Tracking Invisible Scars

Secret Life
by Michael Ryan

Published by Pantheon


Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan

There's a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals," says a character in Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warnings. "The experiences are quick, and hard and brutal, and the pattern of them is practically unchanging. Their act of love is like the jabbing of a hypodermic needle to which they're addicted but which is more and more empty of real interest and surprise."

Change the word homosexuals to ambisexuals, and you'd have a fairly good summation of the former world of Michael Ryan. He recounts his own sexual addiction in Secret Life, and there's probably no easier book to mock, if that's what you want to do.

Sexual biographies are, admittedly, a difficult form to master without coming off as a self-absorbed fool. The poet Rosemary Daniell tried some years ago in her book Fatal Flowers, a laughably smug, air-headed recollection of Southern girlhood where every page is smothered with Gothic melodrama and everyone but the author sounds like a cracker.

Ryan's a poet, too, and he has at least one story where he comes within a hair's breadth of full-scale bestiality that, stripped of its goofy juvenile context, makes the book look ridiculously forthright. (Michiko Kakutani had a good time with it in a recent column for The New York Times Magazine.) The book even ends with the author touching on the benefits of a 12-step program.

But Ryan surmounts the reader's cynicism. The book is more engrossing than discomfiting.

Ryan's "secret life" begins at age five, when he's molested by a seedy local photographer. Like most abuse victims, he keeps the fact to himself, tries to forget it and sometimes succeeds.

The effects of molestation are, of course, long-lasting; victimized children carry the scars with them into adulthood and their own relationships. With Ryan, the result was a sexual obsession that blossomed in adulthood and involved just about anyone within reach when the mood struck.

Interestingly, he doesn't dwell on it all that much maybe all those hypodermic jabs really do feel the same after awhile. Instead, he tells us how he grew up: his drunken father, protective mother, dorky brother, Catholic education, strange neighbors, his fascination with baseball and girls. There's his teenage sexual life, too, which is the same most boys know: Playboy in one hand, a "hydrangea-sized Kleenex" in the other.

Ryan who lost his Princeton teaching post when it was discovered he was banging his own students broadcasts his life and asks us to care. The odd thing is that we do. His tone is clear-eyed, thoughtful and secure. He doesn't ask for pity, doesn't try to look like some tough-ass survivor, doesn't jabber on about his salvation from himself. He's more interested in giving shape to his experience. It's no wonder that he winds up teaching autobiographical writing. Reading this book makes you want to write your own story.

The book is less about sex than it is about Ryan's half-century experience of growing up. This is a moving, painful and often howlingly funny story of an American boyhood.

Rodney Welch often writes film and book reviews for POINT.

Ryan who lost his Princeton teaching post when it was discovered he was banging his own students broadcasts his life and asks us to care. The odd thing is that we do.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 7/11/96