It’s exciting to come upon a new series of titles that work as hybrid memoirs and cultural criticism about their given topic. How does the writer relate to these experiences, sensations, collective understandings? New York University Press’s”Avidly Reads” series provides slim collections (approximately 30,000 words) that carefully distill a brief history of their topic, each with the writers’ distinct sensibilities. It’s a pleasure to explore how effectively each writer balances personal memoir with subject analysis in this series.
Kathryn Bond Stockton‘s Making Out is a wonderfully intense experience from start to finish. She knows we are primarily expecting the prurient aspects of her subject. We want to understand the intimacy of a kiss, the reasoning behind the action, but we also need to accept that (for Stockton) this book “…asks about reading.” For Stockton, reading “…is kissing and sex with ideas.” Why do we love the feeling of some words? The very act of kissing, she suggests, is “…strange, fertile, inefficient…related to reading, beautifully unknowable.”
Indeed, Stockton carefully spells out from the beginning that her text will include zones: “…memoir; conceptions; brief reflections on movies and books.” The reward for any reader of will rest purely in the success of our connection with the text; be it tenuous or full-throated and all-consuming (like a lethal kiss), it will depend on our willingness to engage with Making Out.
Our primary impression of Making Out (after the preface) will rest in Stockton’s “…desire for a word. What I wished to kiss: one blunt word.” She writes: “I…am a prequel to ‘trans’ and gendered ‘nonbinary’ life today…” It’s a beautifully effective and logical way to set out on this journey to explore the meaning of “Making out”, both in its erotic and textual implications. Kiss your partner like your life depends on it. Make out an impenetrable text through context clues and between-the-lines evidence. From this seemingly abstract premise, Stockton creates a crystalline logic. Readers obsessed with finding meaning in a text may feel that we cannot “make out” the meaning of one thing without consuming every little thing.
Stockton claims at the start that kissing “…matters intensely or not at all.” The same can probably be said about the search for textual meaning and purpose. As she wonders if “…reading is meant to feel like kissing”, the logic of such ruminations begin to materialize. In less assured hands, these connections with text might seem desperate and tenuous. In Stockton’s, they’re assured and confident.
What’s happening as we read a text? “The word enters me,” she writes. “From this penetration, there’s immediate birth…” Stockton considers Guy Green’s 1965 film, A Patch of Blue, starring Elizabeth Hartman as a young blind woman and Sidney Poitier as her love interest. As a child Stockton recalls her desire to be like Poitier in this film. “I desire a woman,”she writes, “feminine and fine, with problems of her own, which make her blind to mine.”
The connections continue. She is “…an aching kisser and devoted reader.” She is enthralled with “making out” and the myth of the Hollywood kiss. For Stockton, kissing “…is the ultimate act of estrangement…” It is certainly sexual, at times penetrative, and often liquid. In a carefully constructed argument, Stockton sets forth these ideas as balanced with the “promiscuity” of reading.
In Chapter Two, Stockton recalls her life divinity school while in her 20s. “I am lonely. I’ve just entered a state of no return…I have entered ‘gay.’ Leapt from a balcony, ledge, window.” She suggests her reader can count on her to stretch and bend “gay” “…all out of shape, making it stranger by kissing it to death.” What were the risks of living an “out” life in that place in 1982? Stockton connects that level of secrecy with the intense drive of a reader, an intellectual, a searcher. It still comes down to the empowerment of identity, then and now:
“I am where ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ collide…I don’t cozy up to questions of origin as a great authority for our lives. Why is someone gay? Why is someone trans?”
Later, the connection between identity, sensual connection, and the power of a given text becomes more potent: “Kiss the girl-body, kiss the boy-word…” Questions of gender and text become interchangeable. The commitment we make to a partner becomes the same as the focus we put towards connecting with and committing to a text, and when both efforts are equal the results can be miraculous. She reflects on her youth: “I felt myself a boy, saw myself a girl.” More clearly put, Stockton concludes about those times:
“Was it me, then, or does every child who is growing queerly, twisting, stalling, feel herself a monster?”
Her consideration of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is vivid and clearly demonstrates an intimate connection with the text: “Beloved remade me,” she writes. “Kissing dead skin is a surefire sign that the dead will break upon you…” She writes that Morrison’s novel is “…a sign posing as a character… seeking vengeance… A sign that gets inside you.” From Morrison, Stockton carefully segues into a consideration of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both novels are intimate, kisses to the reader from somewhere deep. Wilde’s titular hero can kiss with no consideration of consequences, yet “…what Wilde’s Dorian cannot kiss openly is another man.”
Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans compels her to consider the “…white suburban fantasies collectively shaped by cops and parents — with the aid of children.” Stockton connects the idea that adults can sometimes harm children with a potency equal to abuse itself. She writes:
“One starts suspecting that many are loving making out, making up, what ‘happened.'”
The points raised can seem oblique, impenetrable, and overwhelming, but a reader’s patience will be rewarded. Stockton writes that “…we recognize how the text inside us contributes to meaning’s being plural and partial…” She takes us through journeys into Nabokov (Lolita) and Charlotte Bronte (Vilette), but her narrative is strongest when considering questions of how identities are formed:
“Evangelicals nurtured a queer side they didn’t know I had. It was elementary: they hailed me as a girl. I became a leader and lover of girls.”
She notes that she didn’t realize she was an intellectual until her brother sat her down and told her she was. The awakening stirs something in her. She heads towards Yale, still aware that the meaning of a kiss remains elusive. She understands its elements, the processes leading to and leading participants through the act of kissing, but identity is elusive. “I was female-assigned at birth,” she writes, “though I was a boy (I could only guess) mistaken for a girl… I became a ‘lesbian’ against my will-seeking my desire.” Such passages are consistent with the compelling drive of her narrative.
The thrill is in the search, the quest, understanding that the abstraction of the kiss and its promise of filling insatiable desires has a connection with reading, absorbing great films, and the need to make out whatever remains elusive. “…I’ve learned so much by being called a woman,” Stockton writes, and the reader sees how the pull of identity is formed as much by outside forces as one’s own inner self-esteem.
By the time we get to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Stockton is as focused as ever. She’s written a complex book, turning light upon key films and texts, and much of her success rests in her careful selection of material. Fans of Orlando know this character as one of literature’s greatest gender shapeshifters, passing through barriers at will for over 400 years. She writes: “I’m so hooked because Orlando’s greatest object of desire is words…”
By Stockton’s deft hand it isn’t a far jump from Woolf to discussing “barebacking”, the willing risk of sexual partners to make themselves vulnerable to getting HIV. “Penetrating sign,” She writes. “Surface to be kissed. These are the key features of reading. Reading’s not lesbian. It’s just strange.”
What’s most admirable about this brief, intense book is that Stockton aims high and (for the most part) achieves her goals. She asks if we can say we are kissing the author while we are reading her. “Do we bugger authors?” Later, she makes it even more clear: “Our sole contact with the author’s body — and with their intent — lies in the words laid down on the page, in their sequence. No small thing.” It’s deep within the chapter, “Just say no to making out”, that she gives us a line that could stand as the mission statement for this meandering yet somehow logical journey:
“I am devoted to impurifying thoughts.”
Note the empowerment she adds to her verb here. It’s not about “impure” (or “corrupted”) thoughts. It’s about taking agency and understanding thoughts can sometimes be at their best when “impurified”.
More compelling lines come at this point in the book: “Fragments of reading drive my thinking… My queer childhood — my ungettable cooked-up kisses — schooled me on ideals…” Few manifestations of “ungettable cooked-up kisses” are as memorable as what director Barry Jenkins captured in the 2017 film Moonlight, and Stockton writes poetically about its “exquisite nonexpressivity… Its quiet, its allure. It doesn’t say much.”
Few films in recent memory evoke characters grappling with such “holes” in their consciousness, such longing, release that only a forbidden kiss can offer. “The film keeps putting all events in the face,” she writes. Had If Beale Street Could Talk been released at the time Making Out was published, one wonders how Stockton might have contextualized Jenkins’ fixation on beautiful faces and the allure of one powerful lingering kiss.
Indeed, Making Out will linger with the reader. Take, for example, this line: “To this day, I question what my long-term girlfriend is kissing when she kisses me…” A while later she writes: “…I am magnetized to a facial puzzle: learn to ride a boy’s face out to the women… Follow the pathway out from facial holes, I instruct myself, holes so different from my own, after all.”
Making Out is a complex examination of the process we go through while trying to understand ourselves within the context of others: faces, kisses, literature, film, and sexual expression with or without the enigma of lips meshing with other lips. Stocktons’ book is both intensely personal and impressively academic. It’s even, at times, surprisingly funny. She understands that a close reading of her text might confound, but she trusts that digressions in the narrative will eventually make sense as one’s mind lingers over the experience of reading it.