A year ago, Lil O’Brien released her memoir, Not that I’d Kiss a Girl – a story of coming out in the face of reproachful parents. This is what happened next.
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Original illustrations by Pinky Fang.
The Sunday after my memoir was launched, my uncle walked down to his local shop and purchased a copy of the Press. Seated in his favourite chair, he opened the paper to the centre to remove the inserts, where he saw me staring out at him with a wry look, wearing a T-shirt that said: “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.”
He picked up the phone and called my mother.
I hadn’t talked to my mum since a Zoom meeting the month before with her and dad. I told them that I’d written a book about my coming out.
In truth, I haven’t really talked to my mother for over 16 years, not about much of substance, since she found out about my sexuality and not-so-politely ordered me out of her house as a teenager.
I’d prepped with months of strategy about how to deliver the news of my memoir in a way that emphasised the importance to me and for helping others. An approach that would be truthful while attempting to minimise a response I expected to be nuclear.
Instead, the unexpected had happened. While, predictably, my mother froze on the screen of my laptop, her lips pressed into a thin line, my dad said, “Oh right … well done.”
I’d had to pause. To double-check I’d heard what I thought I’d heard: a positive reaction. Then I’d bumbled on. I told him it was set mostly during the years I lived away at Otago University (minimise), and that I had worked on it for many years, sparked by the period of time I spent sharing my coming out story in high schools during my 20s (emphasise importance to me). I told him it might help a lot of young people (emphasise importance for others).
I paused again, giving him a chance to revert to the reaction I had expected: How dare you. How could you do this to us. Things I had heard before when I was outed to them, and afterwards.
But, while my mother struggled with rigor mortis at the edge of the Zoom window, he battled on. He asked the title. I told him with a wince: Not that I’d Kiss a Girl. He asked how many copies would be printed, and which bookstores it would be in. He seemed almost … impressed?
I felt like I’d dropped into an alternate reality. Is this what our relationship would have been like if they had accepted my sexuality, instead of the years of silence and silencing?
After the conversation, I sunk back into the couch cushions and tested my jaw, which had been aching with tension for six months, ever since I got the publishing deal and realised I was going to have to actually do this. Rock the boat, or more like overturn that boat and fucking dynamite it to the bottom of the ocean. At the very minimum, I’d expected that phone call to dictate the end of the already-fragile relationship I had with my parents, forever.
The relief was temporary. Because I’d realised this: he didn’t get it. My dad hadn’t understood that a book about my coming out was going to include anything to do with him, or my mother. That’s how deeply they’d buried the reality of what had happened between us, and their own part in it. Instead of having the hardest part over with now – what I saw as my moral obligation to inform them of the book and deal with the immediate fallout – I’d merely delayed my reckoning.
Over the seven years it took to write my book, I attended a number of talks by memoirists, most notably Mary Karr at New York’s Strand Bookstore. And I spent a lot of time googling things like “How to not hurt people by publishing a memoir” and “How to cope with hurting people by publishing a memoir”. I also stopped writing, many times, because I didn’t think I’d be able to face the wrath of my family. But I would always start again, pushing away the fear of that day by telling myself it was unlikely I’d ever finish the book, let alone find someone who would publish it. I kept writing for myself. It’s a cliche, but by writing everything down, I found it was helping me to process, and heal.
The question most asked by audience members at memoir events is some form of those questions I myself had googled: how do I do this without causing harm? This is the bargaining phase of the memoir process. There is a distinction to be made here, though. I think that what some of these people are really asking is: How do I publish my memoir without facing any personal repercussions by people who were hurt by it?
Inevitably, people will be hurt. People you don’t expect to be hurt will be hurt. People you worry will be hurt may not be hurt (and may in fact be wildly flattered). People will be angry on behalf of other people who have been portrayed in the memoir, even if they don’t have anything to do with that person. You can’t control this, though you may try. I’ll say it again, because it took me a long time to realise it. You can attempt to write about every person with compassion, but you cannot control the reaction.
I really did try. I published under a different last name. I changed key details in the book, never named the city I grew up in. I half-heartedly suggested to my publisher that maybe we wouldn’t use any photos of me in publicity, but quickly realised it just wouldn’t fly. But I did try, hard, to convince my publisher that I couldn’t go on TV. I bargained and tried to minimise damage until the very end.
I’d organised a big launch for the book at a venue in central Auckland, with sponsored booze and room for all the friends and family I wanted to celebrate with. I spent the day busily setting up the chairs and tables, and stocking the bar, and getting my hair and makeup done. The room filled with people who loved and accepted me for who I was, who were proud of me. When Anne O’Brien, the director of the Auckland Writers Festival, arrived, my publishers told me it was a very good sign.
The whole thing was perfect. Or it should have been. But in the middle of my speech I broke down in tears. I was alarmed at how hard it was to hold back full sobs.
The next day I confessed to my girlfriend: I didn’t enjoy it. How could I? That upcoming weekend my book was getting a media blitz, and I was waiting for that realisation to hit my parents. When you know something bad is coming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it? And when you don’t know just how bad it’s going to be? That’s somehow worse than when you’re in the thick of it.
The bargaining that I’d been doing since I first began writing the book had scaled up since I got the book deal. At first I’d hedged that maybe I didn’t need to tell my parents about the book at all. Maybe they’d just never find out? But then publication time got closer and closer, and interviews with major media outlets started rolling in, and my publisher gently told me to get real. Once I’d broken the news to my parents over that Zoom call, I kept trying to deny what was coming.
I told myself and others: my parents don’t read The Spinoff. They live in an isolated area: they won’t see the front cover of Your Weekend or Canvas, or the Books section of the news sites. I tested out this theory by opening the Stuff and NZ Herald apps and scrolling, scrolling, making sure that anything to do with books was always buried deep, far below the news, and world news, and sports, and sports and sports. My sister lived in Hong Kong – surely the gossip wouldn’t reach her there? Funny how you can try to deny even the global reach of the media when you’re desperate.
My hope started crumbling very quickly that weekend after the book launch. David Herkt had written a review of my book in Canvas. The only direct quote used was the worst imaginable: my mother saying, “I don’t ever want to see you again.” He’d added his own embellishments: “Her mother spits out, enraged.”
I had been so careful not to exaggerate that moment in my book. I had painstakingly gone through a final privacy edit with my publisher on the phone, and during that edit we’d deliberately taken that statement out of direct quotes. For defamation arse-covering reasons but also possibly because people are uncomfortable with the idea of a mother saying something like that to her child.
And now here was a reviewer, already unpicking the ways I’d tried to minimise the damage I was doing to my family with the book. It was easy to direct my anger towards him, anger that I knew was simply an outward expression of the gut-deep fear I felt.
It continued from there. My sister messaged to tell me she’d been sent the Spinoff article by a friend. She was panicking, worried about Mum having a mental breakdown, something I’d also considered as a possible consequence.
News of the book began spreading through my extended family, the people I had once been banned from talking to because my parents didn’t want them to know I was gay. Almost across the board they sent me messages of support. But with so many people knowing about the book in my family now, it was only a matter of time until Mum and Dad realised the impact the book was having. And their part in it.
The first time I met my future publisher, Michelle, she said that as a publisher she was so delighted and excited to publish this amazing story. But as a person she wanted to make sure I was prepared for the consequences. It’s not like I hadn’t been thinking about the consequences for years, but for some reason, having a publishing professional read the book and say this scared the shit out of me.
We were sitting in a cafe. Before responding I looked to my left. At our communal table, by a strange coincidence, a group of young queer people were gathered – maybe some kind of support group or meet-up. I wondered if any of them would one day read my book, and take comfort from it, and feel seen by it.
I told Michelle, with as much conviction as I could muster, “Yes.”
When I slipped behind the wheel of my car afterwards, I burst into tears. That’s the day my jaw started aching.
Getting to publication was a period of so much emotion – from the giddy highs of seeing the writing improve with the editing process to the emotional slog of sending chapters of the book to the people in my story, so they had the opportunity to give feedback. Taking a leaf out of Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir, I gave everyone the option of choosing what their pseudonym would be, to give them a sense of control.
Responses ranged from, “It’s your point of view” to enthusiasm. A couple of people chose not to read it at all. One of those said she wasn’t concerned and would just read it when it was published. Another was worried, I think, because of some of the things that had gone down between us in the past. When people said they didn’t want to read it, I felt relieved. One more person’s reaction I didn’t have to absorb.
And of course, one or two people were hurt. Everyone constructs an image of how those in their lives see them, and a portrayal in any kind of text is going to test that. One of my exes was hurt because, to her, our relationship had been her first big love. And for me it had been a mismatch, one that I went on to write about with humour. It must have been jarring to see a portrayal of the relationship that was completely at odds with how she’d perceived it. But ultimately, once I dropped a couple of anecdotes and changed details so there was no way she’d be identifiable, she’d graciously said to me, “It’s your story to tell.” I think that people’s reactions can have a lot to do with their own personalities and past experiences. Perhaps as a creator herself, she understood. When we remember anything, we change it in our minds. When we write about it, as hard as we try, we are changing it more. Not just because memory is unreliable, but because we are adding it to a larger narrative. We are reflecting on it and attaching meaning to it. Ultimately memoir is about memory, and it is only a completely true story in that it is true in the mind of the person who constructed it.
Telling my sister about the book was much higher stakes for me than telling my parents. We’d both worked hard to try and build an authentic relationship, despite past damages and ongoing hurt. She was the one I couldn’t bear to lose; my parents I saw as having already lost. I was a wreck the day before telling her, and I’d organised an extra therapy session to give me one last boost of strength. I asked my psychotherapist for any advice or tools she could give me to help.
She told me there was nothing I could do except prepare for the worst.
This was devastating.
Imagining the worst and preparing for the worst was pretty much all I’d been doing, except maybe also allowing myself a little hope. My therapist told me to tuck that hope away, and simply brace myself. All I could do now was try to shore up my belief that publishing this story was absolutely necessary.
When the text message finally came in from my father the weekend of the media blitz, he said I had thrown him, my mother and sister under the bus for the sake of a good story. That’s the nicest part of the message and, to be honest, I’m not ready to talk about all the other things that he and the others in my family have said, about the ongoing situation. I’m trying to be as open as I can. But I’m still grieving. I can’t write about all of the fallout with the distance I need, not yet. I also know there’s every chance my family will read this, and I need every last bit of fortitude I have left to deal with whatever their reaction will be.
What I will say is that the reaction from my family, in many ways, has been so terribly familiar. There is a repetition of many of the patterns of behaviour from when I came out at 19, with the accusations, the cutting-off, the silence and the attempts to hurt me back. And their lack of self-reflection. It feels like a cycle of trauma that has come full circle and started its endless loop again. Except: I have changed. I am stronger. I’ve spent these past 16 years processing, and talking about it. I’m trying to break old patterns and set new boundaries. And I’m trying to let go of the guilt. Not just about choosing to publish a memoir, but that lingering guilt that maybe something I did or didn’t do all those years ago when I came out made things turn out this way. Deep down I know that it wasn’t my sexuality, and it’s not the book. The book has been a trigger, but the family dynamic comes from so much more than that. It’s really complicated. That’s the only summary I have. It’s complicated.
So, was it worth it? From the beginning, I told myself that if I could help just one person with my book, it would be worth it.
“Your book helped me to feel confident enough to come out and now I feel free.” – Ruby
“Thank you for helping my struggles and confusion as a baby gay to be validated. Thank you for paving the way for so many of us that follow in your footsteps.” – Nicole
“From a young queer girl in a rural town, I just have to say thank you. I’ve never felt so seen, and I can’t explain how much that means.” – Anon
“I wish this story had been around when I was younger.” – Anna
“I feel seen in a lot of different and powerful ways, and it’s something that I think is going to stay with me for a long time. There’s a difference between just not being alone and being with people that make you feel not alone, and that’s what your book feels like.” – Lillian
Since the book was published, nearly every week I get beautiful, vulnerable personal messages and bookstagram reviews, as well as people coming up to me at events to say thank you. I’ve had a trainee doctor write an essay about how my book helped her to unpack her homophobia and become a better practitioner. A journalism student did her final submission on me and the book, and I’ve even had someone make me a soundtrack to Not that I’d Kiss a Girl.
After reading the book, people have gained the courage to come out, to leave partners, to sit down and talk to their queer children properly for the first time. To apologise and to forgive and to confront. My book has been smuggled into homophobic households, and displayed proudly on school library shelves.
It was worth it.
Not That I’d Kiss A Girl, by Lil O’Brien (Allen & Unwin) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
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