Kate Bornstein's memoir, 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 (Beacon Press), is infused with such brains and grace that even the most vanilla of readers will find themselves caught up in tales of sadism and sex, not batting an eye, but with a twinkle in it. Bornstein writes with conspiratorial charm -- more like gossip between best girlfriends (more on "girl" later) than a stranger's intimate moments. She packs it full of queer theory, American art and history, and gut-busting farce. And it's all true!
A Queer and Pleasant Danger covers most of Bornstein's life in rough chronology, starting with childhood. Kate Bornstein was born Albert Bornstein, the son of a New Jersey doctor who seemed more like a Godfather character than a middle-class Jewish physician. Bornstein's mother delighted in her husband, her sons, and her martinis. An older brother, Alan, is a distant but lovable character, occasionally summoned like an oracle to correct family history.
Bornstein's first impulse of her own gender comes not as an affirmation but as a negation, as something wrong. She wants to call her father "Daddy" like girls do, not "Dad" like boys do; she knows she is not a boy, and therefore believes she must be a girl. Even at four years old, she has a keen sense of destiny and spends a lot of time tea-leaf reading (Of her mother's miscarriage of a female child shortly before her own birth, Bornstein reflects, "No one really knows what the previous tenant of my mom's uterus had left behind for me to pick up and use. I'm sure that girl body had been meant for me").
As a young adult, she rebels -- hardly unique for someone that age, except that her struggles are accompanied by the deep pain of knowing something about herself that others could not see and would not understand. In college, she studies theater rather than medicine, finding community in a world of other pretenders.
On a very late night in an unfamiliar town, she (still presenting as a man) wanders into the only open storefront -- some kind of church -- lured by the smell of pizza over the objections of her nascent anorexia. She wanders in, eats, and strikes up a conversation with the attractive young staff. "You think I have a soul?" she asks. They reply, "I know you don't have a soul - I know you are a soul!" Not really a soul, they say, but a thetan: an immortal spirit/creature occupying your body. Thetans are who we really are.
"Are there male and female thetans?"
"No, no, no. Sex is for meat bodies, not for thetans."
Another tea leaf, another clue about her identity... and that is how Kate Bornstein joined the Church of Scientology.
She served the Church for twelve years, climbing high enough to personally join founder L. Ron Hubbard aboard his roaming yacht, Apollo. She came out as transgender only in the confidence of her Church confessors, but this truth -- and a number of lies -- are used against her when she uncovers a financial scandal that results in her excommunication. Her ex-wife and daughter Jessica are still members in good standing; in fact, Bornstein's book is dedicated to the child and grandchildren she has not seen in decades, and she heartbreakingly admits that she "[wrote] this book on the outside chance that you, dear reader, are Jessica."
Bornstein's gift as a storyteller stems from the theater: most of her books began as solo performance pieces, and she says "nearly all of my written work has had its roots in theater." She paints rich, fluid tableaux, and the dialogue is real but polished. Her scenes are also unrestrained in a way that endears her as a narrator. Prior to her penile inversion surgery -- which, with the "Who's on first?" routine between her and the addled but big-hearted surgeon, is one of the funniest moments in the book -- Kate announces every boner, however inexplicably caused. Her scenes never walk when they can run and never abstain when they can fuck.
Not only can Bornstein spin a yarn, but she has absolute mastery of the genre. Memoir straddles fiction and nonfiction; like biography, memoirs purport to relay verifiable facts about a person's life, but like literature, they aim to draw out deeper universal truths. My close friend and memoirist Danielle Morantez explains that the search for truth in the stories we tell about ourselves is as challenging for the teller as it is for the reader, and so audiences should beware of engaging memoirs as chronologies and embrace them as best attempts at intimate truth-sharing experiments.
Bornstein addresses this challenge head-on, and it is especially through her relationship with the Church of Scientology that we appreciate her credibility as a narrator. The book begins with this caveat: since leaving the Church of Scientology, Bornstein has been labeled a "suppressive person." "Simply put that means I'm bad to the bone." SPs, she explains, are enemies of humanity (well, thetans) and cannot be trusted. To ward against this, she has tattoed "I must not tell lies" to her right hand, a la Harry Potter.
And yet, this same narrator offers a sweet epitaph for her former boss and faux-savior only a few chapters later. In Bornstein's closing benediction to her daughter she appeals to their shared knowledge of the Church, distinguishing its virutes from its vices, extolling the one while criticizing the other. She envisions the individual as a universe in microcosm, originating in self-centeredness but expanding ever outward in perspective and compassion. It's a reliable narrator that can reserve even an ounce of compassion for the cult that stole her daughter and derailed her life.
Kate Bornstein is a writer, actor, performance artist, defrocked cult minister, transgender, sadomasochist, lesbian, partner, parent, divorcée, anorexic, borderline personality, and so much more. Perhaps her greatest gift is a boundless imagination bent on challenging the limits of "normal" for herself and for us. In one of her performance pieces, she invites the audience to come on stage and remove clothespins from her chest. It's not putting them on that hurts but taking them off, she explains. As a masochist, she revels in the pain, but she also challenges her audiences' ideas of sexual expression by giving them a share in her own -- in effect, turning them into sadists. Riffing on that, A Queer and Pleasant Danger makes masochists of us: we find ourselves taking whatever she dishes out and coming back for more.
Is there anything sinister in this sleight of hand? Probably not, but how could we ever believe an SP like her anyway?