If you are like me and grew up in the 1970s and if you read books–and, oddly enough, back then almost everyone did, at least on some level (how do you think Stephen King got so household namey?)–you probably read, or were at least aware of, the author John Irving. For those of you not in the know about Irving, here’s the basic skinny: he was regarded as something of a modern Charles Dickens (and if you don’t know what that means, Google him–it’s not my fault you didn’t pay attention in English class); loads of crazy coincidences, amazingly constructed plots. But with added sex. Lots of sex–or sexual content.
At 15, this stuff was gold.
I stole a copy of The World According to Garp, Irving’s breakthrough novel, from my girlfriend’s mother. Yes, I actually stole it. (She uncharacteristically left this ‘smut’–her words–out on one of the end tables in their family’s TV room. That was my chance and I took it.) I had to. Because–and you’ll have to trust me on this–it would have been impossible for me to buy this at my local bookshop in the mall–the only game in town at the time. The always-grim-faced owner, a middle aged woman who perpetually looked as if some sort of family tragedy had just befallen her hours before, would regularly deny purchases by kids of anything that didn’t pass her moral muster. Any book or magazine that might be considered in any way prurient was met with a refusal of sale, right there at the cash register, usually accompanied by some loudly demonstrative and embarrassing didactic sermonizing–so John Irving, and in particular, The World According to Garp, was out of bounds. Way out. Rolling Stone, Creem magazine, anything at all by Hunter S. Thompson–don’t get me started on trying to buy Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas–you name it, I couldn’t buy it. I might as well have been trying to buy a kilo of black tar heroin. Long story short: any book with sex and drugs and/or rock ‘n’ roll skulking within its pages was considered contraband in my life at the time–hot stuff. Ergo, the stealing.
Anyway, I snatched that book, made an excuse to duck out, snuck it home… and read the shit out of it.
Without giving anything away, …Garp is a book that spends a good amount of energy investigating women’s rights–both in the broader sense of the word, as was understood at the time of the book’s publication (1979) and, more specifically, focusing on a woman’s right to do what she wants to do with her own body. (Ironically, this book would serve as my introduction to feminism–heady stuff for a kid that came to it, ostensibly, for the tits and asses. Well played, Mr. Irving. Well played.) In the case of Jenny Fields, the main character’s mother, she was an independent woman who wanted a child, but did not want to have to marry a man, or be in a relationship with a man (or a woman) to have one. This, in her words, made her a sexual suspect.
(A still from the movie adaptation of The World According to Garp. That’s Glen Close as Jenny. The movie version is a worthwhile alternative, if, for some reason, you’re not into reading long–but badass–books.)
It’s an apt and effective term. Particularly with its provocative use of the provocative ‘s’ word…
Suspect. With all of its implication of guilt, its damning condemnation. And, notice, that it is the last word of the phrase. (Here’s a little writing rule of thumb: Always put the most important word last.)
I know how she feels.
Look, here’s the 411: I’m 52 years old and I have never been married. Nor do I have any children. And I am a gainfully employed professional middle aged man with a fashion sense (of some kind–I wear (and own–several) suits, if that bolsters my case). These things make me a sexual suspect.
Guess the first question I get from befuddled people when they discover these depraved facts about me. Yup. You guessed it:
Are you gay?
Nope, is always my reply, and I always deliver this response a little too enthusiastically, a little too emphatically. This makes me sound either like:
- An asshole: This guy loves that he never got married or had to deal with children! Selfish, narcissistic, man-child!
- A homophobe: They assume that I’m thinking to myself, Thank Christ I’m not gay!
It’s lose, lose, people. Lose, lose. There is no winning here. None. Not a chance. (I should take this opportunity to point out that I am no homophobe, nor am I an asshole. Although, you might end up disagreeing with me about the asshole bit. Your mileage may vary.)
But here’s the thing: if I did have children out there in the world somewhere–even if they were abandoned, or ‘illegitimate’, or if they were in some awful you-have-them-for-a-week,-I-have-them-for-a-week custody clusterfuck, or if I was divorced–had I actually failed at marriage–this would immediately remove me from the suspect list. I would be considered–and this cracks me up–legitimate.
Now, see if you can get your head around this situation. People would have less of a ‘problem’ with me if I had done either or BOTH of these otherwise commonly-understood-as-negative things:
- Failed to make a marriage work
- Had a child but left them to be raised by someone else (their mother, their stepdad/stepmother, aunt, uncle, granparents, etc.)
What’s worse than failing to follow through on your commitment to marriage? Apparently, not ever having been married at all.
What’s worse than effectively abandoning your child, or, at the very least, marginalizing them and socially ostracizing them? According to my (empirical) data, not having children at all.
Here’s part of an actual conversation I had with a co-worker in our staff room (I’m paraphrasing):
Co-Worker: Wait. You’ve never even been divorced?
Me: No. But, you know, I still have time. It’s on my bucket list.
Mild courtesy laughs from nervous bystanders…
Then, after an uncomfortable pause…
Co-Worker: Well… what’s wrong with you?
When, after I’ve tried to explain that things just haven’t worked out (yet; I may get that brass ring/divorce someday), there’s always this fallback, the thing that makes everything make sense to them:
You must just not like kids.
Yeah… see, here’s the thing: I’ve been a high school teacher–that’s kids, folks, children, typically ages 13 to 18–for nearly twenty years. Four of those years were spent, in addition to my teaching duties, being a dorm parent/guardian to 25 boys at a boarding school; I literally put these 16-18 year olds to bed every night, I stayed up with them when they needed someone to talk to, someone to hear them out, someone to parent them when their real parents were hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Yeah, I’m such a masochist, such a glutton for abject punishment and misery, that I purposely quit a fun career in film and television so I could make less money and put myself in close proximity to the very things that bring me said misery.
Yup. This makes sense. Cheque, please.
Look, (nice) people, this might blow your minds right out of the water, but there are, hard as it is to believe, people that just plain don’t feel compelled to have children. I’m one of those people. And I like children. A lot. Really.
Although, c’mon, admit it, this is funny:
And so is this:
And do you know why, why these are funny? Because they are true!
For me anyway. Maybe not for you, but for me. Does that make me a suspect? Do you suspect me of something? Probably. But that’s okay. Maybe a 52 year old who has a figurine of Joey Ramone on his desk–a place usually understood reserved for serious (read income-generating) work–is better suited to not corrupting the gene pools or moral morasses of society at large.
A case could be made. I am, after all, a good suspect.
Over and Out