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Research has suggested that men who are the most homophobic may secretly harbor homosexual feelings they deny. Such findings don’t surprise me, since research also tells us the behaviors that irritate us most in other people are often reflections of battles we wage within ourselves, whether or not we realize it. In spite of knowing these findings, however, I was still surprised as I watched the recent biography of Earnest Hemingway on PBS (HEMINGWAY), a documentary enriched by narratives or letters written by Hemingway himself or letters and interviews with those who knew him best.
Hemingway, known as a man’s man—meaning he was the ultimate in male machismo—deliberately risked his life in war and peace and was frequently wounded, often with traumatic brain injuries. Many believed he felt a need to flirt with death. With a view of himself as a storybook hero, he changed wives and/or lovers as he worked on different novels, seeking a fresh muse to support each challenge. In his mind, both his fiction and nonfiction needed to be unfailingly extraordinary—a voice that originated with him alone. He loved the sensation of being desired and in love and craved stimulation/adventure. Leading an exciting life he could mine for source material was the only way he believed he could continue to author books that would engage readers. He came from a family tainted by resentment, mental illness, and suicide, so when he spent time with his own children—times often separated by long absences, he did his best to be a dad who was a buddy. He liked to be adored.
The side of his storybook persona we didn’t talk about in school appeared in his sex life. His loves began with a nurse who tended him during WWI when he was little more than a boy soldier. He was still living at home and she moved on rather than tie herself to him permanently after the war. Consistent with his storybook outlook, he worshipped her, expecting her to abandon her ideas of the future to take care of him forever. In fact, he later did his best to redesign and retrain the notably competent women who did marry him to make them better matches for his interests. His charm and masculine powers of manipulation usually served him well. Competition in writing—by one of his wives or other writers—threatened him, so he denigrated their work. He liked it when he could choose when to exit his romantic relationships for more exciting options. He insisted on control.
During his final marriage, this time to Mary Walsh who had been a respected writer in her own right, he revealed his deepest desire. He liked to have her cut her hair and act as a boy to perform sex with him while he played a girl he named Catherine. Such a flip of roles was not understood at the time. As we look back at Hemingway’s life, we can wonder if he hadn’t been jealous of women. He despised the dominating personality of his mother whom he blamed for the dysfunction of his birth family and their many suicides. But perhaps he envied her power, too. He may have been echoing her cruelty when he insulted Mary and traded threats with her. He often used women he had loved to suit his needs of the moment before he discarded them.
Those who believe in past lives accept that each of us has probably lived in different genders over time to learn what it is to express another orientation. Even ignoring past life beliefs, that the most famous man’s man in literature liked to enact a girl’s role during sex may hint at something we can learn. How much of the hostility men have directed toward women throughout time occurs because they feel threatened by the communication talents and characteristics expressed by females? Hemingway himself loved to lie about himself in print, painting his glories wider and brighter than reality, but he hated to speak in public. As more men become comfortable being multifaceted human beings and not single dimensional stereotypes, we may discover new information about the origins of the antipathy many males hold for their female counterparts. We may see why those men don’t view women as people. As we work on sexual equality issues, we ask, is the irony unavoidable?