Profile: Dr. Donna Gaines

in CURRENT BIOGRAPHY (June 2006, Volume 67; # 6)

“I’m a writer who loves sociology. Sociology opened my eyes and my heart; it explains the world to me, everyday,” the sociologist, journalist, and author Donna Gaines told Johanna Ebner for Footnotes (April 2004), an American Sociological Association publication. Gaines is an authority on the behavior and emotional lives of teenagers–in particular, suburban teenagers and their feelings of alienation and hopelessness, suicidal impulses, and survival tactics, including their identification with rock, punk-rock, and heavy-metal music and musicians. Her first book, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids (1991), is an ethnographic study of teenagers (born during the decade starting in the mid- to late 1960s and called generation X or the baby-bust generation) living in Bergenfield, New Jersey, where in 1987 four teens ended their lives after signing a suicide pact. Described by Gil Asakawa for the Denver, Colorado, Rocky Mountain News (March 14, 2003) as a “landmark empathetic look at adolescent anomie,” Teenage Wasteland is widely considered a classic in sociology, and it has appeared on the reading lists of college courses nationwide. Gaines’s second book is A Misfit’s Manifesto: The Sociological Memoir of a Rock & Roll Heart (2006). In an interview with Benjamin Frymer for InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies (Volume 2, Issue 1, 2006), Gaines described that book as a “sociological memoir”; Frymer characterized it as “an exploration of relationships between identity formation, popular culture, addiction, and spirituality.” As a social worker for a decade beginning in 1976, Gaines specialized in substance-abuse counseling, suicide prevention, community organizing, advocating for children and parents, and “streetwork,” as she has called it, using a term common overseas but not in the U.S. She herself, as she revealed in Teenage Wasteland and explained in greater detail in A Misfit’s Manifesto, had felt burdened by negative feelings about herself during her teens and had spent much of her time on the streets or by herself in her room, listening to rock-and-roll music; she had also drunk to excess and become a drug abuser. In 1986, with the first of many articles written for the Village Voice, she “ventured into journalism,” as she recalled on her Web site, because she saw it “as a means to an end: making social theory more accessible, and reaching more people on critical issues like youth suicide, class, and the redemptive power of subculture (i.e. music).” Gaines has also written for Rolling Stone, Spin, Long Island Monthly, and Newsday, on subjects including tattoos, pornography, spirituality, and intergenerational love as well as music and young people in American society. She was a visiting professor in the Department of Sociology of Barnard College (a division of Columbia University), in New York City, from 1996 to 1999, and in the fall of 2002, she taught graduate students at the New School, also in New York.

Gaines was born Donna Denmark on March 21, 1951 in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Her mother, Betty Bradley, had been a successful big-band singer before her first marriage (which ended in divorce); among other jobs, she had worked with the bandleader Bob Chester and performed with the comedian Milton Berle in the famous New York nightclub the Latin Quarter. Gaines’s father, Herbert Denmark (Bradley’s second husband), managed his family’s kosher-catering enterprise; he died of Hodgkin’s disease less than a month after his daughter’s birth. For Gaines, as she wrote in A Misfit’s Manifesto, “Herbie . . . [was] an icon, a mythic figure I knew only as the great love of Mom’s life.” In 1954 her mother remarried; her new husband, Arthur Gaines, an Oldsmobile dealer, legally adopted Donna. In her memoir Gaines described her first stepfather as well-meaning but passive and remote. For years he suffered from worsening heart disease, and when she was in ninth grade, he died. The next year (1966) her mother married again; her fourth husband worked in his family’s liquor store. Gaines has always referred to her second stepfather only as D.O.M., for “Dirty Old Man,” a name inspired by the song with that title by the rock group the Fugs, and one she chose because D.O.M. used to tease her about her use of garish makeup and provocative dress. In her memoir she described D.O.M. as “a functional parent” and as “protective; he didn’t want me to be vulnerable. He also didn’t want to push the dad thing too hard. But he was in full parental mode, looking out for his daughter.” Her mother’s parental style, by contrast, she wrote, “was an incongruent mix of devouring need and free-spirited permissiveness. . . . Fiercely possessive and overindulgent, neglecting me and spoiling me at the same time, Betty was a pal, more like a sister than a mother.” For half a dozen years, until Gaines was about 10, a live-in maid was her primary caregiver.

Gaines grew up in the Rockaway Beach section of the New York City borough of Queens. Until ninth grade she attended a Jewish day school. For the next three years, except for one term at a private school in Brooklyn, she was enrolled at Far Rockaway High School. As a child and adolescent, she felt isolated and ashamed of being overweight. “In those days if you were fat or queer or if you were adopted, forget about it. If your parents were divorced or drunks, if you were an only child or interracial, you were a weirdo. Shamed, you suffered silent and alone,” she wrote in her memoir. For solace, she listened to doo-wop and then rock-and-roll music in her room. Later, she also sniffed glue, drank alcohol, and took illegal drugs. Referring to Arthur Gaines and her mother, respectively, she told Susan Brenna for Newsday (May 29, 1991), “If one of your parents is dying and the other one is preoccupied with taking care of him, and you’re the rowdy teenager, the best thing you can do is disappear. Think about it–how many women get to be free on the street when they’re 14? And I’m enormously independent because of it.” She considers herself fortunate, too, because in the latter half of the 1960s, as she wrote, “Youth was exploding”: “Thanks to drug culture and flower power, misfits like me had other choices. People would respect me for my street smarts, for my accumulated knowledge of toxicology and pharmacology. . . . I was free, lost in the crowd.”
After Gaines graduated from high school, she spent three months at Rider College (now Rider University), in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, before dropping out. At 18 she was arrested on a narcotics charge while at a party (though she herself had not been using drugs that night); the next day she was released into the custody of her stepfather, and later the charges were dropped. The following September she enrolled at Chamberlain Junior College, in Boston, Massachusetts, where she remained for only two months. Soon after she left school, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Her stepfather sold the liquor store and devoted himself to his wife’s care. (Gaines’s mother lived for another 18 years.) After failing at a series of unskilled jobs, Gaines made up her mind to “show D.O.M. I could be something more. . . . I had to grow up, prove to [my parents], to the neighbors, . . . . to the world and to myself that I was not . . . a pathetic loser.”


At 19 Gaines entered Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, with the intention of studying sociology. “I was born with a sociological imagination,” she told Johanna Ebner. “It’s the way my brain was wired. I looked at groups and social norms and began to reflect on them.” In her memoir she described Kingsborough as “a benevolent parent, indulgent and generous, nurturing in every possible way–emotionally, financially, spiritually, and mentally.” “It was . . . my first positive experience of self in the legitimate world,” she wrote. “Here I encountered adults in authority who treated me like I knew something, like I had something to offer. I read all the books, then asked for more. I spoke up in class. . . . I took every sociology course I could. . . . Tricks of the trade, tools of craft, sociological concepts clarified so many things. My career as a teenage misfit and an outcast was dignified through the study of deviance. My identity as a ‘problem child,’ an ‘underachiever,’ was vindicated by labeling theory. My early forays to [parts of Far Rockaway] were ethnographies, community studies, albeit exploratory. . . . I had felt like a vapor for most of my life, and even this was explained. In fact, vast bodies of knowledge addressed it. It was called alienation. The idea that human interactions were governed by norms, and that we paid a price for violating them, clarified childhood experiences. . . . It was my introduction to formal sociology that made me feel ironically grateful for a ruptured childhood. Exposure to four extended family groups”–those of her biological parents and of her two stepfathers–”hand-fed me social class and cultural process as lived experience.” She also wrote, “As I began to understand myself as a member of a race, a sex, a class, a generation, as a creator and consumer of culture, I saw that my personal experiences were both political and sociological. I understood from my professors that no matter how hip or smart I thought I was, social roles, rules, norms, mores, and rituals bound me too. As sociological thought began to formalize my life into a coherent and manageable package, things started making sense. . . . In passing sociology on to me, my professors handed me the keys to my own freedom.”


Readily available sources do not mention whether Gaines earned an associate’s degree. She next entered Harpur College, a division of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, where she majored in sociology and received a B.A. degree in 1974. During her last year at SUNY Binghamton, she worked on campus as an assistant director of the High Hopes Counseling Center. In 1977 she earned a master’s degree in social work (MSW) from Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York, where, in 1976-77, she held a Levenstein Fellowship in Research. Earlier, in 1976, she had launched a career as a social worker in private practice, which she maintained at least until 1986; she specialized in child-abuse prevention, special adoptions, social-program evaluation, and street work with youths. Meanwhile, at the age of 31, she had entered the graduate program in sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, on Long Island. There, she was strongly influenced by the eminent sociologist Lewis Coser, who, in one seminar that he led, as she wrote in her memoir, “mesmerized us with stories of our forefathers, our heroes, the masters of sociological thought. . . . It felt like a tribal campfire, a ceremonial rite of passage.” His course in classical sociological theory “changed my life. From cosmetology to cosmology, the sociology of knowledge slowly lifted me up from the gutters of positivism.” (Positivism is a school of thought, introduced by the “father of sociology,” the 19th-century French philosopher August Comte, according to which the only true, reliable knowledge is scientific knowledge.) Gaines continued, “Once, pointing from his office window out to the snowy walkways and trees of Eastern Long Island, Professor Coser referred to data as ‘anything out there.’ After that, anything seemed possible.”
For the better part of two decades starting in 1978, Gaines was romantically involved with a man she called Nick, a member of a rock group. She also forged close friendships with the rock-and-roll singer and guitarist Johnny Thunders and members of the punk-rock group the Ramones–in particular, Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Ross Hyman). By her own account, as a graduate student she maintained two separate lives, even two separate personas: one, that of a workaholic driven by a fierce determination to excel in school; the other, that of “Tessa,” as Nick and others called her, a person who wore punk-style dress, drank to excess during club crawls and on other occasions, took an array of illegal and prescription drugs, and gorged on sugary foods. (In the late 1990s she conquered her addictions to drugs and sugar and swallowed her last alcoholic drink.)


Gaines completed an M.A. degree at SUNY Stony Brook in 1984 and remained at the school to work on her doctoral dissertation. A suggestion from a SUNY employee that she study what she loved led her to consider writing about popular culture–an idea that she had previously rejected, fearing both that she had to keep the nonacademic part of her life private and completely separate from her academic pursuits, and that, as she wrote in her memoir, “academic discourse has the power to render anything banal and dull–including sex, drugs, and rock & roll.” In 1985 she founded, and chaired briefly, the cultural section of the American Sociological Association, which has grown into one of that organization’s largest special-interest sections. Shortly afterward, thanks to the journalist Ellen Willis, whom Gaines has described as “rock’s first feminist critic” and whom she met through Willis’s partner, the sociologist Stanley Aronowitz (both of whom she has cited as mentors), the Village Voice hired her as a freelance writer. The Voice published her first article, about the punk-rock and “new-wave” radio station WLIR-FM, on September 23, 1986.


In mid-1987 the Voice assigned Gaines to investigate the planned, simultaneous suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning of four Bergenfield, New Jersey, teenagers, which had occurred in March of that year. She approached friends of the four and soon gained their trust; the breakthrough moment came, as she recalled to Susan Brenna, when the teenagers noticed a button on her lapel that read “Ace of Spades,” the title of a song by the British heavy-metal band Motorhead. Gaines–who dressed in black leather, had visible tattoos, sometimes dyed her hair purple, carried a knife in one of her boots, used profanity, often stayed out all night in clubs, and shared the teenagers’ taste in music–spent much time during the next two years on the streets of New Jersey towns in an attempt to understand not only the motives behind the quadruple suicide but the reasons for the pervasive hopelessness that she had detected among the teens she befriended. Some of the young people had already attempted suicide, and a few were likely to try again, she believed. She described her findings in the Village Voice, in “Teenage Wasteland–Bergenfield’s Dead End Kids” (July 14, 1987). (The title is from the chorus of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which has been called “the definitive rock anthem.”) Gaines’s doctoral dissertation, similarly titled and written under the guidance of Lewis Coser, grew out of that article; she completed it in 1990 and earned her Ph.D. the same year. Her dissertation, in turn, with some modifications, was published in 1991 as her book Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids. The book appeared in paperback in 1992; in a “scholarly edition,” with an afterword, under the imprint of the Chicago University Press, in 1998; and in an Italian version in 2001.


Most of the Bergenfield teenagers whom Gaines got to know were from unstable, lower-middle-class (or “upper poor”) families. They were unlikely to attend college but, rather, with industrial and manufacturing jobs growing increasingly scarce, would accept or had already started working at low-wage jobs with little or no potential for advancement. Moreover, they blamed themselves for their circumstances and felt “like they’re losers,” as Gaines put it when talking to Susan Brenna. Desperate to grasp at some hope, they turned to what Gaines called “white suburban soul music”: heavy metal. According to Susan Brenna, “Kids see in their metal heroes people who broke out of their grungy suburban traps, and they dream of having a glorious moment of their own before life grinds them down.”


The culture and behavior of the teenagers whom Gaines wrote about in Teenage Wasteland served as examples of theories presented by the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) in his book Suicide and other writings. As Gaines wrote in her memoir, “In my investigation, I had discovered that most rare of Durkheimian types, the fatalistic suicide. I could explain [what led to the four Bergenfield suicides] using theories of alienation and anomie. I was adamant that sociology, not psychology, could and should explain teenage suicide. That suicide was a social, cultural, and historical phenomenon–not an exclusively medical, psychiatric one.” (Later, as she told Benjamin Frymer, she realized that she had “underestimated the impact of alcohol and addiction” and had erroneously “dismissed concepts like low self-esteem, spiritual dis-ease.”) In his review of Teenage Wasteland for Billboard (May 9, 1992), Chris Morris praised “this compassionate book” for being “one of the only works of its kind to view teenage America from the teenager’s perspective.” In the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times (May 12, 1991), Ann G. Sjoerdsma described Teenage Wasteland as “an alienating, disturbing book about alienated, disturbed kids. Not bad kids, really, just lost, forgotten, cast-off kids, kids of the 1980s for whom the American dream no longer exists, kids who seek refuge from abusive parents, apathetic teachers and a hypocritical society in heavy-metal music, Satanism, sex, drugs, alcohol and hanging out at the 7-Eleven. Kids who think daily about suicide.” “It is Ms. Gaines’s provocative thesis that in postindustrial America these working-class children are denied the real or metaphorical mobility that could liberate them from their limited lives,” Samuel G. Freedman wrote for the New York Times Book Review (June 16, 1991). “The wanderlust and social experiments of the 1960’s, which the author credits with rescuing her from desperation, were no longer options once the guns-and-butter economy that undergirded them slid into recession. The boom of the 1980’s saw a decline in meaningful and remunerative work for high school graduates, leaving little besides fast-food and gas station jobs. Drug abuse, alcoholism and even suicide, Ms. Gaines argues, are the symptoms of a larger cultural and economic disease.”


In around 2000, when she began to write A Misfit’s Manifesto, as she told Liza Featherstone for Newsday (March 9, 2003), Gaines felt as if she was “just exploding with rage, and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. . . . So I saw all manner of healers–Native American healers, Buddhist healers, Christian healers, 12-step therapists–to try to figure out where this anger came from and who I was, because I was split off. I was, as an adult, this attractive, successful, strong woman, but somewhere, dragging behind me, was this bottled-up misery and sorrow.” In A Misfit’s Manifesto she wrote, “For a long time, rage and fear were my survival tools. I took abuse and I dished it out. . . . I viewed the world as a hateful, unloving place where people were out to demolish me.” In time, she came to believe that “God works in us, and we work in God,” that people are “not alone” but are in “God’s world.” “As God reopened my heart, my capacity for joy, my ability to love myself and to feel part of the world were restored,” she wrote. In a review for Elle of A Misfit’s Manifesto, as quoted on Gaines’s Web site, a critic wrote, “If, like me, you’re drawn to confessions of love for loud guitars, Pepperidge Farm’s finest and the Man upstairs, this is your sort of tell-all. If you have a low tolerance for astrology or fits of self-congratulation, then this isn’t–but you’ll miss out on a slyly poignant one-woman social history of postwar America.”
Gaines has presented many talks and served on panel discussions on dozens of occasions at universities and other places in the U.S. and abroad. Her interests include theater, body-surfing, energy healing, star-gazing, hiking and metaphysics. She lives in New York City.