America may still be fighting the culture wars in the voting booth, but in the artistic arena the “sexual revolution” has become fodder for historical fiction, and sexologist Alfred Kinsey is getting the full treatment. The opening this month of the feature film “Kinsey,” starring Liam Neeson, arrives close on the heels of “The Inner Circle” (Viking), T.C. Boyle’s saga of the researcher whose controversial human sexuality studies during the 1940s and ‘50s made him a celebrity and detonated the notion of sexual freedom in an America that remains ambivalent about its ramifications. The 10th novel by the acclaimed author, a USC professor and Montecito resident, is his latest look at the darker side of America’s penchant for utopian movements and charismatic visionaries. We surveyed the landscape in a recent conversation.
Why write about Alfred Kinsey now?
I didn’t really know anything about Kinsey, but I’d read David Halberstam’s book “The Fifties.” The capsule bio was enough to whet my curiosity. In my last book, “Drop City,” I looked back at our brief flirtation with the idea of free love. I felt it would be interesting to go back to see how society was able to open up at that juncture when we and the press first talked openly about sex.
You’ve explored the collision between human and animal natures in other works. Does “The Inner Circle” continue the investigation?
I’ve always written about us as an animal species. I hoped to take two opposing poles, our animal and spiritual selves, and try and reconcile them. I wondered: Is it possible to have a sexual relationship with no emotional attachment? Even if you’re a porn star, there’s got to be some emotion there. Kinsey’s [position was], the poets have had 2,000 years to tell us about love and romance. We’ve never looked at the physiology of sex, and I, a scientist, will give you just that without the judgments or any emotional content. I just wondered, from my own experience, how that could possibly be.
Do you think if Kinsey were working today he would be open about his bisexuality?
I don’t know how interested people would be. In his day it was a sensation. His entire enterprise depended upon presenting himself as a perfectly normal, heterosexual, happily married man, beyond reproach. I think he’d have been uncomfortable if people knew the reality of what he was doing. On the other hand, he was something of a progressive, a reformer. To that degree, I think he’d be happy in a world where sexuality is much freer.
The guru personality recurs in your work. In “The Inner Circle,” the Kinsey character may be a scientist, but he’s also a vintage American charismatic type.
His employees had to kowtow to him. It was a kind of religion, a cult. They had to subscribe fully. The wife-swapping and different sexual things they did that he encouraged--and almost insisted on--were put to them this way: “If you’re truly liberated, how could you not want to do this?”
Do you see any comparable figure in today’s cultural landscape?
I don’t know if it could be possible to have someone as powerful as Kinsey in his field. Anybody can go onto the Internet and see any sexual act conceivable in living color. His celebrity was a product of his time, yet we’re more factional than ever in this country. There are gurus of many stripes--right-wing, left-wing, in every avenue of our lives. From politics to religion, we’re beset with them.
You’ve described yourself as an obsessive-compulsive personality not unlike the workaholic, single-minded Kinsey portrayed in the novel. Is that a positive or negative trait in a writer?
It is an obsessive-compulsive disorder, creating art, and there’s no way to stop it. It’s how I describe fiction writing. This is it. I don’t write film scripts. I don’t care about money. I don’t want to be a man of letters or write essays or histories. I don’t want to do anything but write fiction. I think this single-mindedness is part of the reason for my success.
Have you ever been in therapy?
Very briefly, when I was a disturbed young man, but it didn’t do me much good. It’s probably my resistance to authority and wanting to find my own way. That attitude helped and discovering my art helped. During my hippie days, this very obnoxious guy going on about gurus and mantras told me about three or four hundred times: “Man you oughta meditate.” I said “You know I think I do meditate about three or four hours every day.” It happens when I write.