“I can’t see you with a fat chick”: shame, homosociality, and desire

The title is godawful, but this Village Voice article is both interesting and important: Guys Who Like Fat Chicks.

Men who are sexually attracted to heavy women are more numerous than we’re led to believe, Camile Dodero writes, and that has important implications both for our understanding of male sexuality and for our ongoing conversation about weight and desire. The title of the piece, however, frames the attraction to fat women as an unusual fetish, an odd quirk that only a few men share. That’s unfortunate, because the article is more nuanced than that, exploring the ways in which fat has been stigmatized and heavier women have been both exploited and desexualized. The familiar myths (such as fat women’s much-hyped desperation for a relationship) are debunked. And though the article still centers men’s attraction to heavier women rather than women themselves, it’s a useful conversation starter.

In 2006, I wrote a post called Men, Women, Homosociality and Weight. So much of men’s focus on thin women, I pointed out, is wrapped up in the desire to gain status in the eyes of other men. One of the most basic tasks for heterosexual men is a simple one: learning to separate what it is that they personally find desirable from their desire to impress others. Our ruthlessly fat-phobic culture doesn’t give fat people “trophy” status, even if (as the article suggests) many men are sexually drawn to heavier women. I wrote five years ago:

Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend’s weight gain.

Let me stress that this is absolutely not women’s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman’s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here’s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.

When I linked to the Village Voice piece on my Facebook yesterday, a friend asked if I had ever dated a “fat chick.” It reminded me that when my 2006 post appeared, one of my colleagues, a very heavy woman with whom I am very close, remarked “I could never see you with a fat girlfriend.”

I wasn’t surprised by the comment. When it comes to relationships, we expect a disconnect between what people say and what they do. Many heavy women do have painful stories of men who were quite happy to fuck them in private but refuse to date them in public. Continue reading

“Stop before you become the ‘dirty old man'”: a remembered morsel of advice

Not an hour ago, I had a vivid flashback to a conversation I had had in 1996, and hadn’t thought about since. I sometimes joke that it’s the drugs I did that have robbed me of certain memories, and that may or may not be true — but particularly when it comes to the mid-1990s, there are substantial lacunae in my recollections.

In the fall of 1996, I was 29. Three years into my teaching career, my reputation as an energetic lecturer was quickly being eclipsed by rumors of my sleeping with students. Most of the rumors were true. I was reckless to the point of stupidity, showing little interest in protecting the job I loved. I was trying to get sober and failing. I stashed drugs in the same file cabinets that held student papers, gave lectures with booze in my bloodstream. I had sex with students on my office desk.

It was a “slipping-down life”, and more and more people were noticing. Continue reading

The Cautery of Hate: on Breakups, Psychoanalysis, and the Healing Power of Rage

I was reminded of this story by an exchange with a friend today.

Dealing with the end of an intense romantic relationship is painful, regardless of the terms on which that relationship took place. Whether an unrequited obsession or a marriage, the adjustment to life without that one other person on whom you were so focused for so long is very difficult. And especially when we’ve had a hard time seeing a lover’s flaws, recovery may call for a period where we zero in on nothing but those shortcomings.

The story:

Many years ago, during one of my intermittent attempts to get sober, I went into analysis. Yeah, old school analysis, four days a week for an hour at a time. My psychiatrist, who had gone through the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute, had me on the couch in his Pasadena office for nearly two years. My grandmother footed the bill. But when we made the family decision to put me through the famed Freudian process, it was my mother who told me about a dear friend of hers — another psychiatrist — whose own daughter had gone into analysis (with another doctor, of course, not her mother.) My mother’s friend had told her daughter, “Boopsie, at some point during this process you will realize that you hate me. Don’t worry, the hate won’t last. But it’s a necessary stage in analysis.”

“Don’t be silly, Mom, the day could never come when I’d hate you!”, Boopsie replied.

Six months later, the phone rang. When my mother’s friend answered, she heard her daughter’s voice: “Mom”, Boopsie said, “I just want you to know… it’s that day. I hate you.” Click.

Several weeks later, of course, the phone rang again. “Mom, I just want you to know, I don’t hate you anymore”, Boopsie announced with pride. Her mother laughed with her, and they cried together.

And yeah, I went through the same thing with my own mother.

But it’s not just Freudian analysis with its high price tag that produces this process of progressing from idealization to angry contempt and then on to loving acceptance. It’s also part of a good breakup, as I discovered not long after I began the analytic journey.

As I’ve often written, early on in my teaching career I went through a period where I dated and slept with many of my students. Though all these relationships were consensual, at least in the legal sense, they were also deeply unethical. And while some were one-night stands, some lasted on-and-off for months, and in a couple of cases, over a year. One of the latter relationships was with a young woman named Tanya, whom I slept with on and off from late 1996 to early 1998. I was a complete jerk to Tanya, not only because our relationship had started when I was her professor, but also because she was someone who wanted an exclusive romantic relationship with me, something I had neither the willingness nor the ability to give at that turbulent and self-absorbed point in my life. As far as I was concerned, Tanya and I were “friends with benefits”. And yet my conscience wasn’t so drugged and numbed that it didn’t know damn well I was taking advantage of her feelings for me.

Finally, in early 1998, Tanya told me that it was too painful to continue to sleep with me when I could give her nothing more than sex, affection and conversation. If I couldn’t commit, she told me, she’d need to stop seeing me altogether. She also told me she was starting therapy, and was excited about where that would take her. Since I was, at this point, on dear Dr. Levine’s couch Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, I was all about therapy, and told Tanya I was pleased for her. Continue reading

Remembering Northridge

At 4:31 in the morning, seventeen years ago today, I was jolted out of bed — along with millions of my fellow Angelenos — by the strongest earthquake I’ve felt in my lifetime. The Northridge temblor killed more than sixty, did billions of dollars in damage, and left lasting scars across what weather forecasters (and very few others) call “the southland.”

In January 1994, I had just begun my second semester of teaching at Pasadena City College. Having passed my qualifying exams a few months earlier, I was busy researching my doctoral dissertation. I was sober, though I had a few spectacular relapses in my future. And I was engaged to be married for the second time (to Sara, whom I wrote about here.) Sara lived in Brentwood on Bundy Drive, 200 yards away from where the Simpson murders would take place later that same year. Normally, I slept over on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights only; since Monday, January 17 was the Martin Luther King holiday, we planned to stay in bed and then wander down the street for brunch.

Like most people who live in quake-prone areas, when the shaking started, I woke and lay there, waiting to see if it would get stronger. All my life, I’ve felt little rumbles that never intensified into something big. The strongest temblor I’d felt until this point had been the May 1983 Coalinga quake. But seventeen January 17ths ago, the shaking got stronger and louder. Sara and I jumped from bed and ran to the doorway. The shaking got more violent; on the second floor of her pre-war apartment building, it felt as if a giant was shaking the structure apart. I saw the TV fly off a bureau, exploding on the floor; I heard the china dropping from kitchen cabinets. And then I heard nothing but a roar unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I shouted at Sara, “I love you”, certain that those were my last words. “I love you too”, she yelled. We held each other and held on.

The shaking stopped. I, who have a mild but exasperating habit of getting vasovagal syncope at the worst times, got dizzy and crumpled to the floor, passing out. Once she was sure I was still alive, Sara pulled on her sweats and her boots, grabbed a flashlight, and ran to rescue her ninety-something neighbor. I joined her fifteen minutes later, when I could stand again.

My apartment, a mile away, was shattered. The building stood and was still occupable, but I too had lost a television and all my dishes. A huge bookcase had fallen on my bed, making me very grateful I had spent the night at my fiancée’s. Since we were engaged to be married, lots of people in our families decided that we should register for replacement china early; since we were going to be husband and wife, why re-purchase two sets? We got a new china set — or rather, Sara did, as she was the one who kept the earthquake replacement gifts after our divorce two and a half years later. I finally bought my earthquake earthenware in the fall of 1996, later than anyone else whom I knew.

The Northridge quake was a tragedy. And it came at a time when Los Angeles seemed to be so vulnerable to tragedies. It had been less than two years since the Rodney King riots, and in between, we’d had the devastating fires of October 1993. The joke that went around in those days was that L.A. did have four seasons: fire, flood, earthquake and riot. Even as the economy was slowly getting better, in the early to mid 1990s, there was an apocalyptic scent on the jasmine-infused breeze of my adopted home.

But I also have fond memories of that era. I remember the community spirit, at least in my extended circle of twenty-somethings (most of whom were fellow UCLA grad students or fellow members of Twelve Step programs.) Mandatory curfews were in place after both the riots and the quake, and with police (and National Guard) on the streets, we arranged slumber parties and clean-up parties. Lots of food and laughter. Lots of sex, too — proximity to death and destruction can so often be an aphrodisiac. Sara and I, who had a very troubled relationship, were never closer than we were in the first week or so after Northridge. I remember it as a sweet and magical — if terrifying — time.

I’d like to keep the memory and not have it repeated, however. Here’s to quiet on the Inglewood, Whittier, and San Andreas faults. And here’s to the memory of those who died seventeen years ago today.

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On mama’s Christmas party

I’m in what I consider my hometown, Carmel. With my grades turned in and a respite from other projects scheduled, I’m enjoying a holiday break. My wife and daughter will come up north on Thursday, so for now I’m alone with my mama in the house I grew up in. While Los Angeles is getting historic rainfall, it’s dry and cool here on California’s central coast.

My mother held her Christmas party last night, the same party she’s thrown 36 out of the last 37 years. From 1973-2003, she had 31 straight parties; she spent Xmas 2004 in England, and resumed the tradition in 2005. I missed that ’05 party as Eira and I were in South Africa, but I’ve been at each and every other party mama has had.

The Party has rules.

It is never held earlier than December 18, nor later than December 21. It is not to be held on a Sunday, as one of my mother’s dear friends also has a Christmas Party that has been on the third Sunday in December every year since the Kennedy Administration. Since my mother’s gathering only dates to the final year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, she defers. The Party is always scheduled from 4:00-6:00PM. Guests start trickling in at about 4:15, and invariably, some family members will linger until 7:00 or beyond. We are lenient with departure times! Peak attendance tends to be around 5:00, when my mother’s little cottage nearly bursts with people.

For most of the past 37 years, we’ve served the same menu: cold cuts and cheeses, assorted cookies and brownies, lots of chips and dips. In my childhood, we made and decorated Christmas cookies; with her sons grown, my mother buys them now at the store. (She still makes her famously unkosher clam quiches and her “midnight meringues”.) We serve mulled wine, made according to a recipe that requires lots of cinnamon sticks, sugar, and huge gallon jugs of cheap Gallo red. I helped make the wine when I was a child too young to drink; now I make it as a sober alcoholic who no longer drinks. (There were only a handful of parties where I was both old enough to drink the wine and not already trying to get sober!) We serve a non-alcoholic punch, which is made of cran-rasbperry drink mixed with diet 7-Up. Sounds dreadful, but it’s served in a lovely ancient punch bowl. The store-bought cookies and cheeses taste all the better on 19th century silver, too.

Growing up WASP (OKOP) means having lots of store-bought things served on heirloom china and family silver. (I came to learn, as I went out into the world, that others cared more about the taste than the presentation, preferring home-cooked delicacies served on paper or plastic. Diff’rent strokes.)

Some fashions have changed. In the 1970s, one of my jobs was to help lay out the cigarettes. We had Vantage and Merit and Camel on offer, cunningly arranged in little silver trays. My christening cup was useful for holding cigarettes, and we had lighters placed handily about. Ashtrays were ubiquitous, and emptying them during the party was nearly as important as passing hors’ d’oeuvres. We began to phase out cigarettes around the time that disco lost its appeal, and by the time I had graduated high school, smoking was only done outside. The christening cup now holds candy canes, but no one ever takes one. It is not as useful and needed as once it was.

I’ve also become much more helpful. In 1973, I was six, and my main job was to police my three year-old brother during the party, something I did with excessive vigor and a grave sense of responsibility. As we grew up, my brother and I evolved into indispensable co-hosts. Mama is 73 now, and can’t do what she used to do with the same ease. I watch her now to make sure she doesn’t get over-tired during the party, just as she once watched me to make sure I wasn’t eating too many meringues.

And of course, the guests are so much older. I, who so often am the oldest person in the room when working with young people, was the youngest by two decades at last night’s gathering. My mother was in her mid-thirties when she started her Christmas parties, and most of her friends were her peers, young parents and fellow professors; friends from her poetry club, the League of Women Voters, and various local boards and commissions. There were older guests as well, but not many. And there were children for my brother and me to play with. We often needed to whip up an emergency extra batch of mulled wine. Some who left the party ought not to have been driving.

But no more. So many of those who came in the past have gone on to the brighter party from which none need take their leave. Those who do still come grow frailer each year, something I notice keenly as I only see most of these guests for an hour each December. There are canes and wheelchairs to be managed. They eat and drink half what they did in their younger years, but from their faces, with no less pleasure. Those who in my childhood were towering and vigorous, younger than I am now, are gray and stooped. Their fingers shake when I hand them a cup of wine, and they take my arm when I lead them up and down the garden path to and from the party and their cars.

Last night, I walked one of my mother’s recently widowed friends out to her car, carefully made sure she was situated safely behind the wheel, and watched her drive off. Carmel has no street lamps, and the street was pitch black at 6 in the evening. But as I looked back at our house, I saw the tree aglow in the window, saw the light radiating out, smelled the wood smoke from the fireplace. It might have been blasphemous, but as I stood on the cold dark street and stared at the glow from the house in which I was raised, the words of John 1:5 came to my lips. I felt the pinpricks of tears in my eyes, as I realized that these parties won’t keep going forever. My mother finds them a bit more tiring every year; each year less and less is eaten; each year the guest list shrinks inexorably.

But mother is not quite done.

As a sentimentalist to my core, I like my Tennyson, and as I stood on the roadway, I remembered something else, a line from his most loved poem: death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done. In the grand scheme of things, a Christmas party is not a great work of noble note. But when we gather around the tree and the fire once again, with rain and chill outside, and catch a scene or two from the last act of a play we’ve been watching all our lives, we are bearing witness to the light. And the darkness will not overcome it.

His vision once was mine: a tribute to Bob Guccione (1930-2010)

Just after dawn one foggy weekend morning in early 1979, I found a copy of Penthouse magazine lying on Carmel Beach. (We lived but two hundred meters from the sand, and from the time I was eight or nine, I, always an early riser from my birth, was allowed to walk on the beach.) The magazine had been folded up, and I found it next to some empty cans of Olympia and a pile of cigarette butts. When I opened it to the centerfold, I was electrified. I had never seen pornography before, and other than the artistic nudes in a family book of Edward Weston photos, had never seen a naked adult woman. I was a few weeks short of twelve, and I felt as if my life had been transformed.

Here’s a link to a photo of the cover of that February 1979 Penthouse magazine that changed my sexuality forever. (Worksafe for almost all, but I admit it sent a brief chill through me to see that cover again.) I’d never masturbated before I found that magazine; my first orgasm came as I stared at the images within it and read and re-read the infamous “letters” section. I kept it for well over a year, until it had fallen apart completely.

I thought of that old magazine again this morning, when I heard of the death of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. It was his “artistic” style that dominated Penthouse’s layouts for years, and so more than any other pornographer, his vision helped shape my own pre-teen sexual imagination. I would use porn on and off, sometimes casually and sometimes addictively, for the next twenty years. Though I accept that many folks can integrate pornography into their sexual lives in a healthy way, I’ve never been able to do it. Too compulsive a personality, I’m grateful that I haven’t “used” porn in years. By the time I was in my late teens, I’d lost interest in Penthouse — the pictorials began to seem caricatures, absurd, grotesque. (My tastes soon ran to the more grittily authentic, and I’ll leave it at that.) But Bob Guccione’s photographs (he shot most of Penthouse’s early models himself) continued to haunt my sexual daydreams for years and years. When I hear the word “porn” even now, I think of what it was he first showed me well over thirty years ago.

Others may do as they please, but I don’t speak ill of the dead. (I offered faint praise for Jerry Falwell on this blog when he left us in 2007, and that was an act of forbearance if ever there was one.) So as I pray for Bob and for his family, let me thank him as well.

I cannot imagine a past other than the one I’ve had. I cannot know what I would have been like had I not found that magazine that misty morning near the Eleventh Avenue steps on the white sands of home. I do know that what I first felt that day, staring at those pages of the February 1979 issue, was a high unlike any I’d ever felt. I chased that high in pornography for years. I chased it through my first couple of marriages and nearly a decade and a half of reckless, desperate, obsessive promiscuity. The journey of sexual healing I’ve been on for the last dozen years has been a great gift in my life. Whatever gifts I have to share around these issues are a result of the work I’ve done, the wisdom I’ve received from my mentors, and the grace I’ve been given by lovers, friends, and by God.

I won’t blame Bob Guccione for the pain I caused myself and so very many others. I take full and sole responsibility for the harm I did. But gazing in lust and wonder at his images were what first took me to a dark place; extricating myself from that place has brought me greater joy and greater opportunity to serve than I would ever otherwise have known. Bob Guccione was a panderer and a visionary whose place in the history of American sexuality will surely rank below those peers who survive him, like Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. But I was not a boy shaped by Playboy or Hustler. For a few pivotal, confusing years, I was a Penthouse lad, loyal to the particular style I’d first discovered when I was not yet twelve.

Thank you, Bob Guccione, for opening a door for me. Through that door I walked to some very dark places. And because I went to those dark places, I found some extraordinary gifts. For me, at least, that healing is also part of your legacy.

Flights of angels, Bob, flights of angels.

The season of “no”: revisiting and expanding an old post on celibacy

This post, a different version of which first appeared in 2006, was initially inspired by this poem by Lady Ki No Washika:


It’s not because I’m now too old,
More wizened than you guess..

If I say no, it’s only
Because I fear that yes
Would bring me nothing, in the end,
But a fiercer loneliness.

I found it in the Los Angeles Times Book Review back in the late summer of 1998. This was a time in my life where, after a very turbulent couple of years, I had taken a temporary vow of celibacy. Keeping the commitment to that vow was proving difficult. This poem comforted me instantly, because those last four lines ran so unbelievably true — they summed up in 22 words what had been up to then my entire sexual history.

When writing about my past, I choose my words carefully.  So many people I know and love read this blog, as do folks from my spiritual community, my youth group, and my college classes.  Much of my private life is thus obscured, and rightly so.  Yet I think I can share a little bit that may prove useful, or if nothing else, may explain why this poem means so much to me.

As I’ve talked about before, in late June of 1998, I had hit a kind of emotional, physical, and spiritual bottom. I attempted suicide after a prolonged struggle with drugs, alcohol, and compulsive sexual behavior. My family was frantically worried about me, my friends had largely pulled away from me, I had spent time in handcuffs — and extended time in hospitals.  While in the last of these hospitals, someone asked me "Hugo, do you have any idea how to be alone?  I don’t mean single — can you really be alone with yourself?"  I admitted that no, I really didn’t know how to do that.  I had already burned through a couple of marriages, and was, for lack of a better time, compulsively dating.  I was a walking, talking, incarnation of toxic neediness!   In the year or two leading up to that watershed summer, I had been going out several nights a week with lots of different people, addictively hungry for connection.  The whole process had left me alienated, lonely, and miserable; it had also made me a bit of a pariah. 

In that long hot summer of 1998 — the summer of Bill and Monica, the summer of the World Cup in France — I came home to God.  It’s an easy phrase to write, and it doesn’t come close to capturing the extraordinary turbulence and excitement of that time of conversion and transformation.   I can only say that I prayed as I had never prayed before, to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in, and I was given peace beyond any expectation.  It was an amazing time, one I hope I will never forget.  "Born again" is such a trite, overused expression — and yet truly, that’s what it felt like.

One of my earliest spiritual directors/Twelve Step sponsors told me that in addition to a variety of spiritual activities, I needed to be celibate.  He defined celibacy as not only no sexual activity, but also no dating, flirting, masturbating, or what he liked to call "intriguing" (I love that verb) with women.  I asked how long this period was supposed to last, and he gave me the typical spiritual director answer: "You’ll know.  For now, just do this a day at a time."

Continue reading

Hate hides behind propriety: of PDAs, the Black Cat Tavern, and interracial romance

In my Queer History class last week, I lectured on pre-Stonewall gay activism. I focused on Los Angeles, largely because L.A.’s role in the fight for sexual justice tends to be downplayed in the dominant narrative. Folks who know very little about gay and lesbian history often recall just two names “Stonewall” (in New York) and “Harvey Milk” (who was, of course, the assassinated San Francisco supervisor.) L.A., where the first enduring gay rights organization (the Mattachine Society) was founded, and where UCLA’s Evelyn Hooker did the first research to prove that homosexuals were essentially normal, is all-too-frequently ignored. (Lilian Faderman and Stuart Timmons give us the best corrective in their marvelous 2006 work, Gay L.A.)

Last Wednesday, we discussed the Black Cat Tavern arrests. In the first few seconds of 1967, queer patrons at that Silverlake bar kissed their same-sex partners to celebrate the coming of the New Year. They weren’t through one chorus of Auld Lang Syne before LAPD officers, who had been waiting for a “display of vice”, moved in and began to arrest those who had been engaging in public displays of homosexual affection. The arrests, part of a common pattern of police harassment, were in themselves not surprising. What was remarkable was the community response. Over the next three months, demonstrators in Silverlake and across Los Angeles organized to support the defense of those arrested, and public protests were held to demand an end to police crackdowns on the homosexual community. At one point in March 1967, 3000 gay and lesbian protestors (and their allies) blocked Sunset Boulevard at Sanborn Avenue. At that point, the Black Cat protest became the largest such queer rights protest that had ever been held. As important as the Stonewall riots were, they came more than two years later. (One feels tempted to complain of “East Coast media bias”.)

But my point was not just to rehabilitate Los Angeles as the epicenter of early gay activism. Rather, I wanted to make a point about public displays of affection (PDAs). Young people today have a hard time seeing the political component of sexual behavior. What two people do in public, they believe, ought to be regulated by their comfort level and by the “time, place, and manner” in which they touch or kiss each other. Without denying that a public/private distinction is an important one, I asked my students to consider the revolutionary potential for sexual behavior that contradicts established norms. Sometimes, I argued, offending others is desirable and necessary — because the prejudices that undergird the sense of being offended need to be uprooted.

My first wife was of Chinese ancestry. My fourth and final wife is of Afro-Colombian ancestry. Neither looks “white.” (My second and third wives were as WASPy as the day is long.) I remember vividly the first time I went with Alyssa (spouse #1) to San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we walked down the street holding hands, we got hostile stares; one old woman cursed us in Cantonese, which Alyssa partly understood. At one point, I dropped my girlfriend’s hand. Alyssa grabbed it again.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“I don’t want to offend people”, I replied.

“Hugo”, she said firmly as she pressed her body against mine, “they need to be offended. We aren’t doing anything a same-race couple wouldn’t do.”

Her point was that the hostility we were encountering was rooted in ethnic prejudice against interracial couples, not in animus towards public displays of affection. Alyssa, who was hardly flamboyant in her sexuality, believed that it was nonetheless important to confront rather than accommodate bigotry. She who became my first wife believed that acceptance would only come as a result of making interracial romance appear normative. That required a willingness to offend. Continue reading

The first promise I could keep: of school photos and comforting the inner child

Earlier this week, I had an interesting conversation via email with an old friend of mine from middle school. He had added me on Facebook after noting we had many mutual contacts; we went to Carmel Middle School together from 1978-1980. I barely remembered him.

He reminded me, not in a cruel way, of what an unhappy boy I’d been in those years. I don’t know many people who regard the years between 11 and 13 as the most fulfilling of their childhood, but I was an awkward, unpopular, thoroughly alienated kid in the sixth and seventh grades. My old acquaintance still has our seventh grade yearbook (mine is long lost), and mentioned looking at my photo again recently, and seeing how evidently miserable I was. Minutes before the photo was taken one morning in September 1979, I’d had my backpack stolen. (I found it later in a trash can; it had been taken more out of puerile cruelty than greed.) In the picture, it’s clear that there are tears in my eyes. The yearbook photographers could airbrush out the skin blemishes that had already begun to ravage my face, but they couldn’t do anything about the pain in my expression.

The yearbook may be gone, but I have a copy of that photo. Indeed, that picture of me at age twelve was on my bureau for several years after I got clean again in 1998. Days after being discharged from what I pray will be my last hospitalization due to drugs and alcohol, I found a 8×10 color glossy print of that terrible photo tucked into some family papers. On an impulse, I stuck it on my mirror. A few days later, I put it in a frame.

I wanted to remind myself, each day, of the unhappiness that had been so much a part of my youth. I didn’t do it in order to wallow in self-pity. I did it because I decided, at 31, that it was time to heal the wounds of that scared and lonely and angry little boy. Despite his pain, that little boy had persevered in school, finding refuge in books. He had found refuge in animals and in nature. As isolated and alienated as he felt, and would feel for years, he had had hope — hope that someday things would be different, that he would be happy, that he would feel as if he had purpose and that he belonged. That hope had sustained him.

But that little boy was already an addict. When that seventh grade picture was taken, he hadn’t yet found drugs and alcohol. (He would find them soon, within a year.) But he had found compulsive masturbation, he had found sugar, he had found self-mutilation. He knew how to alter his mood to grant him a temporary reprieve from what was in his head. And many of those behaviors would only get worse, far worse, over the ensuing two decades.

When I made the decision in 1998 that I had to get sober, that I had to give it all up (drugs, booze, sexual acting out, self-injuring), I found strange comfort in that picture of my boyhood self. I remembered the old saying that “the boy is father to the man”, and decided (perhaps it was because I’d read too much John Bradshaw) that I was going to be the father to that terribly unhappy boy whose face I looked at every morning. During that long strange summer of detox and celibacy and growth, I looked at that boy every morning. I usually spoke to him, as I dressed for the day: “Don’t worry, Hugo, I’m here. We’re going to make it.”

My peers and I are transitioning into middle age with varying degrees of self-acceptance. I have friends and acquaintances who are still haunted by what they endured three decades ago and more; the scars of childhood and puberty don’t always heal. But for me, one key tool in my own growth, in my journey from being ruled by an unhappy and lonely inner child to being an inner and outer adult, was my commitment to that little boy whom I once was. I could not undo the hurt that had been done. But I could remember his desperate hope that things would get better, and I knew I could make those hopes real. As narcissistic as it may sound, that memory of my childhood self became a key instigator of my adult transformation.

It was unthinkable that that unhappy twelve year-old should have nothing more to look forward to than a lifetime of addiction. It was too much to bear to think that he should spend the rest of his days oscillating between pathetic expectation and crushing disappointment. He needed more and he needed better. And by God’s grace (and the 12 steps, therapy, and a hell of a lot of hard work), that sullen and isolated and hurting little boy saw his deepest wish come true.

I recommend this technique to everyone. Take out that embarrassing picture of your childhood self at your most awkward and most miserable. Put it somewhere prominent. And make that kid a promise that their pain will not endure forever. In ’98, I was a man who had broken all of my vows and promises a thousand times over. And as it happened, the first promise I could keep was to an unhappy little boy who needed so badly to know that everything — everything — would get better.

A note on the UK Election — and on gratitude for Britain

Too much to get done today, and not enough time in which to do it. If I have any readers in the UK who have not yet voted, I urge a tactical vote against the Conservatives wherever possible. Here’s a good guide as to how to do that.

My nearest and dearest in Britain are voting Green; were I there, I would likely cast my vote for the Liberal Democrats. I like the latter party’s commitment to environmentalism, civil liberties, and capitalism with a human face. And from a psephological perspective, I am passionate about proportional representation and instant run-off voting, the sort of innovations that strengthen democracy and which only the Lib Dems support.

My brother and I were born in the States to an American mother and to our father, the son of Austrian war refugees who had spent his childhood and young adulthood in rural Oxfordshire. My father was 24 when he emigrated to California; he lived in the States for two-thirds of his life. But he was always culturally English. In one of those curiosities of families, my brother Philip (whose most recent book has just been released) always felt more at home in the UK than in America. More or less the first chance he got, he moved to the land our father called home; my adored younger sibling has been a professor at the University of Exeter for the past decade.

For reasons I’ve written about before (here and here and here), I’m most at home in California, particularly in L.A. But I love Britain, and I never forget that in my father’s family’s darkest hour, as the Nazis closed in after the Anschluss in 1938, it was Britain (not America) that gave them safe refuge. It was the British government who made it possible for my Viennese-born father to grow up milking cows on a bucolic farm near Wantage rather than perish in Auschwitz, as many other relatives did.

My late father made his life in America: two marriages, four children, a fine university career that spanned more than four decades. What stood out about him to so many was his astonishing gentleness, his kindness, his sincere interest in other people. The best aspects of him were, in no small part, nurtured by the people he grew up with. He never forgot the simple figures of his childhood; the dairymen and teachers and shopkeepers who welcomed his family and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he — a half-Jewish refugee — belonged. I heard their voices in his, and still do.

I carry a British passport as well as an American one for many reasons. Not least to honor that heritage, and to honor those people — who in some way are my people — whose simple decency saved my family and formed the man who did so much to form me.

My father’s parents are buried in the tiny village of Kingston Lisle, a half-hour from Oxford, in the Vail of the White Horse. We recently had their graves restored. The names Georg Clemens Schwyzer and Elisabeth von Schuh might seem out of place there, a splash of the Teutonic in this very English graveyard. But England made them welcome, so very welcome, in life. And they remain so in death.