Memory

Thoughts on The Normal Heart

MV5BMTcyODYyOTk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkwNjc3MTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.

It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.

The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.

It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.

I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.

What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.

People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.

And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.

When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”

I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.

My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.

I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.”  On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.

I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight.    I said nothing.

How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?

One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”

The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.

The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.

Vanishing Women

Buckley 1911I was writing yesterday about Yoi Pawloska, also known as Yoi Maraini, a travel writer and free spirit who I became aware of because of a brief connection to Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde’s literary executor and one of the main characters in my forthcoming Oscar’s Ghost.

Her connection to my story is a society scandal in which the young woman, then known as Edith Buckley, left her husband and two children after she fell in love with Coleridge Kennard. Robert Ross was one of the people who tried to intervene to prevent a larger scandal.

The young lovers did not marry, and after her divorce a broken-hearted Yoi traveled Europe and wrote the first of many books.  They received mostly positive reviews, albeit reviews that used feminine adjectives like “charming” which denote something other than seriousness. Was her work really more lightweight than that of the many male poets who populate the edges of Oscar Wilde’s narrative? She was more prolific than many, and also worked as a journalist interviewing Mussolini for the Saturday Review.

Her granddaughter, the Italian novelist Dacia Maraini, would one day write, “…after two generations, the silence about her was more tenacious than the desire to remember her. She was surrounded by an aura of scandal– a solitary traveller, and adulteress abandoning husband and children to follow the man she loved, but with whom she wasn’t able to build a family, remarried later to a man ten years her junior. Things our family did not speak much about. Actually, to tell the truth, we did not speak of them at all.”

There was no great desire to remember Yoi.

Today I was reading a book and a reference came up to Dame Hariette Chick. She lived from 1875 to 1977.  One of the leading microbiologists of her day, she was instrumental in finding a cure for rickets. I had that moment of surprise, that I always do, to learn of an accomplished professional woman from another era. Each time I discover a woman like this she stands out as exceptional and singular.

Why is that? A few weeks ago, I watched a program on our local PBS station about the Van Hoosen farm, near my home, and the sisters who eventually ran it. One of them was Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, a pioneering obstetrician.

I find myself wondering, how many “exceptions to the rule” do I have to encounter before I start to question whether “the rule” accurately reflects history?

Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

Schadenberuhigung?

An old post of mine about the 80s pop band Milli Vanilli has suddenly gotten some unexpected traffic. I can only guess that this has something to do with Mariah Carey’s meltdown performance on New Year’s Eve in which pre-recorded high notes were a prominent feature.

Eight years ago I wrote a book called Schadenfreude, Baby! Schadenfreude is joy in the misfortune of others. I have to admit to enjoying the fiasco, but not quite in the “Schadenfreude” way.

It brought me back to the humiliating moment four years ago when I was contacted out of the blue by a booking agent for an NPR affiliate asking if I would be a guest on a regional program to talk about one of my old books. I wrote that book ten years ago now, and even then I did not have all of the facts at my immediate recall. I told the booking agent that my instinct was not to do the show, because it had been a long time, but he reassured me that it would be easy and sent me a list of some of the topics from the old book that the show planned to cover so I could cram. Unfortunately, I didn’t re-learn it all in time and the announcer did not stick to those subjects anyway. It was horrible. As I wrote at the time, “half way through the 1 hour interview, I fell silent after a question and had to admit I had no memory at all of the historical episode the host was asking me about.”

What I didn’t mention in the blog post about the interview was that there was another guest on the show in the studio. During the commercial the announcer, I assume not knowing that I could hear their conversation, complained to the other guest about my ignorance, and as I was trying to shake that off we came out of the commercial, the announcer cut back to me with yet another question about my own book which I could not answer. I got a fresh knot in the pit of my stomach for weeks whenever I thought about the interview. I still don’t like to contemplate it.

So when I saw everything falling apart for Mariah Carey I had a different species of Schadenfreude. It was not that I felt glee that she had been taken down a peg. I felt relief, “Well, it could have been worse. I could have been live on one of the most viewed five minutes of television the whole year.” The word that is the subject of this post, if my high school German has served me, (there is a good chance it hasn’t, as I have demonstrated, my memory of things decades old is sometimes questionable) should translate to “reassurance in the misfortunes of others.” It’s OK. Pop stars are screw ups too. Isn’t that just a little bit nice to know?

 

Quote of the Day: Story is a Powerful Tool

Story is a powerful tool, used to build up our identities, both personal and communal. We share stories to convey our understanding of the universe and our place in it, our strengths and weaknesses and growth. We are natural editors – our stories are not objective recalls of a previous event. For many of us, learning to share stories with others is how we begin to understand ourselves. We craft our identities through sharing our stories. I do not always give a completely accurate depiction of myself or events; I remind myself of the commendable parts of me, and I encourage myself to grow into attributes that I want to foster. I can set myself up to be who I want to be, and then strive towards it. I can also use these stories to think through or justify my actions, to explain shortcomings or to uncover where it all began. Over time, and over countless recitations, our stories – specifically how we tell the story of ourselves – helps us to craft our identity. As our understanding of self changes, it’s only natural that the way we tell the stories of our selves change, too. The way I tell the above story in twenty years might be different from how I share it today.

-From Storytelling, the Dangerous Art of Identity Formation. Applied Sentience written by Esther Boyd.

Angel Excerpt of the Day: “Special Friend”

When Mary Adams died at age eighty-one, it came as a surprise to no one. The end came after years of slow decline that took her motor skills, memories, and sanity. Then there was the long death watch. She held on, uncomprehending and in pain, for weeks. She finally slipped into a welcome unconsciousness, where she remained for several days before finally letting go. “At least she is not suffering anymore,” people usually said.

Through all of it, Stuart Briggs was at Mary’s side. Mary was Stuart’s first and only love. They had met in high school and hit it off right away, but for whatever reason, Mary never was attracted to him. They never dated. Stuart waited in the background as she dated other boys. He was a guest at her wedding to another man. When her first husband had died, Stuart was there, hoping for his chance, but it never came. He waited through a second marriage, which ended in divorce.

After that, Mary came to rely on Stuart’s constancy. He was the person she called when she needed someone to go with her to the movies, to help her with an errand, or just to talk. They became regular companions, but as far as anyone could tell, they never had a physical relationship and it was never a romance, at least not for her.

When Mary became ill, it was Stuart who cared for her. He took her to church on Sundays, pushing her in her wheelchair even as walking became a challenge for him. He was calm and patient with her confusion and mood swings. He visited her daily in the nursing home long after she had forgotten his name. He stayed with her every day she was in the hospital and then in hospice. He was there when she died, holding her hand. Now he was making the funeral arrangements because Mary’s children were scattered across the country in California and Colorado.

He now sat before Paul holding a small scrap of newsprint. It was Mary’s obituary, a short notice mentioning her career as a teacher and her long membership in the church. It named her first husband (“pre-deceased by….”) and said she was survived by her two children and their families. Stuart was identified only as “special friend.” He had loved Mary longer than her husband; longer than anybody. The center of his world was gone, and yet he had no official title to acknowledge his status. When someone says, “I lost my wife,” everyone understands the magnitude of that loss. “I lost my friend” is different. Unless you know the person well, it has no meaning at all.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011