By Terri Schlichenmeyer, May 2018 Issue.
Elephants, rhinos, hippos and giraffes. Skyscrapers, mammoths and Jupiter. Sequoias, Sasquatch, blue whales … and mice. One of these things is not like the others, and in One of These Things First by Steven Gaines, you’ll read a story that’s equally unique.
On a “brilliantly cold afternoon” just months after his 15th birthday, Steven Gaines did something that would change the course of his life: he snuck through a storeroom in his grandparents’ Brooklyn undergarment store, wrestled a heavy door open, broke two windows with his fists and sawed his forearms across the broken glass.
His attempted suicide was shocking but perhaps, in retrospect, not surprising.
For years, he’d suffered from nervous tics, obsessions and compulsions that he believed would stave off certain disaster. Touching something twice was good, 20 was better, and neither endeared him to others: he was bullied, embarrassed and isolated by self-claims that he didn’t “feel well” enough to attend school. Kept home to recuperate, many of his afternoons were instead spent hiding in boxes at the garment store and learning about grown-up things by eavesdropping on customers and store employees, who insisted that Gaines would “come to no good.”
That was humiliating, but a dawning knowledge that he was a “homo” was much more distressing. It was downright disgraceful, in fact, and so Gaines cut himself badly, and ended up in a hospital with a referral to a regional psychiatric facility. When he heard of Payne Whitney, a private hospital where Marilyn Monroe once stayed, Gaines begged his grandfather to pay for an institution upgrade.
He was granted his wish – but only for six months.
On a late winter day in 1962, Gaines entered Payne Whitney. He was scared but it was something he’d asked for, knowing that he was trading one shame (homosexuality) for another (being a “mental patient”) but hoping that it might stop his obsessions with counting, and with other boys. At the very least, it was a chance to escape his home life and to consider who he was.
He entered the facility as a 15-year-old boy. That fall, he left a different person.
What would you get if you took a little bit Brighton Beach Memoir, added a dash of Cuckoo’s Nest, and stirred? You’d have a coming-of-age story that’s golden. You’d have One of These Things First.
Beginning in a lady’s garment store, Gaines takes readers back in time so precisely and so vividly that you can almost smell Brooklyn’s 18th Avenue. There’s a distinct feeling of Hollywood movie to that; in fact, Gaines includes bits of his film-fan childhood as plot. But that nostalgia has a flip-side: the shame and need that a 1960s-era gay adolescent might experience comes through the earliest part of the story, sharp, clear, and squirming; the latter half of this book is more lighthearted, but still discomforting.
So why, then, would you want to read it? Because it’s irresistible and compelling. Because it’s triumphant. Because One of These Things First, now in paperback, is an enormously good memoir.