One of the hardest pills to swallow is the fact that our parents are not the superheroes we idolized in childhood, but are, in fact, very human—with flaws, scar,s and sometimes a secret. Gregory Martin, author of the memoir Stories for Boys, was wrestling with his two sons when his wife came in and handed him the phone. On the other end of the line was his mother with the news that would change his family dynamic, and his life, forever: “Your father tried to kill himself.”
When he recovered from his coma, Martin’s father revealed that, from the time he was 4 until he was 14, he had been molested by his own father and for the 39 years he’d been married, he’d been having anonymous sex in the park with other men. Martin’s moving memoir recounts Martin’s own personal growth as he grapples with his father’s painful past of denial and repression and struggles to form a new bond with the father he thought he knew.
Martin, who is an associate professor of English and director of the combined BA/MD degree program at the University of New Mexico, details his emotional progress and his acceptance of his father, which is an astounding feat chronicled with sensitivity, compassion, and skill. Unexpectedly relatable and gripping, Stories for Boys chronicles the healing and, most importantly, love within a family. We caught up with the author to discuss repression, masculinity, and the father-son dynamic.
Out: The subject matter is so sensitive and must be quite difficult to discuss, was and is it scary revealing so much to the world?
Gregory Martin: Totally. I didn’t want to do it at all. I stopped writing at one pint, which is something I did not enjoy, I need to write. I didn’t want to write about it but I kept going back to it, anytime I sat down to write this is all I could write about. I would sit down, I don’t have an agenda when I write but I would write about myself and it would turn to my dad. I had initially written the story as an essay in The Sun. It was pretty raw and it was me coming to grips with the fact that his dad had used him for sex, that he was an incest survivor. It was all to easy for me as a father of a young boy to feel for him. It all came flooding out of me, all the different emotions came out. I didn’t want to feel anything but loving and open and progressive and liberal.
How has the reception been on Stories for Boys so far?
I was worried about writing this as a straight man; I was worried that people would think “what do I know about the feeling of being gay?” Identity politics can be so intense, regardless of what it is but I am so thrilled and so happy that the reception has been quite the opposite. What is stunning to me is hearing people’s responses. I got this email from a gay activist Eric Marcus, his own father committed suicide in 1970 because he had been closeted as well. He related so much about secrecy and shame.
Stories for Boys constantly references psychologists and other figures, particularly the recurring one of Walt Whitman. What inspired you to make these allusions, and why?
Well, I wanted to connect my sudden obsession with understanding more about repression, compartmentalization and secret lives and not have it be awkwardly placed and out of place. Those short chapters introduce this through a lay person way through my interest in these things, but show how I’m grappling with these things. It’s a deliberate delay of the way the narrative is working. As far as Walt Whitman, I will always love Walt Whitman. Talk about being marginalized: Whitman was gay in the 19th Century, and he really thought that what he had to say about gender, sexuality and identity could save the union. I got so fired up that, if I wanted to make this story about me and my father larger, Whitman was the way – his poems are shouting from the rooftops but at the same time he had so much shame. Memoirs are conversation between the present and the past, like a back and forth one of many threads, a way to come up for air.
The readers deserve another lens. I wanted my father to be able to speak for himself. He wasn’t going to make a memoir so I wanted to give him a voice. Looking back at those emails from my dad, they’re complex thoughtful and warm. He’s so humble and unassuming – whatever happened to him, it gave him such a depth and compassion for other people and a desire to see them to do well.
Though Stories For Boys starts very much about your father, by the end it charts both your progress as father and son. Was that intentional?
Initially, I did not want it to be about me but that’s the thread. It’s our two journeys, it’s a braided story of our won internal story. My dad had to take in the love as well as be held accountable. The more I wrote the more I understood my own choices, I could only portray my own progress and only speculate on my father. I never claim to know what he thinks and what he feels. I really think my father is heroic, I’m astonished that my father could have raised me the way he did. He had no role model for masculinity and he showed me how being a man can be about humility and sensitivity. I had no idea that he had this intensely complex mystery but I think its always hard for father’s and sons to understand each other on some level. There’s a distancing. My two sons are always more willing to share how they feel with my wife and I envy that relationship. I think that it’s because we’re supposed to be stoic –- its physical, its silent -– we’re supposed to be Marlboro men, but if you buy into that you put yourself in cage.
How has your family taken the release of Stories for Boys?
My family is surprisingly supportive, even my mother: She wants it to sell a million copies; she’s really come around. I gave them multiple drafts, and my mom was great about that, but it was painful for her, like picking at a scab and drawing it out. With proofreading and copyediting, enough time had passed that she wants the best for me. She came to a reading and sat in the audience, and someone actually asked, “How does your mother feel?” And I said, “Lets just ask my mom!”
I still have an unrealistic hope that my mother and father can be friends. My dad has just been phenomenal, he’s someone who didn’t reveal anything his entire life, pretending to be someone he wasn’t, hiding from people he loved some things that happened to him that are definitive. He’s always put other people before him and it doesn’t surprise me that he did that for me. When I asked him if it was OK if I write about him, he said “You wrote this, it's yours.”
He’s doing well, he’s out in the Mojave Desert. I want him to go somewhere like San Francisco, if only he could have a do-over. You have to play this “what if” game a lot. I wanted to write Stories For Boys to let him know that however flawed he was, whatever mistakes he made, he is heroic, and he is loved.