Turning Normal on Its Head: Kate Bornstein's 'A Queer and Pleasant Danger'

Photo (partial) courtesy of © Katy Raddatz, Chronicle

Kate Bornstein's memoir takes readers “to the crossroads of her life” and artfully and honestly demonstrates her decisions to “opt for the path more outlawed, less culturally approved”.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today

Publisher: Beacon
Length: 280 pages
Author: Kate Bornstein
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-05

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today is the compelling retelling of the influential life of Kate Bornstein. Using humor, honesty, and wit, she leads readers through life changing events such as the decade she spent as a contributing member to the church of Scientology, the path leading to gender reassignment surgery, exploits in the lesbian BDSM scene, life as a performance artist, through the years struggling with suicide and eating disorders – just to name a few. However, Bornstein uses these episodes to frame the understanding and development of her identity as rooted in the emotional ruptures and sutures with families, friends, lovers, and of course with herself.

Bornstein takes readers “to the crossroads of her life” (247) and artfully and honestly demonstrates her decisions to “opt for the path more outlawed, less culturally approved” (247). A Queer and Pleasant Danger brings readers face to face with a society where the 'normative' is at a premium. But what Bornstein ultimately teaches us is that non-normal, or beyond normal, can be fun, challenging, but most of all rewarding. We need to accept expressive fluidity and understand that life is not a solo performance, but the actors certainly will change.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger is not a typical memoir, it doesn't follow a linear chronology and it does not frame life events and personal decisions as causative. Bornstein plays with temporal storytelling, she moves readers through flashbacks and back to present realities while interjecting her own opinions and revisions. Her teling is of memories the way she remembers them, but this only proves that our own memory can fool us. In an effort to “not tell lies”, (7) Bornstein modifies her memories in order to present an honest and inmate narrative.

Her mission for this memoir, “I must not tell lies” (7) not only develops her art of storytelling but also Bornstein’s own understanding of self-identity. Bornstein reminds readers that by constantly revisiting the stories we tell ourselves, we change and modify them. Thus akin to our memories, we also must change and rebuild, we must be self-reflective, and we must not lie to ourselves. And much as identity can change, Bornstein demonstrates that a life’s history is fluid and mercurial. However, how are we to believe that Bornstein’s memoir is based on fact rather than fantasy? Simply: the stories that fill these pages are “the most important stuff in my life, and I won’t lie to you about any of that. I promise” (xviii).

Bornstein’s memoir serves as an open letter to her estranged daughter and grandchildren who are Scientologists in good standing. Unfortunately, her excommunication from the church also severed her familial ties. Despite the moments of hilarity, eroticism, and honesty in this telling, the narrative tinges with the reality of separation and familial alienation. But Bornstein never blames the church, religion, or any type of larger cultural institutions. Rather, she utilizes her love for her child as a means to bridge the expansive emotional, ideological, and geographic divide. Personally, it was difficult to put down the book without hoping that her daughter has read or will read this memoir.

Bornstein’s account of Scientology and her role in the institution is one of the most compelling features of the book. Providing as many details as possible without flirting with legal or personal ramifications, Bornstein provides an insightful glance into Scientology. Seemingly, there are few published accounts of Scientology or personal interactions with L. Ron Hubbard written by ex-Scientologists, yet Bornstein presents a diplomatic and sincere depiction of life within the enigmatic religion. Interestingly, she does not point to Scientology as a framework that constructs normative restrictions and sources of guilt. Rather, she couches the religion as one of the methods she utilized to understand and develop her own self-narrative.

Throughout A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Bornstein candidly puts into picture the difficultly and confusion directly stemming from being or feeling different. We pledge a blind allegiance to a culturally impossible standard of normal, and for Bornstein she even sought the rigid infrastructures of organized religion as a guide. However, there is the possibility for a liberation stemming directly from a type of responsible social ‘disobedience.’ As Bornstein writes: “my life journey was all coming together now…my first aha moment was the realization that I’d bought into cultural mandates that real women only love men. I broke that rule…” (243).

Memoirs such as A Queer and Pleasant Danger demonstrate the importance of breaking social and cultural rules while questioning those that frame our identities and social positions. Throughout this account, Bornstein engages the failures, follies, and triumphs of social rule breaking and ultimately concludes that this is just a means of “exploring options, nothing wrong with that” (129).

Bornstein’s memoir stands as an important addition to queer history, gender and identity theory but also acts as a type of activism. At one point in her life, Bornstein’s stresses that she is “not an activist” (206): I would like to ask her if this still holds true. Perhaps she's not a political activist in the traditional sense, but Bornstein certainly is a cultural activist and her memoir serves as tool dismantling heteronormative and oppressive societies. Accolades must also be given to Beacon Press for publishing such a valuable read.

Memoirs such as A Queer and Pleasant Danger create social and cultural spaces that facilitate a safe and open interaction with the non-normative. But most importantly, when individuals such as Bornstein pen these texts, they open the avenues for individuals to listen to and communicate their desires and fears. This memoir is a guidebook (how appropriate if we consider Bornstein’s imploration that defining oneself with a singular identity is so limiting!). It's a tool for social and cultural activism that communicates her story but also provides a text, almost a script, on how to live our own lives and navigate what seem to be insurmountable troubles. Especially in a culture only now coming to terms with bullying and with teenage suicide reaching endemic proportions, Bornstein’s thoughtful memoir facilitates understanding and communication.

Bornstein’s writing style is clear, heartfelt, and captivating. As with her previous books, she forms bonds with her readers, allowing us to enter into her prose and consequentially her world, while gently affirming that our literary visit will be worthwhile. Yet it's here that Bornstein’s book demonstrates a minor weakness; her conversational prose, that can serve to fully charm a reader, is also sometimes difficult to read and discern. Periodically, it takes a second read through to clarify the meaning of sentences. Regardless, this is a slight flaw in relationship to the virtuosity of the entire memoir.

At one point Bornstein writes “I moved on to the next item on my do-before-I-die list: become a star” (xiv). Perhaps she is still striving for that achievement, but Bornstein has become (perhaps unintentionally) a hero to many and she can check-off that accomplishment. A Queer and Pleasant Danger is a brave and honest account of self-discovery in the shadows of a culture that strives to uniform and alienate. Bornstein’s memoir is surely one of the best of the year; A Queer and Pleasant Danger is funny, tragic, and mesmerizing and will enchant readers.


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