Writer Ryan O’Connell Talks About His New Memoir, Being Gay, and Having Cerebral Palsy
"I never felt disabled enough and I never felt able-bodied enough, so it gave me a total complex."
If you have used the internet in the past five years, you have probably read about Ryan O'Connell's personal life. In blog posts like "A Conversation with My Closeted 17-Year-Old Self" and "Having a One-Year Stand," the gay writer has chronicled his day-to-day exploits on Thought Catalog, the New York Times, and this very website, among other publications. But in O'Connell's soon-to-be-published memoir, I'm Special, he reveals a secret his fans—and even most of his friends—never knew: He has cerebral palsy.
Like a younger, gay version of Mary Karr's Lit, the book earnestly details the complexities of the situation while also making the kind of hilarious politically incorrect jokes you rarely hear thanks to today's outrage culture. Most importantly, O'Connell knows how to tell a story—in this case, the journey from being an insecure gay kid with cerebral palsy to a writer in New York and Los Angeles following his dream. His journey represents a specific experience, but it's also relatable; I'm Special is a very unique book that manages to seamlessly cover cerebral palsy, homosexuality, drug addictions, failed teenage relationships, and overcoming insecurities.
There's something for everyone, but if you've read O'Connell's work online, this isn't surprising. O'Connell gets lumped in with the wave of young writers who started becoming internet famous in 2010 thanks to Twitter and Tumblr, but he's always stood out in that scene. He's one of the few gay writers to honestly write about gay sex (pooping on dicks and all), and he invented the twentysomething blog post way before Lena Dunham launched Girls. Unlike most of the internet, he has also always focused on telling stories instead of discussing identity politics through the lens of "Rihanna's Bad-Ass Fur Coat She Wore While Performing a Song About Cash That's Really About the Recession" or whatever the fuck is trending on Facebook these days.
Like the best personal essayists, he also possesses the rare talent of making the most obscure personal event relatable to any reader, and he writes like he talks. (In articles and in person, he says the word babe constantly.) Hollywood has already taken notice of this. O'Connell recently left New York for Los Angeles, quickly becoming a staff writer on the MTV sitcom Awkward, and Jim Parson and Warner Bros. have already optioned I'm Special to turn it into a TV show. The same day this news broke, I met with O'Connell over chopped salads in Los Angeles to talk about his book, cerebral palsy, and pooping on dicks.
VICE: Why did you wait so long to write about being gay and having cerebral palsy?
Ryan O'Connell: Babe, it was really shameful for me. I can write about literally shitting on [a guy's dick] or what it feels like to be fucked in the ass but God forbid I talk about having a limp—that everyone can see. It made no sense, but the things that you don't like about yourself often don't make sense.
But growing up with this disability was really painful and hard. My life was just sort of weird because, on one hand, I was on the playground with my friends, able-bodied, and then I'd like go to physical therapy and have some woman named Jandy stretch me into a pretzel. I never felt disabled enough and I never felt able-bodied enough, so it gave me a total complex.
Then being gay? Nice twist to life. I was literally in the shower, coming to Ryan Phillipe in Cruel Intentions , thinking, Are you fucking kidding me? This is the rudest thing that's ever happened to me. I was like, Well, there is no way that I will ever get laid or find love as a gay disabled person, there's just no fucking way. And then I got hit by a car, when I was 20, and then I was like, "Psyche! Just kidding! I'm an accident victim!" Then, I started omitting things, like, "Oh yeah, I got hit by a car, that's what this is all from." Then it just became way out of control. I just felt like I was living this giant lie. Even all my closest friends [in New York didn't] even know about my CP.
I didn't know until I read the book.
I had to come out to my friends, like coming-out-of-the-closet-style while I was writing the book. I had to send a chapter to a friend being like this is what the whole book's about. Some agents had no idea about it. I sold this basic bitch version—like, How to Be a Twentysomething. It was so basic. I remember writing this being like, LOL, no one's gonna buy it. And then somebody was interested, and I was like, Oh fuck, and then I realized there's no way I can write this without shooting myself in the head. I came to Simon & Schuster, and they're like, "I have a good title for your book." And I'm like, "What is it?" And they said, "I think it should be called I'm Special." And I'm like, "Funny you should say that, babe, cause I am special in more ways than one," so of course they ate that up because it gave the story more depth and whatnot. It kind of elevated it from like this Urban Outfitters darkness where it was kind of circling before. But, I don't know, babe: Why does anyone hate anything in themselves? I think being gay didn't help—at all.
Did you think gay guys would judge your appearance since gay guys can be so superficial?
It made things muy complicado for me. Looking back at it now, that was definitely the reason why I was on drugs and that's definitely the reason why I didn't get laid for a year at a time. I didn't have sex! I would go on dates with people, and I would be like, "Oh my God, they're going to find out." Then I'd I'd make sure that they walked in front of me so they never knew. It was sick, the tricks that I would play.
Did those tricks work?
Yeah, mostly. People didn't really notice. That's the thing: I have a pretty mild case. [Cerebral palsy] runs the gamut. You can be totally high-functioning, even write a book, or you can be like in a fucking hospice situation.
Would it bother you if someone called this a gay book?
No. I don't mind that. I think there's still, in a weird way, a lot of stuff missing from gay stories. Honey, there's not that many of us. It seems like there is, but there's not. I've never read a story about someone shitting on someone's dick. I don't know why people aren't talking about that. That's like a thing that happens sometimes, and people need to talk about that and not feel weird about that. Call me a gay writer. I don't give a shit. I'm really glad. Did you read Andy Cohen's book, [The Andy Cohen Diaries]?
I loved it.
I fucking loved it. And you know why, hon? Cause we are fucking Starvin' Marvin for like any material about gay shit. That was our Dancer from the Dance, which is so dark, but it is what it is. We are so thirsty for anything reflecting our reality.
Unlike other memoirs, this book has a realistic ending: Not every problem is solved. Was that on purpose?
I didn't want to write a fucking book that was like, "You guys, I went through a really hard time and now I'm like totally fine and OK," 'cause I hate reading, like Eat, Pray, Limp. I didn't want that. I wanted to write something that felt very of the moment and immediate and relatable, I hate reading books that are like, "I was a binge drinker who drank like ten bottles of vodka a day but now I'm totally fine, and I jog every day!"
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