Loss and ’Rhythm’ :: Terry Connell on His Memoir of Devotion

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday May 17, 2011

Terry Connell is a Boston area acupuncturist with a background as a therapist. His healing vocation informs and colors his powerful new memoir.

When Connell's father prepared a family tree that left out Connell's late life partner Stephan, Connell felt a keen sting. Coming from a large and loving family divided by a paradox of devout Catholicism, Connell has come to accept that, in his clan, "faith trumps family." But this time Connell spoke up to establish Stephan's place in the family history--and to secure the truth of his own life.

The result was a memoir titled Slaves to the Rhythm, a raw and moving account of Stephan's last few months and Connell's life before he came out of the closet and met the love of his life.

The book's title is also the name of the last big dance piece Connell and Stephan put together. Stephan was a dancer and choreographer who worked with youth. He was starting to receive critical notice when his deteriorating health made it necessary for him to give up his career and the studio he and Connell ran as a team.

EDGE asked about the resonance between the book and the dance piece, given that both share a common title.

"Stephan always wanted to use that Grace Jones song as the title for a show," Connell explained. "He loved that song.

"Writing and producing 'Slaves to the Rhythm' for our dance company was an incredible achievement for both Stephan and me," Connell continued. "Not only did we get some great reviews, we actually made money on the show--a first! And, sadly, it became Stephan's swan song.

"When I considered the title for the book, there were a few different ideas that I played with. 'Slaves to the Rhythm' felt most appropriate. It was a great way to honor Stephan and his work. But it also reflected the layers of conflict that showed up in the book. I think it's safe to say that my parents were 'slaves' to their faith, just as I was a slave to my own need for self-expression. There is an ebb and flow--a rhythm--that shows up in many different ways in our lives. We're all slaves to our own rhythms."

The book's raw emotional force comes from Connell's honesty in describing his reactions to his role as Stephan's caregiver, as well as his ability to frame that experience in a context of his larger life story. Though the events described in the book took place two decades ago, none of the story's immediacy is diminished, in part because Connell drew from a journal he was keeping at the time.

"When I first started the journal, it really was my way of releasing whatever it was that was going on, and my way of keeping myself honest," Connell told EDGE. "?As a therapist, I knew the cost of not expressing yourself. For me, writing helped clear my mind. I remember early on in Stephan's diagnosis making the decision that I wasn't going to let this take me down.

"The journal was kind of a release valve," Connell added. "I couldn't be available to Stephan if I was resenting him. But there was more than just the difficult stuff I was writing about. I was able to reflect on the moments that were really quite beautiful--and profound. They were as important, if not more important, to me than the times when I was angry and crying and miserable. Those places of peace and connection were what sustained me and helped me stay with Stephan--especially when he was having a hard time."??

This is a story that Connell has been trying to tell for some time now. Though the incomplete family tree sparked the renewed effort to guide the book to publication, its composition actually began far earlier. Time, perspective, and the input of a good editor all helped bring the memoir to its current form.

"The journal editing really was done almost 20 years ago when I first tried to publish 'Slaves,' " Connell noted. "My journals had all these stories about other people who were really important, but they don't have context unless I took time to explain who they were and how they fit in. It became a little more complicated and cumbersome. So I whittled down my journal to the story of who Stephan and I were, and decided that they would be the protagonists

"The book I published this past November is very different from the original manuscript I wrote," Connell went on to say. "My friend, and editor, Kelly, suggested I add the second narrative--the story of my childhood and growing up a gay boy in this strict Irish Catholic family. It was a great idea. The journal entries are intense--and there's no mystery where you're headed. To weave this other story of my life and how I got to meet Stephan was the perfect counterpoint. And it worked. I think this version of 'Slaves' is much better than the original. More complete."

There's a third thread present in the book. Connell intersperses his narrative with a time-line of events that serve as markers of how the AIDS crisis unfolded.?? Reading the timeline along brings back memories--for those old enough to recall them--of a terrifying time, providing a background for the story that serves to underscore its emotional richness.

"This is a great example of why writers need editors," Connell said. "Kelly said that there was also a third character in the book that needed a voice: AIDS. We (our culture) are so far removed from what it was and what it meant back then to get an AIDS diagnosis. Or--the incredible contributions groups like ACT UP made, and not just to the AIDS crisis. Fund-raising, public policy, drug research were changed by this movement.

"By adding this information--by creating this loose timeline of the AIDS crisis--there was another rhythm [that the book explored]. I suppose it gives my book a little more relevance. I hope so. I got a note from a young woman who read my book and said that she had learned about AIDS in high school, but that she didn't understand what was really happening; how much struggle and work the gay community went through. And the changes we were able to make. As a writer, those are the kinds of notes that make me feel like I wrote something that mattered."

One of the book's most haunting motifs is the phrase "Faith trumps family"--a reference to how Connell's parents resorted to their staunch Catholicism when difficult family matters arose. The family tree that left Stephan unmentioned was only one example.

"It wasn't complete," Connell said of that family map. "And... it really wasn't honest. But because of growing up in this whole Catholic thing, it was understandable.

"I wasn't surprised by it," Connell added. "I was certainly hurt and disappointed, and there was this literal, as well as emotional, eye-roll: 'My god, we're still going through the same stuff.'

But there has been a lot of time between what happened with Stephan in 1993 and now, and we've gone through some difficult times as a family. It's become a bit of a balancing act that I think we're all still learning. I know, as much as I don't agree with the faith of my parents, I am very aware that their faith contributed to my growing up--and being able to take care of Stephan."

There are passages throughout the book in which Connell and Stephan discuss spirituality and faith. With the passage of time, EDGE asked, and in the course of completing the memoir, had Connell come to any conclusions about the role of suffering in human life?

"It's such a hard question to answer," answered the author thoughtfully. "I can't wrap my mind around the God my parents believe in and the faith that they embrace. I haven't found a formal faith that I've been able to settle into and feel comfortable about. But there are so many things that happen in the world and in individual lives that have a certain confluence or resonance, don't they?

"I think I'm less concerned about whether there is or isn't a reason or design at this point," Connell added. "It's so trite and everyone says it, but you find out what's important [by living through a crisis]. Those are the things you really want to have more of. ??For me, it's not important whether there is something or someone out there guiding us or helping us make our choices. The fact is, I'm here; what can I do? That's what publishing the book is about: I'm here. This is what I'm gonna do."?

?With the issue of GLBT youth and teen suicide having achieved a level of recognition in the larger culture, EDGE asked the healer what his thoughts were regarding his memoir and that painful social issue.

"A large part of my book addresses the struggles I had as a closeted boy and young man--and the unhealthy ways I coped with the anxiety and fear I was trying to deal with," Connell noted. "There are so many resources for gay youth today. I wish I had something like that when I was younger. I hope younger queer kids are [making use of those resources.]

"If there were a gay teen reading my book, my hope is they identify with the strength and courage I found," Connell continued. "The 'It Gets Better campaign' is absolutely true. But I think the reality is--it doesn't always get better in the ways we want, or expect. Or," the author added, "on our timeline. But the friends I have met--the family I have grown into--they are the reason I am here today living this amazing life. A life, and a lifestyle, I never could have imagined 25 years ago."

EDGE inquired about the author's plans for further publication.

"I've got a few projects I'm working on," Connell said. "I've got a blog I just started, and two different books in mind.

"I am moving toward my 50th birthday, so there is this real sense of nostalgia," Connell went on to say. "Kind of 'taking the tour,' and noticing the hows and whys of where I am. My life after Stephan has such a different color and texture and community around it. People took me in and saved me and gave me an opportunity to create this whole new life that is better than I could ever have imagined. So my next book is really about taking a moment to let them know that I appreciate it. It's kind of like a P.S. to my last book."

EDGE noted that Stephan certainly seemed to have been the love of Connell's life. Had there been, or did he expect there might be, another great love???

"There certainly have been loves," Connell said. "I'm not dating anyone now--I've had a few relationships over the years. No one that has stuck around and lasted."

However, the writer and healer added, "I'm not opposed to the idea. I feel like I haven't met the right guy, that's all. And some point, I'm sure, I will. I might be 55 when it happens, but I'm not in a hurry."

"Slaves to the Rhythm is only available through Amazon.com.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.