When I commented on Gabrielle Hamilton's brutal memoir, "Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef," I addressed her hatred of her husband, which filled the last third of the book (following her idyllic upbringing, the dissolution of her family, and her wayward youth, which comprised the first third of the book, and her becoming a chef, which comprised the second third). Among the startled responses I got was this one in the Huffington Post: "Interesting perspective. I didn't get that from reading her memoir." As though those extended passages of pure bile addressed to the man didn't occur! (Come to think of it, not one review I read mentioned this aspect of the book, leading to the conclusion a) people don't actually read the books they review or comment on, b) it is hard for people to hold more than one thought in their minds regarding a book.) So the commenter and reviewers were undoubtedly surprised by the news that Hamilton and her husband finally split up when her affair with her sister's husband was exposed.
Which brings me to the book for discussion in today's post: "A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriage," by Sally Rider Brady, who was married to Upton Brady, the long-time editor-in-chief of the venerable Atlantic Monthly Press. On his death at age 69 in 2008, obituaries noted his fastidious dress, his erudition, his success both at winning book awards for the Press's authors and for his commercial acumen as well.
It turns out that Upton was an abusive spouse, spending much of his time with his wife noting her failures and deficiencies. But that wasn't what really pissed his wife off. It turns out he was gay (although he was an attentive marital lover until his multiple anti-depressant medications rendered him impotent for the last decade or so of his life). In any case, his wife put up with his abuse, and his ignoring their children (she would put them to bed before he got home, when she was obligated to have his dinner on the able exactly at 7:00, after which he got drunk -- oh, did I mention he was an alcoholic? -- and the two of them played board games, like Scrabble, until Upton passed out).
Sally kind of knew Upton was gay, since he told her he had slept with a male friend of his. This did cause her to wonder about the many nights he spent away from her in undisclosed locations and the several-year period when he lived alone in New York after the Press moved to the city. But she stuck by her man, nurturing his frail ego. For, despite his obvious brilliance -- he spoke Latin fluently, made gowns for his wife out of any old bolt of cloth he found laying around their home, and edited her writing as she became an author -- Upton was never able to write a book himself, though he tried. (Maybe that's what made him so angry with Sally, particularly when he was drunk.)
During the latter part of their marriage, sans sex, things improved because Upton stopped physically abusing her, although his criticism of Sally was unabated. Upton's life retracted to a few hobbled routines after the Press dissolved; without friends, his relationship with Sally became the entire human focus of his life. His cessation of physical threats towards her occurred even though he didn't give up drinking. I know, AA people (which he refused to attend): it's impossible that a man could control himself and his previously uncontrolled alcoholism in that way. I'm just telling you what his wife wrote -- and she did seem to be in a position to know.
But, then, after his death, Sally discovered the gay porn. So, naturally, she immediately called their four children to reveal this about their dad, which he had successfully hidden for so long. In fact, the therapist that they both saw -- Upton for 20 years -- had no idea about Upton's gay proclivities, Sally discovered. The man could keep a secret! And, really -- perhaps due to his staunch Catholicism -- he detested homosexuality and homosexuals. These hated objects included his brother, with whom he had knock-down-drag-out fights, and his sister, who formed a lesbian partnership and became a minister.
After all those years of enduring, compensating, propitiating, I guess Sally was mad, and wanted to tell everyone that Upton drained his life's blood disguising that he was gay.
I must disclose that my daughter works for a major magazine, and she passes books along to me, like this one, that her publication won't be reviewing. Thus, my copy lists a series of discussion questions, including this one:
Given that Upton clearly wanted to keep his gay life secret, do you feel Sally's writing a book about this aspect of their marriage constitutes a betrayal?
Until the end of the book, Sally maintains that she deeply loved the man. There you go: gay man's loving widow reveals his most deeply held secret the moment he's not around to browbeat her. Serve him right?
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