Pat Holt's columns
about the book:
Dorothy Bryant and A Day in San Francisco
I might have remained only faintly aware of the ordeals of these six writers and totally unaware of the problems of many others, were it not for my own brush with a literary lynch mob. My story serves to represent those lesser known or unknown writers whose books we've never heard of because they were buried by critical abuse and/or silence for the wrong reasons, or because, also for the wrong reasons, their books were never even published. Another reason for telling my story is obviousI know it from the inside and can give a closer, more detailed view of an author's experience, from the conception of the book to the attacks on it.
I want to tell this story as completely and accurately as I can, which may require some rambling about things I'm still working out in my own mind. But there are several things I don't want to do. I don't want to imply that, by comparing my experiences with the famous authors I've discussed, I am in any way equating my writing with theirs. I don't want to elicit sympathy for a personal tragedy as proof of the legitimacy of what I wrote. I don't want the reader to forget George Orwell's admonition to his readers at the end of Homage to Catalonia: "beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period."
My family was part of the great emigration that, from 1880 to 1920, emptied Italy of the poorest one-third of its population. My parents were born in the same village near Turin and were brought to America as children about 1910. Their fathers worked in coal and copper mines in Illinois, Utah, and Montana. (Both died of silicosis when I was a child.) My father attended school until age fourteen, worked briefly in a copper mine, then trained as a mechanic. Both families moved on to California before 1920. My mother became the most highly educated of all the family and paesani, managing to finish high school while working from the age of ten. My parents married in 1925; my sister was born the next year, and I was born in 1930 in San Francisco's immigrant, working-class Mission District.
As a child I read voraciously and indiscriminately, wrote now and then, but firmly suppressed idle dreams of becoming a writer. The names on the spines of books in the library were those of gods, not human beings like those I knew. Like many people of my class and generation, I married too young and had two children too soon. But I simultaneously finished the local commuter college (the first in my family to do so) and started teaching at twenty-three, an unusual (some said indefensible) activity for a young mother in the 1950s. My urge to write lay dormant or suppressed until I was about thirty, when it exploded, blowing up my marriage and much of my interest in classroom teaching (though, after moving to another Bay Area town, I continued to earn my living by teaching until 1976). By the late 1960s I had remarried, my children were off to college, and I had finished a novel I thought worth publishing.
Ella Price's Journal came directly out of my community college teaching. In the sixties, women who had married out of high school and raised children began showing up in college classes at age thirty-five or older. They were largely ignored, isolated from the younger students and increasingly alienated from their own families and community. The subject soon became so familiar as to make up a genre of its own, but in 1968, when I completed the novel, it was a hidden drama about a type of woman who was "well-known but of no interest," as publishers wrote in the rejections my agent collected for three years. The second-wave feminist movement finally made a place for this novel, published in 1972 by an old distinguished house. It remains the only "re-entry" novel whose protagonist is a working-class woman entering a two-year college. It is still used in a few classes for re-entry students or in history classes covering the 1960s.
My second novel, The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You, was a Jungian religious fantasy inspired by my own spiritual search and my reading in the literature of the mystics. My New York agent refused to handle it ("It will only prejudice New York publishers against you."), but a short-lived small press arranged a co-publishing agreement with Random House, which published it in 1976. It is still in print today (2002), a word-of-mouth survivor. It has been read by groups in communal retreats, in classes for disturbed teenagers, and in theology classes taught by professors familiar with its veiled sources. (My husband Bob once chased down a car whose personalized license plate read ATAKIN. The driver turned out to be a local minister.)
Meanwhile, I went on writing while my agent tried in vain to sell my third novel Miss Giardino. This novel was better crafted and more complex than the first two. My protagonist was a composite of the strict, old-maid school teachers of my childhood, a type disappearing in the late sixties, when the story takes place. Her story wove together themes of the immigrant experience (using my mother's childhood), and the problems of inner-city school teaching (using my observation of these schools, both as a student and as a teacher). I had largely completed the novel in 1972. By 1978 it was still being bounced from one New York publisher to another, and I had a backlog of three more books.
Aside from all the usual marketing problems for serious fiction, why hadn't Miss Giardino found a commercial publisher? I think its protagonist ran counter to the hero-teacher type acceptable to readers and film-goersthen and now. She was not a creative young rebel who transcends the reactionary institution. Nor was she a mellow, wise, beloved old "Mr. Chips." She had begun as a creative young rebel who, after forty years of teaching, felt defeated by the system and despised by young newcomers with trendier (not necessarily better) teaching styles and methods. And, perhaps most unacceptable, she was, at the height of the Black Power movement, a traditional, white, old maid schoolteachera safe target for stereotyping as "racist" by students more interested in political slogans than in study. (It is interesting to me now that in my real-life teaching I tiptoed around these issues, while in writing this novel I bluntly spelled them out yet wondered why no publisher was interested.)
Encouraged by a lively small press scene in the seventies, in 1978 I started my own small press and published Miss Giardino myself. I hoped that my edition of Miss Giardino, or the next book, or the next, would attract enough attention to be, like Kin of Ata, taken over by a "real" publisher. I could keep the books in print and wait. It became a long wait, twenty years to be exact. I had published eight more of my books before The Feminist Press stepped in, offering to publish new editions of four of my novels.
(This odd decision to self-publish, after commercial publication of my first two books, is part of this story. No commercial publisher, large or small, would have touched A Day in San Francisco in 1982, even if I had by then become a reasonably marketable author. "Where's the audience for this book?" both mainstream or gay publishers would have askedknowing that mainstream readers would be turned off and gay readers, infuriated. If I had not self-published, my story would be one of frustration at not finding a publisher, rather than one of the attack on a published book.)
The few reviews of Miss Giardino showed the reviewers' discomfort with this unfashionable heroine and theme. Some praised the book more for my anti-establishment publishing effort than for the book itself. But the book sold about 4,000 copies the first year by word of mouth. It was read in some education classes at UC Berkeley and even in some classes at my old alma mater, Mission High School, where the children of more recent, non-European immigrants recognized their reality in it (or so they told me when I was invited to visit a class).
In 1979 I published two books. Writing a Novel was my farewell to teaching. There had always been how-to books on writing. The worst promised best-sellerdom in twelve easy lessons. The best were written in an abstract, lofty manner, imitating the tone of contempt that had greeted me in 1960 whenever I asked a professor of creative writing if there were any helpful books. What beginning writers were asking for seemed, to me, not at all contemptiblethat an older writer share a few useful, simple starting points and acknowledge some problems they should expect. It took me only a few months to write down the things that I'd been saying to my students for years. This book became a favorite of local creative writing teachers. Later, many writers became more willing to write user-friendly books, and beginning writers now have a wider choice.
The Garden of Eros was a short novel inspired by a couple I'd met briefly while traveling near Death Valley, Californiaa twenty-year-old blind girl with a new baby, and her husband, twice her age. I was intrigued because it seemed that the strong member of this relationship was clearly the young blind girl. I tried to imagine the love story that brought them together, but it dragged and died, then was resurrected in a new structurefree association memory flashbacks in the girl's voice, while she is giving birth. Of course, within this structurefrom first contraction to birththe act of giving birth becomes a subplot if not THE plot. Some reviewers called a tour de force, which always sounds like a put-down of a book with little to recommend it but a flashy technique. I think one reader was right to say that the tension set up by the process of childbirth worked against the reader getting into the love story of the flashbacks. But other readers liked that tension, provided they could sit for two or three hours and read it straight through. Everyone agreed that the process of childbirth had never before been given such central literary treatment. Midwives bought copies for their clients. Blind people recommended the audio version (free Library of Congress edition) to one another.
In 1980, I published Prisoners, a novel I'd been working on ever since finishing Miss Giardino. Based on the experience of a friend, it is the story of a middle-aged, middle-class liberal who becomes active in the "Prison Movement," a loosely organized network which, in the seventies, attempted to provide various forms of helpfrom books and letter to legal aidto the most despised and abandoned segment of our society. "Sally" helps a young, talented petty criminal win parole, his release contingent on her taking him into her home. But the inspiring relationship built in their letters unravels in the reality of daily life, turning into a collision of incompatible classes, values, experiences, and temperaments that my well-meaning heroine is unprepared to deal with.
Prisoners came close to reinstating me with a commercial publisher again, but in the end, the admiring editor reluctantly turned it down. "It won't sell." She was right. Prisoners became the most widely and most respectfully reviewed of all my bookswith the poorest sales record. The problem was that most readers are uninterested in the dilemmas and paradoxes of helping the problematic needy. And the minority of interested liberals, who might have made up a large enough audience, didn't want to hear this side of the story. Friends asked if I were taking revenge for an unpleasant experience I had had. No. Then why did I want to "hurt the Prison Movement?" In answer, I showed them letters I had begun receiving from readers who had silently dropped out of parolee-help programs after harrowing experiences, worse than anything in my novel. Silently, because their complaints were unacceptable, signs of their lack of commitment, compassion, conviction.
Later, some higher profile cases hit the headlineslike William Styron's protégé, who escaped and raped a woman two weeks before he was to be paroled to Styron's home, or Norman Mailer's parolee, who killed a man shortly after his release. By the time the well-known prisoner-advocate lawyer Faye Stender (also a silent drop-out) was fatally shot in her home by an ex-convict, the prison movement had suffered serious attritionpartly by the silent desertion of people who were discouraged from mentioning their problems, let alone asking for help. The facts hitting the newspapers, verifying the premise of my novel, didn't help sales either. (A coordinator of volunteer advocates for prisoners told me, "I'd like all my volunteers to read your book before they startbut if they did, they might not start.")
My next novel Killing Wonder (1981) posed as a murder mystery, but was actually a satire on writers and publishing, and on some of the fatuities of my beloved feminist movement. The victim is a writer idolized legitimately for her writing, but more for a posture of victimhood I thought was too eagerly embraced at the time by some aspiring women writers. The suspects are also women writers, their motives stemming from their career ambitions. The sleuth and narrator is a naive, idealistic, young writer, who by the end of the story has learned more of the realities of her vocation. I had thought that my credentials as a feminist would make this gentle satire of our foibles acceptable. Wrong. Too many readers illustrated the sexist adage of the time,"feminists have no sense of humor," by objecting to practically everything in it. One influential writer told me I had injured "women and yourself" (meaning my career). Nevertheless, the book sold well for a couple of years, partly because of the large audience for murder mysteries (I sold mass market paperback rights and a couple of translations), partly because readers gossiped about the writers they (usually erroneously) identified as models for the characters. It was simply a book that made fun of writers' quirks, including my own, not a book that came out of my guts.
The next one did.
The conception, writing, and publication of A Day in San Francisco is connected to a personal tragedy that became part of a world tragedy, and it is impossible to tell one story without touching on the other. In fact, in my own mind, the boundaries between the two are still being defined. I'll try to give whatever background, personal and historical, seems necessary, then set forth the events and their effects, on me and on others, as clearly as I can, using my memory and the few records I kept. (Unfortunately, at a low emotional point sometime in the 1990s, I destroyed most of the print materials I used for factual data, but these are now common knowledge anyway.)
The events leading to this book began in 1979, during the trial of San Francisco Supervisor Dan White for the murder of Mayor George Moscone and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. My telephone rang. It was my son, who frequently called me from UC Santa Cruz where he was working on a PhD in classics. Without warning he announced that he had decided to quit his studies and move back to San Francisco.
John was then twenty-nine. He had been an unusually bright child, outstanding in mathematics, but one of those boys about whom both his teachers and his friends said, "John can do anything he puts his mind to." At puberty his energies and interests scattered, though he continued to perform impressively in whatever he tried. In 1966, at age sixteen, he confided to me that he was a homosexual, then swore me to secrecy. He had told only me, he said, because everyone else, his friends, his father (we had divorced three years before) had failed his test. I was the only person he knew who had not displayed contempt at his casual mention of homosexuality, and who even had close gay friends. John also considered me responsible for getting psychotherapy for him because, of course, his "illness" was my fault. I thought he must be right. So did most "authorities" in 1966. Therapy aimed at a "cure" was, of course, an expensive, infuriating fiasco. Ornot entirely. Years later John told me that just being able to talk to his second therapist (a closeted gay, we later learned, who was at least guardedly sympathetic) had helped him, relieved him a bit. I know now that I underestimated John's suffering and fear. He needed much more than my nervous acceptance of his sexuality, and in 1966, more than that was hard to come by.
Two years later, in 1968 (a year before the Stonewall Riots, now considered the start of the Gay Liberation Movement) John entered the University of California at Davis, where he seemed happy, "coming out" to class/dorm mates in a supportive, protected environment. Other elements of university life in the late sixties were more problematical. The curriculum was being challenged, if not torn apart. Students were allowed to "design" their own majors. In 1972 he graduated with a BS in "Applied Behavioral Sciences," a term I never understood. Later he shrugged, laughed, and said there wasn't much to understand. "I majored in me." After graduation he came back to San Francisco, where he took a clerical job in a real estate office while he thought about what to do next.
One day I gave him a copy of The Persian Boy by Mary Renault, a book I'd enjoyed and thought he would, for its well-written treatment of a homosexual theme set in a solid historical context. He enthusiastically read all of Renault's books, then Plato; then he began studying Greek on his own, advancing with his usual speed and competency. (Later, reading a biography of Mary Renault, I learned that others have been drawn into classical studies by her novels.) John entered graduate studies at San Francisco State University, living mainly on loans and part-time jobs, with a little help from me. He earned his MA in classics in 1978, then entered a PhD program at UC Santa Cruz. He had been there for a year, working and studying, when he suddenly announced he was quitting.
Stunned, I asked him why, and he answered with what sounded like a quotation. "I refuse to live anywhere where I can't express my sexuality." Meaning anywhere but San Francisco. When I said that "expressing my sexuality" didn't sound like a choice of career, study, or life, he threw out a few furious words, then, "Good-bye!"
I could not (then or now) believe that "expressing my sexuality," however that phrase might be defined, was the reason for John's leaving grad school. (Had W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Somerset Maugham, Tennessee Williams, etc. etc. abandoned their art in order to "express their sexuality?") What rough spot had tripped up John? Had he run into problems with his thesis director? Had he surveyed teaching opportunities in classics and decided they weren't worth the trouble? Had he really decided suddenly (as he had also said) that teaching wasn't for him? What was really happening? These questions were never asked, because for several years they were off limits, and later they became irrelevant.
I was a Depression child, pressured to make early choices in studies and work. As a girl, I had succumbed to other pressures of the time, like early marriage. My change of direction at thirty took a terrible toll on everyone involved. I did not want my children to make my mistakes. I had encouraged them to be sure to find the studies and work and partner right for them, to try things, to experiment. Take their time. Had I given the wrong advice for their times? The expanding postwar opportunities benefiting my generation were narrowing down (when I left a full-time tenured college job, I was replaced with part-timers on hourly pay, like migrant farm workers). Except for a semester as a teaching assistant, John had held no job above a menial clerical level. Now he was dumping four years of graduate study in a subject he insisted he still loved. A friend in San Francisco would get him work as a freelance legal transcribera typist.
For the first time it occurred to me that, rather than "finding himself" by free exploration, my son might be muddling toward a middle age of unsatisfying work far below his talents. (This, it turns out, was not just idle maternal fussing but a real-life possibility. "Lark," the middle-aged protagonist of Andrew Holleran's 1996 novel The Beauty of Men, has become "one of those people whose lives were not visible on a resumé." He concludes, "I've majored Gay, and what has it got me? Not even a steady sex partner. I've failed.") Where had John picked up this vague slogan, "expressing my sexuality"? None of my gay friends talked that way. I asked one of them about what John had said, and he shrugged, "That's the gay political line this monthamong the young."
My friend's remark reminded me of a book John had given me a month before, John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw. Handing it to me, my son had called it "the most important political statement of the decade." It was a description of a night of jumping from one anonymous sexual encounter to the next, one step ahead of pursuing police. After reading it, I told John (in a note more diplomatically worded than this) that I couldn't define such squalor as a political act. He laughed at me for taking such a "silly" book seriously. It wasn't worth talking about. He had obviously already abandoned his first description of the book (given by the friend who'd recommended the book to him?) and had gone on to another idea among the many exploding at the time.
And yet, looking back, I think his original judgment about that book was, unfortunately, true. After years of brutal harassment by police for private behavior of consenting adults, gay rebels were flaunting their sexual preferences on the street, on their way to the proliferating bars and clubs set up for couple and group gay sex. Such behavior was indeed a political act. However, sex alone, though more fun than working for legal and social justice, is a political dead end. Historian Martin Duberman summed it up in his 1996 memoir Mid-life Queer. "Too many gay men had, after coming out, headed directly into the arms of commercialized sex."
John returned to San Francisco and rented a room in a house in the Castro (formerly a rundown working class district surrounding about six blocks of Castro Street east of Twin Peaks and south of Market). The area was recovering from a long post-war slump and suburban flight, partly thanks to an infusion of gay home buyers and businessmen. Within two months, John began, hated, and quit freelance transcribing and a clerical job in the law office from hell. With his usual intelligence and resourcefulness, he called every non-profit organization listed in the yellow pages and landed a clerical job in one of them. That was a relief to both of us. There were things to learn at this health care foundation, and chances for advancement.
Two weeks later he called to tell me he had caught a bad case of flu. The next day his list of complaints grew, and he agreed with me that he should see a doctor. He asked me to bring him foodsoup, fruit, etcetera. I did, and saw, for the first time, the house where he had rented a room.
It was furnished like the display window of a third-rate antique shop catering to rather morbid taste (marble death masks, crucified Christs, etc.). It sharply reminded me of my distance from my son's world. He called daily and talked freelymore freely than most gay men talked about their lives to their mothersbut (with the exception of a couple of classics scholars my age) his friends, acquaintances, and lovers lived in another world. I never saw, let alone met, any of them. I had two close gay male friends, colleagues who kept a similar gap between their straight friends and their gay friends. This gap was something I had learned to accept without question as a necessary protective tradition among homosexuals, developed through eons of legal and social persecution. I had hoped my son would trust me enough not to keep this distance, but I never questioned his doing it. Why should people his age care to meet his mother, anyway?
I visited with John for a few moments, keeping my distance because of "flu." We both rolled our eyes at the lurid taste of his landlord. Then I left so he could get some rest.
Each day he called with a list of symptoms. On the fourth day, his voice shook with fear as he said the doctor's tests had confirmed hepatitis. He reminded me that hepatitis is very serious, had long range effects, and could even be fatal. My fear matched his, of course, and, as he called every few hours with reports on his fever, his pains, I set about preparing more of the food he requested. (When there's trouble, Jewish and Italian mothers make soup.)
His fourth or fifth phone call that day was suddenly cheerful. Friends had visited him, traded stories about their cases of hepatitis. "Nine out of ten gay men in San Francisco. Plague of the gay community," he laughed. I thought of all the times he had called me to report syphilis or intestinal disease, just as he and his sister always reported every sniffle. I made a carefully worded suggestion that a serious disease like hepatitis might be a good warning to reconsider his lifestyle. His laugh had an angry edge to it. "You want me to become a monk?" Abrupt end of conversation, heading off what he knew I was thinkingnot about celibacy, but about the fact that, since he broke off with his girlfriend at sixteen, he had never had an ongoing relationship, even for a few months. For nearly fifteen yearsat first nervously, later eagerlyI had been waiting to meet and welcome his companion/lover.
I keep imagining John looking over my shoulder, correcting my memory with his own. So, if I seem to be trying to create an image of a timid, martyred, "perfect" mother, my daughter is able to correct that impression with evidence of how much of my concern was expressed in angerto her, if not directly to John.
She kept a letter I wrote to her, dated October 25, 1979. In it I describe a sleepless week, my concern heightened by his "calling me four or five times a day" to "assault me with his symptoms, saying he might come here to be nursed. While I cook soup to bring to him, and keep quiet on the assumption that I should not start an argument with him while he is ill. Meanwhile I can't work. He would say that I should do my own work and leave his life to him, but that is a lie toohe brings his life, his problems to me because he knows how deeply I care." I used dramatic phrases like "throwing his life away." The letter concludes, "Bob and I are driving up the coast for a weekend. Maybe I'll clear my head and come back feeling better."
I prepared the food my son had requested. My husband and I drove to John's house, where I put the box of food on the doorstep, rang the bell, and left. I did not want to expose myself to hepatitis again, and I was too upset to talk.
As we drove north along the coast, my mood changed from anger to a kind of helpless fear and grief. To Bob's and my own surprise, I began to cry uncontrollably. I could not explain to him or to myself why I was crying. That night came abdominal pain, vomiting, and feverimitating my son's symptoms? For a few hours I wondered if I had caught hepatitis from him. The next morning, I knew, almost regretfully, that I hadn't, that my symptoms had been part of a profound psychological crisis, leaving a sense of unnamable doom I had never felt before.
Two days later, when we were home again, John called. He felt much better, his voice stronger as he scolded me for not stopping to visit him, astonished that "you even seem to be angry at me for being sick!" So I broke my silence and started to talkfairly calmly, I thinkabout the connection between multiple, anonymous sexual acts and disease, and the encouragement of both by people with superficial values, people who, lacking his talents, were trying to elevate their triviality to a philosophical or political position. Of course, he called me interfering, narrow, and puritanical, then went further. "You've always been incapable of fun." That was new tooit also sounded like a quotation. Had one of his friends thrown it at him?
"Just listen to me."
"Then I'll write you a letter."
"I won't read it." He hung up.
As I hung up, I thought, what right do I have to tell a thirty-year-old man how to run his life? Isn't my reaction just like my mother's hysteria when I divorced? Nevertheless, I wrote the letter and sent it. It was never acknowledged. A few years later John told me he would have read my letter, no matter what he told me, but he could not remember it, and I can't remember what I wroteexcept for one furious and, no doubt, infuriating phrase I used later in my novel, about the promiscuous gay man as "Peter Pan with gonorrhea up his ass." (A bit too clever, I now think, too much an attempt to prove to him that his objecting mother was "with it.")
He continued to call me frequently to discuss any problem or idea for which he needed a sounding board. There was no open break between us, but an area of deep silence had been clearly marked off. Cross that line, and next time he hung up on me, he might not call again. I continued to feel an indefinable sense of lossand a grinding irrational fear.
A Day in San Francisco was born out of my uncharacteristically emotional episode in the car, the residue it left of fear and loss, and the ongoing but silenced, forbidden argument between my son and me.
I began to read gay books and newspapers and to make visits to the Castro, to look closely at what was happening there, to find out exactly what kind of influences my son was absorbing. This was a more unusual act than it might seem. If you were a liberal, you were against oppression of gay people, and that meant you were for whatever was happening in the Castro. You just didn't look too closely.
We liberals were "committed not to the fact but to the abstraction," as Lionel Trilling wrote of the liberals who ignored Orwell's book about Spain. I had long since chosen abstraction over fact. In my eagerness to prove myself an enlightened exception to the rule of rejecting families, I said nothing when John mentioned his sex life. When he reported a venereal disease, I silently gave thanks for antibiotics. When he threw out allusions to "the baths," I did not ask for details. I didn't want to know. I never questioned the behavior or the written opinions of homosexuals. To do so would give ammunition to fundamentalist bigots, or prove me one of them under the skin.
I questioned my closest gay friend about the "baths," and, with some embarrassment, he described the cubicles where men waited or cruised, the dark "orgy" room with its loud music. Many, if not most, bars had a back room for quick sex, he said. So did some shops selling gay videos and books in the front. He was embarrassed, he explained, not because these places were wicked, but because they were, for him, "shabby and sad and humiliating"but "so easy," for a rather shy, aging academic like him. My middle-aged friend exemplified the fact that this feverish sexual scene was no longer restricted to twenty-year-olds rushing into "liberated" San Francisco from bigoted Middle America. Their excitement was a magnet drawing long-term gay Bay Area residents of various classes, professions, races, and ages.
I began reading in current books on gay themes, few of which were found then in mainstream bookstores. Twenty years later, I know that Larry Kramer's novel Faggots (1978) contained critical views of the bar/sex scene, but in 1979, I had never heard of it, never heard it mentioned by gay friends or by my son. According to Michael Spector's New Yorker profile of Kramer (May 13, 2002) Faggots had been "removed from the shelves of New York's only gay bookstore," and Kramer himself became a "pariah" treated like "a traitor" among gays. My later treatment by gay reviewers suggests that the same psychology dominated San Francisco. In any case, despite a thorough search, I did not see any such fiction featured for gay readers as I browsed the racks in what was then the only bookstore on Castro Street. The prominently featured novels (presumably because they were most likely to appeal to buyers) were formulaic erotic adventures or sentimental romances sometimes brought to an operatic end by death at the hands of anti-gay bigots.
I spent even more time at the nonfiction racks, where books detailed the attacks of homophobic religious fundamentalists or offered comfort to homosexuals rejected by family, friends, or community. Health books? I searched the shelves in vain. In fact, in one recently published little book I found total, flat-out denial. I still remember its title, but not the author or its then-recent pub date, Straight Answers for Straight People. It was written in question-and-answer form. One question was, Doesn't anal intercourse carry dangers of spreading intestinal disease? (I paraphrase from memory, now regretting that my anger at the answer made me refuse to buy the bookif any reader unearths this book, check it out and correct me.) The author answered that he had never experienced, known, or heard of anyone catching an intestinal disease from anal intercourse. My son had contracted one at least two years before, and at the time a physician friend had told me doctors were seeing, among gay men, intestinal diseases they hardly knew or had previously recognized only as third-world diseases. These infections and injuries already had a catch-all name, Gay Bowel Syndrome.
The only warnings about health concerns were flyers and pamphlets put out by the San Francisco Health Department, on the floor in a dusty corner under free advertising sheets. I began collecting these from that bookstore and wherever else I could find them. (Other corners in shops, coffee-houses. Were they in the gay bars? I don't know. I confess, I lacked the nerve to enter one of those dark, crowded places pouring thumping music into the street. I would have been too conspicuous.) I interviewed a physician at the 17th Street Clinic, a gay man eager to tell me his deep concerns about health in the Castro. He gave me more brochures and copies of articles from medical journals, citing the spread of disease through unprecedented promiscuity among gay men, promoted by commercial interests, like bars and baths. I had the good luck to be acquainted with a research scientist in infectious diseases. He began to give me relevant medical journals. (A year later he gave me one containing an article on a rare skin cancer that had recently shown up in gay men.)
Gay newspapers carried articles that warned about the dangers of the religious right. I didn't see any articles on dangers to health, nor did I see any articles critical of a bar-bath-cruising lifestyle on any other grounds. My now jaundiced eye noted the irony of bar and bath and body-building advertising next to discreet little ads by proctologists. Once I found a brief letter to the editor, tentatively questioning whether multiple unknown sex partners really was a good idea, let alone a political position. So far as I know, there was no answer or follow-up article.
I interviewed an avowed anti-gay clergyman (without a church), a newcomer to San Francisco, a pleasant, polite man of all-encompassing ignorance. He never mentioned the health hazards that could have made such handy ammunition for his attacks. Or the worship of youth and triviality in the Castro, or the conformity of image already referred to then as "Castro Clone." Or even the avid focus on sex that (to me) more and more resembled the worst values of macho heterosexual men. This minister talked only about the Bible (which he didn't seem to know very well either) and the family. He was such a colorless mediocrity that I couldn't imagine why he was in the Bay Area instead of in some bastion of reaction in middle America. Perhaps he was more noticed here? I had learned his name through extensive coverage in the gay pressno one else paid much attention to him.
I scribbled pages and pages before I realized I was planning a novel. The first draft sprawled and rambled over a whole summer. It died after about 120 pages, and I started with a new plan, a partly documentary form, presenting concrete, verifiable facts that would change the consciousness of the protagonistand, presumably, the reader.
It would be a short novel, the action taking place in one day, Gay Freedom Day 1980. The story would be told from a single point of view, a witness. She was to be a fiftyish mother very like mean Italian-American born in the Mission, a college teacher, as I had been, a mother of a gay man, a liberal, a single mother like several of my friends and former teaching colleagues. "Clara" lived and taught on the Mendocino Coast, a four-hour drive from San Francisco. I made this point-of-view figure an infrequent visitor to the Bay Area, out of touch. For it now seemed to me that any reader would find it incredible that Clara could live in or near San Francisco, have daily conversations with her outspoken gay son, and remain in a state of denial approaching delusionas I had.
I would present the day as a journey from an accepted abstraction to a contrasting reality. I also wanted to show parallels between the present danger to Clara's son and some of the oppressive values of the fifties, which Clara herself had escaped, not unscathed. I did not (nor did medical authorities yet) see the health hazards as life threatening, rather as graphic and incontestable evidence that something was wrong, the body sending a message to the mind in denial. Excerpts from a newspaper, a brochure, or a book Clara picks up would alternate with scenes described from her point of view.
The book opens as Clara views a Gay Freedom Day Parade for the first time, a bit surprised at its non-political, carnival atmosphere, but interpreting any grotesqueries as benign, amusing. She picks up a gay newspaper that contains her son's interview of a reactionary, anti-gay "psychologist" (combining right-wing articles and the interview I had done), which exposes the man's opportunistic bigotry. This section establishes her son Frank as an intelligent, subtle questioner and writer. His interview of this persecutor of gays runs between sex-and-consumerism adsjust as serious articles run between ads in Playboy or the New Yorker. The difference was that the ads in gay papers were often more directly for and about sex, not just a use of sexual arousal to sell something else. I invented toned-down versions of what I had seen in the gay press because I didn't want to foreshadow contradictions too early in the story.
The next chapter shows Clara movingin the present and in memorythrough her childhood neighborhood, noting how much it has changedexcept for the group of idle, restless Latino youth on a corner. She is on her way to Old Wives' Tales, a women's bookstore located in a predominantly lesbian area, on Valencia Street (geographically, economically, and socially) below the Castro. Here Clara reads aloud her own article on the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. To her, this double murder committed by a reactionary mediocrity representing her home districta type familiar to Clara from her childhoodis an unsurprising reaction to the loss of power by the oppressive forces of her childhood. Her (my) analysis shows the roots of the killings, not only in homophobia or in madness but also in a shift of historical San Francisco political power that only an older resident would know. (Later, another old San Franciscan, Warren Hinckle, published a short news article looking at the killings the same way.)
These sixty-odd pages set a rather optimistic tone. They acknowledge the obvious, even deadly enemies of homosexuals, as exemplified by the fictional anti-gay psychologist and the actual political assassin. And they establish Clara's credibility as a witness. She is a liberal, long ago accepting her son's homosexuality, even equating the gay struggle against forces of reaction to those which had oppressed her as a young woman.
The turning point comes in the next chapter at a restaurant where Clara is to have lunch with her son and an older gay friend of hers. The acerbic Arthur (a combination of three older gay men I knew) is critical of the Castro scene and impatient with Frank's stated reasons for returning to San Francisco. Their discussion is interrupted by Frank's fearful phone call canceling lunch, announcing his diagnosis of hepatitis and asking Clara to telephone him and visit him after she eats.
(This scene contains a late addition to the book, Arthur's gloomy news that a former lover has died of some mysterious disease. I added these three pages in the final rewrite in early 1982. In 1981, the first cases of Kaposi's sarcoma and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia had been reported. By 1982 the medical community grouped these and other unusual, serious maladies under the term GRIDgay-related immunodeficiency disease, thought to be the result, possibly, of drug use and repeated infections that had weakened the immune system. My book was published at about the time the name AIDS began to replace GRID.)
After lunch, when the worried Clara leaves Arthur, she makes her way through crowds and street venders to a phone booth, calls her son, and is greeted with sudden good cheer. In the background are sounds of laughing friends come to cheer him up and tease him about his initiation into the "plague of the gay community." He suggests that she attend the benefit show at the Castro Theater while he takes a nap, then come to cook dinner for the two of them. This was a plot device to delay their confrontation until Clara has had a couple of hours to take in the scene with new eyes. As Clara leaves the phone booth, she picks up one of the brochures from an ignored table set up by the city health department.
This chapter, written as a brochure, combines actual brochures, articles, and my interviews of doctors. It lists diseases and injuries, symptoms, treatments, and recommended preventive precautions. I wrote it in the style of the San Francisco Health Department brochuresfriendly, non-judgmental, straightforward, encouraging caution, moving from readily cured diseases to those with treatment but no cure, ending with hepatitis, then considered the most serious health threat. My "brochure" was the most complete, up-to-date factual information then available. I felt sure that most readersincluding gay men who knew all this by their own experiencewould be taken aback at the long list of health dangers inherent in the multiple, anonymous, unprotected sex contacts promoted as an integral component, if not the heart, of gay liberation.
Clara then enters the darkened Castro Theater, where she has flashbacks to her (my) childhood attendance of movie matinees there. What happens at the benefit show came straight out of the newspaper while I was working on the book. At a recent benefit show a group of lesbians had protested a misogynist comedy routine by the female impersonator Charles Pierce, a man my age, whose (newly resurrected) career had begun in a North Beach night club during my own girlhood. The complaining lesbians were heckled and ridiculed by Pierce and by most males in the audience. The lesbians rose and walked out in a body. This news item was a rare public exposure of the strains between gays and lesbians, who lived widely separated by lifestyle, privilege, and income levela class structure like a magnified mirror image of the larger heterosexual society where this economic gap was blurred by marriage.
Clara leaves the theater at dusk and walks uphill on Castro four or five blocks, to the house where her son is living. She prepares his dinner silentlybut not for long. Conversation turns into argument, written solely in dialogue. The slogans and illogical evasions I put into Frank's mouth came partly from what my son had said on various occasions, but mostly from gay newspapers and books, radio talk shows and speeches. Clara's rejoinders are my answers to this rhetoric. She harps on two perceptions that appall her: the defining of gay liberation by gay men in terms nearly identical to the denigrating labels of right-wing homophobes, and the pressures toward conformity and self-segregation in the name of freedom. To Clara, it seems that her son is reversing the hard process by which she dug her way out of oppressive conformity. Orwellian doublethink is all around them. Freedom is the word for a new form of slavery, and her son has bought it.
(Twenty years later, rereading the dialogue/argument chapter preceding the final scene, I wince. It is so clearly an artificial set-up for the opinions of the author. It would have been a far better book if I had cut that scene, letting Clara do what I had actually doneshut up and cook. Then I should have rewritten and enhanced the earlier scenes to dramatize Clara's emerging consciousness of unpleasant realities, and let the reader supply the emotion that Clara must be feeling by the time she leaves, weeping as she walks down the street. I think my own emotions overcame good literary practice. However, judging from the reader reaction to the book, if I had not spelled out Clara's objectionsin the climate of blanket denial twenty years agoit would have been even easier for my attackers to misrepresent Clara's motives and mine.)
In the brief final scene Clara, she and her arguments dismissed by her son, walks downhill on dark 24th Street toward the subway. Her emotional turmoil resembles mine during that drive up the coast. She is noticed and followed by the group of Latino youth she had seen earlier in the day and which had come uphill into the Castro to prey on drunken gay revelers. However, when they see she is crying and mumbling to herself, they think she must be a crazed street person, recoil, and leave her alone.
That final scene was also rooted in fact. In 1977 my son (a big man without effeminate touches of clothes or haircutbut very light-skinned and blonde) had been attacked by a gang of Latino teenagers yelling "queer" and "faggot, go home!" as he sat studying Greek in Dolores Park, half a block from his apartment (and adjacent to my old high school) at two o'clock on a sunny afternoon. In the old days "The Castro" was just part of the poor, working-class Mission District. By 1980 Mission Street divided upscale "Noe Valley/Castro" from the eastern side of Mission Street, an area dominated by poor Latinos. (As I write, expanding pockets of "gentrification" are making all of the Mission too expensive for poor people of whatever ethnicity.) This proximity of many prosperous, white gay men to very poor immigrants of a macho culture was volatile. There had been beatings and one death attributed to roaming gangs on Halloween and on other holidays that brought crowds to the Castro.
I finished the first draft in January 1981, but I had no idea what to do with it. Not only would it infuriate my son, it would shock and shame my chronically ill mother, who had never been able to accept my son's homosexuality or my acceptance of it. I hesitated, decided to think about it, put the manuscript away. Two months later my mother suddenly died.
I went back to work on it, refining, polishing, rethinking. That was when I added the death of Arthur's lover. If this new immune-deficiency syndrome were caused by multiple infections, as it was then thought to be, my sonapparently in excellent healthhad been lucky so far. All the more reason to publish, to shake him up some way, since the subject was taboo in our frequent talks. But physical ills were still only reinforcement for my real themethe gay Castro ethos as a betrayal of a true liberation struggle.
Or was something else taking over? Writer's ego? I knew I had written a book only Iwith my past and current experiencecould or would write. And I believed it needed to be read. I was not innocently blundering into controversy, as Turgenev, Arendt, and Styron had. I knewas Kate Chopin and Thomas Hardy had knownthat I was breaking a strong taboo by laying out facts some people would deny. Perhaps I was closest to Orwell's motive, with his sense of urgency that what he wrote about Spain must be read. Orwell knew that what he had seen might be considered unimportant in the common struggle against fascism. But Orwell believed that denying any small truth would damage the greater cause from within. He expected that some communists would call him a liar. What he was not prepared for was the silence or acquiescence of the larger left and center who ought to be grateful for his warning. As my motives resembled his, so did my expectation of lies from some gay people. But I expected the simple weight of the facts I presented to change some minds, awaken others to the problem, and support those who (I knew from my interviews) already shared my concern.
At the beginning of 1982, I had a final revision. It had been read by my medical advisor and my closest gay friend, both of whom made minor corrections. My three or four usual unofficial literary-editor-friends had read it. All of them asked the same appalled question: "You are sure of your facts?" Then each suggested the usual sharpening cuts, additions, and clarifications.
The next time I saw John, I took a deep breath, then told him that I planned to publish a novel that would annoy him. "You have a right to see it before I do." I handed him a copy of the manuscript. "If I get something wrong, I hope you'll correct me. But I will publish it." He asked me what it was about, and I took another breath, hoping not to trigger his anger. "It is very critical of the Castro lifestyle." I thought he might even challenge me to define or defend this shorthand term, "Castro lifestyle." But he didn't. He was silent for a moment, then lookedrelieved? glad I had raised the forbidden subject? He shrugged. "I don't know what's happening. Everyone seems to be getting sick with one thing or another. Half the time now, when I go to a bar, I just come home alone." He took the manuscript home with him.
Still, when he telephoned me the next morning, his voice was tight with anger. He had been up all night, reading the manuscript. He dismissed the book as ignorant and mean, then hung up. Okay, now I've done it, I thought. This will be the final break between us. I felt sick. All day and all night I thought about calling him back and promising not to publish. But I didn't.
The next morning he called again. "Hi." Then, "You know, you got a few things all wrong." He suggested some word changes, which I instantly adopted. "And these ads you've sketched outI can suggest much better ones." We went on discussing fixable details. He said he would go through the manuscript again more slowly, and confer with me on it. I controlled my wobbly voice as I said I'd be very grateful if he did. He said, "I think you ought to dedicate it to me." Then, briskly, "I'll write the dedication."
The dedication he chose was, "For John, who chose a happier path." In July he introduced me to René. Soon they were living together, monogamous, cut off from the bathhouse-bar lifestyle. Clearly my book had only nudged John in the direction he was taking. He had already moved out of the Castro. He was advancing rapidly through administrative jobs in a large state institution. He was in touch with classics scholars and began writing articles for their journals. He had already asked himself some disturbing questions and was feeling alienated from people who denied that the questions existed.
Again I considered canceling publication, and I would have if I had seen any book, any serious gay press coverage of the concerns my book raised. If anything, there seemed to be more pressure against discussion, more denialas young men arrived daily from all over the country, as to a great carnival. Furthermore, John was urging publication. He was increasingly angry at the commercial interests promoting silence, at the gay politicians afraid to speak. He even submitted a well-written but strongly (perhaps too strongly?) worded article on the subject to gay publications. No one would print it.
Before sending my manuscript to the printer, somethingperhaps John's initial reaction, then thought, then reversalmade me call Patricia Holt, then-book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, who had been a supporter of my writing and self-publishing. I told her a little about the manuscript and asked if she would read it as a sort-of advance galley. I had never done this before. In fact I had avoided any contact with her when I was about to bring out a book, so as not to seem to be asking for special favors. She agreed that this might be a special case, and I sent her a copy.
A week later she telephoned me to say, in rather sad tones, that my novel was (except for the essay on the assassinations) off-base, and, yes, anti-gay. She felt that Clara "can't seem to hear or understand what Frank said," that Clara is "too judgmental and keeps missing the point," about the "unapologetic and active sexuality" of gay men that society must accept. Pat, a lesbian, then sent me a note written by her partner Ellen, who'd also read the manuscript. The note listed some books that might help to educate me and free me from my prejudices, like Randy Shilts' biography of assassinated Supervisor Harvey Milk, which, of course, I'd already read. Well, that's it, I thought. I won't even get a review in the one major medium that has so far been open to me. I mentioned it to John, and he said, "Publish."
Two weeks later Pat called me back. This time her tone was cheerful, evenexcited? "I can't get this dang book out of my mind! So many things look different to me since I read it." Pat now felt that maybe SHE had been missing the point, that it didn't matter that she disagreed with some of Clara's, (or my) views. "Clara's a mother who cuts through the rhetoric of the day" because she sees a health crisis that endangers her son." (I didn't see this interpretation as a complete statement of the theme of my book, but, like Pat, I decided we didn't have to agree on everything. Like John, she had reacted, then thought, then rethought, then changed her minda rare talent.) Pat questioned me closely about my sources, my fact-checking. She wanted galleys as soon as possible and would aim for a review to appear near the end of January.
Galleys had gone to Kirkus Reviews (whose main subscribers are libraries) months before. Their November 1982 review was encouraging. It summarized the plot and concluded, "a painful, probing novel that goes far beyond the homosexual-lifestyle issuesas Bryant again traverses that arid plain between 'freedom from' and 'freedom to,' zeroing in (with uncommon power) on lives shrunk within the best of intentions." Books were with wholesalers and reviewers by December. I named January 1983 as the publication date, to give reviewers lead time. I sent out more copies of the book than usual: not only to teachers and writers, but to liberal social and political activists.
The Kirkus review made me hopeful, but not hopeful enough to schedule my usual readings and signings in bookstores. I didn't analyze my reasons at the time, but I must have sensed that if I appeared in public, there would always be a couple of gay men who would attack me even more angrily than some African-Americans had attacked Styron. Styron had only tried to imagine himself a slave, think and write as a rebel slave. I had pointed out something I called sick and sickening (to them) in the behavior of recent rebels against age-old oppression. This book had already taken an enormous toll. I was too shaky to face the harangues of even a few gays who might see me as another oppressor.
That's a poor reason for ducking a controversy I had intentionally started. But there was another, better reason to stay home. The first question people ask at readings is, "What inspired you to write this book?" To answer that question would have been to invade my son's privacy, to take unfair advantage of his support. Since we have different surnames, he need not be recognized as my son unless he chose to be. He certainly was not "Frank," the son in my book. He had never been so completely a mouthpiece for confused values. And he had already been more than generous. He even planned a small party at his apartment for a few of his and my friends.
The centerpiece on the food table at John's party, mounted on bright red paper and standing among flowers, was the first review, printed in a local gay paper, Coming Up (the weekly I had found to be the best written, most broad in its coverage, the one that had printed the letter to the editor questioning multiple sex acts as a political act). It was a brief, blistering attack that accused me of presenting gay men as "muscle-bound, sex-crazed, misogynist, diseased idiots, dying off at astounding rates of K.S. (in 1980?) . . .where the only people who aren't white are 'Latino thugs' intent on killing queers. Clara
is . . .admired for her open acceptance of her son's homosexuality. But we, the reader, know how she really feels . . . I would think that the point would be to demonstrate the pain a mother feels when she can't accept her son's gayness. But what comes across is rabid homophobia on the part of the author . . this book is just sadly laughableand terribly enraging . . . a straight mother who degenerates into a babbling idiot over the horrors of her son's lifestyle. And in the hands of the Moral Majority, this book could be lethal."
The review was signed by a woman. I tried to laugh off the review as John did, but I was shaken by it. I had expected some strong reactions, but I was shocked that this reviewer would misquote and misconstrue my book, would lie to her own community, would try to cover up facts she probably knew better than I did, and had known much longer than I had.
Like any "real" publisher, I kept files of reviews. The file on A Day in San Francisco contains a total of eighteen reviews published in the early months of 1983. Most of them followed the tone and content of the review in Coming Up. Most were written and published locally, five of them by gay writers for gay media. (A short, haughty dismissal in a straight suburban daily "doubted the veracity" of the book. No fact checker had called me.) ALL of these reviews said that central to the book was the mother's inability to accept her son's homosexuality. One stated that this novel "shows how hard it is for someone outside the gay community to write well of it . . . and sorely tests one's faith in the absolute freedom of artists to express their own visions." Another stated that Clara favored celibacy and called disease a punishment for homosexuality.
Several reviewers raised the familiar question of "balance," pointing out that Frank's behavior and attitude are not true to all gay life and certainly not true of all residents of the Castro. This familiar call for "balance" arises when readers, unable to refute the facts that happen to be the subject of a book, are reduced to demanding different facts. (Like straight people who say of a gay protest novel, "But not all of us are anti-gay," or white people who say of a black protest novel, "Many white people aren't racists.") Another criticism common to the reviews was the objection to Clara as a character. One reviewer called her too "right about everything." Another wrote that Frank's only problem is "his overachieving parent" who expects too much of him. (Calling a woman teacher who writes articles "overachieving," evidently did not strike this reviewer as demeaning to women.) I think that in creating Clara I had broken a taboo even stronger and more widespread than the taboo against criticizing the lifestyle of some gay men. I had presented a middle-aged mother as an intelligent, liberal, sympathetic character with good reasons for concern about her son. Such characters are all over the place in real life (at least, where I live), but they are hard to find in Freud-ridden twentieth-century literature and films. When we do find a portrait of an aging mother anguished about her grown child's problems, it usually becomes clear that the problems were caused by the mother.
The most furiously hostile local gay reviewer asked, "Isn't it more rational to find cures for sexually transmitted diseases once and for all instead of asking males to stop being males?" Finally, here was a phrase, "asking males to stop being males," that obliquely touched on what I wrote. Clara says that the multiple sex partners extolled as gay liberation is a form of compulsive behaviora detour from and a waste of life. This reviewer and other gay menlike Gore Vidal, who certainly has not wasted his lifedisagreed. The homosexual, according to some articles by Vidal, is the ultimate male, free to do what heterosexual males would also do if they were not inhibited by custom, religion, women's resistance, and the burden of family. The point is, at least, arguable. But the issue in my novel was not promiscuity in itself. The story makes it clear that, whatever her own beliefs, Clara does not challenge Frank's sexual activity until he abandons his chosen work, then contracts a serious disease while "expressing my sexuality."
The first part of the question, "Isn't it more rational to find cures for sexually transmitted diseases once and for all," is even more interesting. This reviewer expressed a widespread attitude that was making it so hard for gay men to believe in health dangers, let alone use simple, traditionally protective precautions. It had been thirty-five years since the discovery of antibiotics. We hadall of usbegun to forget the former frequency of death from infection. And a whole new generation had nothing to rememberhad never lost a father to syphilitic dementia or a sister to pneumonia or a friend to tuberculosis or a co-worker to septicemia. That was history. Most people believed that pills or injections of the right drug wouldor ought tocure any disease "once and for all"; some were irate when doctors couldn't deliver.
About this time a few gay voices tried to separate political issues from health issues. Among the reviews I filed, I found a single news clipping dated March 1983. It described a gay leader who "courageously" addressed a group in San Francisco. What did he say that required courage? That he was frightened about the appearance of new diseases. ". . . we have to make changes . . . to me that means not going to the baths, the bookstores, not having anonymous sex." Carole Migden (lesbian activist, later San Francisco Supervisor, then State Assemblywoman) was quoted in the same article, expressing the atmosphere at the time. "There is a perception by some gays that it's homophobic to say we are at risk . . . it will have a powerful impact that our most respected gay leaders have the courage to make personal statements about altering their lifestyle, and we hope they will serve as role models."
I must have clipped that article in the hope that the debate had finally been opened. I was even heartened by one hostile review because it began "one of the major topics of conversation in town is 'what did you think of A Day in SF?'" The review then went on to condemn my book. It was written by a lesbian acquaintance who, shortly before, had told me privately, "You're dead right, but it would be politically awkward right now for me to defend you."
Regardless of hostility in the gay press, and not much of anything elsewhere, the first 5000 books sold briskly. I ordered a second printing.
Six favorable reviews trickled out late in 1983, five of them published in other states, far from the "gay mecca" of San Francisco. One of these was especially gratifying. Susanna Sturgis (Lammas Little Review, Washington D.C.) related A Day in San Francisco to my other books, where "a particular theme recurs insistently: the individual's effort to break out of the prisons that thwart the development of her identity and talents. The prisons are various: mediocrity, the family, the past, fame, an actual jail. The escapesnever easy, often short-livedinvolve the rigorous questioning of the most cherished certainties and the slow forging of new human connections." The other favorable reviews stuck with the health issues, which were by then overwhelming everything else.
On Sunday, January 23, 1983, the front page of the SF Chronicle Book Review Section had featured two opposing reviews of A Day in San Francisco. First came a review by a young gay male, an attack that was later echoed more vehemently by the gay press reviews I've already quoted. I was characterized as an outsider who presented an unbalanced, prejudiced view of gay life, and who advocated celibacy.
The second review was signed by Pat Holt, who focussed on Frank's interview of the bigoted psychologist, and on Clara's essay analyzing the assassination of Milk and Moscone by Dan White. Holt's was the only local review that even acknowledged the existence of these parts of the book. She ended with a short list of questions on the health issues, questions she felt the book had uniquely inspired.
Given the times and the place, she was sticking her neck way out in order to qualify me as the "first liberal-thinking person to ask the questions so few people in 'tolerant San Francisco' have been able to ask." I have never asked her what that review cost her. Probably some broken friendships and, at the least, furious confrontations within the gay community. But she never mentioned any such problems to me.
She did mention the hate mail that instantly began to arrive, to both Holt and me. These letters continued to come to me throughout the 1980s, about one a week during 1983, slowing to a trickle of one per month thereafter. Each one, as it came, had the effect its writer intended, making me almost physically ill. I read only enough to see what it was, then tore it up into very small bits, and threw them awayinto the garbage can outside the houseas if to neutralize and remove a potent charm or curse. For a year or two, I opened any letter from a stranger with an apprehensively churning stomach. I wish that I had thrown the letters unread into a file and kept them for this record, but, as events unfolded in the next few years, I hadn't that much cool judgment. (I also wish I'd confiscated the copy of A Day in San Francisco I found in a small Bay Area branch public library, every page of which was scrawled with denials and furious accusations of my evil intent. A few years later, I went back to look for it. It had disappeared.)
Somehow I inadvertently dropped three angry letters into the reviews file. One was from someone who had read a review, but not the book. Another, from a man who had read it, covered three legal-pad pages on both sides with an angry defense of gay men, like the writer, who "aren't promiscuous." He seemed to want an answer, carefully giving two addresses, East Coast and West Coast. I didn't have any basic disagreement with himbut I didn't answer the letter. I was frightened by the tone of it and by some phone calls I was receiving. The phone calls were not exactly threatening, but their tone, their questions, had an edge. A couple of them issued odd-sounding invitations to meet with an informal group in a private home. They might have been perfectly innocent, but these "friendly" invitations from strangers frightened me. I was glad I had not scheduled any public appearances. I asked the phone company to omit my address in the next directory.
I did keep all the favorable letters that came over the years. Two were from supportive writer-friends. The third was from a concerned mother of a gay man. Three more were from gay men, who said they realized the book spoke the truth and came out of love. Total of six favorable letters, gratefully answered.
To my knowledge only one letter was written to the media in my defense. This was written August 6, 1983, to a gay paper, by a lesbian friend. She was writing in answer to repeated attacks on Patricia Holt and me by the same writer in gay papers and on radio. In this cool, welcome defense, there was one ominous sentence. "Regarding the 'Dorothy Bryant Controversy,' whether the novel is black-listed by offended book-buyers or shelved among travel books, the issue remains the same . . .by now more has been said about the book than was printed in it . . . by people who have not read it or not understood it."
I learned later that some of the offended book-buyers doing the blacklisting were librarians. One librarians' newsletter, edited by a previously friendly lesbian acquaintance, had already called A Day in San Francisco harmful, "not recommended." (As good as blacklisted for quite a few libraries.) Another librarian friend mentioned the rejection of another of my books at a buying-committee meeting she attended. Someone said, "No, Bryant is anti-gay," and the committee went on to the next decision. I asked my librarian friend what she had said when she heard that. "Well, uhnothing."
Her silence was similar to that of other straight friends, most of whom never acknowledged the existence of the book. Some of them might have been totally unaware of it. But others, I knew, were very much aware of the book and the hostile reaction. They seemed confused, uncomfortable, disappointed that I had caused unpleasantness. They didn't ask me any questions. They seemed to assume that "Frank" and "Clara" were my son and I, and that I had caused, then written about, an actual break with him. The only one who did speak up was an old friend on a brief visit from L.A., a brilliant social activist and teacher, and a mentor to me. "Why are you so angry at John?" as if I were tastelessly airing family problems. "We have lots of gay friends, and they're nice folks," he added, irrelevantly. (A few years later, in a letter to me, he praised the book. When I reminded him of his initial opinion, he could not remember ever saying such a thing.)
Patricia Holt published three of what she called the "printable" letters written in response to the Chronicle Book Review. One of them called the health questions Holt had raised "silly." Another concluded that "Bryant is terrifying! Your 'questions' absurd."
The third, longer, and apparently more thoughtful letter did not consider health questions "absurd," even used the word "epidemic"pretty strong language in 1983. However, the letter stated, "By the way, the AIDS epidemic affects not only homosexuals but Haitians, I.V. drug users, and hemophiliacs . . .high number of sex contacts is only one factor." Two decades later that statement reads like a rational description of the means of contagion of AIDS through blood as well as sexual fluids. But in early 1983 AIDS was still not generally perceived as a contagious disease. Possible causes most discussed were (1) sheer number and types of sexual acts (2) recreational drug use (3) weakening of the immune system by repeated bouts with diseases like syphilis. In other words "high number of sexual contacts" at that time was not seen as pointing to an infectious disease. Nor was illness in IV drug users or hemophiliacs yet considered a sign of infection passed in blood. Nor was it pointed out that Haitians live in a very poor country then frequented by gay male vacationers. The writer of this letter signed his name with M.D. after it.
That was what so shocked a lesbian friend who called to discuss this letter with me. She knew the gay physician who had written it. In fact, he was the person who had mentioned to her the dawning suspicions of medical researchers regarding contagion. That is, he knew exactly how the affected people he had listed fit into these suspicions of infection. He had taken facts, knowingly twisted them into a lie, then used his medical credentials to validate the lie.
When I asked Holt about the letters, she explained that, wrongheaded as they were, they would help start the ball rolling, leading to other reviews and a more intelligent discussion.
A call inviting me to be interviewed on the morning show of the local ABC channel seemed the beginning of the ball rolling. The telephone pre-interviewer tried to make it a joint interview with a gay man, but I rejected that, fearing I could be set up as an adversary of homosexuals. Then she suggested inviting some prominent gay writers, and I agreed, but they all refused the invitation. I suggested that questions from gay members of the audience would be appropriate and welcome.
At this writing, I reviewed a video of that telecast to refresh my memory. Most of the twenty-minute interview I spent dodging the interviewer's attempts to probe my son's private life or to place me in the category of mothers-appalled-by-son's-homosexuality. I kept bringing her back to my novel, which, of course, she had not read, and to the issues it raised, about which she knew nothing. (I kept expecting to be cut off quickly as the guest before me had been. Why was I kept on camera so long? Later I learned that the producer of the show was a concerned mother of a gay man.)
Audience questions came from two young gay men, one of whom had AIDS. He suggested that AIDS was linked to being homosexual. I covered my shock (what if I had said such a thing?) and answered that my infectious diseases source had just told me researchers were looking toward the possibility of a virus. The other gay questioner ignored that statement and proposed a genetic source of AIDSalso linked to homosexuality. (To remember this insistent denial of infectious origin in 1983 might strike us as bizarre, but not as part of history long past. Those who in 2002 still doubted the connection of HIV virus to AIDS include a University of California professor and the president of South Africa.)
A couple of radio appearances during 1983-84 were more satisfactory. One was a program hosted by conservative Quentin Kopp, then a San Francisco supervisor (later state senator, then judge). He hadn't even been on my review-copy mailing list, but had actually bought and read the book. When he welcomed me to the radio studio, he took an amused off-air swipe at my "naive liberal idealization" of the assassinated Mayor Moscone in "Clara's" essay. Otherwise, political orientation never came up. On the air, he questioned me as a responsible San Franciscan, with sincere interest, concentratingagainmostly on health issues. It occurred to me that, having a conservative constituency, he had nothing to lose if he offended gays by giving me a hearing. In any case he was the only local politician who acknowledged the existence of the book. Probably liberal politicians were quietly trying other means to arouse some sensible talk at least on the health issues. If so, they were wise to avoid mentioning my book, which, by that time, was sure to associate them with a perceived enemy of homosexuals. (I should add a note on the Coming Up reviewer's statement that "in the hands of the Moral Majority" my novel "could be lethal." Koppslightly right of San Francisco centerwas the most conservative person who has ever contacted me in all the years since the novel was published. The Moral Majority, if they even noticed my book, had no doubt about where I stood and of what little use I could be to them.)
I spoke on a couple of FM-radio talk shows. One of them was an hour-long interview and call-in with a gay talk-host. I accepted his invitation with trepidation because I knew he was a close friend of the gay reviewer who had challenged me on the grounds of "males being males." The talk show host's friend wrote for all the gay weeklies, and no matter what the format or subject at hand, he invariably managed to throw in an attack on me and Pat Holt. I needn't have worried. My host was courteous and non-confrontational, easing my anxiety so that when his friend called in, spewing hostility, I was able to answer him calmly, logically, and, I think, effectively (because he couldn't see me sweating?). Most of the other callers were civil and concerned gay men and women (because they were speaking anonymously?). One of them, with friendly amusement, corrected a typo on the first page of the novel.
Even though these radio interviews were easier than the TV appearance, I finished each of them in exhaustion and migraine. While imitating calm assurance, I was inwardly about as calm as an unarmed woman walking through battlefield crossfire. I knew my panic had no relation to the actual situations, but knowing that didn't help. I began to understand that growing fear was what made my attackers so determined to "kill the messenger." Understanding that didn't help either.
At the time I was doing bi-weekly readings on KPFA-FM, a local non commercial, left-wing station, where I enjoyed the freedom of reading excerpts of my choice, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Maxine Hong Kingston. I usually read an excerpt from each of my books as they came out. This time I didn't even mention the book. I had sent the Lesbian and Gay Department a copy, but I was content that they ignored it. Then in 1984the year the AIDS virus was identifiedthe director of Drama and Literature, an older man who happened to be gay, called me in and insisted that I read the entire book, in prerecorded installments, to be broadcast over a two-to-three week period on the Evening Reading. It would then go into the Pacifica archives, to be played over affiliated stations.
I did the reading in nine or ten installments. When I came to the argument written as a dialogue between Clara and Frank, I asked John if he wanted to read with me, playing the part of Frank. "Sure," he agreed, and one night at the station, his lover René in the studio with us, he read with gusto all of Frank's wrong-headed arguments. With a real flare for the dramatic (like what he had shown in his high school production of In White America, the civil rights docudrama by Martin Duberman, in which John had played all the bad-white-guy parts) he gave a far better reading of Frank's part than my weary-sounding one of Clara. It is one of the painful ironies of life that I have it on cassette tape, my only recording of John's voice.
Except for those few, limited effects, the front-page reviews in the Sunday Chronicle Book Review had been followed by a great silenceunless you count the hate mail Pat Holt continued to receive. She was incredulous that not one daily paper had followed up with a review. I asked her, "Do other book editors in the Bay Area know about the attacks on you?" "Probably, yes, word gets around."
Exactly. There are so many books to review. Why should other reviewersespecially in the San Francisco areabring trouble on themselves? Or perhaps editors referred the book to a gay staff member, who buried it. If A Day in San Francisco had been written by a renowned writer backed by a corporate publisher (an unlikely scenario), it would it have been necessary for more newspapers to review the book. But I had a small, scattered following and the stigma of self-publishing. It was much easier to ignore the book. Holt continued to ask, how could such an important bookthe only bookon so timely a subject be ignored? Regardless of the rules of commercial publishing, she insisted, my book was what book editors long fortreatment of a growing controversy that will draw attention to the less frequently read Book Review section, or even move the controversy to book nirvanathe main news section.
But in 1983-84, would it have drawn any attention other than abuse from a few gay readers? Not likely. Ultimately, the main reason the book could so easily be buried lay in the 95% heterosexual population. A few reactionary fundamentalists called down their god's curses upon homosexuals, but the vast majority of the population simply didn't care. Most of themoutside San Francisco, New York, or Los Angelesstill believed they didn't even know any homosexuals personally. They also believed that whatever was happening could affect only homosexuals, about whom theyand this includes liberal, socially conscious peoplepreferred to know as little as possible. The clearest expression of homophobia was not what I had written in my book, but the indifference to what I had written about the dangersfrom within or from withoutfacing this oppressed minority.
I began planning my first historical novel, Confessions of Madame Psyche, which required extensive research in the history of Northern California. I dug myself into that, and mostly managed to put A Day in San Francisco out of my mind.
Occasionally a hate letter briefly shook my concentration, or a social gathering became awkward, as when a lesbian acquaintance suddenly strode across a crowded room to accuse me of trying to restrict her civil rights. I should have welcomed this opportunity to discuss the growing confusion on the definition of "civil rights." The trouble was that we were at a reception to welcome visiting Swedish writers, who surrounded us, and her angry tones were attracting confused attention. I froze up, with my usual cowardice, silent until she stopped lecturing me.
The stories of coming to my defense, brought to me occasionally by a friend or acquaintance, weren't very reassuring. Like the creative writing teacher who had stood up to his students' protest against being assigned Writing a Novel, written by the vicious homophobe, Dorothy Bryant, who had written some anti-gay book none of them had read. I appreciated his support. The trouble was that stories like hisand the one related by the librarian on the book-buying committeeonly made me wonder how many such incidents I was not hearing about and what unseen effects they were having.
In 1985, gay men began to sicken and die in large numbers. Sales of my book came to a sudden halt. Only the occasional hate letter reminded me that it was still being read. The AIDS debate dominated the media, reflecting the mounting confusion about what was a public health issue and what was a civil rights issue. There were protests and lawsuits over attempts to screen blood donors. Several gay people informed me that AIDS was a government germ warfare plot to kill homosexuals. Some children with AIDS were barred from public schools, then reinstated by court order. The discharge of a nurse who had AIDS was designated discrimination by the federal department of Health and Human Services. San Francisco hospitals were legally prohibited from testing for HIV in the blood of surgical patients. (This hit the news when a surgeon left San Francisco, saying she was tired of dressing like a space cadet for every surgery she performedjust in case.) The US Department of Justice disagreed with its own civil rights division on what constituted "civil rights" protections due to AIDS patients. Meanwhile the mayor and the Health Department of San Francisco were still trying unsuccessfully to close down San Francisco bath houses, opposed by demonstrators who called their efforts anti-gay infringements of civil rights.
In late 1985 the blood test for HIV (the term coined that year) became available. John and René immediately took the test, eager to reassure themselves that nearly four years of monogamy had saved them from the disease that was now claiming their friends. Both tested positive.
There had been many times during the three years since the book appeared when I wondered if I should have published it. Maybe people were right to say it could be used against gay people. My son had changed his lifestyleremoving my personal motive before the book went to the printer. And within a few months of publication some gay leaders began to speak out, albeit rather timidly. Maybe I had done nothing but make enemies. What reception might the many mainstream gay reviewers and librarians give my next book? These questions were once and for all silenced. When I knew that my worst fearno, catastrophe inconceivable to me when I started the bookwas a certainty, I put aside all regrets. I knew that if I had canceled publication, I would always wonder if I had backed away from an opportunity to save my son's life.
In 1986, less than a year after testing positive, René was hospitalized with his first bout of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.
At that time, I was launching Confessions of Madame Psyche. Going ahead as usual with promotion of this book would give me something to think about besides what was happening at home. Reception was generally good. It seemed that after four years everyone had moved on from A Day in San Francisco. Or they were relieved that I'd gotten off that subject. I began to feel comfortable at readings and signings again.
One of the readings was to be at a lesbian café/bookstore, offshoot of the first women's bookstore in the Bay Area, run by the women who had first promoted my books, and whose efforts had indirectly led Kin of Ata to Random House. They sent a woman to interview me for an article in their newsletter intended to promote the event at which I would appear. The newsletter appeared when René was in the hospital with another bout of pneumocystis and I was battling the feverish flu that often hits me when I'm under stress.
In this newsletter, articles coinciding with an author's appearance were always celebratory, detailing the author's life and work. Not this time. More than half of the article consisted of an account of the writer's personal experience as a frequenter of mediums (the central character of my novel only poses as a medium). Then came the first mention of my work. She wrote that she still remembered starting to read A Day in San Francisco, then throwing it across the room against the wall, in fury. But this new novel showed that "Bryant has worked very hard to come to a better understanding of lesbian life." The final two paragraphs detailed the relationship between my protagonist and her female friend, which late in the book becomes briefly erotica few pages in a nearly four hundred page book.
I telephoned the store and was greeted by the principal owner, who was also the editor of the newsletter, a woman I had known for fifteen years. I asked her why she had printed an article likely to revive hostility against me. On the contrary, she assured me, she had printed the piece because she had hoped it might "help lesbians forgive you." Forgive me for what? I demanded that she name one line from A Day in San Francisco that could be construed as an offensive statement about "lesbian life." She hesitated, then admitted she really couldn't sayshe had never read the book. I canceled my appearance and hung up. No, I did not tell her about our personal crisis. To do so would have "explained" my "over-reaction," and assured her that it was my problem, not hers. And at that moment I could think of nothing more insufferable than the sympathy and "understanding" she would offer.
René was treated with the drugs available at the time. He had a year of comparatively good health before he began a steady decline. He died in 1988.
That was when I received the third of the hate letters I accidentally kept. It was from a self-identified "drag queen" who accused me of "advocating the murder of gay men." He signed his letter, "In fury." Reading the book in 1988, he might not have realized that it had come out six years before. Who, he must have thought, would write such a book in 1988, except a rabid homophobe who took satisfaction in the rising death count?
By then I had accidentally fallen into historical play-writing, creating a role for an actor-friend of mine. In the next decade I wrote five more historical plays and one historical novel.
An exception to my bio-historical writing was a short novel The Test (1991) begun after René diedwhen I was, so to speak, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like A Day in San Francisco its protagonist is a fiftyish mother and teacher, and the book takes place in one day. A member of the "sandwich generation," Pat knows that at the end of a frustrating day with her increasingly senile widowed father, she will join her son in his vigil by his lover's hospital bed. The Test is a meditation on grief and reality and memory, and the closest I have ever come to direct autobiography. Its tonea mixture of anxiety, sadness, anger, and desperate humorprobably reflects personal feelings that began with the positive HIV tests in 1985 and may have colored my consciousness ever since.
By the beginning of the nineties, everyone had forgotten that there had ever been a book called A Day in San Francisco. Ornot quite everyone? In 1992 my play Dear Master and Tony Kushner's Angels in America shared the Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Best New Script. The San Francisco Chronicle printed a complete list of all the winners in all categories (acting, lighting, sound, etc. etc.)all except me. Just a simple error, my little play forgotten in the excitement over Angels in America. Of course. And yet, the co-presenter of awards at the ceremony I had attended was none other than the gay writer who had relentlessly harassed me in print for four years. Was he also the one who had turned in the list of winners to the newspaper? I obsessed about this for about five minutes. Then I laughed. Then I called John so that we could laugh together about my paranoia or that guy's petty vengeance or both. We were grabbing at every possible occasion to laugh, because John was recovering from his first AIDS-related illness.
John died on April 26, 1994, just short of his forty-fourth birthday. We spent much of his final weeks together. During one of our last talks he said he wondered what his life would have been like had he been born after that opening explosion of the gay freedom movement. "I probably would have just grown up doing math, content to be tucked away with my partner in some little college town." He referred to the seventies as if they were a period of ancient history grown dim and somewhat puzzling in memory.
Two decades after A Day in San Francisco, it is even harder to conjure up that time when self-appointed gay spokesmen referred to straight people contemptuously as "breeders," and talked of the inevitable transformation of San Francisco into a "gay city" where erotic brotherly love would take the place of worn-out traditions. Today gay spokesmen demand the right to marry and to adopt children. Today, as AIDS patients in the Western world live longer and longer, consciousness has dimmed to vague awareness of this plague as a distant calamity, somewhere in Africa. Now and then news articles here in the Bay Area cite rising rates of AIDS in newly-arriving young gay men, and quote gay health spokesmen's warnings about unprotected sex. Then follow-up articles quote more gay spokesmen complaining, like concerned mothers, that no one is listening to them.
A critical survey called Confronting AIDS Through Literature (1993) cited A Day in San Francisco as "the first AIDS-themed novel." In 1996 in a Washington Times series on forgotten books, Joanne Greenberg summarized the attacks on me and called the book "prophetic." Both of these citations seem only peripherally connected to my book. Granted, my impulse was an emotional crisis that could have been blindly prophetic of a danger I intuited. But I still see physical disease as a minor part of A Day in San Francisco. The novel is about a crisis of liberal values. It is about how love, not always blind, may cut through intellectual abstractions to see what is "in front of our noses." It is about how a liberation movement can be bought out, sold out, stalled, in the name of freedom.
The attempt to lynch my bookled by readers willing to tell fatal lies to their own communitywas killed by AIDS. But so was the book. It was not rescued nor its content "proven" by this now-worldwide tragedy. Its central theme, which, as Kirkus Reviews had stated, "goes far beyond the homosexual-lifestyle issues," was simply eclipsed in the shadow of AIDS. But that theme, that dangerof twisted motivation, denial and liesis still alive, still a corrupter and potential killer of the best of intentions, in all movements for justice, in all human relations. Our only weapon against that danger is to sniff it out, air it, shine a light on the very first sign of itlike mold.
This is a job that writers can start, but it doesn't get done without the help of readers. So I've made a few rules for myself as a reader:
I will never adopt and repeat any judgment on a book I haven't readno matter how much I love and respect the person who makes it.
If a book infuriates me, I will ask myself what pushed my buttons: a lie in the book? a truth? a mistake that doesn't necessarily invalidate the whole book? or something in me that has little or nothing to do with the book?
I will never put any subject off limits for any writer.
If I am convinced a book is intentionally or ignorantly harmful, I will say so, citing excerpts, correctly quoted. But I will never try to stop anyone else from reading the book and making his or her own judgment.
If I believe a book that I have read has been misunderstood and misrepresented, I will speak out, write a lettersomethingto transform a potential lynching into a civil, heated, healthy controversy.
To quote George Orwell again, "That is a beginning."