'Writing has allowed me to craft and sculpt a magnificent life and touch the lives of others in ways that still awe and humble me. Every day I receive e-mails from fans who let me know how much my books mean to them, and how their lives have been enriched and changed. Writing is my lifeline. Writing saved my life.'
— E. Lynn Harris
In a meeting room at AfroCentric Books II on Chicago's South Side, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 readers —men, women and children—waited for the arrival of best-selling author E. Lynn Harris. Some appeared to be gay and lesbian couples, but there were also husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends sitting anxiously or meandering about in anticipation of Harris' words.
Such is the effect that this Black gay phenomenon has on readers across the U.S. For Harris it all began as a journey of self-discovery—an unknown former corporate salesman-turned-writer, determined to tell his story in his first self-published book Invisible Life. Ten years later he has successfully landed eight novels on The New York Times bestsellers' list for fiction. And he has done it dealing with topics that were once considered taboo in the Black community—depression, suicide, homosexuality and AIDS.
His new book, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted ($22.95, Doubleday), by its title alone, might elicit memories of the popular Motown group, The Four Tops, who scored big in 1966 with a Jimmy Ruffin piece with the same title.
Harris admits that he has long been a bona fide Motown aficionado, and as his memoirs indicate, he spent many lonely nights during his high school years, listening to tunes by the Tops, Temps, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. These were days when most teenagers were out on dates, holding hands and dreaming about the future—and he danced alone.
The author shares a childhood of abuse by his stepfather who hated the fact that the young boy was 'different.' As he continues his story he shares the pain of his teenage years when he was compelled to lie about himself and his family to gain friends and talks frankly about his adult years, when alcohol became his closest ally. But this same 'friend' would also lead him to attempt suicide as his crippling depression became too much for him to bear.
'On this new book tour, I have usually read the sadder portions but sometimes I just don't have the heart and so I look to the happier moments,' he said. 'You have to understand that unlike my other novels, the room, places and people I'm describing aren't imaginary—they're very real. I wrote my memoirs for one little boy—me. From my first novel I was inspired to write because I believed I had a story to tell.
'Some of you came on board later in my career and perhaps all you see now are the accoutrements that have come with success. But it wasn't that way in the earlier days. I was one of the downhearted and depressed —maybe like some of you. And so I wrote my memoirs to explain, 'What happens to the brokenhearted? We survive.''
Harris' memoir begins with an account of his suicide attempt in Washington, D.C., one summer night in 1990, when he believed that all hope was gone. Then he chronicles his life in Arkansas and his moves to Dallas, New York City, D.C. and Atlanta—where he continued to struggle with his sexuality while searching for love—often in all the wrong places.
The book cover is a photograph of Harris as a child and for the author it says a lot about the road he has traveled in search of love, happiness and peace of mind.
'I remember seeing the photo some years after it was taken and recall first being unaware that it was even me,' he said. 'It was a picture of a child of about two years old who was smiling—who looked like the world was a wonderful place in which to live. When I realized that it was me, I asked myself if I could ever be that happy again.'
As Harris concluded his reading and moved to a spirited question-and-answer session, he told his audience, 'This is a novel about simply being human. It's for anyone who has ever lacked self-esteem, who has searched for love and found themselves wanting. But because it's not a work of fiction, I couldn't plot a happy ending. But I have survived. And I hope my readers will see a glimpse of their own lives and know that, like me, they have to take it one day at a time.'
Fans of Harris have wondered over the last several years why it has taken him so long to complete his memoirs—rumors indicated that it was going to be published a year or so earlier. But Harris says he couldn't complete it until the 'time was right.'
'I can tell my story now because change has occurred,' he said. 'I wanted to tell people that you can survive a broken heart—whether you are a man, woman, straight or gay. Each day gets better.'