One must be ruthless with one’s own writing or someone else will be.John Berryman
Dream Song 190
by John Berryman
The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young.
It is hard & hard to get these matters straight.
Keats glares at Yeats
who full of honours died & being old sung
his strongest. Henry appreciated that hate,
but what now of Yeats’
lucky of-Fanny-free feeling for Keats
who doomed by Mistress Gonne proved barren years
and saw his friends all leave,
stale his rewards turn, & cut off then at his peak,
promising in his seventies! all fears
save that one failed to deceive.
I scrounge ensamples violent by choice.
In most what matters, Henry wondered. Let’s lie.
All we fall down & die
after a course worse of a stoppage of voice
so terrible I have no more to say
but best is the short day.
I have met a few men whose womanizing was in part a cover for their hidden bisexuality. I always find it curious that men who have had a long-standing successful marriage, fathered multiple children and who eventually divorce are generally classified as now coming out as “gay,” if later in life they have a relationship with a man. In my mind their life experience is the definition of being a bisexual. Of course, we all choose the label that is most comfortable to wear when it comes to our sexuality. But, I think this black and white characterization around sexuality is easier for society to process. There is an uneasiness with the concept of bisexuality, often because of a judging morality that goes beyond many people’s views on homosexuality, that underscores how being bisexual carries its own unique set of challenges as well as illuminations. Bisexuality doesn’t fit societies norms of marriage, commitment, faithfulness and authenticity. There is a mistaken assumption by particularly heterosexuals, that identifying as bisexual means you must be promiscuous and unfaithful. Bisexuals can be every bit as monogamous or more so than most heterosexuals or homosexuals, it’s a matter of putting relationship above desires. The challenges of monogamy are universal. It’s unfortunate that to this day, both the heterosexual and homosexual community tend to view bisexuals with some degree of wariness for their perceived “lack of authenticity.” Whereas for those who are truly bisexual, it maybe their most personal true authentic self. And since Berryman was raised Catholic and had a reoccurring attraction to devout Catholic women, there was a third rail of his homosexual attractions that even if it was just a fantasy for Berryman, would have created strong potential emotional conflicts internally.
It’s impossible to get inside the head of Berryman and know for sure, but in John Haffenden’s biography there are several references to Berryman’s sexuality written by Berryman himself. Berryman wrote constantly. He left a huge number of musings, self-diagnoses that were part of his intense self-examination that were also possibly part inspiration for future Dream Songs.
Berryman was a painfully shy, disquieted man, who covered it up with a loud, boisterous, boozy demeanor at times. He could tell great stories about many famous men and women of letters and of his travels all over the world, and yet not really share anything about himself. He disliked parties but could entertain for hours in a bar and loved to talk poetry and art under the influence with other writers and academics. He was also a drug addict. His addictions were all prescription drugs, which was not uncommon in the 1950’s and 1960’s when various versions of tranquilizers and speed were routinely prescribed by doctors to the white middle class suffering from the kind of manic and depressive episodes that were part of Berryman’s life.
Why do I mention sex and drugs and booze? For some people it is only in the loss of control that they are able to act on the entire range of their innermost selves. In October of 1954, when he moved to Minneapolis alone, he had neither a job or a full time sexual partner. He set out to seduce a series of much younger women through letters and poems, a technique that had often worked in the past. But it troubled him. He left behind in his notes the following that is recounted in Haffenden’s biography;
“What’s wrong that I am so at all these very young women?. . . Am I doting?. . . I am thoroughly ashamed of the nerve-wracking & evil complex I have got myself into . . . Spare them! WORK.”
Berryman hoped that by documenting his thoughts and dreams he would find some level of control over his compulsions. He himself saw a connection between his periods of excessive drinking and sex. He wrote in 1954:
“my woman-killing nightmares were homosexually oriented….liquor must be important, because . . . I find it so closely related to my adult wd-be homosexual experiences (all of them); and because, to my amazement, I experience today & yesterday almost no craving for alcohol – much as I’d been drinking – and this fact suggests that it must be psychological, i. e. neurotic. I have never really believed that till tonight; I’ve always thought my will just weak.”
“So on these two scores alone – not to add that it looks as if my promiscuity might disappear, as well, with the (possibly even imminent) clearing up of the homosexual business – I wonder if today is not one of the most important of my life. “
Neither of course was true. His need for personal validation through intimacy with both men and women continued, though the vast majority of his sexual experiences were with women and his intimacy with men was by and large intellectual. He continued to drink to disassociate from tension and as a writing aid. The problem with mixing drugs, alcohol and stress is it wears you down and ceases to work as a stimulant for creative pursuits. It’s impacts on the brain and body eventually catch up with everyone.
By 1969, Berryman’s health hit rock bottom. He had a series of alcohol induced trauma’s, physically, professionally and personally. He was admitted into Hazelden, a famous alcohol and drug treatment center in St. Paul. There is an infamous no-nonsense approach to Hazeldon. Berryman did everything that the counselors at Hazeldon required. Hazeldon uses the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program, with Step One to admit that “we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” As part of Step One, every patient is required to write a recitation of their life that doesn’t shield themselves from their transgressions and actions under the influence and provides transparency to the counselors and others in their group on the depth of their honesty in their ability to accept their own humanity and change. It is a big step in the process around acceptance, forgiveness and to be open to not judging others in their struggle.
Berryman wrote a book called Recovery, an accounting of his experience in treating addiction, and in it he recounts his testimonial in Step One. It is a long, painful confession that reaches back to more than 30 years of despair and guilt. He seems to recount every single thing that he had done to destroy himself, including his long list of sexual misadventures with mostly women, but with a reference to seducing students drunk and to homosexual advances, though he then minimizes it by saying of the homosexuality that it occurred only “4 or 5 times.” It was such an unvarnished explanation of his past that his counselor at Hazeldon thought it was one of the very best Step One confessions he had ever read. But, as the sobriety didn’t take for long, he also felt in hindsight after Berryman’s death, it was also one of the most misleading.
Berryman did what he needed to do to get out of Hazeldon and never went back. He instead checked himself into an AA group at St. Mary’s Hospital, which was closer to where he lived and worked on campus. He also had more control of how he checked in with the process at St. Mary’s. He did admit to himself and his group that alcoholism is a 100% fatal disease. He understood he could not escape it’s effects. But then so again is living. Life is a fatal condition.
Berryman was married three times, had at least three children. He had countless affairs and one-night stands with women. All of that was to some degree out in the open and not without its own aspects of shame, guilt and self-destructive tendencies. Having also a sexual attraction for men and acting on it, both in his youth (which is hinted at several times in the biographies and was not uncommon in all male boarding schools), and as an adult, is a good deal more difficult. In 1969, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and a criminal offense, let alone the damage it could do to your career, marriages and family relationships, particularly the relationship with his wives and mother. Berryman was both privately honest at times about his bisexuality and publicly very much in the closet because he didn’t have any other choice. How much his sexuality was at the core of his torments is only for him to know. But in reading through his poetry and his biographies, it is clear that during all the different treatments he went through during his lifetime, sex was not alongside the other addictions he was attempting to address. In retrospect it feels like a miss. Sex was not a focus in his treatments, despite sex having similar brain effects as the chemicals he ingested right up until his death. Each of them combined and interacted to impact his serotonin and dopamine levels and with it his feelings of self-worth, happiness and control, as well as shame, guilt and despair. If he confided to his therapists and psychiatrists about his bisexuality is only for them to know. If talk therapy brought him peace, it would appear it was always short lived at best. Berryman survived, thrived and self-destructed all in the same breath. He also worked hard to leave a body of writing that can be condemned or admired for the level of truths contained within their lines, both around the beauty and ugliness of the human condition. If Berryman prevaricated in the truth of his innermost secrets in his personal relationships is impossible to know and unimportant to everyone but those with which he had those relationships, but he did not do so in his art. Berryman spilled his blood on nearly every page. Whether you like it or dislike it, is up to you. His writing and legacy are certainly not for the faint of heart.