In One Person, a novel by John Irving, is written in the first person, as a memoir of a bisexual man. Its narrator, Billy, was born in 1942, like the author (and like me); and the novel gives readers a window into the American LGBTQ world over the half-century that Billy describes. The novel touches on themes in Billy’s (and Irving’s) life that appear elsewhere in the author’s work. These include, among others, a young boy being abandoned by his father, attendance at a private school, wrestling, a career as a writer, and the contrast between small town and urban life.
Despite the temporal sweep of the novel, In One Person is mainly a midcentury coming-of-age story of the travails of Billy and other gender-nonconforming males from middle- and upper-class WASP families. The main characters and their relationships are introduced during Billy’s prep school days, and we follow the twists and turns as their gender identities and sexual proclivities develop and then play out in their adult lives.
As I see it, the novel has a number of strengths that make it worth reading. These include an opportunity to get to know a number of gay, bisexual and male-to-female transgendered characters, to see the world through their eyes, and to understand whom and what activities they are attracted to. (Sexual nonconformists with XX chromosomes—bisexual and lesbian women, and female-to-male transgender characters are absent or marginal to the story.) The book allows readers to empathize with the boys’ and men’s experiences, and to sympathize with them as they encounter misunderstandings and cruelty. In addition, because of the temporal sweep of the novel, we get both a developmental perspective on their lives and a social perspective on changing attitudes toward sexual minorities in the United States.
As a psychologist, I remember being trained that homosexuality was a diagnosable mental illness, and then later observed as it was removed from the list of mental illnesses. You can imagine the skepticism such a process engenders about the mental health establishment, with different diagnoses being voted into or out of existence in accordance with changes in society—as opposed to scientific discoveries. (Overall, the number of diagnoses has expanded greatly over the decades, in an attempt by mental health professionals to secure insurance reimbursement for ever more conditions, while insurance companies battle to keep down costs so as to maximize profits.)
Experiencing the novel as a psychologist allowed me to to consider the changing views of the mental health profession, about people like the characters in the book, over the course of the action.
As the novel progresses, Billy and other characters are observers of or participants in a number of historical processes, including the gay rights movement and the AIDS epidemic.
A novel’s characters live in a world created by the author, so situating characters amid actual historical events can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, evoking events known to readers creates verisimilitude, but on the other, it may lead readers to ask whether the world depicted in the novel matches up with their memories.
The world of the period—especially the 1960s—that I remember brings me to what I see as the novel’s omissions. The following are some of the elements that the book refers to only in passing or omits entirely:
The Kinsey Reports of the 1950s, the (hetero)sexual revolution, and the sex therapies of behavior therapists and Masters and Johnson
The civil rights movement, and non-white minorities (except for the influence of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room)
The Vietnam war and the anti-war movement (except for homosexuality as a way of avoiding the draft)
Hippies, communes, and other counterculture and anti-establishment social experiments
As a result of these omissions, the impression of the United States that I got from reading In One Person did not match up in significant ways with my memory of the period. Some readers might find that these detract from their ability to enter into the world of the book, while others might feel them unnecessary to the reality that Irving created. In any event, I think the book is worth reading because of the insights it gives into the LGBTQ world.
(In One Person was co-winner of a Lambda Literary Award in the bisexual category.)
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