The Think Piece Interview: Ryan Berg

Ryan Berg spent 2004-5 as a case worker at a New York group home for LGBTQ homeless youth. The young people he met there astonished him. Their stories. He wanted to write about them but was conflicted. Would that be exploiting them? He wasn’t sure. But ultimately the stories kept calling to him so he had no choice: he had to get them down on paper. And what resulted is No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressionswhich came out last year to great acclaim and went on to win a Minnesota Book Award for general nonfiction. The book is reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man in that it shows Berg learning on the job in a challenging New York setting. Berg honors the lives of the young people by telling their painful, unvarnished truth. Examples: one teen is forced by his grandparents to watch porn for hours in the hope that it will cure his homosexuality; another sets fire to her bathroom in a fit of rage; another stays in a state of constant vigilance after a lifetime of bullying. The stories are bottomless, which is part of the point. The volume. As Berg points out in the book’s first chapter, LGBTQ youth represent an out-sized percentage of the homeless youth population — 40 percent — even though they only comprise 8 percent of the overall population. This is a book that needed to be written.

We sat down to talk with Berg about his beautiful book, its impact, how the system is broken, and what he’s doing next.

TP: I was struck by how compact your writing is. The sentences are just air tight.

RB: I spent a long time trying to find my voice. When I was young and insecure about my writing, I used more lyrical and flowery language. But then I realized the more economical the language was the more power and punch it had. I think now I’m using my natural voice. It came from a lot of years of trial and error.

TP: The events in the book took place a while ago. Have you been working on the book all this time?

RB: I have, right up until the point the book got published in 2015.

TP: How did you get started down this path?

RB: It took a while. At first I didn’t intend to write about them because I didn’t want to feel like I was exploiting their stories. But then in 2005 I went to this creative writing workshop for social workers at the University of Iowa. The first paragraph of the first page came from that workshop. The instructor encouraged me to keep at it. She liked that I was present in the narrative and challenged me to continue in that direction. But I still wasn’t sure I wanted to use the stories of the children as material.

TP: What decided it for you?

RB: The stories were unshakable to me. I just couldn’t let them go. And I noticed how under-reported the subject was.

TP: So you decided to go for it?

RB: I did. I got into an MFA program at Hunter College and stopped working for young people in 2006.

TP: You make clear in the book that you realize that you are a white man who can’t fully relate to the experiences of young people of color.

RB: I was conscious of that. As a non-fiction writer who is writing about marginalized populations, there is a power dynamic. I’m the one telling the story. I wanted to honor the complexity of the people I’m writing about and not stereotype or generalize. I tried to create space for these young people to essentially write their own stories.

TP: Your descriptions of the early days on the job, when the kids were testing you, are really vivid. The job seems so hard. I think it would eat most people alive.

RB: I learned early on the importance of providing structure to the lives of these young people. This is a relationship built on trust and a lot of the young people in this book were rejected by family. They didn’t know what trust with an adult looked like. I started out thinking I should be their friend and pal around with them and that didn’t work. It’s about being caring and consistent and establishing boundaries and accountabilities.

TP: They needed to see that you weren’t going to bail on them.

RB: Yes. That I’d still be there the next day.

TP: The numbers in the book of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ is astonishing.

RB: Isn’t it? It’s 40 percent, although they make up only 8 percent of the population.

TP: You did a marvelous job of weaving together this information with stories.

RB: It’s hard to build empathy through statistics. That’s what stories are for.

TP: What books inspired you while you were writing?

RB: Random Family, which is about poverty in the south Bronx. True Notebooks, which is about a writer who goes into a juvenile detention center to teach creative writing to young people in L.A. A Shining Affliction, which is about psychotherapy and secondary trauma and how practitioners need to work through their own stuff to be present and available to clients.

TP: You continue to work in this field today, yes?

RB: I do.

TP: How has the reaction been in the LGBQT community?

RB: Just wonderful. I was in Connecticut and gave a workshop to social work professionals and did a reading. A young woman, a 16-year-old high student, snuck in and came up to me and said her parents had an issue with her sexual orientation. She came home from school one day to find out her parents had moved out without telling her. Just left her homeless. She looked up and told me she feels really invisible in my life and hearing you read made me feel seen. That felt really good to hear.

TP: What can we be doing better to help these young people?

RB: I feel like Minnesota does a great job with charitable work but our approach is rooted in white liberalism, which creates a philosophy of us and not us and us. I challenge people to think from a standpoint of solidarity and not charity.

TP: How about service delivery?

RB: Keeping mental health as a center of all the work that service providers are doing is incredibly important. Direct care workers are working from a trauma-informed perspective, which acknowledges the root of behavior and not just a contentious situation. Maybe the person isn’t freaking out from not doing the dishes; maybe it’s something deeper. Mental health as a framework to care is so important.

TP: You had that moment in the book where a young person who had acted out was quickly prescribed an anti-psychotic medication.

RB: That was the result of a five-minute assessment by a psychiatrist.

TP: And yet you’re careful to say that the people in the field are doing the best they can considering their intense workloads.

RB: Service providers aren’t getting paid much and they have massive amounts of clients. They have to get through the day. Everyone is overworked and under-resourced. It’s more that the system is broken. Unfortunately, as a result, lives are sent off course.

TP: What’s next for you?

RB: My work will always be around youth identity, poverty and mental health, and how these things intersect. I’m interested in how communities can provide support to young people who are dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. There’s a community in Iowa that has had a lot of suicides and little community response. I’m looking into talking to those folks about what’s being done and what isn’t being done. I found a mother who lost her son who wants to be an advocate and speak up.

TP: That sounds right up your alley.

RB: I hope so. The idea is to focus on one community and see how its response relates to a larger story.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing