Books Worth Reading: Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow

“It was Chester, He was at my mother’s house, at our house. It had been years since I had heard that voice. “What’s going on, boy?” like nothing had ever happened, like everything was buried and forgotten. But betrayal doesn’t work that way. Even when it’s buried, it doesn’t stay buried. It’s still alive, down there, scratching its way back to the surface. It must be buried over and over again.”

That excerpt is from the prologue to Charles Blow’s memoir as he speeds toward his mother’s home from college, gun in hand, fully intending to kill his older cousin, Chester, who sexually molested Charles when he was seven years old. Steeping in the silent shame of its aftermath, Charles sometimes wondered if his being “different” than other boys had brought it on somehow.

It is a devastating and too-common story for some boys whose orientation is either bi or homosexual – that an older, similarly oriented, closeted male recognizes the child’s orientation before the child fully understands it himself and preys upon him, stealing innocence, shattering the sense of safety the child had, and inciting years of self-questioning and hiding.

Everyone has a story. Some embrace vulnerability and courage and tell theirs publicly, baring parts of themselves infused with shame – willingly standing naked on stage in front of us – and in so doing, lay claim to their personal narratives in a way that liberates. New York Times visual op/ed columnist, Charles M. Blow has done just that. Last Fall, he published his memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, to tremendous acclaim. Here is an excellent summary of the book. It is a beautiful, heartrending, touching read.

He also came out publicly as bi-sexual when the book was released. He has said that his bi-sexuality was not a passing phase in his life, but an essential fact about who he is – something he has known about himself for as long as such things are knowable to a person.

Charles Blow’s incredibly interesting, complex, messy, painful, joyful personal trajectory – from growing up poor, black, quiet, intelligent, introspective and “different” in rural, barely-post-segregated Gibsland, Louisiana to where he is now as an award-winning, influential journalist at the New York Times – is a spectacular journey.

It is hard to understand how he has never considered himself a writer when his gift for beautifully crafting prose is so evident. Here are a few passages that stayed with me well after I turned the last page.

About his unreliable Dad: All I could do was lose faith in his words and in him. I stopped believing. Stopped begging. Stopped expecting. I wanted to stop caring, but I couldn’t. A heart still works even when it’s broken.

About his Mom: As part of her studies, and then as part of her new job, she made things: practical things like most of her clothes and some of our furnishings, and magical things like the only stuffed animal I ever got. It was a furry brown dog with floppy leather ears and big button eyes. But it was more than that. It also was the first thing that made me realize that she thought about me when she wasn’t looking after me, a realization that sent waves of joy washing over me and made me squeeze the dog so hard that I nearly popped the stitching.

About falling in love: I had fallen in love with her the night I met her, even if I had tried to forget it and deny it. That night she had come into me like a cloud of milk first introduced to coffee – stirring beneath the surface of me, bringing lightness and taking away the bitterness.

Reading his book only made me want to know more about Charles Blow. Below is the podcast episode from the Live at the NYPL series of talks. In it, he speaks with the NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s director, Khalil Muhammad, about his early life, the origin of his middle name, and what compelled him to write his story. I highly recommend it for its thought-provoking context to his memoir.

Here are a few highlights:

I think that we are all submerged in rigid heteronormative thinking. We are all submerged in misogyny – men and women, boys and girls. We all breathe it in and exhale it to each other. We are not even always conscious of the fact that we are looking down on anything that is less than masculine.

We still allow coaches to say “C’mon Ladies” when they walk into the gymnasium to the team as a pejorative because anything feminine is less than. We still allow military people to do the same. We still allow our boys to say “you hit like a girl”, “you run like a girl”, “you jump like a girl”. We still say to people “Man Up!” when they are not behaving the way that we think that they should behave as men, and every time we do…we instill further in our boys a subtle and corrosive hatred of women and also of anything in [themselves] that is human and fragile and sometimes wants to cry, and sometimes is hurt.

When asked why he decided to write the book, Charles said the following (which made me weep):

In 2009 there were 2 little boys…they were both 11 years old. One’s in Boston, his name is Carl. One’s in Atlanta, his name is Jaheem. They had both endured a tremendous amount of homophobic taunting and they both hanged themselves in their own houses 10 days apart from each other. And I just thought “This can’t be. There just can’t be this much sorrow in the world.” Carl looks a lot like me when I was a kid. And I kind of saw it from both directions – that I had been that kid, that I had suicidal ideations as a very young kid. I’d been taunted, I’d been bullied. I also saw it as a parent – I have three kids, and [the oldest was] about that age at that time. And I couldn’t even process the tremendous amount of sorrow that must accompany calling your child to dinner and them not responding, and you having to walk into a room and then cut down the lifeless body of your 11-year-old child because they are hurt by something that the world has done to them. And so I said…I know this story because I share this story to some degree…the pain is the same. The pain is almost universally the same always. Little kids don’t always have the language to express what’s happening. They don’t even write suicide notes…and I thought in a way, this is their note.

Q: If you could’ve counseled those boys…what part of your coming out of that space that you had inhabited for so long – that loneliness – would you share with them?

One, is that people only want to hurt you because they are hurt, that they are projecting their pain, because no one who is comfortable and loves themselves wants to hurt another person. There’s a threat that you represent. There’s something painful that you represent to them and they are attacking it [you] because they feel under attack from it.

Secondly, … to understand that difference is not deviance. Difference is just difference, and people – human beings – are different, and we are a beautiful menagerie … and that’s what makes life interesting and wouldn’t that be boring if everybody was [the same].

And Lastly, you have a moral obligation to love yourself … precisely as you are. And that … shouldn’t like be some sort of willful acquiesense…like “fine, I’ll accept it.” NO, a full loving embrace of yourself.

About Chris DeVinney

Me in a nutshell: mom, writer, former lobbyist, wife, volunteer, lover of music and art, massive fan of traveling, and something of a smart ass. A typical INTJ, I quietly observe anyone and anything that comes into my orbit, squirreling away material for future essays. These days I spend my time writing about whatever interests me (both professionally and personally) and trying to strike the balance between taking care of kids/family/house/pets and me. Occasionally I nail it, hang on to it briefly, and then scramble back toward the center when the tipping starts again. I know, it’s a common story.
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