For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation. — Rainer Maria Rilke
Recently, my spouse and I watched Chris and Don, a documentary about the 34-year relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Isherwood was the remarkable 20th-century novelist best known for his work, "Berlin Stories," that inspired the musical Cabaret. Bachardy, 30 years his junior, became a renowned portrait artist who continues to reside in Los Angeles. Through interviews with Bachardy and various friends and associates, as well as clips from home movies, the film documents the course of this trailblazing relationship between the two men. The film also becomes an inspirational and incisive study of how same-sex relationships last.
Chris and Don met in the early 1950s, an era known for its climate of conventionality, conformity, and contempt for difference. This context was made even more difficult when even some close friends withheld support for the couple because of the age difference between Chris and Don—a difference that posed unique challenges to the internal workings of the relationship as well. Yet Chris and Don thrived in these barren times.
In the starkest and most revealing moment of the film, Don shares with the filmmaker the portraits he drew of his beloved Chris as Chris lay dying. Though the portraits are heartbreaking, a close friend remarks that they ultimately reveal both the power of Don's love for Chris and his unblinking, uncompromising honesty. There is no mystery here; the amalgam of these qualities clearly sustained the relationship.
Love and honesty are indeed intimately linked. What is one without the other? Surely, love cannot thrive when that which is loved conceals itself. When I hide from my partner some part of myself—my fears, my jealousies and insecurities, my anger, my desires—he cannot love me. What love he might feel is but for an image of me, carefully constructed and maintained. In such a state, love dies.
Conversely, honesty without love is often a brutal conceit. How many of us have spoken truth without caring for the well-being of another? How often do we pat ourselves on the back for being honest, when in fact we were hurtful? Love gives truth a purpose greater than itself.
For Chris and Don, as one friend remarks, honesty "was their religion." In the film, Don recounts how he and Chris struggled as Don entered his twenties. Don sought to open the relationship and explore the same passions and desires that Chris had explored at that stage of his life in Berlin. Don even entered an affair with another man, placing enormous stress on the relationship. Yet their bond strengthened as they engaged in an honest struggle over several years, Don subsequently ending the affair. Love seemed to embrace truth, and truth engendered love.
So many of the same-sex couples I know can recount the experience of falling in love. The "falling" seems accidental, unintentional, and most likely, irresistible. It is by no means a controlled descent. But once we fall, we choose to love more fully by being increasingly present and known. Chris and Don chose to reveal themselves to each other consistently over 34 years, and to remain honest and visible to the world. Consequently, their relationship deepened with each challenge.
In Don's portraits of Chris' dying and his death, Don portrays the essence of the man he fell in love with decades before on a California beach. Chris finally and ultimately departs in the loving, complete and knowing embrace of an artist's love, and his lover's art. Their story reveals the art of loving.
Bruce Koff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and COO of Live Oak, a group of psychotherapists and consultants who provide counseling and educational services that enhance the emotional and psychological well being of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Bruce specializes in clinical practice with LGBT individuals and their families. E-mail email@example.com or visit www.liveoakchicago.com .
Copyright © 2009 by Bruce Koff, LCSW