Creative Nonfiction by Queer Writers
Edited by Jim Tushinski and Jim Van Buskirk
Now available from Harrington Park Press



by Renate Stendhal

     Growing up in Germany after the Second World War was an experience of shame and mourning. In twelve years of masterfully orchestrated genocide, Germany had also succeeded in the massacre of its own culture, and nobody was talking about it. The pressures of "good behavior" and moral "cleanliness" were turning the Germans into Herr und Frau Saubermann— Mr. and Mrs. Clean. Everyone was busily sweeping the dirty past under the rug of a newly rich, respectable nation (a "washing powder nation," as I liked to call it). The group of young intellectuals I allied myself with found it hard to breathe in this clean air. Sex was not clean; it could not be mentioned. Homosexuality was a crime. Any woman who did not properly long for family and motherhood was perverse.
     My perverse journey started when I was fourteen, when a friend handed me books that had just made their way into the country—books by Sartre, Camus, and Jean Genet. My childish notions of "normal" love and family life were shattered like a glass. I was in a trance reading Genetīs Notre Dame des Fleurs (the book was censored in Germany shortly afterwards) with its intense beauty of love between men, between thieves and murderers. Like any good German girl, I had been raised on the original grim version of Grimm's fairy tales: Genetīs cruel eros, his romantic obsession with violence, did not deter me. I remember running to my mother who was still my confidante at that age: "Mutti, you have to read this—this is my world!" My poor mother read Jean Genet. Looking back, I think she never quite recovered from the shock while I never recovered from the revelation.

Renate in Paris
Renate in Paris

     Thieves and murderers, "my world"? What touched me to the core was the romance, the passion of one man for another. The idea of such a passion seemed unthinkable in the German climate of the time—a passion as dirty as it was holy, transcending all laws and limitations ("The Eternal passed by in the form of a pimp"). The chord that was struck in me by imaginatively following this poetic ecstasy of deadly love foreshadowed my sexual awakening. I had never thought of, or heard of, homosexuality, but now I longed for it and dreamed of it as if my sexual awakening would be that of a boy.