Martin Moran comes to terms in ’The Tricky Part’

by M. M. Adjarian

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 16, 2010


Martin Moran's Irish Catholic childhood was nothing if not happy. He had loving parents and excelled in school. He even had a paper route. But when Moran turned 12, his formerly simple life suddenly became quite complicated. Not only was he confused by a nascent attraction to men; a counselor at a Catholic boys' camp drew him into a three-year homosexual relationship that would haunt the writer all through his adolescence and well into his adulthood.

Moran recounts his experiences in a memoir and a one-man play, two works that share a single title: The Tricky Part. He first began working on the text version in the late 1990s. His friend and director, Seth Barrish, then suggested he also try to tell the story in the form of the dramatic monologue. Both the book and play were extremely successful: the New York premiere of the latter version earned a 2004 Obie Award and two Drama Desk nominations, one of which was for Outstanding Play of the Year. And the former won the 2005 LAMBDA Belles Lettres Award and was the second place winner of the 2005 Barnes and Noble Discover Award.

The themes of sexual violation and forgiveness predominate in both works, the theatrical version of which Moran will reprise for one night only on Thursday, September 17, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at Recital Hall. Moran's abuser, Bob, was an ex-Vietnam veteran dedicated to creating a ranch camp where young boys could get at taste of wilderness farming. The affair starts one night when Bob drags Moran into his sleeping bag and sexually abuses him. A year later, Moran discovers that Bob is also victimizing a 13-year-old friend named Kip. He tries to tell the older man that he wants everything to stop; but his plea falls on deaf ears. Bob instead invites Moran to join him in a threesome with his girlfriend. Eventually, Bob is arrested and jailed for his crimes. But the relationship causes Moran to suffer bouts of suicidal depression as an adolescent and inexplicable sexual compulsions as a young man. At 42, Moran finally seeks out his abuser so that he can finally make peace with the events that once threatened to destroy him.

The Tricky Part marked Moran's first appearance in the literary world as a memoirist and playwright. But when he appeared in the stage version of his work, he was an established New York actor who had appeared in such Broadway and off-Broadway musicals as Spamalot, Titanic and Cabaret. He had actually developed his passion for theatre during the turbulent years following his affair. While attending Stanford, he trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. At the same time, he also began exploring Zen Buddhism, which he credits with helping him develop the "fresh perspective" he needed to heal from his sexual traumas. He has remarked that "[p]racticing Zen is a release into the beginner's mind. It's an invitation into the present"-in this case, a present free of guilt and shame.

Moran, who has just completed a new play, is also the recipient of the 2010 Annual Award for Excellence in the Media, jointly awarded by the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma (IVAT) and the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence (LC). I recently interviewed the writer about The Tricky Part and how he came to terms with unspeakable pain.

From book to stage

EDGE: Your first play began as a memoir that evolved into a stage piece. What was it about the dramatic form that you found congenial to the story you had to tell?

Martin Moran: Well, I'm not sure if congenial is the right way to characterize it. It's just that organically what happened was as I was working on it, it began to take form. And then, in a more visceral way perhaps, in a more dramatic way as you suggest, it began to take form as an event, as an evening of theatre. And the memoir is nearly 300 pages. The play is 25 pages. So they're very different beasts. And the dramatic form is definitely created to evoke a kind of evening of paradox, an evening of complexity. And the play was a lot more about the telling omissions than the written form. In other words, the play began to be about putting a puzzle together that told the same story, essentially the same narrative. But it was far more about creating this event in a room. Certainly the dramatic form felt physically and visually compelling as a storyteller telling the story in the moment in front of people.

EDGE: How did your practice of Zen Buddhism influence the writing of The Tricky Part?

Martin Moran: You know, I think there's a space in Zen Buddhism that's very hard to describe which has to do with paradox and complexity, you know the whole notion of the koans-those puzzles that are unsolvable conundrums. There's a way that even the title itself, The Tricky Part, came from a meditation upon paradox. The fact that you can hold different truths or opposite truths at once-for instance, in this narrative what happened was violent, what happened was a gift, what happened was a crime, what happened was an awakening-they're all true, and they're sort of unsolvable. They appease the play. In that sense, it's devoted to complexity. There's a way in which sitting in Zen Buddhism allows you to melt into that place of larger mind, that space of "I am a part of larger mind, I am a part of this unknowable paradox of existence." There's a way in which sitting in Zen Buddhism-it's hard to describe it-opened my mind and my heart to a space of larger mind and larger complexity than right and wrong or good and bad. It felt like such a terrifying subject-sexual abuse and violence-that the heart of it was something deeper. But it [the play] was really just saying, "look this is the human experience, this larger mind: this is one aspect of that larger journey." And sitting, I think, has just opened the space to that larger complexity.

EDGE: You've said that your play is in part about forgiveness. Do you mean forgiveness of those who harm us, self-forgiveness, or both?

Martin Moran: Both. I once heard a guy talking about forgiveness and he said he felt the truest definition of forgiveness was a complete letting go of all hope of having had a different or a better past. And I thought it was a very provocative thought, provocative definition, both for the self and for what has harmed you. There's a way in which forgiveness, at its purest and at its best, is a gift to yourself. It's saying, "I'm going to not be bound to this person anymore, this event, this thing that I feel that changed my path." That there's a way of saying, of letting go of the idea that I should have had any different past, that what is, is. And to forgive is actually a wonderful permission to be in the present. And I think ultimately it's a gift to the self.

EDGE: What did the experiences you describe in the play eventually show you about yourself?

Martin Moran: I think eventually . . . that's such an interesting question because the events that took place in the play and the story were events that made me-that caused me-to feel ruined, damaged, tainted, bad, like a really bad person, a bad blighted kid-because I allowed it to happen, because there I was, 12 years old, sexual, like, there I was, in truck with the devil. And it was pleasurable, and it was scary and it was illicit. So there was a way in which I felt broken and bad. But the journey of this has been about the realization that I'm not broken, that this is the journey and has been the journey. So I think that eventually, being the key word in your question, eventually it showed me that I'm a loving person full of light, not damaged goods. A whole human being.

About forgiveness

EDGE: One of the questions the play tackles is how something damaging can eventually "come to restore us." How have you found the experiences you had as the boy-lover of an older man to be healing or "restorative"?

Martin Moran: What I found healing and restorative was the journey of self-acceptance that came in the later years. You know, the notion of boy-lover is-see, when you're a child, the brain doesn't have a concept that it's profoundly unequal what's going on (which is by definition abusive) when someone is 30 or 35 and you're 12. I think it was inherently violent and inherently violating in our culture at that time. But was restorative was the understanding later in life that that child was simply moving towards life, moving toward light. That child was incapable of fully choosing to fully participate in that relationship and that was inherently, I believe, traumatic and fraught and damaging. But what was restorative was the task of making sense of it as an adult, of gaining some authority on the past. It was more what I chose to do with it as an adult which was healing.

EDGE: When did you find that your memories of what happened to you as a youth began to really impact you?

Martin Moran: I think I found it really began to impact me in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was entering ever more deeply into intimacy, into a true relationship with my partner Henry, who, thank God or Zen or whatever, I'm still with-we just celebrated 25 years together. But in my late 20s and early 30s when we were still in the first five or ten years of our relationship, that's when I began to be seized by these violent sorts of obsessions, sexual compulsions, this notion of being a secret person, someone who could not be known, or ever loved. Someone who is essentially-again, bad or damaged goods. And I think that's when I began to see with some understanding that there were ramifications to what had happened when I was a kid, becoming hypersexualized at a very young age. So I would say that is when I had some conscious awareness that what had happened was affecting my adult life. It's interesting: when I look back to when I was a teenager, I was really suicidal. And tremendously depressed. But I didn't line that up with what had happened as a kid. There were other factors as well--my parents, just growing up . . . But I think I began to have some awareness in my late 20s-early 30s, and then slowly began to put the pieces together in my 30s.

EDGE: What role did Catholicism play in the choices you made as a young boy and that led you into the relationship you describe in The Tricky Part?

Martin Moran: Catholicism played an enormous role. I was steeped in it-I attended Catholic school, and everything about my social, cultural and spiritual life was steeped in the images, mythology, the pictures, the teachings of Catholicism. And I think it's important to understand that in Catholic culture, or Jewish culture-when you're inside these cultures, then the secret of being violated in a certain way is all the more violent because it's not just, "Oh my God, I did something inappropriate." It takes on this weight, like "Oh my God, I have now just been damned to hell." So that it becomes an act of mortal sin: "I've now ruined my life, I've chosen to turn away from God." So there's a way in which all of that sense of violence is set off in a really extreme way, because everything is that cultural context of right and wrong and death and God. And then there's also the fact that you're lured into that world by somebody-an older person-who's of that cultural world. And there's a trust there also, of someone who's on the same page spiritually and a person of God. So when it happens in that context to a kid who doesn't understand all these things yet, it's shocking. So Catholicism played a huge role in that. And also it's important to say that Catholicism played a huge role in the creation of this play and in the book, because I think it's oddly paradoxical that the writing of a Catholic person, and a person going through all that stuff growing up feels like a ritual, a sermon almost, but in a theatrical sense, in a funnier sense. It's not sacred or sacrosanct. It's pretty off-color at times. I just mean the artistic work also comes out of that Catholic context, that Catholic culture.

EDGE: Did Bob, the man who was your lover, ever know you were working on a memoir about your relationship with him?

Martin Moran: No, not until it appeared. The publishers asked me to change his name and some of the details. But he did not know I was working on it, no. But then when it appeared, it made quite a stir in my hometown in Colorado, my home state. And the members of his family became aware of the book and that he was the figure in the book.

EDGE: What are your plans for the play after its San Francisco premiere?

Martin Moran: The play ran off Broadway a few years ago and it won an Obie award and a Drama Desk award. And I toured a lot of the country with it at various theatres. So the play-I do it here and there, now and again. So I have no big plans because it's something I do here and there: for example, I'm going to Dartmouth University in November. I'll be reading from the play and reading from my book, the memoir. But there aren't any major plans after this. It's just something that now and again I'll perform at universities or theatres. I've written a new play and that I have more plans for: but it's about something entirely different

EDGE: What do you hope your audience will get from your performance and the discussion that will follow it?

Martin Moran: You know, I hope that they will have a provocative evening where the mystery, paradox and joy of being a human being is palpable and talked-about.

To learn more about his book The Tricky Part, visit: the book's website

If you're in San Francisco, you can catch Martin Moran in The Tricky Part at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at Recital Hall on Thursday, September 16 for one night only. Ticket prices range from $10 to $20 and can be purchased by phone at (415) 354-0437 or online at

M. M. Adjarian is a Dallas-based freelance writer. She contributes to EDGE, the Dallas Voice, SheWired and Arts + Culture DFW and is a book reviewer for Kirkus.