Who were these people?
Timothy tells us. He’s sixteen, he’s a male, he’s gay, he’s homeless, he does tricks on “the hill” to get money, he hangs out with an older kid, Bernie, he has sex with Bernie sometimes, he knows Claire who has spiked hair and wears a leather bracelet with steel studs, he also knows Mickey and Mickey’s lover Robbie, and Derek, the actor. He mainly talks about things 16 year-old kids talk about—How can I get a boyfriend? Are they going to hurt me? Timothy says, “My mom says I’m nothing but a pain and a heartache to her.”—and then occasionally he breaks out of all that when Bernie says to him, “Someday I’ll have a man in love with me, and he’ll give me a garden.” Timothy answers, “You’re queer. And you live in a rooming house and you don’t have a garden and you don’t have any money and no way to get one. And that’s the way it’s going to be for you all your fucking life.” He’s deep inside his own life—the details of it—and then suddenly he breaks out and hugely expands the scope of his vision. I know what a queer is, and I know the conditions of his life and its limitations.
We meet Timothy, who knows other gay kids, whom we get to know at the dance they all go to—it’s a group of kids who’ve pushed back the chairs in a church auditorium and found a record player and are dancing with each other. The reader gets to know a few of the kids—Mickey the computer guy, Robbie the dancer, Jack and a few others. We meet Claire and Marybeth. Then we follow the events that lead up to Bernie being murdered and to Timothy reaching through the railing on the side of the bridge toward the water where Bernie is drowned. After Timothy, we meet Carole, and then we meet Mickey, speaking for himself, which begins the process of our meeting Dana, Channing, Derek, Luke, Marybeth, Perry, Deborah, and Luke, some of them for the second time. Most of these people tell a story that is a self-contained narrative. Luke does it twice, once in the middle of the day Sunday and once late at night at the end of Monday night, which ends Part 1. By the time Deborah starts talking, it begins to be clear that there is a small group of gay people in Cardiff of various ages who are going to be part of this story. Some of them knew Bernie, and some didn’t. They come back in the second part, and again in the third.
As each of the narrators in Ceremonies come forward, they start off situating themselves—their personal selves—in the community in Cardiff, and then, almost coincidentally, almost by accident, they expose what they know of bigger matters—the murder of the strange kid from out of town, the place of LGBTQ people in American culture, What is life like? Carole, whose episode is the first after Timothy’s Prologue, starts off saying, I’m all right as I am. She’s sitting in the church (right side of the aisle) on Sunday morning, observing the stained glass windows in the largest, oldest Catholic church in town, which are “famous.” The priest, who is a “fool,” according to Carole, is “blathering on,” and then Carole notices a woman sitting two rows ahead of her and to the left. It’s Deborah, who is 48, two years older than Carole, and loves the priest, and called this morning about a small article in the paper about a man drowning last night in the Passadumkeag Stream. “He was naked, it seems,” Carole says. So, all of a sudden, all of Carole’s quiet satisfaction with herself is thrown into turmoil by this woman Deborah and her news from a small article from the inside of the paper, and then later Sunday as they talk on the phone and still later when Deborah comes to Carole’s house. During the rest of Carole’s episode, Deborah keeps intruding, bringing more and more painful and tragic news—that is, she brings what is merely the news of her life. She’s a librarian and a teacher, and she taught Timothy at one point. Carole closes with a comment about Deborah. “She said when she left she was going home to watch the news. How grotesque. What does she have to do with him! Wild animals and demons. God, it makes me so angry….Europe. I’ll go to Europe. My passport is up to date and in the safety deposit box at the bank. I must find a bricklayer who can build a brick wall, something high, and all around my garden.”
There are, throughout Ceremonies, episodes of different narrators, some of whom the reader will hear from again, and some of whom will narrate one episode and then not be heard from again.
The “wall” that she daydreams of suggests that Carole is not open to the huge changes that are in the near future for most of the other characters. Mickey, for example. He has his good job, he has computer skills that make him valuable on the job market, he has a decent apartment, he has a boyfriend, and many of the gay kids in Cardiff are in and out of his apartment, coming in, watching tonight’s news of the death of Bernie Mallett, staying for supper, sleeping overnight. Maybe it is the fact that Mickey is embedded in the group of young people, maybe it is the kind of person Mickey is, maybe it is just how different Mickey’s circumstances are when compared to Timothy and Carole—everybody knows him and he is already out to some degree, at least among his gang—but even though Mickey is distressed by Bernie’s death and by how much his friends are suffering and by his own grief, he demonstrates that he is open to what the future is going to bring. In his last words, leaving the gym where he has met Robbie, he says, “I am very strong,” and, of Robbie he says, “he is very handsome.”
Mickey—and Dana and Deborah and Derek and Marybeth and Luke—all go through journeys of a sort, learning from Bernie’s death, each with his or her own questions. The longest episode—53 pages—in Ceremonies is Mickey’s, in Part 2. The shortest—two pages—is Channing’s, in Part 2. Such an arrangement invites the reader to care about the character or situation of the various people in Ceremonies, and to ask the question of them, The death of Bernie Mallett changes everything. Who is going to resist change? Who is going to be part of the change?
While most of the single-episode narrators are constrained in some way and unable to respond to the murder of Bernie Mallett except with anger or fear, there are several characters who have only one episode each who place the events going on around them in the context of the national gay community and who aren’t themselves susceptible to change, usually because they are already ahead of the curve of their peers in Cardiff. The man in the episode at the beginning of Part 3, called Craig, is driving north on I-95 toward Millinocket, going into the woods for a week of camping, talking about Bernie’s death and the consequent political activity in Cardiff. Craig says, “These people are dealing with issues the rest of us dealt with in 1970.” Craig and his friend are LGBTQ activists who live in Boston, where they have been active for three or four years in AIDS organizations—AIDS Action, and ACT-UP. There is another narrator who has one episode who is carrying on an active and varied sex life, who seems to be balanced and stable and who seems untouched by the murder of Bernie Mallett. His job is not threatened, his family is not affected, and his social group is not affected. His episode is in exactly the center of the novel. There are a few others.
The novel is divided into three parts—the run-up to the memorial service near the end of Part 1, the middle part in which the Coalition has trouble getting its act together, which ends with Dana’s vision of total freedom, and Part 3 in which there are three separate resolutions—the School Committee Meeting, the national election in November, 1984, the Gay Pride March in 1984—plus an Epilogue, which provides a different resolution still. The novel, therefore, has a climax at the end of Part 1, a second climax at the end of Part 2, a third climax after Part 3, and then the Epilogue.
These climaxes are increasingly important—the first is four hundred people gathered in a church for a memorial service and then walking down the hill to the Kenduskeag Stream, where Bernie Mallett died. This climax at the end of Part 1 is personal, the characters focussed on their grief, and their emotions are on broad display. Deborah also focusses on her memories of the evening she and Betsey walked along the Kenduskeag Stream, holding hands, what happened there, and her encounter with the police, the intense and profound feelings of humiliation and shame and anger and rage. Luke, at the very end of Part 1, in a kind coda, remembers the ways his mother humiliated him, his memories still with him 65 years later. At the end of Part 2, in the climax the characters move on to something deeper—to questions that now have to be answered. What are we? What is a LGBTQ person? What do we want? Is it freedom? Is that it? It’s the kind of dialogue that a group would have who are drenched in metaphysics and willing to pursue their discussion wherever it leads. At the end of Part 3, Luke goes to the School Board Meeting, the local city response to the murder, and listens while the citizens and some of the coalition members try to describe what it is about America and its gay people that the one should tolerate the other. They can’t do it. Then Dana remembers Gay Pride in Boston in 1984 four months ago and people she met there and the posters she saw there and the balloons—as Dana says, lavender for the living and green for the dead. And then Dana is waiting in line to vote in the 1984 election. The reader of course knows the outcome of that election, and having read 532 pages that covered most of what happened in Cardiff since Bernie Mallett drowned, he knows how critical that election—and any presidential election—is. How universally important. The election registrar, looking at the register of voters, looks up at Dana, smiles, and finding Dana’s name in the list, says, “There you are!” She smiles at Dana. And Dana herself smiles back. She says, “Here I am!” It has been a long journey. Then the Epilogue with Derek, with its existential struggle over gender, with its presentation of the source of all conflict in Ceremonies.
A thread runs through the whole of Ceremonies, like the omnipresent political theme, and that is the concept of sexuality. Why do so many people differ over our understanding of it? What causes it? What makes one respond sexually in one way or another? The Bishop of Portland says that it is necessary to remember that “these people” commit sin every time they have sex, a rigid and reductive way of conceptualizing sexuality. Dana refers to Kinsey and seems drawn to the idea that sexuality, as a way of categorizing people, is going to wither away as people find it less and less descriptive of their lives. Marybeth and Mickey and Deborah and Luke all seem directed by their sexuality to fight back against their culture. Vernon has a similar sexuality but does not feel driven to do anything except look for ass. He seems at peace with his sexuality and generally at peace with his culture. Fighting back is apparently just about the only thing that Jack is driven to do. The group in Ceremonies is large enough to make the point that Luke makes early on, We are everyone. The narratives emphasize the varieties of same-sex sexual experiences. Perry, for example, seems in stiff pain in his marriage, and another man in very similar circumstances, is relaxed and at ease with himself and his life. There are men who are basically in to same-sex but who have chosen to express that desire in an other-sex marriage. More variety, more difference, more recognition of the infinite number of ways humans can couple, and consequently, of the infinite number of ways humans can resist being imprisoned by their culture.
The most powerful factor that drove the writing of Ceremonies and drove the structure of the resulting book and its length and the depth to which it dives into its subject, is the pain experienced by the lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender and queer persons caused by American culture. There were two lodestars that I was aware of that were on every page of this novel and that I never lost sight of, and those were the pain that most LGBTQ persons grow up with and live with every day of their lives, and the power of forces that have created the culture that caused the pain and killed Bernie Mallett. This does not mean that LGBTQ persons, to free themselves, must reject all their culture or destroy their culture, but it does mean that LGBTQ persons, to free themselves, must have the power to reject those segments of the culture that reject them or to alter their culture to make it more accommodating to LGBTQ persons, and it must be the LGBTQ persons who decide which segments they will reject or alter.
Ceremonies is not finally a novel about coming out, although most of the characters in the novel do come out during the course of the novel. It is, instead, about the formation of a community of persons who discover that they have to come out. “Ceremonies”—all the little ceremonies of life, of the LGBTQ community, of hospitality, of sex, of initiation—demonstrates that they are a member of a community and are not alone.
While the drive is toward forming a community, still the greatest impact of Ceremonies is in its emphasis on the individual LGBTQ citizen of Cardiff. The range of different kinds of citizens suggests the range of possibilities and options for LGBTQ citizens of Cardiff. Ceremonies is a refutation of concepts like “the gay,” with its implication that there is such a thing as a gay person or that all LGBTQ persons are alike. We are a multitude, to use Walt Whitman’s word— men and women, white and black, kids and aged persons, closeted and out—within the range of the possibilities of Cardiff.
When I first began to think about Ceremonies, I thought it was necessary for LGBTQ persons to write it down. That is, it is important for us to record our history in real time, for the people who lived it to write down what they experienced so that in the future LGBTQ persons will have an accurate record of what life has been like for gay persons. Writing it down is an act of defiance. The single more important means that the dominant culture has employed to keep LGBTQ persons down is to keep us from expressing the things we know about ourselves. I have brought this up a number of times in these Earthrise blogs. We’ve all been told, Don’t speak, we will speak for you and we will tell you what you are. For seventeen years, we were told, Don’t ask, Don’t tell. I would think that almost every single LGBTQ person has learned at some point that he or she was not to talk about this. This means that, in each generation, much of what we know has been lost to us.
Since a gay person carries in his or her body no DNA that connects him or her as a gay person to any other gay person on Earth, and since few gay people are born into gay families—although more are being born into gay families every day—it is critical for us to learn how to pass on what we know so that we are not forever trapped in repeating again and again the single subject coming out. The answers are out there. Movies, novels, books, poetry, scientific studies like Kinsey’s, painting, data-collection, almost any way that human activity can be recorded can tell us what has happened to us. It has only been in the last fifty or sixty years that we have been able to trust some of the scientific studies of us. Even today many supposedly scientific studies are actually studies flawed by the bigotry of the scientist. They ask questions like, What causes homosexuality? So their answers have to do with What went wrong? They should ask the question, What gene or genes cause sexual attraction?
We could take these things one at a time and show how they have failed us. One will suffice. While the number of movies on LGBTQ-themed subjects grows almost daily, it has still been only fifty or sixty years (since the release of a movie like Reflections in a Golden Eye) that the big studios have begun to deal with LGBTQ issues at any depth, and much less than that that they have dealt with these issues at sufficient depth. I have already said that I don’t think movies have yet even begun to scratch the surface of the LGBTQ material that is there. There is no queer 8 1/2, no queer Nashville, no queer Alien, no queer Bladerunner, and we know that Ennis Del Mar’s life didn’t end when he looks at the postcard of Brokeback Mountain. What about the other forty years of his life? Has nobody found anything about those forty years that ought to be made into a movie? Can nobody conceive of anything that Ennis could do or experience that could make those forty years important to us? Or critical to our understanding of ourselves and of him? Like most writers, movie producers have a narrow view of LGBTQ lives. We have beautiful movies, some of them very moving, of one beautiful man falling in love with another beautiful man, or of a beautiful boy coming out. And not much else. No Casablanca. No West Side Story. There are brief scenes, there are suggestions, there are hints and coded signals, but no big movie where the tragedy of being LGBTQ is treated as seriously as the tragedy of being straight.
Independent of anything else, I felt a strong personal obligation to write down what I knew of Charles Howard’s death. He only lived in Bangor, Maine, for about two months, and I only knew him during those months. I have children and my presumption was my children would have children, and I knew that they would grow up in a world with LGBTQ people. I owed it to them to give them what I knew. One generation may use any of those modes listed above—movies, novels, books, poetry, scientific studies like Kinsey’s, painting, data-collection, almost any way that human activity can be recorded can tell us what has happened to us—or as many of these modes as is convenient to pass on what is important about their lives to the next, newer, generation. But it can’t keep what it knows bottled up. It must learn what there is to learn from the preceding generation and then do its part to pass on what it knows to younger people. And it won’t do to say, We have marriage, so we have reached the end of history and from now on it is just fun and games.
The record we leave of ourselves is the respect we pay to Charles Howard and Matthew Shepard and Oscar Wilde and the hundreds of thousands of others who have died of abuse, as well as to ourselves. It is our way of saying, We will not ignore what happened to you, and to Leonard Matlovich and the millions who have died of AIDS, it is our way of saying, We haven’t forgotten you. To record our lives in this way is to assert our value and our contribution to life on Earth.
This is the sixth in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.