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Cheetham, who was still married to Barrus’ sister at the time, tells a slightly different story. According to him, Barrus and his wife did indeed adopt an autistic boy, but that the boy’s “emotional problems” proved too much for the couple to handle. After less than a year they were forced to give the boy up, and to Cheetham’s best recollection he returned to being a ward of the state.
Address records indicate that the young family lived in an apartment on Cooper Avenue near downtown Lansing until 1975. It is unclear where they moved immediately after that. At some point, Barrus and his wife divorced, and he moved to San Francisco where he began to write — primarily for the gay leather magazine Drummer. Barrus was widely praised for coining the term “leather lit,” and for being one of the founders of the newly formed genre.
In 1984 he moved to Key West and, according to his friend Bill Bowers, took residence with his partner Adolfo. (Barrus would later deny being gay.) There he published his first book, The Mineshaft, a sloppy attempt at erotica, but one that nonetheless garnered him some attention. He soon became a regular contributor to The Weekly News, the local gay newspaper, writing fictional stories reminiscent of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
It was in Key West where Barrus met Bowers, a local artist and photographer, and the two began work on a number of projects together.
“He was a crazy queen. He did things other people just didn’t do,” says Bowers fondly of Barrus. “He was really a master of publicity.”
Bowers remembers collaborating with Barrus on an erotic-photo exhibit called Sadomasochism: True Confessions. After the opening night of the show drew lukewarm interest, Barrus assumed the fake name John Hammond and wrote an open letter to The Weekly News attacking the exhibit.
“Sadomasochism is a disease,” the letter read, “and gay men who are into that scene are wrong.” He then had Bowers write a response to their mythical antagonist Hammond, inviting him to “take a Valium, take a douche,” and published it in The Weekly News. “The next time Mr. Hammond wants to show his ignorance he should do some heavy research before he rejects his very own brothers.” The ensuing controversy rallied the gay community around the artists and propelled the exhibit to a successful run.
“He would do anything to shock people,” said Bowers. “It works every time if you want a reaction, be it good or bad. Bad is good too, sometimes better.”
Not all of Barrus’ acquaintances found his antics quite so charming, however. Lars Eighner grew quite tired of his routine. “If you look up dilettante in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Tim Barrus,” says Eighner.
Best known for his 1993 book Travels With Lizbeth(which The Blood would partially parrot), Eighner first became acquainted with Barrus around 1984, after he received a random letter from Barrus expressing his most frequent theme — “publishers are scum.” Eighner was just breaking into writing at the time and found Barrus’ angry candor instructive. The two soon began a three-way correspondence with another gay writer, T.R. Witomski, which lasted for several years.
Though he never met Barrus in person, Eighner came to know him quite well through his letters and phone conversations. Barrus would routinely harangue Eighner with long soliloquies about the evils of publishing. “There was always some great injustice that had been done him — he had been slighted by everyone, betrayed; there was treachery everywhere.” Eighner is quick to point out that he didn’t think Barrus was crazy — just irrationally angry.
“He didn’t think windmills were monsters, he just hated windmills.”
According to Eighner, Barrus and the established gay writer John Preston had a one-sided literary rivalry — and Barrus was the perennial loser. While Barrus’ books were well reviewed in the gay press (The Advocate called his 1987 book Anywhere, Anywhere “a rewarding encounter with compelling characters”), he was never able to achieve the mainstream success that Preston, Witomski and eventually Eighner were able to. This made him, according to Eighner, “insanely jealous.”
That Barrus might have adopted a Native American persona to facilitate his career strikes Eighner as completely in character. Similar behavior was routine when Eighner knew him. Barrus’ third book, Anywhere, Anywhere, is supposedly a novelized account of his service in the Vietnam War, which, Eighner says, “some serious publications thought was really a memoir of a gay soldier.” The book is a love story between wheelchair-bound Chris and his commanding officer in Vietnam, Boss. The pair fell in love fighting alongside each other, and upon their return to America they used their feelings for each other to battle the physical and emotional scars inflicted on them by the war. Anywhere, Anywhere was praised in the gay press for revealing the previously untold gay experience in Vietnam. “Of course Barrus had never been near Vietnam or military service,” says Eighner. (When asked if his brother-in-law served in Vietnam, Cheetham replies, “Absolutely not.”)
In a 1994 article he wrote for the Lambda Book Report, however, Barrus claims to be a Vietnam vet, or so it seems: “I knew lots of gay men in Vietnam. Not that I had sex with them. No one was telling ?their story.”