‘For the Ferryman: A Personal History’ by Charles Silverstein

“We were like Achilles and Patroclus, for two decades, political soulmates side by side battling against homophobic institutions,” writes Dr. Charles Silverstein, in For the Ferryman (Chelsea Station Editions), of his relationship with a beautiful, doomed soul named William Bory.  But Silverstein’s “personal history” gives the reader a different tale: twenty years of dark and stormy nights between a modern-day Magnus Hirschfeld and a tragic beloved. Once Bory succumbs to drugs and disease, Silverstein quotes Proust: “We pick out in love only those who are capable of satisfying our senses and agonizing our hearts.”

One of the heroes responsible for changing the medical establishment’s understanding that gay people can be sane, Silverstein helped sway the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973. What’s most disturbing (or exonerating) about For the Ferryman is that even a shrink of Silverstein’s stature can be sucked into a tumultuous psycho-dependent relationship. What’s most ironic is that his accomplishments in the field of psychology have made relationships like his less common in a world where being gay is more accepted.

Although the relationship between Silverstein and Bory forms the twisted spine of this personal history, the book contains more than just insight that no one is immune to crazy.  It overflows with history lessons from the newly-militant pre-AIDS era, featuring the horrors of aversion therapy and other psych-away-the-gay methods that fell out of favor when groups like the Gay Activist Alliance rose up. Silverstein waxes nostalgic for the early organizational meetings and Saturday night dances that GAA held in an abandoned firehouse. He also recounts some of their famous marches and infamous “zaps.” He’s most interesting when discussing the conscious “manipulation of words and symbols” the young activists were using as a “crucial part of (their) strategy,” such as getting the mainstream conversation to favor “gay” over the weighted “homosexual.” Unsurprisingly, this was the same time and milieu that led to that ever-effective portmanteau: “homophobia.”

Silverstein seems most at ease when discussing the 70s: writing the first book for parents of gay children (A Family Matter), founding Identity House, editing The Journal of Homosexuality, arguing the usage of “cock” over “penis” while co-writing of The Joy of Gay Sex with an unknown scribbler named Edmund White. He also tosses in cameos by Stonewall legend Marsha P. Johnson, a young Dr. Ruth Westheimer, an old Cardinal “Franny” Spellman, Mr. Benson author, John Preston, Musto-pre-cursor Arthur Bell, Anita “Gay is NOT Good” Bryant, and Rollerina (who can still be seen most weekends, in her trademark veil and cat-eye glasses, sadly sans roller skates, at The Eagle). More whimsically, Silverstein conjures the names of an era when gay bars had character: The Ninth Circle, Snake Pit, Gilded Grape, Dirty Edna’s, and the “height of decadence in 1977,” The Toilet.

As the “Plague years” of the 80s crawl in, Silverstein touchingly recalls trying to save the psyches of men whose physical health was deteriorating and whose lives dangled by I.V. poles.

In his preface, Silverstein explains how he struggled to classify For the Ferryman. A memoir sounded “too limited in scope” and “effete,” while autobiography wasn’t quite fitting because the book, he writes, “is not a chronological history of my life.” As a psychologist he recognizes that even publishing such a thing, regardless of what he calls it, represents bold exhibitionism and pathological narcissism. Yet he’s done it anyway. And those of us who need mentors to share memories of the struggle that’s gotten us where we are today should thank Dr. Charles Silverstein for his bravery.


For the Ferryman: A Personal History 
By Charles Silverstein
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9780983285120, 132pp.
October 2011