A breakthrough collection of essays by Andrew Holleran, Bernard Cooper, Douglas Sadownick and other A-list gay writers reveals the undeniable influence our fathers have on our adult lives—whether we like it or not
If you're anything like Andrew Holleran (Dancer From the Dance, In September, the Light Changes) the sight of a father and son engaging in open displays of camaraderie and affection is like observing animal behavior patterns on the Nature Channel: It's as amazing as it is foreign to you, watching these two primates pawing at each other, teasing and tickling, tossing a softball back and forth, or slapping each other on the back after the game is won, the yard mowed, the car fixed.
In his foreword to The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers, a new collection of essays exploring the tumultuous and tender bonds between gay men and their dads, Holleran wistfully recounts one of his own 'Natural Channel' moments involving a father and son sitting next to each in a restaurant booth: 'Tired from an afternoon of fishing, the boy proceeded to rest his head against his father's shoulder, and the father rested his head on top of his son's, so that the two of them were folded together like chimpanzees that had just groomed each other. I could scarcely contain myself.'
'Witnessing those kinds of affectionate exchanges between father and son never fails to amaze me, because they are so intimate and entirely unselfconscious. I never really experienced that with my own father,' explains Holleran, during a recent phone interview from his home in Florida. 'You know, I was supposed to contribute an essay of my own, about my own father, to this collection but I realized after I started writing it, that I couldn't do it,' admits the author. 'And (pause) I'm not really sure why I couldn't do it except maybe it's because my father still intimidates me, even now! It's a subject that requires some more thinking on my part ... so Bruce [Shenitz, the book's editor] let me write the anthology's forward instead,' he says with a good-natured laugh.
The author has every intention of writing about his father at some point down the road, and he says the wide range of essays featured in this anthology has provided a kind of map for him on how to get there.
'What's amazing about these stories is that they show that there is no hard and fast rule about the [gay] family dynamic. We always hear that the traditional role of the mother is unconditional love for her gay son, while you have to earn or work for the father's respect and love, but that's just not always the case!'
'Look, everyone is implicated in this anthology, everyone is insane and neurotic,' he continues. 'I thought to myself as I was reading this collection, that what we do as gay men when we go out and socialize is usually so disconnected from the rest of ourselves and our lives. With these essays, you realize how complex and emotional and tender and sensitive our psyches really are, and there aren't many venues for gay men like this, to express these kinds of emotions, memories and truths in quote, 'gay life.' We spend so much time chatting with each other about the same [superficial] things, which is structurally inevitable, I guess. But as I read some of these stories I thought, 'My God, there is something inside all of us that is so powerful!''
According to Bruce Shenitz, executive editor of Out magazine and the editor of this collection, this is the first anthology devoted exclusively to gay men writing about their dads, with the exception of John Preston's classic tome Member of the Family, which contains only a handful of essays devoted specifically to fathers.
'These essays move sequentially from alienation to reconciliation,' writes Shenitz in the book's introduction, 'with several intermediate steps—puzzled incomprehension, grudging acceptance, strained attempts at understanding—and a detour into sexual mythologies. There are no simple explanations for why some of these relationships deepen while others never move beyond painful confrontations; what these writings offer is the suggestion of a range of possibilities.'
For The Man I Might Become, Shenitz has assembled 28 pieces written by some of the literary community's most respected contemporary authors, including Bernard Cooper, Mark Doty, Philip Gambone, Jesse Green, Joseph Hansen, Felice Picano and Douglas Sadownick. 'Many of my favorite writers are included in this anthology,' says Cooper, who has been awarded an O. Henry Prize and a PEN/USA Ernest Hemingway Award for his writing. 'And many of those writers I have never met. Now, I feel I have this kind of connection with these writers whose work I have always admired. It's so weird, to say that, but it's true. You know, I live in Hollywood, and whenever an actor is asked what it's like to work with someone, or their opinion of another actor's work, they of course say that it is 'wonderful.' But in this case, it's really true.'
'I think some people presume that non-fiction literature and memoir writing is 'victim literature,'' he offers, during a recent telephone conversation from his Los Angeles home. 'But actually, the best nonfiction, like the selections in this anthology, are often humorous (pause) and they are shocking in the best sense of the word, and not just because it reveals what shouldn't be revealed, but because those hidden experiences show some of the most important aspects of what it means to be human and to grow up and relate to other people.'
Cooper's selection, 'Winner Take All,' was originally published in GQ magazine and which was included in the Best American Essays series, details his strained relationship with his father, which finally ripped apart just as the author was awarded the Hemingway prize for his highly acclaimed first novel, Truth Serum. 'I'm not sure if he ever really comprehended my work in a larger sense, but I do think he was proud of me in his own, strange way. As I've gotten older I find myself more and more like him, though. I think I'm just as bewildered by the world in the same way he was and I can be just as impatient! The difference is that I've tried to make sense of things through my writing, and he tried to gain control of things by suing people! But realizing how similar you are to your parents is not a defeated kind of realization, in fact it's really an extraordinary thing, because you finally understand things like how hard your parents fought to stay afloat financially, how they struggled to exist in the world with some kind of dignity.'
Cooper says that writing about his father is something he has always been compelled to do, but that writing about his mother has been 'tricky.'
'I get kind of embarrassed by the whole cliché of the gay son being pampered and fawned over by his mother, and to some extent, that was true for me,' he said. 'I think it's sometimes harder for men to admit they are close with their mothers, because father-son relationships are more culturally accepted. But that being said, I think a mother-gay-son anthology would be an incredible idea. I think gay men writing about their mothers-brothers-sisters-lovers-pets or anyone else, can be relevant and intriguing, depending on the sensibility of the writer!'
What Douglas Sadownick finds relevant and intriguing is the notion of expanding our culture's view of 'father' beyond the biological definition. 'It is a mistake, in my opinion, to consider the idea of 'father' too literally,' says the author/activist/journalist who contributed one of the most cerebral—and daring—essays featured in this anthology. Both in his essay, 'My Father, My Self: Coming Out Inside as the Next Stage of Gay Liberation,' and during our interview, the author, now a therapist practicing in LA, emphasizes the importance of acknowledging our own 'inner fathers' and how true gay liberation cannot flourish without that acknowledgment.
'When I was involved in ACT UP, I saw that the unfinished family business in each member got acted out in the group,' writes the author, as part of an e-mail interview.
'I saw that below the surface of conscious lay another world and personality, the repressed 'other' that Freud discusses. I saw that almost no activist appreciated this, appreciated the idea that all acts come from the psyche. I grew depressed about the possibility of being politically effective if we as gay people were not actively working to differentiate the contents of the unconscious in the service of individuation as gay. I also saw how limited our efforts would be at love unless we reached out and created an inwardly felt bridge to our unconscious trauma.'
Sadownick says that Shenitz was well aware of the author's ongoing struggle to understand and write about the limitations of the current gay liberation movement and the importance of developing what he calls a new 'gay soul psychology.'
'My writing initially was a mess,' admits Sadownick. 'Bruce was very helpful in containing my anxieties and helping to shape the piece and demanding I keep working on it. You could say that he was modeling a good containing 'gay father'; he never became retaliatory or rejecting but neither did he spoil me.'
'I think that many gay men intuit that there is a deeper meaning and purpose to gay liberation,' continues Sadownick. 'And perhaps if there were more books that were less flash-in-the-pan and more mirroring of our depth, people would tend to read them more. Bruce's idea of having an anthology with gay men writing about their fathers begins the process of confronting our ever-present, internalized homophobia, due to its provocative nature, and its invitation to gay men to meditate on their First Great Love, even if they recoil defensively from that idea or if they fragment in the face of the Burning Bush.'
Andrew Holleran: 'I'm trying to write a short novel now, an assignment from my editor, but it's giving me trouble so I am doing the classic writer's trick and dodging that project by writing short stories.' He hints that a new collection of short stories will probably hit bookstore shelves before the short novel is completed.
Bernard Cooper: 'I am working on a book about my father, which if I'm lucky, will be finished in about two years. I've still got quite a chunk of it to finish.' Cooper is currently the art critic for Los Angeles Magazine.
Douglas Sadownick: 'I am getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and I have begun doing research on my dissertation where I hope to show the gay roots to Western philosophy, starting with Plato and extending to Nietzsche.'
The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers, published by Marlowe & Company. December, 2002.