annotation by Lee Stoops
“There were nights I fell into a fitful sleep trying to sex the world correctly.” ~ Bernard Cooper, in the essay Burl’s, from Truth Serum (19)
There is something special about the accessibility of Bernard Cooper’s words in Truth Serum. He remembers so clearly the experiences of his coming to adulthood, the thoughts he endured as a boy, the way his family dynamics shaped his world. Writing his memories through a mix of reflection and scene, Cooper offers the reader a near cinematic experience, windows of voyeurism into his formative past and the lives of those with whom he shared his struggles, his identity, and his conflicted sexual maturation. Amy Tan said, “Cooper is a master of the language of memory and truth,” and quite possibly no one could have described his memoirs with more accuracy. Cooper’s language and control gives his writing its power, his recall gives his essays their integrity, and his transparency gives his readers access to his truth.
Cooper does more than write: he speaks on the page. His prose might, at times, be identified as lyrical, but I would argue that he generally does not intend lyricism. Given the overall presentation of his memoirs, I would wager that he writes as he speaks – with sharp articulation and strong arcs. The words he uses, the sentences he strings, the essays he crafts exude natural power, even flow, and they display enviable command. Writers of nonfiction aspire to the kind of control with which Cooper writes, especially when it comes to writing such difficult, exposing personal truths about sexuality, family, love and loss.
He broke his glass and his hearing aid in the fall, and when I first stepped into the hospital room for a visit, I was struck by the way my father – head cocked to hear, squinting to see – looked so much older and more remote, a prisoner of his failing senses (162).
These lines are part of the second paragraph of an essay titled Picking Plums. While Cooper’s father exists in the background of many of his stories, this is one of the only ones where Cooper’s spotlight illuminates the man and eventually Cooper’s feelings for him. The language is simple; there are no enormous words, no contrived construction techniques, nothing unsaid or enigmatic. And yet, the control, the exacting choices Cooper makes, give the reader a very, very clear window through which to immediately understand his father and where his father is in life and in self. The words also communicate exactly how much Cooper sees and understands in those times.
Cooper’s memories are not just images or smells or emotions; they’re short films. Cooper details precisely the settings, the characters, even the quality of the air, and then allows the reader to fully experience his memories from his place in each sequence. His essays are not limited to the brief scenes he uses to thread his narrative – he steps around, as if on exposed rocks crossing a creek, exploring the many curious thoughts and connective tissues that are first or difficult experiences in anyone’s life. The second essay in the collection, titled Burl’s, like the rest of his essays, exhibits this exceptional recall in such a way that I could not help but fall back into my own similar boyhood memories of greasy spoon diners, trying on my parents’ clothes, being forced to take gymnastics, or first meeting male transvestites.
When the day of the first gymnastics class arrived, my mother gave me money and a gym bag…and sent me to the corner of Hollywood and Western to wait for the bus…While I sat there, an argument raged inside my head, the familiar, battering debate between the wish to be like other boys and the wish to be like myself. Why shouldn’t I simply get up and go back home, where I’d be left alone to read and think? On the other hand, wouldn’t life be easier if I liked athletics, or learned to like them (23)?
While the setting and the scenes catalyzed my memories, it was Cooper’s recalled interior monologue that offered me the promise of Cooper’s integrity, that he was not just writing stories from his boyhood but that he was sharing his development as it happened.
In fact, it is Cooper’s unguarded transparency that separates his memoirs from those of other aspiring memoirists. One of the reasons I read memoir is for the permission the genre can give me as a writer to access my own mysterious interior, to confront the truths of my life that I don’t understand or don’t want to accept. In a world of memoirs that entertain for their salaciousness, Cooper’s forgives without apologizing. And this is how writers can change the world – by changing minds one at a time, by softening hearts and opening doors.
Touching a match to the first [homosexual pornographic] magazine, I felt a sense of profound relief that I wouldn’t know again until years later when I actually touched a man (72).
Dr. Sward believed that my desire for men could be broken down into a set of constituent griefs: lack of paternal love; envy toward other men for their sexual certainty; a need for identification confused with a drive for physical contact. And then, one day, the blare of light still ringing in my ears, I asked the doctor if heterosexual desire wasn’t also a muddled, complex matter, fraught with the very same helplessness and hurt he attributed to my particular case (107).
If I thought about AIDS while we made love, for the most part those thoughts were fleeting, as remote and muffled as sounds from the street. Sex became an empirical matter: I concentrated on the things I could see – Brian’s ribs, the small of his back, the arch of his ass as he lay on his stomach – instead of on the things I couldn’t – platelets, bacteria, virus. While our hearts were racing, skin hot to the touch, the visible world of weight and shape took precedence over the realm of minutiae. For a few blessed seconds we tensed in release, hurling away from worry (210).
It is surprising to me that this collection of memoirs and personal essays has not garnered more attention outside of MFA and creative writing programs. As an aspiring writer of both fiction and nonfiction, this book has everything I need to study. At the same time, it reads so brilliantly, so personally, that I want everyone I know to read it. The truths in Cooper’s life and his writing are difficult and moving and have the power to help heal current societal rifts. Yet, the book is out of print and now more than fifteen years old. Not only should this book be revived for current readers not steeped in academia, but writers being vetted now need to take Cooper’s lessons to heart: memoir (and every other form of creative writing) needs exceptional linguistic control, absolute accuracy, and blatant transparency.