On Being Different
by Merle Miller
Random House, 65 pp., $4.50
Years ago, after The Lost Weekend had become a best seller and a household word, Charles Jackson followed it up with The Fall of Valor, a novel about a professor who discovers in late middle age that he desires young men and falls in love with one in particular. His marriage dissolves almost as rapidly as a Bufferin tablet and he himself perishes shortly thereafter—of a heart attack, I think, though the convention of contemporary fiction would have called for suicide. It was a very dismal novel, and what I remember best about it was a comment by one reviewer that Jackson had done for homosexuality what he had earlier done for alcoholism: he had succeeded in making it middle-class.
It is better, as Saint Paul might have observed, to publish than to perish, and Mr. Miller has done a notable public service in choosing this alternative. He has also in this moving and in certain respects heroic little book made the subject of “homosexuality” more middle-class than Jackson could ever have dreamed of doing. I have put the word “homosexuality” in quotes because I know no other way to express the fact that writing about it is like writing about witchcraft. The phenomenon itself, whatever it may be, is not as important or nearly as interesting as the savagely repressive and sadistic response it arouses, while that response itself evokes confessions from people who preserve themselves from ultimate alienation from the society by consenting to play the victim’s role. But often these people are not the real thing at all. They may, however, be useful in taking some of the heat off the real witches who keep their cool; and who are surely indispensable to the operation of a society that is driving itself mad through its hysterical overcommitment to science and Christianity.
I do not at all mean to impugn Mr. Miller’s claim to be a homosexual. His credentials appear to be in order. But his book has very little to do with erotic experience, and that little seems bereft of joy. What it is primarily about is the process of stigmatization in society and his feelings of shame at having for forty years attempted to conceal—and thereby exaggerated the importance of—an aspect of his personality that had been defined as ignominious, followed by his great relief and sense of heightened human-hood after having blown his cover in The New York Times Magazine.
Behavior hardly comes into it. Mr. Miller does relate some experiences, and quite moving ones, of physical relations with young men, but it is clear that what he was attempting to disguise was not merely homosexuality but also lack of heterosexual interest. At the end of the book he observes, in an expression of something as close to triumph as he permits himself: “I for one will never again have to listen to and pretend to laugh at the latest ‘fag gag’; I will never again have to describe the …