Monday, April 30, 2012

REVIEW: A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

I'm not really sure what can I say about Kate Bornstein's new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, other than WOW! This an amazing, intense, heartfelt read that's goes far beyond questions of gender and sexuality to examine, really, what it means to be human.

Written in a casual, conversational, sometimes rambling manner, this is a very easy book to enjoy. One of its many quirks that I found so delightful was the way in which Kate would tell a story, swear it was the honest-to-gosh truth, then turn around a page or so later and admit that it was a lie. In most cases, they were stories she believed wholeheartedly for years - until she shared them and was promptly shot down by her brother. It's a quirk that not only adds a bit of a comic feel to some chapters than definitely need a pick-me-up, but it's also a playful element that ties into Kate's personality.

Really, this is three memoirs in one, as the extended title suggest:

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy (1) who joins the Church of Scientology (2) and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today (3).

Let's start with the nice Jewish boy. Kate (then Albert) realized at the tender young age of four-and-a-half that she wasn't a boy and, therefore, must be a girl. With that self-realization, a youth of lying to the world, putting on an act, and hiding her true self began. She doesn't spend a lot of time wondering why she was different, or looking for answers (biological, psychological, theological, or otherwise), but there's one passage early on where she talks about her mother's previous miscarriage that ably demonstrates how she has so creatively imagined herself:

"Now here's what I think: I think no one knows what the previous tenant of my mom's uterus had left behind for me to pick up and use. I'm sure that girl body had been meant for me."

It's clever and simple, and the kind of imaginative leap you can only make if you are well-and-truly comfortable in yourself.

The Church of Scientology occupies a significant portion of the book, but as interesting as it is to peek behind the curtain, it does tend to wear thin quite quickly. The attraction of Scientology, her life within it, and (most importantly) it's continuing impact upon her life is important, though, and it frames perhaps the saddest, most heartfelt element of Kate's memoir . . . but more on that later. To me, the appeal of Scientology has always been inconceivable, but I can't say there isn't something beautiful and profound in its appeal to Kate:

"...they [the Church of Scientology] said I'm not my body, and I'm not even my mind. They told me I am a spiritual being called a thetan - from the Greek letter, which we were told meant perfect thought. Male and female is for bodies, they told me. Thetans have no gender."

Definitely an interesting thought, and you can clearly see how the theory so hooked a confused young transsexual. What follows is, no matter how you want to put it, a life inside a very closed cult, including an extended period where she lived at sea, with nobody around but other members of the Church. It was a life of spiritual, mental, and financial slavery (although Kate never uses that word), and one that ultimately cost her the love of two ex-wives, her daughter, and the chance to ever see the grandchildren that would come later. The chapter in which she describes her Excommunication made me so furious, I literally threw the book across the room and let it sit on the floor for a good week and a half before I could pick it up again without feeling the urge to tear it to pieces.

It's definitely the low part of her life's story, but it's true what they say - at least when you hit rock bottom there's nowhere to go but up.

The third part of Kate's story is the most fascinating aspect of the book, and even if it's filled with pains of its own, the sorrows of her transition are both honest and (largely) self-inflicted. Really, Kate begins her entire life over again (several times, in fact) finding what should have been solace and support though the medical community, except she chose the wrong doctor, one who held her back rather than helped to guide her forward. It's not entirely clear what an impact the unprofessional nature of that relationship had on her transition until she moves on to a new doctor, one who has her best interests at heart.

"When I was a girl, I was a thirty-eight-year old man and I had to make up for lost time. It wasn't easy. I had to learn girl from the ground up, just as I'd had to learn boy. It wasn't pretty."

When Kate says it wasn't pretty, she's right. Her transition is marked by stories of self mutilation (cutting), drug and alcohol abuse, anorexia, and more. She clearly struggled hard to become the woman she is today, and even if we know she's a stronger person for those struggles, they are still hard to share. Relationships were, as you might expect, particularly troublesome for someone struggling as much with her gender as her sexuality. While some may argue she simply traded one cult for another, Kate's immersion in the BDSM lifestyle was absolutely fascinating for me, and probably the point at which I began to first notice real, genuine, powerful emotion coming through her story.

As ultimately uplifting and inspiring as her story may be, however, it's framed by a sadness so deep, it's difficult to experience. She begins and ends the book with a virtual shout-out to her daughter, a heart-felt plea for understanding, acceptance, and simple acknowledgement. It's a testament to the intensely personal nature of her final passage, the raw openness of her plea, that she was able to so completely overcome those feelings of rage and betrayal I originally felt over her excommunication. Instead of throwing the book across the room and wanting to tear it to pieces, I instead clutched it to my breast and cried for what might have been . . . and for what, if there is any justice in the world, still might be.

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