A Queer Memoir About Navigating Toxic Masculinity
David Adjmi, author of "Lot Six," on leaving his community and reinventing himself
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I met David Adjmi at a fancy writing residency. The kind of place where you work all day alone and then eat dinner together, have a drink in the parlor afterwards. I remember a night when someone suggested watching a movie. As people were perusing the house copy of the criterion collection people began offering their favorite films. What’s your favorite film, Diane, someone asked. Film? I didn’t really watch films, I watched movies. And at that point, I wasn’t sure what the Criterion Collection was. Stunned, I said, E.T.? David was there and he looked at me playfully. He’s brilliant and he had already offered a proper film to the conversation. But in that mirthful look he gave me, I felt, as they say, seen. It wasn’t until reading his debut memoir Lot Six that I fully realized how literate he was across the breadth of culture and subject—from Montaigne to Three’s Company. And it makes sense why.
In Lot Six, he tracks his increasing alienation within the small, insular Brooklyn community of Syrian Sephardic Jews community (known colloquially as SYs) he was born into and eventually fled. As he moves from one environment to next, Adjmi develops what he calls “an experimental self,” trying on radically different roles with the hopes that he can build a “new self” and escape his past. Nothing is off limits in this quest. The book is everything David embodies; it’s hilarious, meditative, knowing, inquisitive, experimental, artistic and a little heartbreaking.
We chatted over Skype about Ricky Schroeder’s breakdown in The Champ, cowboy hats as gay kitsch, Derrida, and more.
Diane Cook: You write about taking trips into Manhattan with your mother when you were a kid, and how culture becomes your outlet. You have these epiphanies at a young age—not just in theatre and with art, but also with slightly trashy or melodramatic TV movies and soap operas. I was really interested in how the lowbrow and highbrow inform your development as a person and a writer.
David Adjmi: I am naturally pretty omnivorous in terms of the culture I consume, and I can trace this back to my childhood. My parents were both high school dropouts, so growing up there was no concept of highbrow art, or like, even a definition of what culture was. So when it came to this very nebulous sphere of “culture” everything had equal valence—TV, theatre, visual art, books—these were my links to life. I was a very lonely, sort of depressed kid, and I was something of an outsider in my own family, so I needed something to fill in my inner experience and give it more context. So yeah, watching Ricky Schroeder deal with his alcoholic father in The Champ and experience intense anguish when his father dies caused a huge psychic shift in me. I was able to trace my own experience of life against those contours. And the soap operas were trashy, but I saw them as expressionist melodramas—not that dissimilar to Fassbinder’s take on Sirk in films I watched much later, like Martha—which I write about a little. And maybe Falcon Crest doesn’t have the depth or acuity of Ovid or whatever, but it is still a delicious artifact of the human experience.
DC: So much of your book is devoted to this very elaborate project of you recreating yourself. In high school you begin adopting a bunch of roles. At one point you write that a self was like a garment you could “wear and remove at will,” and at another point you talk about yourself as if you were a drawing in pencil, and wonder if you could simply “erase it and start over.” One thing I loved about your book was how the line between artifice and reality is incredibly blurred and unclear. And you do really transform over the course of your college years, and part of this transformation is due to the many roles you try on. Like, not all of it falls away, some of it stays with you.
DA: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I was such a faker and a liar, but so much of what I faked ultimately helped me to peel back something true. In some way, these roles I tried on were a way for me to build a relationship with myself. It’s like any relationship, you need to experiment with it to understand when it feels good, and when it doesn’t, and in the process you go through uncomfortable phases. So, like, no, I do not speak with a French accent anymore—which I did for a full year when I was 18—but I’m sure there’s stuff I tapped into during that year that I’m sure is still part of me. But I don’t know what’s innate about me, exactly. I can’t even speak with a Brooklyn accent anymore—isn’t that crazy? I tried the other day, and it sounded fake. Montaigne has this idea that there’s a social self and a “true” self, and that the true self is like a “room behind the shop.” That like, hidden under all the layers of social pleasantries and affectations is the quote-unquote real you and the only way to become conscious of who you really are is to retire from society and remove the mask, but I don’t believe this. I don’t know what the “real you” is and I don’t know how to separate the social self from the private self—or, like, the artificial from the “real”. That feels very knotty and unknowable to me.
DC: Can you talk about the Keanu Reeves shrine in your bedroom?
DA: (laughs) Um, it wasn’t a shrine.
DC: Well, don’t you call it a shrine in the book? Shall we call it a monument?
DA: I cut out a photo of him from a Rolling Stone fashion issue and kept it over my bed. I guess in the book I compare it to keeping an icon of the Virgin Mary. That was the photo with the cowboy hat. I was completely obsessed with Keanu Reeves and with that hat, and I ended up buying it. There was this whole cowboy theme in the late eighties. So I got this cowboy hat and I started speaking with a Southern accent and pretending I was a cowboy, because it made me feel macho or something. Of course, I had no idea I was doing gay kitsch. I was so naïve—I couldn’t read how Gaultier was coding sexuality and gay archetypes into his clothes. All that was lost on me.
DC: You just mentioned wanting to be perceived as macho. Reading the book, I was really interested in how you talk about masculinity. How do you think your ideas about gender evolved into your twenties and thirties?
DA: I mean, I didn’t understand gender as a construction when I was younger, because, you know, they weren’t really teaching Judith Butler at the yeshivah. (Laughter) But I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, and what we’re calling toxic masculinity now was the mold for manhood, so I wanted to adopt it. I wanted to adopt every patriarchal heteronormative standard because frankly I was terrified that I would be cast out of society if I didn’t. So I kept trying to make myself toxic so I could fit in.
DC: I loved when you talked about forcing yourself to listen to a Bad Brains album someone gave you in college, even though you hated that band. You called it a form of homeopathy, “a bit of poison to cure me.” And there’s that great scene where you’re a closeted undergrad at USC, and you’re trying to lose your virginity to a woman, and you get wasted and take her back to your dorm room, and you go through all this choreography in your head—you’re trying to go through it the way you imagine a straight guy would do it.
DA: Yeah, like “Oooh, I should squeeze her neck—maybe she’ll think I’m straight if I do some neck squeezing!” (laughter) Yeah, that was awful. I felt like I was wearing steel armor and it was like 100 degrees and inside I was suffocating. And I was so wooden and scared to move my arm or smile in a way that might reveal me as gay. It was a moment to moment deeply arch, painfully self-conscious performance. I was miserable, but I thought I deserved to be miserable.
DC: When did that change for you?
DA: Well, so, in the book, I chart my little sort of Candide-like journey through toxic masculinity, and all the really lame and very laborious efforts I made to be a macho man. I laughed writing it all down—these crazy scenes with me wandering around with packs of straight boys and playing frisbee and wearing tie dye… It was—I mean if you know me—It is so ridiculous to think of me that way. But at some point I got tired of exerting all this effort to fit in with groups of people I didn’t like. I became more academic, and I actually did read Judith Butler, and Foucault, and a lot of other writers who freed me up. And I transferred to Sarah Lawrence, which is this amazing, very progressive place, and I was surrounded by queer people. I just started to relax a little bit.
DC: I’m really interested in the way you crafted your book around identity and taste and sexuality. They all helix and wrap around one another.
DA: But these are all linked, though. It’s all about desire. How can I come to express my desire when I’ve been encouraged to believe I’m shit, and anything I like is shit? In many ways the book is exploring this tension between accepting one’s desire and becoming civilized—because desire is messy and maybe disgusting to other people, and one wants to be part of the world, right? So what’s that unbalancing act like? What does it mean to be civilized, and whose norms are you adopting to do the so-called civilizing of oneself? What’s a legitimate object for desire? What’s a legitimate subject for art? For a long time I believed that I could slink unobtrusively through the world. I wanted to camouflage myself. I wanted to find a cloud of signifiers that would camouflage me. I thought I could just decide “Ok, so I’m going to like this thing, and that’s going to be my taste.” But human beings aren’t just endlessly moldable—I mean yes, we are moldable, and we have to be for our survival, but there is a stubborn little nucleus of every human self that is resistant to change. That’s both a good and bad thing.
DC: And when you’re at Juilliard that stubborn part of you—which I guess is the artist in you, right?—that becomes an obstacle to your survival in the program. Like, you’re incredibly protean and able to shift and change, but when it comes to your writing, and your artistic core, you can’t figure out how to adapt or protect yourself. To me, it’s one of the most moving parts of the book. Like when you force yourself to see a commercial Broadway musical because you think you and this will finally give you something in common with a professor who hates you, and her response is sort of like, “Ew, who would ever want to see that play?” (laughter) And you describe the look your teacher gives you, and how in taking in that gaze you felt almost poisoned.
DA: It’s funny, there’s a lot of poison imagery in the book. It was all unconscious—but I think in any bildungsroman, or any story where a person leaves home to tarry with the big bad world, there is always a threat of death hovering over that person. And I really believe that to come into one’s self, one has to experience a psychic murder and be in some way reborn. But what if you’re not reborn? What if there’s just a death, and you can’t come back from it? That’s the fear I tap into in that Juilliard chapter. Change is always invasive, because to change, one has to let something into the very fragile ecosystem of a human psyche. That doesn’t come without risk. But I was basically optimistic, and I believed the poison would ultimately heal me. And I think it did heal me, actually. My year at Juilliard shattered me, but the shattering forced me to put myself back together in this new way, and that changed my writing and ultimately it changed my life.
DC: Near the end of the book, you write that being a Lot Six–which in the SY community is slang for queer—that this was your redemption, that it “turned your nightmare into dreams.” And it feels like accepting your queer self and your artist-self feel very linked, which is so interesting. Do you think being closeted for all those years and making these attempts to erase your identity and start over—like, were these consciously linked for you at the time?
DA: Yeah. I deeply believed that everything I liked was somehow wrong, and would relegate me to some abject terrible existence I didn’t want. So I was running away from that. But at the same time—and it’s so complicated—but at the same time that I was hiding and camouflaging myself, and pretending to be all these people I resolutely was not, I was also building myself, I was building a vocabulary for who I could one day become. Some of the fake stuff became activated and real.
DC: Did you ever, through all of this shifting and self-creation, did you ever think, like, “I miss my Arab roots?”
DA: No, because I felt very deracinated as a kid, and my heritage never felt like it belonged to me. Derrida once wrote—and I’m probably gonna mangle this but it’s something like: “I speak only one language, and it’s not my own.” And I completely relate to that. Nothing from my past felt native to me. And the Arab sensibility wasn’t ingrained in me, or—I mean, it was very diluted and mixed with this Brooklyn mall culture. I never really got it. And this community, the SY community, didn’t exactly want me. It was sort of like a super capitalist Little House on the Prairie, and when I left the prairie, they were like, “Ok, bye!” I knew there was no future for me there. But I didn’t just ditch my past—I abandoned it but then I returned to it, and found a way to embrace it in my work.
DC: Once it no longer threatened you.
DA: Right. Once it evaporated into nostalgia—or maybe that’s not the word, but once my past wasn’t hurting me anymore; once the nightmares stopped. Nabokov has this great line in Speak Memory, he writes that a spiral is the “spiritualized form of a circle,” that it “frees the circle from its vicious containment.” I love this image—there’s an implied return to the origin, but at the same time you’re moving away from that origin. It’s both at the same time. That’s what art makes possible, that double movement. That’s why it’s magic.