Book review: “Mysterious Skin”

Way back in 2007, I finally worked up the nerve to watch the movie “Mysterious Skin”. I’ve been hearing a lot about it before, but because it tackles child abuse — a really big squick for me — watching it wasn’t exactly at the top of my to-do list.

It’s a good thing I finally got over my apprehensions, because as it turns out, “Mysterious Skin” is a wonderful movie. In a 2007 entry on my Livejournal, I compare the performance that Joseph Gordon Levitt’s eyes turn in as comparable to Nora Aunor’s — and I never use the name of La Aunor in vain.

It would several more years before I would get a hold of the book written by Scott Heim that the movie was based on. When I did get a copy of the book last year thanks to Doni, it would still take me several months before I could clear up some time and actually read the book. But when I finally did — I could not put it down.

“Mysterious Skin” tells the story of two young men linked together by an event that happened to both of them the summer when they were eight-years-old.

Since he was eight, Brian Lackey has always believed that his frequent fainting spells, his nosebleeds, and his nightmares, were caused by aliens that abducted him one night after baseball practice. It is a belief that quickly becomes an obsession as he enters his teen years — so much so that he even seeks out other “abductees” in order to find out the truth about what happened to him.

Neil McCormick, however, knows the truth. Gay and unapologetic, Neil has gone through his young life governed by idealized memories of the baseball coach that took advantage of him as an eight-year-old. As a teenage hustler — first in his home state of Kansas and then in New York — Neil leaves a trail of sex and sadness in his wake.

As Brian slowly recovers the memories he lost from that summer when he was eight, his path inevitably leads him to Neil. When the confrontation finally happens, it is a moment of reckoning for the two as they discover the truth.

Just like the movie, the book is an incredibly subtle exploration of child abuse and the way its victims cope and deal with its lifelong effects. The novel is written with a journalist’s efficiency, in a compact and succinct prose that is even more effective because of its brevity.

The two different paths that Brian and Neil take will also definitely resound with sexual abuse victims, as they accurately portray the complicated emotions that go through the mind of someone who has undergone such an experience. Trust me when I say that I know this to be true.

I also liked that the book offers no answers or even a definite ending to the story of Brian and Neil. There is a catharsis for the two of them at the end, yes, but Heim offers nothing else. The ending is haunting in its open-endedness.

Heartbreaking in its frankness and simplicity, “Mysterious Skin” is a definite keeper for the discriminating reader’s bookshelf.


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5 thoughts on “Book review: “Mysterious Skin””

  1. Very much a latecomer to this post, but it’s not often you have people enjoying both a book and its movie adaptation – Mysterious Skin seems to be an exception. I have had many bad experiences with movie adaptations, which is why I tend to read the novels first, but in this case I’m truly torn. You’d watched the movie first as well, but in your opinion which do you think would be the better choice? Movie, or book first?

    1. Hi Jay!

      That is a really difficult question, as I really like them both for entirely different reasons.

      The movie is actually a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, and not a whole lot of the gets thrown out. The movie really managed to translate the book’s poignancy very well, even adding a bit of whimsy (It’s not exactly the word I’m looking for but it’s the only one I can think of right now) without detracting from the gravitas and the pathos of the situation.

      As to which one to do first? It’s always been my rule of thumb to read the book first, just like you. I really hope my convoluted answer helps in some way. XD

  2. To say that I love the movie and the book is an understatement. It has been months since you wrote this, but I just want to say something regarding the ending. I think Neil will still be able to pick up the pieces and move on with his life while Brian will forever be stuck, goggling behind those glasses, wondering, wondering how he can get ahead.

    Just in case you are interested, here’s my ranting on the book:

    I don’t normally do this promoting by putting a link. Or maybe I am. Maybe I am being defensive, but it would be wonderful to hear what you think of what I wrote about it. 😀

    1. I’m a romantic and an optimist, so I like to think that Neil and Brian help each other out, seeing as they’re both victims anyway. 😀

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