Kate Bornstein wants you to stay alive—whether you’re a “freak,” a teen, an outlaw, or President Bush (if only to give him a piece of her mind). The 58-year-old transgendered writer, who's best known for her works on gender theory such as Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us and My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely, was spurred into action by the events of 9/11. Having encountered many teens on the verge of suicide, she wanted to find a way to reach out to them without being condescending, cruel, or clueless. The result is Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws, a book that’s part fired-up anti-status quo manifesto, part warm, cozy self-help book, urging readers to do everything from take drugs to bake cakes to moisturize, citing the works of such diverse people as George Lakoff, Judy Garland, Douglas Rushkoff, and Betty Dodson. With an introduction by Sara Quinn of Tegan and Sara, and a bold setup indicting President Bush as "the archetypical American bully asking bully questions that aren't really questions at all," Bornstein goes on to offer alternatives ranging from the immediacy of "Make a wish" to the provocative "Shatter some family values" to the more complex "Deal with the dead and gone."
The alternatives Bornstein's crafted are far from what you'd expect to find in your high school counselor's office. Several that are sure to raise ire and eyebrows include "Get laid. Please," "Eroticize the pain," "Go completely batty," and "Make it bleed." To understand the context of these suggestions, Bornstein offers a scale of safety (from one to four skulls), and effectiveness (from one to four umbrellas), along with keywords such as "if you must," "mind game" "thrill ride" and "clean slate." To read only the seven pages of alternatives is to receive a whiplash-inducing jolt to the system—where else will you find advice that includes "Experiment on animals and small children" and "Tell a lie" and "Give up nouns for a day?" When Bornstein elaborates on these suggestions, her brilliance in dissecting the drama of daily life shines through. In a scant two pages dedicated to "act[ing] your gender or any other," she manages to break down the sexual binary system into its simplest form, offering up the fulfillment of our sexual fantasies as a reason to stay alive. This is a book to be read, and read again, for maximum impact.
The end result takes readers on a tour of the mind’s darkest places by revealing Bornstein’s battles with anorexia, depression, murderous thoughts, flirting with death, and cutting. Don't worry, there's fun here too: making believe, making art, geeking out and going stealth. Ultimately, Bornstein is offering up an entirely new world-view for the living. From finding a new way to say hello to finding the love of your life, this is a hopeful, compassionate, kind, yet ass-kicking book, as befitting Bornstein's roots in 1960's radicalism. The title’s only misleading in so much that anyone who cares about their own future could learn from these all-over-the-map alternatives.
Speaking to Bornstein by phone, the one word that comes through to describe her is “feisty.” Whether protesting over being misquoted, defending phone sex, or arguing that whatever one has to do to stay alive, as long as you’re not being mean (Hello, Cruel World’s one ironclad rule) is a-okay, Bornstein brings a sense of humor, heart, and radical vision to the everyday business of survival. When I run into the tall, eloquent, and surprisingly gentle and soft-spoken playwright and author the next day, she jubilantly hands me a Get Out of Hell free card (you can get yours here). It's clear, though, that Bornstein cares much more about the quality of our lives in the here and now, and keeping every last freak alive for as long as possible, then any fiery underground we may face.
How did you get the idea for the book and why'd you choose 101 alternatives? Is there a deliberate order to them?
Yes, because if you look at the pages where they’re listed, it’s more fun to read them in that order, so when you go through the whole 101, it sounds like fun, more like a poem than a list; they’re spread out. The only order is that the last 5 or 6 managed to stay the last 5 or 6—those are pretty big ones I think.
How old are you?
Have you ever heard of Beat poet Tuli Kupferberg, a contemporary of Kerouac who lived in Greenwich Village. He came out with a pamphlet, a mimeographed sheet of paper, do you remember mimeo?
Before Xerox, they used to print these things on 8 1/2 by 11 paper, folded in half lengthwise. Kupferberg wrote this book called 1001 Ways to Live Without Working and he sold it on the street himself. It had things like “Find a dollar bill in an unflushed toilet and you’re the only one brave to pick it out,” just wacky things. When I finished reading that, I realized there was more to life than work. He was a weird crazy Zen master, just like Kerouac, and I’ve always remembered that. But 1001 Alternatives to Suicide . . . I wanted it to be a little book to fit in your pocket, that’s why 101.
As to why I wrote it—I’ve been touring around the country for 12 years, going to colleges, high schools, conferences, and universities. Sometimes I’m on a panel or I do a performance and keynote, and it’s all been on this postmodern gender theory. Everywhere I went, there were stories of someone who had killed themselves or attempted to kill themselves, or I’d meet a cutter or I’d meet some girl or boy who hadn’t eaten in a few days.
And then 9/11 happened. I lean toward manic depression anyway, and I went into a deep depression. What the fuck work could I do that could possibly respond to this horror, and the government that grew up in response to it? So I think I’m on the right track with this book. I think I get to say that it’s okay to be an outlaw in these terrifying, theocratic times.
You’re 58, yet you seem to have a knack for talking to teens in a way that’s not condescending, that speaks to them not at them. Was this a challenge for you?
There’s two ways I wrote the book and the voice. I wrote as mom—look at me, I’m 58. How would I lovingly write to my children in such a way they won’t resent what I’m saying and might appreciate it? I have to come from as much love as I possibly can, and I have to keep showing that it’s love every step of the way.
On the other hand, I wrote form the place of a 17- or 18-year old, because that’s how long it’s been since my gender change. [As to] my socialization as female, well, now I’m 20, I’m a young woman and no longer a teenager. My socialization as female wasn’t on par as my socialization as a man. I could certainly empathize—“oh my god, they’re all staring at me.”
We all have the opportunity to act your age or any other [alternative #42]; you get to act any one or several at a time, and in fact, we all probably do.
Your target audience lumps together teenagers, freaks, and outlaws—what do these groups have in common, and what differentiates them? Was it a challenge to try to speak to all of them at once?
The original title of the book was Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Teen Suicide and I wrote with that title in mind for about two years. Then I got the point where I really needed to show this to people. My publisher, Dan Simon at Seven Stories, showed it to a wide array of people, old and young and straight and queer and men and women, and pretty much came back with, “Wow, holy shit, except in the few places when it was only speaking to a teen, it felt like it was talking to me.” I wanted it to be just for teens. But Dan said to me, “Look, you begin writing and if you’re really into, the book starts to write itself. It takes you in a direction you hadn’t intended but what might be better for the book itself. Take another read through it.” I read through it, and realized it’s a voice I’d like to hear for myself as a 58-year-old. All during the writing of it, I’d written it toward with lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer (LGBTQ) teens in mind. My editor, Crystal Yakacki, kept herding me out of that box and into a lot of other boxes and I think she more than anyone steered me in that direction.
It made me have to understand what LGBQT kids have in common with the fat kid, with black kids in a white school, with Jews in a Christian school—what is it? It’s this holy culture and some kids have to be outsiders and some kids are gonna get targeted. It seems to me it’s something we create in the world and our western culture these days. We don’t teach them any real morality and so they wind up creating a system for themselves that says “be like me or we’ll drive you to suicide.” And there’s this core group you’re always trying to be like—that doesn’t stop with adolescence. The trick is after adolescence you get better at dealing with it.
The book is ardently political, repeatedly railing against the Bush Administration and offering up tips for social change as well as suicide prevention. Yet in many ways it’s about coping with the cruel world to adapt to it or at least survive. How does activism and consciously changing that cruel world fit in with the book’s messages?
I get called an activist a lot. My tour managers do this, I’m billed as an activist and I don’t really think I am, I think I’m an artist. I think my art is political art. I think I’m an entertainer and I think my entertainment is political entertainment. So how to change the cruel world really matters less to me than how to ease the suffering of the people in it, one at a time or as many as I can effect.
It goes back to what happened after 9/11—how I can I use what bit of celebrity I won, what platform I have, what bully pulpit I’ve got to give an alternate voice to the one that’s being spewed from Washington, D.C. these days? I’ve been furious about that. So politically I don’t see much more that infuriates them than me. I’ve got a lot of shit going on that if I just said, this is okay, and I am recruiting and I aim at the kids, I think I’ll get their attention.
I’d like to sit down with President Bush. I would want to ask him why he’s doing what he’s doing. I would want to hear him justify the violence and the murder and the just bullying and encouraging of bullies. People know when they’re being mean, bullies know. I don’t know that anyone’s ever sat him down like that. (Laughs) By writing the book, maybe someone will say, hey, there’s a transsexual lesbian out there who’s a sadomasochist anarchist and an atheist. She’s got piercings and she says that when she had balls, they were bigger than yours. That’s what I want to do.
Are you trying to stir people up?
Sure. I’m trying to say that there’s nothing about my talk that isn’t as well-grounded as is the talk of the radical right is in their universe,. There has been no loud voice of the radical left for a long time that I’ve seen. A few pop up here and there, but if I can make a loud voice for sex and gender of the radical left, great. If I can make a louder voice and someone will climb over my back, fabulous. But what we’ve got is liberals. I’m not a liberal, I’m a radical. I want my voice in the culture, too, and I think there are enough people in the world who are on the radical left who outweigh the radical right.
Do I want to shock? Yes. Do I want to offend? Oh god, no. I’ve tried to write this in a sweet gentle voice, knowing that someone’s gonna say, “You’re telling our children to take drugs?” Yes, I’m telling your children to take drugs, guilty as charged. Would you rather have them dead? Somebody’s gotta save the lives of the children that are left behind.
Is it easier to be a “freak” in New York?
Everywhere you go there are freaks, but what defines them is different, so someone who’s being a soccer mom lesbian in Illinois is the town freak there. Is it easier to be a more outrageous freak in cities? Yeah. But not when you’re a teenager, not when you’ve gotta live at home, not when you have to pay the rent that’s escalating in Manhattan, not when you have to live in a Guiliani-ized Manhattan that wants to be Cleveland, Ohio on a grander scale. When you go to Brooklyn, that’s an easier place to be a freak than Manhattan, and Manhattan is easier than Staten Island or the Bronx.
Do you have a favorite of the alternatives?
I keep coming back to “Find a God who believes in you”—that did the trick for me. I have several that I keep doing—practice, practice, practice. My favorite one to do and my least favorite one to do, the one I do all the time is moderation, “Learn moderation in all things."
Do you consider it a self-help book?
I think it’s a very life affirming book. Remember when the phrase “shit happens” first started? And everyone went, yeah, it does. Now we’ve gotta add to that “so let’s get on with it.”
The books are 5” x 7”, so they’re little deliberately small. We were at the Book Expo at the Javits Center and we were ready to go to press, and we saw these cute little books, and I love them and said “that’s it, that’s the size.” I grew up with Marshall McLuhan—The Medium is the Message—so that’s why the little pictures, that’s why the comic book font, the size is small.
To make it more accessible?
To make it less threatening. It's a horribly threatening thing for someone to have to read that book, someone who’s opposed on moral and religious grounds to a lot of the stuff I’m telling people to do, that must be terrifying. So I tried to make it gentle and cute little book, one you can carry around in your hands.
I liked Hello, Cruel World because it’s just not saying “buy my book or kill yourself.”
I was a Scientologist, I lived in the world of “if you don’t do it, you’re gonna die.” I’ve been ex-communicated. I understand a fundamentalist mind. I’ve been there, and I worked directly with L. Ron Hubbard for years. I make allusions to that in the book, it’s no secret. There was a lot that was good about that, I can understand why someone in that mindset wants to stay there. I can almost understand Bush from that point of view. We all prefer either/or, my god—it’s easy easy easy.
The book's copy states that you're "the radical role model, the affectionate best friend, and the guiding mentor all in one kind and spirited package."
My publisher wrote that but I’ll own it. I’m trying to live up to it.
Was it a challenge to write in that comforting tone?
In order to write the book and find out what really works and why, what are some good alternatives and why are they good, I had to get close to my own suicidal places and it’s very difficult to then climb out of that and write in a voice that comforts yourself. It was a good experience for myself to try to do that, but it was hard.
When you write a book proposal, one of the questions they ask you is what else has been written about this? when I was writing it, I remember researching it, and not finding anything very interesting. [It was all] “Live a good, righteous life” or “Be happy” or “Don’t don’t don’t” and I went “Holy shit, I wouldn’t want to read any of those.” And I didn’t, in all fairness. I did not read any of those books. They weren’t written in the style or point of view that encouraged me to read them. So I had to rely on the voice I’ve used in previous books, which is developing. You hear about inner child—I’m trying to be a fucking grownup. This is weird, being 58, and I want to do it right, so I had to find that voice constantly.
What are you trying to say by including those four skull alternatives such as "Starve Yourself" and "Flirt with Death?"
Because I’ve done them myself for the most part, they helped me stay alive for an hour or four days or three weeks or 24 minutes and I’m gonna tell someone that that’s not an option? Of course it’s an option. But I want to stress that it is a last resort. That was a difficult line to walk. I’m not interested in seeing people do drugs or have anyone stab themselves, but I’d rather they do either and be alive than not. How mean and nasty and self righteous would I have to be to say no, when it comes to doing drugs versus killing yourself, kill yourself. What the fuck? Without it being said, that’s the impression a lot of people give.
I needed a voice being raised in the other direction because the fact of the matter is, closer to the bottom of the cultural food chain, there’s a lot of reasons to be outsiders. We kind of slide in the direction of “Oh my god, what’s life worth?” and drugs are right there and so you do ‘em. And what? We’re gonna now say, “Oh but our children mustn’t do them?” Bullshit. The point of the book is you’ve got to learn how to deal with this on your own terms and please, please, please choose gentler options. Try another seven options before you get to one of the four skull ones.
You were uninvited to speak at a Westchester school because of a link to Veronica Vera's site from yours. How do you feel about this?
First of all—you go to my site, tootallblondes.com, you'll see Barbara Carrellas and Kate Bornstein, and when you enter my website, you can’t find a link to Veronica Vera. I didn’t think to put it up there. But when you go on to my girlfriend’s site, way down at the bottom of her bio, she mentions that we are both deans [of Miss Vera’s School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls]. I’m the Dean of Hearts, I’m just sweet as pie, and I love Veronica Vera.
You click on that link and, excuse me, there are pictures of middle-aged men wearing girls’ clothes—so that’s inappropriate for a teen, why? Why? And okay, there is a number, a pay number and wait a minute, in what statute is phone sex illegal? Is there a warning that says you can’t be under 18? What is your problem? There is a very, very small percentage of the population of the world that finds that site erotic—that percentage includes me, but not many people would—so what’s the problem?
That they didn’t ask me about it and just summarily said “you’re not coming” after I’d rescheduled another gig and basically lost $750, and they didn’t pay me any kill fee, and they left it on my message machine—I was hurt. I really felt wounded and fortunately I’ve since found a space of interest as opposed to rage.
Do you feel like that was a smokescreen for some other issue?
In all fairness to the school, the people at the school were champions. They decided to bring me in the first place. They caved in to pressure from the school board, who caved into pressure from one town bully who had sued them on something years before and won a total of $11,000 from the school board for doing something that wasn’t very Christian. He came up against them again, saying, “You’re bringing Kate Bornstein? Did you know she’s a self-confessed transgender person and sadomasochist and what could she say about suicide anyway?” They pressured the school, there you have it.
I don’t hold a grudge against the school. I’m really sad that I didn’t get a chance to talk to the students. I’m angry at this bully, I'd like to take him on.
In an article about Mark Cummings, you said “Gender is mistakingly attributed to one’s genitals, when it lies up here, in the brain.” Can you elaborate on that?
I never said that. I have never said gender lies up here, in the brain. I have no idea what the fuck that was, those words were put into my mouth.
Gender is part biological, part sociological, part developmental, part sexual; gender is nothing more than classification of beings. Gender is your desire embodied, gender is the plumage you use to attract, the barb wire you use to keep away. To call it as simple as up here or down there is a painful oversimplification.
What one message would you like people to take away from the book?
Do anything you feel you need to do to stay alive, anything. Fuck legality, fuck morality. The only thing that makes that work is “Don’t be mean.” There are all kinds of ways to deal with people who don’t want you to do things, but if you’re not being mean to anybody, my god, do whatever you need to do to make life worth living. That’s the important thing.
Photo by Dona Ann McAdams.
Kate Bornstein will read from Hello, Cruel World tonight at 7 p.m. at Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen St, on Saturday, June 24th from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at part of a Lambda Literary Foundation event at the main branch of the New York Public Library, at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, and on Wednesday, June 28th at 6:30 p.m. at Coliseum Books, 11 West 42nd St.
Find out more at hellocruelworld.net and www.tootallblondes.com. Download a free "Outlaw's Mini-Guide to Survivial in the 21st Century," featuring a Get Out of Hell Free card, a Hello Cruel Scale of Feelings, a gender identity graphic equalizer tool (g.i.d.g.e.t.), and more, for free by clicking here. Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws is available now from Seven Stories Press, and will soon be available on Amazon.