Category Archives: Memoir

Five Days with Fred Phelps

Donna with Phelps

I had the privilege of reading this piece at a recent Brooklyn Museum event with Queer Memoir for Women’s History Month, March 5, 2016. It’s a companion piece to the original article I wrote for Poz magazine in 1994 about the five days I spent undercover with the Rev. Fred Phelps and his family in Topeka.

Anyone here remember the Rev. Fred Phelps? I can see that some of you do 🙂 He was this guy who had a church in Kansas that was almost all members of his family, and they would fly all over the country to celebrate at the funerals of people who died of AIDS.

He and his adult children would picket funerals in New York and LA and Topeka with enormous signs that said “Fags Equals Death” with a big smiley face. Or they would say “God Hates You. Filthy AIDS Spreaders.” Phelps liked to send personally-crafted, mean letters to bereaved family members. Right after Nick Rango died, Phelps mailed his mother a letter calling him a “famous fag” and “filthy piece of human garbage who checked into hell November 10.” “I love to use words that send them off the edge emotionally,” Fred said. “There’s nothing better than that.”

I decided to go visit the guy and write about him. I was a writer for the Village Voice at the time and for the past couple of years I’d specialized in getting in Christian disguise and writing about antigay activists. They really scared me and at that time, they were really getting powerful, even in New York. But Fred scared me more than the rest, not just because he was all about hurting us in a very personal, emotional way but because he had a history of violence.

Two of his adult children said he’d beaten them all, including their mother, with an axe handle, and starved some of them. They remembered a game involving Fred holding a child in the air and repeatedly smashing his knee into the child’s groin while laughing. Fred was convicted of battery on someone protesting one of his demonstrations in the 90s, and other folks his church had hit had filed charges. I called the church and said I was a writer for a conservative publication and I wanted to visit Phelps and his flock in Kansas. They said come on down. Continue reading

Spring Memoir Workshop in Brooklyn

Brooklyn memoir classes

Hey, I’ll be teaching an 8-week memoir writing workshop in Brooklyn this fall! The class will meet on Wednesday nights starting January 27 in Windsor Terrace, from 7 to 9 PM.

This workshop focuses on craft – particularly on using emotion, sensory details, and storytelling in your long and short memoir projects. Students will get frequent feedback in a supportive atmosphere. The number of students is limited to eight. The cost is $325.

Let me know if you’re interested. You can contact me at growingupgolem AT Gmail. All best – Donna

Here’s some info on my background:

Donna Minkowitz has taught memoir writing for 18 years, at venues including the 92nd Street Y, The Kitchen, the JCC of the Upper West Side, and the New York Writers Workshop. Her recent memoir, Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award and the Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award. Her first memoir, Ferocious Romance, won a Lammie. A former feature writer at The Village Voice, she has also written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon, New York magazine, Ms. and The Nation.

More info: Location is near the F/G stop at Fort Hamilton Parkway. The last class date is March 16.

FAQ: Refund Policy: Withdrawal by January 22: full refund. Withdrawal by January 26: 50% refund. No refund available for withdrawal after January 29.

Fall Memoir Workshop in Brooklyn

Brooklyn memoir classes

Hey, I’ll be teaching an 8-week memoir writing workshop in Brooklyn this fall! The class will meet on Wednesday nights starting September 23 in Windsor Terrace, from 7 to 9 PM.

This workshop focuses on craft – particularly on using emotion, sensory details, and storytelling in your long and short memoir projects. Students will get frequent feedback in a supportive atmosphere. The number of students is limited to eight. The cost is $300.

Let me know if you’re interested. You can contact me at growingupgolem AT Gmail. All best – Donna

Here’s some info on my background:

Donna Minkowitz has taught memoir writing for 17 years, at venues including the 92nd Street Y, The Kitchen, the JCC of the Upper West Side, and the New York Writers Workshop. Her recent memoir, Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award and the Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award. Her first memoir, Ferocious Romance, won a Lammie. A former feature writer at The Village Voice, she has also written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon, New York magazine, Ms. and The Nation.

More info: Location is near the F/G stop at Fort Hamilton Parkway. The last class date is November 11.

FAQ: Refund Policy: Withdrawal by September 18: full refund. Withdrawal by September 22: 50% refund. No refund available for withdrawal after September 22. If the workshop is cancelled by instructor, full refund to everyone.

Desire in Whole Foods

whole foods berry pie

I wanted to not be moved. I wanted to have no feelings. But there, it had happened: Whole Foods Brooklyn excited me. “Take the orange juice taste test,” sang a man in the fruit and vegetables section, proffering tiny free samples of special Whole Foods orange juice. “What are the different categories?” I asked, imagining satsuma, Jaffa, blood, bitter Sevilla – worlds of “heirloom” orange juices Whole Foods had squeezed and gotten ready for me to sample and compare, one by one. But the choices were only organic and nonorganic. I liked the nonorganic better, which bothered me. Still, it was free OJ, and handed me by the most cheery little man.

Not far from the cups of juice was a large glass globe full of reddish-yellow grapes free to all comers, like the guy who used to kneel with his mouth open in the basement of the Mineshaft. A woman grabbed one grape and pricked it between her teeth, then another. I didn’t actually like that kind of grape, but the giant glass globe offering them to everyone strangely touched me. (You mean I can have as many as I want? Right now? Without paying for them?) All sorts of people stepped up to the glass globe and reached inside for the promise of sweetness like a pill. Because I didn’t take a grape, I now needed some other sort of free food immediately; I proceeded to the southwest side of the store, the side with the bakery, where free samples of chickpea crostini, pear chutney with crackers, tiny delicious chocolate-and-cream cakes had offered on my first visit.

No such luck. My initial visit, soon after the store’s opening late in 2013, had been full of gratis cheese, soups, even two sampling stations for free Sixpoint beer! I went to both of the latter, one of them twice; I managed to get a nice buzz on and have my appetite slaked without spending a cent. Of course, all this largess had made me want to spend, and soon.

In the gem-colored juicing section, with beautiful plastic bottles and dixie-cup samples colored all the colors of the rainbow, there were free samples of a purple blend called Immunity Blast with beet, carrot, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, and spirulina. It tasted deep and spicy yet refreshing, like a beer. I don’t even believe in juicing. Yet I sucked it down. On another visit, Karen and I had downed cup after cup of mango juice and tangy Green Maca Blend samples, in an orgy of something-for-nothing fressing. Immediately after that, we’d spent about $75.

I found myself going crazy with desire in the meat section, with its seven kinds of “humane” fresh sausages laid out for purchase, garlic and herb chicken, sweet Italian pork, “Buffalo” and chorizo, all gleaming. There was a rack of lamb with its beautiful little bones looking like legs thrust in the air, a large, thick, grassfed steak far more succulent-looking than the kinds Karen and I always get, bone-in short ribs! I wanted everything, walking around the city-block-long store in a kind of hypnotic glaze: Cute dishtowels from Etsy, with grapes on them! Men’s cologne from Herban Cowboy! Macarons! It was clear that a master designer had been at work here, in fact an entire team of master food stylists, fruit-layout artists, coffee-bar sculptors, label-designers, and aisle-molders, because I have never wanted to buy and consume things as much as I did at Whole Foods Gowanus.

(In fact, the store employs four full-time visual artists, food stylists, and marketers, as well as several freelance firms and art directors who work at the regional level.)

Whole Foods has described its 56,000 square foot Gowanus store as a national flagship, and coming upon it from surreally quiet Third Avenue one afternoon last week, it was easy to see why. The company has constructed this market to rise on the banks of the fetid Gowanus canal like a palace of pro-environmentalism, a garden of morally righteous and sensually fulfilling delights. Next to the green-tinged canal, named a Superfund site in 2010 by the EPA and found by scientists to contain PCBs, cholera, dysentery, and even gonorrhea, Whole Foods has built beautiful paths with wooden benches, umbrella-covered tables, and gorgeous plantings of black-eyed susans, red-and-yellow lilies, and marigolds. There is a canister with Whole Foods- supplied dog-poop bags, although I wouldn’t let my dog eat anything onto which the Gowanus had overflowed in a storm. (The waters of the Gowanus have also been found to be radioactive.) On the Whole Foods side of the bank, there was also a large black barbecue smoker, looking like something out of a restored Colonial village. Even on a 90-degree day, that smoker was going, and the big, 18th-century-looking oven and its smell were an immediately effective visual and olfactory advertisement. Though I hadn’t on other visits, when I’d entered from the Third Street side, now I badly wanted to eat animal flesh cooked in that big artisanal thing.

Wouldn’t you know it, most of the meats served in the store’s rooftop restaurant and prepared foods section are made in that outdoor publicity symbol. The verdict: the actual meat in “Carolina gold BBQ” pork ribs was good, though its sauce was cloyingly sweet. Something surprising and welcome happened when I tried to suck the marrow from a small pig bone: the bone was soft and delicious enough that I actually ate it along with the candylike marrow, which nutritionists say is perfectly safe to do as long as there are no sharp pieces and nothing hard enough to choke on. A smoked chicken salad sandwich on buttered, griddled bread was exactly what I wanted to eat on a rooftop bar in the summer with a beer (though Karen, who ordered it, found it much too mayonnaise-y and buttery). On another visit, pulled turkey meat and Kansas City chicken legs from the prepared foods table had a lovely, smoky flavor, but were dry.

Vegetables prepared in the smoker, however, were hideous. So-called smoked ratatouille from the prepared foods table (green and yellow squash and eggplant, mostly) both looked and tasted muddled, even muddy, and the only reason to confront more of its squishy texture was obedience to Michael Pollan. The entire hot side of the prepared foods section, in fact, looked unappetizing and overheated, with meats, rice dishes and vegetables all appearing entirely in colors of brown and yellow, along with an occasional dark green. (It looked like a lot of the food I used to eat growing up in the 70s in Brooklyn.)

At the side of the steam table, on framed photos along the walls, on inventively painted posters throughout the store, was one message: how much Whole Foods had done for Brooklyn and the world by creating this store.

Next time: Part Two: Whole Foods’ environmental claims, “Brooklynitude,” and the politics of a beautiful rooftop bar and community space.


Whole Foods Gowanus, 214 3rd Street, Brooklyn. The grocery and its restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.

This piece appeared in slightly different form in Gay City News, August 6, 2015.

Summer News

makeshift 15

Hi loveys.

I hope you’re having a great summer. I haven’t had time to share all my news of the past few months, so here it is!

First, I had a great review over at the radical, trans-positive feminist magazine Make/Shift by Allison McCarthy. You can find out a lot more about Make/Shift here, but they don’t put their articles online, so here’s a taste from the review: “Far from conventional and always insightful, Minkowitz sets herself apart from other memoirs through sharp language and a clear understanding of her family’s dynamics… I cheered for her triumphant reclamation of self.” Thanks, Allison McCarthy!

Second, here’s a guest post I did over at my publisher Riverdale Ave Books’ blog, on “Why Should Fantasy Writers Have All the Fun?” It’s about how you too can have enchanted dolls and child-eating witches in your memoir!

Third… want to take a free memoir writing workshop in September? I’m teaching one Saturday, September 13 at the Brooklyn Public Library, under the auspices of the New York Writers Workshop. 2 PM at the Windsor Terrace branch, 160 E. 5th Street near Fort Hamilton Parkway. We will explore ways to use emotion, the senses, critical thinking, and storytelling to write relatably about your life. For more information, contact growingupgolem@gmail.com.

If you’re really interested in taking a memoir course in NY, I am then teaching an eight-week workshop in Brooklyn, on Tuesday evenings starting September 16 (7 to 9 PM). The class will focus on craft: extensive feedback in a supportive atmosphere. Small class size. Fee is $300. You can use the same email for more info 🙂

Finally – live in the Bay Area? On October 30 I’m coming to SF to do a Growing Up Golem book event with Keshet (the organization for LGBT Jews), Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, and the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library. What do golems have to do with growing up queer, Jewish, and physically abused? Get your Halloween groove on and find out! More later.

Be well – Donna

On Making People Into Things

Play-Bill-Caliban-1916

Do you ever wonder why there are so many stories about things that want to be human (or real), but aren’t? Pinocchio, the Velveteen Rabbit, Data on Star Trek? Caliban in The Tempest, who to my mind IS human, but has been told so often he’s a monster that he believes it?

African-American slaves were told they weren’t persons, and Jews in the Nazi camps were told that they were “vermin.” My recent book, Growing Up Golem, is very much about this dynamic, and I spoke about this curious confluence of fantasy, bigotry, and the psychology of survivors of exploitation and abuse in a recent talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Ever wonder what golems and physical abuse have to do with Hegel, Marx,  robots and racism? I lay it all out here!  🙂 Hope you enjoy.

The Queen’s Phallus

 

Wikipedia

Mut, an ancient Egyptian goddess.

 

You can think of this as a prose poem, or a “lyric essay,” or whatever you like. It was just published by my friends at City Lit Rag.

I first heard the phrase “The Phallic Mother” in college, and it made my heart and liver turn over. Into my hifalutin lit-crit classes it brought the specter of my own scary mother, who in psychic terms possessed the largest phallus on earth when I was a little girl and well into my adulthood.

Yet I also really appreciated hearing the phrase, and felt grateful to the psychoanalytic writers who’d come up with it, because the words “phallic mother” gave voice to a reality all too frequently ignored in our overly-literal culture: mothers could be phallic, women could possess scary (and appealing) authority, and although our culture was sexist to the bone, that did not mean that individual women did not sometimes exert power in a traditionally masculine way over some men, women and children.

In recent years, though, a slightly different phrase has been — appropriately enough — delighting and consuming me. That phrase is The Queen’s Phallus, and I am so occupied with it because I now have a Queen whose phallus is giant, warm and kind as a summer day is long.

They say that bitterness is easier to write about than fulfillment, starving hunger is more beckoning to a song than being satisfied and given-to:

But I will say: Her scepter deep inside me is the sign and emblem of God’s Grace, the register of enjoyment, entry of the lost lamb in the fold, the salmon leaping in the icy jet, the sweet recorder playing in dark wood, the ear of corn resplendent in the cave.