Outside the Lines: Sarah Schulman’s Truth

Sarah Schulman has the hypermanic brain of a very smart person — which is exactly what she is. Before you’ve formed a thought, Schulman — whose latest novel, The Child (Carroll & Graf), was just released — has already worked it over in her intellectually acrobatic mind, shaped it into an idea and is mulling over whether it would be best suited as an essay, a book, a play or even a movie.

One of the most respected and prolific lesbian writers of our time, Schulman has compiled a resume so weighty and dynamic that it looks like the careers of several different people — a novelist, playwright, essayist, filmmaker and activist.

"I can think three thoughts at the same time," said Schulman, who just turned 49 and has lived in the East Village since forever. "It’s not about discipline or hard work — really. It’s my natural state. Maybe it’s a biological or neurological thing."

Whatever it is, that gift allowed her to write her first play at age 21 and her first novel — the delightful 1984 lesbian classic, The Sophie Horowitz Story — a few years later. And she produced these early works while waiting tables at a Tribeca coffee shop and working as a reporter on three different community newspapers.


That first novel was followed by six others, two nonfiction books, a number of plays and dozens of prestigious awards, fellowships and writer’s residencies. She still found the time to be an early member of ACT UP and later co-founded the Lesbian Avengers, the groundbreaking direct action protest organization.

Regardless of the genre, Schulman’s creations have a stubborn common thread: They are edgy, unflinching, daring and sometimes scary. Or, as Schulman put it, "I tell the truth."

She’s funny, too. In her work, wit and humor generally accompany her unsparing truths. New York Magazine awarded Schulman a Culture Award for the best "three-liner" from her well-received 2005 play, Manic Flight Reaction:

"There is a cure for homosexuality."
"What is it?"
"Fame."

But it has been the obsessive truth-telling that makes her work unique, and it hasn’t always worked in her favor. Witness the rocky road to publication of her latest book.

The Child was inspired by the tragic case of Sam Manzie, a New Jersey teen who sexually assaulted and strangled an 11-year-old boy who came by his house selling candy. In court, Manzie’s parents claimed their son was "pushed over the edge" by his sexual relationship with Stephen Simmons, a 43-year-old man the 15-year-old boy had met online.

In The Child, 15-year-old Stew Mulcahey murders his young nephew after David Ziemska, his older lover, is arrested for pedophilia. The book takes an unvarnished look at violence, desire, homophobia, teen sexuality and the age of consent. In a lengthy and unusual author’s note that accompanies the book, Schulman explains that though she finished the novel in 1999, it took nearly a decade to get it into print.

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