The Velvet Rage. Overcoming The Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. (Book Review)

Colin Chalmers

Downs, Alan (2005) The Velvet Rage. Overcoming The Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. Cambridge MA. Da Capo Press. £10.99

This book troubles me. In fact it troubles me so much that, while working on this review, I did two things that I would not normally do when reviewing books: I read the book twice and I searched for and read other reviews. Certainly, the first of these was a very helpful activity. The second showed me only that, no matter my own opinion of the book, I would have a large number of other reviewers who would agree with me. In other words, this is a book which divides opinions and one review in favour will be cancelled out by another review against.

A review of a book which is more than five years old may seem strange to many readers. The reason for this lengthy delay is that the book has been a ‘slow burner’. It is only in the past couple of years that sales of the book have really taken off. Indeed, it has achieved something of a cult status both here in the UK and in its home territory of the United States – a fact which troubled many reviewers. Towards the end of August 2011 I ‘googled’ the name of the book and the author’s last name.  A list of some 35,800 internet entries was returned. The book’s fame seems to have spread by word of mouth; to my knowledge there has been no massive publicity campaign to bring the book to the attention of the public.

So, what is it about the book that I find troubling? The reason I decided to read The Velvet Rage twice and to look for other reviews was that I simply could not make up my mind about it. Sometimes it felt as if I was reading a guide to homosexuality written in the 1950s; at other times I seemed to be reading a lifestyle guide to the Gay A-listers. The whole ‘tone’ of the book was off-putting. There is just so much material for the opponents of gay sexuality to come back with, “Aha! I told you so!”

I’ll start with something that might easily be overlooked. The author is an American clinical psychologist with a private therapy practice. My knowledge of psychologists suggests that when they write a book, they are usually keen to have the endorsements of named fellow professionals and academics on the cover. I was struck by the complete absence of this. There are indeed a number of endorsements on the first page of the book, but they are from men and women identified by a first name only. Strikingly, only one identified herself as a professional – a social worker. A minor point, of course, but one I thought significant.

The main stumbling block of this book for me is that the author, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, does really seem to pathologise gay men, stating that all gay men have problems related to their sexuality. He also seems to do something which psychiatrists and psychoanalysts of the1940s and 1950s were accused of doing – generalising from their client-group to the wider population of gay men. The thesis of the book, briefly outlined in its subtitle, is that all gay men experience shame and anger because of their difficulties in fitting into a “straight man’s world”. This, it is important to note, is the sole reference to the pressures applied by society and its agencies. The gay man brings his problems on himself by failing to deal adequately with his shame and anger. Rather than resolving these emotions, he denies them by trying to keep up with a stereotypical ‘gay lifestyle’ of substance abuse, promiscuity, chasing after status, inability to sustain relationships and so on.  The Velvet Rage is aimed at a general readership rather than an academic one. Nevertheless, the author offers not one bit of evidence to support his thesis, apart from the case-histories of his clients. Based again solely on the evidence from his clients he even resurrects the old Freudian theory of gay men having distant fathers and overprotective mothers. Not once in the book is there any acknowledgement that the author’s client-group might in any way be out of the ordinary, nor, indeed, of any awareness of the similarity between his theories and those long discredited. Another major problem for me is that fact that so many of the problems the author describes could equally be attributed to straight people, yet there is little acknowledgment of this. It may well be that Downs, who is himself gay, works therapeutically only with gay men. I do wonder, ‘tho, how he would explain a straight person’s substance abuse, promiscuity etc.

This might well be the place to assure the readers of this review of the long-standing evidence of the impossibility of distinguishing gay men from the general population of men on psychological grounds. It was in the early 1940s that an American student named Sam Fromm said to his psychology professor (a straight woman), Dr Evelyn Hooker, “It is your scientific duty to study people like us, homosexuals who function very well and don’t go to psychiatrists.” Homosexuality had, up to that time, been viewed by the psychiatric profession, and indeed by society as a whole, as inherently pathological. After a great deal of thought over many years, Dr Hooker took up the challenge. She recruited a group of thirty gay men and matched them with a group of straight men in such a way that, on surface evidence, only sexuality was the distinguishing factor. The standard psychological tests of the time were administered to all the men. The test responses were then passed to a panel of psychiatrists with the request that they separate out the homosexual group from the heterosexual group. This they failed to do. In her Paper reporting the result of this experiment, written in 1957, Dr Hooker said, “[W]hat is difficult to accept (for most clinicians) is that some homosexuals may be very ordinary individuals, indistinguishable, except in sexual pattern, from ordinary individuals who are heterosexual. Or–and I do not know whether this would be more or less difficult to accept–that some may be quite superior individuals, not only devoid of pathology but also functioning at a superior level.”

Alan Downs does certainly acknowledge that the gay men he knows are “superior individuals”, but not, I think, quite in the way Dr Hooker intended the phrase. The book is permeated with assertions of just how fabulous gay men are and Downs takes great pains to remind us just how exalted are the social circles of gay men that he moves in “surgeons, corporate lawyers, investment bankers, and winemakers. Not one of them was anything less than outrageously successful in his chosen profession.” (p 74) The word “outrageous” is used again, further down this page when he extends it to all gay men: “Regardless of how successful or wealthy we may or may not be, we are almost always over-the-top outrageous in what we do.” This one-upmanship reaches its peak in a further, indeed truly outrageous, statement, again referring to gay men in general: “We rarely do things that are quiet, reserved, and commonplace. Those jobs we leave by-and-large to straight people to slog through.” (p 74 – 75)  It is no wonder that a gay man would need therapy if he tried to match these exacting standards. To give Downs his due, he does admit that many (possibly all?) of the highly successful men he knows are compensating via their success for their internal shame and rage and that the transition to a fulfilled life means “letting go of fabulous”. (p 118)

It is very easy to pick holes in this book, but the question over its undoubted success, its achieving of a quasi-cult status, remains. One possible answer to the question is that there are undoubtedly elements in the cameos of the author’s clients with which the reader can identify with, even if he cannot identify with the social milieu of those experiencing the problems described. Indeed, the idea of the book ‘speaking’ to individual men is a constant theme in the more favourable reviews. The ten lessons offered by the author at the end of the book for achieving maturity as a gay man are undoubtedly sound advice. I would suggest, however, that this is not a book to be put into the hands of a young man still dealing with his sexuality, nor, indeed, of his parents, no matter how supportive they may be. There are too many stories in the book which may possibly frighten an inexperienced young man of how nasty gay men can be to each other. Nor will the book do anything to allay any guilt feelings parents may be carrying over their son’s being gay, quite the opposite in fact.

From the point of view of Quest’s particular areas of interest, it is somewhat disconcerting to note that not once in the book is the issue of spirituality raised. Nowhere is there a suggestion of spirituality, or even a sense of morality, possibly being of help in resolving problems. Religion appears only twice, once when the author confesses to having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian household and again, in an unresolved cameo of a Catholic priest questioning his vocation (p 103 – 104).

So, what conclusions do I come to for this review? Many readers of book reviews like the reviewer to come down firmly either in the “this book will change your life” camp, or in the “don’t touch it with a bargepole” camp. I’m afraid I will have to be a bit more circumspect. The Velvet Rage is a small book: judge it for yourself.

This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 63 (Spring 2012)