In the writings of the author Kim Powers, whose memoir, “The History of Swimming,” made ripples in the literary world last year, water — bodies of water, swimming — is used both as a way to drive the narrative of the work and to set scenes for important things that happened in Powers’ life.
Powers will be a featured speaker and will be signing copies of “The History of Swimming” on Saturday, June 2, at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Center for Continuing Education’s book series, titled “Loving The Least of Our Brothers: The Addict, the Mentally Ill, and the Emotionally Distant.”
The Texas native will discuss the largely spiritual subjects, he says, brought to the surface in his 2006 book. It is a personal memoir about his experiences with his twin brother Tim, who famously disappeared one weekend, sending the author on a frantic chase. Tim Powers battled alcoholism and other personal demons throughout his short life — he died of AIDS at 32 — but his life and death greatly affected his brother. Powers also lost his older brother, nicknamed Porky, to AIDS almost two decades ago.
Powers, 49, lives in Manhattan and a shore home in Asbury Park with his partner. He, as well as his brother, graduated in 1979 from Austin College in Texas with a bachelor’s degree in drama — he studied acting and playwriting — and later came east to attend the Yale School of Drama, from which he received a master’s of fine arts. He now works as a writer for the ABC-TV newsmagazine “Prime Time Live,” anchored by Diane Sawyer, where his work has won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.
“I am going to take somewhat of a different approach” for the June 2 event, says Powers in a telephone interview from his home office in Manhattan. When Powers spoke about the book in the early days and weeks following its publication, he sometimes took a lighter approach, treating the narrative almost like a mystery and encouraging those listening to buy the book and find out the end of the brothers’ story. “At the seminary, I think some of the things they might want me to stress are its spiritual aspects.”
Powers believes there is spirituality throughout “Swimming.” The last 30 pages of the book, which he brands as an afterword, are easily the most poignant, heartfelt pages in the entire opus, and Powers says he has received more feedback about those pages than any other part of the book.
“I want to talk about the experiences I had with my twin brother and my older brother as well, when they both got sick and how all of our faith was tested during that period,” he says. “There were plenty of times when Tim and I thought that either God didn’t exist or that he had turned his back on us. For a churchgoing Southern Baptist kid those were pretty radical things to think.”
After the book came out, Powers says, he received lots of correspondence via his website (www.thehistoryofswimming.com) from readers who found their own spiritual messages in the book. A minister wrote and asked him to put together a presentation similar to the one Powers will present at Princeton Seminary. “He had gone through the whole book and written out in exacting detail, page by page, a set of notes on the spiritual references he saw. I could almost make a little handout from that alone if I wanted to,” says Powers.
All three brothers endured a rough childhood in Texas, children of a father who was an alcoholic and a mother with bipolar disorder, who constantly fought their own demons while trying to raise their children. When those details came out in “Swimming,” most people who knew him were surprised, Powers says. “It was so weird. Most people who knew me professionally had no idea. They thought I was such a happy camper. They had no clue that all of that was in my background.”
But the ordeals the brothers went through early in life, and, for Powers, the feelings associated with being the surviving brother, have led him to spend much time thinking about faith and spirituality.
But the stories he conveys in the memoir have also made him, albeit a bit unwillingly, a spokesperson for codependents of mental illness and of alcoholism and drug use. “Months ago, when the book came out in the fall, I was invited to give a speech for a huge audience at a mental health conference, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I thought they were joking about wanting me to speak but they were dead serious.”
“Swimming” is about spirituality and love, but it is also about two twin brothers and twins in general. Powers has become somewhat, in his own words, “obsessed” with twins. He and his brother Tim were fraternal twins but he muses often in “Swimming” about the connections he and his twin had. Both he and Tim (as well as older brother Porky) were gay, and Powers says he developed empathy in terms of knowing about his brother’s general state of mind. He says it took him years to recover mentally and spiritually from his brothers’ deaths. “It was as if a light had gone out of me for two years.” One of the things that got him through the pain was finishing writing a play Tim had started before he died.
“There was always this hypersensitivity between us,” he says. “We could read each other’s moods.” After he finished Tim’s play Powers found a diskette with other scenes that Tim had written. “The language, the scenes, were so close to some of the things I had written, it was eerie,” he says. “It was one of those Twilight Zone things.”
In the book he poignantly and relatively explicitly reconstructs the ravages of AIDS on both his brother, and on his own psychological health and that of his friends. The brothers both suffered from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer that appeared often in HIV-positive people during the early years of AIDS. Nowadays the condition hardly surfaces anymore due to the increased availability of retrovirals, protease inhibitors, and other drugs developed to combat HIV from the late 1990s on.
Powers doesn’t say in the book when the events took place, but for perceptive readers there are signs. Powers’ continued use of pay phones and his constant dialing of his brother’s phone number from a land line during his frantic search for Tim, as well as his recounting of his brother Tim’s written letters to Kim and to himself leads to hints of when the action took place. Powers now admits that the search for Tim and his brothers’ deaths took place when he was in his late 20s and early 30s during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“For whatever reason,” he says, “I quite a bit deliberately masked the time. I did not want things to seem contemporary but I didn’t want them to seem ancient either.”
Discussion and Book Signing, Saturday, June 2, 1 to 3 p.m. Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Gallery. Kim Powers, an Emmy and Peabody Award winner, and author of “The History of Swimming,” reads from his memoir of his search for his twin brother, Tim. 609-497-7990.