The novel to which the adolescent voice was referring wasn’t exactly young-adult material. It was about the street people of Times Square and featured a hustler, a bouncer and a drag queen who were all addicted to heroin. “Terminator” was the only name by which my fan would identify herself. “How old are you?” I asked, a little urgently, my mind racing through the possible repercussions of discussing X-rated material with a minor.
“Sixteen,” answered the tender voice, which had a slight Southern lilt.
“Then you’re in high school?”
“No, I’m a sex worker,” was the flat answer.
“Cool,” was my nervous, inane response, which I forced myself to deliver in an ultra-tolerant tone.
It was only after my stuttering caller offered some facts about hustling and mentioned an obsessive identification with the abused teenage character Ziggy in Dennis Cooper’s novel Try that I realized my mistake. “You’re a boy?” I blurted out.
“Last time I looked I was.” With surprising sophistication he explained to me that he really wasn’t that concerned about what people thought he was when it came to gender. I could relax and think of him any way I wanted to. Aside from hustling, he was writing, he said, and he was getting a lot of inspiration from certain writers, among them Dennis Cooper and me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but by the end of the conversation, Terminator had already hooked me. Seldom in my life had I encountered a “professional” with such a knack for creating an instant sense of intimacy. Never had I met anyone as cryptic when it came to the basic statistics we associate with knowing someone.
Terminator refused to tell me his birth name, his living situation or anything about his family, only that he was calling from San Francisco (“I got a friend at the phone company who got me a few months of free calls”). He didn’t hang up until he was convinced that I wouldn’t mind his calling again soon.
In the meantime, his first call stayed with me. The voice had been alternately timid and insinuating, breathily distracted and pushy. I hung up intrigued, but found myself anxiously half-hoping that he wouldn’t call again.
The piece from Terminator that rolled out of my fax machine a couple of days later was impressive, but didn’t knock my socks off right away. It was about buying heroin in balloons, about the beauty of the balloons, whose knots he carefully untied, even though his mother slashed open hers impatiently with her long red nails, to get to the tar-sticky dope quick. What should have alerted me to the fact that I was dealing with an extraordinary prodigy was the supple metaphor of those balloons, which appeared first as soothing breast-like material that he pressed against
a lonely face at night in a park, then as packages for dope, then as colorful toys for a child and finally as inflated saviors from heaven, ballooning him
up and away in a religious, drug-inspired miracle of levitation.
The piece that followed sometime later was infinitely more disturbing: it described the hustling of a hustler. The “I” in the story, whom the reader suspects is Terminator himself, pays an older top to dominate him, but their sex play seems to go way beyond the safe word; he is willingly abused and experiences serious physical pain.
Terminator wrote me from the hospital several days later. “I sorta got beat up too much. It’s okay ’cause I’m getting pain pills, but I had to talk to cops and I fuckin’ hate cops. Plus I look like shit. I never let anyone hit my face and he did. I protect my face and my arms, all clean. I never shot in my arms. My mom taught me that. She almost never hit my face.”
Enclosed were some recent photos. He’d purposely chosen blurry ones, due to an obsession with features he felt were far from perfect, including his slightly flattened nose. What I saw was a good-looking blond boy with a brush cut, delicate eyebrows, a sweet mouth and a cleft chin. Enough to form a coherent picture in my mind during the countless phone calls that followed.
During the time of our most frequent and fervent communication, Terminator’s writing blossomed. When I finally showed some writer friends his work, most of them were astounded.
A year later, at the age of 17, he got a contract for a first novel from Crown.
Terminator was born to a teenage mother at the moment of her rebellion against viciously stern fundamentalist parents from the South. Though he is vague about certain details, he does say that his mother was 14 when he was born. There followed a series of group and foster homes as well as several later stints with his mother and his grandparents.
Early on he learned to use sex to attract and appease his male caretakers–foster fathers, group workers, his mother’s boyfriends. He says he suffered physical abuse from his mother during her near-psychotic episodes of frustration and drug withdrawal, and from his grandparents during moments of deranged religious fervor. He transformed these experiences into s&m sexual fantasies promising comfort and intimacy. No one is more aware than he is that these transformations can be dangerous evasions.
As evidence of his literary craft, check out “Baby Doll,” a memoir of his in the recent collection
Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage and Desire, edited by Laurie Stone (Grove, 256 pages, $25). He details his childhood seduction of his mother’s boyfriend, which he pulls off by means of a drag impersonation of her. “Baby Doll” is a story of brutal mother-child competition, deep longings for love and safety, genital mutilation and schizophrenic transvestism. But, to use a term coined by Stone, it is also “post-therapeutic,” written from the emergent side of the suffering, which is still hot enough to light up the narration yet not too confusing for the narrator to understand and shape.
There is an acute, wide-eyed emotional precision in the piece that stays warm and human under the most extreme conditions. During a mutual makeup session in which the mother mockingly paints the son’s face to look exactly like hers, we witness his ecstatic devouring of her attention:
“I feel brushes gliding across my lids, her coffee breath warm and moist against my cheek, her hand resting on my forehead…what happened is freeze-framed in my head forever, her licking her finger and running it gently under my eyes. It reminds me of those nature films of a mother bird regurgitating food into its baby’s mouth.”
To this day I haven’t met Terminator in person, but the many pages of writing he’s sent me by fax, mail and e-mail–as well as our long conversations full of freakouts, arguments, bonding, literary discussions and mutual advice–have filled me in on a life extraordinary for its gruesome deprivation and triumphant recovery.
In the last year or so, Terminator has become one of those writers capable of giving voice to unutterable psychological horrors, in ways that magically replace loss with high art. Where others are driven permanently dumb through terror and suffering, he speaks out with eloquence and a kind of poker-faced compassion.
Terminator would claim that his recovery from abuse and his emergence as a writer owe a lot to a San Francisco psychotherapist who began treating him a few years ago. At the time they connected, Terminator was, according to his own reports, a drug-ridden street hustler who was hallucinating and nearly nonverbal. He’d been abandoned by his mother at the shelter where he’d been staying with her and her boyfriend. His relationship with the therapist, who continued to treat him without charge once he was out of the shelter, gave him the chance to turn his supple imagination and intellect toward self-analysis, self-discipline and communication. He began to dissect his masochistic impulses, and he learned to trust his therapist.
He also began to write–not for the public, but to share his experiences with a class his therapist was giving on homelessness and drug abuse. Before every Monday night when the class met, he painstakingly copied out his drafts by hand. The writing gave him a sense of purpose he had never experienced before. The naivete of the social workers in the class drove him in his work–he’d experienced firsthand how much damage their lack of understanding could cause.
Terminator’s journey to his present state of coherence has been far from smooth. Sometimes it progressed by a series of dramatic eruptions. At times these took the form of spurts of creative activity, during which he was faxing or e-mailing me and other writer friends new material every couple of days. Each chunk of writing seemed to have more clarity and courage than the one preceding it.
One section of his novel-in-progress is a brilliant tour de force that takes place at a suburban shopping mall, during which the mother, probably suffering from speed paranoia, instructs the boy about a world inhabited by poisons, including Land O’ Lakes butter, and ”safe” food, like Pringles–all ruled by a magic lump of black coal. What’s so engaging about the piece is not merely its accurate portrayal of a paranoid world, but its relish in detailing the irrepressible creative imagination of mother and son, who bond in the invention of a perverse, obsessive wonderland.
Another section of his novel he sent me around the same time is humorous, touching and brutal. It describes a period the boy spends stranded at a truck stop with his mother, who has become a “lot lizard,” a woman who works as a prostitute at the truck stop parking lot. The boy gets locked out of the truck where she’s staying and ends up watching tv with a child prostitute named Milkshake, who makes contact with her trucker johns through a CB radio:
“‘Calf Roper, here, darlin’, where ya wanna take it?’ he says.
“‘Twenty-eight for my 10-20,’ she says.
“‘Is the pussy free tonight?’ a different man says.
“‘Milkshake goin’ to twenty-eight, visit and ya’ll find out.’”
Later, the boy and his mother are abandoned by the trucker they were staying with. The boy can hear the train whistle the trucker has attached to his vehicle from the diner as his mother shows him how to make a meal of free condiments like milk, catsup, jams and pancake syrup.
Then the mother hooks up with another trucker, but the boy doesn’t like him: “His odor of moldy flannel mixed with women’s flowery deodorant nauseates me. His hands are pale and his fingers long and floppy like daisy stems, not cracked and heavy like Kenny’s, not the kind that can crush you quickly if they want to, and for some reason that makes me feel cold and hot at the same time they just don’t.” Wild, visceral associations tie one episode to another jump-cut-style.
Terminator uses emotional rather than temporal logic to paste his narrative into a coherent whole.
When Terminator’s eruptions weren’t channeled into writing, they used to have disastrous consequences. Usually they were triggered by an incident that made him feel guilty. It might have been a chance remark about his mother that made him feel as if he were betraying her. It might have been coming to a dead zone in a story he was writing.
In these situations, rage would come like a storm, yet always indirectly and in a self-punishing manner. I’d get calls from him when he was high, or he’d wind up battered, having gone too far with a trick.
Then there was a time when he slipped into a violent fantasy world inhabited by his preacher-grandfather’s demons, who were commanding him to hurt himself. He called me from the hospital to warn me that I was in danger of burning in hell forever. He pleaded with me to change my ways. Our conversation was interrupted by his dialogue with the demons, whom he spoke to in tongues. He also asked me to turn on the television to verify whether or not I could hear his grandfather preaching through it, because his grandfather had taken over the sound.
Each time he relapsed, I felt deeply troubled, even implicated. He is an immensely demonstrative friend to everyone he knows. The gifts he forces on us (he insisted on buying me a new fax modem) are meant to be disarmingly generous, to upset the balance of power and strengthen his growing image of himself as an adult. When I introduced him to editors/writers Joel Rose and Catherine Texier, who were interested in publishing him, he loved the fact of getting to know an entire family unit, and quickly stormed his way into their family circle by phone, e-mail and fax, eventually sending gifts to their two children.
Terminator affected other writers who had affected him. Dennis Cooper was the first writer he ever contacted, not by any design, but because he was so overwhelmed by his writing and identified with it so strongly. Later he would he read Tobias Wolff, Mary Gaitskill and Art Speigelman and contact each.
My friendship with Terminator has strengthened my belief in his gargantuan creative powers. When a genius becomes as personable and tender as he often does, he invades your psyche to the depths. During a period when Terminator was calling regularly, reading new pieces over the phone and releasing fragments of his past to me, we’d talk into the wee hours of the morning, after which I’d fall asleep and, inevitably, slip into an intense dream in which I was part of the past that had inspired his writing. I’d wake up distracted, bewildered and frightened by my foray into his traumatic interior, but the experience would be sheathed in a feeling of growing love for him.
A climax in his recovery came recently, when Terminator’s current intimate companion, who is close to his age, became a father. Terminator, the newborn and the baby’s parents now live together, sharing child-rearing duties. Terminator seems ecstatic.
He is obsessed with the baby, whose pictures he sends me through the Internet. Never before has he seemed so sure of himself and focused. He’s given up hustling and lives partly from the advance he’s received from Crown for his novel-in-progress.
I wonder what will happen to the generous though demanding Terminator when he faces the New York literary establishment. Up until now he has received an enthusiastic, personal and loving response from the writers he has approached, but once he becomes media property he’ll lose the privilege of choosing whom he wants to deal with.
A close friend of mine, who is a psychoanalyst, was so anguished by my telling her the plot of one of the episodes in Terminator’s novel that she forbade me to continue. She said she saw no way the material would not be viewed with sensationalism by the media. It was too visceral and unprocessed. An agent friend was fascinated by the text I began reading him over the phone, then ordered me to stop because he was overwhelmed by its negative power.
Other literary people have simply tried to ignore Terminator. When I sent his work to Grand Street, I received a terse letter admitting that after much discussion the editors had decided that they could not publish him. Reviews of Close to the Bone included startled, admiring or distrustful reactions to his piece, sometimes questioning its presentation as memoir rather than as fiction. In Newsday, Nina Mehta wrote: “Of the selections in this book, his is the most disturbing and the one that most reads as a story–its narrative is poised, the piece is reorganized for dramatic effect and the author is deliberate, if not coy, about what’s revealed and when.” An article in the Sunday New York Times stated, “The most startling piece is by a 17-year-old boy writing under the pseudonym Terminator,” and asked, “Is this literature or kiddie porn?”
Whatever the final consensus after his novel is published, those who like deadly earnest, visceral prose will be talking about Terminator. His writing is affirmative yet painfully abject. It takes complete control of any consciousness that allows it entry. In reading Terminator’s story, we’re forced into an almost untenable position. There isn’t any choice but to become a part of it.