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