When Iris Kraft, organizer of the Celebration Book Fair, invited me to the event to speak to the community about my book, "The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney's New Town," I hesitated before accepting. In the writing profession, it's not always a good idea to return to face the community that you have written about. I know of anthropologists who have been burned in effigy, and much worse, by the people they lived among. But when Iris mentioned there would be a spaghetti dinner that evening, my fears dissolved. If folks were going to throw things at me, spaghetti I could handle.
Of course I had to go. In writing my book, I had decided I would take my cue from the residents there. They had been mischaracterized and typecast in the press, and were a little gun-shy and distrustful of reporters. Many hoped my book would dispel the misconceptions of them as Stepford wives. I agonized long and hard about how to protect the privacy of those who wanted protection, and how to honor the desires of others who wanted to be celebrities. I decided, for example, to write most of my book while living among the Celebrationites, and not back in the orbit of cynical New Yorkers. But I hadn't pulled any punches, and though the opinions expressed in my book had come honestly, they were provocative opinions, and not designed to flatter. Who knew how I would be received?
My publisher had asked me, quite seriously, if I would require a security guard for my visit. A few days prior, the moderator of a website that is used heavily by Celebrationites quite recklessly compared my visit to an announcement of a public appearance by Salman Rushdie. Should I really be concerned about my safety? Having survived a rescheduling, due to Hurricane Floyd, I finally blew into town on the evening of Sept. 22. Deena "Dee" Stevens, the outspoken ex-member of Osceola's school board, was waiting for me in the parking lot. It was clear from her expression and badgering motion that she did not relish my book's portrayal of her, and she was there to make waves. A quick-witted resident intervened to cut her off, and ushered me inside the theater of the school, where friendly faces abounded. It was clear, very quickly, that I would get a warm reception.
A sympathetic audience heard me talk about how and why I wrote my book, and listened as I presented a challenge to the community. Celebrationites, I proposed, had the chance to become Good Neighbors in Osceola and Central Florida in a way that the Disney company had never succeeded in doing. The Q&A began on an even keel, but Dee Stevens had come to steal the show. By this time, I had mentally run through all the questions that I thought Dee might ask, but still she surprised all of us. "You seem to have written your book from a gay perspective," she hollered from the back of the hall, "Are you gay yourself?" Instantly, the crowd turned on her, and I began to fear for her safety. I took the opportunity to comment on the community's generally tolerant attitude toward gay people, and Dee left in high dudgeon.
One prominent citizen then rose to talk about how "The Celebration Chronicles" had been "a healing experience for the community." The book's description of the hardships Celebrationites had encountered -- with builders, with the school, with the media and with Disney -- had provided cathartic relief. Others spoke of what they had learned from the book's history of the town, set down in print before it could be papered over or revised in the company's account. Still others took the occasion to testify yet again about the trials and tribulations they had all been through. During my year in Celebration I had been present at many meetings like this, where residents had risen from their seats to affirm the pioneer ethos of the town. It was surreal now to find myself serving as the vehicle for this kind of witnessing. At the book signing afterward, a resident who described himself as "real conservative" wanted to say he respected me for being a true, and not a faux, liberal. Another opined that the book had been fair enough, considering it had been written from a Yankee perspective. Still others were clamoring for a sequel in five years' time. Not a few filled me in on the latest gossip around town.
I was shocked at how moved I was by the event. I had often joked about being an honorary Celebrationite, but was genuinely surprised at how involved I had gotten in the affairs of this town. Buyers of Celebration houses had been promised they would be "coming home." Now I had gotten my homecoming, though only after I had left town for good.