Becoming a Man

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2385

This powerful autobiography by novelist, poet, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) activist Paul Monette, winner of the 1992 National Book Award for nonfiction, is in many ways as much a gay morality tale as it is a narrative of Monette’s particular life story. Personal history here becomes the means of illustrating the stultifying horrors of the closet and persuading the next generation of gays and lesbians to abandon this shadow existence of exile and self-denial for the freely integrated existence that coming out makes possible. As he recounts his difficult journey from darkness to light, from furtive acts of self-loathing to public acts of self-assertion, Monette regularly interrupts the chronology in the voice of the angry, dying forty-seven-year-old human immunodeficiency virus-positive (HIV+) gay man that he is, denouncing his oppressors and urging younger members of his “tribe” to embrace the liberating truth of their sexual identities. Part morality tale, part manifesto, the memoir is Monette’s urgent attempt to testify to what he knows: the deadly reality of homo- phobia in America.

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In spite of his clear intention to provide a map of the landscape for young homosexuals so that they “may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America,” Monette’s book does more than this. It is, finally, about becoming a man. Gays and straights alike will recognize the harrowing rites of passage he identifies, the fears and humiliations that every boy must face in an American culture that prizes violent games, denies male intimacy, and demands success while providing too few images of what a successful man should be. Readers of Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988), in which Monette movingly chronicles the death of his lover, Roger Horwitz, will recognize the same fierce eloquence here, the same sure voice, by turns passionate and lyrical, documenting the loss and pain as well as the surprising strengths that came from suffering. In the earlier book, however, Monette wrote a love story; for all the grief at its core, Borrowed Time is a celebration of two men and their magical union, of their valiant fight against an unrelenting illness. In the present memoir he has written an angry account of the tortured road to that union and the need for a fight, not simply against AIDS but against all the forces that would sentence gays and lesbians to the coffin of the closet.

Anger colors much of the narrative. Like many political activists (and in spite of his admission that things are never simply black or white), Monette has divided the world into collaborators and resistance fighters. The bureaucrats and politicians and priests, the puritanical New Englanders of his childhood and hypocritical educators of his youth—all of these he skewers for their poisonous collaboration to legitimize hate and prejudice against gays. He attacks the Catholic church with particular savagery, partly because of its insistent policy of regarding homosexuality as an intrinsic evil, and partly because of his own formative grade school experiences with Irish Catholic thugs who gleefully bashed in the heads of “sissies” in school bathrooms. The smug demonization of “queers” and the blatant campaign to eradicate them amount, he suggests, to nothing less than genocide, something made increasingly possible by the alliance he sees between the Catholic hierarchy and the fundamentalist right. In the face of this bigoted assault on human beings and human rights, Monette advocates open defiance, refusing to retreat to the invisibility of a closeted existence. He repeatedly asserts that it is homophobia which is deviant, homosexuality which is natural (that is, naturally occurring as a transcultural phenomenon), even if it is not the norm.

Monette’s posture throughout the book marks him, in the theoretical debate within gender studies, as an essentialist rather than a social constructionist. That is, he regards homosexuality as biologically determined, something constituted by nature and therefore essential to an individual’s identity, rather than seeing sexual identity itself as something unstable and provisional, a construct produced by social interaction and the play of power in any particular historical moment. Monette understands that the history of same-sex relations long precedes the nineteenth century concept of a homosexual identity; he recognizes that what he means by “gay” may have been incomprehensible to an Athenian in the fifth century b.c.e. Nevertheless, the research of sociobiologists and the oral histories of other gays and lesbians persuade him that homosexual orientation is not a so-called “life-style choice”; it is no more a choice than eye color or foot size. This is a view he spent much of his life ignoring or wishing away, until at the age of twenty-five, paralyzed by these exhaustingly futile efforts, he accepted it as true, not as a tragic truth demanding some sort of wilted resignation but as a truth suddenly apprehended as profoundly liberating.

Finally the whole man could come into play. He need no longer feel forced to be a ventriloquist struggling to make the right sounds, a chameleon forcing itself into the appropriate social color, inventing himself again and again in the attempt to appear “normal.” Happily, he had managed through all the denial—the frustrations of therapy, of willed sex with women or desperate couplings with other closeted men—to maintain one deeply nourishing image of intimacy: “two men in love and laughing.” It was this fantasy that came alive at last when he met Roger at a dinner party in Boston in 1974, stepping from the isolation of his closet into the light and warmth of a loving, openly gay relationship.

Young Paul’s story actually begins in the years following World War II, just outside Boston, in Andover, where he was born the first son of working-class parents. He was unconscious of much beyond the radio and television worlds of Kate Smith and Howdy Doody until his brother Bobby was born with spina bifida, which introduced a crippling reality to the home and turned Paul into a “perfect” boy. His perfect grades and perfect Sunday school attendance became a kind of compensation for Bobby’s obvious physical imperfection, at the same time isolating Paul from family and friends. He came to see himself as a bodiless little scholar, denying his physical being to make it seem less important, in effect adopting the paralysis inflicted on his brother. The insistent realities of his young body were unleashed, however, when at the age of nine he had his first sexual encounter with another boy. He did not yet feel guilt—that would happen later, when his mother discovered the boys together, and would persist for nearly two decades—but he did feel that he had a life to hide, a real life that somehow could not be regarded as normal. Once discovered, Monette plunged even more deeply into denial, striving to mask his secret by creating the persona of a courtier, “the Noel Coward of the junior division.” His witty, self-deprecating verbal performance made him confidant to the most desirable girls, and his nonthreatening self-effacement made him equally accepted by the boys. He became popular, but the price was transforming himself into a charming eunuch, a role he would later play successfully with New England divorcées and Hollywood wives. He had learned how to become that necessary additional man, the amusing fourth hand at bridge, the presentable society walker, the attentive companion to gossip and “share a Chivas with at sundown.” This was a useful, safe, and ultimately destructive position, Monette suggests, because it neutralized the force of the real man and became a way of apologizing for his very being.

The move from the local Andover grade school to Phillips Academy was a move up the ladder of social class from townie to preppie, yet Monette characterizes these years as lonely and lost. In the rigid caste system of the school he was a nobody, separated from the athletic Apollos about whom he fantasized yet avoiding connections with misfits like himself and fleeing in homosexual panic from any boy who recognized in him a trace of fellow feeling. In sports, in the quest for a girl, in just about everything he was living a big lie; his dreams were of Broadway stardom, his interests lay in compiling his white leatherette Elizabeth Taylor scrapbook, performing Latin plays, and writing poetry. It began to seem that only in art would he be safe to explore the passionate feelings that could not otherwise be expressed.

At Yale, where he had won a scholarship, Monette once again reinvented himself, first as a hearty, voluble, rock-climbing outdoorsman, and then, with more success and with a clarifying sense of self-awareness, as a writer. He went from clubbable man to isolated poet, yet now the isolation he had always felt as a shamming outsider was distinguished by the higher calling of Art. He could revel in his uniqueness, in this aesthetic world where the repressive laws of desire had no power. It was on a summer research trip to England to read Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s letters that Monette, desperate to express years of bottled up sexual desire, met a man and had his first adult homosexual experience. Losing his virginity produced the predictable guilt, but beyond that it produced the appetite for more experience. Still, after a summer of traveling and writing and thinking, Monette returned to Yale unable to admit his homosexuality; instead he careened through his last year as a kind of crazed cultural czar, importing film critics, hosting poets, filling the calendar with nonstop artistic events as if the sheer pace of things would keep his subterranean needs silently in check. From there he went on to graduate school.

Armed with a graduate degree and a 4-F deferment (obtained, ironically, by publicly admitting his homosexuality for the first time, to the doctor who examined him for the draft-board physical), Monette turned to teaching, first at a grim prep school off the beaten path in Connecticut. In spite of being a big hit with the boys, who found his exotic, unruly poet act hugely entertaining, he was forced to leave after two years, barely averting a scandal over a messy affair with one of the students. He had succumbed to the boy’s overtures and been thrown completely off-balance by the intensity and volatility of the relationship. As he fled to a new and better job at Canton Prep, he realized he could survive only if he remained lifeless below the waist and threw everything into his poetry and teaching. This, with great difficulty, he did for some time, before the suffocation of such a life nearly broke him and he handed himself over to a young therapist with the injunction to make him straight. Desperate to change, he willed himself into a number of sexual relationships with women, often simultaneous, all of which taught him something but none of which satisfied him. He began seeing a wealthy Village novelist, an older man who squired him to the opera, to restaurants, and on trips. After a year or more of this complicated sexual quadrille, Monette was no closer to coming out than he had ever been, though he kept hoping to meet the “laughing man” who would lead him out of his closet and make it look like the easiest thing in the world.

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Not surprisingly for a man who was both a budding writer and a full-fledged romantic, this breakthrough to his “queer self” came as a result of a summer’s slow reading of Henry David Thoreau. Walking around Walden Pond, text in hand, he soaked in Thoreau’s words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” That summer he did try to simplify his life, to rid it of the poses and transparent deceptions, to pursue the deliberate quest for a man to love without guilt or shame. By early September he had met Roger Horwitz. The lonely years were finally over; another man had penetrated the darkness and pulled a frightened Paul Monette, feeling unloved and unlovable, into a world of windows, light, and air.

Is it possible to find the story too melodramatic, the shifts from anger to sentiment too abrupt? Perhaps. Occasional notes of self-pity intrude, as does an exalted sense of romance. Monette, however, reminds us several times that he is speaking only for himself, not for the tribe. His dream of two men together is his dream, not the ideal he would impose on all gays. Being known to the core by another man, seeing himself whole in another man’s eyes—that is what he had waited for all those solitary years, and to him it is not merely a sentimental cliché. Even if the romantic pitch gets carried too high at times, the power of the narrative is never in question. Monette has done something astonishing in this memoir. He has described the shadow world of the closet, its dangerous, delusional reality, with a precision and a passion rarely seen before. He makes it plain just how deep are the sorrows of a life unnecessarily suppressed, how persistent the rage over wasted time and lost opportunities. His clear-eyed anatomy of this oppressive space dramatizes the insidious way that cultural homophobia gets internalized in young gay people, the way they are made to accept the lies and distortions that lead to self-loathing and despair. Again and again he returns us to the angry, perplexing questions he poses at the beginning: “Why do they hate us? Why do they fear us? Why do they want us invisible?” Although unable to provide complete answers, Becoming A Man does go a long way toward making these embattled gay lives less invisible.

Suggested Readings

Advocate. June 2, 1992, p. 34.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, May 1, 1992, p. 1568.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, May 1, 1992, p. 594.

Lambda Book Report. III, September, 1992, p. 20.

Library Journal. CXVII, May 1, 1992, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 28, 1992, p. 10.

Martin, Wendy. Review of Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, by Paul Monette. The New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1992, 5.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, July 26, 1992, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX , April 20, 1992, p. 44.

San Francisco Chronicle. July 12, 1992, p. REV8.

See, Lisa. “Paul Monette.” Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1992, 42-43.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 21, 1992, p. 1.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 89

Suggested Readings

Advocate. June 2, 1992, p. 34.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, May 1, 1992, p. 1568.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, May 1, 1992, p. 594.

Lambda Book Report. III, September, 1992, p. 20.

Library Journal. CXVII, May 1, 1992, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 28, 1992, p. 10.

Martin, Wendy. Review of Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, by Paul Monette. The New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1992, 5.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, July 26, 1992, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX , April 20, 1992, p. 44.

San Francisco Chronicle. July 12, 1992, p. REV8.

See, Lisa. “Paul Monette.” Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1992, 42-43.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 21, 1992, p. 1.

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