When you’re telling a story, before you say your first word, you have to decide how you start. Once upon a time gets you into a certain kind of story, and Call me Ishmael gets you into another.
To get into a story about what happened after Bernie Mallett was murdered in Cardiff, Maine, in early July 1984, I needed to think about where I was going. What was the story about? What happened was a young man, 23 years old, was beaten up and murdered by some homophobic teenagers, and the story I wanted to tell was about what happened to the gay folks in town during the days and weeks after the murder and before election day in November.
A person could start off with a young gay man or young lesbian who was articulate, courageous, attractive, a leader, an activist who could give the reader a sense, from the beginning, that this is all going to be OK. Mickey is a character like that. His lover is a dancer. He’s a computer whiz, young gay people flock around him.
Or you could start off with Timothy, who is none of these things. He is way out on the fringes of the gay world—he’s only sixteen, he’s living on the street because his family threw him out, he was probably sexually abused, he’s intellectually disabled to some degree (his teacher says he’s “slow”), he turns tricks on the hill, and he’s usually drunk. Some people read early parts of the Ceremonies before it was published, and they hated Timothy. Too much of a victim, they said. An agent read the book after I finished it, and she wanted me to cut the first 65 pages—all of Timothy’s chapter and all of the chapter on Carole, a wealthy and closeted banker. The agent said, “The book doesn’t really start until Mickey comes on.”
Well, it depends on what you mean by “the book.” If I were focussing specifically on the murder and its aftermath, I could have plausibly started with Mickey, waking up at three AM, hearing Jack pounding on the door, shouting, “Get up! Wake up! They’ve killed Bernie!” This leads directly into the cops and jail and lawyers and judges. But what I meant by “the book” was the whole range of people who make up the gay world and who were profoundly traumatized by Bernie’s murder.
Starting off with Timothy puts Timothy in an unassailable place in the gay world. His issues—his homelessness, his fragility, his not knowing how to navigate his life, his being continuously abused by almost everybody around him (except the little gang around Mickey)—get put at the very front of a novel in which everybody’s issues are listened to. Ceremonies is a novel that takes the murder of a young gay man and makes of it a vehicle for looking at the different kinds of abuse that many many gay people experience.
After the opening chapter, called The Prologue, in which Bernie dies and Timothy is left kneeling on the concrete, his arm through the railing of the bridge, reaching for Bernie’s body in the water, screaming, most of the gay people in Cardiff worry about Timothy and debate how to get him off the street and into alcohol treatment, while the flood of reporters who are attracted to Cardiff by the murder, track him down and put him on TV and make him the most recognizable gay person in Cardiff at a moment when it is very dangerous to be gay in Cardiff. That is, Timothy is exploited by the media, and his victimization, which began before Bernie was murdered, continues afterward.
Whatever else the novel moves on to address, it never takes its focus off Timothy. Or Carole, either, who in her own way is just as abused and isolated and in as much pain as Timothy. And by beginning with Timothy, the reader learns that this is going to be a novel about many different kinds of abuse of gay people. It is also, of course, a novel about heroism, strength, love, sex, and being willing to fight back.
People have said it’s hard to read about Timothy. The story is a tough one, and it makes that clear, right here at the beginning. Even though Mickey and his friends do get Timothy into rehab at the local hospital, still it’s clear that the needs that Timothy represents remain unsatisfied at the end of the novel. Kids who’ve been raped, who live on the street, turn tricks, are a permanent part of the gay world the world over, including the gangs of street kids who fought at Stonewall. There are plenty of other kinds of gay people in Cardiff—middle-class men and women—but there are enough like Timothy to demand that they be put in a prominent place and listened to. These kids hugely expand our knowledge of the human condition. In the end, having Timothy start it off gets the balance right. He leads a person into a novel about the profound abuse humans visit on one another and reminds you what’s important. It’s not really our civil rights that are at issue here, nor is it a matter of the judicial system. It’s how we answer the questions, How are we to live, and even deeper, Who are we?
Cathcart, Dwight. Ceremonies. Boston: Adriana Books, 2003. Available from Adriana Books. adrianabooks.com.