One of These Things First (★★★★☆)

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Steven Gaines   *   Delphinium   *   August 9, 2016   *   272 Pages

Advanced Reader Copy provided by author.

Steven Gaines is 15-years old when he sneaks into a back room in his grandparent’s small clothing store, breaks the glass of the room’s one small window, and then calmly and firmly saws his wrists over the jagged shards still stuck in the frame. With his last bit of strength, he walks out into the snowy yard, gently lowers himself to the ground, and waits to die.

But, amazingly, he doesn’t die. His grandfather finds him and is able to call an ambulance in time to save Steven’s life. Once Steven heals enough to be discharged from the hospital, his parents decide to send him to a psychiatric clinic. Using his grandfather’s money (intended for his college fund), Steven checks into the Payne Whitney and stays for six months. The majority of this book focuses on that six-month stay–the people he meets, the crazy experiences he has, and the realizations he eventually makes.

I’ve read a surprising number of memoirs written by gay authors who were traumatized by their judgmental and severely homophobic upbringings. (They fascinate me, probably because I also grew up in a very rigid and intolerant environment where “different” was never okay.) But there are some things that set Gaines’s memoir apart, in my opinion. First and foremost, Gaines knows how to tell a story. He has a knack for knowing what to share, how much to share, and, most importantly, when to stop. He doesn’t meander through his past, forcing his reader to endure a thought or two about this and a memory or five about that. He gives us the good stuff, skips the dull, and keeps moving, moving, moving forward. It takes skill to be able to write like that.

Ironically, there were some aspects of the book that I wish had been fleshed out even more. I was surprised how little Gaines focused on his homosexuality (especially since–MINOR SPOILER ALERT–his sexuality is the reason he tries to kill himself). And I was also shocked that he didn’t express more anger at his parents, grandparents, and, especially, his longtime psychiatrist for not accepting who he was. (Said psychiatrist spends YEARS trying to “turn Steven straight.”) But, in the end, Gaines doesn’t seem to fault them much for their lack of support. He says he’s made an “uneasy peace” with his upbringing and sexuality, apparently finding comfort in the idea that we’re all messed up and doing our best. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. It feels a little too tidy. (Then again, it’s not like I’m exactly swimming in zen right now, so maybe Gaines knows something I don’t…)

Still, this book made me think, and I always appreciate that. One of These Things First is well-written and well-told, significant and illuminating without being self-indulgent. It’s not easy to get that balance right, but Gaines does.

 

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