When two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Atlanta writer Jonathan Lerner remembers thinking how he could identify with Mohamed Atta. Atta, a college-educated man who was raised by affluent parents in Egypt, was the hijacker-pilot who flew the first plane into the World Trade Center.
Lerner’s friend, sex columnist and blogger Michael Alvear, who is gay, told him he needed to put those thoughts down on paper.
So Lerner took a manuscript he had been trying to complete as a memoir about his days as a founding member of the Weather Underground and condensed it into 6,000 words for an essay published Feb. 24, 2002, in the Washington Post Magazine.
“Like many children of affluence, I was horrified by racism and poverty, and filled with idealism,” Lerner writes in the essay. “I became an activist in the civil rights movement, and renewed my desire to perfect the world in response to Vietnam. Yet by the end of that decade I had become warped enough to help found the Weathermen, a cult of leftist cynicism and violence. We were contemptuous of others, convinced we had the answers, and willing to impose them through violence. In other words, we were political terrorists.”
With that essay, Lerner, 62, thought he was finally finished with grappling with his days as a member of the Weather Underground. But in a daze a few years ago, like being on an acid trip he says, he saw this entire arc of a story in his mind, from beginning to end, and knew he had to write a book.
The result is “Alex Underground,” a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man at the forefront of a radical political movement who is struggling with a deep secret — he is gay.
“The novel isn’t exactly my story, but there are scenes and bits of dialogue that are certainly mine,” Lerner says.
Writing the book was cathartic, he adds, as was writing the essay. He doesn’t feel any strong personal guilt anymore for his involvement with the Weather Underground, which bombed government buildings and incited riots mostly as a result of the Vietnam War. But he says he deeply regrets their actions.
“I just feel that we really didn’t help matters,” he says.
The story is most biographical when it shares Alex’s stories of being a hustler, seeking sex with men to fund “the movement.”
“I do think Alex and I were doing the same thing under cover of the political rationale of having to survive … this gave us permission to explore,” Lerner says.
“When I was underground and hustling, the only people who knew was this tiny group of people I was with. I didn’t have to deal with judgment worries because it was the way we were making money, therefore it was imperative to keep doing it,” Lerner says. “And I was enjoying it — both the sex and intimate encounters with people — without having to take the risk of coming out.”
But Alex’s life and Lerner’s life diverge when Alex comes out and lives his adult life as an openly gay man. Lerner didn’t come out until he was 42 after being married for 13 years.
Lerner wrote the book over the course of two years, finishing it in 2005. He had two agents who tried to sell it to every publishing house in the country, but was told “Alex Underground” was “too gay” and that the “gay novel is dead.”
So Lerner self-published the novel because he believes it’s an important story to share.
“It’s a great story. And I think it tells one valid story of gay history,” he says. “Certainly a small percentage of gay people have explored their sexuality through hustling. And it’s also a valid telling of a radical experience.”
Top photo: Atlanta gay author Jonathan Lerner, a founding member of the Weather Underground, reads from his novel ‘Alex Underground’ on July 21 at Outwrite. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)