Memoir Monday: Queer Cultural Inheritance in Marco Roth’s The Scientists and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?

October 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

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[image description: a screenshot from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, this image depicts an aggressively cheerful mother with children in party hats, all singing.  The mother holds a birthday cake that reads “happy birthday big daddy,” and musical text reads “Big Daddy’s a jolly good fellow.”]

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[image description: a screenshot from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this image depicts Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Maggie, looking askance at the birthday celebration.  Her eyebrows are raised, and her arms are crossed.]

The first hour of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1958 film based on Tennessee Williams’ play, should be required viewing for anyone wishing to understand what life under compulsory heterosexuality looks like from the outside. The culture of inheritance caricatured and condemned by the film (rewritten ending notwithstanding) reveals itself in all its ugliness in the screenshots above. In the first, we see a family hell-bent on earning its precise inheritance, complete with a desexualized and frumpy mother, artlessly singing the praises of the family patriarch, “Big Daddy,” with her five children. In the reaction shot we see Maggie, played by the incomparable Elizabeth Taylor, whose artful self-presentation in itself rejects the world as organized by Big Daddy, and whose facial expression betrays her loathing for this moment of crass pandering. It’s not that Maggie is a radically antisocial queer critic — like the rest, she wants money, and she even wants men — but, if only by virtue of her intimate knowledge of homosexuality, via her husband, she simply cannot fit in properly to the society of compulsory heterosexuality.

This weekend, I read Marco Roth’s recently-published first book, a memoir called The Scientists: A Family Romance, which tells story of Roth’s father’s battle with AIDS in the 1980s from his son’s perspective. The elder Roth, a doctor, had claimed to have contracted the virus in a laboratory accident in 1984, but later, indeed, after the man’s death, the younger Roth comes to learn that the more likely truth was that his father had been gay, and contracted the virus sexually. Although this central story has to do with a specifically sexual secret, Roth’s focus is rarely on the politics of sexuality, and never offers a sustained critique of the compulsory heterosexuality he nevertheless depicts. Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Scientists tells a story of significant inheritance, financial and cultural, but unlike the former, Roth’s memoir retains a fantasy of the milieu in which he came of age, represented by his parents’ love for high culture, which is ultimately too precious to condemn politically. Toward the end of the book, he describes his first serious conversation with his mother about his father’s sexuality, in a scene representative of the author’s approach to family dynamics. He says,

“My mother tried to persuade me that I shouldn’t take it personally. It was the era, she said. Not so much today as the ’50s, the long reach of America’s conformist decade. Everyone was afraid. That had been my aunt’s line, too, about ‘bending under the deceptions forged in crueler times,’ as though my parents or rather my family were merely victims of preenlightened conditions. This was also, as far as I was concerned, bullshit historicism. The sociology was another fancy way of making excuses, outsourcing a decision to some higher power. Cowardice is cowardice. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was a policy for the military, not the family, and a misguided one. Neither did we live among the kind of people who thought AIDS was God’s tough-love epistle to the queers. If the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1980s and early 1990s was not a safe enough milieu to discuss homosexuality with one’s child, then nowhere was…I’d been right to think that [my parents had] deliberately prepared for me a future of disappointment, of a museumlike world of cultural and other goods that I’d never be able to touch or really experience or make for myself. I was wrong that they’d done it deliberately. The taboo under which they both lived had become a generalized ‘Thou shalt not want,’ overshadowing everything to which I put my hand.” (183-4)

– from Marco Roth’s The Scientists: A Family Romance

As soon as Roth is able to level a specific criticism at his parents, he instantly transitions into talking about the general, in this case the “generalized ‘Thou shalt not want,'” which then transitions into the next chapter, a reflection on the author’s fantasies about the value of literature, and how they are entwined with the story of discovering the truth about his father. (184) It’s a good story, and it’s incredibly appealing to readers like me, who’ve enjoyed Roth’s writing in n+1 for a long time, and were excited by the opportunity to contextualize his perspective. However, the book misses the opportunity to engage with broader conversations about queer sexuality and queer sexual politics beyond the occasional well-rendered anecdote about moments in which the author’s own sexuality has been called into question. Perhaps this was not its goal, but I can be forgiven for hoping that it would be, especially because Roth so nicely incorporates one of my favorite Adorno quotations, in which “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant,” by adding, “This was a slogan and a sentiment I could get behind. After all, my fully enlightened family had been nothing but a disaster.” (70) It is understandable that the author would wish in a memoir to get beyond the stage of quippy social rejection, but a certain critical energy is lost in the process of that trajectory toward mature adulthood, and away from antisocial queer possibility.

Put differently, Roth’s story of his possibly-gay father is subtitled “a family romance,” which raises the inevitable comparison to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, subtitled “a family tragicomic,” which shares that crucial narrative thread. Roth finds his way into a certain kind of safe fantasy space by the end of his memoir, but it is in literature — ultimately, he is at home with his cultural inheritance, if not exactly in the queer questions raised by his family’s narratives of sexuality. In Bechdel, the weight of the terms is reversed; it is literature which helps her to illuminate her fantasies of a queer culture, to which her father could have belonged more fully. Referring to her father’s tendency to deflect serious questions with literary quotations, in this case from James Joyce, Bechdel tries at the end of Fun Home to come to an honest conclusion about what really ties them together as father and daughter. Her fantasy is that they share an “erotic truth,” namely, homosexuality, but she knows that this concept is insufficient. She says,

“‘Erotic truth’ is a rather sweeping concept. I shouldn’t pretend to know what my father’s was. Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as ‘gay,’ as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself–a sort of inverted Oedipal complex. I think of his letter, the one in which he does and doesn’t come out to me. [From letter: Your mother] just seems to be suggesting that you keep your options open. I tend to go along with that but probably for different reasons. Of course, it seems like a cop out. But then, who are cop outs for? Taking sides is rather heroic, and I am not a hero.” (230)

-from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Like Roth, Bechdel is aware that the fact of someone’s sexual proclivities does not constitute a satisfying representation of who they are as a person, and that it’s overly simplistic to hope that a sufficiently liberal milieu could solve whatever motivates people to lie and live in illusions of conformity. However, she is more willing to put on display what exactly that illusion looks like — to show her father working to create the family he thought he was supposed to have, with her knowledge of the lie foregrounded throughout. Bechdel’s approach is no more cruel than that of anyone who writes from their own life, including anyone’s perspectives but their own. By foregrounding the fact of her father’s homosexuality, and making it part of her fantasy, she reverses the sexual shame that compelled him to keep it a secret. Roth, because he has located no specific way to set himself apart from his inheritance, aside from the not-insignificant fact of time, completes no such reversal.

Importantly, the rejection of compulsory heterosexuality does not have to mean the rejection of lived heterosexual relationships. The rejection of compulsory heterosexuality begins with a rejection of gendered power dynamics. The Algerian-born French writer Marie Cardinal offers a classic feminist example. In her 1975 autobiographical novel, The Words to Say It, the author describes how she came in psychoanalysis to understand her mother, and her mother’s failure to live the life she might have wanted, had it not been for the society that insisted upon her willingness to reproduce and commit to chastity after divorce. The forward trajectory of history was the primary catalyst for her mother’s realization that her life was built on false principles, but Cardinal notes how a careful attention to language could have revealed this to them both long ago. She says,

“Thus in her sixties, when my mother found herself propelled out of her universe, and when her entire life was called into question because of the war in Algeria, she chose to die. The upheaval was too profound, she did not herself feel capable of taking it on. It was too late. It is my belief that everything collapsed for her when she unconsciously analysed the content of the word ‘paternalism.’ She often said with irritation, ‘It works better to be paternalistic than nothing at all, like those giving us lessons today. The Arabs knew I was taking care of them forty years ago. Those who call us paternalists cannot say as much.’ She understood very well that in this terrible word was the condemnation to be found of what had been her reason for living, her excuse, her justification: Christian charity.” (195)

– from Marie Cardinal’s The Words to Say It

Because Cardinal has no particular investment in Christianity, or her father, whose role in her life she has figured out and does not romanticize, this realization is possible for her in a way that it was not for her aging mother, who had invested so much in a particular image of herself, deeply tied to one specific culture and its gender norms. At this realization, Cardinal can release her anger at her mother’s inconsistencies and see them for what they are, and finally care for her in the way that she deserves to be cared for. No other realization in The Words To Say It is so cathartic, or so neatly ties together the various threads that had kept Cardinal from becoming the woman she wanted to become. Not until she could discredit those aspects of her life that had been arbitrarily assigned to her by virtue of her gender could she figure out how to proceed authentically. Conversations about gender and sexuality have of course grown much more sophisticated, and the conventions of autobiography have been exploded by modes of experimentation that seek to transcend this kind of linear narrative of psychological development. However, it seems to me that a book like Cardinal’s has a lot to offer a conversation about books like Roth’s and Bechdel’s, which continue to do the difficult work of establishing an honest view of generations prior, in order to understand our shared inheritance.

The choices are not only “love your parents, but do not tell the truth” or “reject and humiliate your parents.” The choices are not only “love the past, but do not acknowledge its failures” or “reject the past absolutely and create a new world.” Perhaps the most promising approach, in my view, is to focus on those relationships that help us to develop our perspectives, and to reject unnecessary burdens in favor of our desires and fantasies. A perfect anecdote from Sheila Heti’s recent “novel from life,” How Should a Person Be? illustrates this point early on, when the author is describing the central object of her affection in the novel, her friend Margaux. She says,

“There are certain people who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and they are the ones who make the world tick. They are the ones who keep everything functioning so the rest of us can worry about what sort of person we should be. I have read all the books, and I know what they say: You–but better in every way! And yet there are so many ways of being better and these ways can contradict each other.

Yesterday Margaux told me a story that her mother often tells about when she was a baby. It took Margaux a long time to talk, and everyone thought she was a little dumb. Margaux’s mother had a friend who was a bit messed up and really into self-help books and all sorts of self-improvement tapes. One day, she had been telling Margaux’s mother about a technique in which, whatever problem you came across in your life, you were just supposed to throw up your hands and say, Who cares? That night, as Margaux’s parents and her slightly older sister were sitting around the dinner table and Margaux was in her high chair, her sister spilled her milk and the glass broke all across the table. Her mother started yelling, and her sister started crying. Then, from over in the high chair, they heard little Margaux going, Who cares?

I’m sorry, but I’m really glad she’s my best friend. If I had known, when I was a baby, that in America there was a baby who was throwing up her hands and saying, first words out of her moth, Who cares? and that one day she’d be my best friend, I would have relaxed for the next twenty-three years, not a single care in the world.” (6-7)

– from Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?

I love this moment because it depicts an origin point for the antisocial queer perspective that we could all stand to cultivate and strategically employ. A mother’s love, a best friend’s love, and a woman’s love for herself are all placed on the same plane of desire, with no need for anything else. Here, in the antisocial act of proclaiming Who cares?, the opportunity for genuine friendship between people, between women, and between generations, arises.

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