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 won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History. See “Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.
January 29: Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: “Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles. March 13:“ The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public Library. March 25: “Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage: Recognizing the Men Who Stood with Women on the Front Lines,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City. August 7: “From Emma Goldman to the Marketplace of Ideas: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Free Speech at the Supreme Court,.” AEJMC, Toronto.