Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2005

Walking Higher: Gay Men write about the Deaths of their Mothers, edited by Alexander Renault

reviewed by John Hunt

How do I begin to review this book without parallel? Just two years after the death of my own parents, I am perhaps well placed for this task. But it is not easy to do justice in a few short paragraphs to “so many stories that the richness of them, in all their shades of light and dark, astonishes me”, about an experience that for many will “change the entire geography of reality for ever”.

The subtitle, Gay Men write about the Deaths of their Mothers, is not strictly accurate. Each story is occasioned by the death of the author’s mother, but they are by no means all about death or dying. The first one begins vividly: “When they finally put the straps on my mother ...”. Other writers reflect on their mothers’ earlier lives, or on their own lives: their upbringing, their relationship with their mother, or their thoughts after her death. A more accurate though rather longer subtitle could have been Parents, Families, Death, and Dying – a Multidimensional Rainbow Spectrum.

As the Preface points out, while straight men have traditionally had a “primary relationship” with two women (mother and wife), gay men are more likely to have just the one. Generalising, the death of a gay man’s mother is therefore more likely to mark a “dramatic new chapter” in his life, which may lead to “new careers, changed relationships, and an irreversible alteration in self-perception”. There are musings on the role of fathers, the fickleness of men, the deterioration of marriage and commitment since the 1950s, and on caring for a sick and dying partner.

Although the 30 gay male authors are all living in North America, their mothers (not all biological mothers, or even women) represent an unexpected variety of ethnicity and also of religion. Indeed, the importance and bitter legacy of religion in the upbringing of so many of the authors is perhaps the most significant difference between contemporary American and English (or British?) experiences. There is a range of families: rich and poor, happy, close, estranged, some glaringly dysfunctional.

The stories are interspersed with poems and songs. One that particularly moved me was “New Year’s Baby”, which is not about dying, but about support with the pain of living, experienced by teenagers (of all ages). The title of the book is also that of one of the songs: “And I will raise my head up to the mountains ... ‘cause the spirit lives on” (in those who are left behind).

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Created : Sunday, 2005-06-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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