This is the first work of non-fiction I have read since I began writing my novel just over five months ago. Since my novel is about a gay man in his late teens I have focused most of my recreational reading on other works of fiction where the protagonist is gay and/or coming of age. I chose to read Paul Monette’s 1992 agonizing, painful yet beautiful memoir which won the National Book Award for non-fiction because it is not only an important piece of 20th century literature but also one of the most significant books of all time by a gay author.
Monette who died from AIDS in 1995 struggled for the first 30 years of his life accepting his homosexuality much as I did for the same period of time. The parallels do not end there. Since Monette, born in the fall of 1945, was exactly 6 months older than me, I could so well relate to the cultural biases of that time as well as the self-loathing and denial he experienced through his teens and twenties. Like Monette I lived in constant fear in that early part of my life that someone would find out I was sexually drawn to men rather than women. Like him I submerged myself in my studies throughout my college years to avoid coming to terms with who I was. I too lived a lie for nearly thirty years, ashamed of my desires and fearing rejection or worse if those whom I knew discovered my darkest fantasies.
Like Monette I sought professional help to “cure” me of my “illness”. In the last two chapters of his memoir the author recounts his absurd attempts to heterosex himself, having a series of intimate relations with women over several years while occasionally falling off the wagon and getting down and dirty with another man. Some of these women he cared for deeply. Later he came to realize his adventures were feeble efforts to convince everyone, most importantly himself, that he was straight. While I did not bed down with the number of women Monette did, in one respect I actually did take the deception one step further by actually getting married in 1969 and staying in the marriage more than six years. There were other similarities in our lives’ experiences but I think you get the point that this was a story to which sadly I could so well relate.
Reading Monette’s memoir was a painful remembrance of my own life experience. It also was a reminder of how far I have come since that time. Just as I have, Monette thankfully found self-acceptance, happiness and love before his death at the age of 49. Yes at times the memoir is very hard to read because of the self-loathing, shame, sadness, anger, and loneliness that Monette had to endure for more than half his life. Ironically though it is a joy to read because it is so beautifully written and brutally honest. The author taught writing and literature and his mastery of the written word is apparent throughout the book. If I had to find one flaw in the work it would simply be that his descriptions of his attempts to heterosex himself got to be a bit confusing at times. Because of his sleeping with multiple women at that time in his life I would find myself thinking “Now who was she again?” But that is a minor criticism in what I regard as an otherwise stellar work. The book ends just after he has met Roger Horwitz, the man who would be his life partner for the next ten years, sadly ending with the AIDS-related death of Horwitz in 1985. Though I have not yet read it, Monette’s 1988 Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, chronicles his years with Horwitz and how that time turned him into one of the nation’s leading AIDS activist. I fully intend to read this book as well as some of Monette’s fiction.
I am sure that for anyone growing up in or after the Will & Grace era it is difficult to fully appreciate just how oppressive life was for gay people a generation or more earlier. Let’s be honest: even with the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage there is still a strong undercurrent of homophobia rampant in this country.
This was truly a wonderful book and one I am so glad I took the time to read.