A child of the 1950s from a small New England town, "perfect Paul" earns straight A's and shines in social and literary pursuits, all the while keeping a secret—from himself and the rest of the world. Struggling to be, or at least to imitate, a straight man, through Ivy League halls of privilege and bohemian travels abroad, loveless intimacy and unrequited passion, Paul Monette was haunted, and finally saved, by a dream of "the thing I'd never even seen: two men in love and laughing."
Searingly honest, witty, and humane, Becoming a Man is the definitive coming-out story in the classic coming-of-age genre.
About the Author
Paul Monette (1945-1995) is the author of many books, including seven novels, four volumes of poetry, and several highly praised nonfiction works, such as Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. In 1992, he received the National Book Award for Becoming a Man. He died of AIDS complications in 1995.
Read an Excerpt
Becoming a Man
Half a Life Story
By Paul Monette
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Paul Monette
All rights reserved.
Everybody else had a childhood, for one thing—where they were coaxed and coached and taught all the shorthand. Or that's how it always seemed to me, eavesdropping my way through twenty-five years, filling in the stories of straight men's lives. First they had their shining boyhood, which made them strong and psyched them up for the leap across the chasm to adolescence, where the real rites of manhood began. I grilled them about it whenever I could, slipping the casual question in while I did their Latin homework for them, sprawled on the lawn at Andover under the reeling elms.
And every year they leaped further ahead, leaving me in the dust with all my doors closed, and each with a new and better deadbolt. Until I was twenty-five, I was the only man I knew who had no story at all. I'd long since accepted the fact that nothing had ever happened to me and nothing ever would. That's how the closet feels, once you've made your nest in it and learned to call it home. Self-pity becomes your oxygen.
I speak for no one else here, if only because I don't want to saddle the women and men of my tribe with the lead weight of my self-hatred, the particular doorless room of my internal exile. Yet I've come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment. The self-delusion of uniqueness. The festering pretense that we are the same as they are. The gutting of all our passions till we are a bunch of eunuchs, our zones of pleasure in enemy hands. Most of all, the ventriloquism, the learning how to pass for straight. Such obedient slaves we make, with such very tidy rooms.
Forty-six now and dying by inches, I finally see how our lives align at the core, if not in the sorry details. I still shiver with a kind of astonished delight when a gay brother or sister tells of that narrow escape from the coffin world of the closet. Yes yes yes, goes a voice in my head, it was just like that for me. When we laugh together then and dance in the giddy circle of freedom, we are children for real at last, because we have finally grown up. And every time we dance, our enemies writhe like the Witch in Oz, melting, melting—the Nazi Popes and all their brocaded minions, the rat-brain politicians, the wacko fundamentalists and their Book of Lies.
We may not win in the end, of course. Genocide is still the national sport of straight men, especially in this century of nightmares. And death by AIDS is everywhere around me, seething through the streets of this broken land. Last September I buried another lover, Stephen Kolzak—died of homophobia, murdered by barbaric priests and petty bureaucrats. So whether or not I was ever a child is a matter of very small moment. But every memoir now is a kind of manifesto, as we piece together the tale of the tribe. Our stories have died with us long enough. We mean to leave behind some map, some key, for the gay and lesbian people who follow—that they may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America.
I don't come from the past, I come from now, here in the cauldron of plague. When the doors to the camps were finally beaten down, the Jews of Europe no longer came from Poland and Holland and France. They came from Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But I will never understand how the straights could have let us die like this—year after year after year, collaborating by indifference—except by sifting through the evidence of my queer journey.
Why do they hate us? Why do they fear us? Why do they want us invisible?
I don't trust my own answers anymore. I'm too twisted up with rage, too hooked on the millennium. But I find myself combing the past these days, dreaming dreams without sleep, puzzling over my guys, the gay and the straight and the in-between. Somewhere in there is a horror of love, and to try to kill the beast in them, they take it out on us. Which is not to say I don't chastise myself for halving the world into us and them. I know that the good guys aren't all gay, or the bad all straight. That is what I am sifting for, to know what a man is finally, no matter the tribe or gender.
Put it this way. A month after Stevie died, running from grief, I drove three days through Normandy. In the crystalline October light I walked the beach at Omaha, scoped the landing from a German bunker, then headed up the pasture bluff to the white field of American crosses. American soil in fact, this ocean graveyard, unpolluted even by the SS visit of Reagan in '84, who couldn't tell the difference between the dead here and the dead at Bitburg. You can't do Normandy without D-Day. After Omaha, the carnage and heroism shimmer across the pastureland, ghosts of the soldiers who freed the world of evil for a while.
Two days later I fetched up in Caen, where they've built a Museum of Peace on the site of an eighty-day battle fought by three million men. Newsreel footage and camp uniforms, ration books, code breakers, yellow star and pink triangle. You watch it all happen like a slow bomb, from the end of World War I, the dementia of power, till the smithereens are in smithereens. You walk numbly from year to year, country to country, helpless as a Jew or a Gypsy or a queer.
And in the belly of the place there's this extraordinary room lined with pictures on either side. On the right are the collaborators, men—all men, of course—who ran the puppet governments for the Nazis. Vichy and Belgium and Denmark, the whole of Europe ruled by fawning men with dead eyes and fat ties, grins that show the gristle between their teeth. On the left wall, opposite, are the leaders of the Resistance—several women here—and they're lean and defiant and alive. Europe is in prison and the world is imploding, and these people are smiling because they can't lose.
So that is what I am doing in the past, figuring out who goes on the left wall and who on the right. For that is the choice, it seems to me: collaborate or resist. The left wall is not all gay and lesbian, and not everyone is out of the closet. I can't judge the world of my first twenty years by the laws of freedom that followed Stonewall. No man was the same after that. And I understand that every ethics—the gods I don't believe in and the wise men I do—tells me to forgive. But if that is what I have to do, I will have to learn not to forget first; to let in the light on the last attic room, the bones of a buried life.
It isn't all mine anyway—neither the lost years nor the victory—this tale of a boy who made it out of the woods. For I am the final gleam of Roger and Stephen as well, the two men I am surest of, who willed their stories to me. We couldn't have met each other anywhere but out in the open. As to whether being in the closet puts you on the wrong wall, with the collaborators, that is for men and women to judge themselves. I can't conceive the hidden life anymore, don't think of it as life. When you finally come out, there's a pain that stops, and you know it will never hurt like that again, no matter how much you lose or how bad you die. This I know: Those who are still in the closet will get the tale wrong, however I tell it. Get it as wrong as a cardinal would, or a shit-eating bachelor Republican. Knowing how they will get it wrong will be one of the things that keeps me going.
It's my word against the pictures, in any case—the 40's Brownie snapshots with scalloped edges. I look like a kid, I'm even laughing. In the front yard on Elm Street, five minutes' walk from the village, pulling the ears of a Saint Bernard called See-Soo. I am two or three, and the dog has a snappish attitude, except with me. I can do what I like, poke him and ride him and pull at his fur, and he takes it like a giant teddy bear.
This is the era as well of my singing and dancing on the dining room table, set there by my favorite aunt, Grace—later simply Auntie Mame. To whom I am ever grateful, though she cringes to recall it, for taking me when I was fourteen to see Suddenly Last Summer—from which I emerged dazzled and strangely sophisticated, if not quite sure what happened to Sebastian.
That was at the Andover Playhouse, two doors up from the Catholic church, which was cheek by jowl with the Boston & Maine depot. The story where nothing happens takes place here for twenty years, in Andover Massachusetts, a country town then, now a suburb of Boston. Founded in 1646 by whey-faced Puritans, all of whom seem to have ancestors down to the present age, cheeks hollow from sucking pennies. The only thrill they allowed themselves was the chafe of the woolens they wore, winter and summer.
Pretty in its way, Andover, with those arching trees vaulting the white-picket streets, Elm and Maple and Chestnut. The country around was still a patchwork of orchards and bedroom-sized Colonial burial grounds. And always the woods at the end of every street, the silent echo of the red man's footfalls, all the way out to Lake Cochicowick. On the windowsill in a kid's bedroom you'd find a row of stone arrowheads picked up in the woods behind his house.
It's ten miles west of Salem, where they burned a half-century of witches, mostly gay and lesbian. And four miles north of Reading, where Charles Stuart plotted the imperfect crime, the ritual slaughter of his pregnant wife. There's a Lizzie Borden in every town in Massachusetts, biding her time and her axe. Mostly the bodies are buried behind the barn. A good fifteen miles north of Boston, thus light years away. People in Andover talked about going to Boston as if it were a three-day trek by oxcart. You only went to the city for a Red Sox game, or a red-light tumble in Scollay Square.
No memory whatsoever of the life on Elm Street, though the house is still there, the roofline of the horse barn sagging close to the breaking point. We lived upstairs from my Grandmother Lamb, who'd capped her own long widowhood with a second husband—unheard of in those parts, scandalous as divorce. A widow was meant to be half-dead and look it.
This Robert Lamb had sailed over from England after the War to deliver a Rolls Royce to Andover's mythically rich mill owner, whose stone-gated estate was a woods of its own, reported to have a theater and a bowling alley, and a children's playhouse complete with its own china pattern. Robert Lamb was only meant to instruct the ham-fisted chauffeur in the care and handling of that yacht of a car, but the mill owner's wife decided she needed a proper Brit accent to go with it. So Lamb stayed and drove the car, refined as a landed duke himself, while the mill owner's wife rode in the back, looking lost and a little embalmed.
But that is the story passed down, not mine at all. It might as well be the eighteen-forties. Except my father has just returned from the War, nine missions over Japan, the navigator. He and my mother have been Air Force gypsies—South Carolina, Texas, New Mexico—aching to get back to New England, where the seasons come in the right order. I am born the day after they move into Elm Street. They're both twenty-three, married four years, high-school sweethearts before. Paul and Jackie—in the pictures he looks like John Wayne in Stagecoach, and she's Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. Or are those their favorite movies?
I don't remember. And I never really cared to ask, either, because it had nothing to do with me. If the dog had mauled me, perhaps, or if I'd fallen off the table and split my head, there might have been a glimmer. Then the baby's years would have been a proper shadow of what came later. Instead there is just this rumor of joy, a stunt baby singing his head off, riding a pony, paddling the shallows at Old Orchard Beach. Not me.
By 1950 we have our own house, at 116 High Street. Prefab, knocked together by my father and uncles. Big Paul is driving a truck for the Cross Coal Company, and Little Paul ought to be in kindergarten—except I'm not. Nobody's ever explained it to my satisfaction. I'm born in October, so I didn't turn five till the school year had already started, and four-year-olds couldn't go. But then why did they put me not in kindergarten but first grade a year later, still just five? I don't care, except it leaves my fifth year high and dry, extending the blur of amnesia. Still I'm no one.
Was it then that my mother went in to have her appendix out? This, too, is all secondhand, but my father tells me sheepishly how he was driving me over to my grandmother's house so he could go up to the hospital. We passed a hilltop cemetery, and I pointed and said, "She's in there, isn't she?" That's the first sentence I recognize—that's me. Someone forgot to tell me everything was fine. Notice the bleak fatalism, the boy waiting to toss off his awful knowledge: Oh by the way, Dad, I know she's dead.
The only thing new about 116 High Street was the television, a four-inch screen of snow in a lumbering cabinet, the first TV in the world, it seemed, given the crowd of relatives and neighbors who gathered in awe. Even through the snow I recall the images clearer than my family: Kate Smith and Howdy Doody, and Dinah Shore for Chevrolet. The lurid banality of the 50's was all there in incubation, the postwar slumber of the soul, tuned to whatever felt easy. Now that the radio had an eye, it would do all the seeing for us.
Was there news? If so, we didn't watch it. I don't remember Truman, or Eisenhower later, but maybe they hadn't perfected the White House hookup yet, the uranium shine of Oval Office doubletalk. Besides, all the news that would define me twenty years later went unreported. The two sick queens who hunted us down when I was too young to know—Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover—were given free rein by the Red Scare delirium; they flushed out queers and wrecked lives to throw the scent off their own ravening desire. Cardinal Spellman being the third member of the homo death squad, postwar division. Three little closeted mama's boys, ensuring that the Aryan dream of elimination would continue.
Mama's boy. The evidence of 116 High Street suggests as much, but it's still all hearsay. The cemetery remark aches with Oedipal static—How dare you die on me? Then the first day of school: I stood at the classroom window, unconsolable, learning nothing, waiting for Mother to come pick me up. Would kindergarten have helped? Did my mother and I spend year five together instead, in a school of our own, where I learned the fear of abandonment? Much much later, when I was forty and she was sixty, on oxygen now, she shook her head ruefully, taunted by ghosts: "I wish we'd watched more sunsets together."
But isn't that what we did instead of kindergarten?
Right after that—it had to be before November of '51—she was walking me across the parking lot to the school, and she fell. Stumbled on something and sat down hard on the pavement. I really do remember this, remember standing beside her helplessly, her face level with mine, a twist of pain. She couldn't get up, and I wasn't strong enough. Then two grownups trotted over to help us. Now I was embarrassed that we had caused a scene, my mother and I. And yet she rose from the ground, in their arms, with a certain grace and laughed it off. I remember the laugh.
I never mentioned this for thirty years. It didn't seem much to tell, connected to nothing. But one winter day we were sitting in the dining room, my mother's place to think. I was in from California, weekending in the old country. I laughed when I said it. "Remember the day you fell outside the school? I was so embarrassed."
A wrinkled half-smile as her eyebrows lifted, always loving a chance to set the record straight. "I was pregnant with Bobby," she replied softly. "That could've been very serious."
Could've been? I felt this tilt in my gut, to see how half-blind memory was. Pregnant with my brother, so if we were walking to school, it had to be that autumn of first grade, and before November 6. There must be a reason why a man can only recall two things from his first six years—a ride past a graveyard, his mother falling. Guilt, I suppose, or a piercing sense of inadequacy that will course through the boy like an underground river, eroding from within. Like those kids who take the blame for their parents' divorce, or the daily beatings, or the nightly rape. The looming cave of emptiness where the past ought to be, for the river has cut a channel a mile deep through solid rock, fed by a single wrong idea. The idea that what was about to happen to us was nobody's fault but mine.
Excerpted from Becoming a Man by Paul Monette. Copyright © 1992 Paul Monette. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“Monette’s interior life, his ghosts, his turmoil, his final peace in Becoming a Man, they have become our literature.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A game changing memoir of the very type of person the world should put on a pedestal. The antithesis of people like Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr., who demonize the very best of us for pathetic political or religious reasons. We should have had the chance to know someone like Monette, brilliant and necessary for the evolution of human nature.
A intimate, heartbreaking account of a man coming of age in a time of torment and inner turmoil. An absorbing read and perspective. Highly recommended.
I really identifued with the main character, Paul Monette. This book reminds me, in a way, of another book I read. They both have that some 'who am i' kind of feel to them.
Coming of age in the fifties, Paul Monette lived a life that, in a sense, paralleled my own as I too am a child of the fifties. And I also share with him the theme of discovery, the inward thoughtfulness that, if it does not lead every boy to write his own autobiography, it leads them to a life of the imagination and a love of literature and the arts. Paul Monette shares more than his coming of age in the fifties, for his is a story of the outsider, the gay man in the boy whose life leads to the age of AIDS and the loss that has been brought with it. From small town through the Ivy League school to the life of a writer, Monette brings a truth to his story that only a truly personal memoir can hold. This is a book to cherish for its spirit and story, for it is a story that is universal and humane. Seldom has a book so richly deserved the awards and accolades it has received.
In this touching, insightful memoir, Paul Monette recalls growing up gay in the 60s and 70s and shares his battle with internalized hatred as he struggles to accept himself and seek acceptance from others. Monette does not shy away from the gritty details. His accounts of some of his sexual experiences are as raw and painful as he recalls the actual events to have been, and he does not sugarcoat anything. Monette explores his life in the context of American society and the then-emerging gay rights movement and considers the consequences of America's initial reluctance to address the AIDS epidemic, as he finds that he is only able to write half a life story. This is a very moving, eye opening book that serves to remind us that behind every statistic about AIDS or homosexuality is a person struggling to make peace with himself.
Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story is a chronicle by Paul Monette of his early childhood to becoming an out gay man. The years of struggle to break free of self hate, confined in the closet on the journey to becoming authentic. This book is the early background on this important man, the closeted years, before his work that advanced gay civil rights. Any gay person born in the 50s will relate to the choices he made to survive a hostile world, a world that prevented you from being a happy successful gay person. With a bright mind, confidence and hiding his true self, he was able to achieve an education denied most young gay people. This book is a must read for all gay people, both old and young, to connect with a common truth and to learn of this authentic man, who helped make the world for us a better place. “Go without hate, but not without rage, heal the world”, his words his truth. RSM_Bedford
I wasnt too sure what to expect from this book but having gay friends and knowing how they work as people helped me. What a wonderful surprise when I started reading it. What an amazing journey for someone to take from a childhood living in the closet but going through the motions as someone who is straight, feeling constantly of self hatred and detesting yourself, unable to come out of the closet because of ridicule by family members and your peers, feeling isolated and lonely and an outcast in a un normal world. My gay friend also experienced the same feelings and emotions and they too found it difficult through their childhood but when you become an adult everything changes and you can then declare to the world. I AM GAY, I AM NOT A STRAIGHT MAN.
This book was suggested to me by a friend of mine to, as he put it, see life more clearly. When I started reading, the details of his life and all of the trials, tribulations and struggles Paul Monette went through resounded with me because I, too, had experienced all of them. This book made me realize that I wasn't the only person who struggled through these things, and eased my transition into a whole new world. If you feel that you are the only man out there who has gone through these trials and tribulations, this book will show you that you definitely are not.
To be honest....I felt the author was just or more concerned about the words he used than the actual story. I do not consider myself a dumb person but too many $5.00 words may it hard to follow.