After attempting suicide at 15, Steven Gaines agreed to be committed to a mental hospital — but not just any hospital. He demanded access to the “fabled and fashionable” Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, where he could wander halls once inhabited by Marilyn Monroe, William S. Burroughs and other legends.
Gaines tells the story in “One of These Things First.” The memoir, which takes place in 1960s Borough Park, follows this Jewish young man through his exploits hiding in the changing rooms of his grandparents’ bra and girdle shop, his suicide attempt and his hospitalization, with a glimpse into the decades after.
His story flips back and forth between his sessions with a psychologist who attempts to “cure” him of his homosexuality (even using Gaines as a Guinea pig during a conference of psychologists) and his antagonistic friendship with Richard Halliday, husband of the original Peter Pan, Mary Martin.
In what seems to be an attempt to match his writing style to his maturity, Gaines begins the book with run-on sentences that ramble and meander through character descriptions and anecdotes of the employees in his grandparents’ store and their dysfunctional interactions with customers and family members.
Rather than add stylistic depth, the wandering prose distracts from the character exposition. I found myself looking for the end of the sentence rather than connecting with Gaines.
The story picks up and becomes more cohesive at Payne Whitney, but except for Halliday, Gaines doesn’t dig beneath the surface in discussing the people at the clinic. I would have loved a closer look into the personalities he encountered and how they affected him.
There are some heartwarming moments, as when Gaines and his fellow patients break the rules and explore New York while on leave from the hospital in a way reminiscent of a screwball comedy and when Gaines learns about women’s “plumbing” from another patient.
Gaines ends his story with a troubling admission. The psychologist who dedicated almost all of his time to trying to cure Gaines of his homosexuality apologizes for the pain he caused. Rather than find peace in the apology, Gaines is angry and unsympathetic, delving into an almost-celebration of his internalized homophobia.
I understand that I am from a very different generation with very different experiences, I simply couldn’t get past this moment.
One of These Things First
By Steven Gaines
Delphinium, 272 pages, $24.95