Toronto
3 min

What Edmund White can teach you

Brilliant bon mots on sex, art & love

In today’s post-modern, everything-is-an-illusion world, it’s not fashionable to draw life lessons from literature. That’s just way too 19th century. But when you find a book as capacious as Edmund White’s excellent new autobiography, My Lives, you might as well avail yourself of its riches.

White has made more than a few missteps in his career (anybody ever read Caracole?) but he remains one of the greatest and most charming chroniclers of contemporary gay life. In My Lives he outdoes himself, offering dozens of dazzling bon mots on sex, art, love, family and therapy. Here are just a few of the things you might learn from White’s raunchy, charming and thoroughly witty chronicle.

* Never trust a shrink. People treat shrinks as guardians of the eternal verities but what’s clear from White’s chapter-long account of his many therapists is that psychological truth, like all truths, changes with the push and pull of social fashion. White has seen at least six shrinks over the years (seven, if you count his mother, a child psychologist) and each of them offered a different account of his life. By the 1990s, he’d found a gay therapist who was good enough to guide him through the death of a lover but in the ’60s a homophobic shrink convinced him he’d never “grow” until he left his first great love. White did, ending a relationship that from all accounts was deeply important to both of them.

Moral of the story: Think twice before outsourcing your autonomy to a “professional.” No model of the human psyche can ever account for all the vagaries of life and, as White remarks of psychoanalysis, most are hostile to “unscripted experience”

* Fame won’t get you laid. In his early 60s, White acquired a much younger lover who was also a fan, but White suggests that the situation was unusual. “Fame might be the best aphrodisiac, but I wasn’t famous enough to excite anyone except the rare individual.” Or young enough, apparently. Women may be susceptible to power and money, says White, but men like youth and beauty

* Too much sex won’t rot your soul. Even the sluttiest of gay men have sometimes worried that too much casual sex would turn them into bitter, cynical old queens incapable of real affection or attachment. White puts the lie to that myth. He’s been sucking cock since his early teens, has hired innumerable hustlers, gone through I don’t know how many lovers and sometimes wryly refers to himself as an aging sex addict. Yet he seems incorrigibly chipper, filled with bonhomie, able to sustain not only long-term relationships but innumerable intense friendships

* There are some very accommodating boyfriends in this world. In the book’s most controversial chapter, “My Master,” White details a long and painful (in more ways than one) SM relationship with a much younger man he calls T. The straight press was shocked by the sexual details White put in. I was shocked by the emotional details he left out. What White fails to stress (except in passing) is that the all-consuming two-year affair was conducted entirely within the context of, and parallel to, White’s primary, 10-year-old relationship with a man named Michael Carroll. Carroll rates a flattering photo at the end of the book and two or three references inthe text but that’s about it.

Considering what White has to say about himself (“I was old, fat, winded, impotent most of the time, hairy and with big breasts”), perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t describe his lover. But you do rather wonder what the official Mrs White was doing while her husband was frolicking with his new friend

* It’s okay to crib. When the New York Times Book Review asked White to review a Cuban gay “masterpiece” studded with literary allusions, White asked a more scholarly friend to help him identify some of the book’s more obscure references

* Old technologies work. White writes in longhand

* Even the famous are insecure. White never liked his looks, describes his penis as “small,” was subject to massive weight swings and says that his dominant erotic emotion is “gratitude.” He does admit, however, to being an “experienced cocksucker”

* Misery can be useful. In the ’70s White spent several years with a beautiful man who didn’t want to sleep with him. It was a sad-making experience, says White, but also incredibly productive. The other guy was good at jerking him out of his routine and ruptures in routine are exactly what we need to create

* HIV isn’t a death sentence. White has been positive since 1985 and seems to be doing just fine

* All-American, can-do optimism triumphs every time. When he started researching his award-winning biography of Jean Genet, one of France’s greatest gay writers, White didn’t know enough French to conduct a nuanced interview. He had to tape the interviews and listen to them later in the presence of a more experienced francophone. It doesn’t seem to have mattered. The book took seven years to write but went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.