High-school teacher and writer David Berger has just released the second volume of his superhero meets Greek myth epic, Task Force: Gaea -- Memory's Curse, the sequel to Task Force: Gaea -- Finding Balance. But before the openly gay writer could write about his heroes, he had to overcome a hero's journey himself, escaping an abusive relationship, and finding his own balance.
How was writing an escape/outlet for your sexuality when you were younger?
Actually, writing was less an escape for my sexuality and more an escape from my reality. I didn't really start writing stories until I was about ten, and back then I wrote my way into worlds where being the child of divorced parents didn't matter. With my sister, I wrote tales of Smurf adventures, largely due to her infatuation with them, so I suppose that was my first foray into the fantasy genre, even before I knew what either 'fantasy' or 'genre' meant. Coupled with my love of comics, I wrote stories that encompassed the realms beyond the everyday world I lived in, stories of superheroes saving the world because I felt my world needed saving. My stepfather and I didn't get along, and I was constantly looking for doorways to other places, whether through painting, reading, models, and especially writing.
What was "gay life" like in the age of AOL messenger? I think to some people it seems like the dark ages.
That age was indeed a dark age for many, especially for those of us who had to be honest with ourselves. When I got my first computer in 1993, a PC with a 2400-baud modem, my world then became limitless. AOL saved my life, I believe. Growing up as the eldest son of three children, I was expected to marry a "nice Jewish girl" and have a family, but I knew from around the age of 8 that my interests lay elsewhere. Having AOL and access to the online chat world allowed me to enter the global community and pioneer my way across chat room after chat room. I had two different screen names -- one for the regular rooms, and one for the gay chat rooms. Even with the anonymity of a screen name, I didn't want my straight "cyberfriends" to see me in gay rooms. I found two rooms in particular where I could live in both worlds, the GnuMemberLounge and an LGBT chat room. I lived a double life. I made some incredible friends, many of whom I still talk to today. I actually miss those days because that was the first time in my life I felt accepted by people who were just like me. Largely because of the support system I had on AOL, I was finally able to come out to my family in 1994 at 27. The downside of this was that I met someone for whom I should have seen 'red flags', but before I knew it, I was moving to Florida (from New Jersey) to be with David, someone I'd met online and had spent only one week with in person. If there is a word for being even more than naïve, then I was that.
Why did you run off to Florida without telling anyone? Was there something in your past that you feel allowed you to fall into being such an enabler?
Looking back on that time, I know now it was David's influence to have me move to Florida with him that prompted me to leave without telling my parents. My roommate knew I was doing it, but I don't remember what he felt about it. I guess part of me didn't want anyone to stand in the way of my happiness and tell me not to do it. Maybe I felt that if I didn't go, I wouldn't find someone else who would want me. It's been a long time since then, so I'm not entirely certain as to why. I do know that, for all the anguish it caused me, I have become a much stronger person in many ways because of that experience. This was my first real long-term relationship, so I had had no experience with enabling, but living with an abusive alcoholic taught me more about survival more than enabling. I was less that and more just helpless and without any support system, or at least I felt that way. I was in fear for my safety, being far from any friends or family, so I did what I had to do. I did confront David many times about his alcoholism, but that was fruitless. His drinking was compounded by his beliefs that he would burn in hell for being gay, so self-loathing, coupled with low self-esteem, contributed to him being an emotionally abusive person.
You seem to have slowly found your voice (both literally and figuratively) as you emerged from being subjected to mental abuse from your relationship. Is there a correlation between that and your own independence?
I took refuge in my writing, going back to my original short story from high school, "The Olympus Corps.," and expanding it into a novel. Tapping into my own creativity strengthened me and helped reassure me of my self-worth. I had something I could pour my emotions and energy into, and it gave me the foundation upon which to rebuild myself. This time, when I ventured into the fantasy realm, I was doing it for world building and character development, not to provide shelter from my childhood trauma from the divorce. The longer I wrote and researched, the more I had to hold onto. At some level, I do think that delving into my novel helped pave the way for me to find my independence and move forward. I had something to plan for.
In many ways, your story is an origin story of sorts. Did you ever find yourself throwing yourself into this fantasy as a means of escape?
All my life, I tried to escape the emotional tumult that started with a bitter divorce and moved through an emotionally abusive relationship to find something safer. Even though my writing emboldened me, I still had to regain trust in others to build that part of my life over again. Fiction is a poor shield against real life experience, but it can sometimes mitigate the pain and suffering by helping to rewrite the story of who I am. Looking back now, I can say that I reinvented myself through the journey I took to write, and complete, my first novel. Sometimes painful, sometimes enlightening, the path I've walked has been the crucible through which I have become strong and confident.
How much has your faith played in both finding the strength to leave and find your story?
I've always been strongly tied to my Judaism, and I had befriended the rabbi, his wife, and their family when I lived with David. While I think G-d was watching over me, the strength to find my way out came from certain people who anchored me. I found the will to sever the tie to an abusive relationship because I had simply had enough. I stood my ground, endured some hardships, but I've come out of it a much better person. My story has two parts: the life I've lived and the life I've written about. Both intertwine for me in ways I can't possibly explain. I believe that G-d does more for people when they do for themselves; He's not there to save people. People have to choose how to live, how to make the right choices, and how to stand their ground.
Where you find yourself now and with the sequel to the book, do you find them tonally in totally different places? How?
Currently, I'm the most grounded and balanced I've ever been. Age and wisdom have done their part, of course, but the friendships I have nurtured over the years have become the source of my strength and my inspirations. Both Task Force: Gaea -- Finding Balance and the sequel, Task Force: Gaea -- Memory's Curse, are testaments to my growth and stability, but I credit those who love me and those whom I love for their existence. Tonally, I have evolved from one book to the next. I have found most of my own balance, but the curse of my memories will always be there to remind me of things past, giving me the impetus to survive and be a stronger man.