Cool queer memoirs from a gal who won The Gong Show, a guy who used porn to chasten bad drivers, and a woman who survived an axman's murder attempt

June 6, 2006
By Regina Marler

Most memoirs could be classified as champagne or lemonade. Gay memoirs have traditionally been of the lemonade variety, like Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant: The author crafts a life of dignity, grace, or hilarity despite sour circumstances.

Despite a strong lemonade undertaste, three gay memoirs appearing this month offer champagne too. The fizziest is Hillary Carlip's giddy, girl-powered Queen of the Oddballs. A Los Angeles native, Carlip won The Gong Show with a risqué juggling routine, founded a girl band, and appeared on Oprah, among other feats. Carlip describes an adolescence unique to Southern California: baking banana bread for Carly Simon, stripping naked with her consciousness-raising group, and spending one high school summer locating Carole King's Laurel Canyon house. (King asked her inside for a cold drink and continued with her Lamaze breathing exercises.)

Much of the charm of Carlip's memoir lies in her whimsical surrender to celebrity culture, balanced by her awareness of how silly it all is. One day, Carlip writes, she was in a public sauna when Jodie Foster walked in: "I stay an additional half hour and nearly suffer from heat stroke just to watch Jodie talk to her friend. Completely naked."

Augusten Burroughs can also be seen completely naked, though only metaphorically, in his new collection, Possible Side Effects. Replete with his characteristically ruthless self-analysis, these essays cover a wide emotional range. "Little Crucifixions" describes the author's shame at his perpetually cracked and bleeding fingertips, which occasionally bloody the books he signs for fans. At the other extreme, "Moving Violations" recounts a friendship in his youth with a woman who corrected bad drivers on the road by flashing hard-core porn images with phrases printed underneath, like USE YOUR BLINKERS WHEN CHANGING LANES!!! "But because we grabbed the pictures quickly and without looking," Burroughs recalls in the book, "often a tailgater would get a cum shot with the words NO PASSING ON A SOLID LINE printed beneath it. The system wasn't perfect. But the point was unforgettable."

Tern Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise is poised to become one of this season's big books. In 1977, on a summer break from Yale, Jentz set out on a cross-country bike trip with a friend but wound up as national news. While she and her friend, called "Shayna" in the book, were sleeping in Cline Falls State Park in central Oregon, a stranger drove his pickup over their tent, pinning Jentz underneath; he then took an ax to both girls. Shayna lost most of her vision in the attack, while Jentz was also severely injured. They survived because the axman, whose face Jentz never saw, suddenly broke off the attack-as capriciously as he had begun it. The crime was never solved.

While Jentz needed to talk about what had happened, her friend Shayna refused to discuss the attack, letting their friendship lapse soon afterward. Jentz's memoir recounts her return to Oregon in the 1990s to investigate the crime and in a sense complete the conversation that Shayna wouldn't allow.

"In early childhood I was obsessed with victimization," Jentz tells The Advocate. "I used to draw these pictures of tortured bodies… So victimization is a big theme in my life. It's shaped me and will continue to." She feels at peace with Shayna now, and she credits her editor with recognizing, in an early draft, that the relationship with Shayna was central to the book: "He had the wisdom to recognize what I needed to do -- I had to grow in my psyche to write this book."

Burroughs's work shares this therapeutic quality, especially Running With Scissors and Dry, the latter based on a journal he began keeping the day he got out of rehab. "When I came home from rehab I was highly motivated," he says, "but also very confused and afraid. I started writing that evening, and it quickly became an obsession for me. I was in effect writing my own road map to sobriety."

Some recent memoirists have worried that the James Frey brouhaha throws the entire genre into question. How true does memoir have to be? "I don't know if memoir has to be completely true," says Jentz, ''but for me, it has to be. I wanted to find the truth of what happened. I set a very high standard for myself."

For Burroughs, it's a matter of point of view: "I don't write about other people. I write about my life, which happens to include other people. And the story is always told from only one perspective: mine."

"I think there can be minor wiggle room," Carlip remarks. "But remembering that you wore a blue sweater when it was actually green is quite different than saying you were in jail for three months when it was really only several hours."

And what about sexuality in gay memoirs? Does a "true" book lave to be completely open? Carlip's memoir chronicles her love affairs alongside her other adventures, since she thinks it's "extremely important to be out." "I have always been completely up-front about my sexuality without necessarily shining a spotlight on it," she says.

Although Jentz's memoir is dedicated to her partner, filmmaker Donna Deitch (Desert Hearts) -- who plans to make a film of Strange Piece of Paradise -- Jentz left her romantic life out of the book. She felt that if she stressed her sexuality, she would complicate the narrative -- and perhaps suggest that the attack was an antigay hate crime rather than a crime against women. "I was gay before this happened," she says. "It didn't seem relevant to the story."

But she was open with Oregon law enforcement officials when she began her investigation and with many of the people she interviewed. "Even people [in Oregon] who I knew were highly religious, they didn't take an issue with my sexuality," she remembers. "That's a real success story. They saw me for just me, Terri."

In describing her own ideals, Jentz recalls that May Sarton said the following about serious writers needing to see themselves as "an instrument for experiencing"; "Life -- all of it -- flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth."


Queen of the Oddballs: And Other True Stories from a Life Unaccording to Plan
by Hillary Carlip