Make text smaller Make text larger

The novel to which theadolescent voice was referring wasn't exactly young-adult material. Itwas about the street people of Times Square and featured a hustler, a bouncerand a drag queen who were all addicted to heroin. "Terminator" wasthe only name by which my fan would identify herself. "How old are you?"I asked, a little urgently, my mind racing through the possible repercussionsof discussing X-rated material with a minor. "Sixteen," answeredthe tender voice, which had a slight Southern lilt. "Then you're inhigh school?" "No, I'm a sexworker," was the flat answer. "Cool," was mynervous, inane response, which I forced myself to deliver in an ultra-toleranttone. It was only after my stutteringcaller offered some facts about hustling and mentioned an obsessive identificationwith the abused teenage character Ziggy in Dennis Cooper's novel Try thatI realized my mistake. "You're a boy?" I blurted out. "Last time I lookedI was." With surprising sophistication he explained to me that he reallywasn't that concerned about what people thought he was when it came togender. I could relax and think of him any way I wanted to. Aside from hustling,he was writing, he said, and he was getting a lot of inspiration from certainwriters, among them Dennis Cooper and me. I didn't realize itat the time, but by the end of the conversation, Terminator had already hookedme. Seldom in my life had I encountered a "professional" with sucha knack for creating an instant sense of intimacy. Never had I met anyone ascryptic when it came to the basic statistics we associate with knowing someone. Terminator refused to tell me his birth name, his living situation or anythingabout his family, only that he was calling from San Francisco ("I got afriend at the phone company who got me a few months of free calls"). Hedidn't hang up until he was convinced that I wouldn't mind his callingagain soon. In the meantime, his firstcall stayed with me. The voice had been alternately timid and insinuating, breathilydistracted and pushy. I hung up intrigued, but found myself anxiously half-hopingthat he wouldn't call again. The piece from Terminatorthat rolled out of my fax machine a couple of days later was impressive, butdidn't knock my socks off right away. It was about buying heroin in balloons,about the beauty of the balloons, whose knots he carefully untied, even thoughhis mother slashed open hers impatiently with her long red nails, to get tothe tar-sticky dope quick. What should have alerted me to the fact that I wasdealing with an extraordinary prodigy was the supple metaphor of those balloons,which appeared first as soothing breast-like material that he pressed against a lonely face at night in a park, then as packages for dope, then as colorfultoys for a child and finally as inflated saviors from heaven, ballooning him up and away in a religious, drug-inspired miracle of levitation. The piece that followedsometime later was infinitely more disturbing: it described the hustling ofa hustler. The "I" in the story, whom the reader suspects is Terminatorhimself, pays an older top to dominate him, but their sex play seems to go waybeyond the safe word; he is willingly abused and experiences serious physicalpain. Terminator wrote me fromthe hospital several days later. "I sorta got beat up too much. It'sokay 'cause I'm getting pain pills, but I had to talk to cops andI fuckin' hate cops. Plus I look like shit. I never let anyone hit my faceand he did. I protect my face and my arms, all clean. I never shot in my arms.My mom taught me that. She almost never hit my face." Enclosed were some recentphotos. He'd purposely chosen blurry ones, due to an obsession with featureshe felt were far from perfect, including his slightly flattened nose. What Isaw was a good-looking blond boy with a brush cut, delicate eyebrows, a sweetmouth and a cleft chin. Enough to form a coherent picture in my mind duringthe countless phone calls that followed. During the time of our mostfrequent and fervent communication, Terminator's writing blossomed. WhenI finally showed some writer friends his work, most of them were astounded. A year later, at the age of 17, he got a contract for a first novel from Crown. Terminator was born to ateenage mother at the moment of her rebellion against viciously stern fundamentalistparents from the South. Though he is vague about certain details, he does saythat his mother was 14 when he was born. There followed a series of group andfoster homes as well as several later stints with his mother and his grandparents. Early on he learned to use sex to attract and appease his male caretakers?fosterfathers, group workers, his mother's boyfriends. He says he suffered physicalabuse from his mother during her near-psychotic episodes of frustration anddrug withdrawal, and from his grandparents during moments of deranged religiousfervor. He transformed these experiences into s&m sexual fantasies promisingcomfort and intimacy. No one is more aware than he is that these transformationscan be dangerous evasions. As evidence of his literarycraft, check out "Baby Doll," a memoir of his in the recent collection Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage and Desire, edited by Laurie Stone(Grove, 256 pages, $25). He details his childhood seduction of his mother'sboyfriend, which he pulls off by means of a drag impersonation of her. "BabyDoll" is a story of brutal mother-child competition, deep longings forlove and safety, genital mutilation and schizophrenic transvestism. But, touse a term coined by Stone, it is also "post-therapeutic," writtenfrom the emergent side of the suffering, which is still hot enough to lightup the narration yet not too confusing for the narrator to understand and shape. There is an acute, wide-eyed emotional precision in the piece that stays warmand human under the most extreme conditions. During a mutual makeup sessionin which the mother mockingly paints the son's face to look exactly likehers, we witness his ecstatic devouring of her attention: "I feel brushes glidingacross my lids, her coffee breath warm and moist against my cheek, her handresting on my forehead...what happened is freeze-framed in my head forever,her licking her finger and running it gently under my eyes. It reminds me ofthose nature films of a mother bird regurgitating food into its baby'smouth." To this day I haven'tmet Terminator in person, but the many pages of writing he's sent me byfax, mail and e-mail?as well as our long conversations full of freakouts,arguments, bonding, literary discussions and mutual advice?have filledme in on a life extraordinary for its gruesome deprivation and triumphant recovery. In the last year or so, Terminator has become one of those writers capable ofgiving voice to unutterable psychological horrors, in ways that magically replaceloss with high art. Where others are driven permanently dumb through terrorand suffering, he speaks out with eloquence and a kind of poker-faced compassion. Terminator would claim thathis recovery from abuse and his emergence as a writer owe a lot to a San Franciscopsychotherapist who began treating him a few years ago. At the time they connected,Terminator was, according to his own reports, a drug-ridden street hustler whowas hallucinating and nearly nonverbal. He'd been abandoned by his motherat the shelter where he'd been staying with her and her boyfriend. Hisrelationship with the therapist, who continued to treat him without charge oncehe was out of the shelter, gave him the chance to turn his supple imaginationand intellect toward self-analysis, self-discipline and communication. He beganto dissect his masochistic impulses, and he learned to trust his therapist. He also began to write?notfor the public, but to share his experiences with a class his therapist wasgiving on homelessness and drug abuse. Before every Monday night when the classmet, he painstakingly copied out his drafts by hand. The writing gave him asense of purpose he had never experienced before. The naivete of the socialworkers in the class drove him in his work?he'd experienced firsthandhow much damage their lack of understanding could cause. Terminator's journeyto his present state of coherence has been far from smooth. Sometimes it progressedby a series of dramatic eruptions. At times these took the form of spurts ofcreative activity, during which he was faxing or e-mailing me and other writerfriends new material every couple of days. Each chunk of writing seemed to havemore clarity and courage than the one preceding it. One section of his novel-in-progressis a brilliant tour de force that takes place at a suburban shopping mall, duringwhich the mother, probably suffering from speed paranoia, instructs the boyabout a world inhabited by poisons, including Land O' Lakes butter, and"safe" food, like Pringles?all ruled by a magic lump of blackcoal. What's so engaging about the piece is not merely its accurate portrayalof a paranoid world, but its relish in detailing the irrepressible creativeimagination of mother and son, who bond in the invention of a perverse, obsessivewonderland. Another section of his novelhe sent me around the same time is humorous, touching and brutal. It describesa period the boy spends stranded at a truck stop with his mother, who has becomea "lot lizard," a woman who works as a prostitute at the truck stopparking lot. The boy gets locked out of the truck where she's staying andends up watching tv with a child prostitute named Milkshake, who makes contactwith her trucker johns through a CB radio: "'Calf Roper,here, darlin', where ya wanna take it?' he says. "'Twenty-eightfor my 10-20,' she says. "'Is the pussyfree tonight?' a different man says. "'Milkshake goin'to twenty-eight, visit and ya'll find out.'" Later, the boy and his motherare abandoned by the trucker they were staying with. The boy can hear the trainwhistle the trucker has attached to his vehicle from the diner as his mothershows him how to make a meal of free condiments like milk, catsup, jams andpancake syrup. Then the mother hooks upwith another trucker, but the boy doesn't like him: "His odor of moldyflannel mixed with women's flowery deodorant nauseates me. His hands arepale and his fingers long and floppy like daisy stems, not cracked and heavylike Kenny's, not the kind that can crush you quickly if they want to,and for some reason that makes me feel cold and hot at the same time they justdon't." Wild, visceral associations tie one episode to another jump-cut-style. Terminator uses emotional rather than temporal logic to paste his narrativeinto a coherent whole. When Terminator's eruptionsweren't channeled into writing, they used to have disastrous consequences.Usually they were triggered by an incident that made him feel guilty. It mighthave been a chance remark about his mother that made him feel as if he werebetraying her. It might have been coming to a dead zone in a story he was writing. In these situations, rage would come like a storm, yet always indirectly andin a self-punishing manner. I'd get calls from him when he was high, orhe'd wind up battered, having gone too far with a trick. Then there was a time whenhe slipped into a violent fantasy world inhabited by his preacher-grandfather'sdemons, who were commanding him to hurt himself. He called me from the hospitalto warn me that I was in danger of burning in hell forever. He pleaded withme to change my ways. Our conversation was interrupted by his dialogue withthe demons, whom he spoke to in tongues. He also asked me to turn on the televisionto verify whether or not I could hear his grandfather preaching through it,because his grandfather had taken over the sound. Each time he relapsed, Ifelt deeply troubled, even implicated. He is an immensely demonstrative friendto everyone he knows. The gifts he forces on us (he insisted on buying me anew fax modem) are meant to be disarmingly generous, to upset the balance ofpower and strengthen his growing image of himself as an adult. When I introducedhim to editors/writers Joel Rose and Catherine Texier, who were interested inpublishing him, he loved the fact of getting to know an entire family unit,and quickly stormed his way into their family circle by phone, e-mail and fax,eventually sending gifts to their two children. Terminator affected otherwriters who had affected him. Dennis Cooper was the first writer he ever contacted,not by any design, but because he was so overwhelmed by his writing and identifiedwith it so strongly. Later he would he read Tobias Wolff, Mary Gaitskill andArt Speigelman and contact each. My friendship with Terminatorhas strengthened my belief in his gargantuan creative powers. When a geniusbecomes as personable and tender as he often does, he invades your psyche tothe depths. During a period when Terminator was calling regularly, reading newpieces over the phone and releasing fragments of his past to me, we'd talkinto the wee hours of the morning, after which I'd fall asleep and, inevitably,slip into an intense dream in which I was part of the past that had inspiredhis writing. I'd wake up distracted, bewildered and frightened by my forayinto his traumatic interior, but the experience would be sheathed in a feelingof growing love for him. A climax in his recoverycame recently, when Terminator's current intimate companion, who is closeto his age, became a father. Terminator, the newborn and the baby's parentsnow live together, sharing child-rearing duties. Terminator seems ecstatic. He is obsessed with the baby, whose pictures he sends me through the Internet.Never before has he seemed so sure of himself and focused. He's given uphustling and lives partly from the advance he's received from Crown forhis novel-in-progress. I wonder what will happento the generous though demanding Terminator when he faces the New York literaryestablishment. Up until now he has received an enthusiastic, personal and lovingresponse from the writers he has approached, but once he becomes media propertyhe'll lose the privilege of choosing whom he wants to deal with. A close friend of mine,who is a psychoanalyst, was so anguished by my telling her the plot of one ofthe episodes in Terminator's novel that she forbade me to continue. Shesaid she saw no way the material would not be viewed with sensationalism bythe media. It was too visceral and unprocessed. An agent friend was fascinatedby the text I began reading him over the phone, then ordered me to stop becausehe was overwhelmed by its negative power. Other literary people havesimply tried to ignore Terminator. When I sent his work to Grand Street, I receiveda terse letter admitting that after much discussion the editors had decidedthat they could not publish him. Reviews of Close to the Bone included startled,admiring or distrustful reactions to his piece, sometimes questioning its presentationas memoir rather than as fiction. In Newsday, Nina Mehta wrote: "Of theselections in this book, his is the most disturbing and the one that most readsas a story?its narrative is poised, the piece is reorganized for dramaticeffect and the author is deliberate, if not coy, about what's revealedand when." An article in the Sunday New York Times stated, "The moststartling piece is by a 17-year-old boy writing under the pseudonym Terminator,"and asked, "Is this literature or kiddie porn?" Whatever the final consensusafter his novel is published, those who like deadly earnest, visceral prosewill be talking about Terminator. His writing is affirmative yet painfully abject.It takes complete control of any consciousness that allows it entry. In readingTerminator's story, we're forced into an almost untenable position.There isn't any choice but to become a part of it.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters