DOCUMENTARY: CIRCUS OF BOOKS reviewed by Lydia Bringerud

Circus of Books
Ryan Murphy, Executive Producer; Rachel Mason, Director/Screenwriter
Netflix, 2019

circusCircus of Books, available on Netflix, is a documentary about Barry and Karen Mason, a wholesome, friendly straight couple who have made a career out of selling hard-core gay porn.

The documentary takes viewers through the story of how Barry and Karen left respective careers in cinematic special effects and journalism to run their L.A. business, a shop called Circus of Books.

The film is made by their daughter, which shapes the narrative arc into a story about their family dynamics. Karen in particular has an astute business acumen, but struggles to square the store’s success with her identity as a pious Jewish woman.

For example, she lived in fear that her fellow synagogue congregants would learn what she did for a living. The children were trained to respond to any questions about their parents’ occupations with, “They run a bookstore.” The family tension is heightened when one of their sons comes out to them as gay. One might expect that, after dealing in hard-core gay erotica for so long, the couple wouldn’t bat an eye. On the contrary, the documentary highlights a duality which may be familiar to Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers: being able to tolerate certain identities and lifestyles among other people but having great difficulty accepting them in one’s own family.

Though this documentary is about a Jewish family running an unusual business, I believe it has a lot to offer Orthodox viewers. There are hard questions of morality around economic survival, particularly in the time of COVID-19. As I watched the documentary, I reflected on the parallels between COVID-19 and the AIDS crisis. Circus of Books suffered during this time because they had not only been distributors for the community in which AIDS exploded, but they had been a safe social meeting place for gay men in L.A. When little was known about AIDS, people were suspicious of one another, unsure of who had the virus or how it would spread. They also avoided social spaces like Circus of Books for fear of catching it there.

Barry, who is not as religious as Karen, reflects on being the one to call the families of some customers and employees in the business to tell them their son was dying. He is shocked when some of those families have no interest in visiting their children in their last moments.

While the film does not focus on the practices of the porn industry generally, this invites opportunity for further discussion about ethics. At a certain point, the couple actually start a porn filming business to supply their store, but they separate themselves completely from the details. Karen will go to expos to buy things for the shop, but she avoids looking too closely at merchandise which is distasteful to her. Several of the people interviewed make a point to say that Karen and Barry are two of the most honest business colleagues they’ve ever had, and trustworthy people are (or were) hard to come by in the business.

The documentary ends with questions hanging about whether or not Circus of Books will close. The rise of the internet has completely changed how members of the LGBTQ+ community meet one another and where they find their erotica.

Barry and Karen are leaders in an organization called PFLAG [pronounced p-flag], which is a support network for parents and friends of LGBTQ+ people. They relive their journey every time they meet new members.

I found myself crying at the end of this documentary, as Karen reflected on how she needed to engage with her faith to come to this place in her life. She is committed to being the best mother she can be, and love is ultimately the lens through which she came to view her faith.

I recommend this film for adult audiences (there is some censoring, but you will see adult film covers and brief clips) interested in learning about the dynamics of love, family, and faith in an unexpected place.

View Circus of Books on Netflix.
See the Sexuality and Gender, Fifty Years after Stonewall, Bridging Voices, Warwick Files, and Faith and the Arts sections in our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020.

Lydia Bringerud holds a PhD in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s and an MA in folklore from Indiana University in Bloomington. Her doctoral research focused primarily on American converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as well as attitudes toward authority, obedience, cultural conflict, and the position of women. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue and co-moderates Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Facebook group. She currently works at a public library in San Diego CA.

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