Books like this aren’t supposed to exist anymore. Didn’t I just read an article on the front page of the New York Times, bemoaning the fact that today’s high school students just want Lady Macbeth to go on her meds, and find Holden Caulfield to be a whiny, privileged brat? Haven’t we been told that the mass mental health treatment of what used be called “melancholy” and “delicate nerves” means that the literature of the mildly deranged has lost its relevance today?
Well, no one informed Jon-Jon Goulian, the talented, weird, semi-cross-dressing, and highly neurotic Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt (Random House). You’d think that Goulian grew up in the pre-psychological nineteenth century rather than the presumably well-therapied California of the 1980s. Faced with obvious psychological problems (which he readily acknowledges), Goulian appears to be the least psychoanalyzed of postmodern neurotics. His writing style is crackling, lively, and relentlessly self-effacing. But as the central conceit of the book is, essentially, “What’s wrong with Jon-Jon?” I found it hard to believe that no professionals had ever been called in to investigate.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt is a memoir of an unusual boy in a generally normal family. Imagine if Augusten Burroughs were the crazy one, and everyone else was sane, and you get the idea. The privileged grandson of philosopher Sidney Hook, raised by non-abusive and basically decent parents, Jon-Jon is a normal kid until, somewhere in his teenage years, his life goes off the rails. He starts underachieving, vacillating between career paths, abstaining from most sexual and social contact, suffering from crippling anxiety, and, not least, dressing in women’s clothes. As I’ve mentioned, all this is described with much hilarity and a prose style that deserves all the accolades it’s received.
Of course, readers of this journal are likely well-acquainted with men who wear skirts. Some discover themselves to be transgender women, some are drag queens, and some just wanna have fun. Goulian insists he is none of these. He is not gay, he insists, and, after teasing us for two hundred pages, finally reveals that, in his estimation, he dresses in women’s clothes to distract people from his lack of masculinity, social ineptitude and many bodily flaws – which include bow legs, a bald pate, a small head, and a big nose. He writes, “If I was uncategorizable, so my reasoning went, I would be uncriticizable.”
Now, a quick glance at the author photograph will reveal that, actually, Goulian is a good-looking (some would say hot) bald guy with a perfectly fine nose and well-proportioned features. A quick Google search will reveal that, in fact, he has been at the center of several extremely cool party scenes in New York. So what gives?
Well, Goulian himself is clear about it: fear. He fears everything, has abominable self-esteem, and his anxiety is truly crippling. He knows his fears are not realistic, and understands that many of them are due to being raised to fear disease and peril at every turn. They include “fear of evisceration… fear of carcinogens… fear of father… fear of sex.” But he seems unable to transcend these fears and, though obviously quite intelligent, deeply disappoints his family, who expected Great Things.
Okay, I’m on board. But, really, this is 2011. Hasn’t Goulian heard of Paxil? SSRIs? Hell, what about therapy? The most unconvincing line in the whole book comes right at the beginning, where Goulian describes writing the book as “a deep and painful stab at self-analysis (the only kind of analysis I can afford).” I’m sorry, but that is absurd. Goulian’s parents have spent a mint on his education. They can’t afford a few thousand bucks for therapy or medication?
Nor can I really buy Goulian’s gender-sexual dodge. He says (at the end of the book) that he prefers being seen as a “sexually neutered androgyne” because it enables him to avoid the expectations most people have of men: a voracious sexual appetite, athletic ability, “strength and composure,” and “indifference to the flaws of the body.” In other words, being an androgyne allows Goulian to be a sissy.
But Goulian’s prolonged insistence on heterosexuality is too convenient. In the book, Goulian recounts three sexual encounters with young women, and two with young men. The first encounter with a girl left him mortified, the second terrified of ever seeing the girl again. The third was the most fulfilling, involving several weeks of role playing in which the woman was dominant. Whereas Goulian’s two sexual explorations with young men were seemingly breathless and hot. Both are described in long, uninterrupted paragraphs, stretching for pages, like the best of gay sex scenes. (Everywhere else, Goulian is the master of the tangent; here, he stays focused.) Am I the only queer reader here who wants Goulian to just admit that he likes bottoming, whether for women or men, and that he’s a genderqueer sissy with a fluid sexual identity? Fine, you’re not “gay.” But who is, these days?
Goulian refuses to grapple with his gender identity in a serious way, even as it totally defines him. His many failings are all, as he himself describes them, failures of masculinity – but masculinity constructed in an absurdly narrow, even Neanderthal, way. At one point, Goulian dreams of being a housewife. Well, go be one! Find yourself a dom top, and cook and clean for him/her. It’s as if the possibility of a queer sexual relationship is, itself, so terrifying, that Goulian would rather present himself as an emotional cripple than deal with his issues.
Of course, Goulian is entitled to any kind of “self-analysis” he wants. But if he’s going to have any credibility, that analysis has to include an openness to the fluidity of his sexual and gender identity – not ascribing his cross-dressing and love of getting dominated to some vague and preposterously untreated anxiety disorder. It’s about sex, dude.
Let me not leave you with the impression that I didn’t enjoy The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt. It is great summer reading, and has numerous laugh-out-loud moments that compete favorably with the work of David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, and other queer memoirists. Goulian belongs in their ranks. Too bad he doesn’t seem able to admit it.