Author James Oseland

“Jimmy Neurosis”
by James Oseland
©2019, Ecco
305 pages

Back then, you were a chameleon.

Like most teens, you spent time blending in through different personas. One day, you were this kind of kid; another day, you were that kind; next week one, then another, as if you had a rack full of roles to try on and years to do it. In the new memoir “Jimmy Neurosis” by James Oseland, punk rock helped.

Moving again should have been no surprise for young Jim Oseland.

His father had always been somewhat of a nomad; in each new town, just as the family got settled, it seemed as though the first plan was to move again — although this time was different. This move was to California, and Oseland’s dad said he no longer wanted a family. Dad was staying in Minnesota.

Just 13, Oseland hoped to fit in with his new ninth-grade California classmates at San Carlos High, but he realized on the first day that it wouldn’t happen. Still, over time, he managed to make friends with a boy who dealt weed; and with a tall Marilyn-Monroe-ish exchange student who invited Oseland to explore the world of punk rock.

The music, the moshing, and the clothing were all things he’d seen on TV in Minnesota, but the culture was attainable in California. In club after club, 15-year-old Oseland was welcomed for his uniqueness; not fitting in seemed to be the whole point. He even felt comfortable enough to admit, out loud, that he was gay.

It was something Oseland had known since he was very small, but he couldn’t articulate it until he was welcomed into the world of punk rock. And he blossomed.

“Gone,” he says, “was the shy, awkward boy, to be replaced by someone with sharper edges.”

He gained a “boyfriend” who was more than twice his age and, after the boyfriend moved to New York, Oseland followed. When that relationship soured, the 17-year-old returned to California, with a germ of an idea.

California had changed. Punk rock had changed. And so, again, did Oseland.

Though it may at first seem like just another memoir, “Jimmy Neurosis” has three things that set it apart, the most obvious being that it’s a look at punk rock. That’s a story told not merely from its beginning, but also from the perspective of two coasts. Author James Oseland was there to see both.

The second and third things go together: told from the point-of-view of an awkward, desperately-wanna-be-worldly teenager, this memoir is mostly set in a time before the AIDS crisis, but only just. Oseland was highly promiscuous in those days and he’s very open in his recollections; AIDS is never mentioned, but readers still may not be able to avoid feeling an edge-of-your-seat fear, not because of what’s written but because we know too much.

For that, and for readers who like memoirs of the coming-of-age type, this book is an easy choice. It’s also a great memory trip for old punk rockers. For fans of both, “Jimmy Neurosis” is the perfect blend.

“Growing Up Queer”
by Mary Robertson
©2019, NYU Press
224 pages

Growing up is hard.

Most sentient adults would agree, and decline a chance to “teen” again; between changing bodies, Mean Girls, bullies and facing adulthood, it’s enough to have endured it once. But for kids who are “different” on top of all that, there’s hope, as Mary Robertson says in “Growing Up Queer.”

In the early years of the Obama administration, after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and after three states made same-sex marriage legal, Robertson began volunteering at her local LGBT Resource Center, specifically, in the basement teen hang-out called Spectrum. She was working on research, and she hoped, over time, to interview Spectrum’s teen clientele, but she was nervous: as a cisgender straight woman, what would the kids tell her?

Plenty, as it turned out.

While there were gay, lesbian and transgender teens at Spectrum, the majority of the youth Robertson studied called themselves “queer,” a wider sexuality- and gender-encompassing identity specifically separate from “gay” or “lesbian.” As one young man indicated, identifying as queer was easier than repeatedly resetting his self-identity as he learned more about himself and the people he might be attracted to.

Many of her interviewees told Robertson that they knew early in their lives that they were not heteronormal. Many teens told stories of recognizing their own interest in same-sex actors and performers when they were young, and of precocious self-acknowledgment of same-sex leanings. One claimed innocence that compelled him to ask for clarification on slurs, thus learning negativity about his feelings long before he knew his feelings “had a name.”

Robertson says that suicide rates for LGBTQ students are inflated, but she also notes that today’s queer teens have access to an abundance of support: her subjects often noted family attitudes that have shifted with the times, and there seems to be more acceptance from peers. Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) weren’t widely known in high schools until the 1990s, but today, most larger schools have a GSA and nearly every state in the U.S. has at least one LGBTQ center. For her queer subjects, this is good news, says Robertson.

On the future, she says, “This is what gives it so much promise.”

As eye-opening and reassuring as it is, this book may be a challenge.

“Growing Up Queer” can sometimes read like a thesis paper made of cardboard, perhaps due to its original intent for research. When the narrative dips like that, it feels a lot like when your newly-Ph.D.’d brother expounds on his favorite subject: it grows complicated, often unnecessary, and sometimes redundant.

Thankfully, author Mary Robertson gets out of the way enough to make a reader want to forgive such transgressions and just enjoy the teens she meets. There’s life in them, deep introspection and philosophical thought, as well as acceptance covered slightly with the scabs of perseverance. Their voices are real and need no explaining.

Indeed, they do offer hope.

That makes this book accessible, but academics may get more from it than will casual readers. Tackle “Growing Up Queer” if you wish, but understanding may come hard.