Most literally, I Left It on the Mountain, the title of Kevin Sessums’s second riveting memoir, refers to a plant on Kilimanjaro, which the 58-year-old celebrity interviewer climbed in 2006. His guide tells Sessums he can take a cutting from the plant, give it to the person who has angered him, and in that way they will know that all is forgiven.
He hears his father’s voice in his mind: “Son, there’s nothing to forgive,” and doesn’t take a cutting from the plant.
On that odyssey, Sessums was facing his conflicted feelings about being HIV-positive (he was diagnosed when he was 45) and how that was tied to his sexuality and upbringing. That is another emotional brew detailed both here and in his first memoir, Mississippi Sissy, which also recounted his troubled relationship with his father, the deaths of his parents (he was an orphan by 9), and later, his molestation by a minister.
Kilimanjaro far from provides any kind of closure. Sessums, who had already used cocaine and pot, became dangerously addicted to crystal meth in July 2010. “I became an intravenous drug user,” he writes of becoming addicted to crystal meth. “I thought I could never go any lower than sticking a needle in my arm. But I did. I became that stranger who stuck the needle in someone else’s.”
Sessums (formerly a writer for The Daily Beast) writes that he first experimented with crystal meth in 2001 with a prostitute who chokes him and rapes him. He writes that he has lived all his life with the shadow of his 13-year-old molested self. “Sex, in the moment of my molestation, became a violation of both my body and my spirit,” he writes. “Violation—not love, not intimacy—would be what I come to seek sexually the rest of my life.”
In I Left It on the Mountain, Sessums writes of having sex with prostitutes and becoming intimately acquainted with the (to him) very real presence of the Devil, who almost conveys him to his own death but who Sessums claims has elements of goodness. He sees insane visions. He has great stories of working for Interview, Andy Warhol’s magazine.
The reader watches him struggle with even more real and maybe imagined demons (like the shadows of long-dead highwaymen on a hill) on the Camino—the pilgrims’ trail to Santiago de Compostela, another spiritual journey that doesn’t yield the typically narrative-closing message of redemption and healing.
Three years ago, Sessums—ravaged by drug addiction—writes that he was broke and homeless, which is astonishing when looking around the room at a party for him, as I did a few months ago, to see a roomful of the young, sexy, handsome, and successful. He now edits the magazine FourTwoNine (which, full disclosure, I have written for), which features the celebrity friends one associates with one of Vanity Fair’s top celebrity interviewers, who in his memoir name-drops such marquee names as Hugh Jackman and Daniel Radcliffe (whom Sessums interviewed for The Daily Beast the morning after a massive sex and drugs episode). Sessums’s latest cover story for FourTwoNine features “straight James Franco interviewing gay James Franco.”
None of his tumultuous addiction (“First came cocaine. Then the whores,” he writes), near-death experience, and contact with the Devil is conveyed with an iota of self-pity or drama when we meet at the Malibu diner in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood for an intense interview. Sessums is very funny and sharp (when discussing something traumatic like the rape, he will also make smarts). He is both revealing and wary—he is an interviewer himself, after all. Sessums reveals that Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, will direct a play version of Mississippi Sissy, which may feature Sessums himself on stage, alongside actors.
He orders an omelet of ham, Swiss cheese, and spinach, with a side of wheat toast.
Tim Teeman: Are you totally clean [of drugs] now?
Kevin Sessums: Oh, God, yes. Today, as we’re talking, the 28th is my sober day. Today marks two years, eight months of complete sobriety. I was at a meeting at 10:30 this morning. I don’t want to bad-mouth San Francisco, but the one thing you realize coming back to New York is that even stupid people are smart here. There’s a savviness, cleverness, one misses. I grew up here. I arrived here at 19 and lived here 38 years. There are no dumb people in New York. There’s a native intelligence here.
TT: Do you ever feel the draw of drugs, the impulse to use?
KS: I have the impulse to use. I just don’t act on it. It’s very simple. I wake up every day and surrender to the fact I am an addict. I surrender to God’s will, Ganesh’s. I learned to let go of my will. If I am willful, I will use. This is all program talk, and it will annoy some readers. But if some readers are in the program, they will know what I am talking about.
TT: For those readers not in the program…
KS: I don’t want to talk in non-program talk. [Laughs] I’m in a cult, so I want to talk in that cult’s way. I’ve changed the way I talk, but not the way I write.
TT: So in plain English, what does “surrendering your will” mean?
KS: Maybe it’s too abstract for people. It’s not a concrete thing. It’s a spiritual practice. I can’t explain it in the way you want me to explain it to you. There are other ways to get sober that aren’t spiritual. I don’t judge other ways. One thing I learned in sobriety is to stop being judgmental, to always be discerning. When I drive, that will be my bumper sticker.
TT: So you’re a spiritual person?
Sessums pulls out a mini-statue of Ganesh, places it on the table, and laughs.
KS: I never leave home without it. It’s like an AmEx card. It’s in my jeans next to my crotch. His trunk is right up next to my trunk. Mine’s a little bigger. My spiritual practice was walking the Camino to Santiago. I’m an austere Protestant. I was raised Methodist. In Mississippi, the only way to be conservative is to be a Baptist or Republican. I set out to walk the Camino, a deeply Catholic path, as an austere Protestant. I started in France, crossed the Pyrenees, walked all 500 miles in 31 days. The impetus to climb Kilimanjaro was spiritual. The impetus to walk the Camino was because I thought it would make a good chapter in the book. I chose it cynically, almost. If the offshoot was that it would be good for me, then fine.
TT: But then it turned out very spiritual.
KS: I let go of my Christianity on that path. That was the epiphany for me. I realized I wasn’t a Christian. I am a theist. I live life between that “a” and the “t.” It’s a vast little space. Because of my upbringing, for me to say I’m not a Christian is greater to say out loud than “I’m gay,” “I’m HIV-positive,” “I’m a recovering addict.” I was raised to be Christian. To free myself from that rubric was my salvation. Some people say you have to be a Christian to be saved. I had to stop being Christian to be saved. I’m not denying Christ by not being Christian. I’m a theist, which involves expanding on the Christ narrative. I pray to God, I say the Lord’s Prayer. I chant to Ganesha.
TT: The Camino journey sounds rough.
KS: You’re walking to fucking Santiago so you can finally stop. Of course, when you get there, you realize your journey is just beginning. I hated some days: walking in the rain, 12 hours of it, was the worst. If I had to experience Groundhog Day for the rest of my life, I would choose any day except that one.
TT: Yet that Camino journey, just like the Kilimanjaro journey, wasn’t the salve you hoped for, either. You became addicted to crystal meth, which almost killed you.
KS: The Devil, this darkness, whatever you want to call that entity, that force, said, “Go walk in that light.” Then when I came back, the gauntlet was dropped down, and the Devil said, “I gave you that motherfucker. The battle is on.” The battle was for my soul.
TT: But it was you taking the drugs and having all the sex.
KS: I accept responsibility for my own actions, yes, but this is a spiritual book. When I interviewed Hugh Jackman, he asked, in reference to a guy I described as an angel, “Have you fucked the angel?” That is the question I have tried to answer all my life. How do you combine the carnal and spiritual, and live a balanced life? The real question was how to love the Devil. That’s what I had to do. God’s greatest creation was the Devil. God needs the Devil to be God. The Devil is only doing God’s will. There was a goodness to the Devil. He was just an angel who had fallen. Once I loved that part of him, I could surrender to God. I know that sounds abstract, and atheists will be rolling their eyes, but that’s how I see it.
TT: Early in the book, you write about the first time you do crystal meth. It’s with a prostitute who rapes you, except you don’t use that word in the book.
KS: I was raped. That was what happened to me that night. That was a hard thing to write about. I never owned that part of it. Guys don’t look at themselves as being raped. We’re not raised that way.
TT: Male rape is talked about now.
KS: I know, I’m 59 [on March 28]. I never thought of it that way until I wrote about it, “Fuck, that guy raped me.”
TT: Why not use the word?
KS: It’s more powerful if I don’t resort to an easy word. I wrote my truth.
TT: Did it just happen once?
KS: Yes, unless I blocked the other times out. All I remember is the next night how ashamed I felt at a Christmas party where I met this kid [a young man who Sessums mentored] who helped change my life. I still have a hard time saying it. But sure, I was raped: I said no and he wouldn’t stop. I also had a scar on my back and blood coming out of my ass. To some that’s just rough sex. Some would read that sentence and be turned on by that: the 51st Shade of Gay. [He laughs softly.] I don’t mean to make light of rape. It’s a very serious issue. But there’s part of me—I have never talked about this—that when I write about that night, all I remember was shame. I was doing drugs, I allowed to have crystal put up my ass. I had hired a whore I was fucking. Part of me thinks I am to blame for it. I put myself in a position to be raped. There are people more brutally raped than me. I wasn’t raped in a completely brutal fashion.
TT: But rape is rape, surely. You said no. You didn’t want this.
KS: But I created a construct for it. It’s not like I walked up the street, and some guy pulled me out and raped me. It wasn’t blind fate. I set up this situation. I bought drugs from him, I hired him. All this stuff, I know, sounds like the pathological rape victim shit. I did set up this scenario.
TT: You said no.
KS: [Laughs wryly] Yes, and since he was my employee he should have stopped. I don’t want to be flippant. He had been hired. He should have done as he was told.
TT: This was not your fault.
KS: A lot of rape victims don’t have sex with whores or do crystal meth, the stuff I was doing with this guy. I am less innocent than a lot of rape victims. I know that sounds fucked up, but I set up a scenario that could play out that way.
TT: Did you think drugs would kill you?
KS: I tested HIV-positive at 45. I remember praying, “Get me to 60. I want to be 60. If I get to 60 everything else is gravy. Now all I can think about is 60. It’s hovering. I don’t want to die at 60. I want to live a lot longer. I haven’t gotten to 60. Maybe I won’t get there.
TT: Why 60?
KS: It seemed a long way away. I never thought of myself as a 60-year-old. Now I’m suddenly thinking of myself as 60 years old.
TT: Do you contemplate your mortality?
KS: I moved to New York at 19. That will be 40 years ago. 1975. It seems like the blink of an eye. In a lot of ways my life began when I drove my truck through the Holland Tunnel. I was the Beverly Hillbillies—Jethro and Elly May, then, and now Granny and Jed—from Mississippi. As a journalist, I still see myself as a truck driver: I haul glamorous cargo, get behind the wheel of that damned truck, and get it to my deadline. Hollywood needs peripheral people like me. You’re not of that world, but you’re needed.
TT: Come on, you’re famous yourself. You’ve become part of that world.
KS: There’s always a door you don’t get in. I’m a star in my own right for certain things. I’ll own that. During Oscar weekend I did fabulous things. But there’s still one inner sanctum I’m not allowed in. That’s the one I’m fixated on. I don’t like the vulgarity of Oscars weekend, but it’s also sweet. It’s prom weekend for anyone who didn’t experience the real prom: the nerds, gay, arty outsiders. Hollywood is high school with money. I lead a very simple life: Ninety-five percent of it is led very simply. I spend most of my time sweeping the hearth. That’s what Cinderella does. Then I go to the ball occasionally, and a story appears with my name on it.
TT: So how’s the search for Prince Charming?
KS: [Grimacing] That’s not going well. I haven’t had a date…I haven’t had sex in two and a half years. A guy I met in San Francisco gave me a sympathy blow job. It didn’t really work. I said, “You’re just doing this ’cause you feel sorry for me.” We stopped in the middle.
TT: So you’re not buying sex?
KS: Oh, God, no. I had a lot of sex. I’ve only written about 0.01 percent of the sex I had. I got a lot of affirmation from it. I got good at it.
TT: And now none?
KS: Maybe it’s just getting older. I still masturbate. I still come. The act of sex seems slightly absurd now. You spend all that energy, you get to the point of putting this there and him putting that there. Once you get some distance from it, the animalistic act of it becomes sort of absurd. I had so much sex for sex’s sake that now I don’t want to have that. I’ve gone so long without it. I want to meet somebody. I have no desire for recreational sex just to fuck.
TT: You’re looking for love?
KS: Isn’t everybody? I find myself applying the addict’s impulse to how I cruise. I don’t look at the ass. If I see a hot guy walking towards me I look at his arm, and if he has a vein I fantasize about shooting up with him. I don’t act on it. Also, cruising is no longer cruising, it’s looking at people longingly. If I see a hot guy, I won’t think, “I can fuck him.” I look at him longingly.
TT: You’d like to be with somebody?
KS: [Laughs] Yes, and that’s the kinkiest thing I can think of. I’ve done every other thing in life except intimacy. That’s the aberration, the thing I’ve never had.
TT: Have you ever been in love?
KS: Yes, my longest relationship was two and a half years. I still talk to him on the phone every day. I was on Grindr and Scruff for a while, but not now. I didn’t meet anybody. I wasn’t into recreational sex, and they didn’t want to meet for coffee. I don’t meet people. I’m a lonely guy.
TT: In San Francisco? You’re well-known, and you’re living in a major metropolitan gay center?
KS: I don’t go to bars, I’m not on apps. I’m really lonely. Sometimes I have what feels like an electrical current in my chest. I sit with it, and let it build in me. I just turn it out, go for a walk, ride my bike, go out with the dogs. I used to use drugs and fuck to manage my loneliness. When you’re sober you have to experience all those feelings. I’m a clichéd old homo with two dogs and distended nipples. I’m who I never thought I would be.
TT: Your parents figure in the book, too. You were an orphan by the time you were 9.
KS: I miss them more now than I ever have. Kids are resilient. Trauma manifests itself in lots of ways. People who aren’t addicts want to know why I became one. They ask whether I had a midlife crisis. I’m only speaking for myself now, but I’ve stopped asking why and how. It’s all about surrender and acceptance. It doesn’t matter why I am an addict. If I try to figure it out, I would still be using. People have problems with the 12-step program because it’s about faith and not knowing. To some people, knowledge and science are everything. To me, God is everything I don't know.
TT: Do you still actively worship?
KS: I used to go to [First] Presbyterian [Church, in Manhattan] on Fifth and 12th. I found a lot of solace there and at the Church of St. Mary of the Harbor in Provincetown. But not now. I let go of the construct of that.
TT: The most astonishing thing you describe in the book is meeting the Devil, or Lucifer, on what is almost a cataclysmic crystal meth meltdown in Provincetown.
KS: Yes, it was a near-death experience. I was leaving. I was having hallucinations, demonic possession, whatever I had. I was being taken by God, taken by Lucifer, I was having very carnal, Greco-Roman visions. These elite entities would visit me in my drugged state. Whether it was real or true, it happened to me. Call it drug psychosis, whatever you want. I tend to call it a manifestation. I am a very spiritual animal. I was on my way to death. Before that occasion, these minions would come to me constantly in the visions. At first I thought, “What the fuck is going on?” I remember one that was like a floating head with feather-like fur. It was some kind of creature I had never seen before. When I ate, it made them crazy. I know people will think I’m really crazy, but it felt very real. I did drugs just to see some of this stuff—I’m a journalist.
TT: But this addiction almost led to your death.
KS: All of that coming to me culminated in the big one. They finally came to take me back with them. It was the most blissful…even talking about it now I feel it. I knew if I got to where I was going, I would never come back.
TT: In the book, Sessums says the moment he returned from the edge of death was when he acknowledged to “the Luciferian light that I knew it was an angel above all else. It was to its goodness I surrendered.”
KS: I was letting him know I wasn’t afraid. The minute I said I loved him, something switched. There was an understanding that I would let people know about it. The next day he showed me the vision of the alternate heaven I had given up. Maybe I am a total narcissist, but I felt grief for the addict who died, just as at other times I had grieved for my dead parents and my HIV-negative self. Lucifer healed me by letting him go. I am indebted to him forever. He loved me enough to let me go. The minute I surrendered to him, I loved him with all my heart in that moment. I told him, “I’m going to let people know you’re not evil. That is the wrong concept of you.”
TT: Is he tangible to you now? Does he still appear to you?
KS: You don’t get it, do you? He’s speaking to me through you right now. You are his vessel. Whether that makes you uncomfortable, I’m sorry. No one else has talked to me like this about this. You are channeling the Devil right now. Maybe that’s what all interviewers do.
TT: Does he appear in your dreams or have any other presence?
KS: Sometimes if I am walking down the street and thinking about my panoply of God, Ganesha, Parvati [Ganesha’s mother], I say “Lucifer,” because he belongs in that panoply. I miss him. That’s why I’m a theist. In Western culture, there’s a dichotomy between the easy narratives of God and the Devil. I now believe in this greater overarching spiritual thing. We are the light and the dark, and have to own the darkness. It’s part of us. It’s not evil. It’s needed. You need to own both of them to be whole. Absorb it, and live it as part of your life.
TT: What’s next for you?
KS: The March issue of FourTwoNine has “straight James Franco interviewing gay James Franco,” which James Franco has written. Fifty-nine is my “circling O’Hare” year. Sixty is a hallmark age.
TT: How do you see it?
KS: [Laughs] Through reading glasses. I have climbed Kilimanjaro and walked the Camino. At 60 I want to do something else like that, another physical spiritual trek. Part of me would love to go to India,and backpack around for a year, but I have two dogs and HIV meds. I’d like to go to Parvati’s mountain.
TT: Who would be your dream “Kevin Sessums” to play you in Mississippi Sissy?
KS: Eartha Kitt, but she’s dead. Is that a good exit line? [He laughs, and points at my recording device.] Now turn that damn thing off.