(A “Thank You” for Alan Downs)
by Bruce Wheeler
November 6, 2012
Please note: The following essay acts as a book review as well as a personal reflection on the status of my life. I have been putting my thoughts on paper as a means of better understanding my own feelings, while I learn to uncover the reasons for hiding my own sexuality since childhood. In addition, I have been writing letters of thanks to the people who have enriched my world with a greater sense of happiness.
It had been quite some time since I last sat down to read a real book. With my vision gradually faltering over a five year period, I found the very idea of reading to be exhausting. Magazines, newspapers, and online blogs provided just enough of a distraction to get my mind off the idea that I might one day be completely blind. Earlier this year, it became impossible to focus on text and images, and I learned to rely on television news channels, hoping that I could remain connected to life around me.
I first heard about the book The Velvet Rage from Jordan Bach—a popular gay writer I had been following on Twitter. He had described it as a must-read for all gay men — young and old. Already struggling physically, I put off reading the book, figuring no amount of advice printed in the pages of a self-help book was going to make my life better. Having only come out as a gay man last March, I already felt like my plate was “full”… I was reeling from decades of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. I wondered how someone in his forties, living his entire life void of intimate relationships, might one day experience true, lasting happiness. I had convinced myself that this was just not possible.
The process of coming out was, in itself, one of the most cathartic releases of emotion I had ever felt. In the days immediately following my “big reveal” to my family, friends and coworkers, I experienced a sense of calm that I assumed would last forever. I was gay and I wanted everyone to know it. No more hiding. No more looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was talking about me behind my back. And no more being afraid to “check out” other guys…or so I thought.
For some reason, I began noticing my old patterns of behavior returning. My elation started to fade and, to my disappointment, I could feel my sense of pride slipping away. In a period of just over six months, I had returned to a dark place that I had hoped was in my past. Luckily, my family doctor—a man with whom I can confide in like a best friend—was able to help me out. He referred me to a psychotherapist…and I was grateful. I had assumed that I would never find a therapist specializing in gay men’s issues here in my home town, but I was wrong. So, with my eyesight still frustratingly dim, I figured it might also be a good idea to get my hands on that self-help book sooner, rather than later.
The Velvet Rage, by Alan Downs (PhD) was written primarily for gay men and is about “overcoming the pain of growing up gay in a straight man’s world.” It is divided into sections describing the three main “stages” of internal turmoil which most gay men will face in their development…a journey through shame, avoidance, and self-hatred.
I managed to find a copy of the recently released “revised” second edition of The Velvet Rage, in the “Gay and Lesbian” section of a local bookstore…bottom shelf, barely discernible, rather well hidden from view…just as I’d have expected. The book’s cover shows an old black and white photograph of four seated children wearing what looks to be formal school attire. Three of the children — two boys and one girl — are smiling. The remaining boy is not smiling. He is wearing a bright pink tie, which stands as the only colored item in the photo. I knew immediately that this book was going to be more than just another look at gay culture. I had no idea just how deeply and profoundly it would affect me at my core.
The Velvet Rage encapsulates every emotion, every frustration, and every stage of the life I have lived so far. Having just completed my first reading of the book, I am already thinking of it as more of a personal bible…a collection of stories, ideas, and research that speaks directly to me, whispering: “Bruce, you are going to be fine.”
The book opens with a chapter called ”The Little Boy with the Big Secret” and it flows, in an always warm and casually written style, through three main sections titled “Overwhelmed by Shame,” “Compensating for Shame,” and “Cultivating Authenticity.” It includes stories from Alan Downs’ patients, as they struggle to contend with the anger, shame and self-destruction that is often prevalent in the gay psyche. It also includes reflections of Alan Downs’ personal life, culminating in an inspirational epilogue aptly titled “This Peter Pan Grows Up.” In a word the epilogue is “beautiful.”
One thing that stands out for me…The Velvet Rage is exceptionally honest writing. It paints a realistic picture of the gay lifestyle for men of all backgrounds. Perhaps we struggle, suffer, and want more than we will ever achieve? Maybe all we want is the same joy, fulfillment and love that is the birthright of all men? Downs does manage to address the question that I admit having had: “Isn’t the struggle with shame similar for straight men?” The answers we get are all thoughtfully presented and satisfying.
By the time I had reached the end of the first “stage” of the book (a mere 70 pages or so) my eyes were stinging from the flow of tears that kept erupting…making me feel as though I might be better off taking this endeavor in smaller bites. I wondered: Is it possible that I will end up feeling even worse by the final pages? Am I really up to this? However, a sense of urgency kept me reading at full speed, jotting down notes and marking passages that spoke to me. It was almost as though Alan Downs was in the room, holding my hand, supporting me, validating my doubts and replacing them with hope. After all, he has “been there” himself. He might be a renowned psychologist, but he is also gay, HIV positive for over two decades, in his late forties, with a shame-and-anger-filled past. He came across like a dear friend who I had yet to meet. He had already “walked the walk” down the path that I was still stumbling upon.
I define myself as a work in progress. Aren’t we all? My eyes have healed somewhat, after numerous surgeries, and my vision allows me to read and write again. Soon, I will pick up my camera and dive back into the photography and art that I am passionate about. I will never take my eyesight for granted. It is one of the gifts in life to be cherished. Another gift in life that has taken me far too long to unwrap and appreciate? …The great potential that lies in the gift of being gay.
The following is an excerpt from the “Preface to the 2012 Edition” of The Velvet Rage:
“(Gay men) are in no way more pathological or deviant than any other man who walks this planet, present or past. And yet, we are clearly different. When you love a man, it fundamentally changes you—and we have all been shaped by our love of men; the heavy caress of his hand, the brush of the hair on his forearm, and the powerful kiss that at once dominates and deconstructs our defenses. These things enliven our days and fuel our dreams.”
I defy anyone to read these poetic words and not see the humanity and beauty in them.
Do yourself a favor and read The Velvet Rage.
Learn more about Alan Downs by visiting his website at http://www.alandowns.com
Visit Jordan Bach’s uplifting blog at http://www.thebachbook.com
Check out my blog at http://www.capitalbruce.tumblr.com
Follow me on Twitter: @capitalBruce