“ . . .our genders and orientations do not define us. We are somehow greater than our sexual identities, but our sexual identities matter.” – John Irving
There are two somewhat different schools of thought about human nature. One says that our nature is set when we come into the world. That which defines us as “human” includes our ability to procreate. Male and female He created us. This “natural law” theory differs from the view that says we have no fixed nature at birth; instead we define ourselves through the choices we make. This “existential” view places the burden and responsibility of our choices squarely on us. Consciously or unconsciously, many people hold such views, so in their eyes if you are gay or bisexual you are either a freak of nature of you are choosing to behave unnaturally. Either way, you’re just not normal.
It has only recently occurred to us that perhaps nature isn’t as monolithic as we would like to think and that these two philosophical views offer us what amounts to a false dilemma.
Author John Irving has never been one to mince words or avoid controversy (The World According to Garp dealt with sexually “suspect” arrangements, and The Cider House Rules with abortion), and his latest book, In One Person (Simon & Schuster, May 2012) tells the story of Bill Dean (later Abbot) who, from the time of his adolescence, found himself sexually attracted to both men and women. The story begins in the 1950’s when “gay” wasn’t in the vocabulary (at least the way we use it now), but “queer” and “fag” were. People who felt “different” kept it to themselves—for good reason. And many of them loathed themselves. Who would choose to be self-loathing is a question that comes to mind when reading this novel.
At age thirteen, Billy—like most adolescent boys—began to experience sexual longings and the objects of those longings were troubling. Like many of Irving’s characters, Billy has an absent father. His mother, with whom he has a complicated relationship, eventually falls for a younger man (a teacher at the local private boys secondary school) and Billy, to his consternation, develops a crush on his soon-to-be stepfather. This bothers him, but he still relishes the man’s attention and glories in his “crush”. Billy’s family includes his grandfather, Harry, who runs a lumber mill and who sublimates his latent sexual ambiguity by playing women’s’ roles in local theater productions. He is seen throughout the novel either wearing the rough clothes of a lumberman—or his wife’s frilly dresses (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay” – apologies to Monty Python).
Billy seems to feel more “normal” when he meets the local librarian, Miss Frost, for whom he develops a deep longing. She is a beautiful, big boned woman who encourages him to read novels of all sorts, and who has the aggravating habit of repeating what people say to her. A habit Billy will emulate for the rest of his life.
It is Miss Frost who will affect Billy most deeply. At the age of 18, he asks Miss Frost about books that will help him deal with his crushes on men, and she gives him a book by James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, that deals explicitly with men who love other men. Afterward, Miss Frost takes Billy down to the basement (where Grandpa Harry has built a comfortable bedroom so Miss Frost won’t have to leave the library when the weather is bad). There, Billy has one of the most unforgettable sexual experiences of his life—and learns something about Miss Frost that explains why no children ever come to the library.
Billy has other crushes as well, one of the most compelling of them on the star of the school wrestling team, a boy named Kittredge. Kittredge is a cruel young man who never loses a match, and who delights in deviling Billy and Billy’s friend, Elaine (who also has a crush on him). In time, Billy and Elaine develop a close bond, and engage in sex, and their relationship is one of the most stable in his young life. It is Kittredge, however, who impregnates Elaine, causing her to leave and obtain an abortion. Although Elaine is the daughter of a faculty member, nothing happens to Kittredge. Miss Frost, because of what happened with Billy, was forced to leave. The unfairness of it all begins to work on Billy.
Billy goes on to college and later becomes a writer of “angry” novels about sexual identity and the prejudices against those who are gay, lesbian or transsexual (a word that will eventually be replaced by “transgender). All the while, he engages in multiple relationships with men—and women.
In the 1980s, the “plague” of AIDS takes many of his good friends from school, in particular one young man with whom he spent a summer in Europe and who loved Billy far more than Billy loved him. The scenes of death, with all of their clinical descriptions, are truly heart-rending as one by one young people die in agony. Billy, who began using condoms in 1968 and who was a “top”—as opposed to a “bottom”—in his relationships escapes the plague.
Through it all, Billy is unapologetic about his lifestyle, and by the time he is in his 60s he returns to his New England home where he finds peace with himself as a teacher at the school where he grew up.
Late in life, Billy encounters the son of the wrestler Billy had such a crush on in school, the cruel kid who impregnated Elaine. The boy is angry at life, and at his father—who, as it turned out, was gay. Kittredge’s son speaks from the heart, but with venom—venom that many self-proclaimed “normal” people might use when addressing someone who is—well—different.
“You’re bisexual, aren’t you? Do you think that’s normal, or natural—or sympathetic? You’re a switch-hitter!”
Billy has lived and learned, and replies in the way that his first love, Miss Frost replied to him once when he asked her a similar question.
“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”
If you are a person who thinks that people who think of themselves as gay, bisexual, or transgender are all misguided, sinful miscreants and that their demands for legal rights are part of a conspiracy to undermine American society, do not—I repeat—do not read In One Person unless you aren’t afraid to examine the views you hold. You might just be surprised.
The real power of Irving’s 18th novel is its subject matter: it’s a book about human beings.