Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The uses of adversity

Two decades ago I had a close friend and research associate named Stephen Donaldson. Trained as journalist, he did invaluable editorial work for me on the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990), which bears his name as an assistant editor. This huge enterprise was done on a shoestring--basically I put up the money. Cost cutting was essential. For this reason I was glad to get the services of Donaldson cheaply. I got this bargain because he had spent a total of six years in federal prison, closing off other, possibly more lucrative employment opportunities.

During his incarceration, Donaldson was subjected to a variety of pressures to become a "punk," that is, the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. One one horrendous occasion he had been gang raped. Donaldson had been seared by this experience. Not lacking in sympathy, I nonetheless used to admonish him, saying that it is best to get over such things and move on. Sometimes this approach is termed debridement, from a medical term for the surgical removal of lacerated, devitalized, or contaminated tissue. That task accomplished, one should point oneself to tomorrow, letting yesterday be yesterday.

I am not sure that the sequel has proved me right in this instance. In fact, Donaldson was able to make constructive use of his catastrophic background. He co-founded an organization to combat prison rape. The lectures and writing that he and his colleagues produced did much to put a subject that the public would much prefer to ignore on the agenda. Regrettably, Donaldson died ten years ago, but his beneficial influence is still evident in Internet sites and postings.

Recently, a similar issue has arisen in conversations with a close friend. She and I sometimes compare notes on our common childhood background of poverty. Mine stemmed from cascading medical bills and debts laid on our family by my mother’s prolonged illness in the 1940s. By origin my parents were middle class, but I didn’t grow up that way. We couldn’t even afford a car—in Los Angeles! Experience taught me about something that most educated people confront only in the abstract. My friend may have even better credentials in this regard, as her poverty being raised by a single parent in a working-class Pennsylvania household was truly dire.

At one time it was de rigueur for individuals who had overcome such early obstacles in life's course to invent a glamorous past to camouflage the reality. They thought that if their business associates were to find out the truth they would be disgraced. Today, this fear might still be of practical concern in the fashion world and certain other circles; it’s hard for me to know. Most of us, though, regard honesty as the best policy in such matters. Outing oneself about one’s Tobacco Road background--however it is to be characterized--is a healthy thing.

Over the course of time my friend and I overcame our adversity. We both earned Ph.D.s and became tenured professors. My friend, who retains family ties in Pennsylvania, continues to ponder her early experiences--sometimes, it seems to me, almost obsessively. For my part, I hardly ever think of the early hardscrabble days, except when the two of us are comparing notes.

As I had done previously with Donaldson, I urge her to let the past be past. I am not sure that I am right, though. There may be several valid ways of handling these issues. Still, an excess of brooding may amount to just that--an excess.

So I vividly know now, confronted as I am with a new round of misfortune. A relationship of 37 years, which I was counting on retaining as a bulwark in my old age, has broken up. Since the separation is now definitive, I would like to let go--I would so very much like to! Yet up to now I haven’t been able to summon the strength to do so, an experience that suggests that we cannot always control our response to such challenges, choosing a different path based on "what is best." To be continued.

By the way, reflection on my early experiences did help me to change one view. Until recently I accepted the libertarian argument that medical coverage should remain private in this country. While it is true that there are flaws in even the best national health care systems abroad, this answer just will no do. The fact that, long ago, our family was ruined by medical bills helped me to a better understanding of the subject. The main reason I changed my view, though, was the rational arguments of a friend, who had not had to face this problem on a personal basis. He was operating out of objective considerations.

This conceptual change suggests an important conclusion. Social-policy arguments that are based too closely on subjective experiences are unlikely to convince others, if presented as such. They must be more broadly grounded.

Looking back on my younger days, I am not grateful for the medical treatment my mother received, as it seemed inferior and disproportionate to the expense. Yet the poverty that ensued taught me a useful lesson. And that is that I had to be self-reliant, knowing that no rich relative or "kind stranger" was going to pick me up when I fell. Better not to fall then. I have kept to that principle to this day.

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