Kevin Sessums' 'Mississippi Sissy' simmers
by Jim Provenzano
Kevin Sessums, whose celebrity interviews in Vanity Fair and other publications succeeded in getting movie stars to reveal their private lives, has decided to turn the tables on himself, in a bold, "heightened" memoir of his early life growing up in the small town of Forest, Mississippi.
In Mississippi Sissy (St. Martin's Press), Sessums, 51, dramatizes certain events with rewritten dialogue, but retains an ear of authenticity that he corroborated with nearly all the real-life characters that comprise the drama of his first 19 years.
"It's stressful," said Sessums in a phone interview from his home in New York City. "I've written a book about a lot of personal things. The last time I sat down to read it, it dawned on me what I'm putting out to the world."
Although true to events in his life, including the pervasive racism of his relatives, the memoir is what Sessums admits is "novelistic. I'm very aware of weaving a story to reflect on other things. I would sit in my shrink's office, going over my life, and think it was narrative. I wondered what the purpose of it was."
Sessums' life reads like a Southern Gothic novel. The son of a popular basketball coach and mother who encouraged his "sissy" tendencies, Sessums and his two siblings were orphaned when he was eight years old. Raised by his grandparents, he befriended black servants and cultured gay men like journalist Frank Hains, who would later be brutally murdered. Sessums' affairs, defiance, and introspection comprise the conflicted life of a self-aware gay boy growing up feeling like a stranger.
"I don't want it to be just a gay coming-of-age story," Sessums said. "It's about race and a specific time and place in American culture, about otherness and survival. We know we're 'other' before we know we're gay. Before we put our definition on our sexuality, we feel like the other. Some of us deal with that, and some of us don't."
At six, Sessums determined to become "a spy" in the rural culture he'd soon leave. His TV celebrity infatuations led him to imagine himself as What's My Line? panelist Arlene Francis.
"If you're blessed with having the talent to write, that, combined with being gay, is a way to survive," said Sessums. "I'm always aware of what's going on. It's not always healthy. Sometimes there's too much information, but you have to just go there. There's stuff in the book that I've never talked about to anyone but my shrink. I always kept those things to myself."
Those things include being molested by older men, which Sessums tells in striking detail. "What it leaves you with is not being a victim, but you're haunted by complicity," he said. "You participate in your own victimization. So many of us have been molested and don't tell."
Although his own abuse was later known in his family, this is the first time Sessums has gone so public about these experiences, which he describes as "the power trip of perverting trust."
Sessums' book started with a request by an editor that he write a book about Hollywood. That didn't interest him, as he'd been doing so for Vanity Fair and Interview for years, which Sessums considers his "day job." He now writes mainly for Allure.
Of his success with celebrity interviews, Sessums said, "I have always had an inferiority complex, but I am unafraid of fame."
Fans of the filmed version of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City may recognize Sessums as the dinner-party guest who leads Jon Fielden (Billy Campbell) to a bathhouse. Sessums' trademark shaved head precedes most actors who later chose the look. Faced with a problematic haircut before an interview with Bette Midler, Sessums shaved his head to resemble the singer's husband. It charmed Midler, and he's kept his look ever since.
But don't expect any such Hollywood tales in Mississippi Sissy, which ends at the time Sessums left the South for New York.
"I never wanted to do a memoir," said Sessums. "It's a hackneyed form, but I was convinced to try it. I don't want to be like James Frey" (the memoir writer paid enormous advances for books which he later admitted to be mostly fictionalized).
Having always worshiped Southern writers â€” Sessums grew up befriending author Eudora Welty, who is included in his book â€” he wanted to write a Southern novel. But with such a vibrant life of his own, creating fiction seemed irrelevant.
Convinced by his agent and friends, he wrote fewer than 100 pages, which impressed them and several editors. A small bidding war ensured, with St. Martin's Press winning out, and Sessums completed the work within a year.
Appropriately, Sessums adheres to "the cadence of Southern writing," which includes winding yet grammatically deft sentences, rich descriptions, and an occasional sense of lyrical dread.
"When I'm stuck, I don't go forth with thought," Sessums said. "It's the sounds that lead me onward. I hear the rhythm and the music of the language."
With part of his book tour trailing through Mississippi and Alabama, Sessums is prepared for a bit of controversy.
"I'm banned in Tupelo," he said. A bookstore manager who was a friend of Frank Dousing, Jr. (an accomplished football player with whom Sessums had an affair, and whom he writes about in his book) objected to Sessums' portrayal of Dousing. "So they disinvited me."
Sessums doesn't expect any more such controversy, having discussed his portrayals of other people in the book. Some wanted Sessums to alter his portrayal of them. "I agreed to some changes and not others," he said. "I wanted to do the honorable thing. As a writer, I owe them that."
Kevin Sessums reads at Books, Inc., 2275 Market St., SF, Thurs., March 8, 7:30 p.m. (864-6777); and at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, Fri., March 9, 7 p.m. (927-0960). Visit Sessums' blog at www.mississippisissy.com/blog