“One of These Things First”by Brie Stimson January 3, 2018
Writer Steven Gaines spoke to the San Diego Jewish Journal about his new memoir “One of These Things First” about his childhood in Brooklyn, his teenage suicide attempt, his time at a luxury psychiatric hospital and curative therapy to try to become heterosexual. The interview has been edited for space.
San Diego Jewish Journal: Can you tell me a bit about your
Steven Gaines: I went to NYU Film School and when I got out of film school I was prepared to do absolutely nothing in the world, and I got a job actually moving furniture, and every night I went to this famous bar … It’s what Lenny Bruce would have called a character bar. There were all sorts of interesting people. One night a guy came in, a tall guy with curly blond hair and he said his name was Marjoe – a combination of Mary and Joseph – and he had been a child evangelist. When he was five or six years old his parents had ordained him, they were Pentecostes, and I said “that’s a book” – and he said to me “well if you can sell it you can write it.” So we made a deal, and I’d never written anything before, and I wrote a book proposal and long story short … Harper and Roe bought it and the movie “Marjoe” … won the Oscar in 1973, and so I suddenly had a writing career.
This is the most important thing I’ve ever written, this book that we’re talking about today.
SDJJ: Why did you decide to write it? Why was it time?
SG: I think it was time because time was running out. I’m going to be 71 … and I wanted all these years to write this story and I never really quite knew how.
At one point the book was twice as long going until I’m 26 and going through curative therapy to become heterosexual, but we cut that out and I ended it when I was 15. So I always wanted to do it and the time was passing.
SDJJ: You speak very candidly about your teenage suicide attempt in the book.
SG: I feel fine about it. Other people obviously don’t. People said to me “oh, you’re so brave.” Here’s the thing … There’s a lot of suicide of gay kids going around … I’d rather get this story out. I’ve lived through so much. I came out when I was 26 years old.
SDJJ: So how do you think of yourself today?
SG: I’d say I’m a man, I’m a Jew, I’m a writer. I’m gay. It’s down there in my life … I have none of the stereotypical gay things … Having psychiatric problems, I mean, I don’t know anybody who isn’t on anti-depressants.
I was distraught about a lot of things when I was a little boy and I realized I was gay. One thing was I loved being Jewish, I loved my religion. I loved the culture. My father’s father was president of a very small Orthodox synagogue on 32nd Street, and it was really part of my world, and I discovered not only was I nature’s mistake, I thought I was some sort of a horrible thing, and I had a horrible future, but I couldn’t turn to my beloved grandfather, grandmother, I couldn’t turn to G-d. I couldn’t because I knew G-d didn’t want me. I was just an aberration, I was unholy. And I was afraid to go to synagogue. I was afraid of everything.
Yet this book is very funny, and it sounds so tragic. … Somehow all of this is told humorously. And I think the small miracle this book has been for people is that they find it hysterically funny, and no one leaves this book with a sad feeling.
SDJJ: How do you feel about your Judaism now?
SG: A really great thing happened to me. First of all you know there are all these gay synagogues and everything, but I didn’t want to go to any … As I said I’m not gay, gay, gay about everything. But I was in a trendy new restaurant that opened up [in Long Island] and a man came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said to me, “why don’t I see you in synagogue?” and I said, “who are you?” and he said, “ the rabbi. I’m David Gelfand.” But that was really all it took. I was curious and I went to synagogue and there were some other gay people there. And it was completely open. Nobody gave a damn … I said “David, if I decide to get married will you marry me,” and he said, “only if you marry a Jew”… So I’m back.
SDJJ: Tell me about your time at Payne Whitney?
SG: What happened to me at the psychiatric hospital was remarkable. It was like a hotel. Everybody was wealthy and successful and came from – there were architects, a Broadway producer took me under his arm, and there were a lot of society people, magazine editors, fashion people, book editors … It wasn’t ugly. It wasn’t terrible … I became really fond of it. I didn’t want to go [leave]. To me it was like the Catskill Mountains – except no Jews.
There was a young psychiatrist named Wayne Myers and he offered me hope. He saw how tormented I was about being a homo (which is what it was called then) what I’d done to myself and how it was so unacceptable to me that he said he would help me find a cure and it could be cured.
When I was discharged from the hospital, I went into full analysis with him for at least ten years, three, four times a week.
He was a great, great man and great psychoanalyst and he deeply, deeply regretted trying to change me. I know because he told me … Even though there was probably some harm done to me, the value he gave me was really important.
One of the things you had to do to cure your homosexuality was to sleep with women. Supposedly the more women I slept with the more I would like it. It’s an acquired taste, heterosexuality is like scotch … I did that and I dated some wonderful, wonderful young women …but I really approached it more like a tourist than a native. I felt like a Jew in the Vatican. I knew the Sistine Chapel was supposed to be beautiful, but I just didn’t quite get the resurrection. … and I felt like a cad … There was a certain point where I had to say… this is your life and you have to make the best of it. Α