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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)

June 27, 2013 1 comment

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "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"Summary:
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.

Review:
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

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Photograph-style image of snowy/icy peaks and flats.Summary:
On the planet Winter, everyone is born intersex, morphing into one sex or the other during their mating cycle.  The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent a representative, Genly Ai, to make first contact.  The Known Worlds have discovered that they are all related with the same ancestors who colonized the planets years ago.  Genly Ai is at first horrified by the intersex nature of the Gethenians but slowly begins to adapt as he works the political situation on the planet to reach a state of belief in what this one man from his one ship is saying.  A state of belief that is necessary to bring this planet into the Ekumen.

Review:
I picked this up when I saw it on sale at a local brick and mortar bookstore for two reasons.  I’d never read an Ursula K. Le Guin book, which felt like sacrilege as a young feminist scifi author myself, so she was already on my radar.  But why this book?  Honestly, I liked the cover.  It’s such a pretty cover!  So many scifi/fantasy books seem to be set on a hot planet, but this is set on an icy one, and I really liked that.  So when I picked it up, I had no idea that it’s considered to be a gender theory scifi.  It’s presented as a book about a planet totally lacking in gender.  You’ll notice that in my own summary that is not how I present it.  Why not?  Frankly, a gender-free society is not what I found in this book, which was a big disappointment.

The Gethenians really are not a gender free society, and Le Guin also doesn’t present them that way.  It is definitely an intersex society, but it’s intersex people who predominantly present as male/masculine.  Now, in case you’ve never had it explained, gender is a construct and sex is your body parts.  So you could have an intersex gendered female society or an intersex gender neutral society or an intersex gender male society.  The last one is what we have in this book.  At first it seems that this might just be Genly Ai’s misperception (the off-world ethnologist).  He mentions that he can’t help seeing the Gethenians as male, although sometimes he sees more “feminine features” in them.  Perhaps.  But when the narration changes from Genly’s viewpoint to a Gethenian one, we get the exact same presentation of everyone as a gendered he.  There is no gender neutral pronoun used.  There is no perception by the Gethenians of being free of gender.  Indeed, instead of seeing themselves as gender-neutral or gender-queer, they see themselves as male until their mating cycle when some of them turn into women for a bit.  (They also stay female long enough to be pregnant).  Genly points out after a couple of years on this planet that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be around women.  Not what it’s like to be around gender constructs.  What it’s like to be around women.  This is, thus, not a gender neutral society.  It’s a society of male-identifying intersex persons who are free of sex-drive most of the time, and who sometimes grow vaginas/breasts for the purpose of reproduction but for nothing else. It is definitely interesting to see an exploration of this type of society, but it’s decidedly not an exploration of a gender-neutral society or really much gender theory at all.  It is much more an exploration of the sex drive and a world without female-identifying persons. Now I’m not saying this isn’t a valid exploration or that it’s not well-done.  I am saying that the presentation and marketing of this book gets it all wrong, which makes me wonder did Le Guin think she was exploring a gender neutral society and accidentally make an intersex male gendered one instead?  Or did the publishers completely misunderstand everything about gender and sexuality and mismarket her book as something it is not?  I have no idea, but the potential reader should know that they are not getting an exploration of gender and queerness from a famous scifi/fantasy author when they pick up this book.

Moving beyond the queer theory and mismarketing of it, how is the rest of the book?  Well, the imagining of the world is stunning and clearly presented.  The idea that planets were all settled by common ancestors and then forgotten about only to be rediscovered later (very Stargate SG1) is subtly introduced into the plot without an info-dump.  The world of Winter contains multiple cultures and peoples (something often left out in scifi).  The planet even has its own way to mark the passing of time and has evolved to handle the coldness of the planet without Le Guin just copying an Earth culture from a cold area, like the Inuit.  No, this is all a unique way of approaching the demands of the climate.  It’s also interesting to note that different skin colors are present on Winter, showing that a mixed-race group originally colonized the planet, although their bone structure and height has changed with time and evolution.  The world building is so complex that I’m having difficulty explaining just how awesomely complex it is to you, so that should say something I suppose.

The plot is very political.  Genly is here on Winter to get the planet as a whole to unify enough to become part of the Ekumen.  Thus there is typical political intrigue across a couple of nations and various amounts of striving for power.  There’s nothing incredibly unique about this element of the book but it is clearly done and is not completely predictable.

There is an interesting character development where Genly has a friendship that could take a turn for the romantic.  How that line is walked could be endlessly analyzed.  I will just say to keep it spoiler free that I appreciated what Le Guin did with the relationship, and it was a unique one to see in literature.

Overall, this is a richly imagined scifi world where the setting is much more the focus of the book than the more typical political intrigue/first contact plot.  Do not be misled by the marketing to think that this is a book exploring a world free of gender.  Rather it is a male-gendered intersex world.  Thus, it is a book that will appeal to scifi lovers who prefer world-building over plot but don’t go into it expecting a scifi exploration of gender theory.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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