A Queer and Pleasant Review2 June, 2012
The first thing you need to know about Kate Bornstein is she is a compassionate person. She weaves A Queer and Pleasant Danger (May 1, 2012, Beacon Press) from great lengths of compassion and love. This isn’t just a book, she hasn’t produced a litany of entertaining anecdotes for mass consumption. Her memoirs are a love letter written for her daughter, Jessica, whom she hasn’t seen in thirty years and her grandchildren whom she’s never met. Kate is a former Scientologist and her daughter and grandchildren were born into Scientology and are still in it. As a former Scientologist, the church declared her a suppressive person, an SP; for her to contact someone in the church would destroy that person’s life. As much as she wants to see her daughter again, know she is safe, and tell her she is loved, Kate cannot bring herself to shatter the only world her daughter has ever known. That is compassion; that is love. And that is the purpose behind her book. It is an open love letter to her family in case they ever wonder about and try to find her. You and I, Sweetie, are just lucky folk who get to eavesdrop.
And the reader should feel lucky, because there is a serious lack of authors like Katherine “Auntie Kate” Bornstein in the literary world. Her compassion, honesty, service, and humour are rare and beautiful traits in a society supersaturated with anemic pop culture. She was the first person without a gender I met. Initially we met on paper, in the lines of her wonderful primer, My Gender Workbook. Like Kate, I had been designated male at birth and was living that way, had lived that way for thirty-four years. I scoured amazon.com for the best possible hey-you’re-a-girl-trapped-in-a-man’s-body-but-don’t-give-up-hope-you-have-options book on the market; there are surprisingly few books in this niche. As I surfed the electronic pipeline, I kept coming back to Kate’s My Gender Workbook. It seemed too light, too comfortable with itself and it’s readership, too fun. The book’s subtitle convinced me to buy it: how to become a real man, a real woman, the real you, or something else entirely. This spoke of compassion. Kate genuinely wants to help her readers figure out who they are. Now, fourteen years later, Kate is bringing that same compassion to her memoirs.
The compassion isn’t just for her daughter, grandchildren, and readers. Everyone that Kate writes about in her memoirs she treats with the same tenderness. The world is Kate Bornstein’s lover and she is a gentle partner. Perhaps, it comes from her time as a bottom, the dominated, in the S&M community, though, I suspect, it is from her being a bottom throughout her life. This is something else you should know about Kate: she has always submitted to and served others. From early on she formed herself to the will of others, the world’s daddies, starting with her own daddy. By today’s standards Paul Bornstein would be considered an emotionally abusive man, a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig who could have served as inspiration for Norman Lear‘s Archie Bunker. Kate recognises that Paul was a cruel man. She is under no delusions about that, but she also sees the good, sometimes just potential good, that was in him. Throughout Queer and Pleasant there is never a sense of judging him, just telling the truth about who he was and what growing up as a son who was really a daughter was like in his household. She doesn’t hide his attitudes and flaws; she accepts that this was who he was without sugar-coating, just truth. She does the same when talking about L. Ron Hubbard and life in the Church of Scientology. She lays the truth about Hubbard before you. She doesn’t demonise him, he does that well enough on his own, what she does is treat “the Old Man” with the same honesty and acceptance she does her daddy. Even as she reflects on Hubbard’s death, there is compassion:
“No one’s come forward online to say they were there when the Old Man was lost, or that they held his hand and cried with him. If I’d been there, I would have.”
I don’t think I could have called up that type of compassion for a man who treated people the way Hubbard did, but Kate is a bottom, and from the bottom it is easier to see just how messed up we all are. And that’s truth.
This is the next thing you should know about Kate, she has an unwavering commitment to honesty. She tells Jessica and us at the start of Queer and Pleasant that, despite the label of suppressive person and the implication of being a spinner of lies, she will tell the truth. Even when she exaggerates or tells you how she wishes things could have happened she still relates what really happened. This is the aspect of Kate’s narrative that drew me in like a walleye on a fishing line. I spent thirty years lying to everyone by pretending to be a boy; now that I’m done playing at boy and living as girl, I don’t have time for lies. And neither does Kate. She went through a myriad of personalities and ways of living, each, she says, its own unique way of being gendered; she married and divorced three times; she did some cruel things to people who didn’t deserve it; she touched a number of people in very deep and intimate ways. She bares all this to her readers with unflinching honesty. But, like I said, this is a love letter and love is honest even when it means showing your own darkness.
Her memoirs, however, are not a Robert Lowell confessional; they do not dwell in the darkness. Like her other works, there is a wry sense of humour that infuses Queer and Pleasant. This is the last thing you need to know about Kate, she possess a levity that enables her to see the humour in the bizarre situations she’s come through. Her pop culture riffs and Doctor Who allusions make her memoirs a joy to read. How can a person who has served in the church of a mediocre science fiction writer who espoused the idea we are all thetans from the Galactic Empire who were shot out of an erupting volcano into a soul catcher and joined with cave dwellers not see the humour in life? How can a female placed in a male body by a cosmic prankster of a God not approach her story with a little self-deprecating humour and a lot of irony? For all the trauma and trials she went through Kate is still remarkably vivacious. If you need proof just consider the book’s subtitle: 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.
Reading A Queer and Pleasant Danger was a pleasure for me. I learned more about a heroine as important to me as my Mommy and Grandma, but more important I learned lessons about compassion, love, truth, service, and humour. Thank you, Auntie Kate, for being the lovely lady you are and for sharing that with us. And I promise, I won’t take the personality test.