Finally Out by Dr. Loren A. Olson

October 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm (ARC, book review, books, memoir, nonfiction, psychology, queer interest, queer studies, reading)

With Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, Dr. Loren Olson delivers an all-in-one memoir, psychology, and self-help text about coming out of the closet in later life. Through discussion of key psychological concepts and personal stories Olson, who came out at forty, explains why the coming out process can be delayed for some men, and in doing so attempts to submarine the misconception that gay men who marry women and raise families are only using their wives and children to hide their sexuality. From deeply held religious beliefs and traditional gender norms to social expectations and fear of rejection Olson examines the numerous factors that contribute to the denial and repression of sexual identity. He also discusses the challenges unique to this particular demographic such as helping children understand and cope with their father’s sexuality, and reconciling the desire for a traditional family dynamic in a country that, by and large, does not allow gay couples the benefits of marriage.

Though it is good to see this largely ignored aspect of the gay experience given a thorough examination, Finally Out tries to be so many things at once that the text never really coalesces into cohesive narrative. The history lessons, psychological concepts, personal stories and advice contained in each chapter do not feel like parts of a larger whole, but a jumble of ideas thrown together at random. Transitions from one paragraph to the next are abrupt. When using personal stories to illustrate psychological concepts Olson often fails to explain exactly how the story relates to the concept or the overarching theme of the chapter. For example, in chapter four which focuses largely on the coming out process, Olson writes about the dissolution of his marriage. Though, yes, the break-up of Olson’s marriage certainly played a key role in his coming out process he does not actually write about how it did. He goes into detail about how and when everything went sour, and theorizes about how his wife and children felt during the divorce, but he does not frame the story within a context of coming out and that left me wondering why he chose to include this story in this particular chapter. This disconnect occurs throughout the book whenever Olson introduces a personal anecdote, and it made me feel like I was reading two separate and distinct books, not a unified text.

Finally Out contains a lot of useful information, but it is trying to do too much. Olson should have written a psychology book or a memoir, not both at the same time.

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One Red Paperclip by Kyle Macdonald

January 29, 2008 at 9:31 pm (humor, memoir, nonfiction)

You don’t buy One Red Paperclip for the writing. Full of choppy prose, this book is definitely not great literature. No, you buy One Red Paperclip for the story.

Back in 2005 Macdonald decided to see if he could barter his way from one red paperclip up to a house. He started his own website and posted items for trade, fielded offers, and documented his progress. First he traded his paperclip for a pen that looked like a fish, further down the line he traded a recording contract for one year of free rent in Phoenix, and one year later he was finally able to trade one role in a Hollywood movie for a house in Saskatchewan.

I’m not giving anything away here. Around about the time Macdonald got his hands on the recording contract international media caught wind of his venture. He appeared on numerous television and radio programs and when he finally traded for the house the One Red Paperclip by Kyle Macdonaldnews was broadcast all across the world.

In fact, you really don’t even need to buy the book. The entire story can be read online on his original One Red Paperclip blog. But, being a hopeless bibliophile I take hard copy over digital almost any day of the week.

I really love enterprising bloggers who manage to come up with an idea so very fabulous it garners international attention, and ultimately changes their lives. People like Karyn Bosnak who asked strangers on the internet to help her pay off 20K in credit card debt on, an experiment that not only helped her pay off the debt, but helped her land a book deal as well. And Angela Nissel whose site chronicled her experiences as a young adult with no money. She too managed to land a book deal, and went on to write for the hit TV show “Scrubs,” eventually working her way up to consulting producer. I love that these ordinary people were able to change their lives by coming up with one awesome idea and sharing with with the world.

Ruth Limkin said it well in an article written for the Brisbane Courier Mail that is reprinted in Macdonald’s book:

Could the reason the red paperclip story has captivated so many people be that we resonate with daring greatly? We may have grown weary but we still want to lead significant lives. It’s here that our celebrated Western individualism has tripped us up. Thinking we have to go it alone and just be strong, we have forgotten one vital component. Macdonald could never have got that house without people who were willing to be part of his journey and cheer him on. Like Macdonald, each of us needs people who can be a source of strength and encouragement. Similarly, we have the privilege of being that for others.

Limkin hit it dead on. The reason Macdonald’s story is so appealing is because it champions both individualism and community.

Stories like Macdonald’s also counter the widespread belief that the internet isolates us from one another; that the more we interact with our keyboards and monitors the less we engage with people in real life. What such naysayers don’t seem to consider is that we don’t actually interact with our hardware. We interact with people who are just like us and the the computer is just a means to do so. It is a tool no different then a telephone. We can engage individuals over the internet with just as much authenticity as if they were sitting right next to us. And as Macdonald demonstrates, those connections can lead to real world friendships and alliances.

So check out One Red Paperclip either in print or online. One way or the other you are guarenteed a great story.

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Please Stop Laughing at Me…by Jodee Blanco

June 22, 2007 at 9:50 pm (memoir, mixed bag, nonfiction)

While still reflecting on the issues raised in Odd Girl Out I decided to tackle Please Stop Laughing at Me…, publicist Jodee Blanco’s memoir detailing the hellish teasing, taunting, and bullying she suffered from elementary through high school.

Being a former victim of peer bullying myself, I expected toPlease Stop LAughing at Me...Jodee Blanco identify with Blanco right off the bat and I was surprised when I couldn’t. The Jodee Blanco described in the book is perfect. She gets good grades, she has a loving family that is financially well off, she volunteers her free time to help children with physical and developmental disabilites, and her teachers often send her to compete in national speech tournements where she is a frequent victor. She also has a strong moral compass which not only prevents her from giving in to peer pressure, but guides her to inform teachers and parents whenever she sees someone doing something wrong. The girl is an angel, and even though Blanco never explicitly says so, I suspect that is why her peers began to pick on her. She’s the very vision of a girl who, in today’s venacular, is “all that.”

As defined by Rachel Simmons in Odd Girl Out, a girl who is “all that” is considered “a show off, obnoxious, and full of herself.” Simmons herself notes that “the girl who thinks she’s all that is the girl who expresses or projects an aura of assertiveness and self-confidence,” both qualities that fall outside the typical boundaries of femininity.

Blanco definitely seems to possess all of the above qualities. She has a strong sense of self and she is not afraid to stand up for what she believes is right. By her own admission, her habit of taking the moral high ground and ignoring her attackers makes her come off as stuck up, like she thinks she’s better than everyone else. But Blanco’s incessant reminders of what a kind, sharp, and exceptional kid she was before the bullying, coupled with her three page “professional biography” at the back of the book in which she lists the many leadership roles she has taken in her job and the many celebrities she has worked with, more or less scream “Look at me! Look at me!” She comes off as a huge braggart, and as awful as this is for one loser to say of another, if I were thriteen again I don’t think I would want to be friends with her either. One of her bullies sums it up quite well on page 105 when she says, “Nobody wants to be around a saint with a big mouth.” As much as I wanted to embrace Blanco as a kindred spirit, I just could not identify with her in any meaningful way and that distanced me from the text.

Which isn’t to say Blanco deserved any of the abuse that was heaped upon her. On the contrary, I think shoving handfuls of snow down a girl’s throat until she chokes is excessive punishment for the crime of not being liked. Though Blanco may not be the kind of girl I’d want to weave friendship bracelets with I totally sympathize with her situation. That woman shouldered abuse far more damaging than I ever endured. Everyday kids spit on her in the hallways as she walked to class, they cornered her behind the school and beat the crap out of her, and passed threatening notes to her during class. On her final day of high school the cutest guy in school signed her yearbook “You’ll have to fuck yourself, we hate you, bitch.” Even her teachers got in on it. When Blanco tells her social studies teacher she thinks it is wrong of him to make fun of the school’s special education students in front of the class, he laughs and says “No wonder you’re such a loser.”

There was one aspect of being bullied that Rachel Simmons failed to mention in Odd Girl Out that Blanco dealt with head on: the willingness of a victimized child’s parents to believe there is something wrong with their kid. After testing out a number of schools and getting bullied at all of them Blanco’s parents take her to a psychiatrist, determined to find out why their daughter is “a misfit.” After the psychiatrist declares she is merely “overreacting” to and “overdramatizing” the abuse, Blanco writes “My parents had found the easy answer they were looking for.”

Unlike the many supportive and sympathetic mothers interviewed in Odd Girl Out, personal experience tells me the reaction of Blanco’s parents is far more typical of how parents react to bullying. Unable to offer protection from abuse that occurs at school, parents look to correct flaws in their child hoping that doing so will put an end to taunts and social isolation. I am very familiar with this tactic, my mother employed it throughout my high school years. Turning social rejection into a symptom of a larger psychological problem makes it seem controlable and absolves the school, the bullies, and the parents of all responsibility. Being told she was mentally ill did nothing more than give Blanco another reason to hate herself and another example of how she was different from her peers. By refusing to acknowledge and validate her perfectly normal feelings of loneliness and hurt, her parents and psychiatrist only rammed home Blanco’s realization that no one in her life could be trusted. I was pleased to see a subject so often ignored in the discussion of bullying and children’s mental health given a fair amount of coverage in this book.

The writing itself struck me as juvenile. Blanco’s rampant use of unnecessary dialogue and simplistic sentence structures resembled the kind of work you’d expect to read in a junior high school creative writing class. Whether this was purposeful or not (and I am willing to concede that given the subject matter it may have been a deliberate choice) it didn’t do anything to enhance the story. Blanco also has a penchant for writing completely non-sensical sentences. For example, on page 55 she ends a paragraph with the words, “I would never know how wrong I was.” (Well, if you’d never know then how can you say you were wrong?) And on 251 she writes, “That’s the last time I ever see the inside of my high school again.” (How can you see something for the last time…again?) I was so distracted by the weak use of language, half the time I found myself focusing more on presentation then on content.

So, all in all, what we have here is another mixed bag. On one hand, Blanco’s story is engaging and I was happy to see her discuss aspects of bullying that are not always addressed. On the other, the writing is under developed and at times distracting, and my own reaction to Blanco as an individual took me out of the story. I wasn’t enthralled by Please Stop Laughing at Me… but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be.

(Note: This review ridiculously delayed thanks to a raging flare of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, a week spent out of town,  and a week battling the Cold From Hades.)

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Transparent by Cris Beam

April 4, 2007 at 8:23 pm (cultural studies, education, memoir, nonfiction, parenting, queer interest, queer studies, sociology)

Though we often think of sexual orientation as being all about the type of people we are attracted to, who we are in relation to the people we are attracted to is just as important. Not everyone who is attracted to women is a Lesbian, only women who are attracted to other women exclusively. In order to define our sexuality in a socially understood way first we must possess a stable gender identity.

The process of identity building that takes place during the teenage years is hard for everyone and twice as difficult for individuals coming into a socially unacceptable sexual identity. But the struggle to build identity is harder still when a teen figures out he or she is actually a different gender than the one they were brought up as.

In Transparent, journalist Cris Beam tells the stories of Transparent by Cris Beamseveral male to female transgendered and transsexual teens living on the streets of Los Angeles. The book is divided into two parts, each written in a slightly different tone. The first part is pure social science. Beam explains how she came up with the idea of writing the book while teaching at Eagles, a high school for gay and trans kids. She follows the lives of some of her favorite students, each chapter focusing on a particular aspect of their lives: school, family, body image, and love. Part two turns into a memoir when Beam and her girlfriend agree to become the legal guardians of one of her former students from Eagles. She explores the many unique challenges presented to parents of trans teenagers.

This was another one of those awesome books that made me feel as though my brain were physically expanding as I read. One aspect of trans life that Beam highlights throughout the book is the astounding amount of sexism and trans-phobia her subjects deal with not just from friends and strangers, but from public institutions like schools, hospitals, and courts. She notes there are currently no laws protecting trans workers leaving them vulnerable to discriminatory hiring and firing practices, not to mention on the job harassment, sexual and otherwise. One woman tells of being forced to use the bathroom on a floor of her office building that was being remodelled when the men and women she worked with told management they were uncomfortable with a trans woman using either the men’s or women’s bathrooms on the populated floors.

When one of Beam’s former students, Domenique, is incarcerated she looks at the many ways the penal system short changes trans folk. Transgendered individuals are housed according to genitalia and male to female transsexuals placed in all male wards are often harassed and assaulted.  Domenique is housed in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a unit for inmates who require special protection. But even there she isn’t safe, reporting instances of harassment by other inmates as well as guards. She fears for her safety so much that she avoids socializing or engaging in any recreational activities. The only way to protect herself is to stay isolated. Domenique’s story depicts a truth that Beam highlights early on, that the system simply hasn’t been set up to deal with people whose gender identity falls outside the binary.

Beam is a deft storyteller who effortlessly weaves queer and gender theory, history, and sociology into her personal recollections. The memoir aspect is what gives the narrative real bite. Without it the book would be purely informative, providing statistics and ruminations on people and situations far removed from the reader’s safety zone. But by including her own trials and tribulations as the parent of a transgendered teenager she engages the reader through the ever relatable experience of motherhood. Beam’s daughter is a typical teenager in so many ways,  from her stubborness to her rebellious streak. But the normal butting of heads that occurs during those years is magnified by the unique challenges of trying to raise a healthy and happy trans child.

Transparent is a beautifully constructed introduction to the social and emotional hurdles of growing up trans in America. By exploring the world of ambiguities that exist between male and female, Beam highlights the one thing we all know but are often unable to accept, that we’re all human.

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Take This Bread by Sara Miles

February 28, 2007 at 7:34 pm (activism, memoir, nonfiction, queer interest, queer studies, religion/spirituality)

One Sunday, out lesbian, social activist, and life long atheist Sara Miles went for a walk in her neighborhood and ended up in a nearby Episcopal church taking communion for the first time in her life. Take This Bread is the story of Sara’s conversion to Christianity and how her faith inspired her to open several food pantries for the hungry in the San Francisco area.

Food and community are the two central themes Miles uses to frame the narrative. She Take This Bread by Sara Milesbegins by writing about her experience as a cook in the early eighties, and how the act of serving meals to others is so intimate; one that connects the chef to the customer by way of a shared reverence for the meal. She goes on to describe her years as a journalist in war ridden Central America, constantly hiding from vigilantes and running from gun fire. She recalls the strangers who housed and fed her all through those years, people whose generosity in the face of danger taught Sara about the power of community. When Sara finds herself taking communion she sees how food and community often intersect through the common denominator of hunger. Miles manages to sustain this frame throughout the book, marking each step of her journey to faith with incidents involving food and community. This is no small task. Not every author is capable of setting a frame and keeping it up throughout the story. Miles’ clarity of intention keeps the entire story firmly rooted.

Even though the book does not explicitly explore what it means to be both Christian and gay (for the most part Miles only mentions her sexuality in passing,) it is an underlying thread that runs through the narrative. Having come out early on in the story, the reader is very conscious of Miles’ sexuality as she becomes more involved in church activities. But the congregation and pantry volunteers often prove to be the very embodiment of Christian love and acceptance. When, persuaded by her teenage daughter, Miles and her long time partner decide to go to the court house and get married shortly after San Francisco starts offering civil marriages to gay couples, the following Sunday at church the entire congregation gathers to bless and affirm their partnership. Even after all the gay marriages performed in California are annuled a month later, thanks to the support of her church Miles knows that her union, regardless of legality, is blessed by God.

Though there were a couple things that bothered me about this book (Miles’ obsessive and often distacting overuse of colons and semicolons for one,) overall I found Take This Bread a highly satisfying read. It’s message of unity, compassion, and love is one all of us could benefit from absorbing.

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Reversals by Eileen Simpson

November 16, 2006 at 10:10 pm (education, memoir, nonfiction)

The title of this well crafted memoir refers not only to theReversals author’s dyslexia, a learning disability that causes sufferers to transpose letters and numbers, but to her great turnaround from frustrated non-reader to eloquent writer.

The book itself serves as one of the biggest incentives to start and continue reading. Opening on a fourth grade classroom where her new teacher is ridiculing her in front of the class for not being able to read aloud, eventually reducing the eight year old Simpson to tears,  the images are so strong and so heart breaking the reader automatically wants to find out how that scared little girl came to write such an engaging memoir.

Simpson’s trials as a dyslexic during the time when dyslexia was just starting to be recognized range from the damaging to the devious. There is the aforementioned classroom ridicule, learning to recite text from memory while looking at an open book in order to appear as though she was reading, and her reliance on cheating and buying term papers off of others in order to pass her classes in high school. Her struggles mirror those of the closeted homosexual or the light skinned African-American wrestling with the question of whether the benefits of passing as “normal” are worth the constant fear of exposure?

Her journey into literacy is remarkable in that it was almost entirely self-motivated and taught. Young Simpson learned to enjoy reading in college despite the frequent challenges of being unable to understand what she had read or keep names and situations straight. All that reading defintely paid off. Simpson has quite a way with words. She sprinkles the text with  images and metaphors so memorable, so concrete they seem effortless.

Simpson’s continuing thirst for knowledge lead her to pursue a masters degree in psychology, and she eventually became a practicing therapist. Not long after, she began writing and publishing articles. She admits writing never is and never will be easy for her, but her desire to communicate has driven her to constantly battle a disability that attempts, and continually fails, to hold her back.  Her story is not a simple or easy one, but it is gripping and will hold your attention till the final page.

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