When writers describe what it’s like to live in a small, parochial community, they almost always make it sound like a nightmare. Yet most people in such a community—a small town, a tightknit neighborhood, a religious sect—would probably say it suits them just fine. They enjoy living in a place where it’s very clear how to behave and what to believe, where the future is predictable and anyone who disturbs the peace is punished or banished. The problem is that people who are well-adjusted to their community seldom write books. Novels and plays and memoirs are produced by the ones who didn’t fit in and suffered for it—which is why they can see and say the unpleasant truths that everyone else ignores.
These are the kinds of people David Adjmi found when he went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to study playwriting in the late 1990s. “We were screwed up and psychodevelopmentally wounded,” Adjmi writes in his new memoir, Lot Six. “Most, if not all of the people in my program had been abused and were in various stages of post-traumatic stress from parents who strangled or molested them, or burned them with cigarettes, or threw them down the stairs. … We were all on the verge of going sort of nuts.”
Nothing so lurid happened to Adjmi himself, growing up in the Syrian Jewish community of Midwood, Brooklyn. But the claustrophobic intensity of Lot Six shows that other forms of trauma can be just as lasting. Adjmi portrays his family as deeply dysfunctional—an unreliable and tyrannical father, a histrionic and withholding mother, siblings who struggled to find their way in life. The Judaism he learned at yeshiva was empty and punitive; his teachers’ philosophy seemed to be that “the tribulations of the Jews weren’t fair … but you still had to endure them, and once you endured them you were permitted to inflict their punishing embittering lessons on the next generation.” In any case, the community’s piety didn’t stop it from being obsessed with money and status, fancy cars, and vacation homes in New Jersey.
But Adjmi’s most important source of alienation is alluded to in the title, which he explains is Syrian Jewish slang for gay. (In retail pricing code, “lot six” means three, which apparently came to refer to an odd man out, a misfit.) Coincidentally, Lot Six appears not long after Isaac Mizrahi’s memoir I.M., another story about growing up as a gay man in Syrian Jewish Brooklyn. The stories have some basic similarities, but Lot Six is much darker and more intense—perhaps because Adjmi is more of a born writer.
His sense that the reality of life is ugly and unhappy came to him very early. Not for nothing does Lot Six begin with Adjmi’s memory of going to see Sweeney Todd on Broadway when he was 8 years old. That show starts with a piercing siren, and soon Sweeney is singing about how everyone in London deserves to die: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it.” “I didn’t know what I was watching exactly, but I was mesmerized,” Adjmi writes. It was a dramatization of his own intuition that “something was horribly wrong—and not just with my family, but with life.”
Why was he the one destined to feel that way, when everyone else seemed to accept the way things were? Early in the book, Adjmi recalls an episode from early childhood when his older brother entertained the family with an imitation of the comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine: “He lifted his hand and let his wrist drop, then began to sashay across the living room.” The family loves it: “He’s acting like a Lot Six!” cries Arlene, David’s older sister. (All the names in the book are changed, though the real ones wouldn’t be hard to find out.)
Only David has a different reaction: “I could feel my tiny heart pounding in my chest. My face was hot. I felt like I was burning. The room around me dissolved, and I was shaking uncontrollably.” There’s no way he could have articulated what was going on, but he knew “that a Lot Six was someone who had no place in the world. I couldn’t let myself be that. I wanted to be part of life.”
This primal scene sets the tone for the memoir, which is punctuated by emotional crises, upwellings of shame and despair. These are not always explicitly connected to sexuality, especially as Adjmi gets older, but they stem from his basic sense that “the self was an endless burden, like a giant piece of luggage you were forced to haul around.”
Late in the book, for instance, he recounts his unhappy year as a student in Juilliard’s playwriting program, where he clashed with a teacher he calls “Gloria”—presumably Marsha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who ran the program for many years. On one occasion, Adjmi mentioned in class that he had gone to see the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, to which Gloria replied, “How anyone could ever like something like that is completely dumbfounding to me.” This was a nasty crack, but Adjmi experienced it as nothing less than a symbolic murder: “I was poisoned. … I felt the poison spreading inside me, coursing through my blood. My eyes began to shut; I could hardly keep them open. I felt drugged, more tired than I’d ever been in my life. … The cells of my body felt desiccate and sick.”
To call this an overreaction is beside the point; the story reveals the extreme fragility of the ego Adjmi had constructed over the abyss of his self-doubt. No wonder he was continually drawn to reinvent himself: “What if you could just erase the self you had, as though it were a drawing in pencil, and start over?” he wonders. Lot Six is a chronicle of these transformations: from a mutinous yeshiva boy in Brooklyn to a stoner nicknamed “Dread” at the University of Southern California, to a tortured, Nietzsche-reading poseur at Sarah Lawrence College, to a blocked would-be genius at Iowa.
None of these personas suited Adjmi for long, but the allure of changing roles was what drew him to theater. His epiphany came at a performance of Six Degrees of Separation, a John Guare play about a young gay man who endears himself to a wealthy couple by pretending to be someone he isn’t—the son of Sidney Poitier. Adjmi identified with the character—“like Paul, I only existed in my attempts to become someone else”—but he also identified with the playwright, who uses theater as “a way to transform your nightmare into dreams.”
Today Adjmi is almost 50 years old; his plays have been produced off-Broadway and received many awards. Yet Lot Six isn’t the work of a man putting old demons to rest; it’s more like the latest round in his lifelong bout with them. Nor would he want to get rid of them, since as he comes to realize in the course of the book, the demons are what made him an artist. At the end of Lot Six, Adjmi has his first professional success with a Lincoln Center production of his play Stunning, a harsh satire on the Syrian Jewish community. At the same time, his father is dying in the hospital, and when he goes to visit another Syrian needles him about the play: “I’m just saying you’re controversial.” Adjmi replies with the writer’s cri de coeur: “I’m just showing what’s in life. … The whole point of theater is to reveal people to themselves. Not everyone has to like it!” Ibsen would have applauded.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.