Are we born this way or is it our suffocating mother, absent dad? I had neither, but who cares? Well before 8 years old I knew something was weird when most little guys strained like a dog on a leash to get onto the ball field while I wanted nothing more than to bury my nose in the roses of my grandfather's garden. (Actually, I suspected decades later he may have been gay, composing poetry and reading serious books when not tending his flowers.)
I was smitten by The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. So total was my rapture I would return it to our little library and near-plead to sign it out again. The librarian, like all in those days, was matronly and all-knowing -- it was a small town. She was likely well aware of my vandalism at age 4, decapitating the minister's entire tulip bed so I could present armloads to my family.
The Secret Garden captured me, defined me. Published in 1911, it became and remains a children's classic. I personally was replaced and inhabited its hero, 10-year-old Colin Craven, whose beautiful mother died in his childbirth, leaving him a sickly, sunken invalid -- in mind more than body. Colin's psychosomatic illness is summarized by the author, so ahead of her time: "To let ... a bad thought get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there ... you may never get over it as long as you live."
Colin's spunky cousin Mary crashes into this scene of despair, rummaging through the desiccated, long-neglected surrounds of the English country mansion and discovering a secret, walled garden. She and a spirited local boy gradually restore this Eden, as well as the frail, despondent Colin to vibrant full health, the boy once consigned to a wheelchair and a prognosis for life as a hunchback.
Thus was cemented my love affair with books -- well, novels -- and their power primarily to shield me from nay-saying, which I came to realize much later as bulwark against internalized homophobia. Secondarily, such yarns as The Secret Garden, set in secluded, overly romanticized, sylvan settings, cocooned me in the insulation of nature.
I rejected my New York City/suburban spawning grounds for my adult life in the outback of Vermont. As a Cornell English major at the time it was unheard-of to veer beyond history, economics, and the sciences. There was no creative writing program. How could I make a living? Well, I did love words and language and was adept. Even zoology was based on essay exams. Soon in Vermont I was writing pamphlets and books, even a TV show, on organic gardening before I tested my prowess with a novel.
The solitude required of a writer built a fortress behind which I was protected from a world which vilified homosexuals. This craft was a stepping stone to self-acceptance and self-esteem at my own pace.
Allowing my love of fiction to broaden beyond reading it to writing it took a quantum leap while living for a sojourn in London. There were entire shows on BBC radio and television devoted to authors and their work. Exposure to so many celebrated, brazen writers cast me as a vanilla milkshake by comparison in this arts-centric, less material culture. Gradually I became fortified by novelists like Doris Lessing and Salmon Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, articulating social issues of global urgency. What was the big deal about being gay?
I longed to tackle prejudice, having grown up as a Gentile in an extremely anti-Semitic community. This resulted in my second novel, Siegfried Follies, not a gay story but one in which a blond, blue-eyed 8-year-old orphan in war-ravaged Munich saves a dark child hurled from a train, both boys oblivious of their backgrounds, becoming "family" for 30 years. As a gay man I was both well-equipped and inspired to explore the roots of intolerance.
My lifelong love for novels has never abated. I'm still enthralled by the ability of great stories to instruct, heal, refine our moral compass by somewhat circumventing the head with an arrow-piercing of the heart. Homophobia, unfortunately, remains a ripe subject.