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Book Reviews

No Previous Experience: A Memoir of Love and Change

by Elspeth Cameron

Aimee & Jaguar

by Erica Fischer

Hiding My Candy

by The Lady Chablis with Theodore Bouloukos

Heaven’s Coast

by Mark Doty

Biography, autobiography, and memoir reflect and create fame or notoriety as they document lives and experiences. Canadian Elspeth Cameron’s latest book, No Previous Experience: A Memoir of Love and Change, presents a biographer turning her lens inward. This inversion of the lens has created both fame and notoriety for Cameron while chronicling the touching story of her falling in love with a woman and leaving her abusive husband. The title is (I hope) ironic, since Cameron has had three marriages, raised three children, given one up for adoption, and created a successful academic career for herself. She is far from inexperienced as she enters into her new relationship. No Previous Experience is a coming-out story, a honeyed look at growing lesbian awareness and choices. It is also an unflinching look at the fear and conflicting emotions of leaving an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

Cameron’s voice is compelling and passionate. Reconstructed conversations, e-mail, events, and confrontations are combined with her personal observations throughout. For such an experienced biographer, however, it is somewhat surprising to note that Cameron struggles when writing about her own feelings, as when she describes choosing a gift for her new lover: “No medieval knight could have considered with such care what to offer his lady.”

Among members of the gay community, books such as Cameron’s are asked to do much more than tell the story of a person’s life. Lesbian and gay biographies or memoirs are often consulted for therapeutic reasons: people read them to find out more about themselves and their difference. No Previous Experience is therefore much more than a touching memoir; it is an important addition to the tiny literature about women who choose or discover lesbianism later in life.

As well, biographies of gays and lesbians are asked to take on a broader historical role. Until recently, queer history has been difficult to document – for obvious reasons. People who were gay often had no interest in being identified that way, and the few biographies that did emerge were often unfairly expected to speak for an entire community.

This depersonalization of individual lives is plainly evident in the last lines of Aimée and Jaguar, a love story of two women during the Second World War. “It makes me sad sometimes,” Aimée says to Erica Fischer, the journalist documenting her relationship. “Now it is no longer my story.”

Aimée, the wife of a Nazi soldier, fell deeply in love with Jaguar, a Jewish woman living underground in Berlin. Already estranged from her husband, Aimée invites Jaguar to live with her, and finds out later that she is Jewish. Ultimately, Jaguar is revealed to the Gestapo and sent to the Czechoslovakian ghetto of Theresienstadt, where Aimée attempts to join her. Aimée’s desperately painful wait for Jaguar’s return ends with her discovery, years after the war, that Jaguar was sent to Bergen-Belsen and died there in 1945. Fischer effectively blends third-person narration with letters, poems, and first-person accounts to create a book that is an obvious reclamation of lesbian and gay history of the Holocaust.

Whereas Fischer reclaims history, The Lady Chablis manufactures it. Hiding My Candy is the autobiography of the drag queen made famous in John Berendt’s best-selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Born Benjamin Edward Knox, but called Miss Pee-Wee as a youngster, The Lady Chablis takes readers through her fast-paced life story of childhood abuse and refuges, drug addiction, loves, revenges, and her eventual engagement to a lesbian. The book is chatty and full of the mannerisms of The Lady herself. The tone is irreverent, the diction high drag. For the uninitiated, a glossary of terms is provided along with The Lady’s favourite recipes and glamour tips.

“Some names have been changed to protect y’guilty asses!” she notes at the end. But actual names are not the only things missing from this chatty monologue. Though The Lady claims to be “pouring the T” (truth), readers are given the details of her life, but denied access to the emotional truth of her story. She’s not only hiding her candy, The Lady Chablis is watching her back.

In Icebreaker, Eric Marcus has teamed up with another champion gay athlete to co-author a biography. Marcus co-authored Olympic diver Greg Louganis’s best-selling autobiography in 1995, and has now turned his efforts to figure skater Rudy Galindo. Galindo, a gay Mexican-American from a working-class family achieved his dream of winning the U.S. figure skating championships in 1996. Galindo lost his brother and two coaches to AIDS, and within the same period, his father died of a heart attack. His unlikely win came after a period of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and an eight-month break from training.

Icebreaker is marketed as a book that “chronicles the making of an American hero,” but the overly melodramatic style is repetitive and predictable. This book appeals to the same morbid curiosity that fuels the ratings for daytime talk shows. Although Galindo’s life is interesting, that fact is hidden beneath layers of sloppy, saccharine prose. The banality is never more evident than when he writes of caring for his dying brother: “It was a nightmare, but worse, because we were awake.”

Nothing could be further from the lovely, lyrical prose of Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. Doty’s memoir of living through his partner’s HIV diagnosis, illness, death, and his own mourning is a powerful, visceral experience.

Doty’s poetic voice is dense, difficult to read, and worthy of the attention it requires. The narrative is carefully built and richly evocative. He relies overly on italics to emphasize words that are strong enough on their own, but this does little to detract from this terrifying elegy.

Heaven’s Coast explores personal experience in a way that highlights how AIDS has affected lesbian and gay history by erasing lives and defining communities through mourning, loss, support, and hope. Although mourning is more intensely personal than most aspects of our personal lives, Doty does not worry that the story is no longer his.

“Always, always we were becoming a story,” he writes. “But I didn’t understand that fusing my life to the narrative, giving myself to the story’s life, would be what would allow me to live.”

The fusing of lesbian and gay lives to narratives allows for the survival of lesbian and gay history. Lesbian and gay lives, when placed clearly in view, fulfill the same purposes as heterosexual biography. The main difference is that in lesbian and gay life stories the roles of biography are fulfilled more intensely: notoriety and fame are created primarily through unexpected revelations of sexual preference. Personal experiences become so communal they are used as bargaining chips in the fight for equal rights. Representations in which people find their own differences articulated go beyond personal affirmation into the realm of therapy. And of course, morbid curiosity abounds.

“I’m aware again of how the central fact of my life isn’t one which church or state cares to recognize,” Doty writes in Heaven’s Coast. “Whosees what has happened to us?”