Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Bookworm Sez
A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein
c.2012, Beacon Press, $25.95, 288 pages
You are a pretty tame human being. Oh, sure, you break out sometimes and go a little wild, but overall, you’re no threat to most people. You were domesticated years ago, you know when to hide your claws, and you stopped biting in preschool. You’re even housebroken.
But uncivilized? Hardly. Menacing? Never!
Author Kate Bornstein isn’t, either, but there’s a significant group of people that, she says, have labeled her as a “potential trouble source.” In her new book A Queer and Pleasant Danger, she explains how she got to be so hazardous.
At four-and-a-half years old, most kids are just learning their ABCs, but Albert Bornstein knew at that age that he wasn’t a boy, so he must be a girl. He also knew that wasn’t what people wanted to hear, so he never spilled his secret; instead, he grew up wanting to be Audrey Hepburn—and if not Hepburn, there were other choices.
He always loved women. There were so many he could imagine being.
It was mid-1970 when Bornstein—twentysomething, anorexic, altruistic and seeking spiritual meaning—started a cross-country pilgrimage that landed him in Colorado. There, while looking for new boots, he found a Scientology center.
He entered—and stayed.
Happy in his newly-embraced “applied religious philosophy,” Bornstein became the perfect Scientologist: charming and silver-tongued, he quickly developed into a top-performing salesman of high rank. Two years after joining the organization, he was married; a year after that, he was a father.
He also began acting upon his girlish urges, but wasn’t bothered by it. Scientology taught that humans were spiritual beings called thetans, and thetans had no gender—so what was the harm in wearing women’s clothing and sleeping with men? His inner woman seemed unstoppable.
Then, 12 years after joining, when everything came crashing down (due to a still-dizzying misunderstanding), Bornstein was cast out of the community he’d embraced for a third of his life. Feeling bereft, and overwhelmed by his increasingly feminine notions, he sought therapy and a community of a different sort.
What he found was the person she was all along…
There are a lot of adjectives that one can use to describe A Queer and Pleasant Danger: snarky, funny, anguished, frightening. Heartbreaking. Brave. Honest.
Author Kate Bornstein worked six years on this memoir that she started for her daughter (whom Bornstein assumes will never read it), and for the teenage grandchildren who will likewise be denied the story because they’re Scientologists and Bornstein is essentially dead to them. What Bornstein doesn’t say about Scientology, in fact, is more chilling than what she does say.
In writing this memoir, Bornstein puts on a certain bravado that doesn’t last in the presence of the vulnerability she often displays. This is a softer, sometimes sorrowful, side of the always-outspoken Kate Bornstein, and I loved it.
Be aware that there are painfully graphic scenes in this book, and some that are brutally blunt. If you can stand those (appropriate-to-this-memoir) paragraphs, though, A Queer and Pleasant Danger is a wildly wonderful read.
Redefining Diva by Sheryl Lee Ralph
c. 2011, 2012, Gallery Books, $14, 200 pages
Is it so horrible to know what you want? You don’t think so. That’s why you’re decisive, you state your needs clearly and firmly, and you expect people to act accordingly. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. So why do people call you the “B” word that rhymes with itch? You’re not nasty or horrible, so why would they call you a diva?
Author Sheryl Lee Ralph doesn’t know the answer. But, as she says in her new book Redefining Diva, if they call you that last name, you really should thank them.
OK, so you’re a diva. What is that, anyhow?
The word, says Ralph, has gotten a bum rap lately, but it was originally an Italian noun derived from the Latin word for deity; in other words, a diva is a goddess. Ralph also says that the word is an acronym for Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed. A diva, says Ralph, “copies no one. She is her own woman.”
Ralph became a diva through a lifetime of observing strong women. Her mother, a Jamaican immigrant, worked in a hospital to pay for her ticket to America. Ralph’s grandmother, a North Carolina belle, was headstrong and fearless enough to tussle with the burglars who killed her husband.
Divas, you see, know that risks are to be seized.
At 16, Ralph took on a big risk when she went to Rutgers University. She had initially considered going to medical school, but she hated dissecting. She switched to law school, but it was “boring.” Then Ralph stumbled into drama auditions, tried out for a play and found her niche. When a Diva discovers what she’s meant to do, Ralph says, she knows it.
After working with the Defense Department, she landed in Hollywood and the movies, but Broadway was her first love. Good Diva that she is, she tackled every opportunity, which eventually gained her a part as one of the original Dreamgirls in the stage show. She ultimately quit the show, went back to Hollywood and enjoyed more fame on television.
Today, Ralph still acts because Divas know “yes” can be satisfying. She also works with the Diva Foundation, an organization that focuses on HIV/AIDS awareness and testing. She does it to memorialize her friends and because, she says, a “real Diva counts… her blessings.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Redefining Diva crossed my desk. Is it a memoir? Or is it meant to inspire? The answer to that is, delightfully, both.
Author Sheryl Lee Ralph weaves a lot of advice into this biography, giving readers plenty of takeaways while she shares tales of family, fame and folly. And that’s what makes this book so enjoyable: Ralph imparts life lessons in between star-studded gossip and her own experiences, on-stage and off. Advisements are wrapped inside anecdotes, which somehow make them more memorable and definitely more fun to read.
I liked this book, and I think you will, too. Read Redefining Diva for the advice. Read it for the biography. Either way, this’ll be a book you’ll want.