Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
It took the loss of his life partner Roger Horwitz, who died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1987, to turn Paul Monette from the poetry and fiction with which he began his career to the powerful autobiographical writing that will perhaps be seen as his chief contribution as a gay author. To memorialize the suffering and bravery of Horwitz’s battle with AIDS, Monette wrote Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988), which was much praised for its urgent, unflinching look at the disease and the ignorance and hatred surrounding it during the early years of the epidemic. In Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story Monette tells the rest of his story, narrating the history of his childhood and youth and focusing on his tortuous journey toward the acceptance of his gay identity. Part morality tale and part manifesto, the personal narrative goes beyond the account of Monette’s emergence from self-loathing to self-affirmation and becomes a denunciation of the closet to which society consigns its gay and lesbian citizens.
The book’s candor and insight won it the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1992. It not only anatomizes the closet with uncanny precision and passion but also provides a searing critique of the harrowing process by which all boys become men in an American culture that prizes violent games and denies male intimacy. Certainly Monette’s history of growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s reveals the casualties produced by a culture that insists on demonizing certain kinds of diversity.
Born into a New England family, Monette grew up puritanically denying his physical body and hoping that his well-mannered, self-effacing demeanor would disguise his secret sexual life. At Philips Academy, Andover, he buried himself in literature and art to avoid the golden athletes whose blithe sense of heterosexual entitlement he outwardly envied but secretly despised and resisted. An outsider, he was made to feel that his sexual difference was unspeakable, criminal, pathological. Later at Yale, where he recognized his true vocation as a writer, editing poetry magazines and administering arts festivals, he could still not admit his true gay nature. He remained in a cramped closet, forced to more and more contorted acts of ventriloquism in order to appear normal. He broke through these walls when he met Horwitz in 1974, and the two men began their twelve-year relationship.
Becoming a Man is intended as an account of Monette’s difficult personal struggle to embrace, explore, and celebrate his sexual nature. It is also, as the author suggested in numerous interviews, intended as a road map for future generations of gays and lesbians. It was Monette’s hope that through reading his story they might resist the oppression of the closet, reject the lies and distortions that lead to despair and self-hatred, and thereby create for their life stories a radically different plot.