2 gay memoirs approach honesty with varying degrees of commitment
Frank by Barney Frank
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2105); $28; 387 pp.
From the time he was 10 years old, Barney Frank was fascinated by politics. By 14, he understood two things: “I was attracted to the idea of serving in government and I was attracted to … other guys.” He also thought that he had to keep the latter quiet “forever.”
Growing up in a liberal Jewish household in New Jersey, Frank’s political beliefs were formed early. He volunteered to work on Adlai Stevenson’s second presidential run, went to Harvard as a liberal with the occasional conservative viewpoint, and worked for voting rights during Freedom Summer. His volunteerism taught him a lot, which qualified him to work for the mayor of Boston in 1967, where he honed his political talents, opinions and negotiation skills. By 1972, he told himself that “an all-out war on homophobia” would be part of his activism henceforth.
Throughout his early political life, however, he was surprised nobody asked him “the question.” He says, “there did not appear to be any public comment on the fact that an unmarried thirty-two-year-old man was the state’s most ardent advocate of gay rights.” When he was finally asked, despite his promise to himself, he denied his sexuality; shortly thereafter, he launched a run for Congress that he didn’t think was winnable as a gay man.
After the election, he “decided to adopt a hybrid status” to be privately out but publicly discrete. That changed by late 1989, when he faced action from his Congressional colleagues over his long-time relationship with a male prostitute.
Undaunted, Frank continued to work on behalf of LGBT rights and consumer issues. His career always came first but by mid-2005, he says he “wanted to enjoy a personal life,” having once claimed that he hoped to retire at age 75, in 2015. “This was one of my better attempts at a personal prediction: I was only two years off,” he writes.
Reading Frank is something like taking a tour in a working artists’ studio: it’s a mess, but there are colorful and interesting things to see here and there. On the latter, there are enough asides and tidbits to keep readers going and, though they’re woefully underrepresented, we’re treated to some personal, non-political anecdotes. Understandably, however, most of what Frank offers is of a political slant: mostly-linear details of his accomplishments, opinions on what happened and occurrences that are matters of public record: a little braggadocio, a little observational … and a lot of ho-hum.
Fans of politics, I think, will be far happier with this book than will others, since that’s largely the focus inside. If you’d rather have a more personal tell-all memoir, though, know that Frank is merely a tell-some.
Elizabeth Baker Hodgman (Betty, to most people) didn’t sleep much. At age 90, she was prone to wandering, fussing at the kitchen, piling and restacking paperwork and playing the piano in the middle of the night. She was “suffering from dementia or maybe worse.” Unfortunately, that also meant her son, George, didn’t get much sleep, either.
An out-of-work editor and freelance writer, George had moved to Paris, Mo., from New York for what was supposed to be a week (or a year) to take care of his mother. Betty didn’t like it; she hated needing someone. Hodgman didn’t like it, either; too much had changed.
“I was Betty’s boy,” George writes, and he’d been that way all his life. Hodgman loved his father fiercely, but favored his mother. Still, he desperately wished he’d been able to tell his parents he was gay, that he felt alone, that he’d survived too many failed romances, that he’d had substance abuse issues. Surely, they knew but no one ever talked about it.
Now, as he cared for her, there were times when Betty infuriated George. She could be rude and stubborn, prone to fits of anger for no reason and loud. She flatly refused any thoughts of nursing homes or assisted living. The problem was her dementia, Hodgman reminded himself repeatedly. He understood that she was rightfully fearful because she knew she was losing herself and “I can only imagine how scary it is.” And yet, “I think I have survived because of Betty, more than anyone,” Hodgman said as she eased away. “There are so many things I will carry when I leave Bettyville with my old suitcase.”
Without a doubt, you’d be forgiven for reaching for a tissue while you’re reading this book — heck, you might want a whole box of them — but there’s a lot more to Bettyville than heartstring-tugging. I found joy inside this story, in between its inevitable sadness. Hodgman keenly remembers his small town childhood from all sides: churchgoers and alcoholics, kindness and bullying, adolescent crushes, baffling foes and off-limits subjects that no small-townie discusses. We meet, through the eyes of Hodgman, Betty’s friends and family and we’re told a story about a time past, a life well-loved, and losing a mother long before she’s really gone.
Be prepared to laugh a little, but be prepared to cry, too, as you’re reading this fine memoir, especially if you’re a caretaker for an elderly parent. For you, for sure, Bettyville is a book that can’t be ignored.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 17, 2015.