Review: ‘One of These Things First’ an insightful memoir from Steven Gaines

Associated Press
Sunday, September 18, 2016

In 1962, when he turned 15, Steven Gaines slashed his wrists on a glass window in the back of his grandparents’ undergarments store in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. The act seemed to be the only way the friendless, depressed teen felt he could deal with the turmoil of realizing he was gay. His subsequent stay in a mental hospital became the place where he finally felt at home, as author/journalist Gaines shows in his touchingly funny and poignantly sad memoir, One of These Things First.

The dysfunctional atmosphere in which Gaines was raised has myriad eccentrics who would have been right at home as characters in any coming-of-age novel. When he was 12, his rage-filled father, wanting to deny his Jewish background, changed the family’s last name from Goldberg to Gaines. His loving mother is overwhelmed dealing with her son and her moody husband. Gaines’s closest relationship is with his maternal grandfather, a serial adulterer.

Gaines spends most days at his grandfather’s store, a kind of gathering spot for neighborhood women. Hiding in corrugated boxes in the store, Gaines listens to the gossip of the three saleswomen whose attitude toward the teen is that he will “come to no good.”

Feeling unloved, mocked daily by the owners of the corner diner and “tyrannized” by his own compulsive proclivities, Gaines slits his wrists. When a stay at a mental hospital is suggested, Gaines finagles his way to the exclusive Payne Whitney. There, he strikes a friendship of sorts with a fellow patient, the cantankerous Broadway producer Richard Halliday, eventually meeting his wife, actress Mary Martin. It’s a slice of heaven for Gaines who references each part of his life with a movie allusion. At Payne Whitney, Gaines is introduced to the joys of reading, especially To Kill a Mockingbird, develops a fashion sense and the seeds of becoming a writer are planted. For the first time, he actually feels happy, despite regular sessions with a psychologist who wants to cure him of “the trauma of homosexuality.” It’s an emotionally wrenching moment when Halliday ultimately abandons their friendship.

One of These Things First insightfully shows how a person is shaped by relationships and experiences, as Gaines beings to understand. Gaines skillfully explores his maturation, wrapping up by showing the fate of many the people who played such an important part in his life.