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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Life of Edmund White

Keys to the Kingdom of Edmund
by Thom Nickels

My Lives: An Autobiographyby Edmund WhiteEcco (HarperCollins). 356 pages, $25.

THE CELEBRATED “FATHER” of modern gay literature had Christian Science roots so entrenched that when he was a grown man he had developed an uncanny habit of forgetting to take his medicine. Still, Edmund White doesn’t forget much in this tell-all autobiography that begins by ripping into the heart of his parents, his lovers of both sexes, and the therapists who led him astray. “In the mid-1950s, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I told my mother I was homosexual: that was the word, back then, homosexual, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness.”White’s mother, a psychologist barely five feet tall, was not shocked by the revelation. White writes that she was “almost gleeful when she told me I was a ‘borderline psychotic with strong schizophrenic tendencies’” after testing him with the popular Rorschach inkblot test. As a result of the “blotched spots,” he grew up thinking he was mentally ill, though that didn’t stop him from writing and starring in plays, or from cultivating his childhood fantasy of wanting to be a king.Kings do anything they want, and King Edmund, barely out of the precocious toddler stage, had an early lust for life: he confesses to how he became adept at auto-fellatio at summer camp (“throwing my legs over my head in the first stage of a backward somersault”); how, soon after these gymnastics, he “tasted the first penis that wasn’t my own.” That first taste unearthed a yearning for more. The author of A Boy’s Own Story, Forgetting Elena, and The Farewell Symphony began life as jailbait (“I was afire with sexual longing”) who “haunted the toilets at the Howard Street elevated station, the one that marked the frontier between Chicago and Evanston.”Sex and lots of it is the theme of this memoir, which is populated by familiar figures from the literary, artistic, and musical worlds. We read how Michel Foucault overdosed on LSD at the baths and how Edmund came and rescued him (he confesses that he considered himself to be Foucault’s dumb friend—“but I thought hey, we all need one”); how Edmund cracked the rumor that Genet had once danced for the Black Panthers when Angela Davis confirmed for him that “Genet was the original gender-bender. He’d get high on Nembutal and dance for the Panthers in a pink negligee”; how he, Edmund, has no sense of style: “I used to be careful about my looks, but now I have to remind myself to have my hair cut monthly or my teeth cleaned every six months. I wear the same sturdy, waterproof shoes every day.”At various points in the long narrative he injects recent events. There’s the portrait of his sex master in New York, a former literary fan, who comes to dominate his life for years. Details of the affair, drawn out in explicit erotic detail, call to mind Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses: degradation, humiliation, and shame in fact rule these passionate encounters, and Edmund is literally a slave, lacking only a dog collar. The reader gets very used to sentences like this: “In an instant the head of his dick would be poking up stickily over the elastic waistband. When I’d peel down the jock and release it, it would be hard as wood and smell at once sweet like sperm and bitter like urine.”In “My Women” he recounts affairs or friendships with the women in his life. In these portraits, when the relationships were sexual, he withholds erotic detail. Scant mention is made of Susan Sontag, with whom he had a long friendship in Europe and New York but with whom he had a contentious parting of the ways over his portrayal of her in Caracole. Perhaps his reminiscences of Sontag were written before her death and he feared additional censure or retribution. He does recount how Sontag’s son, David Rieff, came after him with a bullwhip at a party for Caracole (1985) but was “apprehended” before he could lash out. His views on love are cynical yet realistic:Love puzzles me so much I can scarcely say whether I think it’s good or bad. It’s good (and bad) because passion-love, unlike esteem-love, is transformative, obsessional, impractical. It can’t be fitted in with a job, errands, and homework. It pushes friendship aside and upstages family attachments. It crowds out every mild or disinterested pleasure; in fact, it has little to do with pleasure of any sort except at the very beginning of its trajectory when the poor lover still imagines he might live happily ever after with the beloved.In “My Shrinks,” White sets the stage for his youthful obsession with Freudian analysis, a system he found “too devoid of comfort to serve as a substitute for religion” with its “narrow, normative view of humanity.” White came to reject this absolutist view in his early thirties, replacing it with “an interest in groups rather than individuals.” He credits psychoanalysis with leaving him with a few convictions, notably “that everyone is worthy of years and years of intense scrutiny—not a bad credo for a novelist.” He confesses that he began to feel a compulsion to betray his sexual partners, an observation that calls to mind Jean Genet’s betrayal of his lovers in The Thief’s Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers. While this identification with Genet is not specifically drawn out, Genet’s name is mentioned enough for the reader to draw parallels, fusing a kinship that places White and Genet in the same “bad boy” camp. For White, letting an older boy at summer camp “hypnotize me and press my mouth down on his penis” meant going to Mother, who was the camp psychologist, and spilling the beans. These were the Eisenhower years, when enrolling in a military school was seen as an all-purpose solution when it came to boys’ problems. White was the sort of kid who over-analyzed everything. At age fifteen, like a youthful Dr. Peabody, he confessed to a friend’s mother: “I’m very worried. I don’t seem to be moving out of the normal homosexual stage of development.”Coming out for White was anything but a polite society dance. He’d head over to Kentucky from Cincinnati and spy on the young men in white T-shirts and beltless, low-riding jeans, nursing cigarettes. “How convenient that these young Kentucky men, smelling of beer and Camels, their bodies so lean they had no hips, a T-shirt sleeve swollen because it was folded back over a cigarette pack above a tattoo—how convenient they were for hire.” He writes that he was “in a fever of desire for these hillbilly boys perched on the Fountain Square railing.” He’d cash his weekly paycheck from his job at his father’s Addressograph machine company and head over to where the boys were hanging out. “I wore nerdy Steve Allen black glasses and had a longish brush cut. I was skinny and given to tics—my neck was always stiff and bobbing and I nodded it in little spasms that were so noticeable that I hated to sit in front of anyone at the movies.” In these instances he was usually so flustered that he would go with the first man who spoke to him. During one cruising foray he encountered an out gay boy who called himself “Miss Thing,” who observed: “Mary, the joint is hopping tonight!” Not his type: the young White’s idea was to capture “a real man,” a heterosexual man. “A real man had to be primitive, angry, not too intelligent and, in conversation, a bit ludicrous, whereas we queens were clever but as sterile as eunuchs.”Years later, when living in New York and writing A Boy’s Own Story, he would call escort services (“Bottoms were a dime a dozen; real money was spent only on tops”) or pick up street kids. He was writing college textbooks at the time. Far from demanding perfection in his boys, he writes that he liked flaws, “a wound which acted as an opening to the communion of shared humanity.” He wrote A Boy’s Own Story in one of the back cubicles in the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU after nights of hard S&M play with a parade of escorts. “The heat and my hangover tempted me to put my head down on my desk and fall asleep. I was so sleepy I would write portmanteau words, which collapsed the syllables of two or three words I’d already sounded in my head. I even started to spell phonetically.”Although he never waxes sentimental, of all the portraits in the book the ones of his parents are the most powerful. His mother (“Like me she was prone to malapropisms.”) wore a Merry Widow girdle that Edmund had to help her get out of. Mother admired rich people but had a pantheistic view of God that young Ed found “unconvincing.” “I never liked God in any form, even at his most universal. To me he was like Santa Claus—a grown-up conspiracy perpetrated on children to humiliate them. Too good to be true.”Readers expecting a pristine, tasteful portrait of the author will be shaken out of their teacups. This reviewer loved its sometimes upsetting honesty, its self-effacing humor and its sensuality. There’s the story of French writer Gilles Barbedette, for instance, who wanted to translate Nocturnes for the King of Naples into French while still a skinny kid and whom White met when he was a “young-looking, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking New York sex addict of forty.” “As we talked about books I sat on the floor beside him and kept touching his leg,” White writes. “He always loved to tell the story of how he, a very young man, had approached me on a serious artistic and professional mission and I was, within minutes, kneeling on the floor before him and unzipping his fly, calling him ‘Master.’”Thom Nickels is the author of two recently published books: Out in History and Philadelphia Architecture.

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