I could be off, but I think the original first line (or close to it) of the short story that became Boy Culture was, “I’ve forgotten every book that I’ve read.” I was so attached to the line that it was years before I remembered it'd been chopped out by the book’s editor at St. Martin’s Press. Makes sense—she was just looking out for her industry.
But it was as autobiographical a sentiment as any of the others in the novel. I’m the most ill-read English major alive. I went through a phase in junior high and high school when I read some classics to prove that I was smarter than you—Lord Of The Flies, Catcher In The Rye. But aside from that, though I enjoyed reading, I tended to read stuff well below my comprehension level. I mean, we’re talking about Thomas Thompson’s trashtastic Celebrity, John Coyne’s roleplaying horror tale Hobgoblin and some novel that was so sleazy it involved a teenage brother and sister tricked into having sex with each other as a form of hazing when their family moved into a new town.
Those books I remember.
I’m not as stupid as I claim; I do have favorite writers, favorite books. And I own a lot of books, including some that don’t feature pages of pouting adonises in black-and-white. But it’s safe to say that I have managed to avoid reading a lot of books one might consider unavoidable. That’s just laziness, I suppose. But on top of my natural disinclination to read books, I’ve also had to start with reading glasses recently and my day job is more often an all-day-and-all-of-the-night job. So I’ve hardly read anyone’s work in the not-so-distant past except for my own.
Just before the holidays, performance artist Craig Hickman sent me his autobiography, Fumbling Toward Divinity: The Adoption Scriptures (published in 2005 by Annabessacook Farm—also the name of a bed-and-breakfast he runs) with the inscription, “To Matthew Take care of your blessings!” It was unsolicited and did not seem up my alley—anything that embraces religion or spirituality makes me cringe. I warned Mr. Hickman that I might really dislike it.
But I didn’t.
So many memoirs are cult-of-personality jack-off experiences—if you’re wild about Joan Collins or Colin Powell or Marlon Brando, you buy and read their autobiographies to find out not the truth but what version of the truth these familiar figures are peddling. It’s like getting an autograph, except you might find out a few trivial details about their already well-documented existences in the process. Fumbling Toward Divinity, written by a man who is not a household name, is freer to be a serious literary endeavor. It is a memoir that explores the emotional impact of the adoption process as it was practiced in the past, the gay and the black and the black gay experience, even family politic—all compelling issues whether or not you’d want Craig Hickman’s signature.
Parts of the book read like a religious text:
“And it came to pass on the twenty-seventh day of April in the nineteen hundred and sixty-ninth year that Craig Von Hickman went permanently to the home of Hazelle and Mary Juanita Hickman on Thirteenth Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
The religious overtones (his mom’s name really is Mary) seem to be largely a way of pointing out that one man’s life story is as important and momentous as that of all the begats in the Bible itself. Reading the Bible, there is a tremendous sense of how humanity builds on itself, on its mistakes and its successes. It’s like you can go through layer by layer and look at the men and women responsible for the figure at hand. If that was the intent, it’s effective in that it focuses the attention on the story’s many characters (all real people), some of whom seem as if they might have full autobiographies of their own if they possessed Hickman’s drive to write.
Hickman was adopted and had a happy childhood with a loving family. His adolescent acceptance of his homosexuality took some doing, but whose didn’t? It wasn’t until he saw the movie Secrets & Lies in 1996, with its powerful adoption plot, that he was moved to dig for his own roots. A seer told him he would be reunited with his birth mother (not in so many words) and, “There is a Great Book inside of you that you have yet to write. It comes after you find what you are looking for.” Hence the deceptively audacious sounding “A Great Book” on the cover.
I mistakenly believed the entire memoir would document his struggle to find his birth mother, but through some very resourceful detective work and good guesses, Hickman and his Dutch partner Job discover within the first 100 pages that his mother was one Jennifer White, an Oakwood College co-ed who has become active in the strict Seventh-Day Adventist church. With the help of her brother and a psychologically frightening phone call with her mother (the woman who pushed her to give Hickman up), he’s face to face with Jennifer, leading to an almost unbelievably easy new friendship. Hickman brings her home to meet the family that raised him and to give her an exhaustive tour of every aspect of his life that she’s missed out on, right down to the park where he used to cruise for sex and where he met Roy, an influential mentor.
Jennifer’s seeming benevolence makes Mary’s obvious dislike of her seem defensive and ungracious, but the real Jennifer will soon stand up. Her dogmatic beliefs lead her to accuse Mary of being responsible for, of driving Hickman to, his homosexuality—which she views as being as much of a flaw as Hickman seems to view it as a gift. Does Hickman regret looking for her? I doubt it, considering all the other people the journey exposed him to and all the incredible family history it unearthed. But the book shows that closure is a myth.
As involving as Hickman and Jennifer’s complex story is, the memoir gradually shifts its focus to his relationship with Job, and with Job’s mysterious European family. While Hickman initially felt accepted and loved when he married Job, the family has since decided Hickman is holding Job back—it’s almost as if they’re pulling the same blame-game on Hickman as Jennifer pulled on Mary. For a book so defined by family ties, loose and strangle-tight, it’s fitting that things come to a head at a massive family reunion in Georgia, to which everyone from the “evil” grandmother to the icy mother-in-law are at least invited.
If anything almost turned me off about the book, it would probably be, paradoxically, the most fascinating episode, in which Hickman claims to have called a number in a public bathroom and met a man for sex at the Hotel Wisconsin, a man who turned out to be Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer’s demeanor and Hickman’s sixth sense caused him to bolt. Later, when Dahmer was revealed as one of the nation’s most infamous serial killers, Hickman discovered that a former classmate of his had been among the victims. Part of me wondered if Hickman’s memory might not be tricking him into believing he’d had this brush with death (remember how Debbie Harry once claimed to have escaped Ted Bundy?). I just worried that he might be losing credibility with me, since it’s such a common phenomenon for people to seek to inject themselves into world events like that out of sympathy and sometimes a need to feel more important. But the time and location are convincing. And the shocking story’s importance to Hickman’s story can not be underplayed—organized religion’s use of the Dahmer story to further vilify homosexuality angers Hickman and clues in readers to the fact that while this story is spiritual, it is not a case of a hypocritical gay man embracing the anti-gay church.
Nothing else is as sensational as the brief Dahmer tale, but the book is full of small remembrances by Hickman and his newly discovered family that render it a sort of quilt to be taken in and appreciated both as a whole and part by part.
I used to work as an assistant literary agent and later as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press, so I cringe at memoirs—you would not believe the mundane, artlessly realized, offensive, egolicious manuscripts (back when those existed) that I’ve sifted through. For that, I am gun-shy about memoirs. But Fumbling Toward Divinity, with its sometimes experimental prose, its clear understanding of the implications of Hickman’s story and its intellectual humor (jokes are not told, jokes are documented and preserved as insight into character), more than makes up for some of those misguided efforts.
For a reluctant reader of books like me, it was well worth the fumble with my reading glasses and my limited time for the divine pay-off.