May 15, 2015

"After that sweet birthday fling, I was to have no sex for the next 35 years."

Writes Oliver Sacks in his new memoir "On the Move," reviewed in the NYT by Andrew Solomon, who complains that Sacks's "transition into celibacy is presented without explication." Sacks has known that he is gay since at least when he was 18 (in 1951), when he told his father the news. His father told his mother, and his mother "came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. 'You are an abomination,' she said. 'I wish you had never been born.'"
Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us. My mother, so open and supportive in most ways, was harsh and inflexible in this area. A Bible reader like my father, she loved the Psalms and the Song of Solomon but was haunted by the terrible verses in Leviticus: "Thou shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."
That's from the book. Solomon wonders why Sacks was celibate for 35 years:
He explains only that he had trouble with “bonding, belonging and believing.” Sacks has cared for many people — especially his patients — but the kind of love on which marriages are based seems to have been not merely elusive, but bewildering to him (though he has been seeing the same psychoanalyst for nearly 50 years). Sacks did not so much avoid convention as fail to notice it; he understands difficult facets of the human experience with singular clarity, but emotional rules that are legible to most people seem to bewilder him.
By the way, the word "celibacy" (or "celibate") does not appear in the book. Nor is there "sexless." And "no sex" only appears that once (quoted in the post title). Is Sacks really as bewildered as Solomon seems to think? I'm looking at the book — which I just bought — and I see that Sacks says that he "regarded [his] sexuality as nobody’s business but [his] own, not a secret, but not to be talked about" and that one closest friends when he was a young man told him he thought Sacks was "asexual."
We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox [Jewish] upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas— like religion and politics— where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings. My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind.

But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.
I think that's some explication of what Solomon calls the "transition into celibacy." But many readers — including me — would like to see the subject of celibacy examined by someone with such a fine mind and such long experience with the condition. There must have been some good in it, to stay with it for 35 years.

17 comments:

DanTheMan said...

>>though he has been seeing the same psychoanalyst for nearly 50 years

Without result, apparently. Let's give it another 50 and see what happens....

Sebastian said...

"I now realize"

He never discussed it with her?

What did he talk about in analysis all those 50 years?

eric said...

It's really odd to hear a mother respond in such a fashion.

How many times have you seen the young adult male murder someone and the mother is like, "He is such a sweet kid!" Or the rapist, "Not my boy, he's such a good boy!"

I'd hope that if I had come out and told my mom, "Mom, I really like to have sex with sheep." she wouldn't have screamed at me and called me an abomination, but instead would have been loving and kind and generous and got me help so I'd quit having sex with sheep and want to have sex with women instead.

This mom, if she loved her boy, would have tried to help him. And since he is so quick to say what an awesome mom she is, I doubt the narrative.

AReasonableMan said...

Sebastian said...
What did he talk about in analysis all those 50 years?


To paraphrase Charlie Sheen - "I don't pay psychoanalysts for friendship, I pay them to leave."

It is a way to have an intimate friendship without any of the complications of friendship.

Lydia said...

But many readers — including me — would like to see the subject of celibacy examined by someone with such a fine mind and such long experience with the condition. There must have been some good in it, to stay with it for 35 years.

Maybe it does for Sacks what it does for the Dalai Lama, who thinks it's a path to happiness:

"Those who are celibate lead lives that are more stable and settled. That is our consolation. At the same time you are really free."

n.n said...

Self-moderating, responsible behavior is a choice. If the Jews, Christians, etc. are right, then your moral behavior will bear fruits. If they are wrong, then there is oblivion and no regrets. In the meantime, there is evolutionary fitness, and the will of civilized society to normalize productive/functional behaviors, and deference of individuals to support it.

William said...

Every human life is an experiment, and you can't really say his life was any kind of failed experiment. Perhaps if his mother had been more supportive, he would have perished in the AIDS epidemic......Why do we think our parents hindered us from achieving our best possible self when perhaps they inhibited from becoming something catastrophic......Pornstars have the least Inhibitions of any human beings alive but one does not look to them for wisdom and insight into the human condition.

Gahrie said...

Take it from me, celibacy is waaaay overrated.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

celibate = unmarried

chaste = abstaining from sexual relations

But that's a losing linguistic battle these days.

I've wondered: do people who consider themselves asexual masturbate?

Ann Althouse said...

Married people can have sex and still be chaste as long as they don't cheat.

Celibate implied no sex at all when you weren't supposed to be having sex outside of marriage. I don't think chaste is a very useful term to refer to the condition of dedication to no-sex-having.

Jason said...

Is it just me? Or is International Masturbation month just flying by?

RAH said...

sounds like his sexuality screwed up his ability to love and to find love. That is one of the tragedies of homosexuality . There are less potential partners.

buwaya said...

Cultures differ.
The real problem, where I come from, would be the worse-than-death-tomorrow sentence of no grandchildren.
There is no point to life in that case.
One gay kid is fine, if there are spares.

Coupe said...

Re: to love and to find love

Well, the poet in me (OK, there's no poet in me), thinks that love has nothing to do with sex.

Curly speaks of Love

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

Sacks did not so much avoid convention as fail to notice it; he understands difficult facets of the human experience with singular clarity, but emotional rules that are legible to most people seem to bewilder him.

He's a high functioning autistic.

Michael said...

I highly recommend the book. Sacks has lived a full and rich life and his account of it is fascinating and moving and inspiring.

Bill said...

I saw him give a lecture and slide show on migraine at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco about 20 years ago. He was clearly shy. Wore a white suit. Lovely man.