Reviewed: Bornstein, K. 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 Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012.
In the spirit of Kate Bornstein's new memoir A Queer and Pleasant Danger I should start by saying that I know Kate Bornstein. Well that's not entirely true. At least it's not true to say I know Kate well. Just a little. Sort of somewhere between knowing someone professionally and knowing them personally. I'm writing this not to position myself as an insider (or outsider) but because trying to tell the truth, or trying at least not to tell lies, is both a central theme and one of the most intellectually engaging and playful parts of Kate's excellent new book.
So the truth then: like most people I met Kate through her first book Gender Outlaw and her public performances. I met Kate on the phone a few times when I was pre-interviewing her for various Canadian television programs, and in more social contexts a few more times. It's a funny thing, knowing someone through their work. Particularly if their work is personal, it can feel like you know them. But as someone who, like Kate, cares about not telling lies, I'm mindful that the person you meet through carefully staged work or writing is only part of the person you might know.
It's hard not to think about meeting and knowing even as you speed through a A Queer and Pleasant Danger which is, among many things, a page turner. Kate is a funny, clear, and generous storyteller. As a reader you feel attended to and cared for. Her analysis of gender and sexuality are enfolded within compelling plot points. She takes us from a repressed 1950s upbringing in Interlaken, New Jersey to the ranks of seafaring Scientologists, to a violent and grimy 1970s New York City, to Seattle and back to NYC as an activist, artist, and farily intense BDSM practitioner.
I read the book quickly, but am digesting it slowly. It's a singular experience to spend the first 3/4 of the book with Al Bornstein, a hippie actor turned Scientologist big wig who, at least by name, I've never met. And it's not easy to stay with Al and Kate through the whole book. Particularly through their starkly stated relationship with eating and cutting. Behaviors that are almost always presented as problematic, or at least a struggle, here feel like something else. They don't feel good, and as a reader who feels cared for by the author, the desire is to return that care in the form of worry (well, at least that's my response). Survival, we learn here, isn't something that one achieves and then gets to leave behind, mission accomplished. Survival is something that is worked on, experienced, to greater and lesser degrees, moment by moment, and day by day.
And then there's the sex. Kate has had lots of sex, through her life, and here it's presented in a matter of fact way. It's not clinical, and it's a little juicy, but it's also just there, another part of life, like figuring out your relationships in family or work, making a living, trying to get by. I've read a lot of people's sex stories over the years and I wondered why I was so struck by the sex in this book. I think it's because most memoirists are so uncomfortable with their sexuality that sex is the part that get most adorned and so feels least raw. Not so with Kate.
And THEN there's Scientology. It needs to be read to be believed. But as far as truth telling goes, Kate's description of her twelve years with the organization feels as generous as the rest of her memoir, which makes A Queer and Pleasant Danger an important contribution to a growing body of writing about Scientology, as well as to the history of early public discourse around gender, orientation, and queerness in America.
Throughout the book Kate plays with ideas of truth. It's a risky move for a memoir, but one that ultimately pays off. It pays off because it serves both the narrative and the political and theoretical underpinnings of the book. It pays off because whether or not you finish the book thinking you know Kate, you will absolutely want to know more.