At the age of 8, his father, a high school basketball coach in small-town Mississippi, died in a car accident, and at the age of 9, his mother, a homemaker with a taste for Broadway show tunes, died of cancer. That's the worst of it, but it isn't the last of it in Kevin Sessums' memoir of growing up gay, Mississippi Sissy (St. Martin's Press).
Consider the other facts of the matter: Sessums the little kid, glued to the TV game show What's My Line? -- and especially glued to its star panelist Arlene Francis. Or Sessums the bigger kid, begging to read Valley of the Dolls and reporting on it before his fellow sixth-graders. Or Sessums the teenager, watching as Eudora Welty downs a bourbon or three in the Jackson home of Sessums' friend and mentor, the newspaper man Frank Hains. Or Sessums the Millsaps undergraduate, befriending -- make that, dating -- another Frank, this one the first African American to play football for Mississippi State: Frank Dowsing Jr. But also consider Sessums the eyewitness -- the one who discovered the body of Hains, bound and bludgeoned to death in Hains' own bed. The culprit, a drifter, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to Parchman Penitentiary. Sessums, for his part, got himself to New York City -- the Juilliard School of Drama, to be exact.
But the stage wasn't the thing. Journalism was. Sessums served as executive editor of Interview magazine, then as a celebrity profiler, for 14 years, for Vanity Fair. Today he's a contributing editor at Allure. But the day the Flyer contacted him, Sessums the interviewer was Sessums the interviewee. Here's what the unapologetic Mississippi sissy had to say:
Flyer: Your memoir's out of your hands and in the hands of reviewers and readers. One, why did you write it? Two, what do you think of it?
Kevin Sessums: I have a lot of low-grade stress about this. My back's gone out ... you have no idea ... the anticipation ... now that it's here and I realize what I've written. It's like, Oh God, what have I put out in the world?
People in the past asked me to write a memoir, and I never wanted to. I thought of memoirs as a kind of hackneyed form. But someone finally convinced me to do it, and once I found a way into writing it, it was surprisingly easy ... well, not easy but easier than I thought it would be.
During parts of it I found myself depressed, especially the parts about my mother's illness -- depressed in a very physical way. I didn't know why. And then it dawned on me: What do you think you're writing about? You're pushing your own buttons here! Once I realized that, the depression lifted and I wrote on.
A month ago I sat down with the book for the first time in weeks. I got nauseous. It's like the Cliffs Notes of my "shrinkdom." I guess I realized why I'm a lonely old homo with a Chihuahua sitting in my lap.
Your memoir has its share of graphic sex scenes, including several scenes between you, age 13, and a middle-aged minister, who befriended and betrayed you. Are you concerned that those scenes are too graphic even for this day and age?
I figured if I'm going to write this kind of book, I'd have to be brutally honest. I hope it's brutally honest but not vulgar. In fact, there's only one real sex scene in it. The rest is molestation, which is not sex. But it's a book about a lot of different things. It's about otherness, survival, race. Growing up in Mississippi when I did, the book had to be about race.
More than the sex, I was worried, as a white man, about using the N-word. But I had to be honest about the times. If I heard the N-word once, growing up, I heard it a million times. I couldn't gloss over that.
Your brother Kim and sister Karole ... what's been their reactions to Mississippi Sissy?
My brother read it quickly. He said this is your version of what happened. My sister ... it took her months to read it, because she would start to cry. They don't have the memories I did.
Even as a kid, I had that heightened awareness that all writers have. You're born with it. You see life as a narrative. I "got" the connections. I was as much an audience to my life as I was a participant. It's a curse and a blessing at the same time. Some people just feel like a spy in their own lives. It's a hard thing to live with, and I still haven't found a way to live with it successfully.
On the issue of molestation again: Do you wonder if perhaps you treated it too matter of factly?
I was traumatized! But is this book woe-is-me-I'm-a-victim? No. What molestation leaves you with -- that you have to live with for the rest of your life -- is not victimhood but complicity. That is the curse, because molesters are very talented at making their victims complicit. I even say it in the book: You're afraid to tell, because you're afraid to tell on yourself.
What people don't talk about is that being molested, on some level, feels good. But it's really about power. You never outlive it. You can't get past it.
I read that you were disinvited to a bookstore signing in Tupelo.
The manager of that store saw me read in Orlando and wanted me to read at her store, but the store's owner read the book and refused to have me be there. He said he was a friend of the late Frank Dowsing's. He was very upset about what he thought was my betrayal of Frank. I think I've written a dignified, loving portrait.
But the bookstore owner was upset. And the only reason he could be upset is because Frank was a homosexual, and maybe this store owner can't put the words "loving" and "dignified" in the same sentence as "homosexual." There are people like that, and a lot of them in Mississippi, still.
I'm thinking of having a T-shirt made up that says "Banned in Tupelo" and wearing it to every reading I have in Mississippi. You'd think the birthplace of Elvis Presley would be a little more welcoming of outsiders. Elvis had the good sense to move to Memphis.
You've got a signing in Memphis on the 20th. You've been here before?
Twice. The first time was when I was in college. There's a park ... what is it ... Overton Park. I was walking through Overton Park and got picked up by a football player for Memphis State. He took me back to his apartment, and we had sex below a portrait of Miss Tennessee. He'd been dating her. Next time I saw him, he was a bartender in a gay bar in New York.
The other time in Memphis was when I interviewed Dennis Quaid, who was filming Great Balls of Fire. I went out drinking with him. I tried to keep up. I'm not a drinker. But I was thinking, I'm not getting drunk, I'm sort of feeling high. The next morning I woke up with alcohol poisoning!
So those are my two memories of Memphis: sex with a Memphis State football player and alcohol poisoning.
Mississippi Sissy ends right before your move to New York. Any plans for a sequel?
I don't know. If I wrote about my life since the age of 19, you'd probably find me at the bottom of the Hudson.
One last question: I read in the blog at your Web site, MississippiSissy.com, that you're planning to drive yourself to your booksignings throughout Mississippi. You finally got your driver's license?
Oh God. You ... have pushed ... a button ... today.
My driving road test was scheduled for today, but the school had booked the test in Yonkers! So I'm driven from Manhattan up to Yonkers in the driving-school car. Then there's this long line of cars waiting to take the road test. We wait for an hour and 10 minutes!
We finally get to the front of the line, and the woman who is going to give me my road test tells the driving-school guy: "You can't take a road test in this car. There's no inside handle on the driver's side." It had snapped off. I couldn't take the road test! We had to come all the way back! So I just called my publisher, St. Martin's. I said, "You know what? You're hiring a cute Ole Miss person to drive me around to my booksignings in Mississippi. I have literally gone the extra mile so I could drive myself. I just can't do it anymore. I can't!
It's like the universe is saying to me, "Don't get behind the wheel of a car, or I will kill you." Ugh. I'm going to listen to the universe.