Quarters, Camp Carroll, Korea

Plucky and Dumb

Wrong as Two Boys, Pt. II

Sisters in the Presence of Strangers, Pt. I

On Ritual

My Side of the Fence

Pageant

Casualties

Dogs of War

Last Year

Going Out

Sisters in the Presence of Strangers, Pt. II

Notes

“Making Oscar Wilde” by Michele Mendelssohn— The Untold Story

Mendelssohn, Michele. “Making Oscar Wilde”, Oxford University Press, 2018.

The Untold Story

Amos Lassen

Today we regard Oscar Wilde is one of the greats of English literature. His plays and stories are beloved around the world but we are all well aware tat it was not always so. He has received in death what he so desired in life and was denied him— legitimacy. “Making Oscar Wilde” is the untold story of young Wilde’s career in Victorian England and post-Civil War America. It is set on two continents and follows a larger-than-life hero on an unforgettable adventure to make his name as a serious writer.

Writer Michele Mendelssohn combines new evidence and cultural history to dramatize Wilde’s rise, fall, and resurrection. She brings to life the charming young Irishman who wanted to captivate the United States and Britain and ultimately conquered the world. Mendelssohn shows sensation-hungry Victorian journalism and popular entertainment alongside racial controversies, sex scandals, and the growth of Irish nationalism. This is revisionist history that shows how Wilde’s early life embodies the story of the Victorian era as it sluggishly moved towards modernity.

There is a lot to think about here. This biography is as complex and political as it is fascinating and devastating. It is also the study of the construction of celebrity and reputation. Through looking at Wilde’s trip to the United States in 1882, Mendelssohn shows how stereotypes of the Irish immigrant and the minstrel show influenced us and how the strategies of Wilde and his tour manager, made him a controversial star. We see how Wilde’s being Irish played into the story of race relations in post-Civil War America.

Mendelssohn in effect rewrites history by giving us a Wilde caught in a complex web of social and racial prejudices. We see how Wilde invented himself, and was invented, as an international artist-celebrity. His world was of his making even though he could not choose the conditions. Wilde believed that the best way to intensify a personality is to multiply it.” We will never see Wilde the same way again.

“On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” by Charlie Harmon— Day-to-Day with Lenny

Harmon, Charlie. “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius”, Imagine Books, 2018.

Day-to-Day with Lenny

Amos Lassen

With this year being what would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein we have had a large number of books about him being published although every year there seems to be a new “definitive” biography of the maestro. In “On the Road…”, Charlie Harmon makes no such claim as this is not a biography but rather a fascinating look at a fascinating man and it is a fun read. There is also a bonus foreword by Broadway legend Harold Prince.

I met Lenny several times while I was living in Israel and sure enough Harmon captured him beautifully and brought back memories of the penthouse at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Harmon’s job was twofold— he was hired to manage the day-to-day activities of Bernstein’s life and to make sure Bernstein met the deadline for an opera commission. That deadline was consistently being disturbed by things kept getting in the way such as “the centenary of Igor Stravinsky, intestinal parasites picked up in Mexico, teaching all summer in Los Angeles, a baker’s dozen of young men, plus depression, exhaustion, insomnia, and cut-throat games of anagrams.” That sentence alone should give you an idea of what this book is all about. It is very obviously not a doctoral dissertation but then dissertations are rarely fun to read.

Harmon saw Bernstein everyday for four years and during that time he was Bernstein’s social director, gatekeeper, valet, music copyist, and itinerant orchestra librarian. He was an active participant in his boss’s life and did everything from packing and unpacking suitcases to making sure Bernstein got to concerts on time, made plane connections and knew how to speak to luminaries. There was always music as well (as if that is not the main reason for the adoration of Bernstein).

You are probably wondering whether this book is gossip and I must say that it is, indeed. However, it is not malicious and harmful gossip, rather it is a series of anecdotes that come together to give us a great musician. Now I love gossip as much as the next person and I have my own Bernstein stories that I will never share so I must read other’s stories instead and what I find amazing is that they all sound pretty-much alike.

But it is not all gossip. Bernstein was a superstar and so we have to expect some gossip and of course, we have expected someone to tell these stories. I am glad that it is Harmon that does because his writing is so clear He was just 30 when he got the job after a three hour interview and was not sure that he was not sure he could handle the job. He felt sure he could deal with handling phone calls, mail, and appointments but the packing and unpacking many suitcases for every trip; taking notes during rehearsals and performances; and making sure that Bernstein did not generate negative publicity might have been beyond him. Nonetheless, reservations and all, in 1982, Harmon set off with Bernstein and his entourage to Indiana University for a six-week residency, during which his boss began work on an opera. This was just four years after the death of LB’s wife, Felicia, and he was demanding, impatient, and given to “bouts of fury and bratty behavior.” Harmon figured that Bernstein was still grieving over his wife’s death. Then there was also the Bernstein entourage that included a large and sometimes-divisive cast of characters. Harmon shares that LB was a cruel bully and he drove Harmon to seek help. Yet, on the other hand, Harmon admits that his intimacy with LB’s musicianship gave him “a remarkable education.” So what we have here is salacious gossip about and insight into Leonard Bernstein’s later-life artistry. Be prepared for the name-dropping.

Most of us do not realize what being Leonard Bernstein meant. His schedule was unbelievable and when Harmon was with him, LB was already in his 60s. With all that went on between the two men, Harmon held and still holds great respect and love for Bernstein. You will not find a narrative or a plot here since this book is primarily a collection of stories, I must also compliment Harmon for not mentioning the negatives he had to deal with. He really does not criticize and he had many reasons to do so. He does write about several drunken episodes and other inappropriate behavior but I had the feeling that he knew so much more and just looked the other way. As far as Bernstein’s sexual relationships with other men, there were no real secrets. As far as the Dexedrine use getting out of control, Harmon says that it seemed “like a sensible way to get everything done.” Bernstein’s affairs with various men were never serious and actually took place as “passing asides.” In the epilogue, Harmon says people have asked him if LB was gay and she says he answered ambiguously because it is a non-issue. (Do not share that with the boys in the park in Tel Aviv. I can remember all too well often hearing “Lenny’s back, you know what to do”.

Harmon gives us a man who loved music and loved teaching. He gave of himself to students and if one thing stands out about him it is that he cared. Ultimately, Harmon resigned as personal assistant yet he continued to work for Bernstein as his archivist and editing Bernstein’s scores after his death.

“Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein’ by Jamie Bernstein— An Intimate Look

Bernstein, Jamie. “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein”, Harper, 2018.

An Intimate Look at Bernstein

Amos Lassen

Jamie Bernstein is the oldest daughter of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein and she shares with us offers a rare and intimate look at her father on what would have been his 100th birthday. Bernstein was “chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a television star, a humanitarian, a friend of the powerful and influential, and the life of every party.” Leonard Bernstein was an enormous celebrity during one of the headiest periods of American cultural life. To Jamie, he was the man in the scratchy brown bathrobe who smelled of cigarettes; a jokester and compulsive teacher who enthused about Beethoven and the Beatles; the insomniac whose 4 a.m. composing breaks involved feeding the baby. He taught his daughter to love the world in all its beauty and complexity.

As we enter Bernstein’s life, we meet a fantastic set of characters: the Kennedys, Mike Nichols, John Lennon, Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Betty (Lauren) Bacall.

This is an intimate meditation on a complex and sometimes troubled man, the family he raised, and the music he composed. This is both a moving and often hilarious read. It is also a great American story about one of the greatest Americans of the modern age. Jamie Bernstein gives us a picture of the Bernstein family, especially her parents, Lenny and the much-loved Felicia and at the same time she writes about growing up as the child of a legend “—or, for that matter, as anybody’s child.” Her childhood was as fraught as it was charmed and her book is “beautifully written and unflinchingly courageous… expression of love, exasperation, amazement and forgiveness.” Bernstein brought the same magic that he brought to music to his family.

Before you sit down to red, make sure you clear the day because once you begin this book, I doubt you will be taking time to do anything else.