Coming out is a phrase used so ubiquitously that it can almost stand for any revelation to another person—no matter how trivial. But, coming out is anything but trivial. Wade Rouse writes in his memoir America’s Boy :
Coming out is a seminal, life-changing moment for any gay person. The bottom line is this: you must confront the very real fact that by simply being honest, by being, for once, who you really are, you could lose everyone you love most in the world—your family, your friends—and be totally alone in the world. (297)
Someone looking from the outside in may think this is a melodramatic statement—no longer representative of the experience of GLBT people today. Certainly there is a place for debate over the existence and validity of a post-gay literature, but memoir is personal, unique, and definitive.
Memoirs of coming out are often equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious and always extraordinarily moving. I’ve read several books in this subgenre and what intrigues me most about them are the people, places or circumstances that create resiliency in the narrator. What allows some individuals to thrive despite adversity? How do they maintain a relatively positive and open outlook on the world?
Humor is certainly one of those resiliency factors. The ability to recognize the absurdity and, yes, humor in the darkest of moments propels people forward. Rouse’s memoir oscillates between tragic and comic so naturally that its tone effortlessly mirrors the life he’s describing—part beautiful, part terrifying. One of my favorite passages in Rouse’s book describes the ways in which members of his family talk around certain things. I laughed out loud when I came across this passage:
“Never married,” of course, is Ozarks adult code for “gay,” a term too ominous to mention. “Never married” is a mainstay in my family’s code dictionary, along with “special child”, which means retarded, “big-boned,” which means fat, “a bit teched in the head,” which means insane, and “popular,” which means a girl is a whore. (133)
For those of us who can relate to those family code dictionaries, Rouse’s description is pitch perfect as is his description of back-to-school shopping with his mother which takes place in the “Husky” section at Sears. Later in his life, he will find himself working—for a very brief period of time—at Sears. When he suggests to his floor manager in all sincerity that a trained psychologist should probably be employed to work in the Husky section, he is promptly reported to HR and fired.
Another resiliency factor for Rouse is reading. In my favorite chapter of the book, “The Tuggle Struggle,” Wade describes an influential relationship he had with a retired college professor who introduces him to several new books: “I read everything he sends my way. A new world opens in my head, and I follow every adventure… After I finish a book, we talk about what I think of it, the plot, how it is written” (134). When Mr. Tuggle dies, Rouse mourns him like he would a member of his own family.
Until I got to the last quarter of this book, I thought it was a very sweet, funny, and thoughtful memoir. Then, the next thing I know, I’m crying like a baby as Rouse describes a family that he loves fiercely, but has to alienate in order to save himself. The last 20 or so pages of the memoir are about Rouse’s coming out to his mother and father. I won’t spoil the journey for you, but I think you will love this crazy, flawed, eccentric, and loving family as much as I did.