August 25, 2003 Monday
PASSING: When People Can’t Be Who They Are
Brooke Kroeger. Public Affairs, $25 (240p) ISBN 1-891620-99-1
Biographer Kroeger, whose lives of reporter Nellie Bly (1994) and novelist Fannie Hurst (1999) were well received, now extends Hurst’s Imitation of Life subplot on “passing” into luminous sociological research. Passing – the search to be what you’re not – has gotten a bad reputation over the years, and Kroeger’s aim is to challenge readers’ assumptions regarding this still-taboo topic. To this end she assembles six profiles of young contemporary Americans, mixing extensive interviews with expert comment from psychologists and ethicists, with reference to such tragic tales of “passing” as that of Brandon Teena, the drifter whose murder became the basis for the film Boys Don’t Cry. Among Kroeger’s portraits: a half-Jewish man suppresses the black heritage of his father; a Puerto Rican student becomes an Orthodox Jew; a gay man denies his growing homosexuality to obtain a rabbinical certification, while a career navy officer hides in the closet unwilling in the age of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” either to ask or tell. Some of the stories are genuinely moving, some amusing, and Kroeger explicates the dilemmas with a fine understanding of the difficulties of modern life. A male rock critic with a female-sounding pseudonym lies to his cross-country editors about his gender, then gets to keep his job anyhow, as all involved come to realize the extent to which everyone “passes” in one way or another. Kroeger skillfully musters scholarly and theoretical sources to support her speculations on identity and authenticity, and even casts an eye back to the original Passing, Nella Larsen’s 1929 Harlem Renaissance masterpiece. “Who says I am obliged,” asks Kroeger, “to be what you think I am? Or what I think you think I am? Or even what I think I am but sincerely wish I weren’t?” Kroeger’s study is quirky and provocative, and doesn’t settle for answers where none can be found. (Sept.)
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THE SUFFRAGENTS: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote, launches Sept. 1. National History Day contestants, this page is for you.