This is the first installment of a exclusive three-part series excerpted from Jonathan Rauch's new ebook, Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul (The Atlantic Books). You can read the author's introductory blog here.
I HAVE a peculiar memory which must date to when I was 10 or 11 years old. I am sitting at the piano daydreaming one afternoon, and it occurs to me that I will never get married. Simultaneously with this realization comes the recognition that I have always understood that marriage was unlikely for me, and that today is merely the first time I have said so, to myself, "aloud." So baldly clear is this realization that I might as well be acknowledging that I will never have eight legs and spin a web.
Even so, the revelation strikes me as peculiar. Almost all of the adults I know are married, and so, for that matter, are most of the grown‑ups I have ever heard of. Everyone gets married. Why, then, do I know that the world of married adults has no connection to me, and that I will go off in some different direction? The strange thing about this moment, both when it occurs and later on in retrospect -- perhaps the reason I recall it at all -- is the otherworldly blandness of a realization that is as certain as it is apparently baseless. Marriage is not relevant to me and that is a fact. And then I shrug and pass on to other thoughts, all of them lost to me now.
My discovery on that afternoon came as an announcement which presented itself with a bow and sat down to take its appointed place in my conscious mind. It must have been, however, part of a long unfolding. A few things had gone before, and later would come much more. Only in retrospect, long after the fact, was I able to find any pattern in the skein. And what a strange pattern it turned out to be! To have been twisted up in it, controlled by it, bent and helpless like a tied tree! Today, as I look back from middle age, the contorted condition of my youth has become incomprehensible to me. What you read here is a piecing together of shards, a backwards reading of an ancient script. The feeling that made sense of that world is gone, thank God.
I want to say, with my eyes dry and my throat unlumped, that I have no special claim on anyone's sympathy. Perhaps just the opposite. Strangeness and misperception are constitutive elements of childhood and young adulthood. It is probably a contradiction in terms to speak of an "ordinary" childhood. The whole period has aspects of a visionary insanity: the obsessive fascination with certain random objects, each of which has not only qualities but its own personality (to children, things are people and people are things, as Walt Disney understood); the vast yet incoherent quality of space and time, which roll on and on yet never flow into a whole; the bellowing caprice and excruciating boringness of grown-ups, who are useful but never interesting. Those years are a farrago of explosive joys and horrors and, although everyone cherishes their magic, only a fool wishes they lasted any longer. Compared with children who were abused or ostracized or neglected or impoverished, I was lucky. My peculiar deformity was far from the worst problem that a child or a man (it lasted well into adulthood) can have.
I do maintain, however, that it was easily among the most perplexing of the distortions that can give youth its outlandish peculiarity. There is no possible preparation for it and no visible exit from it. To the extent one hears it discussed at all, it is as a problem of "homosexual youth," or "the closet." But to speak that way, although adequate from a school counselor's or gay activist's point of view, is to misconceive the whole case.
Homosexuality is a fact, albeit a fact with many implications. What I experienced was not a fact at all, and certainly not a sexual fact. Rather, it was an elaborate structure of interwoven denials which grew around and then over the fact of sexuality, a kudzu which first covered and then obliterated the foliage beneath. Sexuality of any sort became impossible; so did love. The bland vanilla certainty that marriage was impossible for me brought with it a further, not‑bland certainty, that love too was impossible. It was simply not provided for in my constitution.
Every day I could feel, if I stopped to notice, that some essential capacity was missing, although most days, until I was in my teens, I did not care very much. Then I cared a lot. The world was bursting in all around me and my mind was staggering to keep up, and, as though all of that was not enough, I had been born without a soul. What is a self, after all, but a soul, and what is a soul without love and without even the capacity for love? The soul is a sovereign, but without love it has no kingdom. In a matter‑of‑fact way, I began to understand that I was a monster.
A word I think of in this connection is an old bit of psychiatric jargon that went out of polite use a few decades ago. Today the word "invert" is scarcely ever heard at all. Not so long ago, however, it was was not only reputable but clinically descriptive. In those days homosexuality was often regarded not merely as a sexual disorder or perversion, like impotence or exhibitionism, but as a comprehensive personality disorder. That is, homosexuality was not just a thing unto itself: it was a marker of a disturbed and possibly antisocial or even dangerous character. The invert's sexuality was an expression of a deep tangle of neuroses. He was thus quite a sick person, unfit for military service or positions of social responsibility. Socially, the invert was likely to be backward and poorly adjusted; psychologically he was not only unhappy but the very antithesis of normalcy. Thus was his personality almost literally upside‑down. Now, the dusty museum‑case is a good resting place for "invert," and I would hate to see it creep back into general use. But I cannot deny that in some respects it is a good word to describe what I was for 25 years.
An analogy which I sometimes find helpful is that of a photographic negative. Things, events, people, feelings are in proper proportion and relation to each other. Nothing is visibly "wrong," nothing unintelligible. B follows from A and black shades properly into white. You could manage to live this way for a long time, perhaps for a whole lifetime, and make out all right. You would not be unhappier than it is many people's lot in life to be. But then one fine day a light shines through the negative and its image is cast onto photographic paper and a positive is produced. And then the past, even the entirety of one's self, once so sensible and self‑contained, is seen to have been ludicrous, a backwards reading of reality which had allowed every detail to be seen yet not a single one to register as it should have. All, then, is revealed to have been an inversion; and I, in an exquisitely apt sense, an invert.
It has been years since my inversion ended. Every day it recedes further into dream. Recalling the texture and warp of the looking‑glass world, I feel like the man whose migraines are long cured but who seeks to recall and record the visions he saw when he was afflicted. I do not claim that my experience was typical, or that a quite "typical" homosexual childhood, or a "typical" heterosexual childhood, actually exists. I do not claim anything, except that other youths experience something at least similar to what happened to me, and that describing what happened may therefore be interesting. A metallurgist learns the properties of a new alloy by twisting and bending and melting and otherwise deforming it. A cognitive psychologist learns how vision works by tricking it with illusions. Might one not learn something about the nature of the loving soul by considering the case of a person who grew up without one?
Tomorrow: Why Sinbad was more than a "sailor man" to me.
This excerpt from Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul is published with permission by The Atlantic Books.