Profiling in creative nonfiction is an exercise in wielding power. This is especially true when the subject has so little power in society. Ryan Berg, whose first work of narrative nonfiction No House to Call My Home profiles LGBTQ youth who were once under his care in a group home, felt a strong sense of responsibility to not take advantage of his position as an author. “For me it was really important that I interrogated my own motivations, making sure that I was writing from a place of empathy,” says Berg. Though at times, No House To Call Home reflects Berg’s sense of conflict about both his real-life authority over the kids as their caseworker and his authority as an author, Berg keeps the spotlight focused on his subjects to good effect: if you want to understand the way race, class, and sexuality intersect in the often-vulnerable lives of LGBTQ youth, here’s a good place to start.
Berg drifted into the role of residential counselor at a LGBTQ group home after years working in the restaurant industry in New York City. “I found myself wholly unprepared for the myriad personal and social issues I would be forced to confront,”he writes in the book’s preface. When he first began to work at the home, his sole concern was whether he’d be able to do the job at hand of making sure its young inhabitants remained alive and well. And as we realize in the book, it was quite a demanding one. We perceive Berg’s emotional strain as he tries to stay collected while caring for youths like Bella, a young, transgender woman, who despite her intelligence and sensitivity, finds herself constantly in dangerous situations because of her addiction and sex work. “While working with [the kids] I had no intention of writing about them, or writing about the experience of working with them, primarily because it felt exploitive in the moment,” Berg explains. As he got better at caring for the youth and became less self-conscious about his role at the center, Berg started to understand the struggles at the center of his kids’ lives, and began to feel strongly that their stories needed to be made public.
But while lending a sense of urgency to Berg’s writing, the marginalized nature of its subjects’ lives made creating a narrative out of them an especially delicate process. After leaving his job at the group home to pursue a degree in creative writing from Hunter College, Berg began trying to construct the story of his time at the center. His practical challenges—how he would remember enough details of the kids’lives to create an immersive experience for the reader—were not as daunting as the moral challenges he faced as an author. Berg points out that his job as a caseworker required a lot of note-taking on the lives of the people in his care. That documentation and its reiteration in meetings ingrained many of details of the children’s day-to-day lives in his memory. What was harder than the research was honoring the privacy of his subjects, while at the same time creating full portraits of them. “I wanted to make sure that [the characters] didn’t come across as caricatures or stereotypes—that these were authentic human beings, and really nuanced and complex,” he says.
Berg packs his book with such portraits, which both helps and hinders his activist storytelling. Certain themes—waylaid educations, domestic verbal and physical abuse, substance abuse, and dangerous underage sex work—appear again and again in Berg’s profiles, showing to powerful effect just how marginalized their subjects are. But there are so many subjects and we only get brief snapshot of their lives; as more and more characters are introduced, each individual story starts to have less and less emotional impact, even as you perceive how much each person means to the author. Of the narrative thread connecting these numerous portraits, our reviewer writes, “there are turns that have by now become cliché, from the disaffected, alcoholic grown-up who is himself saved by trying to save at-risk young people to the crack-addicted but heart-of-gold sex worker.”
But Berg doesn’t see his book as the end point for his subjects’ stories anyway. There is a poignant scene No House to Call My Home in which Berg sits down with a group of the center’s youth to work on personal writing about their lives. The exercise frustrated most of the children but one kid takes to it; his memory of a Fourth of July gone violently wrong, which we get in snippets, defies cliché. “I hope by writing this book I’m creating room for them to write their own narratives and provide a sense of agency for them,” Berg says. In the meantime, Berg informed the subjects he could reach about the book, and from one of them got the best response he could hope for: “One young man was ecstatic that the story was being told, and felt that it was done with care.”
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.