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In his introduction to My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Greek scholar Charles Rowan Beye tells the reader, “This is a personal memoir, but much of what I describe is commonplace experience for homosexual men.” Indeed, the odyssey we take with Beye echoes many gay lives chronicled over the past few decades. There aren’t many gay men born before 1960 who would disagree with Beye’s simple and piercing observation that being gay in his youth “brought a lot of misery.” But if Beye’s story rings true, it also reminds us that when we lump our stories together under the mantle of “gay memoir,” we do ourselves and our work a disservice. Beye’s story is his own story, even as it touches us in its familiarity.
Charles Beye was born in Iowa City in 1930. A fall from a balcony when he was four years old required him to wear a corset and then a brace until he was eighteen. His father died in a car accident when he was six. Loss of physical ability, emotional security, and material wealth might be the stuff of other memoirs, but the real story of his life, the author tells us, “is being gay.” Life’s obstacles (Beye was in pain from his fall well into his thirties) are no match for his adolescent libido: he has so many sexual encounters that sometimes you wonder, as the song goes, anyone would want to leave Ohio. The detailed descriptions of Beye’s sexual activities are not meant to titillate the reader. Rather, they serve as a reminder of “extraordinary moments of self-expression, joy and happiness” in a repressive, sometimes humiliating world.
Beye marries his first wife on a lark. Mary knows Charlie is gay, but agrees to the marriage anyway. She is as charming and as intelligent as he is, and with her understanding, Beye satisfies his homosexual urges outside their bedroom. Charlie and Mary are good together, and the author is at his best navigating the territory of unconventional loving relationships such as this one, which is sadly cut short by Mary’s death only a few years after the two wed.
Beye calls his second marriage, which produced four children and more than a little bitterness, “the deepest, most complicated relationship of my life.” It is a testament to his clear-sightedness that we take no sides between the writer and the architect Penny Pendleton. Beye delivers surprising information (he suggests Pendelton’s male lover live in their house as long as Beye can also have sex with him now and then) with a matter-of-factness that puts the complexity of human relationships, not scandal, at the center of the narrative.
If I have a quibble about My Husband and My Wives, it’s that less time is given to Beye’s final marriage to his husband than to the other two. (The marriage may be recent, but the relationship has lasted over two decades.) Beye writes that the details of this happy marriage are “endlessly fascinating to us both” but can “easily make our auditor’s eyes roll over in the telling and the retelling.” That may be true of some listeners, but not this one. Beye’s fairy tale ending (the last chapter is called “Someday My Prince Will Come”) is earned, and we’ve had enough tragic endings in our literature that I would have enjoyed more time observing the contentment these two men have found.
While Beye’s three marriages are the core of the memoir, he leaves room for a fascinating glimpse at academic politics (especially interesting is John Silber’s Boston University of the 70s and 80s) and national politics, too. Here Beye often strikes a somber note, reminding us that achieving marriage equality is hardly a safeguard against rising anti-gay sentiment in the United States, especially among far right Christian groups. Writes Beye, “If I were given to speaking in a national forum, I would not be able to stress strongly enough to my fellow gay males that they are living in a fool’s paradise if they believe they are not totally vulnerable to the Christians. Some of the current politicians with their anti-gay strategy may seem to be a joke, but it is a dangerous one. Think back to the laughter at Hitler in the very earliest days.”
Early in his memoir, Beye tells us that he hopes the reader will finish the book “with a better understanding of the obstacles and shoals the gay male must navigate just to grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.” In clean, elegant prose, Beye does just that. My Husband and My Wives is an engrossing, moving and often witty take one gay man’s life.
My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey
By Charles Rowan Beye
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374298715, 272 pp.