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