Review: Gay Body

Reviewed by Bob Anderson

With the publication of Gay Body: A Journey through Shadow to Self (St. Martin's Press, 1997), Mark Thompson completes a trilogy of titles on gay spiritualities. He has used the classical model of human nature -- spirit, soul, and body -- as a model for examining the spiritual paths of gay people. His previous works in the "trilogy," titled Gay Spirit and Gay Soul, addressed theories of gay spiritualities and documented various individuals' spiritual paths, respectively. Gay Body is also about gay spirituality, but this time the subject is Thompson himself.

The book, as Thompson says in the Acknowledgments, "is not strictly autobiographical... Rather, it is a selective memoir explicating the landmarks of my inner journey -- my path of healing and spiritual discovery." The disclaimer notwithstanding, we are treated not only to a good share of Thompson's life experiences, but undoubtedly his most important ones. The book has the warmth and humanity of an autobiography and the depth and analysis of a theological work, yet reads like a mystery novel. To use a hackneyed review phrase: I couldn't put it down. Thompson's style is intimate, poetic, and fluid. His years as a journalist at The Advocate (and/or, as he testifies, having learned to survive in a dysfunctional family) have trained him well as a perceiver, describer, and interpreter of events.

In the book's Introduction, Thompson relates his experience of being at his brother Kirk's bedside as Kirk quietly and meaningfully ended his own life before he lost his free will and clarity of mind to his AIDS-ravaged body. It is a moving account imbued with a sense of the sacredness of life and a love stronger than death. Indeed death is a principal theme of this book. It begins with death (Kirk's) and ends with death (of various of Thompson's former friends and lovers), but is not morbid or depressing because Thompson realizes that death is the great teacher and hierophant of life. But the bookÕs primary theme is the search for Self -- the goal of all true spirituality -- along the so-called left-hand path, that unknowable, often terrifying journey through darkness and pain to the light and joy of the Life of the Self. Thompson recounts his search for meaning and healing along a path that has taken him through a severely dysfunctional family life in which he and his brother found solace in each other's sexual embrace, then immersion in the S&M leather scene of seventies San Francisco where he attempts to break through his inner pain and bondage by torturing and binding his body, then overseas as a reporter for The Advocate where relationships with other men he meets provide new lessons and insights.

Throughout these scenes Thompson weaves a running psychospiritual analysis and commentary using ancient myths, particularly the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh-and-Enkidu epic, and Jungian depth psychology and archetypes, especially the Shadow, to give meaning to and shed light on his experiences, from which readers can extrapolate meaning for their own journeys. Indeed, Thompson seems to have found the unconscious pulse of a gay man's soul, for as I read, I found my own experiences coming back to me within a wider perspective and with new understanding.

I have only one negative comment about the book: It gets a bit heavy after a while -- not the content but the tone. The autobiographical accounts are interesting, sometimes even riveting, thanks to Thompson's powers of expression and description, and his psychoanalyzing is often enlightening, but by the second half of the book, I found myself saying, "God, man, lighten up!" Despite his wonderful insight into the events of his life, it's never good enough it seems; he's still suspicious that he or the gay community is deluding himself/itself or taking the easy way out. There is an air of overseriousness such as a reformed alcoholic often has about his recovery. It is an obsessive-compulsive kind of need to dig more dirt, to relentlessly expose yourself for the fraud you are; to see in the light of newly dawning awareness only that there is more darkness below. Thompson himself admits that he has "always carried a sense of gravity" with him, but he comes off simply as dour. He relates how when he was introduced to Harvey Milk, Milk burst out laughing and told him, "Look, nothing can be that awful." One senses that Thompson could have used a dollop of Milk's sense of humor about himself. Perhaps he has since found such.

Despite the grave tone, the book is well worth reading both for the eyewitness account of gay history it affords as well as for its capacity to raise soul-searching questions in the reader's own mind. It forces the reader to assess his own hidden wounds and the attempts to repress them and rightly asserts that without facing and integrating the shadow one can never be whole.

Bob Anderson lives in San Diego

[Editor's note: I liked this book a lot, so I want to add an addendum to Bob Anderson's review. I understand the use of the term "Shadow" in the subtitle and agree with its use, but I think from an orthodox Jungian perspective "shadow" really refers to something else. The shadow is the set of traits one has learned to suppress. These traits are revealed to consciousness in the compulsive emotional reactions one has to seeing them in other people. In Jungian analysis, understanding one's "neurotic" compulsive emotional reactions, with the aid of the analyst, gives one an insight into one's own "Inferior Function." By "owning" such upsetting traits and incorporating them into consciousness as parts of one's own complex psyche, the emotional charge is released and they cease to bother one and, more importantly, one can become more conscious of the working of their inferior function (which is the goal of Jungian analysis). The Shadow is something you see in other people. It's what you don't like in yourself projected onto others. You discovery it by recognizing what behaviors in other people compulsively bother you. What I think Thompson really means is "the road of trials" and "the descent into the underworld." (The "underworld," of course, is "the Shadow" of mainstream society -- which is why "they" have such strong compulsive emotional reactions against gay sexuality.)

Gay Body is a wonderful book. The discussion of archetypes is marvelously woven into the narrative. But the last chapter is missing. Thompson did a marvelous job of describing "the Shadow" through which his journey led, but he didn't say much about "the Self" that was the fruit of the journey. Beyond release from past traumas, what did the journey do to his personality and to his experience of life? Of course, it is a kind and gentle personality that could write with the grace he demonstrates.

He didn't tell us about his long term relationship with Malcolm Boyd. He didn't describe what it was like to be the lady of the Parsonage. He didn't describe the virtues that enliven the gay life, hard-won through the descent into the underworld. He didn't tell us what comes after Leather. He ended with "How We Die." How about "how we live"?

I will console myself that another book must be on the way. TJ]

Here's a link to the publisher's page with a sample from Gay Body by Mark Thompson