Ashland author Karen McClintock is an author, psychologist, and adjunct professor who has written a book about growing up in a family where her father spent his entire marriage to her mother as a closeted gay man. I chatted with McClintock about her new work and her process.
JG: Karen, how did the idea for this book come about?
KM: I've spent my whole life solving the mystery of my father's sexual identity. I'd written four professional books on sexuality and sexual shame in individuals and organizations when I confessed to my writing group that I'd been avoiding the book with the greatest pain and the greatest love in it. That's when I was compelled to put not only my father's life story into creative non-fiction, but to tell my own story of discovering my gay father hidden behind the straight one. Along the way I also found his long-term relationship with a man I had never met.
JG: Tell us a little bit about how your father's secret has affected you.
KM: This question begs another book on sexual secrets in families, which I may still write. In the early '40s through the '60s, my father had to remain in the closet or face terrible consequences, possibly losing his job, financially devastating my mother, and lose custody of his two daughters. But as a kid, I truly thought our family was just like any other. I call this our Grover's Corners family after the famous ("Our Town") play by Thornton Wilder. My mother and father stayed married for 43 years and died with fond regard for each other. But the secrets took their toll on all of us. My mother had a master's degree in library science and an honorary degree in evasive communication. I learned to not ask questions when she said, "You don't want to know that." I learned to turn off my intuition, because looking too closely at things might have destroyed the family. I unconsciously picked up my father's shame. There was a large secret between us which made it hard to feel secure and close. When he began his long-term relationship with a professor on the campus where he worked, even then, the family described them as "friends." This is the language of necessary discretion and deception.
JG: What sort of feedback have you had about the book so far?
KM: Readers say that it reads more like a fast-paced novel than a memoir. They are drawn into the warm characters, the humor and the love within our quirky yet ordinary Midwest family. The mystery surrounding my father's extra-marital gay relationship and my discovery that he was gay keeps readers intrigued until the very last page. I just spent a month on tour with the book, speaking at LGBTQ events, libraries, bookstores and churches.
As tolerance for sexual diversity grows, this story about two gay men falling in love under complicated circumstances has been warmly received. (Oregon Shakespeare Festival)'s Bill Rauch said, "I couldn't put the book down," and he read it all in 24 hours. His early review, along with Alison Bechdel's (author of "Fun Home") praise for the book, got it off to a fantastic start. She said, "McClintock reconstructs the details of her father's double life with novelistic flair, keen psychological insight, and graceful compassion."
JG: What input would you have for people who have been living closeted lives, especially those who have lived with that secret for many years?
KM: My father's sexual identity was not the problem. The shame and secrets that surrounded him were. But I also understand why he did not come out. Depending on religious background, culture, or ethnicity, coming out may not be possible without the loss of close friends, community and loved ones. Loren A. Olson, M.D. , author of an excellent resource, "Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight," endorsed my book, saying that it helped him more deeply empathize with his own children's experiences before he came out. We all need grace and compassion toward one another. To finish the book I had to stop whining and forgive my father completely so I could celebrate the love we shared. If this book lowers shame and increases tolerance and acceptance, I'll be satisfied with its success.
—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.