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Review: William E. Jones’s “True Homosexual Experiences”

Coincidentally, William E. Jones’ account of Boyd McDonald’s editing of Straight to Hell and Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel (excerpted in The New Yorker, April 11, and now published as a book) have appeared at the same approximate time. The first part of the title of Jones’ book is True Homosexual Experiences, which makes sense because the bulk of McDonald’s gay magazine was composed of lightly-edited accounts of men’s sexual activities with other men, encounters they had submitted to him that he then published in Straight to Hell, often replete with basic writing errors. McDonald preferred the accounts of men who were working class, instead of the highly educated, because he believed that there was an authenticity to these accounts, that they remained “true,” because the writers had no literary pretentions and no altruistic concepts of love or romance. They were, rather, raw sex, as accurate as it could be. More about that later.

Gay (who is not) Talese’s account of Gerald Foos’ motel—retrofitted so that he could watch the people who stayed in many of the rooms—relies on Foos’ extensive journals in which he recorded the sexual activities that were “true” (to borrow Jones’ term) because the motel guests had no idea they were being observed. Thus, they were not like Alfred Kinsey’s descriptions of human sexual acts by people who knew they were preforming for an observer. Foos described these activities over a period of several decades. McDonald published (or more accurately “edited”) Straight to Hell, which was sold in porno stores, from sometime early in the 1970s for perhaps fifteen or twenty years. It is one of the annoying things about Jones’ book that he is pretty casual with specifics (dates, especially). What connects these two publications is McDonalds’ and Foos’ eventual depression, their numbness to sexual acts either observed or read about—in each case after believing they had been privy to genuine sexual activity, the unfiltered truth of human sexuality, though one group of participants was gay, the other mostly heterosexual.

Foos—who admits he was a voyeur since childhood—owned a motel in Denver and truehomosexualexpsoundproofed a walkway in the attic after cutting ventilation grates over the guest rooms. For several decades he kept detailed notes of what he observed. He contacted Talese who for years did noting with the material Foos sent him after agreeing that everything would be kept confidential. Others have already written about the journalist’s role with confidential information. The morality of that (including Foos’ insistence that he observed a murder in one of the rooms) is not my concern here, let along its reliability. Talese has recanted the book’s validity and then reversed himself about that, so there will probably be plenty of discussion about the ethics of the entire story—concerning both Foos and Talese.

My interest is in Foos’ satiation, in the fact that he became depressed by what he observed. He became antisocial, “and when he was not in the attic he avoided seeing his guests.” Talese compares him to the main character in Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, “in which an advice columnist’s life deteriorates as a result of his ongoing exposure to his reader’ sad and empty lives.” Foos sold his hotel after thirty years, aware that he would not become famous for his observations, which had become a kind of “burden” in his life. Talese notes of him: “He had no control over what he saw and no escape from its influence.” Voyeurism had become a trap for him, something terribly depressing.

Boyd McDonald, born in 1925, certainly knew a thing or two about depression, although his publishing accounts of homosexual activity began with altruistic intent. He considered his editing of Straight to Hell and numerous spin-off anthologies “history, not pornography. It’s very serious work…the true history of homosexual desire and experience.” He came to his calling by a rather circuitous route: the United States Army, then Harvard, followed by mainstream journalism in New York city, followed by a ten-year bender and detox, with little sexual activity during his student and early career days. If his biographer is correct, it was only during his drinking years that he was sexually active, excessively so perhaps. I qualify much of this because of the lack of details in True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell.

McDonald’s gay magazine began publication sometime in the 1970s, perhaps in 1973. Crudely produced at first, the magazine was composed of what I have already identified as lightly edited accounts of men having sex with one another, accounts that were submitted to McDonald who lived and worked out of a room in a cheap hotel in New York City. We are never told how many copies were printed of the issues, only that it was for sale in half a dozen porno stores (at least at the beginning), and that McDonald “was convinced that the truth of male sexuality bore little resemblance to received wisdom about it, and on that point he followed Alfred Kinsey,” who published the Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, in 1947. McDonald felt that most men, who identified as straight, had occasional homosexual encounters. “My books are all about homosexuality rather than gayness. In other words, gay is what they are in public, and homosexual is what they are in private.”

During his years of writing and editing, McDonald became increasingly reclusive. He had strange eating habits (and plenty of coffee and cigarettes). He wrote brief commentaries on old movies that he watched on TV and published in Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to “Oldies” on TV, composed of brief commentaries on classic Hollywood films. It’s difficult to call these observations film criticism, since he “wrests a single moment from a film,” expanding “upon it lucidly rather than deliriously.” Thus, McDonald “scrutinizes the anatomy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan [in one of their movies] with maniacal glee. The President is not only flabby and ‘sloppy assed,’ but also has tits and wears more makeup than Lucille Ball.”

Other ludicrous observations pepper Jones’ study of McDonald and become strangely incredible because of what he says about his subject himself. Jones states that McDonald was reclusive, engaged in little or no sex with others, suffered from “self-loathing,” and was “Diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, agoraphobic and obsessive compulsive….” Subsequently, Jones will add that McDonald was suicidal and died because of “pneumococcal distress complicated by emphysema,” but no date for his death is provided. (The jacket of the book says that the year was 1993). Was McDonald finally done by too much sex, focusing his life on accounts of homosexual activity that destroyed him?

It’s almost impossible to regard William E. Jones’ study of Boyd McDonald as a biography, which is what I initially thought I was reading. Nor is it an accurate account of the publication history of Straight to Hell and McDonald’s other writings. The book is peppered with photos of naked young men, reproduced from McDonald’s various publications. Moreover, it lacks crucial details, although Jones often includes lengthy excerpts from McDonald’s letters and those of others. By the end of his book, Jones tries to make McDonald into some kind of saint, a recluse, an ascetic, monk-like in his later years, his film writing described as satire: “Boyd consistently ridicules the lives of the supposed greats—celebrities—and at the same time elevates common daily experience.” Finally—after giving McDonald such an exalted status—Jones describes his work as “Menippean satire on a grand scale.”

I’m not known as a prude, but both Gay Talese’s account of Gerald Foos and William E. Jones’ account of Boyd McDonald make for depressing reading because their subjects are both misanthropes. For both men, sex loses its ability to be a turn-on but, instead, its opposite: a turn-off. Is this what total immersion in sexuality results in? Curiously, the cover of a recent issue of Time (April 11th) boldly announces its main article: “PORN. Why young men who grew up with Internet porn are becoming advocates for turning it off.” The reason? They have discovered that porn has so numbed them that when young women become available for them in real-life situations, they can’t perform. It’s all pretty ugly, suggesting that good sex cannot come from a 24/7 observation of it.

William E. Jones: True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell

We Heard You Like Books, 220 pages, $25

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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