“Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives” by Walt Odets— How We Live

Odets, Walt. “Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives”,  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019.

How We Live

Amos Lassen

Walt Odets’ “Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives” explores how gay men “construct their identities, fight to be themselves, and live authentically.

Even today with all of the rights and protections, it’s not easy to be gay in America. While young gay men often come out more easily and readily (even those from the most progressive of backgrounds), they still struggle with early-life stigma and a lack of self-acceptance and these can cause  doubt, regret, and self-loathing. Then there is the  trauma wrought by AIDS. Odets uses his work as a clinical psychologist during and in the aftermath of AIDS. He looks at what it means to survive and figure out a way to live in a new, uncompromising future, “both for the men who endured the upheaval of those years and for the younger men who have come of age since then, at a time when an HIV epidemic is still hurting the gay community, especially among the most marginalized.

We have here moving stories (of friends and patients, and his own) from which Odets considers how experiences early in life launch men on trajectories aimed at futures that are not authentically theirs. He helps us reconstruct how we think about gay life by considering everything “from the misleading idea of “the homosexual,” to the diversity and richness of gay relationships, to the historical role of stigma and shame and the significance of youth and of aging.” We often have to deal with the trauma of destructive early-life experience and the two epidemics a century of shifting social values. We gain an opportunity to explore possibilities rather than live with limitations imposed by others. Odets’s work achieves remarkable universality even though it is based upon years of private practice, activism, and life in the gay community, The book is propelled by the belief that it is time that we act based on who we are and not who others are or who they would want us to be. We must find and build our own paths through life and this book presents  a necessary, impassioned argument for how and why we must all run  our futures.

Odets combines social critique, memoir, and manifesto to urge gay men “to discover or rediscover identities that are internally rooted, self-expressive, and revealed in authentically lived lives.” Looking back to his psychological forebears (Erik Erikson, Judith Herman and others), his own experiences and patients’ stories, he looks at shared trauma, stigma, shame, and suffering that he sees as particular to gay men’s experience in America and that often contribute to a compromised existence of failed conformity to social norms. He looks at the difference between “gay” and “homosexual,” defining the former as “an entire internal life of feeling” versus a “single, objective behavior.” His discussions of gay men’s sexual expression and relationships are frank, bold, compassionate, and open-minded. He writes, “He states that it is only through self-discovery and self-acceptance through which we fully realize our lives and that ultimately, authentic self-acceptance–or the lack of it is almost the entirety of what defines a life. Odets has written this for the layman in beautiful prose and he has the ability to make the psychological material accessible to all. Gay men will find much to think about here and any reader can find meaning in what Odets has to say.

We get a snapshot of three generations of gay men and the effect AIDS has had on them, an argument for the gay sensibility in a time of assimilation, and a memoir. But above all are the stories from the gay men who came to Odets for talk therapy. These are riveting and moving.

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