Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Scott Heim portrays slowly recovering memory of trauma by fracturing it among the different characters, particularly the geek and the streetwise kid who later becomes a rent boy who said, ‘Hollywood would never make a movie about us.’ – which of course, they did. His parents return home at 3am and his mother saves cocktail umbrellas. One psychotherapist has suggested that the way the story unfolds is fairly typical of how people deal with traumatic memories, though our own psychotherapist member argues that every one is different in the way that they process information and family secrets.

The subject matter is such that many people would find this book harrowing but I found it, if not ‘entertaining’ absorbing. I did, however, find some Americanisms annoying, e.g. ‘crawl space’ and ‘to touch it (Neil’s hair) would be like touching corduroy’

One of our members read the whole book in one sitting because it was so engaging, another said that it was ‘beautiful and well-crafted.’ One member pointed out that the ‘moral landscape’ of this book mirrors the flat physical landscape of Kansas, where the story is set.

I shall never see folk who believe in UFOs or in devils in quite the same way again. What awful experience have they undergone that makes them believe so irrationally? Is abduction by aliens, one member asked, really to do with the abduction of memories?

The author avoids a ‘victims’ and ‘monsters’ scenario: the paedophile coach is portrayed as an immature adult and there is a telling juxtaposition, at the end, as the innocence of the Christmas carol ‘Silent night…….holy infant tender and mild’ sung outside contrasts with the recollection of innocence violated and stolen inside. One of the children was not completely innocent: ‘Half of me knew if wasn’t right, the other half wanted it to happen.’


“It was a light that shone over our faces, our wounds and scars. It was a light so brilliant and white it could have been beamed from heaven, and Brian and I could have been angels, basking in it. But it wasn’t, and we weren’t.”

“He spoke so slowly, cobwebs could have formed between his words.”

“I hate this stinking little butt crack of a town!”

“It was Brian’s blood, and for some reason I knew it was pure. No other man I’d held in my arms -and now, not even I- had blood this pure.”

“Defenestration,” I said. “‘The act of throwing someone through a window.”

“How in the world can you think a queer is cute? I mean, you can tell he’s a freak. You can just tell.” I advised Zelda that if she didn’t shut up, I’d gouge out her eyes and force her to swallow them.”

“He spoke so slowly, cobwebs could have formed between his words.”

“I hate this stinking little butt crack of a town!”

“It was Brian’s blood, and for some reason I knew it was pure. No other man I’d held in my arms -and now, not even I- had blood this pure.”

“How in the world can you think a queer is cute?

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About the book reviews

Some groups expect, as a matter of course, that anyone who introduces a book will write a review before the meeting and amend it in the light of comments made from members.

That is not how we operate.

Most of the reviews on this blog are by the convenor of the group who also takes into account the contributions of other members when the book was being discussed.

Members are encouraged to write their own, alternative reviews or to commend/correct the material here.

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Hero Perry Moore

I guess this book is aimed at sixteen-year-old boys but I’d want to encourage them to read something deeper than this.

There are some good observations, e.g.  ‘Most of them don’t like to be reminded of how they looked thirty pounds ago’

There also some odd things, e.g. the ‘baddie’ has indestructible testicles and he doesn’t breathe yet he has ‘super breath’.

I only read it because I am part of a book group. Many members didn’t even bother to finish the book.

There are some very poor phrases, e.g. ‘My stomach dropped to my feet.’ And ‘My insides were liquefying.’

There is a powerful description of Ruth’s boyfriend getting beaten up – one of the best bits of the book. Also vividly described is the hero’s father’s place of work.

The book is infused with Christian values and, if the large building at the book’s climax is a reference to the Twin Towers of 9/11, then American values. The ending hints at self-sacrifice and there hints earlier on too, e.g.  “Later, when I looked down at the ring on my finger, the stone sometimes felt so heavy that I could barely lift my hand. It can be an awful responsibility when you’re someone’s only hope..’ Also ‘Your father had been first to respond to the crisis. Despite his lack of superspeed, he was always vigilant that way. It was a last-ditch effort at saving the world. Blowing up a few buildings is a lot better than an exploding planet, but people aren’t very interested in simple arithmetic when there’s blame to assign’ also the sacramental description of the ring as ‘an outward symbol of an inner belief..’

Star Trek, Terry Pratchett, Tolkein and Douglas Adams create a more convincing fantasy world than this book.


“I caught myself thinking about falling in love with someone who I hoped was out there right now thinking about the possibility of me, but I quickly banished the notion. It was that kind of thinking that landed me in this situation to begin with. Hope can ruin you.”

“I filled my head with thoughts of the future, of infinite possibly. There’s someone out there who will one day find me and fall in love with me and prove that all this waiting actually meant something….”

“You can’t go on like you’re going to start really living one day like all this is some preamble to some great life that’s magically going to appear. I’m a firm believer that you have to create your own miracles, don’t hold out that there’s something waiting on the other side. It doesn’t work that way. When you’re gone, you’re gone. There’s no pearly white gates with an open bar and all the Midori you can drink. You get one go-around and you gotta make it count. I know that it sounds harsh, but it’s true. Don’t wait.”

“I saw Dad’s eyes widen just a fraction when he heard my voice catch. He glanced at me but quickly turned away. He didn’t want me to see his reaction, but I did, and I’ll never forget it. In that brief glimpse, I could see what he was thinking behind that fixed stare. There would be no grandkids, there would be no more Creed family bloodline, nothing else to look forward to. From that point on I’d become the last, most devastating disappointment in what he thought his life had added up to–one overwhelming failure.”

“Maybe you all didn’t notice,but when that hospital was about to crumble with all those innocent people inside, Thom was the only one who stopped the Wrecking Balls. The only finger I feel like pointing right now is my middle one, at all of you, bunch of ungrateful wretches, if you ask me.”

“I had never let myself fantasize about being with someone my own age, because it stopped being a fantasy at that point. It entered the realm of possibility, and that’s where you can really get hurt.”

“Blowing up a few buildings is a lot better than an exploding planet, but people aren’t very interested in simple arithmetic when there’s blame to assign.”

“I had strict rules for looking at porn. First off, I wasn’t allowed to think about suicide after I looked at it. Years ago, when I’d first figured out I was a sucker for a nice hairy chest, I thought for sure I would have to kill myself before I was eighteen. The closer I got to eighteen the more I had to rethink that solution.”

“Running always gave me time to think. It wasn’t like practicing with a team, when I always worries if I was fitting in with everyone else. When I ran, I never thought about screwing someone else up or ruining the teams chance tow in. It was a solitary activity, and sometimes that felt nice.”

“Running always gave me time to think. It wasn’t like practicing with a team, when I always worried if I was fitting in with everyone else. When I ran, I never thought about screwing someone else up or ruining the team’s chance to win. It was a solitary activity, and sometimes that felt nice.”

“he followed the ball down to the other end of the court, stopped, stared at me with contempt, and then did the strangest thing.
He winked. Like he was flicking me off with his eyelid.”

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The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Down

There is something in it

That the author was raised as a Christian fundamentalist may explain the template through which he sees his clients. His central thesis is that it is not being gay, per se, which damages people’s self-esteem and emotionally disables them. Rather, it is the fact that gay men have to hide from straight society, having been taught that they were unacceptable. This explains the high suicide rate and substance abuse.

The author claims that the damage caused to gay men is unlike that of any other minority group. A distant relationship with a father, compensated by an over-doting mother is not the cause of homosexuality but is caused by it. Really? I would have thought that most people born before the 1960s had a distant father.

Lacking validation from their families, gay men seek it by being the best at their jobs, have superior `fashion skills’ and go `over the top’ if someone else makes them feel invalidated, for example by postponing a lunch date. I think this is a gross stereotype/

Why do so many gay partnerships break up? According to the author, the odds are stacked against two wounded people sustaining a relationship because a life of hiding and splitting makes authenticity, honesty and vulnerability difficult. Is the author not aware of the similarly high number of heterosexual couples who split up?

Gays who seek sex as a form of validation will tire of a partner with a lower sex drive. Is the author unaware that straight couples often have the same `problem’?

Where I most take issue with the author is his statement that homophobia in adolescence is natural. They used to say that about racism. If it is right, all our work in schools to tackle it is doomed to failure.

The book group suggested that the only thing that distinguishes gay from straight men is what they fancy lust/love-wise. However, some went on to say that though the author’s Christian background and his rebound from it have shaped his perceptions, and though this is an American book based on work with clients who encounter more religious fanaticism that here in the UK, there is’ nevertheless, “something in it”. That a gay man’s first love becomes a template for all future relationships, especially if there was rejection, that one will not find an ideal partner from a tick list of desirable qualities and that, controversially, because people who have been abused often abuse others, sado-masochistic sex is a playing out of past injuries – then again, is it not the case that S & M partners play within boundaries and have a code word for `stop now?’


“The damaging part of learning to live your life in two parts , whether in reality or fantasy, cannot be underestimated. It is an infectious skill that you learned, one that would eventually spread beyond the bedroom of your life. Life wasn’t ever what it seemed on the surface. Nothing could be trusted for what it appeared to be. After all, you weren’t what you appeared to be. In learning to hide part of yourself, you lost the ability to trust anything or anyone fully. Without knowing it, you traded humane innocence for dry cynicism.”

“Always seek to allow others the space to be imperfect.”

“Sadly, our culture raises man to be strong and silent. Straight or gay, the pressure is on from the time we’re very young to become our culture’s John Wayne-style of man.
* The more pain I can take, the more of a man I am.
* Showing feelings is for women.
* The more I can drink, the manlier I am.
* Intimacy is sex; sex is intimacy.
* Only women depend on others.
* A man takes care of himself without help from others.
* No one can hurt you if you’re strong.
* I am what I earn.
* It is best to keep your problems to yourself.
* Winning is all that really matters.
Where did this stuff come from? It’s everywhere in our society from the movies heroes we love to the politicians we vote for. Our culture demands that man fit in a tightly defined role.”

“The one and only skill that resolves the crisis of meaning is that of acceptance.”

“After a while, we’ve all sort of given up on finding Mr. Right. It’s more about are you Mr. In-My-Bed-Right-Now and, whatever you do, please don’t stay for breakfast.”

“The experience of psychological trauma, as is typically diagnosed (posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), has at least some of the following symptoms: • Reliving the trauma: This can happen through nightmares, flashbacks, or reexperiencing as a result of being in the presence of stimuli reminiscent of the traumatic event. • Efforts to avoid thoughts or feelings that are associated with the trauma. • Efforts to avoid activities or situations that arouse memories of the trauma. • Inability to remember some important aspect of the trauma (psychogenic amnesia). • Marked reduced interest in important activities. • Feeling of a lack of interest or expulsion by others. • Limited affect; such as inability to cherish loving feelings. • A feeling of not having any future (foreshortened future); not expecting to have a career, get married, have children, or live a long life. • Hypervigilance (heightened sensitivity to possible traumatic stimuli).”

“Our own internal conflicts prevent us from gaining the emotional clarity needed to maintain a safe and satisfying bond. The situation compounds when two men, both overwhelmed with shame, come together in an intense and explosive expression of passion.”

“other and often occur simultaneously.”

“Passion is a meta-emotion — an emotion that is felt only after observing other emotions over time.”

“the deeply held, sinister belief that perhaps HIV is physical evidence of our own unloveableness.”

“What’s happiness really all about? How will I find lasting love and contentment? Can I find it in a relationship with a man? Is there such a thing as a healthy relationship between two men? How can I find real purpose and passion in my life?”

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The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst

Drugs and rent boys in……Bridport?

Well-written, but not as good as his earlier works. Rather vapid gay characters who seem not to have much of a life beyond sex, drugs and partying. I can’t imagine much partying going on in a small village near the small town of Bridport and I am not convinced that a young man would be wearing a tank top in 1999, though I gather they made a comeback for a short time.


“Alex was very quiet, and Danny wondered if he knew what was coming. He probably did, he was very sensitive; and he’d been through this kind of thing before. Danny looked casually at Justin, whom he found alien in many ways, and saw that they were about to share the shabby distinction of having thrown Alex over. He knew from his break-up with George what the pain might be like. And he noticed that having been through it himself he felt some how authorised, and even empowered, to inflict it on someone else. It was the hard currency of human business. Slightly giddy from his own philosophy, he reached up to take his second cold drink.”

“This second failure was a shocking reinforcement of the first. And yet he had to admit that there was something ambiguously easier about it too: he already knew the lesson, he knew the bereft amazement of finding that you had unwittingly had your last fuck, your last passionate kiss, your last taxi-ride hand-in-hand in the gloom; and he knew too that on both occasions there had been signals, like the seen but noiseless drum-strokes of a tympanist checking his tuning.”

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Sellevision: A Novel by Augusten Burroughs

If you want belly-laughs

The seedy world of TV advertising, jingles and compulsive shoppers, small-time front people for a TV channel deluded into thinking that they have celebrity status and the normal [problems people have make for a very funny book. It’s a send-up of a send-up and the plot has many surprising twists and turn. Not a book for you if you seek the meaning and purpose of life but if you want an easy read and some belly-laughs this is your book.


“While six-foot-two Max sported thick, light brown hair, striking green eyes, and classic, all-American features that would not be out of place in a Banana Republic catalog, the man in the bed resembled a plump lawn gnome. Which was astonishing to Max, because only last night the man had resembled Mel Gibson.”

“In the car, all three boys sat in the back as usual. The eldest made a gun with the fingers of his right hand and pretended to shoot their mother in the back, through the seat. The other two boys covered their moths and tried not to laugh.”

“‘And yet with all of this – a family, a demanding career, and a stalker – I still have time to be a good homemaker.’ She said this out loud, because it felt good to say it out loud.” C

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