“I don’t want to lie, so before I sat down to write the first full draft of this book, I got five words tattooed onto the back of my right hand. They’re done in white ink, with shadowing the colour of dried blood. They look like they’ve been carved into the back of my hand and healed up as scars: I must not tell lies.”
To say Kate Bornstein has had an interesting life would be an understatement to the point of inanity. Yet Bornstein manages to neatly sum up the basics in the subtitle of A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today. Of course, the reality is even more complicated. Along the way, Bornstein married a fellow Scientologist, and fathered a daughter who she hasn’t spoken to in thirty years. And although she transitioned to, and lives as a woman, Bornstein conceives of herself as more of a “gender outlaw,” the title of one of her other works. Bornstein’s daughter and her children remain members of the Church of Scientology, so A Queer and Pleasant Danger is Bornstein’s way putting her story on the public record in case they ever want to find her. Luckily for the rest of us, we can all read this illuminating exploration of faith, gender and parenthood. Indeed, the only criticism I can offer of this book is that it occasionally feels as if we are intruding on Bornstein’s personal conversation with her daughter.
Bornstein’s journey through Scientology is in fact intimately tied up with issues of gender identity; the concept of being a genderless being called a thetan helped Bornstein find a modicum of relief from the confusion of our cultural gender binary. That said, A Queer and Pleasant Danger is not primarily a story of scepticism or religious doubt. Scientology was merely a stepping stone on Bornstein’s gender journey, but ultimately it was not able to offer answers or acceptance—Bornstein’s gender-bending behaviour was one of the factors that led to her departure from the Church. Nevertheless, it proves an interesting prism through which to examine issues of sex and gender.
Bornstein’s writing style is open and conversational, often running off into tangents and side stories. She speaks to the reader in a manner that is very similar to her It Gets Better video—open, honest, and funny, even about the dark things. Bornstein lays herself bare in sometimes excruciating detail in her quest to tell her story honestly. As she relates in the book, she had “I must not tell lies” (a Harry Potter reference) tattooed on the back of her hand before she began writing. Out of courtesy to the reader, she offers the option to skip over some of the more detailed portions, with the e-book providing a direct link to the next part for those who prefer to skip the smutty/gory details. Some of the sections—from suicidal ideation to cutting and sadomasochism—are difficult and potentially triggering reading, but it is that commitment to honesty that makes this book shine.