Edmund White’s My Lives

Edmund White is gay. If you’re not famil­iar with him—and I wasn’t until recently—this is the first thing you’ll notice about him in his mem­oir My Lives. You’ll notice other things, too: his name-​​dropping, over-​​sharing, and devout hedo­nism. These traits are unavoid­able in the con­text of White’s inter­est­ing life, described in vivid, con­ver­sa­tional prose.

Rather than walk­ing through his life from birth to present, White gives us the­matic chap­ters. This for­mat gives us more insight into White’s view of him­self than a timeline-​​bound for­mat. For exam­ple, the first chap­ter  con­cerns his shrinks from child­hood through adult­hood. The chapter’s promi­nence sug­gests that he learned intro­spec­tion early and kept up the prac­tice. His par­tic­u­lar intro­spec­tion was closely tied to his own homo­sex­u­al­ity, which his ther­a­pists saw as sick. Though he would later embrace “the gay,” he agreed with his ther­a­pists then, and his strongly self-​​critical streak shows itself through White’s book and life.

And just as with the first chap­ter, the sec­ond (“My Father”) and third (“My Mother”) out­line patterns—difficulty with ’50s-​​style mas­culin­ity and more-​​friendly-​​than-​​maternal inter­ac­tions with women—that per­sist through later chap­ters. These themes build upon each other, cul­mi­nat­ing in the much-​​foreshadowed final chap­ter, “My Friends,” where White waxes about a series of more and less famous friends, rep­re­sent­ing the cap­stone of life lived by a boy who just wants to be noticed, irre­spec­tive of love or hate.

White does man­age to elide por­tions of his life that he would rather not share, but he doesn’t appear to be hold­ing much back. He goes into very pre­cise detail about gay expe­ri­ences. From sexually-​​charged child­hood games to pay­ing for tricks (and being paid for being one), the reader gets an awful lot of dirt on the author. (Depending on one’s curios­ity, pro­cliv­ity, or dig­nity, the chap­ter on White’s year-​​long rela­tion­ship with a much younger S&M mas­ter should be either devoured or avoided with relish.)

My Lives depicts the absorb­ing path of a gay man who lived through the clos­eted 1950s, the free-​​spirited but bour­geois mod­ern gay life, and every libidi­nous period in between. If that’s the sort of thing that inter­ests you, then White’s book is for you.