In his autobiography, My Lives
(2005), American novelist and essayist on queerness in literature and society Edmund White chronicles his experience living as a gay man in New York City from the 1960s to the 1980s, a time when the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement rose dramatically to prominence. Greater visibility of gay rights issues created brilliant new artistic spaces for individuals to flourish and organize, but not all individuals: White writes about the division of his own inner life due to persistent social isolation and shame for being gay. He also writes about the AIDS crisis and how it influenced queer subjectivities and their literary and cultural expressions. White expounds philosophically on homosexual love, conceiving of it as a way of redefining love and intimacy. The work has been praised for its originality and depth of observation and reflection, capturing the collective anxieties experienced by LGBTQ+ people, especially gay men, during the most formative years of the gay rights movement in America.My Lives
is arranged unchronologically. Rather than structuring his autobiography around his evolving identity and interpretation of New York City, White moves between groups of people that are constitutive of his most important memories. Chapters include “My Friends,” “My Shrinks,” and “My Hustlers,” and explore, often with self-deprecating humor, White’s various relationships. White shows how homosexuality is a complex burden as well as an emancipating identity. Frankly admitting that he is a sex addict, he describes in detail his sexual encounters, showing that sexual desire is not only tied to his carnal impulses, but to many factors, including anxiety, hope, boredom, and acute self-awareness.
White distinguishes between the different kinds of sexual encounters in which he has engaged. The chapter “My Blonds” details his earlier encounters, which tended to be romantic and verging on monogamous. “My Master” starkly contrasts with “My Blonds,” detailing his masochistic side, which he explored in depth in his early 60s with a much younger actor. He acknowledges that to some, these descriptions are overwhelming, graphic, and can even trigger aversion; yet, he finds it necessary to include them in his autobiography, because they are full of psychological depth and literary meaning.
White explores the ironic contrast between the private world created by his sadomasochistic affinities and the normalcy of his day-to-day life. In one story, he recalls how one of his S&M “masters” ordered him to move to Cleveland, Ohio and live in a cage. Though the fantasy piqued his interest, it was counterbalanced by the fact that he was in school at Princeton and about to travel to Europe. Many fetishes have tempted him, usually, those involving a demeaning treatment being imposed on him. A 29-year-old man from Latvia once told him to behave like a dog and have a tail surgically attached to him. Because these temptations, to White, never left the realm of fantasy, it took a while for him to fully realize that many of the men propositioning him were serious.
White delves into his complex childhood psyche and the psychological traits he inherited from his parents. He had a Freudian relationship with his family: as a young child, he desired to be penetrated by his father. He had a reverse-Oedipus complex with his mother, experiencing waves of intense aversion to her. His parents divorced when he was eight; his father remarried and lived a bourgeois lifestyle, while his mother remained single, preferring to entertain romantic fantasies rather than real relationships and pouring her remaining time into her career as a child psychologist. Perhaps the most revealing chapter of White’s book is “My Friends,” where he opens up about his yearning for friendship, and the overwhelming, almost manic joy he experiences when he hangs out with his friends. My Lives
is a raw and preternaturally honest portrait of White and an affirmation of the past, present, and future of queer identity.