McClintock, Karen. “My Father’s Closet”, Trilium, 2017.
Learning About Dad
Whenever I read something like Karen McClintock’s “My Father’s Closet”, I realize just how far we have come in this country regarding the LGBT community. Karen never really knew her gay father and as she searches for information about him some thirty years after his death, we are pulled into the story as a family deals with secrets, losses and infidelities yet there is still love there.
McClintock’s parents fell in love and married, while overseas in Germany and the man whom Karen believes became her father’s lover was concealing his Jewish and gay identities in order to escape to America. Through a set of her father’s journals and correspondence between her mother and father during World War II as well as by way of a painting, we find a secret.
Children yearn for the parents that are not there for them and sometimes this leads to complex feelings of abandonment. We see the McClintocks as resilient even with hidden lovers, nosey neighbors, and surprise lovers. On the outside, the McClintocks looked to be a wholesome and Midwestern in Columbus, However, on the inside, “a bewildering emotional vacuum” was coming into being and “taking a complicated toll”. We learn of the details of her father’s double life as Karen writes from a loving heart and an open mind. She shares the pain that was a result of her father’s “closet” life and she writes with compassion. She understands how it must have been for her parents and that together with her love for them, allowed her to reach a place of forgiveness.
For much of her life, McClintock thought her father, Charles, might be gay, even though he remained married to her mother. Karen tells us that she never really knew the man she called my father. In writing this memoir she attempts to discover her father’s hidden side using his journals and speaking with those who knew him. Many men and women live these secret lives, hiding their sexual orientation–even from themselves–until the attraction to someone of the same sex can no longer be denied.
We must remember that at the time this all took place, the world was quite different. There were very few public images of gay men and the word “gay” was still new in the vocabulary. Karen’s father, Charles was in college during the McCarthy era’s when communists and homosexuals were considered as subversive and there were few people who were open about their sexuality. The gay life that took place back then was underground and hidden from public view.
When he was 19, Charles wrote in his journal that he thought that life with Alice would always be “lovely and uncomplicated.” However, many of our most important decisions are made without enough information. We want to know, as did Karen, when the change came from women to men but there was not a specific date or event. This sexuality happens when sexual desire, sexual behavior and sexual identity come together that one discovers his true sexuality or so I have been told. For a married man to deal with this is quite serious. Does one break the marriage vow (remember the time) and leave the family? Is it better to remain married and essentially live a lie?
When attraction, desire and behavior come together and do not remain static, evolution into something complex begins. What makes this different than other books written by “betrayed” spouses is that this comes from an adult child of a parent who comes out.
Karen McClintock writes with her heart as she struggled to understand and become close to her father, the man who kept her at a distance in order to protect necessary illusions. We see here the price our society has brought from its gay people (and their families) who “refused to marginalize themselves simply because the absolute truth of their hearts did not fit the accepted mold.”
Here is a book with both sadness and love that beautifully explores the fears of being different and where those fears often lead. The book is beautifully written and we feel the pain and the sadness that Karen McClintock has had to deal.