TW: Child sexual abuse.
I’d seen the 2004 movie adaptation of Mysterious Skin years ago before I knew that the book came first. I saw the movie on DVD, I don’t remember how I got my hands on it. I was around 18-19 at the time and starting to pay more attention to my queerness, and began to seek out media with queer characters. I was reminded of the book recently as I was talking about actors who had been in movies that we’d forgotten all about with my partner and I remembered Joseph Gordon-Levitt and we both remembered that he was in the movie adaptation of Mysterious Skin. While Googling, I found the book and quickly added it to my Goodreads ‘want to read’ shelf.
The book is often described as a ‘coming of age’ novel as it follows the experiences of Brian, Neil, Wendy, Deborah and Eric – though throughout we spend the most time getting to know the three boys. Each chapter is dedicated to the experiences of one of these characters, told from their perspective. Their introductions let us into their world and the foundations are laid for the story as it develops.
We learn that as a young boy, Brian experienced something which he describes as an alien encounter. One night, his family home was visited by a UFO. He describes losing time, waking up in the crawl space beneath his house with no memory of how he got there. And he remembers the strange blue lights.
Neil, an out gay teen is turning tricks in his neighborhood, with a preference for middle-aged men. Unaware of the danger he is putting himself in, he tires of his small town and moves to New York, where he continues to meet strangers for sex. His best friend Wendy warned him to be careful, especially when he moved in with her in NYC, but his ego or maybe his lack of self-worth led to a dangerous situation.
What follows is a detailed and bold telling of late-teenage exploration, realization and finally acceptance of early-childhood trauma. We are spared almost no detail as we read accounts of the boys’ systematic sexual abuse by a little league coach at the age of only 8 or 9 years old. We’re a fly on the wall as these accounts are given, despite being told from the perspective of the individual.
What we learn about is how each of these characters’ stories is intertwined, what they know about each other and what they come to learn about themselves. We see first-hand, the incredible lengths our minds can go to in order to protect us from the truth of our darkest moments.
The by-chapter split which attempts to tell the story from the different individual perspectives was an interesting one, but for me, it wasn’t completely successful. Heim’s writing is brilliant and distinctive and there was no telling any variation in prose, structure or personality between each of the characters, even as we were meant to be reading from the perspective of an 8 or 9-year-old. Regardless of this, I find Heim’s writing incredibly immersive and his mixture of describing the banal right beside the beastly is a vehicle which really drove this story. I also enjoyed the fact that the same-sex attraction and gay relationships were not novelty elements of a bigger story, but rather parts of very complex stories and characters. So, if the topics are of interest to you, then I highly recommend giving this a go. I got through all 308 pages in just a few sittings as I spent some intimate time with these characters and their most raw emotions.