Guest Post: Exploring the Koestler Suicides

Here’s a guest post from Bernard Otterman where he discusses his experiences writing historical fiction set in the dim, dear past of the 1980s.

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Self-Deliverance CoverFor a long time I wanted to write a novel at whose center would be a love story. I wasn’t thinking about a Harlequin romance or a tear jerker like Eric Segal’s novel, but a mature story, which would among other virtues, shed light on my own love story which includes a marriage which has lasted forty six years.

While seeking a frame for such novel, I read a biography of Arthur Koestler, who committed suicide together with his much younger wife in March 1983. At the time of his death, Arthur Koestler was as well known in London as Jean-Paul Sartre was in Paris. Darkness at Noon is judged by many to be one of the most important books of the twentieth century. He had also penned The God That Failed, a memoir of Communist faith and disillusionment. Critics claimed that Spanish Testament, his autobiography about his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and his imprisonment there, ranked with the war reportage of George Orwell. Later in his life, shortly before becoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher requested that Koestler pay her a visit.

It is not known if this meeting ever occurred, but what is known is that the morning of the third of March, 1983, the bodies of Arthur and his wife, Cynthia were discovered by the police at their house located in the Kensington section of London. Arthur slouched in his living room chair dead, his wife – twenty five years younger — lying on the adjacent sofa also dead. The initial police report suggested a double suicide. My and many other people’s reaction was one of horror.

Arthur’s decision at the age of 78, terminally ill, is understandable. But why would a healthy and good looking woman of fifty-three also decide to kill herself? Did she act on her own volition or was she forced or tricked to end her life? For me, a child Holocaust survivor, life is precious. Even in death camps such as Auschwitz, very few inmates “took to the fence” — committed suicide by impaling themselves on the electric fence. Classical literature such as Romeo and Juliet and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, as well as occasional real life reports, suggests that love, when taken to the extreme, can make a partner or a spouse choose death over living the “practical life” without the beloved.

The Koestler’s suicides present an opportunity to examine love by forming a fictional group tasked to investigate the mystery of their deaths. Moreover, by subjecting the members of this group to their individual love troubles, I was able to study love in a wide variety of situations, such as cheating in marriage, love between individuals from different cultures, and expectations of what love can or should create in a good marriage, namely, a good life.

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Author PhotoBernard Otterman is the author of Self-Deliverance: The Death and Life of Arthur Koestler. You can find out more about Bernard and his book at bernardotterman.com. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Guest Post from Dennis Milam Bensie

Dennis Milam Bensie was born in the 1960s and raised with traditional values in Robinson, Illinois. Bensie desperately wanted romance, a beautiful wedding, and a baby to carry on the family name. He denied his sexuality and married a woman at nineteen years old, but fantasized of weddings where he could be the bride. The newlyweds “adopted” a Cabbage Patch Doll and ironically witnessed a Cabbage Patch Doll wedding (a successful fundraiser staged by a local women’s club) where the dolls were granted the type of grand ceremony off-limits to gay couples.

In search of his identity as a gay man, Bensie divorced his wife and stumbled through missteps and lessons that still sting his generation: defending against bullies, “disappointing” his parents, and looking for love in gay bars, bath houses and restrooms. He helped his straight friends plan their dream weddings and mourned his gay friends dying of AIDS.

Although true love has not yet come his way, Bensie has learned to love himself. Bensie is the author of the much-lauded memoir, Shorn: Toys to Men, which recounts his battle with paraphilia. One Gay American tells the rest of his story and draws parallels to gay history, decade by decade, with newspaper headlines and quotations. Bensie is the gay neighbor that you either love or hate. Either way, he’s got a lot to say and says it with no apologies.

Here is an excerpt from Bensie’s book One Gay American:

Ribbons: Commitment Ceremony (a.k.a Gay Wedding)

Once_Gay_American_coverBreaking the Code was a play about British mathematician Alan Turing, who was a key player in the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II. The play thematically links Turing’s cryptographic activities with his attempts to grapple with his homosexuality.

I was doing hair and wigs for a production of the play at Alice B. Theater in Seattle when my friends Matt and Scot first met. Matt was the Assistant Stage Manager and Scot was playing a young street hustler. It was delightful to watch their relationship blossom over the next several months.

Gay activism got even more personal for me when the two of them announced that they were going to make their relationship official and have a commitment ceremony. This would be my first gay wedding, and I was thrilled.

Both sets of parents supported the union and planned to come to town for the event. I was jealous. I doubted that my parents would ever come to a commitment ceremony of mine. They had never even come to Seattle for a visit.

I realized as I watched the guys plan their wedding in detail that there were no established traditions for gay weddings. They could pick and choose what they wanted to do and make the event special for them. Their friends and guests were sure to be open minded enough to love anything they did.

The ceremony was to take place at Aha! Theater, a Seattle fringe theater the couple was involved with. Their invitations paid some homage to tradition, but with their own twist. A friend and aspiring baker agreed to make their wedding cake—a three tier pink triangle cake with two grooms on top. Care was given to make sure the grooms looked like Matt and Scot. They planned a festive reception in the same space with a rented karaoke machine and gay door prizes for the guests.

I was honored to be asked to help the boys select new outfits for ceremony. We had serious discussions about what would work best. Since the wedding wasn’t being held in a church and they wanted to be comfortable, they decided to go with dressy, casual looks. We spent a Saturday shopping downtown and came up with ensembles that looked sharp, but didn’t match or say “wedding.”

I still felt that the boys needed some element of a bride (or at least a bride doll) at the event: a wink at tradition. In 1977, Mattel created a Super Size Barbie that was eighteen inches tall rather than the tradition eleven and one half. In 1992, they introduced My Size Barbie, which stood three feet tall and was sold with a stretchy outfit that, ideally, the doll’s owner would be able to wear and share. Mattel hadn’t planned on a twenty-eight-year-old gay man buying the doll.

I bought a My Size Barbie for myself when she came out on the market. I decided Matt and Scotʼs wedding was the perfect bride_dollopportunity to indulge my never-ending interest in wedding dresses. I made the My Size Barbie a beautiful wedding dress fit for a queen. The guys loved the doll and the dress and decided the enormous bride doll would look perfect presiding over their gift table at the reception. She was much bigger than my cousin Libbyʼs bride doll, who had presiding over the gift table of her wedding years before. I was touched beyond belief. I was, after all, making a white wedding dress for a gay wedding. Ladyman Dennis would have been proud.

As the big day grew closer, the grooms had plenty of jitters. Jitters turned to deep sadness when a fellow thespian friend named Vinny died of AIDS only a few days before the ceremony. It was a shock that such a sweet and vibrant man, only twenty-five years old, would vanish on the eve of such an uplifting celebration of life and love.

Emotions ran high as Matt and Scot’s wedding day finally dawned. The black box theater space was decorated with gay pride paraphernalia. They had decided to do a variation of the traditional European ritual called Handfasting, symbolizing “tying the knot.” Guests were all given a mysterious piece of ribbon about two feet long (in one of the six colors of a gay pride flag) as they entered and signed the guest book. They were all warned not to lose their piece of ribbon. A round platform about two feet tall had been erected in the middle of the space. People walked around the platform without realizing its purpose. All would be revealed later during the event.

There was a lot of hugging and tears: an odd mix of happiness and sadness. The day had become both a gay wedding and a memorial for our friend Vinny. The timing seemed unreal and unfair. However, as people filed into the theater, I saw that the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Vinny was with us; he was a reminder of how important gay people are. We would never forget Vinny.

I couldn’t help thinking about the play where Matt and Scot met. In Breaking the Code, Alan Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution. He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Turing allegedly committed suicide before his 42nd birthday. It seemed appropriate that Matt and Scot met working on a play inspired by his story. In many ways, their ceremony was breaking the code, too.

matt_and_scotThe handfasting ceremony began. Matt and Scot and their parents all got up on the platform in the middle of the room. Close to seventy-five of their friends and loved ones surrounded the platform in a complete circle. Each guest was told to tie his or her ribbon to another guest’s ribbons. The mothers of the grooms tied one end of their ribbons to the guests’ chain. Mattʼs mom then tied her ribbon to Scotʼs ribbon, while Scotʼs mom tied hers to Mattʼs. The men each held one end of the trail of ribbon not yet joined.

There was no one officiating the ceremony. My friend Ruth was in charge of sound. On cue, she put a cassette tape in a portable cassette player. A beautiful song, “Stay for the Ride,” underscored the ceremony. The song was by a local lesbian singer, Lisa Koch, from her album Colorblind Blues. Lisa’s song was the perfect accent to the occasion: hauntingly romantic and sincere. Matt spoke first of the difficult week that had begun with the death of Vinny. He began sobbing.

“Today is dedicated to Vinny,” Matt said as the two men tearfully exchanged vows they had written themselves. When the vows were completed, the two grooms tied their end of the ribbon to each other, uniting the room in gay pride colors. The gesture was special and I knew I would never forget the special day as long as I lived.

Finally I understood weddings. I had witnessed what I wanted to see my whole life—two men in love coming together in pride. The dress wasn’t important. Walking down the aisle wasn’t important. Matt and Scot indulged a tradition and no one could convince me they were wrong.

I wished there was a bouquet to toss, one that I could have caught. I loved Matt and Scot so much, but it was hard to contain my jealousy. Two distinct images of gay life: the happy couple and the boy dead of AIDS. I was very scared.

Was I going to die of AIDS that I had caught at a bathhouse while looking for true love?

Matt and Scot kept the yards and yards of tied ribbon from their ceremony in Seattle.

I gave them the My Size Barbie wedding dress to keep as a memento.

One Gay American

Paperback: 242 pages

Publisher: Coffeetown Press (September 1, 2012)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1603811532

ISBN-13: 978-1603811538

Price $13.95

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Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men, was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011.″ The author’s short stories have been published by Bay LaurelEveryday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Life, and he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay American is his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs. You can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt. To learn more about the World of Ink Tours visit http://worldofinknetwork.com.

Hooray for Indie Authors

During my month on tour with Her Dear & Loving Husband, I realized I enjoyed the process of writing the guest blog posts, answering the interview questions, and getting everything organized and together. After the tour ended, I wanted to do for others what the hosts at Bewitching Book Tours did for me—provide a place where indie authors can showcase their work through guest posts and interviews. I’ve had some practice with interviews. It seems like just yesterday I interviewed John Jakes for The Copperfield Review, though it’s about ten years ago now. I’m still amazed by how that best-selling author took time out of his busy day (he was on a cruise at the time, if I remember correctly) to answer some questions from an editor from a new, unknown literary journal. That’s a class act if you ask me. If you’d like to read the interview, check here. 

As a writer myself, I’m fascinated by what others have to say about how they write, why they write, how they get past the hurdles. Writing, though exhilarating, can be long, sometimes hard, always solitary work. Now, as I’m well into the second draft of Her Loving Husband’s Curse, I look forward to getting back to it every day. I’m at the point where writing the next story in the James and Sarah saga has become fun. But even when the writing is good, it’s helpful to learn from others, and I have no qualms about borrowing a good tip when I find one. That’s what I hope readers get from the guest posts and interviews: useful writing tips and some inspiration too. From my first two guests, we’ve already had some handy-dandy ideas. From Michael J Lee we learn about the importance of research as a tool to guide your story, and from Ann-Marie King we see the importance of sticking to it and finding time to write, even if you have a day job (which I do).

As of right now, I’m signed on as a blog tour host for Bewitching Book Tours. Then, in January 2012, I’ll also be hosting for Nurture Virtual Book Tourz. I’m looking forward to reading the guest posts and interviews, and I can’t wait to see what we learn together.