One of These Things First

  • Review
May 3, 2016

Steven Gaines’s mem­oir opens with a ter­ri­fy­ing episode from 1962: his sui­cide attempt at age 15 in the back of his grand­par­ents’ store in Brook­lyn, where a staff of sharp-tongued sales­women hawk bras and gir­dles. The scene is par­tic­u­lar­ly haunt­ing because of the way Gaines recounts it, method­i­cal­ly and mat­ter-of-fact­ly, as it felt to him at the time — entire­ly rea­son­able and per­haps even inevitable.

Gaines was strug­gling with the usu­al teenage trau­mas — a trou­bled home life, a dif­fi­cult ado­les­cence, social awk­ward­ness — but the root of his despair was his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and inabil­i­ty not only to embrace his sex­u­al urges but to acknowl­edge it at all to any­one else. He con­sent­ed to enter a psy­chi­atric clin­ic; thanks to a wealthy grand­fa­ther, he avoid­ed a local snakepit and checked into Payne Whit­ney, a Man­hat­tan facil­i­ty with an elite clien­tele, where he spent sev­er­al months. That brief but piv­otal peri­od is where the bulk of One of These Things First is focused.

A vet­er­an jour­nal­ist and author of non­fic­tion books about famous musi­cians (the Beach Boys, the Bea­t­les) and the lives of rich peo­ple in Man­hat­tan, the Hamp­tons, and Mia­mi Beach, Gaines is an adept sto­ry­teller, mix­ing celebri­ty gos­sip (Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe plays a small role; Mary Mar­tin plays a large one) and healthy dos­es of humor into his rec­ol­lec­tions. There are dif­fi­cult scenes, to be sure, as patients are forcibly sedat­ed, mis­treat­ed by the staff and one anoth­er, and con­fined to padded cells, but these, too, are treat­ed calm­ly. The author’s clean and straight­for­ward prose deft­ly avoids melo­dra­ma or sen­sa­tion­al­ism. He is a sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter in his own sto­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the ben­e­fit of per­son­al hind­sight and decades of soci­etal progress around gay issues, but he does not paint him­self as a saint; his Jew­ish fam­i­ly includes a num­ber of vil­lains of var­i­ous stripes, but they are depict­ed as com­plex char­ac­ters that even­tu­al­ly come to appear less black-and-white than a trou­bled teenag­er might ini­tial­ly view them.

Per­haps the most mov­ing sec­tion comes at the end, after his release from Payne Whit­ney. If life were like one of the clas­sic movies Gaines fre­quent­ly alludes to in his nar­ra­tive, there would be a clear change, an epiphany, a hap­py end­ing. But in real­i­ty, being dis­charged was not the end of his strug­gles. Dys­func­tion­al fam­i­lies do not heal overnight, and social prob­lems are not resolved instant­ly; even if Gaines him­self could change, the Brook­lyn he returned to was remark­ably unchanged, as was the rest of Amer­i­ca — espe­cial­ly around gay issues — for many years to come.

Gaines’s brief expla­na­tion of his decades-long strug­gles with his sex­u­al­i­ty after Payne Whit­ney is per­haps the most heart­break­ing part of his sto­ry. But a brief coda, where he is reunit­ed with the psy­chi­a­trist who first treat­ed him, ends the book on a melan­choly yet some­how con­cil­ia­to­ry note, for Gaines and for gay teenagers everywhere.

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