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James Brandon’s Debut Novel About A Gay Boy In 1970s St. Louis Still Resonates Today

James Brandon is the author of "Ziggy, Stardust & Me."
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

“Soul Train” was on TV. Groovy teachers were teaching “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” to the high school English classes. David Bowie stopped by Kiel Auditorium to promote a little album called “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Was there a more idyllic time to be a teenager than Creve Coeur in the early 1970s? 

For Jonathan, the protagonist of James Brandon’s new young adult novel “Ziggy, Stardust and Me,” it isn’t quite that simple. Sure, the music is incredible. But Jonathan is gay. And in St. Louis in 1973, that means intense and even painful therapy.

Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air included a conversation about the novel, which has its hometown launch party Wednesday evening. Brandon, a St. Louis native who makes his fiction debut with “Ziggy, Stardust and Me,” discussed his book as well as his personal journey on the show.

An actor, he also co-directed the documentary film “Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption.” The film details his decades-long journey touring in a production of the titular Terrence McNally play, which depicts Jesus as a gay man in Texas.

Brandon’s research toward his new book took off when he learned that the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973.

“I started to realize how I know nothing about my queer history, and I know that queer history’s not taught in schools,” Brandon said. “And for me, this was my passion. This was something that — because I’d been out for over half my life and did not know about this at all — I was embarrassed about it and thought, ‘How can I expect other people to know our community if I don’t even know where I came from in my community?’”

He opted to write about “this moment and time in history,” he explained, when same-sex attraction was still associated with mental illness and criminality.

“There [were] all these different kinds of treatments that homosexuals were being put through, and one of those treatments was an aversion therapy treatment that I go into detail [about] in the book,” Brandon said.

Over the course of his book project, he interviewed several people who went through such treatments.

“What was happening is, if someone identified as a gay boy, they would be hooked up to this machine with electrodes attached to their thighs and wrists, they’d see on a screen in front of them, [and] a picture of a girl would come up, for instance, and nothing would happen,” Brandon said. “The next slide would project a picture of a boy, and they’d immediately be shocked. And what that was supposed to do is that you were supposed to associate the love you felt for a person of the same sex [with] pain.”

Among the people Brandon interviewed, the impact of those treatments has lingered.

“Those feelings, they’ve worked through them over the years,” he said, “but they still feel that pressure of, when they have an attraction to someone of the same sex, that immediate jolt kind of goes through them still.”

Sarah Holt, children’s and teens’ specialist at Left Bank Books, noted in an interview recorded in advance of Tuesday’s show that there’s lots to love about Brandon’s book, despite the difficult subject matter it explores.

“The writing style is gorgeous,” Holt said. “Picking up the first chapter, before we’ve even gotten into the story, before most of our main characters have been introduced, the way the words trip across the page is just so enjoyable. And it makes even the portions of this book that are a little bit harder to read, that come from a place of pain, it allows those to still be something that, as a reader, you can enjoy the process of taking in.”

And despite the 1970s setting, Holt sees the themes and story of “Ziggy, Stardust and Me” as still relevant for young people today.

“One of the most unfortunate resonances is that we are still in a position where not every teen feels safe coming out as themselves,” she said, “and hopefully through this book they can find a kindred spirit in one or more of these characters and see a way towards further acceptance.”

Brandon has similar hopes for his book.

“When I do my school presentations, I always end it with, ‘Be you,’” he said. “Because I think the more we can embrace our differences, the more we can give ... the fullest of our potential back to the world.”

Related Events
What: St. Louis Launch Party: James Brandon
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019
Where: Left Bank Books (399 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108)

What: Pride Comes with Age and Music, an LGBTQIA panel
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, during Bookfest
Where: St. Louis Public Library - Schlafly Branch (255 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.