September 29, 2014. As an amber-violet sunset spread across a CinemaScope sky to the west of Manhattan, the House of SpeakEasy returned to City Winery for the inaugural show of its fall season. Almost three hundred guests gathered to listen, to laugh, to share, and to refill their glasses as six writers — Marcelo Gleiser, Natalie Haynes, John Guare, Gary Shteyngart, Gail Sheehy, and Andrew Solomon — took to the stage to ponder this month’s theme, Inside the Lie. This month’s guest stars? Copernicus, RFK, Oedipus, Sophia Loren’s panties, an uncommon family set-up, a Bavarian porn star…
We’ll be posting videos from the show soon, but here’s a sneak preview of what went down when the curtain went up…
Marcelo Gleiser (Photo: Nick Carter)
Marcelo Gleiser: “We matter because we are very rare…”
Marcelo Gleiser set the scene in 1543 with the death of Copernicus. The Prussian math genius supposedly died with his newly published masterwork, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in his hands, horrified by the preface tacked on by Lutheran nay-sayer Andreas Osiander that essentially discredited all that followed. Copernicus’s theory — maybe the sun… doesn’t orbit the earth? — would of course turn the world upside down (pun). But reversing the cosmic order, especially one which sustains the reigning orthodoxy, takes, in Marcelo’s words, “a lot of guts.” Copernicus, thankfully, would have the last laugh.
Many of the things we take for granted today depend upon the advances made by quantum physicists, working in the realm of the indescribably small. “Science is about opening windows into this invisible reality,” said Marcelo, windows which — he contends — go on opening indefinitely. “There is no final, firm scientific knowledge. Just evolving ideas.” If this sounds defeatist, though, it’s not. Embracing the Copernican Principle and all the scientific progress made off the back of it, we see in fact that “Earth is very special.” We may have one moon while Jupiter’s got sixty-plus, but the mass and relative position of ours is what enables the seasons to change. There may be two hundred billion other stars in the Milky Way, which is “really humbling,” but if intelligent life exists anywhere out there, it would have to be so remote from what we know that we are, effectively, alone. “We matter because we are very rare. We are the way the universe thinks about itself… That is liberating. It will keep us curious!”
Natalie Haynes (Photo: Nick Carter)
Natalie Haynes: “Batman & Robin — a film so bad I fainted at the end of it.”
“New York is the only city I ever performed in as a stand-up comedian where everyone speaks at the same speed as me,” began Natalie Haynes at the start of a light-speed set encompassing Aristotle and Angel Heart, Oedipus and Arnie. “Since the theme for tonight is ‘Inside the Lie,’ I thought I would talk about the greatest lie in Greek theater…”
Natalie recapped the plot of Oedipus the King at Nascar speed, right down to Jocasta’s suicide and the terrible revelation of the king’s provenance. “Come on, you’ve had two and a half thousand years to read it!”
As she pointed out, Sophocles’ masterpiece set the template for the modern whodunnit. It is, in Aristotelian terms, “the most perfect Greek tragedy,” an exemplary synthesis of — in order of importance — plot, character, reasoning, dialogue, music, and spectacle. Not how Hollywood works today, Natalie observed, with reference to Joel Schumacher’s 1997 anti-classic, Batman & Robin, “a film so bad I fainted at the end of it.” The costume for Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in said movie cost the production $1 million. “Could you have spent five, maybe seven cents of that on the script…?”
John Guare (Photo: Nick Carter)
John Guare: “I went into the bathroom and saw, hanging on a doorknob, Sophia Loren’s panties…”
Prompted by a James Taylor concert on PBS, legendary playwright John Guare took us back to February 10, 1971, “the day my life changed.” Following a film screening, Guare was accosted in the subway by a blonde woman and two short Italian men, one of whom turned out to be film producer Carlo Ponti, perhaps better known as the husband of Sophia Loren. Ponti had been prepping an Elliott Gould movie only for Gould to suffer a breakdown, leaving the production leading-man-free. Guare, whose elegant height is a decent match for Gould’s 6’3″, agreed to screen-test for the incongruous trio. The next day, he was offered a three-picture deal.
“My lawyer called and said, ‘Carlo wants you to go to the Essex House right now to meet Sophia Loren!'” And there she was. “I read she’d had the inner edges of her eyes tattooed so she’d never have to apply eyeliner again. I wanted to get close to check…”
Things got surreal. Needing a break, Guare slid into the bathroom, where he saw, “hanging on a doorknob… Sophia Loren’s panties.” As if to affirm both the reality and the absurdity of the situation: “I took them… and I put them on my head.”
Ponti made some amazing promises, including transforming Guare’s Broadway show The House of Blue Leaves into a movie. But Guare had had second thoughts.
One morning: “I woke up and turned on the radio, and heard James Taylor… It was ‘You’ve Got A Friend.’ ‘They’ll take your soul if you let them…'”
“At 7am, I called the Essex House and said I couldn’t do the movie. I was living inside this lie of success. Carlo said, ‘You’ll never act again,’ and I said, ‘Fine!'”
The special guest host for SpeakEasy’s literary quiz, Tip of My Tongue, was jewelry designer and sometime Wes Anderson co-star Waris Ahluwalia, who tantalised the crowd with the six Ferraris up for grabs outside City Winery for the winners (inside the lie indeed…) This month’s mystery passages came from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dorothy Parker’s “Unfortunate Coincidence,” and Hamlet.
Gary Shteyngart (Photo: Nick Carter)
Gary Shteyngart: “My whole life has been just one lie.”
Little Failure, which comes out in paperback from Random House on October 7, is Gary Shteyngart‘s hilarious new memoir. In it, he recounts his experience of “being a liar, by which I mean being a writer…”
“My real name is Igor Shteynhorn — I was a Bavarian porn star before.” So begins the story of a little Soviet boy in Leningrad (no longer its name, of course) who comes to America loving Lenin, learns to revere Ronnie, and dreams of a day when he no longer has to attend the Solomon Schechter School of Queens (“I wanna live in Miami! Maybe there won’t be Hebrew school in Miami!”) Growing up in Queens in the 1980s as a Russian emigré necessitated a certain degree of deception, and young Gary, tormented by Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, pretends he was born in East Berlin. “You know things are bad when you have to convince Jewish kids you’re a German!”
But he found huge pleasure in writing. Admitting to a favorite teacher that he has written a novel — entitled The Chalenge [sic] — he is persuaded to share it with the class. It is well received, and eventually every class will be punctuated by hoots of “When will Gary read already?”
“God bless these kids for giving me a chance,” he concluded. “May their God bless them, every one.”
Gail Sheehy (Photo: Nick Carter)
Gail Sheehy: “It’s the job of the journalist to expose the truth or the lie.”
In the early days of her romance with New York magazine co-founder Clay Felker, Gail Sheehy was commissioned to follow Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential primary campaign as he battled Senator Eugene McCarthy. “You have to grab something that everybody’s talking about but they don’t know why,” said Felker, and off flew Sheehy on RFK’s trail.
“Would you like to sit up here, New York?” said the handsome senator. Sheehy, astonished, wordless, joined him. Kennedy reached for his brother’s overcoat, which he continued to wear even five years after the assassination. “We talk about that,” Sheehy told us, “and how he faces fear and death.”
During the flight, a sudden emergency: a second plane on the horizon, seemingly headed straight for them. “We dropped. And in the middle of the drop, RFK says, ‘I knew Gene McCarthy was desperate but I didn’t know he was that desperate!'”
Sheehy concluded with the revealing, somewhat risqué story of how Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, managed to look fabulous even ten years into her premiership. “I’ve done a lot of things to get a story,” she said, “but I draw the line at electrocution!”
Andrew Solomon (Photo: Nick Carter)
Andrew Solomon: “An interview about depression may not sound like the beginning of a love story, but it was.”
To round off the evening, the SpeakEasy crowd welcomed Andrew Solomon to the stage. Recalling his childhood, Solomon alighted on a gay couple his parents had befriended, Elmer and Willie, who often spent Christmas with the Solomons. Elmer had been studying medicine at Yale before he was drafted during the Second World War, and Solomon was brought up believing that he gave up becoming a doctor because of what he’d seen in battle. “I didn’t know I was inside a lie when I heard that story.” But as Willie later told him, “No one was going to a gay doctor then.”
“Not a great message for me to grow up with,” Solomon commented. His own sexual journey bypassed sexual surrogacy therapy in Hell’s Kitchen (“these women were not exactly prostitutes but they weren’t exactly anything else”) and a series of relationships with both men and women. Finally, he met John, now his husband, on the media tour for his book on depression, The Noonday Demon. Together, they mulled over having children. And after both had become sperm donors for other couples — one lesbian, one straight — they set out to do just that.
The truth is complicated. As Solomon remarked, searching for egg donors on the internet is “like ordering a car online that you’re gonna have to drive for the rest of your life.” And parties can get confusing — as one guest remarked after a dinner Andrew and John had hosted, “There must be a word for this kind of consanguinity, but I very much enjoyed talking to the daughter of the partner of the mother of your daughter.” But diversity is necessary “to sustain the ecosphere of kindness,” and truth in this case — and many others — is certainly preferable to the lies that destroyed so many Willies and Elmers.
Seriously Entertaining is back! The first of our two shows this fall, Inside the Lie, hits City Winery on Monday, September 29, with a mind-expanding line-up of literary talent. Don’t have your tickets yet? Check out our writers below in an audiovisual preview of some of the pleasures that await you.
John Guare‘s fifty-year career on the American stage and screen has been marked by some stunning highs, including the Tony Award-winning success of The House of Blue Leaves, Louis Malle’s classic 1980 movie Atlantic City, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, and, more recently, A Free Man of Color (2010). Check out our survey of his career here. In this interview at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Guare muses on the theory he helped popularize in perhaps his best-known play, 1990’s Six Degrees of Separation. “What about all the people we can’t find? The people who, through race and poverty… vanish? That’s what the play is about.”
Stand-up comedian, popular classicist, essayist, columnist, and now novelist, Natalie Haynes brings all her talents to bear on her literary debut, the tragic thriller The Furies (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Set in a children’s behavioral unit in Edinburgh, it’s a fast-moving psychological stunner shot through with black humour (check out our full review). Earlier this month, we chatted to Natalie about Sophocles, The Wire and Mickey Rourke, and what we should really be teaching our kids. Read the full interview here, and watch Natalie talking about her earlier book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life here:
Gail Sheehy‘s explosive journalistic career has seen her board the Kennedy ’68 campaign jet, travel to the heart of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and investigate the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Along the way, she found time to get lost inside Grey Gardens, to follow Hillary Clinton into bathrooms, and, most recently, to dash off a quick memoir, Daring: My Passages (William Morrow, 2014). A veteran of the political profile and an intrepid reporter on the female experience, Sheehy’s is a fascinating journey. Read our review of Daring, follow Gail on Twitter, and check out the lady herself as she talks about her new book here:
If, like me, you saw David Lynch’s Eraserhead at an impressionable age, or The Omen, or you read Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, the prospect of parenthood may be haunted by the fear that your progeny turn out in some way aberrant. Read Andrew Solomon‘s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner Books, 2012), though, and you will be haunted much more by the word aberrant ever having crossed your mind. Through twelve chapters, Solomon investigates the experiences of parents and children living with deafness, dwarfism, transgenderism, criminality, prodigiousness, autism, schizophrenia, Down Syndrome, severe disability, or a history of rape. “This book’s conundrum,” Solomon writes in the introductory chapter, “is that most of the families described here have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.” Far From the Tree, a book ten years in the writing, drawing on interviews with more than three hundred families, yielding forty thousand pages of transcripts, progresses steadily towards an understanding of that gratitude. In so doing, it’s a book that might actually change your life.
For the most part, Solomon investigates so-called “horizontal” (uninherited) identities. These may include differences of sexuality, physical or mental disability, psychopathy, genius, or autism. His own experience growing up gay informs his understanding of these terms, and he relates how the process of writing Far From the Tree has changed his views of his parents: “I wrongly felt the flaws in my parents’ acceptance as deficits in their love. Now, I think their primary experience was of having a child who spoke a language they’d never thought of studying.” Again and again, through the countless examples Solomon offers, we are led to see how even being prepared to learn that new language can be sufficient to ensure that your child is loved for who they are rather than who they might have been.
In many of the states of being Solomon investigates, the origin of difference is unclear. More than two hundred genetic conditions can lead to small stature. Autism is little more than “a catchall category for an unexplained constellation of symptoms.” Schizophrenia, likewise, has an undetermined genetic provenance, emerging as it does through a large variety of genotypes and phenotypes. Other conditions — including deafness and Down Syndrome — can be easier to follow through genetic lines and may be detectable before birth. In all cases, research is progressing apace to find origins, treatments, even cures. This can be positive: there’s no denying that the alleviation of certain conditions — especially in the case of those living with multiple severe disability — is a good thing for parents and their children. But as Solomon demonstrates, around many of these states of being have coalesced rich and proud cultures. The conflict between “illness” and “identity” is one of the major themes of his book.
In many cases, the need for pride is a reaction to an ongoing history of oppression, misunderstanding, and abuse. The construction of an identity that redefines what has historically been seen as a deficiency often entails a reconceptualization of a state of being in positive terms. Some proponents of Deaf culture, for example, don’t look on deafness as a lack of hearing. Instead, they see in Sign language a beautiful, elegant, complete mode of expression; they consider deaf people to be disabled only if compromised by a system that enforces them into a state of unsatisfactory bilingualism, fluent in neither Sign nor spoken language. Cochlear implants, which in some cases can offer significant assistance to deaf people in getting by in the hearing world, are seen — at the extreme end — as instruments of genocide, a step on the road to eliminating Deaf culture in all its richness. Many little people (LPs) see extended limb-lengthening procedures in similar terms, and object to the notion that their condition requires correction.
Neurodiversity advocates worry that medicalizing autism considers the needs of parents more than children. One of Solomon’s interviewees, Ari Ne’eman, who has Asperger’s, complains a society that treats people as if they must all be measured against a bell curve values mediocrity above all else. At the extreme end of things is the Mad Pride movement, which advocates for the rights of schizophrenics:
These activists believe they are throwing off the yoke of oppression. They both have a serious mental illness and have suffered tyrannical subjugation; the question is whether they can address the subjugation without making false claims about the nature of mental health.
This is where identity politics gets foggy. As Solomon points out, if Deaf advocates claim deafness is not a disability, do deaf people still qualify for consideration under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Should the “stoic grace” exhibited by many schizophrenics be reconsidered as an element of a new, positively constructed identity? One can certainly treat identity with too much respect. In treating with children who identify as trans, for example, proceeding with hormone treatment or surgery at a young age could be extremely damaging in the long term.
In the case of transgenderism, Solomon writes, “Received wisdom is evolving at a breakneck pace,” and the same could be said of many of the states of being described in Far From the Tree. We are privy to the struggles of countless parents as they try to introject changing social attitudes at the same time as realigning their hopes for their children with their uncommon circumstances. These are some of the most moving passages of the book. Some of the marriages Solomon encounters break down, unable to deal with the pressures of raising a child so dependent; others endure, strengthened by the shared challenges overcome or managed. One of Solomon’s most extraordinary encounters is with Sue and Tom Klebold, whose son Dylan was one half of the duo who planned and carried out the high-school shootings at Columbine in 1999. As Solomon points out, just as some families have to deal with the personality-altering emergence of autism or schizophrenia, so others must cope with the unexpected emergence of criminality or violence in the family. The Klebolds’ case is extreme and notorious, yet Sue is still able to say, by way of conclusion, “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.”
The transfiguring power of parental love is clearly something to be celebrated, even in such extreme cases. Reading what Solomon calls his “how-to manual for receptivity,” one can only hope — should one seek to become a parent — that one might be so transfigured. The alternative is too appalling to countenance. The chapter on autism concludes with a litany of filicides, only just over half of which resulted in jail time for the perpetrators. Around fifty percent of the victims of rape in Iraq following military occupation a decade ago were murdered by their families, shamed by the prospect of children born out of rape. Even child prodigies, whom one might think to be all-round blessed, often find themselves the victims of extraordinary parental pressure or abuse, even if their fate is nowhere near as violent as others’.
There’s an incredible amount to take away, right to the final chapter on Solomon’s experience of becoming a father. It’s in many ways a humbling read, a reminder of the extraordinary power and reach of love, as well as a dismantling of concepts you might have assumed to be gospel. Even the very first sentence, “There is no such thing as reproduction,” is a challenge. But if one follows through on Solomon’s reasoning, here and throughout, one sees the wisdom in shedding preconceptions and returning to first principles: “we must love [our children] for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.”
Far From the Tree will help expand that imagination.