Archive for C-D

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family by Garrard Conley

The only child of a car salesman and soon-to-be Baptist pastor, Conley was “terrified and conflicted about his sexuality”. At nineteen, while in college, he was outed as gay to his parents and given the choice of being disowned or being subjected to gay conversion therapy that promised to cure his homosexuality. The timing came as his father was about to be ordained as a Baptist minister. Conley was enrolled in a Love in Action ex-gay program, and recounts the harm he was subjected to there in the name of curing his sexuality. The Bay Area Reporter noted, “Conley’s memoir oscillates between his revelations, good and bad, during time spent in the fold of the ex-gay ministry during his two-week stint in the ‘Source’ trial program, and his personal and familial history [that led up to] induction in the program.” He recounts the months of counselling he underwent followed by a two-week intensive intervention.

The book opens in June of 2004. Garrard Conley was 19 years old, homosexual, and living in the American South. His parent assigned him up for a sexual reorientation program at a fundamentalist Christian institution called Love in Action (LIA). The director of LIA, John Smid, preached the rejection of all secular pleasures in favor of religious devotion. Thus, when Conley arrived at LIA, the staff confiscated all of Conley’s belongings. Just like in the community of Conley’s hometown, the LIA program preached that homosexuality was sinful and unnatural.

The book then shifts back about one year. As a teenager, Conley developed a deep love of reading and writing, but his father and community viewed these interests as undesirable and effeminate. Conley’s father was a car salesman who was training to be a fundamentalist Christian pastor. In high school, Conley dated a girl named Chloe. Their relationship was chaste and they enjoyed spending time together. However, when they were 18 years old, Chloe wanted to have sex. Conley was unable to go through with the act, and so they ended their relationship.

In his teenage years, Conley worried that he would not be able to follow in his father’s path, both in terms of professional and religious pursuits. Conley felt this especially keenly after failing to perform satisfactorily during a morning Bible study. Conley enjoyed playing video games, as they were a type of escape from his daily life. As a teenager, he began fantasizing about men, and he felt fear and self-hatred due to these fantasies. Conley and Chloe began dating in high school, although their relationship was quite chaste. At work, the other dealership employees sometimes pressed Conley on questions of politics and romance, and Conley did his best to avoid these questions. Conley’s father advised Conley and all of the employees to preach religion to customers when possible, but Conley never had the will to do so.

The book then returns to Conley’s time at LIA. He became friends with a male patient called “J,” whom Conley found charismatic and intelligent. Conley also began to develop romantic feelings for J. As part of therapy at LIA, the patients were required to share all of their homosexual experiences and declare that these experiences were sinful and morally wrong. Conley’s sense of self-hatred grew as this process progressed.

The book then shifts backward to Conley’s arrival at college. He had lost a substantial amount of weight following his breakup with Chloe, because as a form of penance, he began to eat as little as possible and exercise as much as possible. At college, Conley befriended David, a fellow freshman. David was a highly devout Pentecostal Christian. They spent much time together. One day, David raped Conley by forcing Conley to fellate him. In a panic, David then called Conley’s parents and told them that Conley was homosexual. Conley’s parents threatened to stop funding Conley’s education if Conley did not agree to try to change his sexuality. At his parents’ behest, Conley began to attend sexual reorientation therapy every weekend. Conley’s emotional turmoil and self-hatred grew, and he contemplated suicide. He also contemplated leaving to live somewhere on his own, but he did not want to leave his parents.

Conley’s mother took Conley to a doctor to have his hormone levels tested, as Conley’s parents believed that a medical issue might have been causing Conley’s homosexuality. The doctor advised Conley that he should not feel ashamed about being homosexual, but Conley did not heed this advice. The book then shifts focus back to Conley’s time at LIA. A little over a week after he arrived at LIA, he could no longer bear the emotional destructiveness of the program, so he left. His parents continued to fund his education, and they gradually accepted his sexuality.

Conley’s father decided to take Conley on a ministerial trip to a local county jail as a means of strengthening Conley’s religious devotion. Conley’s father said that, for the moment, they could not speak about Conley’s homosexuality. Conley lived in constant fear of coincidentally encountering David on the street, as David was originally from a nearby town. Conley also worried about his relationship with his father. He worried that from then on, his relationship with his father would be forever strained and never fully genuine. Conley avoided talking about his college friends and professors with his father, as he worried that his father would disapprove of the particulars of college life. Conley and his father arrived at the county jail. Conley’s father gave Conley candy and religious tracts and instructed him to give candy to any prisoner that could recite a verse from the Bible.

At a small liberal arts college in Arkansas, freed from small-town bigotries, Conley found himself caught between the tug of his upbringing, on the one hand, and his new freedoms on the other. He withdrew from church, wore a Radiohead T-shirt, read Dostoevsky and Gertrude Stein and defended evolution in conversations with a fellow student, whom he calls David, while fantasising about how their bodies might feel curled into one another. Instead, David raped Conley in his dorm room later that day. “I’d been unable to move from the bed where he had placed me afterwards – I believed that God was punishing me physically for my mental transgressions,” writes Conley. A few weeks later, David called Conley’s mother and outed her son. “David had trumped me. The knowledge of my homosexuality would seem more shocking than the knowledge of my rape; or, worse, it would seem as though one act had inevitably followed the other, as though I’d had it coming to me.”

He also includes other participants’ accounts and a “Timeline of the Ex-Gay Movement”. Conley’s hope is that his story will expose ex-gay groups and gay conversion therapy programs as lacking in compassion and more likely to cause harm than cure anything, especially when participants are told, as he was, that they are “unfixable and disgusting over and over again”.

 Through an institutionalized Twelve-Step Program heavy on Bible study, he was supposed to emerge heterosexual, ex-gay, cleansed of impure urges and stronger in his faith in God for his brush with sin. Instead, even when faced with a harrowing and brutal journey, Garrard found the strength and understanding to break out in search of his true self and forgiveness.

By confronting his buried past and the burden of a life lived in shadow, Garrard traces the complex relationships among family, faith, and community.

During winter break, Conley went to a church service at his parents’ church to watch his father become an ordained minister. While there, Conley contemplated the general repressive atmosphere of the church and its doctrines, and he pondered the things that many of its congregants were likely repressing in themselves. In conversation with Conley, several congregants seemed to comment upon the idea of college education as strange, foreign, and useless. One part of the ordination ceremony was that Conley’s father had to state that he unequivocally viewed homosexuality as a sin. The narrative then shifts forward a few months. Conley returned to college, but his parents planned to place him in LIA as soon as possible. On weekends, Conley had to attend gay conversion therapy sessions. Two of Conley’s friends were Dominique and Charles, who were liberal, African-American students.

One night, Conley asked his mother about his father’s father, who was a violent, abusive alcoholic. The question was for his family genogram project at LIA. He explained that, according to LIA, his homosexuality was caused by childhood trauma. Conley wondered about the ways in which the revelation of his sexuality had thrown his parents’ lives into turmoil and worry. Conley states that, according to John Smid’s testimony of Smid’s own life, he used to be homosexual but had overcome his homosexuality. Conley began to frequently consider the ways in which LIA was functioning to strip him of all forms of fulfillment and self-expression, which he began to realize would only increase the risk of suicide. One night, Conley and his mother went out to eat, and they were able to relax and forget about religion and LIA.

Garrard Conley discusses both his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality and his parents’ attempt to return him to heterosexuality through Love in Action (LIA), which was renamed Restoration Path in 2012. According to the program’s website, “Restoration Path is a Christian discipleship ministry that exists to restore those trapped in sexual and relational sin through the power of Jesus Christ.” It further states that “Restoration Path is passionately committed to helping people discover the truth about God and about who they really are in his son Jesus. In the safety and strength of God’s love men and women of all ages have found the courage to step out of destructive and life-dominating patterns of sexual and relational sin.”

Conley talks about his LIA therapy with John Smid, the program director. During his time there, Conley never fully embraced the “ex-gay” or “reparative” approach LIA promoted. In addition to the program not being effective for Conley, he indicates in his epilogue that his experience was counterproductive in that it negatively affected his relationship with his parents and God. He writes, “My ex-gay therapists took Him [God] away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest. I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life.”

Much of Conley’s later anger is directed at John Smid, for whom LIA’s purpose also apparently failed. In 1990 when Smid became director of LIA, he was living his life as an ex-gay who eventually married a woman. According to a Huffington Post article from November 19, 2014, Smid resigned from LIA in 2008 and divorced his wife that same year. In 2014, he married his partner, Larry McQueen.

Smid would later acknowledge that homosexuality was a part of his life. He now runs Grace Rivers, “a ministry with the gay community that reveals the message of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ and genuine community with His followers – because every person deserves to know that Jesus loves them.”

Smid has done an about-face in regards to the principles of LIA’s teachings. It is also important to note that founding member, John Evans, changed his mind as well after his friend committed suicide because he could not change his sexual orientation. Evans spent the rest of his life as an ex ex-gay and dedicated himself to speaking out against these kinds of reparative programs.

These two men made it out of LIA apparently safe and sound. But for some of its former participants, like Garrard Conley, the damage has already been done. Their lives have been forever impacted by their experiences there.

Like getting into a prison, he had to surrender the morning he arrived at the Love in Action facility in Memphis, Tennessee in 2004: his phone, his wallet, his driving licence and a Moleskine journal in which he wrote his short stories. A blond boy confiscated the journal and yanked a bunch of pages free from the binding. “And he said, in a voice free of emotion: ‘False Image’,”

“False Image”, a key tenet of Love in Action (LIA), referred to anything and everything suggestive of Conley’s homosexuality. Detecting and destroying FIs was how you got the gay out. “The concept is stolen from Alcoholics Anonymous, except AA doesn’t just have you stay in a place all day, monitored.”

When Conley handed over his notebook that day, it was part of a series of rules and prohibitions designed to maximise LIA’s mind control over patients during their treatment and beyond. Other rules included restrictions on where residents could travel within Memphis, on their dressing and grooming (no “muscle shirts”; no sideburns “below the top of the ear”) and on how they engaged with the secular world (no listening to Beethoven or Bach, or entering “non-Christian bookshops”, for example). Women were forbidden to wear “mannish/boyish” clothes, whatever that might mean, and men had to avoid “campy” behaviour.

Conley recounts a story in which a 19-year-old “defector” was forced to submit to a mock funeral, as other members read out his obituary, describing his slow decline into HIV and then Aids.

A Baptist deacon, Brother Nielson, wants to nuke Middle East.

The father is an interesting character but is never drawn out. The mother could turn out top be a fag hag.

It’s repetitive and dull in places. Where is the anger? The epilogue tells you all you need to know.

Peanut butter will never taste the same again.

The author:

Andrea Arnold: Anyone would find it difficult to be forthright in a book about his or her early sexual experiences and yours were heartbreaking and traumatic. As someone who also writes fiction, why did you choose to write Boy Erased as a memoir instead of a novel, where an author can hide behind fictional characters?

Garrard Conley: I started writing the first essay for the book in a nonfiction class at UNC-Wilmington. The professor asked all of us what part of our lives we would be writing about in his class. Before that moment I had never considered writing about ‘ex-gay’ therapy or my childhood, but I blurted out some details of my life and everyone in the room leaned forward to listen. The interest was palpable. One girl said, “How is it even possible that this still happens in 2004?” Her words were my first indication that the story might be more important as a memoir than as a novel.

I worried that as a piece of fiction the story might seem exaggerated. In fiction you can get away with covering up the nasty parts of an autobiographical story or making the prose subtle. In nonfiction, however, you have the chance be explicit and say, ‘This stuff actually happened to me.’

The other indication that this might turn out as nonfiction came from a conversation I had at a café with friends at Columbia University in New York. I was visiting a friend, and someone asked about Arkansas, so I told the group a bit about my childhood. People at the table leaned forward just as they had at UNCW, and one person asked, “How can a parent do that to a child?” That question has followed me throughout the entire process of writing the book. My mom has also been asked this question many times, and she almost always cries and says something along the lines of, “I don’t know how we did this to you.” But the truth is, almost everyone in the church thought sending me to ‘ex-gay’ therapy was the right thing to do. Love in Action came highly recommended. And the more I started focusing on the question, this totally reasonable question of how it could happen and how any parent could do this to his or her child, I began to see that only memoir could begin to address the question.

AA: You were nineteen-years-old in 2004 when your parents encouraged you to go to ‘ex-gay’ therapy. Has the church changed or become more sympathetic about members coming out since then?

GC: The church changed right after I left. But you have to keep in mind that when we talk about ‘the church’ we are really talking about a lot of different dominations in the area I grew up in. There was the Assembly of God and the Church of Christ, which I honestly don’t know that much about, but my Missionary Baptist church was very plugged into the ‘ex-gay’ movement at the time. Church leaders considered it the best option if your kid turned out to be gay. But right after my experience in 2004, this sixteen-year-old kid Zack Stark posted all the rules of ‘ex-gay’ therapy at Love In Action on his blog, and this act caused a huge protest. There’s also a This American Life piece about it featuring John Smid, the former director of Love In Action, that explains why Smid decided to put an end to the facility. The documentarian Morgan John Fox even made a documentary about Love In Action called “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like,” which talks about how those protests raised awareness and caused even the ‘ex-gay’ counselors to reconsider their stance.

AA: Do you have a relationship with God today?

GC: My relationship with God is highly in flux. Like I said in the memoir, prayer for me was really a place of comfort. Like I could just speak into my head and order the world in some way. Even when I thought I was speaking to God, I was really speaking into my head and making a litany of the important things of the day or the things I wished would happen in my life. I sometimes still pray, but I wouldn’t say that I have a direct relationship with a knowable god.

AA: What about your parents? Do they?

GC: Yes. My father is still a preacher. His congregation is growing. He has a soup kitchen now and it’s pretty successful. And my mom is still a preacher’s wife, but she is very much in support of me. She’s stuck in the middle.

AA: It seemed like those recorded conversations highlighted in Part Two of Boy Erased were very difficult to have with your mother and that she was overwhelmed with guilt.

GC: It’s getting a little easier now, but we almost can’t go a full conversation without apologies and crying.

AA: The end made me cry openly like a baby. I think a lot of people can relate to having a parent who wants him or her to be something else. What is your relationship with your father like today? Has he read the manuscript?

GC: My dad was really worried about his congregation finding out about the book. As you know from reading it, there’s an idea in the church that says that the sins of the father are passed down to the son, or that whatever is reflected in the son’s behavior must be some fault of the parents. Because of this idea, my dad was worried that the church would turn against him and vote him out. His church has to be a self-sufficient by next year. Up until this year the Baptist Missionary Association has funded his church, but this funding will be cut off next year when his church becomes a fully-functioning, self-sufficient organization.

My father and I had this fruitful phone call about his fear. I said, “I know you don’t want to talk about the book, and ‘ex-gay’ therapy is not something we have talked about much in the past, but I want you to know that I didn’t write any of this to make you feel bad or to paint you as a villain.” I said, “I tried to make you into a three-dimensional human being.” He didn’t really respond this, but my mom said he went into his office, closed the door, and cried for about an hour. That night, he got behind the pulpit and said, “My son has this book coming out that’s about gay stuff. If you need to leave the church I’ll understand, but I’m staying here.” That was a really big deal in our family because he had not yet acknowledged the book, though there were certainly plenty of rumors.

Recently, some weirdo at my dad’s church saw my Twitter account and told my dad that he really needed to read what was going on. My dad got on there. I think he might’ve read the Virginia Quarterly Review excerpt. I think he read more of what the book was about, and my mom said he was really upset and wondering if I was going to Hell again. Even so, we just talked right before this interview and he seems to be okay. We’re no longer at a stalemate. I would say we’re just at a really awkward phase.

AA: What happened to the girl that you call “Chloe,” your high school girlfriend? Does she know about the book?

GC: I contacted her on Facebook right before I was about to write about her, because I didn’t want her to be mad at me. She was nice for a couple of days and then she blocked me! I guess my posts were too gay! [Laughs] But her brother, “Brandon” in the book, is openly gay and lives in California somewhere. He’s always posting these cute drinking pictures with his gay friends. She’s also cut him off a little bit. She’s married to a guy who in every photo on Facebook has camo on and her two children are carrying guns. So that’s a lost cause. [Laughs]

AA: You also wrote about how literature saved your life. What were your favorite books and authors growing up?

GC: The electric ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was when I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time. It was both the literal and metaphorical value of that scarlet letter that made me think: Okay, people hate her based on what she looks like and who she is, and everyone in this town is wrong! It was amazing: Someone took the time to craft this narrative that lets me know that everyone in a town can be wrong about an issue. Also, Hawthorne is obsessed with his family history, as I am. In the beginning of The Scarlet Letter he talks about how he discovered an embroidered scarlet letter in the file room where he was working this government job. He learned that his family was part of the Salem Witch Trials. Their family name was actually Hathorne but he changed his name to Hawthorne so he wouldn’t be associated with the Hathornes, who were some of the people that killed all those women. He felt like he had a moral duty to write about what his family had done and what people like that can do. I only found this info out later when I became obsessed with the book, but there’s also a more literal connection to the genogram. Hester Prynne had an A on her chest for adultery, and they (Love In Action) made me write an A on my family tree as part of a “Moral Inventory.” It’s really obvious why I would love that book, though at the time it just came as a shock of recognition.

AA: You got your masters from Auburn and then went to University of North Carolina — Wilmington for an MFA. You could have attended grad school in a liberal city like New York or Los Angeles. Why did you choose to stay in the South?

GC: One reason is that Auburn paid for everything [Laughs]. The other is that the South is what I have always known. I guess in some ways it’s easier to exist in a liminal space. I’ve since lived in Ukraine and Bulgaria, both of which are not progressive in terms of civil rights. The South is familiar to me, and I feel like I know my purpose there. Part of my upcoming book tour is with Garth Greenwell, and we’re booked for three different dates in North Carolina back to back. Bruce Springsteen recently canceled a concert in protest of the North Carolina Anti-LGBT Bill, but Garth and I are both Southern boys and we both feel like our best work will be to go to the places that hate us and shove it in their faces. [Laughs] We actually agreed to book two more dates together in North Carolina after the law passed. Publisher’s Weekly recently published an article about how the laws are harming bookstores. There are people living in North Carolina who aren’t privileged and mobile, who can’t leave the state, so we decided, Fuck it! Let’s go!

AA: Why did you move to Sofia, Bulgaria?

GC: I moved to Bulgaria because I fell in love with a Bulgarian man. We met at a writer’s conference called the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. She wrote The Historian, which was a big book about seven years ago. She uses her money to fund five English-speaking writers and five Bulgarian writers to go to the Black Sea and do a workshop. While I was there I met my boyfriend, but then we lived apart for a year while I was at UNCW. After I sold my book and it was under contract that first year, I moved to Sofia to be with him while writing the book and teaching English.

AA: I read your Acknowledgments page. You said that you sold your memoir before you had even written it. What was the publishing process like for you?

GC: That was so crazy. The publishing process for this book is something that infuriates people if I just tell it to them while they’re in the process of trying to publish something. I try not to talk about it often. It was one of those fairy tale stories. I was at AWP in Boston and had been invited to this dinner by a great short story writer named Kathy Flann. This was during the mini-blizzard, and we were getting snowed in. Some guy was holding court at the head of the table, mansplaining something, and I turned to the woman next to me and said, “What is with this guy?” She said, “Thanks for saying that!” She turned out to be Maud Newton, who writes these great book reviews and has a book on ancestry coming out soon and has a blog that’s been very popular. She has so many connections. She asked me what I was writing, and I told her about my essay. Then she asked me if I would like to go to an agent party with her to meet Julie Barer. I was like sure! I drank too much because it was open bar. Julie spoke to me, and very soon afterwards I sent one of the agents at Barer Literary a query letter, not knowing at all what I was doing. They asked to see more. I had like eighteen pages. I said I had everything basically written but I just needed to revise. [Laughs] I spent the next two weeks at UNCW not sleeping and writing what became the second chapter, The Plain Dealers, on their computers, sort of stealing my way into the computer building at night. I sent the chapter in, and right after that I signed with Julie. I wrote a proposal that summer on one hundred pages, which was then rejected by every house except Riverhead. It was sent to like thirty people!

AA: Do you think they were just afraid of it? I mean, I see this as a big deal book.

GC: I don’t know. Several big name editors like Lee Boudreaux were interested, but I guess they couldn’t sell it to the whole house. I have a different editor at Riverhead now, the fantastic Laura Perciasepe, but the editor who called was Megan Lynch. She’s great! She bought it on the proposal and two chapters, along with an experimental part, which is now Part Two, with my mom in it. I feel like I’m still very lucky!

AA: I was raised without a formal religion. My mother grew up Catholic, my father Jewish. We didn’t go to services regularly and holidays were for fun. Before I read Boy Erased, the concept of ‘ex-gay’ therapy was almost unfathomable. Why do readers like me need to buy your book and read it?

GC: There are two points I would like to make about that. I was thinking about why people should read my book when Riverhead was picking up the proposal, because I was worried that an editor might want to sand off the edges and make my story more palatable to readers. I wanted this memoir to be an odd document of that particular period of time in that particular version of America, an America that I believed was out to get me and the rest of the world. I thought that if this ‘ex-gay’ experience happened to me then the event wasn’t necessarily an isolated one. You can see this in current politics. Look at the North Carolina bill that just passed. Look at Tennessee. Look at Mississippi. This stuff is coming back. One of the things I say to my students when I’m teaching about civil rights issues is that it’s never a straight line of progression. In fact, these bizarre happenings are an essential part of our culture. It wasn’t so long ago that we had George W. Bush. It feels like it but it wasn’t. Even today crazy thinking controls a lot of legislature that gets passed in our country. I don’t want to sound inflated, but firstly I wanted my memoir to be a true document and secondly that if anyone found it ten or twenty years from now hopefully they would say, “What the fuck were they thinking?” [Laughs]

I started teaching The Crucible while I was writing the second half of Boy Erased, and I believe we’re still interested in that story and obsessed with witch trials because this is a strand of American history that’s still alive. What I didn’t want was for my book to become a trauma narrative or a healing narrative that would be touted as merely a testament to love. It’s not meant to be only an uplifting and inspirational piece of literature. I’m tired of the type of memoir that just shows you its scars and wants you to feel sympathy for it. This is not that kind of memoir. I wanted it to be a little scary

John Smid: One cannot repent of something that is unchangeable. I have gone through a tremendous amount of grief over the many years that I spoke of change, repentance, reorientation and such, when, barring some kind of miracle, none of this can occur with homosexuality. The article today is a great example of how we as Christians pervert the gospel as it relates to homosexuality as though homosexuals aren’t welcome in the kingdom unless they repent (which many interpret to change). But since homosexuality is not “repentable” then we put homosexuals into an impossible bind.

Surely, indiscriminate sexual behavior, stealing, gossip, and other “behaviors” are things that need to be considered when we speak of walking in the kingdom of God. God desires to transform us into His image more and more each day.

After Jack McIntyre, a friend of co-founder John Evans, committed suicide out of despair about his inability to change, Evans left Love in Action and denounced it as dangerous. He was quoted by the Wall Street Journal (April 21, 1993) as saying: “They’re destroying people’s lives. If you don’t do their thing, you’re not of God, you’ll go to hell. They’re living in a fantasy world.”

John Smid recounts becoming a Christian in 1982. He found that his religious conviction was incompatible with his homosexual lifestyle. He entered into a relationship with a woman and married. In 1986 he joined the leadership of Love In Action, eventually becoming executive director. Smid left LIA in 2008. In 2011, on his website, he stated that homosexuality is an intrinsic part of one’s being, and that “change, repentance, reorientation and such” cannot occur, and noted that he had “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual”. On November 16 2014, John Smid married his same-sex partner, Larry McQuee

Department of Children’s Services dispatched its special investigations unit to the facility, and after conducting a full investigation, determined that the child abuse allegations were unfounded,” Rob Johnson, an agency spokesman, told the Associated Press. On September 12, 2005, the Tennessee-based Love in Action facility was determined by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health to have been operating two “unlicensed mental health supportive living facilities”. LIA stopped accepting the mentally ill and dispensing medications and, in February 2006, the state of Tennessee ceased legal action.

Tommy Corman, in 2005 the spokesman for Love In Action, said the facility did not need to be licensed because it was “not doing anything therapeutic”.

In June 2007, LIA discontinued the Refuge program.

Quotations:

John Smid stood tall, square shouldered, beaming behind thin wire-rimmed glasses and wearing the khaki slacks and striped button-down that have become standard fatigues for evangelical men across the country. The rest of us sat in a semicircle facing him, all dressed according to the dress code outlined in our 274-page handbooks. Men: Shirts worn at all times, including periods of sleep. T-shirts without sleeves not permitted, whether worn as outer- or undergarments, including‘muscle shirts’ or other tank tops. Facial hair removed seven days weekly. Sideburns never below top of ear. Women: Bras worn at all times, exceptions during sleep. Skirts must fall at the knee or below. Tank tops allowed only if worn with a blouse. Legs and underarms shaved at least twice weekly. ‘The first thing you have to do is recognise how you’ve become dependent on sex, on things that are not from God,’ Smid said. We were learning Step One of Love in Action’s 12-Step programme, a set of principles equating the sins of infidelity, bestiality, paedophilia and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling: a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for what counsellors referred to as our ‘sexual deviance’.

An orange sun was climbing its way up the back of the hazy white-washed buildings in the distance. I waited for the sunlight to spill over, but the longer I watched, the longer it seemed to take. I wondered if this was how time was going to work in this place: minutes as hours, hours as days, days as weeks. ‘Once you enter the group, you’ll be well on your way to recovery,’ Smid said. ‘The important thing to remember is to keep an open mind.’ I was here by my own choice, despite my growing scepticism, despite my secret wish to run away from the shame I’d felt since my parents found out I was gay. I had too much invested in my current life to leave it behind: in my family and in the increasingly blurry God I’d known since I was a toddler. God, I prayed, making my way down the narrow hallway to the main room, the fluorescents ticking in their metal grids, I don’t know who You are any more, but please give me the wisdom to survive this.

You’re using sexual sin to fill a God-shaped void in your life.

“What my mother didn’t yet know about being gay in the South was that you never ran out of material, that being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine—this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness.”

“With each passing day at the facility, it seemed as though becoming straight was simply a matter of good lighting, of ignoring what you didn’t want to see.”

“There is a mystery in this, a minor apocalypse somewhere between what these two men once knew of themselves- a holding on to something that, in turn, refused to let them go- and I long to know it, like the old prophets.”

“Cutting away my roots and the people I loved would transform me into a shell of the person I once was, an automaton stripped of all its gears.”

As I grew older and discovered my love of literature, I externalized the markings, wrote them down in my Moleskine, kept my notebook close – so much so that when the LIA counselors took away my notebook years later, they took away much of this protection. But they didn’t take all of it. The empty pages still carried ghosts.”

“What did it feel like to not have to think about your every move, to not be scrutinized for everything you did, to not have to lie every day?”

“Masculine meant strong. Masculine meant straight. If we could only learn the essence of what it meant to be masculine, then we could learn the rest.”

“It seemed one talisman had activated the other: Mark’s number taught me that there were secret loves crouched and waiting in the last place you would likely go searching for them. What was Jesus’s compassion anyway but some well-crafted graffiti on the corridors of history, an invitation to follow Him into the most unlikely places? Love could come to you even in a room that seemed drained of it.”

“Sometimes it was what you left unsaid or undone that drew you into a state of wonder.”

“Love, over time, could either blossom or wither, become a source of wonder or a remembered ache.”

“You cut out what was once dear to you, ignore the ache in the back of your throat, erase the details you want to forget.”

“But love was always moving, always pushing us forward—always in action—and we often had no choice but to submit to where it lead us.”

“The chorus of voices will grow each year, revealing decades of pain, decades lost, families torn apart, relationships ruined because people outside the ex-gay world can never understand what we patients went through”

“LIA was telling me on a daily basis that a loss of self meant a gain in virtue, and a gain in virtue meant I was drawing closer to God and therefore closer to my true heavenly self. But the means to that end—self-loathing, suicidal ideation, years of false starts—could make you feel lonelier, and less like yourself, than you’d ever felt in your life.”

I had heard my father preach against Pentecostal church against this “relaxed” attitude. “We don’t do any of that flailing around here,” he would say. “God doesn’t want to us crawling up and down the aisles, acting like fools.”

.One moment I was terrified that my ancestors were all sit­ting up in Heaven and judging my same-sex attractions, and the next I would judge them for what I assumed they’d done to black bodies. Less than a year later at LIA, I would wonder why sour genogram keys didn’t feature the sins of slavery or racism, /why it seemed so much of history had been left out.

“Even then I knew that logo was strange,” she will later tell me. “The heart was cut away, like that was all it took.”

photos of our family standing next to the foyer’s fake plastic plants, all of us beaming for the camera.

WHEN I WAS BORN, after my mother and fatd me and just before the nurse took me away to the nursery, my father had used the sharp point of his hunting knife to gently etch a small zigzag in the bottom of my left foot, a tiny scar that would prove I was his, a symbol to ensure that the nurses hadn’t mixed me up with some other baby. He was paranoid. He had just witnessed a miracle. He didn’t want to lose his son the way he’d lost the other one.

After my parents told me this, when I was eight or nine, I’d scanned my foot for this zigzag, tried to read the faint wrinkles for a sign of his penmanship, though, of course, it had faded within a few days of my father’s etching. It had filled me with pleasure, thinking about this special mark, and though I couldn’t read it in the bottom of my foot, I felt it there, the way one feels love in a certain room without necessarily identifying its source. When I first read the Harry Potter books and learned about the lightning bolt scar on Harry’s forehead, I thought, Of course. Of course love worked that way. Of course it left its mark on the beloved. This secret mark protected you, kept you safe from harm, reminded you of who you were. All it took was the small­est symbol and you were safe.

 

Return to the home page

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Larchfield by Polly Clark

LFThis novel about loneliness, unacceptance, survival, outsiders and creativity was inspired by the author’s own plight when she moved to Helensburgh in Scotland and found a connection with Auden that was to change her life. It evokes a small community as claustrophobic and inhibiting as the characters themselves. Helensburgh, (“the Wimbledon of the north”, according to Cecil Day-Lewis), is portrayed as a town where curtains twitch and ‘outsiders’ are treated with suspicion.

Post natal depression is described well.

Child abuse lurks.

The relationship with difficult neighbours was vividly described and many could relate to that from their own experience.

Helensburgh is not as self-contained as the novel suggests: many commute to Glasgow. The local paper opined: The sad thing is that there is some decent writing here. A novel solely about a premature child and post-natal depression in a strange West Coast town might have been fine. A non-fiction book about a curious period in the life of Auden would have been interesting. Together, they are not. There is also a sour undercurrent. Dora’s dastardly neighbours are, of course, churchgoers. They are, of course, hypocrites. This presumption that the Kirk is a crucible of sourness is, in my experience, neither true nor fair. I doubt very much indeed if she would have written this novel with the nasty upstairs neighbours being of Islamic or Jewish faith.

A good read, well-written, said members. Beautiful language.

She took a risk when merging the two different times and characters.

One member said that the breakdown scene was so vivid that he had to stop reading.

“You seem awfully nice in person” Wystan is told at one party, “and I’m sure your next book will be much better”). There are moments of escape, and we follow him there too – to brief holidays with his Christopher Isherwood where he makes the most of the soon-to-vanish freedom of Berlin’s gay clubs, and into a love affair with a working-class lad back in Scotland.

 According to one critic: Barely a page goes by without some stale and threadbare language. Shocking is usually “deeply”; people hiss instead of whisper, the baby perpetually gurgles, cuts are always deep. Nobody speaks like a human being, not even the kind of human beings that inhabit soi-disant and pseudo-literary novels – “Jamie! Thank you ! I mustn’t be stung by a wasp. Dr Boyce said it could make me very ill indeed.” This is twinned with a kind of needless poeticism: “a nest of wire and tubes” referring to a complicated cot; “one creature-combination of mother and baby” to describe the simple act of holding a child. It also must be the winner of my novel of the year to overuse italics.

The author:

Clark is the literature director of Cove Park, a writer’s retreat near Helensburgh, where she has lived for the last four years, as well as in the surrounding area for a further seven. Ever since she arrived – like Dora and Auden, from Oxford, where she had worked for a publisher –  she had known about Helensburgh’s Auden connection, that the poet had taught at Larchfield for a couple of years and that his first major collection, The Orators, was written while he taught there. Her daughter is a pupil at Lomond School, which is on the site of Larchfield. “Although the building in which Auden lived while he was there has been converted to flats, the façade is exactly the same, and in the photographs I’ve got of him with the boys, the background hasn’t changed. Helensburgh hasn’t altered too much either. I really didn’t need that much imagination.”

“This was such a formative time in his life,” she says, “yet nobody has really written about him in Helensburgh. But I didn’t want to write a biography, so for years I didn’t have any kind of hook on which to hang my knowledge of him. I used to wish it had been a completely different poet, someone I could relate to more – like Ted Hughes, say – because I didn’t think I had anything in common with Auden. He’s posh, he’s gay, I didn’t like his work so much – though I do now. I just didn’t see any connection.”

“Then I realised we had everything in common. We were both outsiders. Neither of us could be ourselves any more, we were both hiding who we are.”  Or, as she explains on the proof (though not the finished) copy of the novel: “I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went. I couldn’t drive and became very isolated. When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read Auden’s The Orators. And its poems changed my life.”

 Quotations:

“His arms are huge, the arms of an ape, and he’s lighting a cigarette as he gets settled for the journey from Oxford to Glasgow. ……His left ear sticks out, the remains of the schoolboy. The impression made is one of pale, large fragility. It isn’t until he looks up that his attractiveness becomes apparent.”

“He does not know that he will be more alone than he has ever been, that he will love more deeply than he ever thought possible – and he will long for the consolations that poetry cannot give, at least not to the writer.”
“hammering the piano, her broad shoulders moving volubly beneath her navy jacket”

“His mother needed a quite different sort of partner, a Latin Lothario who would have dominated her and treated her badly but ravishingly; his father needed someone simple and happy, who could be satisfied.”

“Ma should have married a robust Italian who was very sexy … Pa should have married someone weaker than he and utterly devoted to him. But of course, if they had, I shouldn’t be here.”

“‘Do you know about poetry, Mr Wallace?’
‘I know enough to know that rugby is more important.'”
“A hotel? [the nurse] repeated, almost wonderingly, looking at Dora anew, as if perhaps she were Oliver Twist and had said, Please sir, can I have some more?”

“The mothers lining the walls raised their drooping heads like desiccated flowers suddenly given a drink. Dora hauled herself across the room, just a step ahead of the silence cresting behind her.”
“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Falconer by John Cheever

Falc 3There is no emotional involvement – is he deliberately detached? Or is this like a dream because of the methadone?

It can be grotesque yet funny at the same time.

There is an obsession with physical attraction.

There is denial of homosexuality yet he misses Jody. We don’t even hear about Jody until half way through – is this an example of the closet case withholding information?

The author has spent his life in institutions: the army, the Church, marriage, prison.

The prison seems better than today’s US prisons –rooms rather than cages.

Those who have read it twice say that it’s definitely worth re-reading.

Some say that “Falconer” is a prison novel only in the sense that Falconer is a metaphor for the life of a closeted homosexual. Others think of it as the Great American Novel, with all the ambiguities of American life – attention to the surface nor what lies underneath, pleading innocence, ‘saving the world’ rather than imperialism (after all, it was written at the end of Vietnam), alienation, coming down from the high of the Summer of Love.

Cheever was a lifelong Episcopalian, so it it about fall and redemption, the tension between flesh and spirit, and the movement from suffering to joy?

 The management of the prison behaves like any that of any other institution. The inmates relate to the warders much like pupils to teachers.

The Latin on  pp. 118-9 is not that of the Mass. Nor would communicants receive the wine (p. 131).

Prison is one of those places for going mad or getting philosophical; occupations which are not always mutually exclusive.  It’s an institution where brutal, Darwinian order reigns and the embodied nature of existence asserts itself relentlessly as an inescapable truth. In amongst this malodorous, piss-filled world, sexual drives continue unabated and are in fact heightened – assuming a primary value as a commodity to trade and as a means of control and release. This dictatorship of the flesh and of regimen has of course knock-on effects in the minds of its inhabitants, giving flight to fantastical imaginings, postcard memories and studied delusions – all of which feature prominently in Falconer.

The story goes that John Cheever started his days by dressing for work; putting on his good suit, his felt hat and taking the elevator down with all the other men of a certain class on their way to the office. But from the lobby of his New York apartment building he would take the stairs to a windowless storage room in the basement. He would hang up his hat take off the suit and sit, in his underwear, typing until lunch time when he’d get dressed again and rise to the surface.

It was written after the author spent a month getting sober at the infamous Smithers Treatment Center in New York City, a facility that Truman Capote once described as Devil’s Island.  In her family memoir Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever writes of her father when he was sober, saying that it was like having back the man she remembered from her childhood, humorous, tender, engaged. After his time at Smithers, Cheever never drank again.

Falconer’s protagonist is Ezekiel Farragut; a college professor and heroin addict who is sentenced to prison at the Falconer State Penitentiary for killing his brother Eben. Ezekiel is married to Marcia with whom he shares a child, Peter.  To say the marriage is strained is an understatement, but not simply because of the position Ezekiel’s fratricidal outburst has put his wife in. As Cheever makes clear early on when flashing back to their pre-prison relationship, Marcia has frustrated lesbian interests while Ezekiel has a latent, bisexual inclination and as such their marriage has become largely asexual. Outside the significant sexual issues, Marcia also blames Ezekiel for her failed artistic career and sub-par material surrounds, all of which manifest in her adopting a maudlin, pernickety disposition.

 One review makes exaggerated claims regarding redemption for Ezekiel from his unhappy marriage based on an affair he will have with a fellow prisoner, Jody, but in fact this affair is an episodic event, not the fulcrum of the novel.  While the affair lasts, it lasts, but when Ezekiel’s lover Jody escapes in a daring enterprise involving a cardinal and a helicopter, Ezekiel doesn’t pine for long.

 When Ezekiel dreams in jail about his family, despite the fact they are well-to-do and engaged in philanthropic projects, he always envisions them in his dreams as highly-strung, petulant, never finishing things, always leaving somewhere in indignation. The Farragut family donate skinny chickens to poor people in tenements and read George Eliot to blind, snoring octogenarians – foisting their benevolence on a needy that don’t need – but at home, in their private moments rather than in their public displays, it’s misery. The father goes to the local amusement park “pretending to drink from an empty bottle” and making very public suicidal gestures before being bought home by a teenage Ezekiel. Eben is an alcoholic who is involved in an intense and miserable marriage, with a son in jail for anti-war protests and a daughter who has attempted suicide multiple times.  Ezekiel’s mother is cavalier about her broken relationship with her husband, an open family fact about which there is no attempt at concealment or resolution. Things are broken in the Farragut family but no decisions are made, no-one exercises their agency and things roll along with missing wheels and broken spokes into a black oblivion into which everyone is dragged. Instead of that common motif in literature of individuals suffering as a result of their isolation, each member of the Farragut family draws other members into their pathologies, and so Ezekiel’s alienation is inseparable from and a result of being enmeshed with others (family, prison inmates) to which he has no connection other than the geographical and physical.

Its beginnings lie in the writing class that Cheever taught at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the early ’70s. (As Cheever biographer Blake Bailey notes: “Almost every set piece in Falconer—almost every detail—appears somewhere in Cheever’s journal entries about Sing Sing.”)  At a meeting with the inmates there, one said, “You told a lot of the stories of this place in your book,” he said. “You told the story of the C.O., Tiny, who went crazy, pissed off, and killed all of the cats we had around here. You got that one right,” he added. “We all know that one. But what about what you got wrong? You wrote that scene—that scene about jerking off? Mr. Cheever, you wrote a group jerkoff in the urinals. If that scene was the truth, we’d all be animals,” he said. “We’d be dogs, not human beings. You know what I mean? We’d be eating dog food out of bowls.”

Cheever finally looked up. His jauntiness was gone. He spoke slowly. “I’m sorry. I wish I had never written that scene,” he said. “I would change it if I could.”

Escape and freedom are recurrent themes in the novel. Ezekiel – reflecting perhaps the views of Cheever who felt himself somewhat sequestered in a heterosexual marriage and addiction to alcohol – pursues a sort of negative rather than positive liberty; a freedom from rather than a freedom to. The heroin addiction acts as a sort of bridgehead from misery to…anywhere else.

We learn that Ezekiel started receiving a ‘yellow cough syrup’ in the war, which allowed men to enter into battle at peace. From there he graduated to Benzedrine and beer and from Benzedrine to heroin. Yet there’s no sense here of a tragic fall, Cheever states quite clearly that heroin gave Ezekiel a broader view of the human condition. “

Cheever depicts Ezekiel’s addiction in its full scope, convulsions in jail as he goes through a methadone program, but also the attractions. He would shoot up before lectures and marvel at the post war world; bridges he drove across like ‘mechanical Holy Ghosts’, the planes he flew on which ‘arced luxuriously’ across rarefied air. Ezekiel saw his addiction as elevating, indeed “a life without drugs seemed in fact and in spirit a remote and despicable point in his past.”

Tiny asks, “Why is you an addict?” It is precisely that basic question that Ezekiel spends the novel trying to answer. At the end, he is redeemed from his literal drug addiction even as he is redeemed within himself from the disgust and destruction that he had both caused and accepted for himself.

Fairly frequently in this novel, Cheever extends the terms of tradition and heritage far beyond the simplistic child-psychology talk that is used to explain the way some of the characters behave. Ezekiel’s aristocratic New England background is mirrored in the age of the prison, whose name has been changed several times over many years, reflecting the shifts in penological and judicial fashions.

Cats are important to the prisoners, as are plants. Even Tiny, who tears off the head of one cat, keeps plants as an antidote to loneliness. The portrayal of the Falconer prisoners tends toward tolerance, to see these people as worthy of tolerant love, of dignity, even though they are hopelessly fallen. That effect is partly accomplished by Cheever’s not lingering over the well-documented sorts of violence, racism, and terror that pervade prisons.

Although Ezekiel does not express regret or remorse about his homosexuality, he often speaks of his penis as an uncontrollable, separate entity, an independent member of some community with him only part of it: “What he saw, what he felt, was the utter poverty of erotic reasonableness.”.

The (sparing) detail of Ezekiel murdering his brother Eben does not feature until the end of the novel but not in order to give us some clarifying motive. After a fight in which Eben states that their father organised a doctor to have Ezekiel aborted, Ezekiel strikes his brother with a fire iron and kills him. However the effect of this abortion ‘revelation’ is muted, tired – not some critical piece of information which stirs Ezekiel’s passions. The abortion story is a known fact in the family and to Ezekiel and the reader already and thus the murder is described in sparse, cursory detail.

Time has marked the prison guards’ faces more severely than the captives, The world of the prison is evidently not a place of redemption, it’s a terminus from which Ezekiel’s lover Jody, and eventually Ezekiel himself, escapes and it houses the occasional petty tyrants you’d expect to inhabit such a place.

‘But they look so nice,’ someone says… as the newly arrived felons march quickstep across the yard of Falconer Prison, which was recently and briefly renamed Daybreak House. Throughout the author artfully plays the comic and tragic off each other, relieving the burden of his true depth with a laugh.

At the end of Chapter One, Chicken Number Two, a fellow prisoner, tells Farragut, ‘There has to be something good at the end of every journey’ and that he will have thousands of visitors, including his wife, ‘She’ll have to come and visit you. She ain’t going to be able to divorce you unless you sign the papers and she’ll have to bring them here herself. So all I wanted to tell you, is what you already knew—it’s all a big mistake, a terrible mistake.’

Cheever is acknowledging the divide, the deeply dangerous gap between a man’s public self, his projected image versus his true self, how he is experienced or experiences himself from the inside out. Appearances mean everything to Cheever; his men want to be read as successful, they want to have the right wives, children, careers, they are terrified of their impulses, their rage, the prospect of age, of literally and figuratively losing their hard-on for life, for slipping in one way or another and yet they are human—all too human. While in solitary confinement, Farragut crafts letters to his governor, his bishop and his girl, a stiff starched sheet with a stolen pen. These letters are incredibly eloquent, lush, graceful, filled with a heady heightened prose that hovers on the precipice of the hallucinatory.

Cheever takes the mythic, the biblical, the Cain and Abel of it all, and weaves a story of how one brother, Ezekiel (Farragut), was pushed to murder the other, Eben. It was in fact Eben who always wanted Farragut dead and who goes so far as to remind Farragut that their father called the abortionist to come and get rid of him before he ever came to life, and who in a subtle attempt to kill his brother, encourages him to swim in unsafe waters.

Falc 2Quotations:

The main entrance to Falconer — the only entrance for convicts, their visitors and the staff — was crowned by an esutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the soverieng power of government. Liberty wore a mobcap and carried a pike. Government was the federal Eagle holding an olive branch and armed with hunting arrows. Justice was conventional; blinded, vaguely erotic in her clinging robes and armed with a headsman’s sword

[On arrival, he is escorted to cellblock F.] “F,” said Tiny the warden, “stands for … freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses like me, phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts. There’s more, but I forget it. The guy who made it up is dead.”

Falc3“The bars had been enameled white many years ago, but the enamel had been worn back to iron at the chest level, where men instinctively held them.”

The accident or what they called the murder had taken place, Farragut thought, because of the fact that whenever he remembered or dreamed about his family he always saw them from the back. They were always stamping indignantly out of concert halls, theaters, sports arenas and restaurants, and he, as the youngest, was always in the rear. “If Koussevitzky thinks I’ll listen to that . . .” “That umpire is crooked.” “This play is degenerate.” “I don’t like the way that waiter looked at me.” “That clerk was impudent.” And so on. They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that’s the way he remembered them, heading, for some reason in wet raincoats, for the exit. It had occurred to him that they may have suffered terribly from claustrophobia and disguised this weakness as moral indignation.

Farragut was a drug addict and felt that the consciousness of the opium eater was much broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced addiction.

Your sentence would be lighter were you a less fortunate man,” said the judge, “but society has lavished and wasted her riches upon you and utterly failed to provoke in you that conscience that is the stamp of an educated and civilized human being and a useful member of society.

She had an authenticated beauty. Several photographers had asked her to model, although her breasts, marvelous for nursing and love, were a little too big for that line of work…”You know,” [Farragut’s] son had said, “I can’t talk to Mummy when there’s a mirror in the room. She’s really balmy about her looks.” Narcissus was a man and he couldn’t make the switch, but she had, maybe twelve or fourteen times, stood in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom and asked him, “Is there another woman of my age in this country who is as beautiful as I?” She had been naked, overwhelmingly so, and he had thought this an invitation, but when he touched her she said, “Stop fussing with my breasts. I’m beautiful.”

‘And I remember when we first met, and I am today and will be forever astonished at the perspicacity with which a man can, in a glimpse, judge the scope and beauty of a woman’s memory, her tastes in color, food, climate and language, the precise clinical dimensions of her visceral, cranial and reproductive tracts, the condition of her teeth, hair, skin, toenails, eyesight and bronchial tree, that he can, in a second, exalted by the diagnostics of love, seize on the fact that she is meant for him….I can remember this and I can remember the sailboat race too, but it is getting dark here now, it is too dark for me to write anymore.’

Marcia walked down the hall to their bedroom and slammed the door. The sound was like an explosion to him. In case he had missed this, she opened the door and slammed it again. He became faint and in the distance heard Marcia ask: “Is there anything I can get you?” Her tone was murderous.

“Some sort of kindness,” he had said. “A little kindness.”

“Kindness?” she asked. “Do you expect kindness from me at a time like this? What have you ever done to deserve kindness? What have you ever given me? Drudgery. Dust. Cobwebs. Cars and cigarette lighters that don’t work. Bathtub rings, unflushed toilets, clinical alcoholism, drug addiction … and now a massive attack of heart failure. That’s what you have given me to live with, and you expect kindness.”

We have either missed the train or there is no train or the train is late. I don’t remember… All I really remember is a sense of your company and a sense of physical contentment.

FalcHe had desired and pursued women who charmed him with their lies and enchanted him with their absolute irresponsibility. When he bought diamond earrings he had deliberately judged the sexual mileage he could expect from these jewels.

Yesterday was the day of anxiety, the age of the fish and today, his day, his morning, was the mysterious and adventurous age of the needle.”

But each day Farragut must wake and must search for the image, whether it be a man in prison grays feeding bread crusts to a dozen pigeons or whether it be the actions of visitors to Falconer .

And indeed how unappreciative of freedom these people were – the visitors.

They were free free to run, jump … drink, book a seat on the Tokyo plane. They were free and yet they moved so casually through this precious element that it seemed wasted on them.

As the last of the visitors departs, he feels like crying and howling for he is among the living dead. Even a simple activity like jogging gives him an illusion of freedom. So he jogs to the mess hall, to the bath house and around the yard.

“Sometime in April, twelve years ago, I was diag­nosed as a chronic drug addict by Drs. Lemuel Brown, Rodney Coburn and Henry Mills. These men were graduates of Cornell, the Albany Medical School and Harvard University, respectively. Their position as healers was established by the state and the federal governments and the organizations of their colleagues. Surely, when they spoke, their expressed medical opin­ion was the voice of the commonwealth. On Thursday, the eighteenth of July, this unassailable opinion was contravened by Deputy Warden Chisholm. I have checked on Chisholm’s background. Chisholm dropped out of high school in his junior year, bought the an­swers to a civil service test for correctional employees for twelve dollars and was given a position by the De­partment of Correction with monarchal dominion over my constitutional rights. At 9 A.M. on the morning of the eighteenth, Chisholm capriciously chose to over­throw the laws of the state, the federal government and the ethics of the medical profession, a profession that is surely a critical part of our social keystone. Chisholm decided to deny me the healing medicine had determined was my right. Is this no treachery, is this not high treason when the Constitution are overthrown at the whim of one single, uneducated man? Is this not an offense punishable by death—or in some states by life imprisonment? Is this not more far-reaching in its destructive pecedents than some miscarried assassination attempt? Does it not strike more murderously at the heart of our hard-earned and ancient philosophy of than rape or homicide?

“The rightness of the doctors’ diagnosis was, of course, proven. The pain I suffered upon withdrawal of that medicine granted to me by authority in the land was mortal. When Deputy Warden Chisholm saw me attempt to leave my cell to go to the infirmary he tried to kill me with a chair twenty-two sutures in my skull and I will be crippled for life. Are our institutions of penology, correction and rehabilitation to be excluded from the laws kind has considered to be just and urgently to the continuation of life on this continent a this planet? You may wonder what I am prison and I will be very happy to inform thought it my duty to first inform you of the criminal treason that eats at the heart of your administration.”

“As Your Grace well knows, the most universal image of mankind is not love or death; it is Judgment

Day. One sees this in the cave paintings in the Dor­dogne, in the tombs of Egypt, in the temples of Asia and Byzantium, in Renaissance Europe, England, Rus­sia and the Golden Horn. Here the Divinity sifts out the souls of men, granting to the truly pure infinite serenity and sentencing the sinners to fire, ice and sometimes piss and shit. Social custom is never in force where one finds this vision, and one finds it everywhere. Even in Egypt the candidates for immortality include souls who could be bought and sold in the world of the living. The Divinity is the flame, the heart of this vision. A queue approaches the Divinity, always from the right; it doesn’t matter what country, age or century from which the vision is reported. On the left, then, one sees the forfeits and the rewards. Forfeiture and torment are, even in the earliest reports, much more passion­ately painted than eternal peace. Men thirsted, burned and took it up the ass with much more force and passion than they played their harps and flew. The presence of God binds the world together. His force, His essence, is Judgment.

“Everyone knows that the only sacraments are bread and water. The hymeneal veil and the golden ring came in only yesterday, and as an incarnation of the vision of love, Holy Matrimony is only a taste of the hellish consequences involved in claiming that a vision can be represented by thought, word and deed. Here, in my cell, is what one sees in the caves, the tombs of the kings, the temples and churches all over the planet being performed by men, by any kind of men the last century might have bred. Stars, dumbbells, hacks and boobs—it is they who have constructed these caverns of hell and, with a familiar diminishment of passion, the fields of paradise on the other side of the wall. This is the obscenity, this is the unspeakable obscenity, this stupid pageantry of judgment that, finer than air or gas, fills these cells with the reek of men slaughtering one another for no real reason to speak of. Denounce this cardinal blasphemy, Your Grace, from the back of your broad-winged eagle.”

“an escutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the sovereign power of government.”

“And I never got laid free, never once. I paid anywhere from fifty cents to fifty dollars, but I never once shot a lump for free … I just wish I had it free, once.”

“Long ago when they first invented the atomic bomb people used to worry about its going off and killing everybody, but they didn’t know that mankind has enough dynamite right in his guts to tear the fucking planet to pieces. Me, I know.”

‘I’m so glad you ain’t homosexual,’ Jody kept saying when he caressed Farragut’s hair.”

“He promised to wait for me.”

“The day was shit.”

Considering the fact that the cock is the most criti­cal link in our chain of survival, the variety of shapes, colors, sizes, characteristics, dispositions and responses found in this rudimentary tool are much greater than those shown by any other organ of the body. They were black, white, red, yellow, lavender, brown, warty, wrinkled, comely and silken, and they seemed, like any crowd of men on a street at closing time, to represent youth, age, victory, disaster, laughter and tears. There were the frenzied and compulsive pumpers, the long-timers who caressed themselves for half an hour, there were the groaners and the ones who sighed, and most of the men, when their trigger was pulled and the fusillade began, would shake, buck, catch their breath and make weeping sounds, sounds of grief, of joy, and sometimes death rattles. There was some rightness in having the images of the lovers around them opaque. They were universal, they were phantoms, and any skin sores, or signs of cruelty, ugliness, stupidity or beauty, could not be seen. Farragut went here regularly after Jody was gone.

When Farragut arced or pumped his rocks into the trough he endured no true sadness—mostly some slight disenchantment at having spilled his energy onto iron. Walking away from the trough, he felt that he had missed the train, the plane, the boat. He had missed it. He experienced some marked physical relief or improvement: the shots cleared his brain. Shame and remorse had nothing to do with what he felt, walking away from the trough. What he felt, what he saw as the utter poverty of erotic reasonableness. That as how he missed the target and the target was the mysteriousness of the bonded spirit and the flesh. He knew it well. Fitness and beauty had a rim. Fitness and beauty had a dimension, had a floor, even as the oceans haye a floor, and he had committed a trespass. It was unforgivable—a venal trespass—but he was reproa­ched by the majesty of the realm. It was majestic; in prison he knew the world to be majestic. He had taken a pebble out of his shoe in the middle of mass. He remembered the panic he had experienced as boy when he found his trousers, his hands and his coattails soaked with crystallizing gism. He had learned from the Boy Scout Handbook that his prick would grow as long and thin as a shoelace, and that the juice that had poured out of his crack was the cream of his brain power. This miserable wetness proved that he would fail his College Board exams and have to attend a broken-down agricultural college somewhere in the Middle West. . .

Marshack…was very useful. He was indispensable at greasing machinery and splicing BX cables and he would be a courageous and fierce mercenary in some border skirmish if someone more sophisticated gave the order to attack. There would be some universal goodness in the man – he would give you a match for your cigarette and save you a seat at the movies – but there was no universality to his lack of intelligence. Marshack might respond to the sovereignty of love, but he could not master geometry and he should not be asked to. Farragut put him down as a killer.

Farragut walked to the front of the bus and got off at the next stop. Stepping onto the street he saw he had lost his fear of falling (he had forgotten how to walk as a free man). He held his head high, his back straight and walk along nicely. Rejoice, he thought. Rejoice.

“Who would want to riot in order to get out of a nice place like this? In the paper now you read there’s unemployment everywhere. That’s why the lieutenant governor is in here. He can’t get no job outside. Even famous movie stars with formerly millions is standing in line with their coat collars turned up around their necks waiting for a handout, waiting for a bowl of that watery bean soup that don’t keep you from feeling hungry and makes you fart. Out in the street everybody’s poor, everybody’s out of work and it rains all the time. They mug one another for a crust of bread. You have to stand in line for a week just to be told you ain’t got no job. We stand in line three times a day to get our nice minimal-nutritional hot meal, but out in the street they stand in line for eight hours, twenty-four hours, some­times they stand in line for a lifetime. Who wants to get out of a nice place like this and stand in line in the rain? And when they ain’t standing in line in the rain they worry about atomic war. Sometimes they do both. I mean they stand in line in the rain and worry about atomic war because if there’s an atomic war they’ll all be killed and find themselves standing in line at the gates of hell. That’s not for us, men. In case of an atomic war we’ll be the first to be saved. They got bomb shelters for us criminals all over the world. They don’t want us loose in the community. I mean they’ll let the community burn before they’ll set us free, and that will be our salvation, friends. They’d rather burn than have us running around the streets, because everybody knows that we eat babies, fuck old women up the ass and burn down hospitals full of helpless cripples. Who would ever want to get out of a nice place like this?”

the Cuckold cleared his throat and said, “If you was to ask my advice about marriage, I would advise you not to put too much attention on fucking. I guess I married her because she was a great fuck—I mean she was my size, she came at the right time, it was great there for years. But then when she started fucking everybody, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get any advice from the church and all I could get out of the law was that I should divorce her, but what about the kids? They didn’t want me to go, even when they knew what she was doing. She even talked with me about it. When I complained about her screwing everybody, she gave me this lecture about how it wasn’t an easy life. She said sucking every cock on the street was a very lonely and dangerous way to live. She told me it took courage. She did, really. She gave me this lecture. She said that in the movies and in the books you read it’s a very nice and easy thing, but she’d had to face all sorts of problems. She told me about this time when I was on the road and she went to this bar and restaurant for dinner with some friends. In North Dakota we have these food divorcement laws where you eat in one place and drink in another, and she had moved from the drinking place to the eating place. But at the bar there was this very, very beautiful man. She gave him the horny eye through the doorway and he gave it right back to her. You know what I mean. The horny eye?

“So then she told me that she told her friends, very loudly, that she wasn’t going to have any dessert, that she was going to drive home to her empty house and read a book. She said all this so he could hear her and would know that there wasn’t going to be any husband or kids around. She knew the bartender and the bar­tender would give him her address. So she went home and put on a wrapper and then the doorbell rang and there he was. So right in the hallway he began to kiss her and put her hand on his cock and drop his pants, right in the front hallway, and at about discovered that while he was very beat also very dirty. She told me that he could bath in a month. As soon as she got a whiff of him she cooled off and began to figure out how him into a shower. So he went on kissing her and getting out of his clothes and smelling worse and then she suggested that maybe he bath. So then he suddenly got angry and said that he was looking for a cunt, not a mother, that his mother told him when he needed a bath, that around looking for sluts in saloons in or when he needed a bath and when to get and when to brush his teeth. So he got went away and she told me this to illustrate how a round heels takes all kinds of courage.

“But I did lousy things too. When I road once I said hello and went upstairs to take a crap and while I was sitting there I noticed this big pile of hunting and fishing magazines besides the toilet. So then I finished and pulled and came out shouting about this constipated man she was fucking. I yelled and yelled. I said it was just her speed to pick up with a boob who a fly or take a shit. I said I could imagine him sitting  there, his face all red, reading about catching the gamy  muskallonge in stormy northern waters. I just what she deserved, that just by lool could tell it was her destiny to get ream those pimply gas pumpers who do they magazines and can’t cut a turd. So she cried and about an hour later I remembered that I had subscribed to all these hunting and fishing magazines and when I said that I was sorry she really didn’t care and I felt shitty.” Farragut said nothing—he seldom said anything to the Cuckold—and the Cuckold went back to his cell and turned up his radio.

It’s online here

Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century – H.G. Cocks

NO

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I thought that this kind of love ‘date not speak its name’ because of the biblical injunction that ‘these things should not even be mentioned among you.’

Not so – it was kept quiet so as not to give the lower orders ideas to tempt them.

The latter part of this book, having dealt with rime and the courts, deals with mystical writings and sects.

There’s an odd (mis)understanding behind: The holy men Carpenter referred to were ‘bisexual’ in the sense of possessing both male and female characteristics

This book is a Ph.D. thesis so it’s a bit dense in places.

NO 2Quotations:

while adultery, fornication and other sexual infractions were gradually relegated to the realm of private morality over the course of the three centuries preceding 1800. Clearly, for most of Western history, sodomy was disdained by civil and religious authorities, and subject to severe penalties, but these were also very infrequently enforced.

The problem was that homosexuality was not distant and unknowable, and in the Warrington case and others was also described with surprise as an everyday, casual and widespread phenomenon.

I present it here as a digest of the available information, and as a guide to an overall impression of the law in this area. Some of the statistics, which are based on newspaper reports, tell us more about the public perception of offenders than they do about the majority of offenders. This information is nevertheless important in demonstrating how the image of the offender was made.

In spite of Labouchere’s claims, it is now clear that his efforts did not change the law in a dramatic fashion. As the case of the Rev Olive shows, it was possible to prosecute all kinds of homosexual behaviour, consenting or otherwise, in public as well as in private, long before 1885. This was possible because homosexual offences could be prosecuted under a law which predated Labouchere’s amendment by three centuries. This law, which outlawed all forms of sodomy, dated back to the reign of Henry VIII. His statute, passed in 1533, was adapted, probably during the eighteenth century, to outlaw all homosexual acts. Labouchere’s amendment, therefore, was not a radical break.

Some of the statistics, which are based on newspaper reports, tell us more about the public perception of offenders than they do about the majority of offenders. This information is nevertheless important in demonstrating how the image of the offender was made.

Louise Jackson, in an analysis of all kinds of sexual assaults prosecuted in nineteenth-century England, also concludes that most of these cases involved assaults on children.” Yet when we look at the age profile of the victims/sexual partners in homosexual offences reported in the press and in criminal petitions for the nineteenth century (Figure 3), we find that this is far from being the case.

This sample suggests that the largest group of victims/partners were adult men. This age group comprises a large number of assaults on soldiers, men in the street and policemen, whose age was either stated, or who can be expected to be at least in their twenties. The next largest groups were probably adolescent, given either their stated age or their description in press or case papers as ‘boys,’ ‘lads’ or ‘youths’ in the press. It also has to be borne in mind that the term lad or youth could describe a wide difference in age from early adolescence to early adulthood.

The preponderance of gentlemen and other professionals like clergymen teachers in press reports clearly reflects editorial decisions about w was likely to be of interest to a public fascinated by the transgressions the respectable. Also, the number of soldiers indicates that most press reports dealt with the concentration of cases in London.

The charge of indecent assault was often used retrospectively as a means to ensure that one o the partners could testify against the other, since if both had given consent their evidence would have require d further corroboration. I addition, the term ‘indecent assault’ was often used as a shorthand term in legal documents to connote consenting sex.

The greatest expansion in prosecutions for homosexual offences appe to have been driven by the private prosecutor, who was frequently of social status. These facts suggest that the provision of costs and expen must have had a major impact on the prosecution of these cases.

convictions in these cases were not easily obtained. Such prosecutions re risked scandal, threatening to bring sodomy to public attention without the certainty that a moral lesson might be transmitted.

The overall effect of these police practices, I suggest, was a policy of de facto toleration of private offences by the police. They would, of course, (still prosecute private offences if discovered by individual officers or prosecutors, but generally would not pursue these offences themselves

In addition, a poorly prepared police case would often attract criticism from magistrates for risking indecent publicity without the certainty of conviction. Therefore, although the police were increasingly involved in the prosecution of indecent assault, there were few sustained efforts on their part to raid the haunts of ‘sodomites’.

As we have seen, the rise in the level of committal for unnatural crimes which took place in London and Middlesex was part of a much wider increase in the level of prosecution for all offences. Rising numbers of offences were not necessarily the result of any sustained campaigns against ‘sodomites, or mollies then, but were incidental to other changes which altered the policing of public orderstreets, but this was often prohibitively expensive. gistrates sometimes sent the watch on raids against molly houses, t these expeditions seem to have been relatively rare. By the 1850s, the majority of all criminal cases were brought by the police, and the suspicion which had often fallen on private. Neither did the arrival of the Metropolitan Police mark a break with the ways in which same-sex desire was policed. Levels of crime, which appeared to be rising during the 1820s, were frequently interpreted as the result of improvements to the watch system instituted at a local level by vice and prosecution societies and parish authorities.’ The new police simply carried on this trend towards the control of public indecency and the implementation of new standards of public order.

those who frequented the parks knew how to escape the police, ‘whose duty it is to confine themselves to the roads or paths’.

The Home Office in 1830 argued that if sodomy were not a crime, it would not attract the publicity which caused it to spread among those of weak morals. If, for instance, ‘no notice were taken of this crime in our civil courts and newspapers’, it would probably ‘become less frequent, for thousands would never know the present existence of this unnatural offence, nor should we be shocked and disgusted by the frequent public allusion to it’.

The ambiguity of passing, impersonation and masquerade means that these terms are placed into just such a category of the obsolete, to be superseded by scientific discourses of the self such as transvestism and gender dysphoria.

In public performance, impersonation also took on a specific set of meanings. Peter Bailey has observed that the conventions of the music hall, in which many female and male impersonators appeared, encouraged a kind of knowing complicity in its audience. The audience inserted their own words and meanings into ‘indecent’ music hall songs, appropriated characters and plays and as such became used to ‘reading’ the spaces and gaps where sex I — which was otherwise unmentionable in a public theatre — might be placed. The theatricality of impersonation in this context, Bailey implies, represented a knowing ‘conspiracy of meaning’ between performer and audience about the incipient indecency of music hall.

The majority of reported cases of extortion, as ‘homosexual’ blackmail known in the nineteenth century, occurred across class. The blackmailer who confronted a social superior faced the problem that a combination of wealth and respectability usually guaranteed that the right of the law was behind gentility. Not only did material wealth enable gentlemen to obtain expert legal advice, but also the benefit of y doubt was usually extended to men of good character and high social status.

For Acton, unnatural desire was the final stage in a process of decay which had begun in youth. Excessive sex at that stage polluted the body and the mind, producing a series of insatiable sexual impulses. Youthful indiscretion deadened the moral sense and weak the body, thereby opening the way to ever-greater debauchery as a means to raise a jaded desire. Adulthood, which usually provided the means the will to indulge a greater array of perversions, only made the condition worse. Variety and ‘local stimulants’ might satisfy these failing powers a while, but they were bound to fail.

The man would undoubtedly forfeit his £500 and ‘disappear from England’. This way of proceeding not only enabled the purchase of impunity but was nothing other than ‘a most obnoxious form of class legislation — a mode of exempting the rich from the real force of the laws by which the poor are unsparingly (and rightly) coerced’.

the newspaper coverage was beginning to escalate. Labouchere’s Truth harried the government at every turn. In particular, Labouchere alleged that a cover up had been perpetrated in I order to protect the aristocracy, and that the Tories were implicated

The College was also typical in other ways. Both Joy Dixon and Alex Owen have shown that the use of spirituality as a means to explain and ennoble sexual dissidence and personal radicalism was a common feature of the 1880s and 1890s.

The liturgy of the Labour churches, in so far as they had one, was a typically eclectic mixture of nonconformity and more unorthodox sources of spirituality. Whitman’s celebration of the common man and his demonstration of the labourer’s need for spiritual as well as material sustenance chimed perfectly with the spirit of socialist groups like the Labour Church.

Wallace similarly read in Calamus the association of death and desire. or him, however, Calamus suggested the death of selfish passion and e submerging of personal interest in the love of comrades, which itself as the only way to reach immortality. As Whitman put it in Scented Herbage of My Breast, a poem which celebrates the association of phallic desire with love and death: ‘I am not sure but the high soul of lovers welcomes death most.'”

Return to the home page

 

Leave a Comment

Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave

HTMPeople who like coming of age novels will love this book – and it was written a lot later than most books of this genre.

It’s really a eulogy to John and, as such, an idealised portrait. It oozes sentimentality.  Love came easily but the pleasant description made the ending all that more impacting.

One member of our group thought that the first chapter was incredibly badly written but most agreed that the book was readable on the whole.

The slang is of its time and place but it is easy to get the drift of what the words and phrases mean. Yet he’s writing about youngsters 15 younger than him self.

The protagonist doesn’t kid himself that it’s a phase.

He tells mother about his first wet dream – that seem very modern to me.

A smoking room at school – 1977–  such a thing happened in England around that time too.

Title from football, though not spelt out

He doesn’t pray even when John is injured. Nor is there any dramatic rejection of religion either, which you might expect, given the circumstances.

Many of us thought that Tim was callous in his putting aside of John when he wanted an open relationship and, later, when he moved away.

The advent of AIDs was distressing, the medical procedures close to the knuckle of those who have experienced them and the last rights was moving. I usually avoid any books with AIDs in them.

Someone who knows the people portrayed says that people have a misunderstanding of what the Caleos are like, based on how Tim painted them in the novel.

“But the Caleos aren’t actually like that … They were just middle class, salt-of-the-earth Australians, trapped in a time. At the end of the day they were there, with John Caleo, right at the end, supporting their son and loving their son.

“Yes, they didn’t get along with Tim Conigrave, but a lot of people didn’t get along with Tim Conigrave. He was hard work, and his friends would say that. As much as they loved him, sometimes he was hard work.”

The lovers have a 2 hour phone call – am I sexist in thinking of teenage girls as best friends?

HTM bkQuotations:

We sat cuddling over the phone.

I felt used

‘I reached out and touched his hair. He turned and kissed my hand. I moved closer until we were standing against each other. He smelt like soap and clean clothes. Gentle. Just holding and kissing gently. If this had been it, if I had died then, I would have said it was enough’

“You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned. I miss you terribly. Ci vedremo lassu, angelo.”

“I guess the hardest thing is having so much love for you and it somehow not being returned. I develop crushes all the time, but that is just misdirected need for you. You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned.”

Return to the home page

 

 

Comments (3)

Specimen Days – Michael Cunningham

sd2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Three stories, past, present and future, depict three central, semi-consistent character-types: a young boy, a man, and a woman. Walt Whitman’s poetry is also a common thread in each of the three stories, and the title is from Whitman’s own prose works.

In the Machine“, set in mid-to-late 19th Century New York, begins in the aftermath of a wake. Simon, a young man working in a factory had been accidentally sucked into a factory machine which crushed him to death. Due to the poverty present in the lower classes during the Industrial Revolution, Simon’s family sends Lucas, Simon’s disfigured younger brother, to work at the factory in Simon’s place.

Lucas has a strange affliction in which he intermittently and uncontrollably spouts the poetry of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (Lucas’ favourite book). Walt Whitman was a contemporary of the time and Lucas meets him during the course of the story. Lucas is also concerned Simon has become a ghost and inhabits not only the machine that killed him but all the machines that are becoming commonplace in the city as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

This concern leads Lucas to fear for the life of Catherine, Simon’s bereaved girlfriend. Lucas believes Simon’s ghost may try to inhabit the machines at the factory where Catherine works as a seamstress with a view to take Catherine to the afterlife by killing her through the machine’s function. Lucas embarks on a mission to save Catherine by preventing her from going to work. .

Lucas’ fear of Simon’s ghost is, at the same time, a fear of the Machine and, on a larger scale, the Industrial Revolution in New York City itself. The machines replace humans, even kill them, and the industrial revolution has demeaned the importance of each human individual with its positioning of people as cogs in its own giant machine. In this light, Lucas’ fears and Whitman’s transcendental poetry represent the affirmation of humanity and each individual’s importance.

“The Children’s Crusade” takes place in post-9/11 Manhattan, where Cat, a hardboiled police psychologist who deals with cranks and wannabe assassins, is horrified to discover a secret “family” of pre-teen suicide-bombers. The children blow up their victims at random, using Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as their rationale. When Cat bonds with a 12-year-old bomber who reminds her of her own lost son, Luke, her shallow relationship with futures trader Simon is undermined by yearnings for a pre-industrial utopia.

“Like Beauty” takes place in a post-nuclear future, when New York has been turned into a tawdry theme park. Simon, an android whose programming makes him recite Whitman whenever he’s in danger of feeling human emotion, goes on the run with Catareen, a reptilian alien. Teamed up with Luke, a 12-year-old street kid, they are finally offered escape to a paradisal new planet, but Simon risks losing his place in the spaceship to stay with the woman – or lizard – he loves.

Certain themes recur in each of the three stories in “Specimen Days”: class differences, the difficulty of feeling authentically, quasi-Buddhist notions of rebirth and the afterlife, the exhilarating nightmare of New York City, the dream of escaping New York City.

DonaldTrump is mentioned  – this was written in 2005 before most of us had ever heard of him.

sdQuotations:

Fear not O Muse! truly new ways and days receive, surround you,

I candidly confess a queer, queer race, of novel fashion,

And yet the same old human race, the same within, without,

Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearning the same,

The same old love, beauty and use the same. —Walt Whitman

“Only at these subdued moments could you truly comprehend that this glittering, blighted city was part of a slumbering continent; a vastness where headlights answered the constellations; a fertile black roll of field and woods dotted by the arctic brightness of gas stations and all-night diners, town after shuttered town strung with streetlights, sparsely attended by the members of the night shifts, the wanderers who scavenged in the dark, the insomniacs with their reading lights, the mothers trying to console colicky babies, the waitresses and gas-pump guys, the bakers and the lunatics.”

“I feel like there’s something terrible and wonderful and amazing that’s just beyond my grasp. I have dreams about it. I do dream, by the way. It hovers over me at odd moments. And then it’s gone. I feel like I’m always on the brink of something that never arrives. I want to either have it or be free of it.”

“He wanted to tell her that he was inspired and vigilant and recklessly alone, that his body contained his unsteady heart and something else, something he felt but could not describe: porous and spiky, shifting with flecks of thought, with urge and memory; salted with brightness, flickerings of white and green and pale gold; something that loved stars because it was made of the same substance.”
“She’s had a long life. Now she’s going to the Lord.”
“Frankly it creeps me out a little when you say things like that,” Simon said.
“It shouldn’t. If you don’t like ‘Lord,’ pick another word. She’s going home. She’s going back to the party. Whatever you like.”
“I suppose you have some definite ideas about an afterlife.”
“Sure. We get reabsorbed into the earthly and celestial mechanism.”
“No heaven?”
“That’s heaven.”
“What about realms of glory? What about walking around in golden slippers?”
“We abandon consciousness as if we were waking from a bad dream. We throw it off like clothes that never fit us right. It’s an ecstatic release we’re physically unable to apprehend while we’re in our bodies. Orgasm is our best hint, but it’s crude and minor by comparison.”
sd-3“Catherine thought Simon was in the locket, and in heaven, and with them still. Lucas hoped she didn’t expect him to be happy about having so many Simons to contend with.”
“A sensation rose in him, a high tingling of his blood. There came a wave, a wind that recognized him, that did not love him or hate him. He felt what he knew as the rising of his self, the shifting innerness that yearned and feared, that was more familiar to him than anything could ever be. He knew that an answering substance gathered around him, emanating from the trees and the stars.

He stood staring at the constellations. Walt had sent him here, to find this, and he understood. He thought he understood. This was his heaven. It was not Broadway or the horse on wheels. It was grass and silence; it was a field of stars. It was what the book told him, night after night. When he died he would leave his defective body and turn into grass. He would be here like this, forever. There was no reason to fear it, because it was part of him. What he’d thought of as his emptiness, his absence of soul, was only a yearning for this.”
“I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end. But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”
“In heaven, Lucas would be beautiful. He’d speak a language everyone understood.”
“She’d never been religious. She hadn’t allowed grief to send her crawling to the church.”

Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Lifted by the Great Nothing by Karim Dimechkie

LBTGN(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Another group, one of whose members is Lebanese, recommended this.

I found it difficult to ‘get into’ this book until page 158 – over half way through.

There are oddly short chapters interspersing normal length chapters.

I found it rather creepy that a grown woman spooned an under-age teenage boy in bed and offered to teach him how to masturbate.

The book covers homosexuality, racism, identity politics, and immigration.

Max can’t be made happy by the treehouse and musical instruments his father offers, he recognises his father’s need and assures him – as sincerely as he is able – that he is indeed happy.

There’s lots of escapism: filled with scenes of drunkenness—Rodney and Kelly both precipitate confrontations while drunk, and young Max cultivates a secret taste for vodka.

Throughout “Lifted by the Great Nothing,” which follows Max’s adolescence, father and son are engaged in “this very awkward negotiation of how to be kind to each other,” Dimechkie said, leading them to lie to one another. “This book kind of deals with the question of when is a lie morally acceptable,” he added, and the damage even well-intentioned deception can leave behind. “When you realize you’ve been lied to it totally creates this bifurcated recollection of the past,” Dimechkie said. “It completely undercuts your memory. Something very precious is being taken from you — your personal narrative is being completely edited by the imposition of what was really going on that the time. So your memory gets sort of corrupted, it’s a very violating thing.”

For his own part, Dimechkie “discovered lying,” he said, around the age at which Max’s story begins. “Because I had a clean record up until then, I could just make stuff up and people would believe me. It was like a power I discovered,” he went on. “This might have gotten me into fiction, in some kind of indirect way.”

My family is good at telling lies too but this novel left me feeling dissatisfied.

LBTGN 2Quotations:

“Rasheed was a fixed entity, an unchanging, finished, permanent person, and the thought of teaching him anything was as unthinkable as training a turtle to sing. Turtles cannot sing and fathers cannot change. Neither fact demands alteration.”

“Her breath smelled of a mixture of white wine, rot, and babies’ heads.”

“The sun opened its eye and shot a beam across Beirut”

“cycle: everything at once and then great nothingness. All of life, and then all of death”

“On what standards did he base all his complicated lying?”

“Everyone in Lebanon has at least one maid,”

“Kelly was wise and sensitive only when it came to large groups of people or subjects”

“We don’t need culture or religion or things like this”?

understood that he had no choice but to be a boy,” especially in the eyes of women.

Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Older Posts »