Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“Lie With Me” by Philippe Besson— An Affair Between Two Boys


Besson, Philippe. “Lie With Me”, (translated by Molly Ringwald), Scribner’s, 2019.

An Affair Between Two Boys

Amos Lassen

Philippe Besson’s bestselling French novel has been called the French “Brokeback Mountain” and is about an affair between two teenage boys in 1984 France. It has beautifully and lyrically translated by actress/writer Molly Ringwald. 

Right outside of a hotel in Bordeaux Philippe comes upon
a young man who strongly resembles his first love. It was a relationship that he’s never forgotten, a hidden affair with a handsome boy named Thomas during their last year of high school. Without ever acknowledging they know each other in the halls or when not together, they manage to meet in secret as they make passionate love and are part of an affair that is world-altering. This is a highly erotic coming-of-age story that is tender, moving and very emotional.

Set in 1984 Bordeaux, the teens fall in love in the shadows, “leaving one of them to reflect on the relationship many years later.” As they found each other, they also found that life can destroy as well as be lived. Reading this is like dreaming as balance and despair knock up against each other. Philippe Besson not only gives us the boys’ story but also their world as they deal with longing, love, and letting go.” I am stunned by the beauty of the prose especially since it is in translation and I sensed from the very beginning that this is not a book that leaves you after you close the covers.

As we read, we cannot help but realize the damage that hatred can do. While there was no hate crime or bullying both of the young men here were victims of a persistent kind of intolerance that relegated them and their love to a clandestine relationship. They should’ve been allowed the freedom to love and be loved without the need for courage or bravery to do so. This is story of how bigotry affected that freedom and fear of reprisal stole their innocence.

The story comes to us in three parts, making it difficult to avoid the inclusion of later events and making the specifics of dialogue a bit hazy and giving the reader a non-linear retelling but one that is emotive nonetheless. The first part takes place in 1984 when they are seniors in high school and this is most of the story. The second part takes place in 2007 when during an interview Philippe sees a boy outside a hotel that’s the spitting image of Thomas, a boy who turns out to be his son. The events of 2016 conclude the story.

Philippe is inquisitive, precocious and stunned when Thomas approaches him the first time. Thomas is popular but quiet and seems to be resigned to a life he knows won’t ever bring him happiness. At 17 he’s already used secrecy and deception as his norm and at 18 those  very same habits will forever taint them both. During their time together they are able to steal a few moments of bliss and writer Philippe Besson captures the intensity of his feelings for Thomas as well as the optimism and folly of youth. I truly felt not only his physical desire for him but his steadfast belief that they would find a way to carve out a future together, despite evidence to the contrary. We see that prejudice robbed these two boys of a life together, a life they deserved and left in its place a life lived inauthentically for one and the other who struggles to give his heart to another after having it broken by his first love. The story is timeless as is the pain that accompanies it.

Besson wonderfully captures all of the fear and freedom of young desire. His prose gets right to the heart of what it means to have to fall in love in secret. Prepare yourself for tears and a wonderful reading experience.

“A Body in the O: Performances and Stories” by Tim Miller— Issues of Gender, Immigration, Homophobia and Censorship

Miller, Tim. “A Body in the O: Performances and Stories”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2019.

Issues of Gender, Immigration, Homophobia and Censorship

Amos Lassen

Tim Miller is an internationally acclaimed performance artist and gay rights activist. He has performed in such places as the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is also the author of “Shirts & Skin, Body Blows: Six Performances”, and “1001 Beds: Performances, Essays, and Travels” both of which are reviewed elsewhere on this website.

He has sold out shows in which he addresses issues of gender, immigration, homophobia, and censorship and is  one of the “NEA Four,” who successfully sued the federal government for violating their First Amendment rights when their funding was rescinded in the early 1990s. Miller has always played an important role in defending queer artistic expression on stage through his autobiographical explorations into identity, politics, and art through the lens of his own experiences. These experiences lead to visceral, humorous, and poignant performances. His activism and experiences are here in this newest collection of performance scripts and writings and they represent the culmination of the many struggles for rights and equality that Miller has documented, and performed, over the course of his career. This book is an important addition to Miller’s existing body of work.

By demystifying queer experience, Miller continues the unabashed and purposeful sex-positive, embodied conversational style of protest and encounters with power. His work is driven by his own life experiences and does so much more than attempt a realist account of the events he speaks to since it also includes surreal, dream-inspired evocations of fear and possibility. Miller led the way for others to follow with his daring imagination and vision.

“Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography” by Laurence Benaim— A Creative Genius

Benaim, Laurence. “Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography”, Rizzoli,  2019

A Creative Genius

Amos Lassen

Laurence Benaim brings us the definitive portrait of Yves Saint Laurent, the creative genius who transformed fashion is the first major English-language biography of Yves Saint Laurent since his death in 2008 and it features exclusive interviews of those who knew him best, by one of the most respected names in French fashion.
Saint Laurent’s impact on fashion is legendary, yet he remains an enigmatic and compelling figure.

Benaim traces the development of Saint Laurent’s visionary work through his charmed and tumultuous life. Benaim is himself a respected fashion writer. This biography has just been translated and updates since the original appeared. It looks at how this unassuming prodigy became a legendary, celebrated public icon who changed the face of fashion, style, and celebrity.

We hear from Saint Laurent’s partner Pierre Bergé to family members, his atelier staff, and muses such as Catherine Deneueve, LouLou de la Falaise, and Paloma Picasso. We read of Saint Laurent’s talent in Oran and his star trajectory, from leading the House of Dior at the age of twenty-one to his fall from grace and subsequent forging with Pierre Bergé, fashion’s most enduring and successful professional partnership. Saint Laurent partied with Warhol in New York and relaxed with the jet set in his Marrakesh hideaway. Benaïm shows us both the glittering world of haute couture and the business empire that revolutionized the fashion industry. Filled with wonderful details and gorgeous prose this is the book about Saint Laurent to read.

“A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” by Noam Sienna— An Infinite Rainbow

Sienna, Noam. “A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969”, Print-O-Craft, 2019.

An Infinite Rainbow

Amos Lassen

I first heard of “A Rainbow Thread” via a friend who told me he had just ordered a copy and while my friend gave me no details aside from this book Jewish and gay, I went ahead and wrote to the publisher to get a review copy. When the book arrived I was first astounded by the 425 page length and then by the tremendous amount of research that it must have taken to compile such a book. Writer Noam Sienna tells us that the book maintains a balancing act between “LGBTQ Jewish history as an infinite rainbow, with no beginning or end, and with no clear boundaries between its different facets” (great analogy and the fact that there is “a thread: a continuity that links our lives, our joys, and our struggles today to an ancestral heritage in the past and to our inheritors in the future.” Sienna does not see history as a march toward a universal goal. Rather he sees it as processes that are made up of  connections, interruptions, and innovations. While we cannot push who we are on those who came before us but we also cannot ignore their history that has become some of our behaviors and shared practices; traditions  that take stories to other places and times, and that are often relevant in our lives today.

I can imagine Sienna going through the history of the Jews looking for examples to back his thesis and to find so much (that many of us never thought about— my adult life has been consumed by my wanting to find a way to preserve the LGBT Jewish literary canon so that the wealth of information it holds can be shared by everyone. Yet with all the work that I have done in the past, I did not come across many of the selections in this anthology.

Sienna explains how to encounter primary historical documents as a way of imagining new futures. He uses classical midrashim as two texts and lets us reread them through queer eyes thus expanding our ideas on what Jewishness is today. We see that Jewish sexuality and gender in practice was not as restricted by boundaries of gender, sex, nationality, or religion as we might have thought. Sienna is not pushing any kind of gay agenda but rather pointing out that we must rethink Judaism. In doing so, we question assumptions about how Jews have understood sexuality and gender throughout our long history as a people during which Jewish identity is often imagined as existing in spite of, or in opposition to,—the world of Jewish tradition. We are encouraged to read and reread, reimagine and revise what today’s Judaism can mean. process of constantly rereading, reimagining, and revising our understanding of what Judaism has meant, and what it can mean for us today.

What is contained in the book spans two millennia, five continents and translations from fifteen different languages. “A Rainbow Thread” is, in effect, queer Jewish history that includes poetry, drama, commentary, law and memoir. Like so many others, I have doubted that there is a place for me in Judaism and I thought I was forging a new path when I remain determined to be an active practicing Jew. I have since learned differently and now have a way to prove it— with this book. I am overwhelmed by the amount of information in “A Rainbow Thread” and I find myself lingering over each text included here and wondering why I had never read it before. We are done sitting on Judaism’s margins and we can now pitch our tents where we want. It may not be easy to do so but remember that it was once impossible to do so. I am in awe of what I see here and can’t wait to use it as a teaching tool.

“LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia” edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts— A Nice Surprise

Mann, Jeff and Julia Watts, editors. “LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia”, West Virginia University Press, 2019.

A Nice Surprise

Amos Lassen

Those of us who live in urban centers really are not aware of the LGBTQ population in non-urban areas and here specifically, I mean Appalachia. Jeff Mann and Julia Watts have done a wonderful job collecting and editing this collection, the first of its kind of fiction and poetry from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer authors from Appalachia. From what I understand, literature from Appalachia Like much Appalachian literature, is often filled with an attachment to family and the mountain landscape while balancing queer and Appalachian, a complicated undertaking and filled with conflict. The pieces we read here face these problems head on and deal with the intersections of place, family, sexuality, gender, and religion with which LGBTQ Appalachians often struggle.

Included are works by established writers whose names may surprise you— Dorothy Allison, Silas House, Ann Pancake, Fenton Johnson, and Nickole Brown and emerging writers like Savannah Sipple, Rahul Mehta, Mesha Maren, and Jonathan Corcoran. Some of what we have here is previously published while the rest is original and appearing in print for the first time. This collection is a celebration of a literary canon made up of writers who give voice to what it means to be Appalachian and LGBTQ.

The book also contains a wonderful selected bibliography of same-sex desire in Appalachian literature and this alone makes the book worthwhile but there is so much more. We have the wonderful diversity of multigenerational voices, styles, and attitudes along with the theme of loyalty to place alongside of queer identity as represented in poetry and fiction. Here is the queer ecology of Appalachia and the voices that exist in relation to the landscape and the cultural imagination of the place. We see the paradox of both belonging (being from and of a place) and nearly total alienation.

Here is the Table of Contents:



Editor’s Notes

Dorothy Allison          

            Roberts Gas & Dairy   



            Domestic Life 

Lisa Alther      

            Swan Song     

Maggie Anderson       

            Anything You Want, You Got It         


            Cleaning the Guns     

            In Real Life     

            My Father and Ezra Pound     

Nickole Brown

            My Book, in Birds      

            To My Grandmother’s Ghost,

            An Invitation for My Grandmother   

            Ten Questions You’re Afraid to Ask, Answered        

Jonathan Corcoran     

            The Rope Swing         

doris diosa davenport           

            verb my noun: a poem cycle 

            After the Villagers Go Home: An Allegory     

            Halloween 2011         

            Halloween 2017         

            for Cheryl D my first lover, 41 years later     

            Three days after the 2017 Solar Eclipse        

            Sept. 1  Invocation     

            a conversation with an old friend     

            Upon realizing

            “The Black Atlantic”   

Victor Depta   

            The Desmodontidae  

Silas House    

            How To Be Beautiful  

Fenton Johnson          

            Bad Habits     

Charles Lloyd  


Jeff Mann       

            Not for Long   

            Training the Enemy    

            Yellow-eye Beans      

            The Gay Redneck Devours Draper Mercantile          

            Three Crosses


Mesha Maren


Kelly McQuain

            Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers 



            Monkey Orchid          

            Alien Boy        



Rahul Mehta  

            A Better Life               

Ann Pancake  


Carter Sickels 


Savannah Sipple        

            WWJD / about love    

            WWJD / about letting go       

            Jesus and I Went to the Wal-Mart    


            Pork Belly       

            A List of Times I Thought I Was Gay  

            Jesus Signs Me Up For a Dating App  

Anita Skeen    

            Double Valentine       

            How Bodies Fit           


            Something You Should Know

            The Clover Tree         

            The Quilt: 25 April 1993         

            While You Sleep         

Aaron Smith   


            There’s still one story


Julia Watts     

            Handling Dynamite    

“Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics” by Brett Krutzsch— Religion and Secular Activism

Krutzsch, Brett. “Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics”,  Oxford University Press, 2019.

Religion and Secular Activism

Amos Lassen

Brett Krutzsch’s “Dying to Be Normal” is the first book to show how memorialization influenced national debates over LGBT rights. It demonstrates how religion shaped secular gay activism and the process of gay assimilation in the United States and it addresses the activism surrounding Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Tyler Clementi, Brandon Teena, the It Gets Better Project, the Pulse Nightclub Massacre, and more

Krutzsch’s analysis demonstrates the tactics and the consequences of assimilationist gay politics and these include “veneration of white, cisgender gay men through sanitized, semi-fictionalized, and Christianized versions of their lives that erase their own realities and those of their communities.” We are reminded that there have always been other options, and we are challenged to reject assimilationist tactics that are ultimately rooted in exclusion.”

We see how religious and secular narratives work in history, often in unexpected ways in order to make some gays appear normal, “a process that all too often transubstantiates complicated queer lives into suitable Christian narratives, while leaving others, especially queer people of color, outside the circuit of memory.” Krutzsch reveals how we talk about religion and sexuality in American politics.”  We see here that martyrdom and memorialization are central to gay activism in the United States. Even though religiosity and sexuality are often thought to be opposing forces, the book shows that religion and sex are powerfully enmeshed with each other. Christian nationalism and Protestant secularism might form today’s parameters of political possibility, but Krutzsch provides alternative analysis that opens toward a diverse sexual democracy.

On October 14, 1998, more than five thousand people gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to mourn the death of Matthew Shepard, had been murdered in Wyoming eight days earlier. Politicians and celebrities addressed the crowd and the televised national audience to share their grief with the country. Before this there we had never had a gay citizen’s murder to bring about such tremendous outrage or concern from straight Americans. 
In this book Brett Krutzsch argues that gay activists memorialized people like Shepard as part of a political strategy to present gays as similar to the country’s dominant class of white, straight Christians. Through an examination of publicly mourned gay deaths, Krutzsch goes against the common perception that LGBT politics and religion have been oppositional and reveals how gay activists have used religion to strengthen the argument that gays are essentially the same as straights, and therefore they deserve equal rights. 

Krutzsch’s analysis also looks to the  memorialization of Harvey Milk, Tyler Clementi, Brandon Teena, and F. C. Martinez, and to campaigns like the It Gets Better Project, and national tragedies like the Pulse nightclub shooting to illustrate how activists have used prominent deaths to win acceptance, influence political debates over LGBT rights, and encourage assimilation. We see  how, in the fight for greater social inclusion, activists relied on Christian values and rhetoric to portray gays as upstanding Americans. Krutzsch demonstrates that gay activists reinforced a white Protestant vision of acceptable American citizenship that often excluded people of color, gender-variant individuals, non-Christians, and those who did not hold to Protestant Christianity’s sexual standards.

Table of Contents:

List of illustrations

Introduction: Memorialization, Gay Assimilation, and American Religion
Chapter One: The “Gay M.L.K.”: Harvey Milk
Chapter Two: The “Crucifixion” of “Anyone’s Gay Son”: Matthew Shepard
Chapter Three: The “Epidemic of Bullying and Gay Teen Suicides”: Tyler Clementi and It Gets Better
Chapter Four: “The Place Where Two Discriminations Meet”: Race, Gender, and the Threat of Violence
Epilogue: The Pulse Nightclub Massacre and the Queer Potential of Memorialization

Selected Bibliography

“Real Queer America” by Samantha Allen— Queer in Red States

Allen, Samantha. “Real Queer America”,  Little Brown, 2019.

Queer in Red States

Amos Lassen

Samantha Allen takes us on a  transgender reporter’s narrative tour through the queer communities sprouting up in red states that are very real and vibrant and give us “a vision of a stronger, more humane America.” Allen’s purpose is to show us how members of the LGBTQ community live in seemingly LGBTQ unfriendly areas. She visits LGBTQ hot spots and interviews the people who run them asking them what drives them, why they stay, etc.

We go to Provo Utah, Texas, Bloomington Indiana, Johnson City Tennessee, Jackson Mississippi, and Atlanta Georgia. Samantha wants to prove that middle America is not just as queer, but queerer, than those havens we are aware of. Samantha is able to make what are statistics and facts sound interesting by using people to illustrate them and the journey we take with her is not only engrossing but fun and educative and through using the voice of her road brother Billy and everyone they meet along the way, we really see that all of America has queer people.

We have blended interviews and research together with personal experience that come together to show what it is to be LGBTQ in  ‘red’ states. Samantha makes a compelling case for the idea that America is incredibly queer, and that queerness is more active and even more potent, more inclusive, and more important in the south and Midwest. She is none too fond of those traditionally queer-friendly places like New York and San Francisco and she shares her reasons for the same. She loves the south and the people she interviews love it too, fiercely. I can tell you as someone born and raised in the south that there is a certain mystique that is as enchanting as it is bigoted. But then I also loved for  7 years in Arkansas and would not wish that on anyone. I now call Boston home  and love it but must admit I long for the south. We also see that many queer people have straight friends who have no problems with sexuality or lifestyle.

Allen doesn’t ignore the very real discrimination and lack of rights faced by LGBTQ people in these states. She includes these realities, but makes the important point that places known for being queer friendly can be just as discriminatory. It is basically the sense of community and family among all the people of the queer community that are the heart of the story and the point of interest.  The media has basically focused on the more liberal coastal enclaves yet we know that LGBTQ people have created homes for themselves everywhere, even in seemingly hostile places. To prove this, we have this fun book. Even though I was forced to do so myself as a result of Hurricane Katrina, I’ve often wondered why anyone who is gay would want to live in a place that refuses to recognize their basic humanity. So, as you can imagine, there are surprises here and we also feel the frustrations of those living in places where open identification as LGBTQ can be a problem (like Pine Bluff, Arkansas or Poplarville, Mississippi).

By creating communities in areas hostile to their rights, the LGBTQ communities in red states are providing much-needed visibility to the LGBTQ community as a whole. As we know regarding any prejudice, the cure is exposure to people who are part of these marginalized groups,. In that way, those with privilege and power learn that the people they fear are really just like them. The communities that we read about here are very strong and committed to their way of life. In loving where they live, they make these places better for everyone. so however little some of those places might want to acknowledge it, they are the richer for the presence of their LGBTQ communities. I have seen so much change for our community that sometimes I want to pinch myself to believe it is important to acknowledge that we are far from done yet.

“Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri” by Jamie James— Artistic Renegades and an Erotic Refuge

James, Jamie. “Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Artistic Renegades and an  Erotic Refuge

Amos Lassen

There was a time when the Isle of Capri was legendary and a destination of great fun and secrecy. It was once the destination for “artistic renegades and a place of erotic refuge.” Capri is isolated and arrestingly beautiful, a perfect place for artists and writers who want to get away from the strictures of conventional society beginning from the time of Augustus, who bought the island in 29 BC after defeating Antony and Cleopatra, to the early twentieth century, when the poet and novelist Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen was in exile there after being charged with corrupting minors, to the 1960s, when Truman Capote spent some time on the island. Other visitors include the Marquis de Sade, Goethe, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Compton Mackenzie, Rilke, Lenin, and Gorky, and many others.

Grounded in a deep intimacy with Capri and full of captivating anecdotes, Jamie James’s “Pagan Light” is the story of how Capri, a tiny island, became a wildly permissive haven for people—queer, criminal, sick, marginalized, and simply crazy who had nowhere else to go. He has wonderful stories as well as shares his own deep intimacy with the island. James combines travelogue, history and literary analysis as he takes us through the lives of foreigners who have, over the centuries gone to Capri to find sexual and artistic freedom. It can also be a literary companion for those visiting the island and a peek into the lives of some who have been but are no longer here.

James writes of  wild parties, ritual nudity, and occasional gunplay, as well as a travelogue of the modern-day island. This is a sensitive, comic, engrossing history about creative people and erotic outlaws who search for  a home that is physical and spiritual. I have never been to Capri but reading this made me feel like I was there.

James gives us  “the intersection of history, art, literature, and place” and a wonderful place for nonconformists. As I read I thought of Noel Coward’s iconic role as “The Witch of Capri” in Tennessee William’s film “Boom” that was based on his play, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”.

This is a literary biography of the island that is built on literature. Since Tiberius moved there from Rome in AD 26, Capri has been a symbol of freedom, “a sexual utopia, a rock of exiles, and a laboratory of the avant-garde.” James describes Capri as four miles of rock as a Mediterranean Las Vegas where rules do not apply. He also resurrects the spirit, and the spirits, of Capri: Homer, Norman Douglas, Romaine Brooks, Axel Munthe, Compton Mackenzie, Gorky, Neruda, and, most memorably for me, the life and work of Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen. We learn  how Capri’s literary community created a genre of its own in fictional biographies and biographical fictions. It is well written and quite amazing to read about the  characters who lived there when it was a paradise for people who political and/or sexual outcasts.

I recently read some rather negative reviews of the book and cannot help but wonder if they read the same book that I did. In fact, I got little insight as to whether they read the book at all.

“Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement” by David K. Johnson— From Initiation to Permanence

Johnson, David K. “Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement”, Columbia University Press, 2019.

From Initiation to Permanence

Amos Lassen

A new type of publication appeared on newsstands in 1951. The physique magazine produced by and for gay men came out of the publishing closet. For many gay men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these magazines and their images and illustrations of nearly naked men, as well as articles, letters from readers, and advertisements, was a way of entering the gay world; a kind of initiation. The publishers behind these magazines were part of a wider world of “physique entrepreneurs”: men and women who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogs, pen-pal services, book clubs, and general advertising for gay audiences. Businesses such as these have been seen as peripheral to the gay political movement. David K. Johnson here shows how gay commerce was not a byproduct but rather an important catalyst for the gay rights movement.

Johnson gives us a look into the lives of physique entrepreneurs and their customers, and by presenting many illustrations, the book looks at the connections—and tensions between the market and the movement. Magazine circulation rates were many times higher than the openly political “homophile” magazines. Physique magazines were the largest gay media outlets of their time. This network of producers and consumers helped foster a gay community and turn over censorship laws and pave the way for free and open expression. Physique entrepreneurs were at the center of legal struggles, especially against the U.S. Post Office and this includes the court victory that allowed full-frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism. The book reconceives the history of the gay rights movement and shows how consumer culture helped create community and a place for resistance.

Johnson did fine and deep research to bring this book to light and we get  look at pre-Stonewall gay male activism through a bold group of physique photographers, magazine publishers, and booksellers who were much more militant than the Mattachine Society and who built a far larger constituency through their explicit portrayal and defense of homoerotic desire. There are many surprises here.

By asserting their right to sell and buy and read what the law tried to ban, these publishers first challenged repression, then fostered gay community, and ultimately helped to build a movement. Below is the Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations
1. Emerging from the Muscle Magazines: Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild
2. Selling Gay Books: Donald Webster Cory’s “Business with a Conscience”
3. The Grecian Guild: Imagining a Gay Past, and Future
4. “I Want a Pen Pal!”: Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and the Adonis Male Club
5. Defending a Naked Boy: Lynn Womack at the Supreme Court
6. Consolidating the Market: DSI of Minneapolis
7. The Physique Legacy

“Foucault in California: [A True Story―Wherein the Great French Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death]” by Simeon Wade— A Well-Remembered Weekend

Wade, Simeon. “Foucault in California: [A True Story―Wherein the Great French Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death]”, Heyday, 2019.

A Well-Remembered Weekend

Amos Lassen

When I was a graduate student many years ago, I was lucky enough to meet and speak with Michel Foucault and we discussed at length his concept of gay consciousness. I had a great deal of trouble understanding the difference between gay consciousness and any other consciousness and while I understand it better now, I see no reason to have the concept of consciousness dependent on sexuality but then Foucault was a great and controversial philosopher and I am just controversial.

Stuart Elden said that “Foucault once declared that he had written nothing but fictions, and here we have a stylized account of a short moment in his life, written with the verve of a novel.” David Macey in “The Lives of Michel Foucault” tells us that Foucault spoke “nostalgically…of ‘an unforgettable evening on LSD, in carefully prepared doses, in the desert night, with delicious music, and] nice people’.” It was  when Foucault came to America in 1975 and spent spent Memorial Day weekend in Southern California at the invitation of Simeon Wade. He had come to lecture at the Claremont Graduate School where Wade was an assistant professor. What we now know is that the reason Foucault came to America and specifically to California was to explore what he called the Valley of Death. Wade and his partner, Michael Stoneman and Foucault experimented with psychotropic drugs for the first time and by the following morning he was crying and proclaiming that he knew truth. 

 “Foucault in California” is Wade’s firsthand account of that long weekend. It is often a very funny and endearing book and it captures so much of what so many expected to hear one day but never did. We quickly see here that Foucault was both an erudite and a subversive character and he can be humble but at his own expense. This book showcases Foucault’s humor and his subversiveness. He quickly made his way into subversive circles of the Claremont intelligentsia as well as parties in Wade’s bungalow, intensive dialogues between Foucault and his disciples at a Taoist utopia in the Angeles Forest and there was the synesthetic acid trip in Death Valley, performed while listening to the strains of Bach and Stockhausen. He was searching for higher consciousness, part orgiastic. Here is the story of a young man’s  friendship with one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers.

Michel Foucault was invited to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975. During his visit, Simeon Wade, who assisted and accompanied Foucault, persuaded him to join him and his partner, Michael Stoneman, on a trip to Death Valley and Zabriskie Point, where Foucault took LSD for the first time. Wade wrote about this experience in his unpublished manuscript “Foucault in California”. When German artist Olaf Nicolai asked to use excerpts from the text for an artist’s publication, he was allowed a maximum of 250 words. He selected 205 words from throughout the manuscript and this abbreviated text is “a trip”.

While in California that summer, Foucault experimented with psychedelic drugs for the first time. This is Simon Wade’s firsthand account of that long weekend. It was part search for higher consciousness and part bacchanal. It is also the beginning of Wade’s friendship with Foucault.