Today I am so pleased to welcome Kerry Ashton to Joyfully Jay. Kerry has come to talk to us about his memoir, Saint Unashamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life – Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer. Kerry has provided some questions and answers for us, and brought an exclusive excerpt and giveaway. Please join me in giving him a big welcome!
Could you tell our readers about your book and what inspired you to write your book?
I first had the idea to write about my coming out experience at BYU way back in the early 1980s. It was an idea that my literary agent Mitch Douglas of ICM, encouraged me to write as a thinly-veiled fiction. I wrote four different drafts during those early years of the 80s and eventually Mitch submitted it to Alyson Press, the leading gay publishing house at the time, which accepted it. As my dream was to publish the book with a mainstream publisher, and being both young and bold, I turned the offer down. Unfortunately, my rash and youthful decision led to me splitting with my agent at the time. And that proved to be a setback in my career. Mitch Douglas didn’t need me as a client. He already represented Tennessee Williams, after all, and several other major writers. Though Mitch and I ended our professional relationship then, happily we remained friends to this day, and he is still very supportive of this memoir.
Needless to say, after splitting with Mitch and when I could not find a mainstream publisher that was interested in the book, at least not on my own without an agent, I went on to other projects.
As I look back on it now, I realize that I wasn’t ready in the 1980s to tell the truth and to fully own my experience. I had already come out as a gay man, but I hesitated to tell the story as a memoir—the way I have since realized I always needed to tell the story. Though I was already out, not only as a gay man but also as a gay writer and performer–having had success with my one-man performance about Oscar Wilde–I wasn’t ready to tell the whole truth about my past, to face my Mormon family with all of the feelings I had about having been raised within the confines and the beliefs of the Mormon Church.
After being diagnosed with a rare and very debilitating cancer, I was forced to withdrawing entirely from my professional as an actor and writer for 16 years. That period of struggle as I battled cancer, brought about a huge spiritual transformation within me. When, after finally winning my battle with cancer a few years back, I realized that I was finally and fully ready to tell the whole truth about my life, and to tell it from the perspective of a much older man who can look back now and realize all of the many mistakes I made along the way, without judging myself harshly in the process. That’s when I came back to my writing, as I set about reworking and rewriting my original fiction written in the early 80s. Those efforts eventually became this memoir, of which I am very proud, not only because I believe it is well-written and well-intended but also because I found the courage to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences.
What would your advice be for aspiring writers?
When I was a young man starting out in New York, seeking a professional career as both a writer and actor, I had an occasion to meet with Bette Davis at her New York City home in the Lombardi Hotel on the east side of Manhattan. It’s an experience that I recount in detail in my memoir. The afternoon that I met her in her hotel suite, Miss Davis gave me this advice when it came to pursuing my career: “If you want to be an actor, then act wherever and however you can. And if you want to be a writer, then write, whenever and however you can.” And I give that same advice to aspiring writers. Simply write. The more you write, the more you will feel that truth that you are a writer. Write as often as you can. If it is important to you, then make the time for it. That has to be sacred time, set aside in your daily schedule. That is your writing time, even if you just sit there at your desk and face a blank page. That is part of the process, too. Believe in yourself and be gentle with yourself.
In your opinion, what is the most important thing about a book?
What matters most is that a book touches a reader’s heart while cultivating their imagination, leaving them not only entertained but somehow moved, hopefully to action or to making a significant change in their lives. For me, writing is about wanting to make a difference in the world in a positive way. Writing, for me, is about opening my readers to an experience that they might not otherwise ever experience in their lives, teaching them through that process, helping them experience what others might feel, encouraging their empathy with another, while hopefully entertaining them as well.
What is your writing process like?
As an author, I try to meditate and follow where spirit guides me. Once I begin a project, I immediately know whether or not I’m on the right track. And sometimes after I begin a project, I find out that it often becomes something I hadn’t planned on writing, at least not consciously. Those projects—the ones that come out of the unconscious mind—tend to be the more important and successful works in the end. And I find during the writing process, when I simply tap in to what feels like a higher consciousness. When that happens, the words flows out of me effortlessly. That is when my writing is at its best, when it feels as though I am simply taking down the words of a higher muse who is telling me what to write. That is when the creative process is most ideal. Other times, I feel like I’m fighting hard to get the words out; that’s when I have to “let go and let God,” if you will.
When writer’s block happens, and eventually it happens to all writers at one time or another, I take a break and go do some unrelated activity, like taking a long walk by the river near my home, or going for a swim. I try to clear my mind and force myself to think about anything other than my writing, as I find that forcing myself through a writer’s block only increases the block. In this, I have found that the key is to be gentle with myself, even if it means taking the rest of the day off and starting again the next day.
Do you have a set schedule for writing, or do you only write when you feel inspired?
I tend not to have a schedule for writing, until I decide what to write next. Once I have made the commitment to writing a new project, then I stick to a disciplined schedule, and stay at it through thick and thin, usually through hundreds of rewrites, as I find that the best writing is edited again and again and again, until it is honed to a find gem.
Do you read much and if so who are your favorite author?
I was an avid reader as a child. I owe a lot of that to my mother who instilled in me a love of books and reading at an early age. Needless, to say, I loved Story Time at bedtime. As an adult, I barely read anything when I have committed to and fully involved in a writing project. In between projects, I read avidly … as I believe most writers do. I appreciate a great book as much as the next reader. Two great works come to mind as personal favorites: CATCHER IN THE RYE and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Lastly, when can we readers expect to read more books from you?
I am currently working on the sequel to my memoir. The sequel focuses specifically on my sexual journey through life and how this brought healing to my psyche, spirit and body. I hope to have it completed and published by 2020, or at least by 2021.
Harlan’s 24th Birthday arrived in March 1972. To celebrate, our gang went to a movie together and then to Hawkins Drive-In afterward to celebrate with root beer floats.
“Here’s to Kerry,” Harlan pronounced, “the best young playwright and actor in the whole of Mormon Zion!”
“To Kerry!” Bridget said, raising her float high in the air.
“And here’s to Bridget Peters,” Harlan said, “the gifted writer who has dated Kerry all these months without losing her temper or her virginity!” The girls gasped in righteous horror, but Ma and Pa Hawkins laughed.
“Why are you toasting me and Bridget?” I asked. “It’s Harlan’s birthday! Here’s to Harlan on his 24thbirthday!”
We all lifted our frosty mugs and drank to Harlan, even as the thought raced across my mind: Harlan was six years older than me; he was a man of 24, and I was still a boy of 18.
Harlan was caught by surprise, as we hoped he would be, when Jack and I ran out to the car, pulling out all of Harlan’s birthday presents from Oscar’s trunk, along with a birthday cake, which we lit outside before bringing in. We had previously asked Ma and Pa Hawkins to put the lights out when we brought the cake inside. So, placing the cake on the table in the dark with all of the candles lit, in front of Harlan, we all sang “Happy Birthday.” And then Harlan made a wish before blowing out the 24 candles on his cake.
As we all applauded, as the overhead lights came back on, it was obvious to all of us that Harlan was quite overwhelmed by the warmth of our celebration and the obvious love he felt within that small dining room. “Wow!” Harlan gasped. “I wasn’t expecting this! Thank you everybody!”
“We love you, Harlan!” I shouted. “Happy Birthday!”
Barbra Streisand’s fifth film, the screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? opened to great reviews that same month. Like all of Streisand’s films up to that point, it was a huge hit at the box office. Since Harlan didn’t care for Streisand, I took Bridget to Salt Lake City to see the film before March ended, standing in a long line outside the theater to get tickets. A comic masterpiece, the film did not disappoint either of us.
During the early part of April, as the weather warmed and the snow melted, I took Bridget for a ride in Provo Canyon. The Provo River was brimming with fresh mountain water; dogwood and cherry trees were in bloom; the smell of evergreen was in the air, and Bridal Veil Falls cascaded from a sheer cliff. “It’s beautiful,” Bridget cooed. “Can we stop?”
“Yea, verily,” I replied, steering Oscar off the road and parking. The waterfall fell from hundreds of feet above to the river flowing less than 20 yards from the car. Fruit trees sported pink blossoms in contrast to the green pines on the mountains. “Isn’t it glorious?” I asked, as Bridget and I walked hand?in?hand across the bridge in front of the falls. I had never loved a girl as much as Bridget, but I had never kissed her. I knew that this was the moment. Yet, I hesitated. I wanted to be normal, but I hadn’t even a vague idea of what to do with my lips. Using the movies as inspiration, I awkwardly pressed my mouth onto hers and prayed for passion.
It felt like I was kissing my mother, but Bridget moaned softly, apparently in heaven. Now that I had her in heaven, what was I supposed to do with her? Maybe I just needed practice, I told myself.
As I attempted to kiss Bridget in the same way Ryan O’Neal had kissed Barbra in What’s Up, Doc?, I could feel Bridget’s nipples stiffen, pressing through her clothing to push against my chest, yet I felt only embarrassment. Moaning with her, I feigned desire. And then the Great Epiphany happened! As soon as I fantasized that I was kissing Harlan, not Bridget, I got an erection. Suddenly I understood. Even though I had long known I felt a sexual attraction to Harlan, I had passed it off as a phase that I would grow out of. Suddenly, I couldn’t deny my true feelings for Harlan any longer. “I’m not going through a phase,” I thought. “I’m in love with Harlan! I’m in love with him!”
Reeling from my epiphany, I tore away from Bridget. I knew I had to do something dramatic to alter the path I was on emotionally.
“Sweetie,” I said tenderly, “we don’t want to do anything we’ll regret later. I want us to wait until later, when and if we get married.”
“Are you asking me to marry you?” she asked, as tears welled up in her beautiful hazel eyes.
“No,” I said, perhaps too abruptly, and then I rushed to explain. “I mean, not yet. I mean, you deserve to have a formal proposal, and I don’t think either one of us are ready yet for such a big step. Besides, I don’t want to get married until I’ve served my mission.” I paused and took a deep breath. “If we do decide to get married, would you be willing to wait for me for two years while I serve my mission?”
“Of course I would! I love you, Kerry, with all my heart.”
I took her in my arms and kissed her as passionately as I could.
Harlan asked me again in April if I wanted to go with him to the gym. Given my recent epiphany, this time I found no excuses.
When we left for the gym at dusk, a purple glow was on the snow-capped mountains, a scent of spring in the air.
When we walked into the locker room, the sight of naked men made me shiver. Harlan threw his gym bag on the bench, opened a locker, and began stripping out of his clothes. I stood frozen in place. “Aren’t you going to get changed?” he asked, his voice sounding husky and every bit as steamy as the room itself.
“Yeah,” I said quickly, opening a locker. “I’ll hurry.” I added, removing my shirt and hanging it in the locker. But feeling self-conscious about my body, I left my undershirt on. Unable to remove my eyes from Harlan’s muscular back or broad shoulders that tapered to his slender waist, I felt an erection rising inside my shorts. Then, when he carefully lowered his garments—since they were considered holy and should never touch the ground—my face flushed red.
“How you coming, Kerry?” Harlan asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Fine,” I replied hoarsely. Though I had seen him in only a quick and furtive glance, the sight of Harlan naked burned a permanent image in my brain that would stay with me forever. His body was hard, compact, and well?defined, but not overly muscular, with broad shoulders and a well-developed chest that tapered to a defined six-pack and tiny waist. Then, the brief glimpse of his naked buttocks, firm and smooth like molded sculpture, left me shaking and unsteady. Catching a similar glimpse of his genitals, I thought I saw evidence of a budding erection, even more prominent than my own, or had I imagined it? Scanning past his crotch to his muscular thighs and spread legs, I averted my eyes to the floor.
“You better hurry, Babe,” he said, interrupting my thoughts.
“Yeah, okay,” I muttered, stealing another glance as Harlan bent over to pull on his jock strap. Seeing how the white straps curved tightly around his ass, and how the white pouch stretched around the sack between his legs, made me feel as though I might orgasm involuntarily. As I folded my socks and stuffed them in my locker, my brain sizzled with erotic images that I did not want to accept.
As Harlan pulled on his trunks, he prodded, “Come on, Babe. We haven’t got all night!”
“I feel sick,” I uttered. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“You want me to help you in there?”
“No, you go ahead, start your workout. I’ll meet you in a few minutes in the gym.”
“Sure thing, Babe,” he said, pulling on his sweatshirt.
As soon as he headed for the gym, I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in a toilet stall, pulling down my pants and underwear before sitting down. My erection ached for release, yet I knew if I succumbed to masturbation that I would soon commit more heinous sins, staining my sacred oaths as a priesthood holder. Fifteen minutes passed, as I stared at my erection with disdain.
Kneeling in the stall, I prayed fervently for my very soul. “Please, Heavenly Father, help me and give me the strength to resist temptation. I ask for these blessings in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
It took another 15 minutes of math and silent tears before my erection subsided. “Thank you, Heavenly Father,” I whispered gratefully, finally getting off my knees and running back to the locker room to finish changing.
I felt relieved until I walked into the gym and saw Harlan bench- pressing, and my unwanted erection returned. No amount of prayer would ever change how I felt about Harlan or about the sight of naked men. When Harlan finished his routine and got up from the workout bench, I quickly explained, “Harlan, I’m still sick. I’m going to head home. But you stay and finish.”
“You sure?” Harlan asked, wiping his hand on his sweatshirt.
“Yea, verily!” I retorted.
I dressed and ran from the locker room, remembering the two questions Harlan had once asked me as we stood facing each other in a snowy field one morning, almost in accusation: “You don’t know yet, do you, Kerry?” he had questioned. “Know what?” I had asked in return. “What you are?” he had answered.
I ran into the bushes and vomited.
The first paragraph of Kerry Ashton’s new memoir explains a lot:
“I told this story once as fiction in the 1980s, but this time I tell the truth. I even tell the truth, in #MeToo fashion, about being violently raped by another man when I was 18, with a knife held to my throat—a secret I kept from everyone, including myself, for over 40 years. The rape, like other experiences I endured while a student at Brigham Young University, where I came out in the early 1970s, had a profound impact on my later life. But this story is not so much about my rape or my coming of age at BYU, as it is about the lifelong effects of shame itself, not only about how I internalized and inherited a wounding shame from my Mormon upbringing, but also how I eventually unshamed myself. It is about the journey of a lifetime, finding spiritual growth, self-discovery and healing along the way, while encountering many miraculous events that pushed me forward through darkness toward the light.”
Telling about his experiences during his four years at BYU—the rape, falling in love for the first time, police surveillance, harassment and arrest, while enduring three years of conversion therapy, including two years of electroshock treatments—provide the structure of Kerry’s memoir. But intermittently he also shares memories from growing up Mormon in Pocatello, Idaho, and from his adulthood. The author also shares memories from his professional career as an actor and writer, both in L.A. and NYC, describing his personal encounters with stars Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis and Julie Harris among others, while detailing his experiences with famed writer Tennessee Williams, and his brief but profound affair with Stephen Sondheim. Lastly, the author talks about the 12 years he spent in therapy, about his 16-year battle with a rare cancer, and how he eventually rid himself of most of the shame inherited from his Mormon upbringing. Along the way, he also talks about his sexual journey that led him through S&M and the leather scene to the loving monogamous relationship he now enjoys.
Kerry Ashton is the author of the new memoir, SAINT UNSHAMED: A GAY MORMON’S LIFE—Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer, which goes on sale to the public on April 27, 2019 and can be pre-ordered now online at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Indiebound.org, or purchased in advance and at a discounted price at the author’s website, www.KerryAshton.com.
Raised in Pocatello, Idaho as a staunch member of the Mormon faith, Kerry attended Brigham Young University in the early 70s, where some of the more dramatic events recounted in his memoir took place. Writing his first play, BUFFALO HEAD NICKELSat age 17 and publishing it with Pioneer Drama Service at the age of 18, he has since written and published several plays, most prominently THE WILDE SPIRIT, a one-man play with music, based upon the life and works of Oscar Wilde, for which Kerry also wrote the book, music and lyrics. His other published works include the full-character play, MY LIFE AS OSCAR WILDE and RED HOT MAMA, The New Sophie Tucker Musical, a two-character, two-act musical play.
Of all of Ashton’s written works thus far, however, it is THE WILDE SPIRIT that has enjoyed the most success. When THE WILDE SPIRIT had its World Premiere in June 1977 at New Playwrights Foundation in Los Angeles, Kerry achieved acclaim for both his play and performance. The show subsequently ran for nearly two years in Los Angeles, moving to the larger Theatre Rapport and then to The Cast Theater. Later produced in New York, first Off-Off-Broadway in 1982, and then Off-Broadway in 1996, Kerry also brought his play to Provincetown, MA in 1990-1992, running for 11 months, making it the longest-running play in Cape Cod’s history. In one of the most remarkable histories of any solo theatrical performer, Kerry has given over 1,000 live performances of THE WILDE SPIRIT across the United States, before an estimated 40,000 people, performing in professional engagements at some of America’s most prestigious universities and at several regional theaters. Acclaimed by critics nationwide for both his play and performance, Kerry has won many awards for THE WILDE SPIRIT, including three 1977 Los Angeles Civic Star Awards for Best Play, Best Actor and Best Direction. He also received the National Award of Merit from the ASCAP for the play’s original music and lyrics, when the show was later produced Off-Off-Broadway in NYC starring Ashton in 1982, again to critical acclaim. Eventually, the play was presented Off-Broadway in 1996, again starring Ashton.
Kerry began his professional acting career in summer stock, first at Dirty Jack’s Wild West Theater in Jackson, Wyoming, then at The Pioneer Playhouse near Park City, Utah. Then, after performing in THE WILDE SPIRITin Los Angeles for two years, he appeared first on television in THREE’S COMPANYon ABC, occasionally appearing in 1977 and 1978 as the Regal Beagle Bartender or as one of Jack’s sidekicks, and later he appeared opposite legends Cesar Romero and Eve Arden in the NBC’s pilot project, WHODUNNIT?
Leaving Hollywood for New York City in 1979, Kerry’s New York acting credits include the starring role of Max in PAINT BY NUMBERSat the 78th St. Theatre and in workshop productions at Broadway’s Circle-In-The-Square and at Ensemble Studio Theatre. He also created the leading role of Nick in the Off-Broadway production of HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DADDY!
Kerry Ashton’s film appearances include appearing very briefly in a pivotal scene with Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro in the film, FALLING IN LOVE. On films made for TV he appeared in key scenes opposite Jaclyn Smith in RAGE OF ANGELS, and later with the great Maureen Stapleton in SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY, in yet another performance where Kerry received noteworthy attention from the critics.
Having taken a long hiatus from his professional acting career after succumbing to a rare cancer that he battled for 14 years, Kerry now devotes his time to writing, to traveling, and to his longstanding relationship with Victor Ramirez. Kerry and Victor now make their home together in South Florida.
For more information about Kerry Ashton and his published works, visit his website at www.KerryAshton.com.
Kerry has brought two copies of Saint Unshamed to give away to two lucky readers direct from Amazon. Just leave a comment at the end of the post to enter. The contest ends on Friday, May 3rd at 11:59 pm ET.
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