The Parameters of Experience

BY KATHLEEN KNOWLES

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment

-Rita Mae Brown

 

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

-Teilhard de Chardin

 

Warm November 300 DPIIn my latest novel, Warm November, “experience” is a central theme. The two protagonists, Hayley and Merle are ‘women of a certain age’, i.e. they’re both fifty somethings so each can lay claim to a having a learned a certain number of life lessons but that’s where their similarity ends.

 

As a newly out lesbian, Hayley finds her lack of experience with women problematical in several ways. She doesn’t think she knows how to be a lesbian. She thinks lesbians tend to shun her because she used to be heterosexual. Even her avowal of ‘been there, done that’ in regards to heterosexual marriage doesn’t help much.

Merle’s long-time partner has just left her and she’s predictably devastated and not eager to start up with someone new especially, someone like Hayley who was married to a man for over twenty years and just newly out, i.e. inexperienced. She is however drawn to helping Hayley because that’s her nature.

 

Like me, Merle’s been clean and sober and in AA for a long time. In fiction, AA usually takes the form of the protagonist’s journey from active alcoholism to becoming sober. I wanted to do something different and look at sobriety from the point of view of someone who’s been living the sober life for a relatively long time. As Merle discovers, she may think life has become stable and predictable but it hasn’t. No way.

 

In AA, the idea of experience plays a very large role.

Merle’s AA friend Clea says, “Everyone has opinions. Tell me your experience and I might listen.” This speaks to our all too human inclination to mouth off about our opinions instead of sticking to what we know, i.e., our experience. AAs share their ‘experience, strength, and hope’ with other alcoholics. The experience of AA members with longer sobriety is helpful for the nervous and newly sober. The accumulation of ‘sober’ experiences of life grounds and strengthens a person’s sobriety. The oft-related experience in AA meetings of the transition between alcoholic drinking to sobriety ,called sharing one’s story, serves to remind everyone of ‘what it was like’. Hearing it again and again reinforces our commitment to staying sober.

 

So experience in AA or in life is generally considered to be a good thing. The common wisdom has it that experience is the great teacher. It’s true that it’s enormously helpful   and tends to keeps us from repeating past mistakes. It can take the anxious edge off things like public speaking or flying where the more you do something, the less scary it seems.

But what’s the downside of experience if there is one?

 

How about the human tendency to assume all our all future experiences of a specific nature will be the same as a previous experience? One of the big examples of this is, of course, falling in love and being hurt and then being reluctant to fall in love again. This trope is the basis of much of romance fiction. Why are we convinced that falling in love with a new woman is going to end up the same way as falling in love with the previous ten or twenty or however many women there were? What do we learn from those experiences? Only that we’re the common denominator. Hello? What’s that tell us?

 

Then there’s the creeping know- it-all- ism that affects those who’ve been on the planet longer than others. I think another term for it is ‘jaded’. Or we become cynical and dismissive.

Approaching new things in life with a certain amount of caution is probably a good idea. Doing research is an excellent place to start before undertaking something new. Hayley’s good at this. She’s methodical about her search for love. Nothing is going to substitute for actual experience though, no matter how much you think you know. She still has to go through what she goes through. We all still have to do that.

I think it’s harder to be open minded as we get older.   You think you’ve seen it all, but likely you haven’t. You think you can predict with accuracy how you’re going to feel, how you’re going to think. I don’t want to be that way, I want to be surprised and I want to be teachable. Maybe I do know a little something about a lot of stuff. Maybe I’ve seen and done and thing or two. Good for me. But I think there’s a lot more out there waiting for me and a whole lot more to learn. That’s one of the big reason’s I’m a writer.Warm November 300 DPI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOLD STROKES BOOKS AUTHOR INTERVIEW WITH MEREDITH DOENCH

BY CONNIE WARD

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What made you decide to be a fiction writer?

From about the age of eleven, I have always loved to be “safely scared.” I consider it to be “safe” because I can leave the scariness at any point I choose—close the book, turn off the screen, leave the movie theater. This option makes the fear palatable but also exhilarating, which is what keeps me coming back for more. One of my favorite memories of being “safely scared” was reading Stephen King’s It at the age of fourteen. I was completely engrossed in the characters and their plight to kill It in its natural form. I had never before connected so strongly with a character or book. It was also very significant for me because it was the first time I ever considered writing as a career option for me. The more I read about the character Bill Denbrough, the more I thought I might be able to do that job one day, too.

Since my teens, I have always written journals, poems, and short stories, but I didn’t decide to pursue writing seriously until I was in college. I took a number of creative-writing classes, and those only confirmed for me that I wanted to write. When I was a teenager, I used to call writing my hobby. I’ve found that as an adult I cannot live without the outlet of writing. It’s the constant in my life that keeps me balanced. I cannot imagine living a day without the promise of falling into that rabbit hole of a story, whether in my mind or on paper.

While fiction is my first love, I also write creative nonfiction and screenplays. It all depends on the story that comes to me and the medium that best fits it.

 

What types of stories do you write and why?

When I first began writing seriously in college, I wanted to be a horror writer. The longer I wrote, though, the more I began to see a shift in my fiction writing that was based more on justice, which led me to the thriller genre. Like many of my characters, I am concerned about the concept of justice: who receives it and why. I suppose this is why I write thrillers and spend so much time with characters who work in law enforcement. I love to read thrillers, mysteries, and horror books. When I choose a book to read, 90 percent of the time it will come from one of these genres. I write what I love to read.

Many of my longer works—novels and screenplays—are generally thrillers. I need the length of a novel to fully develop a thriller, and it doesn’t always work for me to write them in the short-story format. My short stories, however, tend to focus more on characters with an emphasis on gender and sexuality.

 

What do your family/friends think of your writing?

I’m speaking for my family here, so I hope I get it right! I don’t think many of my relatives are surprised that I write, and they all support me. My father’s family has quite a few members who are in the arts, and, in that regard, I have inherited that gene. My grandfather was a musician who traveled the country performing jazz concerts, and my great-grandmother painted everything she could. I was lucky to grow up in a family where the arts were revered. It only seemed natural for me to also follow as a writer. In terms of my friends, nearly all of them are artists in some way—many write or paint. We all support each other’s artistic endeavors.

Where do you get your ideas?

I have noticed a fascinating reaction from many people when I tell them I have an interest in crime and write thrillers; it has become one of my favorite parts of being a writer. Many people tell me about strange cases they have heard about, bizarre occurrences with crime in their family lineage and close encounters with criminals or strange situations that they or their friends have encountered. Not only are these stories really interesting to me, but sometimes parts of these conversations wind themselves into my writing as well.

I follow crime in the media, and I take some of my ideas from real cases. I have found that the old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” can be very true for someone who writes thrillers. Sometimes I mix elements from different cases to create crimes for my stories. I teach a course on prison literature and culture, and I love to read/hear the firsthand accounts from inmates about their crimes. This resource gives me many ideas as to how to develop strong and believable characters for my stories and novels.

 

How do you write? Do you plan everything out or just write?

This is an interesting question because it changes for me based on what I am writing. If I’m working on a short story or essay, I basically just write. I plan a very loose outline of what will happen in my mind, but I generally find that changes as I write. As for novels, I draft out the plot and keep it near me as I work. I might use five to eight plot markers (significant events and changes I want to occur in the work). Sometimes those plot markers change and I might write some segments about a character or a scene that isn’t outlined, but the basic storyline is. When I start a novel or a longer work, I know the beginning, the middle, and the end. What comes in between those plot markers is negotiable and given the space to grow and change.

I am also a writer who believes in the importance of drafting. It’s necessary for me to write at least two drafts—the first, in which I try to get all my ideas down on paper, and the second, which involves shaping the storyline and the characters.

 

What makes Crossed special to you?

CrossedBecause Crossed is my first published novel, it will always hold a significant place in my heart. Crossed is also very special to me because it was part of my graduate-degree program. A much earlier draft of Crossed was my dissertation.

One of my favorite parts of creative writing is the research I do for my work. I am a history buff of sorts. The research for this novel interested me because I learned so much about ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy. While these topics appalled me at times, reading about them really helped me understand the history of the LGBT community and its past relations to religion and psychology.

Writing Crossed also introduced me to Detective Luce Hansen, someone whose story needed to be told and a character I have spent a significant amount of time with in the last few years. I have learned so much about justice and the law from her. Most importantly, Luce has taught me a great deal about the power of hope and forgiveness.

 

How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?

I tend to write characters based on two things: what I know and what I am interested in. Many of my characters have some aspect of me in them, some more than others, but I see all of them as independent and separate from me, my family, and my friends. That’s not to say I won’t use a specific character trait from a friend for a character or an experience someone in my family may have had, but the character has not been created as a replica of me or someone I know.

I also develop characters who struggle with a problem or situation that I find interesting and want to know more about. It could be that I have never known a person who has struggled with a particular issue presented in a character, but my interest and research into that topic helps me to create her/him. For example, in my novel Crossed, the character Chaz Jameson has no connection to anyone I know. This particular character is the only child of a devout, self-proclaimed minister who leads the One True Path organization (an ex-gay ministry). Chaz has also been exposed to many sessions of conversion therapy. He is very important to the exploration of that topic in the story, and I relied on case studies of teenagers who faced conversion therapy as well as firsthand accounts of those experiences. All of that documentation helped, but I also had to spend a good deal of time imagining what it must be like to be Chaz and how it might have felt to go through conversion therapy under his father’s orders. In the end, Chaz is one of my favorite characters in the book.

 

Which gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender authors inspired you most? Do you have a favorite?

Many writers have inspired me, but I would have to say that Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jeanette Winterson, Leslie Feinberg, and Lidia Yuknavitch have influenced me in different ways and at different points in my life. Woolf, Gilman, and Feinberg were earlier influences on my writing, and I first read them in college. I admire the way these works depict the lives and struggles of women as well as the relationships that develop between them. I particularly go back to my Winterson books to reread the way she develops the relationships between her characters. I’m also fascinated by the way Winterson depicts time in some of her writings. She does amazing work with stories that are not always linear. Written on the Body is my favorite Winterson book, and every time I read it, I get lost in its beauty. I have been reading A LOT of Yuknavitch in the last few months and am so inspired by her courage and honesty. She comes to the page like a warrior for women! I hope to someday show as much courage in my own writing.

 

Do you have any suggestions for new writers?

READ! Read everything you can get your hands on. Read books and stories from many different genres and ones that cover a variety of topics. I love what Stephen King has to say on this topic and remind myself of this advice frequently: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. It’s as simple as that.”

Writing also takes a tremendous amount of practice and a tremendous amount of drafting. You have to be willing to devote the hours to study the craft. I have found that at times writing can be very challenging. It takes a good deal of dedication and hard work. It can also be a lot of fun, and I have met so many terrific and creative people along the way. Neil Gaiman said it best in his description of what it takes to be a writer: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

 

When you aren’t writing, what do you do for fun?

When I’m not writing, I spend a good deal of my time reading. I also watch a lot of movies and detective/mystery series—some of my favorites are The X-Files and The Fall. I enjoy painting and visiting art houses/museums. Most days after work I enjoy nothing more than taking my dog to the park for a good game of fetch. I have always been a fan of water sports, and when I was younger, I swam competitively. I still love to swim and be near the water—pool, lake, river, or ocean, I love them all.

The Roar for Change: Leelah’s Law

By Meredith Doench

            I didn’t see the 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader until a few years after it was released. I sat with a group of friends huddled around a television where we couldn’t stop laughing. Who could keep a straight face watching RuPaul play the part of an ex-gay who led others to heterosexuality at True Directions inpatient camp, a facility dedicated to conversion therapy and the twelve-step addiction model similar to Alcoholics Anonymous? Who didn’t laugh when Megan (played by Natasha Lyonne) outsmarted the True Directions staff to sneak moments alone with her new crush Graham (played by Clea DuVall)? We all cheered when Megan ultimately defied the teachings of True Directions and escaped with Graham at her side. Underneath this comedy, though, lurks a dark truth that I and so many others recognized: the harsh reality of what happens when a person is forced to change her sexual orientation or gender identity.

Conversion or reparative therapy, the buzz phrase floating around President Barack Obama for the last few months, isn’t nearly so light-hearted. It is the practice of “repairing” or “curing” a person’s sexuality or gender using methods that may ultimately be dangerous and harmful, both physically and emotionally. The American Psychiatric Association reports that there is no evidence that this practice is effective and stands behind their 1998 position statement which opposes “any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder, or based upon a prior assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation.” Additionally, when minors are exposed to these methods, the Human Rights Campaign reports that such therapies “can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.”   Case in point: Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn.

Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen-year-old transgender woman, asked her parents if she could begin transition from male to female. Alcorn’s parents refused and instead sent her to Christian conversion therapy. Alcorn took her own life last December by stepping in front of a truck on a Cincinnati-area highway. She is named in the We the People petition that calls for a ban on conversion therapy for minors. In January, this petition garnered almost 121,000 signatures of support. All those signatures, however, were too late to save Leelah. Sadly, her story is all too familiar within the LGBTQ community.

Conversion therapy and its horrific sibling, ex-gay ministries, have often been linked together. Many ex-gay ministries support conversion therapy. Both believe that a person’s sexual orientation or gender can be “fixed” if only the individual works hard enough. The idea that God, or a higher power of your choosing, can simply take away an individual’s homosexual or transgender feelings if the individual prays enough, is the basis for many of these groups and practices. When all that hard praying and “therapy” doesn’t work, the blame is placed on the individual. The shame-filled message is clear: Something is wrong with me. Even God doesn’t love me. Self-loathing and self-blame become the norm in many of these types of therapies.    

When I was eighteen, I began seeing a new therapist who encouraged me to attend a support group for homosexual, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals in my area. “You might meet some new friends,” this therapist encouraged me. “You might learn something about yourself.” I wasn’t completely sure of anything in my life at that point, but I was searching for others who were also searching. I expected this support group to be a supportive environment with a trained leader who held some sort of psychology degree. I expected camaraderie. I expected people who would be willing to listen.

Before the support group meeting, I was told I needed to meet with the leaders, a husband and wife. Neither were pastors or therapists or psychiatrists; the man worked in business and the woman considered the support group to be her job. This Christian couple, who I guessed to be in their late 50’s, led me into a softly lit room where they offered me hot tea and proceeded to interview me to engage in “dialogue” about my homosexual behavior. It felt very much like a forced confession and was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. They said long prayers for God to change me and for God to intervene; they didn’t want any more “damage” to be done. I have always been a private, introverted person, and I felt like I was suffocating under the judgment from this couple. Relief flooded me once the meeting began and other participants arrived. I needed to get out from under the scrutiny and laser-like focus of the two leaders. What I found in the group, however, was a room full of men ranging in age from 20-70. These men “confessed” to feelings of desire for other men and prayed for those feelings to stop. I knew this group wouldn’t work for me. I couldn’t wait for the meeting to end and never returned.

I have never been able to forget it, however, and my experience with the “support group” became the inspiration for my first thriller novel, Crossed.              Crossed

I began researching ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy in 2006 while I was in graduate school. I learned that the Midwest was one of the hotbeds for these groups in the 1980s and 1990s, and the support group I went to was loosely associated with an international organization that is now defunct, Exodus. I needed a lot more than my personal experience with the group in order to write Crossed, so I conducted interviews with past members of ex-gay ministries. I learned that there are many LGBTQ people across the country that have at one point or another in their lives participated in conversion therapy or ex-gay ministries, though it is rarely discussed. Because of this silence around the topic, I found that there are many, regardless of their sexuality or gender, who are not familiar with these groups and what they do. Ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy have, unfortunately, become a part of LGBTQ history. I want my novel and its characters to express the dangers of such practices. It is my hope that when more voices contribute to the fight, these types of organizations and therapies will end and the LGBTQ suicide rate will drop.

Leelah Alcorn’s suicide was the whisper that raised voices for change inside the American political scene. Congressional action is needed for the ban to become national; however, each state has the power to ban the practice. Currently only California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have done so. Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, New York, Wisconsin, and others have either voted down the ban or it has been withdrawn. President Obama, however, publicly supports the petition and has called for a national ban to be called Leelah’s Law in honor of Alcorn.

In June, I watched with great interest as the trial of Ferguson v. JONAH played out. In this first of its kind case, three gay men and two of their mothers filed suit against one organization that offers ex-gay and conversion therapies, Jews Offering Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) for violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. JONAH, according to the plaintiffs and the Southern Poverty Law Center, failed to provide the services they promised: they did not alter the three men’s sexual orientation. In addition, the plaintiffs claimed to have suffered emotional distress as a result of JONAH’s services. In the landmark victory JONAH was found to be unconscionable and fraudulent; they were ordered to pay the victims over $72,000 to return fees for their program and to cover the mental health counseling they needed after their time in JONAH. This landside decision was a strong affirmation to me and all people who have experienced the negative effects of conversion therapy and ex-gay ministries. Not only has the court delivered an empowering message to the LGBTQ community, but it has also given us a strong indication of what’s on the horizon when more states vote to support the ban against the use of conversion therapy for minors.

It has been sixteen years since the writer Brian Wayne Peterson and director Jamie Babbit brought But I’m a Cheerleader to the silver screen. Sixteen years and the practices of conversion therapy are still going strong in segments of our country. It has been seven months since Leelah Alcorn took her own life, writing in her suicide note: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.” In honor of Leelah and so many others that have gone before her, we need the current political whisper to become nothing short of a roar for change.

 

 

*If you are a victim of conversion therapy, the Southern Law Poverty Center would like to hear your story. Please visit http://www.splcenter.org/conversion-therapy to learn more about the damages of conversion therapy and to record your own experience.

 

 

 

Works cited

American Psychiatric Association. “LGBT: Sexual Orientation.” American Psychiatric

Association. 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.

Capehart, Jonathan. “Obama Comes Out Against ‘Conversion Therapy’ to support ‘Leelah’s

Law.’ Washington Post. April 10, 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.

Hartmann, Margaret. “Where the States Stand in the Fight to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy.”

New York Magazine. April 9, 2015. Web. 22 May 2015.

Human Rights Campaign. “The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or

Gender Identity.” Resources. The Human Rights Campaign. Web. 22 May 2015.

Wetzstein, Cheryl. “Gay Conversion Therapy Faces a Legal Fight in New Jersey Case.” The

Washington Times. May 31, 2015. Web. 1 June 2015.

The Intersection of Love and Grief

By Julie Blair

Julie Blair

Photo credit: Devon Cattell

 

My new romance, Making a Comeback, is deeply personal to me. I hope it’s also universal because that’s what I believe writing and reading are. As a writer, I go down into the mines of my personal history and life experiences and coalesce those images into something that says, “Guess what? Me, too.” (To give credit where it’s deserved that truth was brilliantly given context in a July Facebook post by one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott.) A reader, and I’ve been an avid reader since I was old enough to hold a book, hitches a ride for some hours and hopefully closes the book with a sigh, as if saying goodbye to a dear friend, and a sense that she’s been given an experience, a glimpse into life, that either leaves her saying, “Thank goodness I’m not the only one,” or, “Hmm…I never thought of life in that way before,” or, “Gosh, I’m glad I’ve been spared that.” In any event, my desire as a reader is to be emotionally affected and changed by my interaction with a book. My goal as a writer is to be the architect of that reaction in a reader.

imageAt its heart Making a Comeback is a story about the intersection of love and grief. I think it’s an interesting question about the nature of life, the unpredictability of both tragedy and joy, and a viable, if not often explored, question for a romance. I faced that very question in my own life (I didn’t write the story to examine that experience but I certainly drew from it) when at age thirty my partner, with whom I expected to spend the rest of my life, died. I’d lost my mother and all my grandparents in the prior five years so I had some experience with loss and grief. But nothing prepared me for that singular loss, as if part of me was suddenly not there. Dreams, plans, companionship, sex, that special bond of intimacy…gone. The warm-fall-day softness of love was replaced with the thick, chilling, encasing fog of grief. Life became putting one foot in front of the other with no hope I’d ever see the sun again. But time worked on me…breathing hurt less bit by bit, Kleenex wasn’t part of my everyday attire, I could laugh, and find peace in nature. I entered chiropractic school as we had planned. Within a year, I met a woman. Common interests led to friendship. Friendship led to the unmistakable stirrings of romance. Clearly my heart was capable of loving again, but my mind balked. Was I being disloyal to my partner? How long was appropriate to grieve? It was too much for me and I walked away. In time, other opportunities for love came along and I said yes to them.

I wanted this story to say, among other things, that love has no timetable. It simply shows up when two hearts connect and we have the choice to let it heal and enrich our lives or to run from it and cling to the past. Should we love again? When is too soon? How do we honor our feelings for the lost relationship while not allowing ourselves to be frozen by grief? How do we preserve memories while not becoming curators of old photographs? How do we reconnect with ourselves, our own dreams, separate from shared plans for the future? I don’t have the right answers because there aren’t any. Characters in the story resolve those questions in different ways.

I came to see that at its healthiest grief is a transition, not an end point. It’s an acknowledgement that we have loved, a way to honor something ending, and a passage back into the stream of life. We can’t keep a lost love alive by cutting ourselves off from new love. In fact I’d argue that by clamping down on our hearts and turning away from our capacity to love, we do the old love a disservice. As Liz’s sister, Hannah, tells her, “Your ability to feel love and passion doesn’t stop because Teri’s no longer the focus for those feelings. You don’t betray her by letting yourself feel again. You do betray yourself if you don’t.”

This is a story about the courage to let grief change us but not destroy us, the courage to dare to live and love again in the aftermath of tragedy. It’s a story about trust and the power of radical acceptance and unwavering support to mend broken lives. And ultimately it’s a story about the healing power of love that opens up the most sought after of paths—that of joy. As Liz tells Jac at the end as they walk on the beach, “I wouldn’t have wished loss and grief on either of us. It’s like we were tossed in the ocean and carried away by currents that stranded us far from where we thought our lives were headed. We made our way back. Together.”

So yes, there’s crying and sadness. There’s also laughter and great tenderness, friendship and family. There’s music and dancing, walks on the beach, snorkeling, and a zip line. There’s an adorable guide dog named Max. And at the end, there’s passion and renewal, a comeback of the heart and soul. I invite you to spend time with Liz and Jac, to empathize with their sorrows and cheer their progress along the path of recovery to a much deserved happy ever after.

The Amazon Trail

Worst Job Ever

By Lee Lynch

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No, I never switched boxcars on the Southern Pacific Railroad, I never strip mined mountaintops with pick and shovel—my worst job ever wasn’t even wrapping meat in a supermarket, a job I really did.

I awoke from a dream this morning in which I was a vocational counseling supervisor in a work incentive program. Strangely, after some sleepy thought, I remembered that’s exactly one of the ways I earned a living. Is there a job in the world more dehumanizing to both parties than “helping” people less privileged than oneself when the help is a sham?

There I was earning a paycheck to assist women and men to become empowered by training for and getting decent jobs. In actuality, the state required the job seekers to meet with me and my staff, thereby rendering the clients powerless in the hands of us minimally trained “experts.”

Many “clients,” usually high school dropouts trying to bring up kids, sometimes saddled with criminal records, ill health, addiction problems, unsafe living conditions, hunger, and more, saw right through the well-meant program. We young, college-educated idealists were completely hoodwinked into believing we could balance an institutionally unbalanced situation. The relationships between client and counselor were overwhelmingly adversarial from the get go.

With some exceptions, the hopeful or resistant—often both—clients were of African American or Puerto Rican heritage. We eager beaver counselors could not have been whiter. Only one of our counselors spoke both English and Spanish. Although some of us came from originally blue-color families, by the time we were hired we were at least breaking into the middle class.

I got along with the clients, but quickly became overwhelmed by the futility of trying to effect any meaningful change from my form-heaped desk.  We used both state and federal funds so the paperwork continually threatened to become the counselors’ focus no matter how hard we tried to concentrate on the clients. The process itself built a wall between helper and helpee that had to be scaled before anything could be accomplished. Some clients never returned after those grueling initial encounters.

Others returned because their incomes depended on their participation. Clients didn’t actually have to be hired anywhere, nor did counselors have to produce jobs. The government, the program, the clients and the counselors could not right the wrongs that brought us together, so if all else failed, we might go through the motions. Which should have made us, in a way, equals, and sometimes did. An unspoken understanding could come of client/counselor interactions which amounted to collusion: the obstacles that our clients needed to overcome were so great, what could we do but sign the paperwork to keep all our checks coming?

Which is not to say there were no success stories. For every dozen men who perhaps drank too much to keep jobs, there was an unemployed father who completed training as a union drywall installer and was able to leave the welfare system behind. For every woman who couldn’t afford daycare, there was another who simply needed help putting together elements of a plan that freed her up to learn office skills and survive on pink collar wages not much higher than what she got from the government. Such meager triumphs sustained all of us. We hoped her children would go to college.

Ultimately, I burned out. We were, mostly, good people, clients and counselors, doing the best we knew how. None of us had the tools to make change and all of us felt embattled in hostile surroundings. The clients entered an environment created and operated by white people who ruled the roost yet fled for greener pastures at the end of the day. The counselors invaded the neighborhood where the clients lived and were not welcome. For all our liberal views and sympathetic efforts, we counselors were products of a classist, racist culture and, try as we might to cleanse ourselves, we carried the germs of fear, ignorance and polarization to work.

The clerical and paraprofessional staff was primarily non-white and many were program success stories themselves. Yet the counselors and supervisors earned higher wages and still held the power. Relationships between staff were touch-and-go, everyone on guard for slights and discrimination. Power struggles between clients and staff, staff and staff, staff and management, management and funding sources were ongoing.

The physical plant mirrored this. Well-used government desks and chairs were aligned in pre-cube rows. Walls between departments were made of nothing but four-drawer file cabinets. The high ceilings of the former brick factory enabled an unceasing cacophonous racket. Years of battles were fought between smokers and nonsmokers over the tiny lounge that served well over a hundred workers. The parking lot was not considered safe. Armed guards stood at entrances. The place was never fully cleaned; the inadequate restrooms served staff and clients, stripping both of dignity.

And gay people? There were three of us on staff that I knew of, two guys and me. We hid our queerness to keep our jobs, feared running into co-workers on days off. I never had a gay client that I knew of. There was no government help for downtrodden gays.

Really, there was no government help for anyone.That might have been my worst job ever, but I was still the privileged one: I could leave. And did. I had the privilege to become ever downwardly mobile.

Copyright 2015 Lee Lynch

The Allure of Romantic Suspense

BY GREG HERREN

 

“I have no past, I have no future. I have only the immediate present.”

–from Hunter’s Green, by Phyllis A. Whitney

 

 

I was about ten years old when I discovered what was then called romantic suspense, which was a subgenre of the mystery field primarily targeted The Orion Mask 300 DPIto women. The covers of the mass market paperback were very distinct; they usually featured a woman with long hair being blown about in the wind (sometimes in a very long dress) usually looking backward over her shoulder with a fearful expression on her face. There was usually an oddly-shaped, spooky looking tree behind her; a mysterious but attractive man even further in the background, and in the absolute rear of the image was, without fail, a spooky looking house with a light in one of the windows. These books were by women, for women, and about women.

 

“When my aunt Charlotte died suddenly many people believed that I had killed her and that if it had not been for Nurse Loman’s evidence at the inquest, the verdict would have been one of murder by some person or persons unknown; there would have been a probing into the dark secrets of the Queen’s House, and the truth would have come out.”

–from The Secret Woman, by Victoria Holt

 

 

My grandmother had a copy of Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman, which I read one weekend while visiting her while the rest of the family watched football games on television. The book was so well-written and well-done that I began reading every book by Victoria Holt I could get my hands on, and reading her led me to other women writers, all labelled ‘romantic suspense’ novelists. These other women included Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, among others; but those three were by far and away the best.

 

“Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.”

–from Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart

 

I’ve always been a big reader, devouring every book I could get my hands on. I also wanted to be a writer from the earliest time I can remember—and usually, when I found a genre I liked I wanted to write in that genre. My first attempts at writing were my own versions of the Hardy Boys/ Nancy Drew type mysteries for kids; I think the first one I tried writing was called The Secret of the Haunted Mansion. (Not terribly original, of course, but I was only eight.) When I discovered romantic suspense, I wanted to write it as well. The majority of the books were written in the first person, always from a woman’s point of view, and certainly there was an element of romance in them. Victoria Holt’s novels were more patterned after Jane Eyre; the first half of the book was usually the life story of the heroine, before she found herself either married or involved somehow with a man whose affections she wasn’t sure of; in Menfreya in the Morning, Harriet was a wealthy heiress who was plain and had a clubfoot. Once she was married to the lord of Menfreya, she was never certain whether he really loved her or whether he married her for her money. Holt’s novels were also often set in Cornwall, and often in the nineteenth century.

 

“I often marveled after I went to Pendorric that one’s existence could change so swiftly, so devastatingly.”

–from Bride of Pendorric by Victoria Holt

 

 

I found myself preferring Whitney to Holt. Whitney’s books were often set in some foreign location (St. Croix, Cape Town, Norway, Istanbul, Athens) and Whitney always included a lot of local color and history in her books, which made them even more enjoyable to me. I often felt, though, that her heroines were a bit on the wimpy side, despite the adventures they were having. Her books often featured a strong woman who served as the antagonist to the heroine; sometimes being married to the heroine’s true love (Columbella, Lost Island, Woman Without a Past) and often, the story had to do with secrets from the past coming out to haunt the present (Listen for the Whisperer, Silverhill, Spindrift, Domino).

 

“It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.”

From The Moon-spinners by Mary Stewart

 

I never forgot these books or their authors; I often go back and reread them and marvel at how well they are plotted, the richness of the character development, and the strength of the first lines. I have always wanted to write one, to try my hand at romantic suspense and follow the basic template—another mystery writer explained it to me as “Two love interests; one a bad guy and the other a good guy. Which is which?” This is overly simplistic, of course, but when I started plotting The Orion Mask, it really came in handy.The Orion Mask 300 DPI

 

“Now that I have reached the mature age of twenty-seven I can look back on the fantastic adventure of my youth and can almost convince myself that it did not happen as I believed it did then.”

–from On the Night of the Seventh Moon by Victoria Holt

 

 

Another popular theme in Whitney’s work—and one I sought to emulate in The Orion Maskwas reuniting of someone, practically a stranger, with a family they’d never known. The reason the heroine had been separated from her family always varied (in Silverhill, her mother had been banished from the family estate and cut-off; in Woman Without a Past she had been put up for adoption; in Listen for the Whisperer she had been given up by her mother and raised by her father; in Domino, her father removed her from her mother’s family) but the drama of someone coming back into a family group after years away was something I really wanted to explore.

 

So, I created Heath Brandon, a young gay man in his early twenties who is working full-time to put himself through college. When he was thirteen, he found out (by accident) that the woman he believed to be his mother was actually his father’s second wife; his mother had committed suicide when he was very young and his father took him away from Louisiana and his mother’s family. His mother’s family is wealthy, and so every once in a while he would fantasize about reuniting with them and getting help with school. He is at work one night when he is approached by someone who not only knows who he is but has a lot of information about Heath’s family back in Louisiana—and more information about his mother. Soon, Heath is on his way to Louisiana to meet the family he never knew…and discovers that there are a lot of secrets being kept in the family mansion.

 

And Heath learns the hard way to be careful what you wish for.

 

The Orion Mask 300 DPII had a lot of fun writing The Orion Mask, and I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


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