23 October, 2012

Review: The Cross In The Closet by Timothy Kurek

I have to give it up to Kurek's marketing team.  They 50'd me into The Cross In The Closet. It seemed like everyone was talking about it so I decided to buy it. (Not my best idea.) How do you review the book and not the author when the book is about nothing but the author? Under the guise of advocating for the gay community, Kurek has written a book about himself. He is an exhausting companion. In desperate need of an editor, The Cross In The Closet takes a meandering path through Kurek's psyche. (I think part of what attracted me to The Cross In The Closet is that I used to know this guy. And a few like him, if less ambitious.)

Kurek doesn't set his bigotry aside through education, he reinvents himself as something he isn't - a gay man. Telling his friends and family of his new sexual identity, Kurek begins living what he thinks is an authentically gay life. This leads to Kurek writhing in self loathing while everyone else gives him cookies. You'd expect that finding out someone put you through the emotional wringer for their own gratification would lead to serious recriminations but (with the exception of Kurek's sister in law) the people in the author's life think it's just awesome.  While the denizens of the book are compelled to stroke Kurek's ego the reader is not. Whether is it Kurek feeling all super smug for letting someone who sexually repulses him feel him up or Kurek comparing teenagers drinking lattes to dropping a six pack at an AA meeting (the teens all avoid the coffee?) The Cross In The Closet is all Kurek, all the time.

An editor might have shaped this into a more cohesive (and less self serving) tale of a misguided mission, but Kurek appears to be going it alone. The book wanders. Basic errors of word choice (most often involving homophones) further distance the reader from the text. Most of this memoir comes in the form of quoted text, yet the speakers share very similar speech patterns. Without distinctive idioms or pacing to indicate natural conversation paths the quotes appear to be fictionalized or paraphrased. This leads the reader to doubt the veracity of the whole. The overall impression is not of a man so moved by discovering his own shortcomings that he radically changed his life. It is of a man at loose ends who saw others writing stunt books (he mentions Kevin Roose in passing) and decided to write a My Year As piece. While he calls it The Experiment, the reader is hard pressed not to cynically view his actions as being content motivated. Without much context (hey, you all know who they are, right?) Kurek decides to cold call Westboro Baptist under the guise of reaching out. He tries to manipulate his way into their world through the same methods he used successfully in the gay community - lying. When faced with hostile suspicion he goes for mentioning their recently born baby. Because that is not creepy at all. If I lived in an us against them mentality and a stranger showed up at my door talking like he knew me and referencing my newborn I would totally embrace him. After that fails Kurek again pretends to be gay. He might not have been able to infiltrate Westboro, but he can certainly show how much he loves them and all his fellow men by... I just can't. (Proverbs 14:5 dude)

I grew up around the gay community. I grew up around fundamentalists. I should have been a sympathetic audience for this book. It's a feel good moment for those who want to believe that the differences between the two can be easily overcome but The Cross In The Closet is little else. Kurek is not Tim Wise for gay people. I was repulsed by a section where Kurek, who has asked a good friend to play the role of his partner, lets things get physical. He lovingly details his revulsion then gives himself another cookie for allowing his friend that moment of joy. I lost all sympathy for the author. Using another person for your own ends, letting that person develop a hopeless emotional attachment to you and then praising yourself for giving up a kiss? Take the male / male dynamic out of it (and thus the martyr aspect) and you've got an old as time dynamic as distasteful as it is transparent. While those in the book are moved to tears by Kurek's Lady Bountiful turn, I was not. Given context and shaped by an uninvested eye The Cross In The Closet might have made an excellent book. We'll never know. Worth reading for a look at how privilege operates through the underlying assumptions Kurek makes and his framing choices, but not a read I can recommend.

*Note - I put my short review up first as I wanted to consider the tone of this long review. As I say above it is difficult not to review the author in this context. While engaged in an exchange with a commenter who felt The Cross In The Closet deserved bonus points for Kurek's intent (and his not being a racist hate monger) Kurek chose to obliquely weigh in. Thus relieved of any considerations of tone, I didn't take another editing pass at this longer opinion. Kurek may choose to consider today's timely DA piece - his PR team is doing excellent work on his behalf, work he can easily undo.


  1. I'm not quite sure I got this right - but he pretended to be gay for a year? Was it to make a point about anti-gay bigotry? I find this kind of "experimentation" mind-boggling. This is the lived experience and reality of so many people - it's not something you just dip your toe in.

    I watched a doco recently - this British journalist Dawn Porter basically seeing whether she could become a lesbian. She'd kissed a girl when she was 16 or something, and thought she might have latent tendencies. She goes and lives with three lesbians for a couple of weeks, and there was one conversation they all had that really highlighted the issue for me. The women were asking about her previous experiences with girls, and then one of them asks (really genuinely interested/perplexed), "So if you've already tried it out, why are you doing this now?"

    The divide was so clear between Someone Trying To Make Sellable TV, and Someone Living Their Life. Ugh.

  2. Exactly. He says he undertakes it a as a path to understanding and references the book Black Like Me. Kurek seems to feel that he cannot discard his bigotry without pretending to come out and immerse himself in the (fake) life of a gay man. He is not gay curious or bi. By the end of the book it felt a lot less altruistic than he seemed to perceive it.

  3. This review is about as ignorant as they come... Even Desmond Tutu called this book "A gift to us all". You're crazy.