What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
A Memoir

Anchor | Trade Paperback
July 2004 | $13.95 (Can. $21.00)

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Also available as a audio cassette and a downloadable audiobook.

Now, in his most daring act yet, E. Lynn Harris writes the memoir of his life—from his childhood in Arkansas as a closeted gay boy through his struggling days as a self-published author to his rise as a New York Times bestselling author.

In What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, E. Lynn Harris shares with readers an extraordinary life touched by loneliness and depression but most importantly reveals the triumphant life of a small town dreamer who was able through writing to make his dreams and more come true.

Here is an excerpt:

"Easter day is near . . .
Easter day is . . ."

Beverly Smith, a chubby ten-year-old, paused. She had forgotten the words again. I wanted to shout out Easter day is here. Why couldn’t she remember her speech? Even I knew her six-line speech.

Instead of saying here, Beverly stuck her fingers in her mouth and twirled her thick, uncombed plaits with her free hand. She looked as though she was going to cry, but suddenly she began to giggle, much to the dismay of our Sunday School teacher, Miss Whitfield, and myself. Beverly’s completion of her speech was the only thing that stood in the way of my practicing my Easter speech and then joining my friends for a quick game of kickball before twilight covered the colored section of the east side of Little Rock, Arkansas.

It was the early 1960s and we were the only three people left in the Metropolitan Baptist Church, an ash-gray building as big as its name, and the centerpiece of our community of forty-plus families.

I was frustrated. All the other children had practiced their speeches and darted out of the church onto the streets to play before their parents called them in. It was not the kind of neighborhood where whole families sat down for dinner together, like Leave It to Beaver, because in the 1960s, many of the black adults worked two jobs. In my neighborhood, if your own parents didn’t tell you to come in, then some other adult would, and you had better obey.
I got tired of looking at Beverly, so my eyes moved to the wooden boards with black slip-in numbers listing the hymns from the previous week and the total attendance of Sunday School. I could hear the laughter and shouts filter in through the open windows of the church. From the voices I could tell my peers were playing the popular game of hide-and-seek, where the seeker sang, "Honey . . . honey . . . b . . . bar . . . b . . . bar . . . b. I can’t see you see . . . see you see. Last night, night before, twenty-four robbers were at my door. I got up, let them in, hit ’em in the head with a rolling pin."

Miss Whitfield had saved me for last, because I had the longest speech: twenty-two lines. A speech that long was usually given to kids in the sixth grade, and never to an eight-year-old. I had memorized each line the first day I received the typewritten speech.

As Beverly started over and once again struggled for the words to her speech, my thoughts wandered to the upcoming Sunday. As my eyes left the wooden boards and moved toward the empty pulpit, I thought how proud my mama and daddy would be when I stood before the congregation and said my speech in my new Easter coat. Easter Sunday was the one time during the year I could count on Daddy being at church alongside my mother.

In my fantasy, church members would marvel not only at my presentation but at my new coat as well. They would question where the coat had come from and how my parents could afford such extravagance with three children. Little colored boys from my neighborhood were lucky to get a new shirt and possibly a clip-on tie for Easter or Christmas.

With a little coaxing from Miss Whitfield, Beverly finally finished her speech. I quickly jumped from the pew, raced to the front of the church, and said my speech in record time, every word perfectly clear and correct.

"That’s wonderful, Lynn, but slow down a little on Sunday. Nobody’s going anywhere until you finish." Miss Whitfield smiled. I nodded and smiled back, taking note that my accuracy had removed the anguish her face had shown during Beverly’s struggle.

Easter Sunday 1964 finally arrived. After my bath, I raced into the tiny room I shared with my two younger sisters and saw the coat laid out on my twin bed. It was red, black, and green plaid with gold buttons. Daddy and I had picked the coat out together at Dundee’s Men’s Store. The coat had been on layaway since the day President Kennedy was shot in 1963. It’s strange how vividly I remember that rainy and dreary day and how I tried to contain my excitement about getting out of school early while all the teachers at Bush Elementary were in tears over the news they’d heard over the intercom system.

After I got home that day, Daddy and I walked in the cold to the edge of downtown Little Rock. At first I thought that maybe I was going to the President’s funeral when Daddy said he and his little man "Mike" were going to Dundee’s to buy new suit coats. I realized that this was not the case when Daddy handed over five one-dollar bills and the elderly white man gave him a gray payment book. The coat was the first piece of clothing that I could remember that hadn’t come from JCPenney’s or Kent Dollar Store and was the first piece of clothing I had picked out. Now Easter was here and I could wear my new jacket. Mama had assembled it alongside a pair of black pants, white shirt, and red and black clip-on bow tie, and the shoes my daddy had polished to perfection sat under my bed.

I quickly put on my new clothes, and I could see my sisters, Anita and Zettoria, who were five and three, slip on new dresses over their freshly pressed hair. Anita had on a blue taffeta dress, and Shane (our nickname for Zettoria, since her name was so hard to pronounce) had on an identical one in pink. Their dresses were pretty but didn’t compare to my coat.

From the bathroom, Mama urged us to hurry, while Daddy called from the living room for us to gather for a final inspection before we left for Sunday School. My sisters grabbed their new black patent-leather pocketbooks and raced to the living room to greet Daddy. I peeked from the corner of our room to watch Daddy’s reaction.

"Look, Daddy. Don’t we look pretty?" Anita said as she twirled around. Shane giggled as she put her pocketbook strap to her mouth.

"You sure do look good. Look at my little girls. Shane, take the purse out of your mouth, baby," Daddy said.

After Anita and Shane had accepted their compliments from Daddy, he called me in for inspection.

"Where is my little man? Come out here and let Daddy see that new coat," he said.
I quickly buttoned up each of the three gold buttons and dashed to the living room for Daddy’s endorsement of my outfit.

"Look, Daddy. Look at me," I said with excitement as I twirled around like my sisters had moments before. Suddenly Daddy’s bright smile turned into a disgusted frown. What was wrong? Didn’t he like my new coat? Had Easter been canceled?

"Come here. Stop that damn twirling around," Daddy yelled.

I stopped and moved toward Daddy. He was seated on the armless aqua vinyl sofa. Before I reached him, he grabbed me and shouted, "Look at you. You fuckin’ little sissy with this coat all buttoned up like a little girl. Don’t you know better? Men don’t button up their coats all the way." Before I could respond or clearly realize what I had done wrong, I saw Daddy’s powerful hands moving toward me. His grip was so quick and powerful that I felt the back of my prized coat come apart. A panic filled my tiny body when I saw his hands clutching the fabric. I began to cry as my sisters looked on in horror. I could hear Mama’s high heels clicking swiftly as she raced to the living room from the kitchen.

"Ben, what are you doing?" Mama asked.

"Shut up, Etta Mae. I’m taking care of this. Stop all that damn crying. Stop it now!" Daddy said to me.

I couldn’t stop crying as I saw one of the gold buttons roll under the metal television stand into the corner of room.

"If you don’t stop that crying, I’m gonna whip your little narrow ass," Daddy warned as he released me.

Now I was crying harder than before. Snot dripped from
my nose to the top of my lip as my mother inspected my badly torn coat.

"Come here, baby. Stop crying," she said as she pulled me close to her chest.

"Let him go. Stop babying him," Daddy said as he pulled me from my mother’s embrace.

"How is he ever gonna become a man with you babying him all the time!" he yelled.

Mama didn’t answer. She never did when he talked in this tone. She knew this routine too well.

"Stop that sniffling and clean your face, you little sissy," he said to me. "What are you going to wear to church now?"
I didn’t answer, and I wiped my nose with the arm of my prized jacket and began crying once again.
"If you don’t stop that damn crying, I’m going to make you wear one of your sister’s dresses to church."

I caught myself and stopped crying. Daddy meant what he said. I would be the laughingstock of the entire neighborhood. It wouldn’t matter that I had the longest and most difficult speech. I could see all my friends pointing and laughing at me.

I looked at the anger in Daddy’s eyes and the fear on my mother’s face as I blinked back tears. The small four-room clapboard house was silent with the exception of my sniffles. The living room suddenly felt too small, the ceiling too low. I looked around the room at my mother and sisters and then out the window, and watched the cars race past our house on East Twenty-first Street.

I don’t remember much after my mother pulled me back into the bedroom. I remember standing before the packed church that Easter Sunday and hearing my name being called and the older ladies of the church adorned in their Easter Sunday finery saying, "Go ’head, baby. Preach the word."

I said my speech, each word of the twenty-two lines. I could hear the polite applause and "amens" that followed, as I, with my head held low, took my appointed seat on the pew with the other children from my Sunday School class, dressed perfectly in their finest clothes. I don’t remember what I wore that Easter Sunday or many Easters that followed. All I recall is that I wasn’t wearing a dress, and I remember what my daddy had said to me. I didn’t know what a sissy was and why Daddy despised them so. All I knew was that I was determined never to be one.

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