Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

RM Vaughan at Pride's Proud Voices Reading Stage

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RM Vaughan at Pride's Proud Voices Reading Stage

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

Setting old aphorisms about life, lemons and lemonade aside, how often are people really able to overcome the traumas of life — let alone make these experiences productive?

In Troubled (Coach House Books, 2008), RM Vaughan creates a stunning memoir in poems about a relationship with his psychiatrist that went terribly awry.

The poems chronicle a chain of events, from early flirtations to a damaging sexual relationship to a lawsuit that resulted in the partial revocation of the psychiatrist’s medical license. Interspersed between the poems is an assortment of excerpts: Vaughan's legal correspondence during the case, his research on abuses in the health care system, sections of dialogue from Vaughan’s video pieces and, best, a list of Harlequin novel and porn movie titles that reference doctor/patient relationships (The Doctor’s Special Touch, The Doctor is In and Out).

Troubled is fascinating in its extraordinary sense of balance. It succeeds in mining the personal territories of abuse and self-recrimination while remaining open and accessible to readers. The book probes despair and loneliness but also draws laughs and offers insights into our health care and legal systems: "There are exactly eight sensible books on patient-doctor panky in the filmy carrels and spore wells of the Toronto Public Library. Eight books, by eight doctors. If only I'd been fucked by a Kennedy, an alien, Mick Jagger or Louis XVI." Vaughan’s humour and sharp analysis allow readers to accompany him through his experiences and emerge, like him, wiser and conscious of the gray areas in a seemingly black and white scenario.

Vaughan's narrative offers a subtle chronological progression. The copies of legal correspondence with blacked-out names and excerpts from his research act as markers along the way: "Dr S—M— M— made an application to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario for reinstatement of his certificate of registration. Dr M—'s certificate was revoked in 2000 when he admitted to sexual abuse of a patient."

Like the narrative structure, the imagery in the poems also conveys a strange sense of passage, moving from lush dreams of rollerblading past sage-flowers to a bloody bike accident and spreading grass fires. Vaughan's skill with language is razor-sharp; the poems cut through the maudlin and find resolution in revealing the failings of human emotion and meticulously sorting through the aftermath:

He resists all scalpels—three boyfriends, the blessings of my father’s death, local fame and sex with nobodies in a Florida basement, lunch at the Pyramids, lunch at the Tate, tea and seed cake in Antwerp, a foundling cat to love, sunbaths and steam rooms, menthol on my temples, novelty and comfort. Nothing cuts him out, disabuses me, because he made the mess, first place and now.

Vaughan read from Troubled as part of the Proud Voices Reading Stage presented by The Word on the Street during last week's Pride Festival. Set in the tiny James Canning Park, there was a small but engaged crowd in attendance. Technical difficulties on the stage caused Vaughan to improvise gracefully and draw everyone into an intimate circle of chairs with him on the grass. His reading was cadenced, and his voice projected admirably well, despite the lack of microphone and a distant pounding of music from other Pride stages. Topless, painted women drifted by in the park as he read, and the festive and public nature of Pride offered a surreal backdrop for his private poems.

After reading several excerpts and works from Troubled, Vaughan joked with the crowd in the humid park and answered questions about his research process. He described his surprise at the prevalence of fantasies about doctor/patient relationships, despite their fundamentally inappropriate nature, and quipped, "but I guess sex and death go together." When questioned whether the book helped him to arrive at a better understanding of what had happened to him, he emphatically agreed: "The book is for anyone who did anything stupid and wondered how they got there. It's important to know how smart you are and how stupid you are."

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