A Queer and Pleasant Danger
A memoir by Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein made me cry. Lest you think this is some tale of high school woe or love gone wrong, think again. I was reading the final pages of Bornstein’s new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger. In it, Bornstein details her life from male to female, Scientologist to excommunicated member. The epilogue contains a letter that begins, “Hello Sweetie;” it’s addressed to Bornstein’s daughter Jessica, who is forbidden to have any contact with her.
It’s heartbreaking, in the way that all tragedies are, and familiar as well. Even those readers who haven’t experienced this level of loss should empathize with Bornstein’s raw expression of love, regret, and kindness toward the child she hasn’t known for over thirty years.
This would be a fascinating book if it only dealt with Scientology, a philosophy that appeals to Bornstein while she’s still Al, a Jewish man who wants to be a woman. But this personal account delves into gender identity, familial ties, and sadomasochism with equal relish. When the author stumbles into a Scientology meeting during a spiritual road trip, she knows she’s found the answer to all her problems.
“My gender was a ship without sails, tempest-tossed. I needed an anchor. I needed a life preserver. Here’s what the Church of Scientology threw me: They said I’m not my body, and I’m not even my mind. They told me that I am a spiritual being called a thetan—from the Greek letter theta, which we were told meant perfect thought. Male and female is for bodies, they told me. Thetans have no gender,” writes Bornstein.
Voila! Bornstein has arrived!
Her descriptions of life aboard L. Ron Hubbard’s private yacht, the Apollo, are among the book’s most entertaining. In the 1970s, the Sea Organization is Scientology’s highest level of management, and Bornstein signs a contract for one billion years. It’s a zany world, with statistics kept on production and how well members are “helping Ron and the Sea Org take over the planet.”
Along the way, Al gets married, has a child, gets divorced, married again, and then leaves the Church of Scientology in disgrace (I won’t spoil all your fun by giving you the juicy details!). Once she’s out, Bornstein begins to really explore life as a woman, cross-dressing in secret and trying out her girl name—Katherine. Oh, and she gets married one more time, because she doesn’t want to be a “fucking freak.”
As it turns out, the third time pretending to be a heterosexual man is not the charm, and Al finally decides, after therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, and her father’s death, to become Kate permanently.
She’ll live as a female for a year, learn to embrace being a lesbian, and struggle through transitioning at her corporate sales job.
By the time she gets genital-reassignment surgery, she’s already had enough adventures for one lifetime. But of course there are plenty more tantalizing personal tidbits to entertain readers, including a graphic detailing of SM play and Bornstein’s exploration of playwriting and storytelling.
“When you write a play, you’re casting a spell,” she explains. “You imagine your characters, you write them down, then you watch them come to life. And there’s a bit of you in every single character you write.”
One could imagine this memoir as a spell cast as well, the kind of linguistic and emotional manipulation that would make L. Ron Hubbard proud. I wanted to join the Cult of Kate by the last line.
A novel by Rebecca Makkai
Makkai’s debut novel is a great read on so many levels—both her heroine Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian in a small town, and her hero, 10-year-old Ian Drake, are engaging characters. Ian is drawn to Lucy because she smuggles him books his conservative mother forbids, and Lucy is drawn to Ian because she wants to save a young (probably) gay kid who is being shipped off to his pastor’s de-gaying camp. And then it’s about that American summer tradition, the road trip, although most readers probably don’t drive across state lines with a kidnapped child. But who kidnaps whom here?
Does this Baby Make Me Look Straight? Confessions of a Gay Dad
by Dan Bucatinsky
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
It’s fitting that Dan Bucatinsky is a Hollywood writer and producer. This account of the ups and downs of adopting two kids with his partner would make a great TV comedy. Bucatinsky shares hilarious moments with Eliza and Jonah, such as Eliza asking her Daddy to smell her fingers, what to do when Papi gets an intricate valentine and Daddy gets nothing, and the horrors of lice. But there are also insightful musings about parenting and life itself—“I want life to be neat and predictable and safe and calm and quiet and controlled, with no surprises…but Eliza herself proved how small and wrong and petty that thinking was with her big, open, generous heart.”
Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children
Ed. Rachel Pepper
A heartwarming collection of 32 personal accounts, Transitions of the Heart details the “changes and challenges” faced by mothers of transgender children, ranging from deep grief over losing a son or daughter to rage at the ignorance of school administrators. The courageous voices of these moms come through this book’s pages with emotion and stark honesty. I defy you to read Anna Randolph’s “What I Didn’t Say” and not be moved. One lesson learned? “I now realize that all children are born exactly as they are meant to be,” writes Betti Shook.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
“To all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules” reads the dedication for this young adult novel about two Mexican-American fifteen-year-olds whose fast friendship may lead to something scarier and more intimate. Rules figure heavily in this story—Ari’s strict mom loosens her rules in the lazy days of summer, his older brother breaks society’s rules and goes to jail, and there are internal and external rules governing who boys are supposed to be attracted to, and what type of men they should become. Sáenz does a superb job of presenting the complexities of a modern teenager growing into his authentic self.