Never Turn Your Back on the Tide (Or, How I Married a Lying, Psychopathic Wannabe-Murderer and Kinda Lived to Tell)
by Kergan Edwards-Stout
Reviewed by Chael Needle
As the two-part title announces, Kergan Edwards-Stout’s new “fictional memoir” promises to be both lyrical and sensationalistic. Never Turn Your Back on the Tide (Or, How I Married a Lying, Psychopathic Wannabe-Murderer and Kinda Lived to Tell) delivers to some extent on each count, but the heart of its story is much more middle of the road, in the best sense: a story about finding a safe haven in a loving family, after a childhood with a mother who leads with the illogical and a civil union with a man of many masks.
Edwards-Stout calls this man “Eyes,” a physical description that also works as a pun for his shifting identities, his many “I’s.” The narrator’s relationship with Eyes is going swimmingly, so much so that they have brought a child into their family and plan on expanding the brood. And then Edwards-Stout discovers an email to an unknown lover that reveals Eyes has not simply been cheating but lying about their own relationship:
With just that one sentence, I entered my own personal Lifetime TV movie, in which I was played by Valerie Bertinelli, discovering that my handsome airline pilot husband had multiple families in other states, with none knowing about the other. My world was quickly turned upside down and I found myself in the depths of hell… A place I’d be for many years.
The analogy to the Lifetime TV movie is a deft one, and Edwards-Stout is brave to unpack the relationship. It is an important literary choice, too, as general readers of memoirs hardly ever get a chance to learn about gay male relationships that are messy or not working or careening into true-crime territory. This tack is the strength of the memoir—Edwards-Stout discusses issues we hardly ever give voice to in our effort to show queer men playing happy families or people living with HIV who are wholly empowered. In a world where marriage equality is constantly threatened and the dismantling of HIV criminalization is not traveling at the speed of justice that it needs to be, we sometimes find it difficult to discuss the bad and the ugly along with the good.
So, with crystal-clear prose, Edwards-Stout traces an arc about family, the memoir’s early parts about the family he was born into and the later parts about his two sons and current husband, a loving man light years away from Eyes. The missteps of his mother during his early life are counterbalanced by his own evolution as a doting father. In between, the writer creates a portrait of a man—the above-mentioned Eyes—who betrays his trust and threatens to crush Edwards-Stout’s resolve to love him.
The contrast between the narrator and Eyes is illuminated, in part, by each man’s relation to HIV/AIDS. Edwards-Stout, who is negative, becomes an activist-educator and a caregiver while Eyes uses his positive serostatus as a plot point in his fictionalizing of the world. The narrator has a stint as “The Condom Guy” in a national print ad campaign and follows up with safer-sex awareness efforts on Pride stages. He volunteers at APLA as part of its speaker’s bureau and later works at the organization, creating an innovative educational program.
Some of Edwards-Stout’s most seering writing is found in his portrait of Shane, a boyfriend who is living with HIV. At one point, Shane’s T cells drop and his disease progresses, and Kergan tends to him. He writes:
I wasn’t afraid of contracting the virus—I was far too educated for that—but I was concerned about allowing myself to fully love him, as there was then no cure or drugs effective at slowing down the disease. That evil PAC-MAN virus could mow down anything, destroying everything in its path. Still, I knew that allowing myself to love Shane would change me, and that I desperately needed changing. I didn’t yet know how it might alter me, but it wouldn’t be long before I found out.
But while Edwards-Stout develops into an educator and a caregiver when it comes to HIV, Eyes deepens the shadows of his charade’s chiaroscuro. Eyes lies about when he acquired HIV, making it seem like he just found out to wring some dramatic tension out of the revelation. He does not become self-reflective as he continues to live with HIV—he continues to gaslight Kergan and others.
The memoir has a few missteps, namely, the blind items about celebrities from his days in show business and a series of short and pithy “Life Lessons” that are unnecessarily separated from the flow of the narrative. Overall, though, Never Turn Your Back on the Tide, with its poignant emphasis on creating a family that withstands life’s vicissitudes, reminds readers what we are often fighting for.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. His poetry was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.