In my generation, gay boys and their daddies had complicated relationships. I know I did, growing up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in Chicago some 60 years ago. Middle child of five and the oldest boy, I was not what my dad imagined his first son to be. There weren't any role models back then for parents or questioning children, no networks of support.
Even in high school, when I came out to an older sibling, her response was, "What does that mean?" since popular culture demonized 'homosexuals' as evil, pathetic, and lonely outcasts. My teenage years were the worst, when burgeoning sexuality was at its most conflicted and isolating. There was no one else that shared my secret, at least that's what I thought, until college.
There are many poignant parallels for me in Jon Derek Croteau's beautifully crafted memoir of surviving an abusive father and overcoming his own anorexia and internalized homophobia. The author dreamed of being in school musicals, instead his father made him play year-round sports. Even after a plate in his hip was shattered playing football, his father forced him into basketball and baseball, belittling him in public and screaming at him in the car rides home about how embarrassing the boy's ineptitude was.
Eager to please his dictatorial parent, the author persevered, breaking an eye socket and shattering a wrist bone. His sympathetic but ineffectual mother tried and failed to intervene. At home, he avoided contact with his father; the slightest provocation would send him to his room without dinner accompanied with welt marks from his parent's belt. The bedroom became Croteau's sanctuary where shelves, drawers, and closets were fastidiously organizedno chaos here, as he sang along quietly to Whitney Houston.
In high school, still desperate for his father's approval, Croteau excelled by overcompensating: captain of the tennis team, editor of the yearbook, president of student council and honors student. He was everybody's best friend, but utterly alone as he suppressed his sexuality. Girls sought boy advice from him, and boys sought dating tips. Unrequited bromance crushes were awkward and painful.
The author felt ill equipped to attend college, so he spent a gap year at home working at a bank, even trying a three-week Outward Bound experience to bolster his confidence. During this period, anorexia, bulimia, and obsessive running overwhelmed him as he tried to "starve the faggot inside." Once away at college, the self-loathing and self-destructiveness escalated: "binging, purging, starving, and punitive jogging" with constant use of laxatives exacerbated his bulimic state.
Sexual encounters were few and always complicated, the specter of his father loomed under every bed. Graduating summa cum laude from college in only three years, Croteau then attends graduate school at Northwestern to study counseling psychology. This pleased, but did not appease, his father. As life progressed, boyfriends were occasionally welcomed home, but visits always ended in paternal tirades and emotional devastation.
In therapy and in his academic studies, Croteau painstakingly begins to deal with his repressed anger against his tyrannical father and to see his own lack of self-acceptance was the root of his eating disorder. Meeting his now husband was also part of his healing journey. "By letting in all of that love, I learned how to truly love and accept myself," the author writes.
Family reconciliations were attempted after his mother's death, and then again after his father's quadruple bypass surgery. All came to naught, as his father's venomous condemnation always erupted. In the end, though, the author finds his peace by severing ties, although absolving: "And even though you will never be a part of my life…I need you to know that I forgive you. I have forgiven you."
Croteau's courageous telling of his arduous journey toward self-loving and acceptance is especially pertinent for so many gay men disenfranchised from their families of origin. A resonate story indeed, that sons and fathers can learn from so as to embrace and love one another. The book also illuminates the realities of male eating disorders, adding considerably to the literature on anorexia, still wrongly perceived as solely a female disease.
Today, Croteau and his husband live in Vermont. He counsels executives on empathic leadership and inclusivity, blogs for the Huffington Post, and is a speaker with the National Eating Disorders Association.
On Oct. 15, Jon Derek Croteau will be reading from his memoir at the Norris Center at Northwestern University in Evanston and Oct. 16 at the Center on Halsted in Chicago.