In the memoir One of These Things First, Steven Gaines, a gay 15-year-old boy from a conservative Jewish family in the 1960s, humorously shares a bizarre account of his teenage years in Brooklyn and a stint at Payne Whitney, a private mental institution in NYC.
Steven recalls a multitude of childhood memories, some disturbing, many sexually charged (think Augusten Burroughs and Running With Scissors). Gaines’ memories include his fantasies about the lawnmower guy, agonizing time spent in his grandfather’s bra and girdle store where he spies on shoppers while hidden from view, befriending an aspiring actress at the empty theater in town, dealings with a claustrophobic cooped up in a small apartment with his parents, and the mean boys in the neighborhood who bullied him. All of this leads to Gaines’ unsuccessful suicide attempt which landed him in the same psychiatric clinic where Marilyn Monroe once spent time.
His memoir gets most interesting once Gaines is in therapy where after he discusses his fantasies about lawnmower guy, and conveys his sexual confusion and concludes he is gay. The therapist convinces him that, because his parents made love in the room with him as a child, he is homosexual and he can change. Little by little the doctor tries to work with him and (unsuccessfully) conversion therapy ensues. During this time Steven becomes friendly with other patients, one of them being theater producer Richard Halliday, the professional manager and husband of actress Mary Martin of Peter Pan on Broadway.
Written in a funny, contemporary voice, the events of Gaines’ childhood are reminiscent of an earlier time. Why was a 15 year old spending time in a psych ward with a bunch of adults? Where was his family during the hospital stay? And finally, after all these years, why wasn’t Steven angry with the doctor for trying to convert him? Also, I felt I wanted to see growth and know more about his personal journey.
Although the author doesn’t dig deep to tackle big, relevant issues like suicide and homosexuality, with a keen eye for observations of human behavior, a kind heart and great storytelling skills, One of These Things First is a quick, insightful, and hilarious read.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
One of These Things First is Steven Gaines’ most recent book, but it is not his first. Gaines has actually been writing for years and has a variety of published novels and articles. He is a novelist, journalist, and radio show host of “Sunday Brunch Live from the American Hotel in Sag Harbor”. For some time, he was a contributing editor at New York Magazine and had works appear in Vanity Fair, the New York Observer, and the New York Times.