Lessons from Borough Park and the Payne Whitney

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Photo: New York Hospital, Payne Whitney Clinic. From the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Book review: One of These Things First : A Memoir, by Steven Gaines

It sounds strange, but I’ve read a couple of Holocaust memoirs lately and I needed to read something light and funny, stat. Strange, because this is a memoir about a teenage suicide attempt and subsequent time spent in the famous Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. But after reading darkly humorous and upbeat excerpt of the book, I knew it was what I needed.

Steven Gaines, now a successful author and journalist, was once a very unsuccessful-feeling gay Jewish teenager in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He was coming of age in the ’50s and ’60s, a time when homosexuality was very unacceptable, and had the uncomfortable religious background (his father changed their surname, selecting a new one from an Oldsmobile dealership, to sound less Jewish) and the daunting, confusing specter of some mental illness lurking throughout a kooky extended family to boot. Add some normal adolescent insecurity couple with a sudden onset of obsessive compulsions, volatile parents, and bullying over his sexuality, and he attempted suicide at age fifteen, landing in a clinic that he knew from the headlines thanks to Marilyn Monroe.

This is a brief memoir, but Gaines is such a brilliantly descriptive writer, that it almost works just as a creative character study of the people and neighborhood around him. The first half of the book paints a vivid picture of his family life in Brooklyn, and the second half details his time and the characters he encounters in Payne Whitney, along with his Freudian reconditioning in terms of his sexual preferences.

Ultimately, Gaines’ darkly funny observations and his intelligent observations, with the distance of decades in between the present and the time of the story he’s telling, make for an inspiring and moving story. I liked that he was open and forgiving, that he pointed out when he made mistakes or misjudgments, and has a knack for showing how he’s learned. There could’ve been a lot more though, including more of an arc to the sexuality issues which were the biggest factor in his suicide attempt in the first place. I could see a text like this being a big, inspiring help to a lot of people. It still should be, I just hope he continues to write more in this vein, like David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, and to expound on the themes he introduced here.

There are some stylistic elements I didn’t like – he’s obsessed with films, and peppered throughout the book are references to movies and which stars won or were nominated for Oscars. Aside from serving to anchor his personality to typical teenage movie fandom, it was never really clear to me why these references existed. A couple might have been okay, but they started to sound Rain Man-ish after awhile. Also, the title – I try not to judge a book by its cover OR title, but this title is both not very good and forgettable, plus never actually connected to anything in the story. Weird.

Otherwise, this is a must-read. I love his very funny, deprecating but intelligent voice, and I’m envious of his writing skills.

One of These Things First: A Memoir
by Steven Gaines

published August 9, 2016 by Delphinium Books

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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