A MISFIT'S MANIFESTO - REVIEWS
Newsday is Donna Gaines' hometown paper. "It was the very first place I saw my name in print!" she says with a laugh. Gaines, now a 51-year-old journalist and sociologist, lives in Manhattan but remains a "spiritual resident" of Nassau County.
In April 1969, she was arrested on a narcotics charge at a party in Valley Stream. "They listed the names, in the newspaper, of all the people who had been arrested. For a long time, my parents banned Newsday from their house because of the shame!"
But when Gaines' first book, "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids," came out in 1990, "Newsday redeemed itself, because they put me on the cover of Part 2," she said laughingly. When four teenagers in Bergenfield, N.J., killed themselves after making a group suicide pact, Gaines wrote an article about it for The Village Voice, which later became her sociology dissertation and a popular book, several years before the phrase "school shootings" entered our collective vocabulary. "Teenage Wasteland" is still widely read, and Gaines travels frequently to lecture on the subject: "Nebraska, Germany - anywhere there are white alcoholics."
Gaines' second book, a memoir titled "A Misfit's Manifesto: The Spiritual Journey of a Rock & Roll Heart" (Villard, $24.95), explores many of "Teenage Wasteland's" themes, including acute isolation and the solace of pop music. Fat and lonely as a child, Gaines loved music, and as a teenager, she found community as a "burnout" in Far Rockaway. She later found family - and spirituality - in rock and roll subcultures. "I wanted to look more specifically at how music kept people alive, and how that was especially true in the suburbs," she explains.
"I also wanted to write about my own life. Part of what happened was that I got sober about six years ago. And I was just exploding with rage, and I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. I did what most people do when they come back to life: try to figure it out. So I saw all manner of healers - Native American healers, Buddhist healers, Christian healers, 12-step therapists - to try to figure out where this anger came from and who I was, because I was split off. I was, as an adult, this attractive, successful, strong woman, but somewhere, dragging behind me, was this bottled-up misery and sorrow."
Writing her memoir required research, she explains, "because I had real amnesia about my childhood and adolescence. So I had to interview my father, my cousins, people I grew up with." She played music from her youth to evoke feelings and events she'd forgotten. "I like to block everything out like everybody else, you know?" she says. "We don't want pain."
Yet Gaines thinks that writing this memoir was one of the best experiences of her life. "What is the thing that most kills us inside? It's shame. Being ashamed that I was fat - well, you know what? I was fat. Hi. And guess what? I'm a workaholic alcoholic. That's who I am. I think the hardest thing a person can do is say, 'This is who I am.'"
Gaines grew up in Rockaway, "a tough little town," whose ethnic tensions shaped her sociological imagination. When she later formally studied sociology, "Right away I understood, a priori, stratification, mobility, all the concepts! I had it in my blood."
Though her books painfully document the desperation of suburban isolation, Gaines loves the suburbs. Asked why, she says dreamily, "It's got the juice, it's got the vitality, the open road, trees, nature. People are in some ways more original, and definitely more sincere." In New York City, she says, "I only have one friend I actually hang out with because we all work all the time. AA meetings are great, but you're in and out because you've got five other appointments."
Gaines has never dated a city fellow and says she never will. "There's just something about Long Island. There's something about wild boys, and it's hard to be a wild boy in the city. The only hot guys in New York City are the cops. That's the only good thing about this homeland security," says Gaines, a libertarian with a fetish for uniformed authority figures. "And all those guys are from the suburbs."
Newsday readers are invited to Gaines' book party March 18 at the Continental in the East Village, which will feature many of the Long Island bands described in the book. But these days, Gaines doesn't spend much time at downtown clubs. Her apartment is in a doorman building in the East 50s. "I specifically did not want to live downtown," she explains. "Because wherever you are, you conform to the norm, and if the norm is bohemia, how bohemian is it?" Besides, she feels she's outgrown the rock and roll lifestyle of her past. "I'm a middle-aged woman! Handel's Messiah was the last show I saw."
Her next book will continue the exploration of religion she begins in "Manifesto," which describes her spiritual awakening and evolving relationship with God. She wants to study "the nature of faith. How do we know it's God? Maybe it's a hallucination, or my hormones or too much sugar in my coffee that day. We just don't know."