A Closet of One’s Own : BECOMING A MAN: Half a Life Story, <i> By Paul Monette (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 243 pp.)</i>
Nobody has written this book before, but countless men and women have lived the life Paul Monette describes in his new autobiography. “Becoming a Man” tells the story of the closet that most gay men and lesbians inhabit from the time they intuit that their sexual orientation is stigmatized, when the apparatus of society and the intimacies of family become rapids to be negotiated.
Monette’s memoir details the half-life of a talented and attractive boy who is smart enough to see that his own nature is something he needs to disguise and sensitive enough to try to heed the culture’s message by denying it. “Becoming a Man,” then, is the story of Paul’s inventive, determined and hopeless attempt to be the kind of man convention in the 1950s and ‘60s required. It is a remarkable book, an unsparingly observed and beautifully written account of the knowledge gathered in the course of self-suppression, and of how that knowledge is soured by the alienation between what a gay person needs to know in a homophobic society and what a gay person needs to know to be whole and true.
Heir to traditions of aspiration, pride and class unease, Paul Monette was born into an American family on the rise, town people, French-Canadian and English-American. He was gifted, attractive and success-bound from the start, but two things complicated what should have been his rise. His brother was disabled, and this lent his own life a shadowed intensity. And Paul liked boys, not girls; he was that second- scariest of ‘50s things, a sissy. Paul learned early on that this was not a good thing to be in his family, in his neighborhood, in his school, in his culture.
The power of this riveting book is in part the application of Monette’s acute intelligence, his ceaseless observation and his cagey wit to a simple, impossible problem. American culture demanded of Paul--as it still demands of lesbian and gay youth--that he be the one thing he could not be: straight. “Becoming a Man” tells with unmatched clarity what homophobia was like for him and what it made of him.
At Andover and Yale, Paul learned more about the boys and men he loved and what happened to gay men in the years of suppression and silence before the Stonewall Rebellion. (In June, 1969, a crowd of angry gay men resisted a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Gay Pride parades, including today’s parade in West Hollywood, commemorate this important landmark in the gay-liberation movement.) His outer success, his charm and his friendships masked an inner horror, anxiety, secret and guilt-ridden satisfactions of desire, self-hatred and a gnawing sense of unreality. Crushes were hammered into painful friendships on the anvil on self-repression. Faked intimacies, forced encounters and loneliness composed his love life.
Monette’s is a compelling story of cultural adaptation, of how the conventional culture forces its unchosen into service roles: the best friend, the fabulous dinner guest, the poet, the designer, the wit. Monette describes this with a power and a directness that is thrilling and painful for those of us who know firsthand what he is talking about. For those who have been unaware, this is a necessary book. Indeed, part of the point of “Becoming a Man” is how heterosexual privilege, like racial and gender privilege, is the false privilege of unawareness.
Little boys taunt and abuse sissy playmates--and often enjoy sex with them--to convey the message that is isn’t OK for boys to be girlish and for men to love men. These bully-boys grow up into men who feel comfortable and entitled in society and can keep cowed the men and women whose passions might threaten the sexual order. Some gay men and lesbians recognize this early and refuse to participate. The Stonewall Rebellion was led by people who refused to be cowed, people who often scare the closeted gays as much as they do the straights. More common is the experience Monette describes:
“I speak for no one else here, if only because I don’t want to saddle the women and men of my tribe with the lead weight of my self-hatred, the particular doorless room of my internal exile. Yet I’ve come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment. The self-delusion of uniqueness. The festering pretense that we are the same as they are. The gutting of all our passion til we are a bunch of eunuchs, our zones of pleasure in enemy hands. Most of all, the ventriloquism, the learning how to pass for straight. Such obedient slaves we make, with such very tidy rooms.”
The thing about the closet is that it enforces oppression by self-torture. Nobody in Paul’s life was as well-equipped as he to furnish his closet with shame and self-hatred. And, it turned out, nobody but Paul was “man enough” to leave it behind. His established capacity to write powerfully and well about his feelings is matched in this book by keen observational skills and an intellectual clarity that makes this a profound as well as a moving book. He is, perhaps, too hard on his younger self, but the result is a picture of the accommodating prisoner of the closet that will stand in the history of our literature.
Despite the gains of the last decades, the closet Monette describes still exists. It is easier to come out of it and there is more help along the way. But the pain and the shame and the self-hatred and the unreasoning, inexcusable homophobic prejudice remains in force. Paul Monette’s book illuminates what is at stake in straightforward human terms.
Despite the pain that is its subject, “Becoming a Man” is not a downer. It redeems the awareness the closet fosters. Paul Monette was more heroic and lovable than he gives himself credit for being, and in the end he has written a love story. Like all the best love stories, “Becoming a Man” is about how love triumphs over convention, obstacles and even death.
The great gay poet C. V. Cavafy wrote of his own closet: “An obstacle was there that stopped me many times when I was about to speak,” and imagined “later, in the more perfect society / surely some other person created like me / will appear and act freely.” “Becoming a Man” tells the story of such a man and encourages all of us to understand what it means to act freely.