Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Previously published by Gay San Diego
Bestselling author and journalist Steven Gaines is prolific. With 13 published books, nine of them in the realm of biography, Gaines has made an art of getting into other people’s heads — and letting them into his. He has written or co-written insightful portrayals of such luminaries as The Beatles, Alice Cooper, The Beach Boys, and fashion designers Halston and Calvin Klein. But a year ago, Gaines took a literary leap into a new realm, memoir, and he landed well.
One of These Things First was re-released this month in paperback by Delphinium. In the book, Gaines turned his literary talents to himself, revealing his youthful suicide attempt, obsessive compensations for sexual urges he didn’t understand, struggles against Freudian analysis, and his delight in co-existing with the glitterati who nurtured and nagged him in a hoity-toity Manhattan psychiatric hospital.
“I spent my whole life writing about other people,” Gaines said, “and this was really the story I wanted to tell in the first place. People said to me ‘You were so brave.’ I don’t feel I was so brave at all. There’s an important lesson to be told.”
As Gaines described it, “This is about a gay boy who tries to kill himself.” It’s a painfully true and common lesson. Indeed, the book begins with the 15-year-old Gaines’ studied suicide attempt in the back of his grandparents’ Brooklyn bra and girdle shop, in 1962. But it’s a juxtaposition dusted with dark humor that persists through Gaines’ harrowing and happier moments. Indeed, One of These Things First propels the reader from one Coney Island coaster high to a gut roiling plunge and up again.
Gaines effectively captured the characters of his childhood and his subsequent six months in the psychiatric hospital, funded by his charming, philandering grandfather, with an astute eye and a sharp wit. Gaines’ people are wonderfully, horribly human.
There’s Fat Anna, who “regularly wore the black raiment of an Italian widow, although her husband, a plumber named Angelo, was alive and well. She hugged me with her hammy arms when she saw me, and gave the top of my head a kiss.”
And Arnie, “balding” and “doughy,” who joined Gaines’ “Culver Luncheonette antagonist, Irv,” to serve up chocolate milk and taunts to the boy, for being a “fairy.”
His teacher father, who battled anti-Semitism by changing the family name, from Goldberg to Gaines — the latter snagged from the Flatbush Avenue Oldsmobile dealership, when they couldn’t come up with anything better.
Gaines’ fellow patient, Richard Halliday, husband of actress Mary Martin and “a tall, elegant, middle-aged man wearing pleated tan slacks and an ivory silk shirt buttoned to his neck, like a Mandarin.” He entertained Gaines while disdaining him and his Brooklyn table manners.
The “lawnmower boy” who “was a deity in whom I invested all my yearnings.”
And, Dr. Wayne Myers, the psychiatric hospital resident, who told Gaines, “Homosexuality can be cured, like many other disorders. The key thing is, it’s a tough row to hoe, and you have to really want to change.”
Under the doctor’s aegis, Gaines continued to challenge his homosexuality, but eventually he began to understand the futility of that. Acceptance, though, was a process.
“I didn’t want to be a professional homosexual,” he said. “I didn’t want everything to be involved with my being gay. Back then, it was really about dancing all night, taking a lot of drugs, having sex anywhere and everywhere, but it didn’t make me feel good in the end. One of the things I was afraid of is that I’d be ghettoized and I didn’t want that.
“Now, everyone knows that I am gay, I’ve been out so long — since ’72 or ’73 — just three years after Stonewall. Today, it’s much more sophisticated and there are goals other than going to the gym and having big pecs. It’s much more serious now. It’s become a very important social movement and cultural movement.”
In Gaines’ next book, he plans to continue his story through the subsequent years of trying to be something he wasn’t.
“I realized I had to be gay. So I’m going to talk about those next 10 years, another memoir. At my age, I don’t want to live with someone else in my head.”
About Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Spawned by a Southern Baptist creationist and a liberal social worker, K-B inherited the requisite sense of humor to survive family dinner-table debates and the imagination to avoid them. She has an MFA in Creative Writing, with an emphasis on narrative nonfiction, and has taught Women’s Studies. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Publishers Weekly, Thoughtcrime Press’ Not My President anthology, Ducts magazine, The Missing Slate, Trivia: Feminist Voices, The North County Times, San Diego Uptown News, Gay San Diego, Chiron Review (the ancient one, before the internet), American University’s iVory Towerz, and others. K-B is a founding editor of WritersResist.com.