Book Review

In the Deep South, a Search for Queer Identity

Casey Parks’s “Diary of a Misfit” pieces together the elusive history of a Louisiana musician who spent all his life in a community that misgendered him.
Ana Miminoshvili

By Michelle Hart
August 28, 2022

DIARY OF A MISFIT: A Memoir and a Mystery, by Casey Parks

There was the elementary school gym teacher rumored to have been in a lesbian relationship with the woman who taught science. There was the hair stylist who flicked his wrist when he spoke and only half-hid hints of his nightlife in drag. There was the androgynous ticket-taker at the art museum who gave back a knowing glance, the softball player, the tween poet and painter. There was Matthew Shepard.

Figures like these frequently populate (and sometimes haunt) the childhoods of L.G.B.T.Q. people, our first brushes with queerness, those “Ring of Keys” moments when we recognized the obfuscated parts of ourselves in someone else. These individuals make up a kind of constructed mythology for us; our own stories are so often an assemblage of the tales — cautionary and celebratory — that came before. They’re embodied intimations of who we could become.

For the author and journalist Casey Parks, there was the short-haired church singer; the preteen babysitter whose adolescent expressions of inchoate desire got her excised from their dee

But the figure who looms largest in Parks’s expansive reported memoir, “Diary of a Misfit,” is someone the author never actually met or saw in person.

In 2002, when Parks was in college, she kissed another girl for the first time. A few weeks later, in church back home in West Monroe, La., on Easter Sunday, she came out as gay to her mother, with whom she had always been close but who now reacted with shock and dismay. The teenage Parks tried to recant her revelation — “I’m going to date Richard from Blockbuster,” she pleaded. “He’s 6 foot 5, like Aidan in ‘Sex and the City.’” But her mother kept on crying. That is, until her mother, Parks’s grandmother, barged into the bathroom where this tearful exchange was taking place and admonished her daughter: “Some people eat hot dogs, and some people eat fish.” The message was: Get over it.

The source of her grandmother Louise’s ostensible progressivism, Parks discovered later that day, was someone she’d known in girlhood: “I grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man,” she told her astonished granddaughter (“this was 2002, years before people began signing their emails with their pronouns”). This simple, almost cavalier admission became in many ways the inciting incident of Parks’s adulthood, a key to the latch of future happiness.

The person’s name was Roy. Louise had met him in the early ’50s, in her rural Louisiana hometown of Delhi (pronounced Dell-HIGH), on a road known locally as Hell Street. (The town’s only tourist attraction? A monument called Poverty Point.) He was a country singer and songwriter who played, Louise claimed, “the most beautiful music I ever heard.” For Louise, the lonesome daughter of day laborers who had recently left the swampy Mississippi farmstead she’d come to love, Roy was a kindred spirit, another lost soul. He’d play aching Hank Williams songs on his porch for the kids who lived on Hell Street. He was good-looking, hard-working, kept mostly to himself but radiated warmth. She eventually learned that Roy had been born Delois, a girl, but lived the rest of his life as a male. After Louise married and left Delhi, she lost track of Roy.

Perhaps a bit facetiously, Parks’s grandmother tells her that this story was “the beginning of me coming out.” But it was no joke for Parks. Roy was loved simply because he was a good person, Louise tells her granddaughter, who herself desperately “wanted to believe that people would accept me just because I was good.” Parks asks her grandmother if Roy was happy, had ever been happy, and since Louise can’t provide answers, Parks sets off in search of them. “I kept digging into Roy’s life hoping some stray fact might reveal something to me,” she writes. “I didn’t want to die feeling as if I’d never fit anywhere.”

Roy in an undated photo  via Casey Parks

For an entire decade, from 2009 to 2019, Parks, who was then living in Portland, traveled back and forth to Delhi to learn whatever she could about Roy and his fate. She speaks with townspeople who might have known him — the cagey neighbors to whom he entrusted his journals, a member of his Pentecostal church group, a worker at the nursing home at which the elderly Roy was forced to present as female. Protected by the neighbors who refused to let her see them, the journals are what Parks yearns for most throughout these nearly 400 pages, the chance to read Roy’s story in his own words.

Mostly everyone Parks interviews misgenders Roy. Each time this happens, the reader can’t help flinching, but these moments also crystallize what makes Parks’s lionhearted investigation so vital, especially in 2022, when the rights of trans people to live on their own terms are being stripped from them every day. What’s at stake, past the journalistic mystery, is someone’s selfhood, the necessity of self-definition.

This does, of course, raise a few issues. In 2009, Parks began prying into the circumstances of Roy’s life partially as a backdoor audition to work for “This American Life.” While reading, I thought often of “S-Town,” the podcast produced by “This American Life”’s Brian Reed, about an eccentric Alabamian clockmaker whose tragic story becomes a sort of Trojan horse to explore the desolation of rural queerness and mental illness. The series stirred many people, but there were also questions of whether it was too invasive, of the ethics of using the intimate details of a person’s life as a vehicle for a public message.

Like “S-Town,” “Diary of a Misfit” is at once dewy-eyed and diligent, capricious and capacious, empathetic and exacting. It’s as richly textured as a pot of gumbo. As a work of autobiography, it’s maximalist; subtitled “A Memoir and a Mystery,” it certainly is both of those things, but it’s also an assiduous family history, a decades-spanning community chronicle à la Sarah Broom’s “The Yellow House,” a coming-out narrative, a dive into Christian denominations, a wrestling with Southern heritage. To use a well-worn road metaphor, your mileage may vary.

Most moving is Parks’s depiction of a queer lineage, her assertion of an ancestry of outcasts, a tapestry of fellow misfits into which the marginalized will always, for better or worse, fit. Our selves are so often an assemblage of the stories of those who came before.

Late in the book, Parks talks to a lesbian named Pam who met Roy in 1972, when she was in junior high. When Pam first saw Roy, she “went mute with wonder.” She “hadn’t been able to name the feeling back then, but she looked at Roy and knew they had something in common.” She wanted to ask Roy, as so many of us have wanted to ask our own queer ancestors, “How is society going to treat me, growing up different?” Even in her 50s, Pam still yearned for an answer to that question.

“Pam didn’t have a flag or a word yet,” Parks writes. “She only had Roy.”

Michelle Hart is the author of the novel “We Do What We Do in the Dark.”

DIARY OF A MISFIT: A Memoir and a Mystery, by Casey Parks | 356 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 28, 2022, Page 11 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Down Home.

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