by Jim Piechota
A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein; Beacon Press, $24.95
There's a personal letter attached to the advance copy of transgendered performance artist and playwright Kate Bornstein's frank new memoir A Queer and Pleasant Danger. In it, she not only openly (and curiously) admits that "being a man never worked for me, and I'm certainly not a woman," but emotionally appeals to readers to help her become reunited with her estranged daughter and grandchildren. Her daughter Jessica is a "high-level executive" in the Church of Scientology's most holy order, The Sea Organization, and their laws forbid her from speaking with anyone who has abandoned the group, as Bornstein did and writes about in stirring detail. Bornstein's story circles around the controversial nature of Scientology, and as her life as both a man, then a woman unfolds, it becomes clear she has emerged as an assured, powerful representative for the LGBTQ community.
She was born Albert Bornstein on the Jersey Shore to a "touchy-feely family." Her Mom was an early civil rights supporter, and Dad was an esteemed doctor who, as the author seems to take particular pride in revealing, was Jewish but never bar mitzvahed and "had breasts." Albert's awkward adolescence was studded with uncomfortable sexual attempts with women, obsessions with boys, acting, and anorexia, but eventually her life became influenced by an ill-fated indoctrination into the "applied religious philosophy" of the Church of Scientology.
Bornstein writes pages of fascinating factoids about her 12 years inside the controversial organization (surveys, reincarnation, Commodores, Flagships, thetans), including the billion-year servitude contract she signed once married to wife Molly, who would give birth to daughter Jessica. After leaving the Church (a move which to Scientologists means she became "a danger to everyone everywhere"), her life began to take dramatic twists as an "ex-cult member and secret girl," including bouts with Borderline Personality Disorder, the grand gender transition from Albert Herman to Katherine Vandam, and harrowing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Further self-examination revealed a need to become an active participant in S&M groups ("I played with pointy things, and I wanted them to draw my blood"), which she writes about in graphic detail, and incremental success on the performance artist circuit and as an advocate within transgender communities at large.
Bornstein, a former arts writer for this newspaper, dictates her struggles and triumphs as a transgender personality with striking honesty. She emerges as an outspoken identity through the revelations unveiled in this serpentine life story written with raw emotion and a touch of dark humor. Though the author has fidgeted with multiple relocations from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Seattle, she finally settles down in New York City with her girlfriend, three cats, two dogs, a turtle – and not an ounce of regret.
Kate Bornstein will discuss her memoir at Books, Inc., 2275 Market St., on Tues., Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.