Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen. And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.
I was intrigued by the concept of this book. Yes, it’s another abduction story, but wrapping it in the therapy sessions after she escapes was an idea I had not seen before. So when I saw this on sale for the kindle, I snatched it up. I’m glad I did, because this is a surprisingly edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Stevens deals with the potential issue of back-and-forth with the therapist by having Annie say in her first session that in order to feel safe talking about what happened to her, she needs the therapist to say very little back to her. It is acknowledged that the therapist says some things to Annie, but it appears that she waits to talk until the end of the session when Annie is done talking. What the therapist says isn’t recorded but Annie does sometimes respond to what she suggested in later sessions. This set-up has the potential to be clunky, but Stevens handled it quite eloquently. It always reads smoothly.
The plot itself starts out as a basic abducted/escaped one, with most of the thriller aspects of the first half of the book coming from slowly finding out everything that happened to Annie when she was abducted. The second half is where the plot really blew me away, though. The investigation into her kidnapping turns extremely exciting and terrifying. I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting most of the thrills to come from the investigation after the kidnapping and yet they did.
Annie is well-developed. Her PTSD is written with a deep understanding of it. For instance, she both needs human connection and is (understandably) terrified of it, so she pushes people away. Stevens shows Annie’s PTSD in every way, from how she talks to her therapist to how she behaves now to subtle comparisons to how she used to be before she was traumatized.
Other characters are well-rounded enough to seem like real people, including her abductor, yet it also never seems like Annie is describing them with more information than she would logically have.
I do want to take just a moment to let potential readers know that there are graphic, realistic descriptions of rape. Similarly, the end of the book may be triggering for some. I cannot say why without revealing what happens but suffice to say that if triggers are an issue for you in your recovery from trauma, you may want to wait until you are further along in your recovery and feel strong enough to handle potentially upsetting realistic descriptions of trauma.
Overall, this is a strong thriller with a creative story-telling structure. Those who enjoy abduction themed thrillers will find this one unique enough to keep them on the edge of their seat. Those with an interest in PTSD depicted in literature will find this one quite realistic and appreciate the inclusion of therapy sessions in the presentation.
5 out of 5 stars
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day. Not as much as the shining does though. His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook. He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror. But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse. When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.
Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine. She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot. They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it. They call it steam. They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra. Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard. Dan.
A sequel that takes the original entry’s theme on overcoming your family origin and ramps it up a notch, Doctor Sleep eloquently explores how our family origin, genetics, and past make us who we are today. All set against a gradually ramping up race against the clock to save a little girl from a band of murdering travelers.
The book begins with a brief visit to Danny as a kid who learns that the supernatural creatures exist in places other than the Overlook, and they are attracted to the shine. This lets the reader first get reacquainted with Danny as a child and also establishes that the supernatural are a potential problem everywhere. The book then jumps aggressively forward to Danny as a 20-something with a bad drinking problem. It’s an incredibly gritty series of scenes, and it works perfectly to make Dan a well-rounded character, instead of a perfect hero of the shine. It also reestablishes the theme from The Shining that someone isn’t a bad person just because they have flaws–whether nature or nurture-based. That theme would have been undone if Dan had turned out to be an ideal adult. It would be much easier to demonize his father and grandfather in that case, but with the way King has written Dan, it’s impossible to do that.
The way Dan overcomes both his drinking and his temper, as well as how he learns to deal with his shine, is he joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In contrast to his father who tried to quit drinking on his own, Dan attempts it in a group with accountability. This then shows how much easier it is to overcome a mental illness with community support. I appreciated seeing this. I will say, however, that some of the AA talk in the book can get a bit heavy-handed. Some chapter beginnings include quotes from the book of AA, and Dan can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with it when he relates almost everything to something he learned or heard there. AA definitely plays a vital role in many people’s recovery from addiction, and it’s wonderful to see that in a work of fiction. However, it would have been better for the reader to see the role of AA more than to hear quotes from AA so often.
The big bad in this book is a band of supernatural creatures who were once human and still look human. But they change somehow by taking steam and go on to live almost indefinitely. They can die from stupid accidents and sometimes randomly drop dead. The steam is acquired by torturing children who have the shine. The shine comes out of their bodies as steam when they are in pain. They call themselves The True Knot. This troop is a cartoonish group of evil people who try to look like a troop of retirees and some of their family traveling in a camper caravan. The leader of this group is Rose the Hat–a redheaded woman who wears a top hat at an impossibly jaunty angle. I was pleased to see Rose written quite clearly as a bisexual. Her sexuality is just an aspect of who she is, just like her red hair. Seeing a bi person as the big bad was a delight. Her bisexuality isn’t demonized. Her actions as a child killer and eater of steam are. She is a monster because of her choices, not because of who she is. I alternated between finding The True Knot frightening and too ridiculously cartoonish to be scary. I do think that was partially the point, though. You can’t discredit people who seem ridiculous as being harmless.
How Abra is found by The True Knot, and how she in turn finds Dan, makes sense within the world King has created. It doesn’t come until later in the book, though. There is quite a bit of backstory and build-up to get through first. The buildup is honestly so entertaining that it really didn’t hit me until after I finished the book how long it actually took to get to the main conflict. So it definitely works. Abra is a well-written middle school girl. King clearly did his research into what it’s like to be a middle schooler in today’s world. Additionally, the fact that Abra is so much older than Danny was in The Shining means it’s much easier for the reader to understand how the shine works and see a child, who understands at least a bit what it is, grapple with it. This made Abra, although she is a child with a shine, a different experience for the reader who already met one child with a shine in the previous book. Abra is also a well-rounded character with just the right amount of flaws and talent.
There is one reveal later in the book in relation to Abra that made me cringe a bit, since it felt a bit cliche. It takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe, and I must admit it made me roll my eyes a bit. However, it is minor enough in the context of the overall story that it didn’t ruin my experience with the book. I just wish a less cliche choice had been made.
The audiobook narrator, Will Patton, does a phenomenal job. It was truly the best audiobook narration I’ve heard yet. Every single character in a very large cast has a completely different voice and style. I never once got lost in who was speaking or what was going on. More importantly to me, as a New England girl born and raised, is that he perfectly executes the wide range of New England accents present in the book. Particularly when he narrates the character, Billy, I thought I was hearing one of my older neighbors speak. I could listen to Will Patton read a grocery list and be entertained. Absolutely get the audiobook if you can.
Overall, this sequel to The Shining successfully explores both what happened to Danny Torrance when he grew up and a different set of frightening supernatural circumstances for a new child with the shine. This time a girl. The themes of nature, nurture, your past, and overcoming them are all eloquently explored. There is a surprising amount of content about AA in the book. It could either inspire or annoy the reader, depending on their mind-set. Any GLBTQ readers looking for a bi big bad should definitely pick it up, as Rose the Hat is all that and more. Recommended to fans of Stephen King and those that enjoy a fantastical thriller drenched in Americana.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Something Spectacular: The True Story of One Rockette’s Battle with Bulimia by Greta Gleissner (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)
Greta Gleissner finally achieved her lifelong dream of making a living just from her professional dancing. She landed the prestigious job of being a Rockette in the New York City show. She hoped that this newfound stability and prestige would cure her of her bulimia. What was there to binge and purge about when she was living her dream? But her eating disorder she’d had since a young age won’t just disappear because of her newfound success. Soon, her bulimia is putting her job–and her life–at risk.
I was immediately intrigued by the elements of this eating disorder memoir that make it different from the, sadly, so many others that exist. Greta’s eating disorder peaks in her 20s, not her teens. She was a Rockette, and she’s a lesbian. An eating disorder memoir about someone in their 20s in the dance industry who is also queer was very appealing to me. What I found was a memoir that gives insight to having an eating disorder, the impact of homophobia, and an inside look at the professional dance world told in a non-linear, honest, and engaging manner.
Greta tells her memoir in the framework of a play. There are scenes, acts, overtures, etc… This lets her address the story in a non-linear way that still makes sense. The overture, for instance, shows a dramatic moment when her eating disorder was at full tilt and destroying her life. Then she backs up to the few months before she became a Rockette. The time of auditioning then being a Rockette is interspersed with flashbacks to help us better understand her life. Finally, she enters an inpatient clinic, where we get flashbacks in the context of her therapy. It’s a creative storytelling technique that brings a freshness to her memoir.
Honesty without cruelty to herself or others is a key part of her narrative voice. Greta is straightforward, sometimes grotesquely so, about her bulimia and what it does to her. The eating disorder is not glamorized. Greta takes us down into the nitty-gritty of the illness. In fact, it’s the first bulimia memoir I’ve read that was so vivid and straightforward in its depictions of what the illness is and what it does. In some ways, it made me see bulimia as a bit of a mix between an addiction and body image issues. Greta was able to show both how something that was helping you cope can spiral out of control, as well as how poor self-esteem and body image led her to purging her food.
Greta also is unafraid to tell us about what goes on inside her own mind, and where she sees herself as having mistreated people in the past. I never doubted her honesty. Similarly, although Greta’s parents definitely did some things wrong in how they raised her, Greta strives to both acknowledge the wounds and accept her parents as flawed and wounded in their own ways. You can hear her recovery in how she talks about both them and her childhood. She has clearly done the work to heal past wounds.
The memoir honestly made me grateful the dancing I did as a child never went the professional route. It’s disturbing how pervasive body policing and addictions in general are in the dance world, at least as depicted by Greta. Similarly, it eloquently demonstrates how parents’ issues get passed down to the children, and sometimes even exacerbated. Greta’s mother was a non-professional dancer who was constantly dieting. Greta also loved dancing but her mother’s body image issues got passed down to her as well. Food was never just food in her household.
One shortcoming of the memoir is that Greta never fully addresses her internalized homophobia or how she ultimately overcomes it and marries her wife. The book stops rather abruptly when Greta is leaving the halfway house she lived in right after her time in the inpatient clinic. There is an epilogue where she briefly touches on the time after the halfway house, mentions relapse, and states that she ultimately overcame her internalized homophobia and met her now wife. However, for the duration of her time in the clinic and the halfway house, she herself admits she wasn’t yet ready to address her sexuality or deal with her internalized homophobia. It was clear to me reading the book that at least part of her self-hatred that led to her bulimia was due to her issues with her sexuality. Leaving out how she dealt with that and healed felt like leaving out a huge chunk of the story I was very interested in. Perhaps it’s just too painful of a topic for her to discuss, but it did feel as if the memoir gave glimpses and teasers of it, discussing how she would only make out with women when very drunk for instance, but then the issue is never fully addressed in the memoir.
Similarly, leaving out the time after the halfway house was disappointing. I wanted to see her finish overcoming and succeeding. I wanted to hear the honesty of her relapses that she admits she had and how she overcome that. I wanted to hear about her dating and meeting her wife and embracing her sexuality. Hearing about the growth and strength past the initial part in the clinic and halfway house is just as interesting and engaging as and more inspiring than her darker times. I wish she had told that part of the story too.
The audiobook narrator, Dina Pearlman, was a great choice for the memoir. Her voice reads as gritty feminine, which is perfect for the story. She also handles some of the asides and internal diatribes present in mental illness memoirs with great finesse.
Overall, this is a unique entry in the eating disorder memoir canon. It gives the nitty gritty details of bulimia from the perspective of a lesbian suffering from homophobia within the framework of the dance world. Those who might be triggered should be aware that specific height and weight numbers are given, as well as details on binge foods and purging episodes. It also, unfortunately, doesn’t fully address how the author healed from the wounds of homophobia. However, her voice as a queer person is definitely present in the memoir. Recommended to those with an interest in bulimia in adults, in the dance world, or among GLBTQ people.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD. Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD. The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives. The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like. The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults. The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism. Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.
It’s not easy to find a book addressing healing from abuse that manages to walk the fine line of understanding for all involved and absolute condemnation of the abusive actions and that simultaneously encourages agency and healing without making the survivor become stuck in a victim’s mentality. Dr. McBride strikes this balance eloquently.
The three sections of the book work perfectly for guiding the reader through understanding precisely what happened in her childhood, how it impacts her adulthood, and how to regain agency of herself and her life. NPD is not a mental illness that is well-understood or recognized. The first section thus must explain NPD and how NPD leads to abusive mothering without demonizing the mother suffering from NPD. It is incredibly difficult not to demonize people with NPD. People with NPD tend to be self-centered, manipulative, and resistant to treatment. McBride manages to simultaneously describe the person with NPD in a sympathetic light and condemn their behavior. This section also serves to provide an aha moment for the reader. It will immediately be clear if your mother has/had NPD or not, and if she does/did, it will shine a light on the daughter’s childhood, proving she is not crazy or ungrateful. Some of the signs of a mother with NPD include: the mother demanding praise for everything she’s ever done for the daughter, a lack of compassion or empathy for the daughter, approval for who the mother wants the daughter to be instead of who she is, the mother perceives of the daughter as a threat, the mother is jealous of the daughter for various reasons, the mother is overly critical or judgmental, the mother uses the daughter as a scapegoat for her bad feelings, the mother treats the daughter like a friend, no boundaries or privacy, the mother involves the daughter prematurely in the adult world, and more.
This section also explains why the book is only about daughters of mothers with NPD and not for her sons as well.
A mother, however, is her daughter’s primary role model for developing as an individual, lover, wife, mother, and friend, and aspects of maternal narcissism tend to damage daughters in particularly insidious ways. Because the mother-daughter dynamic is distinctive, the daughter of a narcissistic mother faces unique struggles that her brothers don’t share….A narcissistic mother sees her daughter, more than her son, as a reflection and extension of herself rather than as a separate person with her own identity. She puts pressure on her daughter to act and react to the world and her surroundings in the exact manner that Mom would, rather than in a way that feels right for the daughter. (6-7)
The next section looks at what impact being raised by a mother with NPD has on the daughter’s adult life. McBride factually explains where some of the daughter’s less healthy behaviors and thought processes may come from without falling into the trap many childhood healing books fall into of repeatedly directing negative energy toward the parent. Some of the issues that may be present in an adult daughter raised by a mother with NPD include: high-achieving or self-sabotaging or waffling between the two, difficulty understanding and processing feelings, inappropriate love relationships that are dependent or codependent or giving up on relationships entirely, fear of becoming a mother herself, unconsciously mimicking her mother’s parenting with her own children or doing the exact opposite of what her mother did.
The final section is all about the daughter healing, overcoming, and taking agency for herself. McBride encourages therapy, but also offers at-home tips and exercises for those who cannot afford it. An example of one of these is the “internal mother” exercise. This exercise involves many steps, but it essentially seeks to replace the internal negative messages the daughter has from her own mother with more positive messages that are the type the daughter wanted from her real mother. The daughter grieves the mother she never got to have and learns to parent herself. Much of the work in this section involves grieving the mother and childhood the daughter never got to have, accepting it for what it is, giving herself the encouragement and mothering she needs, learning to set boundaries, and the daughter coming to be in charge of her own life. The exercises are not simple and may seem a bit overwhelming to the reader at first, but they do serve to mimic the real therapy process, encouraging introspection, journaling, grieving, and behavioral changes.
One thing I really appreciate about McBride’s approach is how she handles the adult relationship between daughter and mother. She 100% encourages the daughter to make the choice that is right for her own emotional health and that simultaneously does not expect miracles from her mother. Since most people with NPD don’t receive successful treatment, McBride carefully admonishes the daughter to base her decision based on her mother’s proven behavior. She encourages setting clear boundaries, and individuating oneself from mother. But she also acknowledges that having a relationship at all with a mother with severe NPD might not be possible.
We have to acknowledge that a narcissistic mother may be too toxic to be around. In many situations, daughters have to make the choice to disconnect completely from their mothers because the toxicity damages their emotional well-being. While others around you may not understand it, this is a decision that you get to make for your own mental health. (184)
Refusing to give one-size-fits-all advice on the relationship between a narcissistic mother and her adult daughter is just one example of the many positives of this book. McBride offers insight, advice, and isn’t afraid to say what might be painful to hear. She has done an excellent job putting the therapy process into book format, as much as possible.
Overall, this book tackles an incredibly difficult topic in an even-handed, clear manner. Its focus on just daughters of mothers with NPD allows Dr. McBride to give targeted examples and advice to the reader. It never excuses the mother’s behavior, firmly condemning it, but still exhibits compassion for the mother suffering from NPD. Any woman who thinks she may have been raised by a woman with NPD should read this book and see if any of it rings true for her. Additionally recommended to anyone interested in how NPD impacts parenting and the next generation.
5 out of 5 stars
Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist. She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her. Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body. It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned. From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed. And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one! You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible. I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it. A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.
Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica. The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away. This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day. And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective. If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be. She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is. Flaws and all. One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie. I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie. Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is. It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.
After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically. Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world. Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide. A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others. It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us). This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.
The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology. Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion. Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop. It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives. We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology. I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology. Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate. Everyone has been in both male and female bodies. Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting. It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside. What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult. I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people. You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.
Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain. Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed. It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details. I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness. Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.
It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago. This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book. I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness. Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community. It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving. In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge. I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness. However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses. One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses. In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.
The narration of the audiobook was perfect. Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter. Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator. She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.
I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book. It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one. It’s amazing. It’s unique. It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly. I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology. I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.
5 out of 5 stars