Adele Bertei On Entering The Battle Zones Of Her Youth
Adele Bertei is perhaps best known for her work with the Bloods, the first out, queer, all-women-rock band, and her collaborations with artists like Matthew Sweet, Culture Club, and Sandra Bernhard. With her new memoir Twist: An American Girl, Bertei adopts the persona of young Maddie Twist and guides the reader through the turbulent events of her adolescence in Cleveland, Ohio in the late 60s and early 70s. Bertei depicts her relationship with her brilliant mother, who was schizophrenic, with uncommon empathy and grace. When social services intervene and place Maddie in foster care, Maddie must develop a newfound resilience and belief in herself, due in large part to the transformative power literature and music play in her life. Equally parts raucous and harrowing, Twist gives the reader a glimpse of the formation of a singular, uncompromising artist. In its starred review, Kirkus called Twist “a powerful look at survival and redemption despite extremely challenging obstacles,” while Mary Gaitskill called it ”strong and strange poetry; while reading it you may hear music in your head—I did.”
The book is a memoir yet reads like a novel, where the character Maddie Twist guides us through her childhood and young adulthood. Can you talk about how Maddie Twist was the ideal character for you to tell your story?
I’d like to start by saying that I’ve been working on this book for— oh my goodness, I started it back in the late seventies. Over the decades, I would write a little bit and then put it away. This went on for years and years because, if you’ve read it, you understand that it was a very hard story to tell. Finally it came to the point where I really wanted to finish it. I’ve written a couple of other books and I’m always searching for the right voice to bring me into the journey of the book. With my memoir, I needed cover to go into the battle zones of my youth. I came up with the character of Maddie Twist as a type of Trojan horse, because it was a really hard story to go into.
[With the origins of] Maddie Twist, it was Maria Magdalena, which was my grandmother’s name. It was Madeline—my mother wanted to call me Madeline, but she named me Adele instead. Twist also came from my mother. She was thought of by the Italians on my father’s side of the family as Kitty Twist, which was based on a Jane Fonda character. So it was an amalgamation of a lot of creative things from my childhood that coalesced into creating this character to give me the armor, so to speak, of going into the war zones of my childhood.
The experiences that you write about are so raw and painful, but as I was reading, I felt like you really had such a clear perspective on your childhood and the people involved that you were able to write about them with a lot of compassion.
Well, that’s something I learned through years of therapy. This is going to sound a bit woowoo, but I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of alchemy. I’ve always thought of alchemy as not like the physical elements of changing base materials into gold, but in a spiritual sense of being able to take what might be cruelty and darkness and discern the light in the darkness, to be able to transform that into something illuminating and something positive. For instance, my mother’s schizophrenia. She could be very cruel but at the same time, she could be incredibly imaginative and creative. Had she not been that imaginative, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to live the life I’ve lived, to take the chances and the risks I’ve taken that have made me who I am. It’s an interesting thing, being able to look at people with compassion, even though they’ve been cruel. It’s kind of digging into the systemic reasons of why people are cruel in our society. And that’s another conversation altogether.
There are so many allusions to literature and different authors from the start, it’s clear that reading played a key role in your life. Can you talk about where and from who you developed your love of reading?
My mother read a lot. She would swing from reading trashy novels like Valley Of The Dolls [to reading] poetry. She read Byron and Keats and Shelley. She read the Greek philosophers and the myths. Thank God for that because I was living in a working class milieu where people just didn’t care about literature or poetry. I was fortunate to have that in her. Books played a central role in my life because it was a way for me to escape the traumatic situations of my childhood and, in a way, be involved in a magical thinking that took me into new worlds that were enchanting, [although] not always good. I mean, I loved Edgar Allan Poe, but the darkness of his poetry mirrored some of the confusing feelings and darkness that I was experiencing as a child. So there was a relating to it. I was really fortunate that my mother was a reader.
It seems that poetry plays such a big role in your life. One of my favorite lines from the book is “poetry protects me like a shield against the nitwits.” Can you talk about that?
I grew up in a very working class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Like I said, none of the kids that I was going to elementary school with ever read poetry. I didn’t have anything in common with those kids. It was kind of like I was living in this little fantasy bubble with my mother and, sometimes, my father. It was a world that was so unlike anything else. When kids were cruel, for instance on the playground, poetry was my shield. It was a form of protection in a way, to say that there is something else besides this. What I see outside of myself on this playground and the insults and the cruelty, there is another world. That world came from poetry and it was mine. It was like a foxhole for me.
The book also makes clear the key role that music in your life. Where did you develop your love of music?
My mother was a dancer in musical theater when she was young, and she also taught dance at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. She absolutely adored music. It’s an interesting trajectory on my maternal side of women without fathers. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had my mother out of wedlock. The father was unknown. I have often thought that my mother may have been the child of rape, because my grandmother was very poor and played piano in speakeasies during the Depression to support herself and my mother, which was an incredibly dangerous thing for women to do at that time. My mother grew up in speakeasies with my grandmother, holding on to the piano leg, while my grandmother played stride and honkytonk piano. In a sense, music was in the blood, it was in the bloodstream.
My grandmother, who was of Irish origin, just imbued such a love of rhythm and music in me. We used to play cards together at night. She taught me how to beat rhythms with the cards on the table. To hell with gin rummy, we were more into playing beats together.(laughs) It’s something I grew up with on my maternal side, and I’m very grateful for that.
Your mom seemed to have such an interesting career in musical theater. She worked with Joel Grey, correct?
I don’t think she worked with him. They met in that musical theater scene in downtown Cleveland, which was very vibrant at the time, and they started dating. The irony is that I ended up playing him as a drag king in cabaret with my drag queen friends as a young woman. (laughs)
It seems that musicals provide a through-line in the book, like how Maddie is constantly being forced to sing songs from “Oliver!” but never the songs that she wants to sing.
Oliver Twist in a way ties in with that that perspective of being orphaned, except that I never wanted to play victim. There are millions of abandoned kids all over this country. One thing I can say as an abandoned kid is that the last thing you ever want to do is treat a child like they’re pitiful, because pity is extremely shaming. Even though we can be feeling incredibly lost, many of us have resilience and we don’t want to be treated like a pitiful object. We need love and caring and compassion. To be pitied makes one feel ashamed, and it’s shaming enough for a child to have been thrown away by their parents.
It’s eye-opening reading the book in terms of how the how the kids are treated, and whether or not all that much has changed in those kinds of systems since then.
Unfortunately, there are good foster parents and there are really bad foster parents, and I think that continues to this day. It’s an overburdened system. People that work as counselors and caseworkers in that system are overburdened because there’s such a huge caseload. One of the main ideas in the book is that you have to imagine a new life. Everything starts with imagination. If you can imagine a new life for yourself, you can create a new life for yourself. If my mother had not imparted that to me, I don’t know where I’d be.
I’m probably being a little inarticulate, but I want to stress that even though there’s some really dark elements in this book, I think my searching for the light as a child and finding that light was the key to my survival. I could easily have been brought down by it all. It’s the curiosity of constantly searching for that light [that saved me], be it through the goodness in other people, through music, or through literature and poetry.
That seems to tie back to when you mentioned magical thinking before, and how important magical thinking was to you throughout your entire childhood.
And magical thinking gets a bad rap. (laughs) As I said, I’ve spent years and years in therapy. My therapist once said to me, “You know, magical thinking worked for you as a child, but if you bring a blown-up life raft into an elevator at William Morris, people are gonna think you’re nuts. (laughs) You have to grow up and understand how to be a part of a society without the defenses and the magical thinking of your childhood.” I agree with that to a certain extent, but I also believe in the power of visualization, creating what you want in your head, and then making that come true.
The book is also a queer coming of age book as you’re figuring out your identity. The last part of the book, when you’re working at the Salvation Army and going to the clubs is such a vibrant picture of queer life in the early 70s. Can you talk about how you approached portraying that time?
It was such an enchanted life that we had. We were outcasts in terms of society, but we really created a sense of family and celebration when we were in the clubs and when we were in our homes. Getting together with each other was—gosh, how do I explain it? It was very different than it is today. And I think that it’s important for LGBTQ+ people today to understand our history too. The time I’m writing about was a time when you could be murdered. I was beaten terribly for seeing another girl in junior high school. We went through hell for decades, which continued into AIDS activism, to fight for the right for LGBTQ people to be who they are today.
What are you working on musically right now?
I had such a very hard trajectory in music because of being an out lesbian. It was incredibly difficult in the 80s. Nobody was out when I was making music. Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t even out at that time. I encountered a lot of hostility after having been in the post-punk scene, where women were incredibly free and equal and could be whatever we wanted. There were no gender expectations on us whatsoever. Going into the commercial music business where it’s like “control control control the women,” it was not for me. I have had a lot of heartaches in the music business. It’s taken me a long time to want to reapproach and I’m doing it one song at a time. I recently released a very political song called “American Elegy.” I’m releasing another song that’s more on dance hit called “Savage As the Wolf,” which is coming out on piece biscuit records in April. So I’m doing it one song at a time, very tentatively.
And finally, what role that library has played in your life?
The Cleveland Public Library was a big escape for me. I would often go to the Cleveland Public Library downtown, which was an amazing place to hang out and just get lost in all of the different rooms. Because I didn’t go to university or study I always felt a bit like Jude the Obscure, you know, longing for Christminster. (laughs) The public library ended up being my place to feel like I was getting a proper education, not only because of the books but also the architecture and the feeling. It was the same feeling of being in a church. The air in a library is imbued with curiosity and knowledge and wisdom. I feel the same thing when I go into beautiful churches all over Europe, that idea that the actual air’s imbued with the holiness of people praying. Libraries have a very important place in my life.
Tags: Adele Bertei, memoir