One Minute Down: J.M. Blaine Talks to Erika Rae On the Release of His Debut Memoir, Midnight, Jesus & MeBy TNB Nonfiction
April 03, 2013
Erika Rae: So, James Michael Blaine, AKA 11:59…how does it feel now that you’re about to be outed? I mean…now that you are publishing your first book, you are going to let us see your face, aren’t you?
James Michael Blaine: Thank God, yeah, you know? Sometimes you get saddled with a gimmick and you’re glad to get rid of it. In 2006 I decided I really wanted to try this writing thing. I’d been turned down for Vandy’s MFA program (we’re looking for talent more along the lines of Shelley or Yeats, ha ha ha ha ha) – but I was trying to find a place to get better. If I have any talent, it’s tenacity, to just hammer away until something breaks loose. I figured TNB would be a good place to start hammering. It takes awhile to find your voice so I thought it might be good to stay nameless, faceless. By the time I was sick of it I had the book coming, so I thought I would wait until now. You ready?
After seven years? Uh, yeah.
You know it’s really not that big of a deal.
Can we just save it to the end of the interview?
Sure. So there’s this great scene in your book where two mental patients are battling it out. One believes he’s God and one thinks he’s Satan. Can you describe that scene?
When you put two people in the same place—one who is sure they are God and another who believes they’re the devil—you’re gonna have some apocalypse. That particular story came from my first few months working in the mental hospital. “God” was this stumpy little guy with porkchop sideburns and “Satan” was a tall skinny Tom Waits-meets-James Hetfield looking dude. Here I am this kid with a beard and hair halfway down my back, and when I get between them “God” points to me and says: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. WHAM, Tom Waits Satan bashes me with a chair. I hustle him to seclusion and… man, this sounds ridiculous.
…And chocolate milk all over the glass.
Lotta psych ward fights ended with chocolate milk on the glass. But really, that scene is just typical. Just another night on psych.
Reading about how you DJ at a dance club is like getting a peek at somebody behind the matrix. You are able to diffuse fights, make people act ridiculous, make people fall in love…. Would it be fair to say your DJ experience was where you started your study of Psychology?
Maybe so, but at the time, I had no idea. Look, I got a free ride through grad school because I used to roller skate with the dean’s daughter. The only thing I felt any good at was DJing. That’s your job — to control people with the music. I didn’t give two cents about Freud or Freddie Nietzsche and I sure didn’t care anything about being a counselor. But in writing this book, I realized I always enjoyed studying human behavior. So I guess it worked out.
In Midnight Jesus, you talk about a time when your pastor tells you: “Psychology is fine and good but don’t let those crackpots get your mind all messed up.” “Pastor,” you reply, “they say the same thing about you.” How do you balance between such different camps?
The Pentecostal church had a very skeptical view of anything that wasn’t from an evangelical perspective. They didn’t trust psychology, philosophy, sociology — not even theology. In the psych department I was getting the other side. Beware of magical thinking and religiosity and crowd control. So maybe one keeps the other in balance? I don’t know. This whole book is the crisis of trying to figure that out. I gotta be OK with not knowing.
It’s comforting hearing someone say that. That tension is a lot of what drove me to write my book, Devangelical, too.
That’s why I call you Sister Rae. We grew up in that same world. The evangelical message is that the church has all the answers and we have to share those answers with a lost and dying world. But that’s just delusion. When I was working at the megachurch, I learned that what people claim corporately and believe privately are two different things. The super-Christians don’t have it together any better than the rest of us. We’re all pretty lost and confused and struggling down here and the truth is, if Grace isn’t completely amazing, then we’re all screwed. Jesus said: I didn’t come for the religious people. I came for the misfits. That’s me and that’s who I write for. The misfits.
You talk in the book about a moment when you are looking at a billboard and there is “a responsible-looking woman, blandly attractive in an advertising sort of way, holding up a phone receiver with a look of professional concern on her face.” The billboard reads, “DEPRESSED? SUICIDAL? ADDICTED? THERE’S HELP. THERE’S HOPE. CALL 1-800-TALK NOW.” It takes you a minute to realize the number rings to your hospital, they forward the calls and that you are that woman. How did you feel when you realized that?
So here I was driving home from DJ-ing at the skating ring— strobe lights and cotton candy, Hokey Pokey, disco balls — riding along in my own little world with the windows down and “We are 138” cranked loud—and I see that billboard and realize I’m that person, too? This can not be who I am . . . but you gotta pay the rent, you know? How did I feel? Totally bizarro. Like knocking that billboard down and setting it on fire.
So…you got to be the guest on Christian television once? (heh)
Ah geez, people seem to love that story. It’s shooting fish in a barrel to make fun of Christian television, but you know, I have sincerely been blessed by Christian television, as weird as that sounds. But this was a local station, not well produced. They had a live 3-hour show on every night and needed guests to kill time, and one night I guess I was all they could find. Seven men from Albania came out first, in high water slacks, holding hands and singing “How Great Thou Art” in unison. While this Gumby-looking kid is playing drums on a school desk. And I’m next. That was where I had the epiphany that God probably laughs a lot at me. But it was a theology I could embrace. Life is absurd and we‘re not going to figure it out and let’s all pray God laughs. Hopefully some day, I’ll see God, and He’ll say, let me tell you what I was laughing at. Then I’ll laugh too and things will finally make sense. Or maybe I just won’t need them to anymore.
Tell me a little about the “Vampire Girl with stars tattooed around her eyes” who wanted to suck your blood and carry you back to her lair. She kept calling you “the granite Christ.” Is it hard to separate the crazy from the way most evangelicals would perceive that moment?
You’re thinking: Is this real? Is she possessed? Just crazy? The only way I ever knew how to do psych was to give myself to the moment. I wanted to see the world from their eyes and ride a few miles down that road together. I never tried to wrestle people back to reality, just to be there with them in that moment and listen and watch and be kind.
Describe drinking from a homeless man’s bottle of gin. And…would you do it again?
I maintain: Sloe gin sure tastes good on a cold night, no matter whose bottle it comes from. Whether it comes from the president or some homeless dude camped down by the river named Skeeter.
Was it hard to write a memoir about real people in such compromised positions?
I give a clear disclaimer at the beginning of the book: This is a work of creative nonfiction. Because of the nature of psych crisis and mental hospitals, I’ve changed places, faces, names, characters in order to protect others and myself. I tried to be careful and considerate to not expose or hurt anybody. But I’ve got so many psych stories I could do that and still stay true. Really, I think it was harder trying to weave my own story in there. I’m kind of private and I didn’t want to have to explain things or talk about stuff I had written to family and friends. This author I really love and respect told me, You don’t have to explain anything. That sort of set me free.
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given to you in the mental health field?
Don’t let your wife go to the tattoo shop alone. Heh. So much over the years. When I first started, my old pastor told me I could go help teach and change those people. I had to come back and tell him how much they were teaching and changing me. Old drunks and whores and smack addicts and suicidal prisoners with psychotic features… they taught me patience and grace and humor and — just so much. I’m still learning.
Prequel, sequel, into the trees... I don’t have a clue. You’ve got your little flashlight shining about two feet in front of you, trying to find the path. One of my writing buddies recently gave me some solid advice: Write what makes you feel alive. That’s what’s next.
So how about that picture?
As likely to quote Axl Rose as Saint Augustine, J.M. Blaine is a licensed sex and suicide specialist who has worked in libraries, haunted houses, psych wards, megachurches, rehabs, radio stations and roller rinks. He is non-fiction editor of the L.A. literary collective The Nervous Breakdown, feature writer for America’s most popular street paper The Nashville Contributor, and a former contributor to the world’s only religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door. Blaine lives with his happy wife in Nashville, TN.