Any honest emotional bond between my mother and me died within a 24-hour period in late April, a month after my 16th birthday, when in fact my world came apart completely. One day, I was sunning myself on a blanket while reading a book when Mother returned home, came to the porch, and summoned me in. The tone of her voice was a premonition; the look on her face made me steady myself to keep from fainting.
“I have just been talking with Father Putnam,” she began in the coldest, most serious voice I think I had ever heard her use. “He has told me awful things--”
Waves of reaction crashed into my brain with howling sounds. I was desperately attempting to gain a purchase as the ground shifted, swayed, opened under me. Aristotle defined that moment in tragedy when the character realizes everything as anagnorisis. The moment, for instance, when Oedipus realizes that he is not the successful king of Thebes so much as the murderer of his father and the bed partner of his mother, the taboo figure created by a destiny that mocked his pathetic attempts to escape his fate. This was that moment for me. I think of the scene in the MGM film Marie Antoinette when Norma Shearer as the doomed queen is shown in close-up after the lackey has looked at the coin in his hand and realized that Robert Morley is Louis XVI in disguise. They are in their coach at Varennes trying to flee France, and at that moment reality shatters the delusion. I do not know how much I must credit to innocence and naïveté, how much to denial, but whereas I had been blind before, suddenly in a flash I saw it all. The jeers of the students, the cruel barbs I could somehow let pass me by. They did not describe for me my condition, my situation. But that cold, precise voice coming from those almost pursed lips: “That your name is written on lavatory walls. That you are doing terrible things. I don’t understand what he is talking about.” That hit home. She shivered, shook herself as though to dislodge the incubus: “Horrible, terrible.” I began to cry. Everything was being taken from me. I had no foundation any longer. I felt myself sinking into some limbo where I was alone and without shape or form. “You must go talk with Father Putnam. I will send you to a psychiatrist.” I sobbed harder. Now it turned out I was crazy!
There I sat in the living room, by the picture window, the sun cloaking me in warmth... but no, that was not it at all, no, it was the sun like a naked bulb over the culprit’s head as he is worked over by some detectives attached to the precinct. And there across from me, somewhat by contrast harder to see -- or was I blinded by my shame and guilt? -- stood Mother. And then she was gone. Without extending a hand toward me, without any further remarks, she left the room. We were never to speak of this again in the eight years that remained of her life. In fact, we never had another honest conversation.
How strange and sad it is that for the next 60 years I never questioned her response. That she did not sit by me, put her arm around me, tell me she loved me, cry with me over my sorrows, did not seem unusual to me then. Father Putnam, our Episcopal priest, changed for me into a monster of betrayal. Why did he not come to me first, talk with me, who was his acolyte at Holy Communion almost every Sunday, who was so often the crucifer at the later service, who was president of the St. Vincent’s Guild, the association of altar boys, at the church? How, I have often asked myself, could this brash young priest, new to the parish, have gone up to a woman on the street as indeed he had and delivered such information? How could he have been so blind to the limitations of understanding in a woman who was so obviously a product of a Victorian-Edwardian upbringing? One wonders at the fact that he went on to become the bishop of Oklahoma and was much praised by the people there at his death. At the risk of judging, which the Lord says is a dubious practice, I say that the swine had much to answer for when he met his Maker.
At Mother’s request -- “hysterical demand” perhaps is better -- I went to see him. He urged that we descend to our knees and recite the prayer of general confession together. When we got to the words, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” and I realized that he wanted us to have in mind the behavior that he had brought to my mother’s attention, I could not, would not submit to such self-condemnation. If nothing else, I knew in my heart and would go to the stake in my belief that I was without blame or sin for wanting sex with another male, of this I remained convinced, and I rose and walked out the door and I never entered a church again as a communicant.
I set off for the appointment with the psychiatrist the following day in complete terror. His office was in the psychiatric hospital, not too distant a walk from our home. It was not quite 24 hours since Mother had accosted me. Since then she had spoken to me in measured, somber tones of trivial matters upon the occasions that brought us together. I truly felt that I was going to go mad, such was the turmoil of emotions that I could no longer identify, sort out, or manage. Most of all I was trying to resist being suffused with guilt and shame. The absolute joy and excitement of sucking cocks, of taking cock up my ass, had suddenly become dirty, degraded. God, Church, priest, Mother -- all called me dirty. I kept hearing Mother’s “your name on lavatory walls.” In my mind I saw the words CHARLIE SUCKS COCK as I had never seen them before. The mechanism of denial that had protected me up to this point failed, when, as it were, my mother, our priest, and the institution of God’s Church stood beside me in the smelly men’s room looking at the grimy off-white tile wall with the pen marks on it: charlie sucks cock. I had never felt so depleted; I wanted to kill myself. Before meeting with Father Putnam I had gone to the library just across the street from the Episcopal church to look up something on mushrooms, on poisons, but I was so sunk into depression that I could not even read what I was looking at. Now I struggled to walk smartly down the sidewalk that took me to the office of Dr. Miller. He, as fate would have it, looked very much like my late father: gray at the temples, a mustache, steely eyes, a severe compression of his lips when in repose. I quailed.
“What is your problem?” he began quietly and soberly. I began to snivel, and, through my coughs, stammering, and sniffs, managed to mention as abstractly as possible my sexual interests.
“But, I mean, what is it exactly that you do with these boys?”
“What is it that you are doing, Charlie?” he said again when I could not speak, and I heard an empathetic tone in his voice.
“Fooling around,” I mumbled in reply.
“Fooling around? How?”
“With the other boys,” I whispered.
“How? What do you do?”
“Just fooling around.”
“Yes, but what exactly? You take hold of them?”
“Yes,” was all I could muster.
“Take hold of the penis?”
“Put it in your mouth?”
And so it went, detail by detail. Slowly he drew from me explicit detailed statements about the sexual acts. The transformation in my feelings was swift. Whereas before I had been trapped, cornered, cowering before the onslaught of my mother and Father Putnam telling me that what I did was evil, suddenly I was the author of my acts as I spoke them. They were mine, and nobody could take them away from me, alter them, give them another meaning. The sentiment may not have lasted long, but its immediate liberating effect stayed with me for a long time, really forever.
There was silence when I finished my rather slim litany of the sexual behavior and positions I had so far managed. Dr. Miller puffed on his pipe, another maddening similarity to my late father.
“The problem is...” he said at last, taking the pipe from his mouth and looking me directly in the eyes, “the problem is that you need to be more discreet. You know, you are a little too emphatic, too obvious. Keep a lower profile; that’s what I would recommend. People tend to talk, you know.”
Benediction. We said little more; I departed and walked slowly home. My chest, which had felt in the last 24 hours as though it had been shut, turned in, hardened almost to the point of denying my breathing, suddenly opened. I was too exhausted to be happy, too apprehensive of Mother. But Dr. Miller had called me whole, had called me sane, had called me normal. It was not the substance, but the style. “Need to be more discreet.” The words stayed with me like the kindly squeeze of a hand on the shoulder.
The gay community has its stories of the ugly sessions between hapless youth and ponderous shrink as the latter tries to wrench the psyche of the former around to some kind of “normal” behavior. I was so very, very lucky. In those three days, I had confirmation of some basic truths: first, that I could never count on my mother’s emotional support; second, that I knew in my heart and soul that if there is a god, he, she, or it would want me to be as I was; and, third, that an adult, a doctor charged with healing the sick in spirit and soul, a man whom fate had made resemble my father, had let me know that there was nothing wrong with anything I had been doing.
Another profound change in the emotional landscape was that I was no longer dishonest. Perhaps my mother would never bring up my sexual orientation again, but she would know what it meant for me to stand next to a good-looking male, what it might mean to see me coming out of my bedroom in the company of one, or going off to the movies; most of all she would not be urging pretty young girls on me as date material. What I learned years later was that she sometimes talked to my older siblings about my gayness, that she confided in her favorite sister-in-law, who also had a gay son, that she discussed me with the psychiatrist more than once, but she never said another word to me. Paradoxically, a profound truth underlaid our dishonest relationship, however much unspoken. Once in the more enlightened 1970s I had a young boyfriend who, shortly after we began our relationship, announced that he intended to tell his parents that he was gay. The old fogy in me counseled caution and silence, whereupon he said, and I shall never forget: “I don’t want either of them to die without knowing me as I truly am.”
And I think of all the men and women who have lived their lives entirely as a lie with the people meant to be most profoundly intimate with them. Nothing could be sadder. I have friends who cry at the mention of their dead parents and don’t know why, but I am sure that they ache over the basic lie of their relationship. I was also lucky that I never had to experience the long, drawn-out trauma of resistance to and then surrender to the process of “coming out.” Whether they liked it or not, everyone in my hometown had to recognize me as a “queer,” “cocksucker,” “homosexual,” “different,” whatever.
My Husband and My Wives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) comes out October 2.