One of my earliest memories was of a reedy young man whom I shall call Albert. He’d visit my mother, laden with gifts of pottery for her and my brother and me. An artist, she’d taught his first classes in pottery and sculpture. Later, she and her colleagues were instrumental in getting him a scholarship to Alfred University in upstate New York, which had a highly regarded program in ceramics.
When Albert graduated art school, he took off for San Francisco, putting three thousand miles between himself, his family and us. In those days when air travel was uncommon, it was tantamount to going off to Siberia. His absence was mysterious as his letters to us ended as well. My mother used to talk with her artist friends about how sad it was for his widowed mother to have lost her son like that. What she didn’t say was how sad it was for her to have lost her devoted protégé. Yet Albert’s presence remained in my New York City home in the form of skillfully wrought platters and a monumental vase.
A child of the fifties, I’d never heard of homosexuality until fourth grade when a savvy friend explained to me during recess one day that sometimes men go for men and women go for women. (For the life of me, I don’t remember what verb she used. For sure she didn’t use “love;” maybe she resorted to “like.”) Later, in my teen years, I learned to recognize gay men if they were swishy; I now know of many others whose sexual preference was hidden or obscure. I only knew of one lesbian during all my growing up years.
My parents never spoke about homosexuality. My mother was a woman who at her deepest core believed in the virtue of hush-hushedness. Once when I mentioned the one lesbian I knew, she gave me a dirty look and told me not to talk about such matters.
In my early twenties, my brother came out to me in private. It became my task to protect my parents from the truth I viewed as devastating to them. Of course they knew but relied on the armor of silence. If they never spoke of it, they never would have to cope.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic, my brother would call me about hives on his hand, an unexplained sore, a cold. It didn’t take much to send him and then me into paroxysm of fear. During this epoch of terror I dreamed of Albert, that he was dying of AIDS. In the morning with gray light filtering through the blinds, I sat upright and knew he was gay. All those years of mystery over his absence, and one short dream told me the truth.
Many times during those years, I felt as if my head was in a beehive with the truth buzzing around me. Perhaps that’s the reason I’ve written a YA novel about the fifteen-year-old Alice Kaplan who has to confront her brother’s sexual orientation. I needed to puncture those honeycombs of silence. While this book is a fiction—all the events are more exciting and dramatic than anything that I ever experienced—Alice, like me, spends time torn between the closet and the truth.