My Husband and My Wives: A Gay's Man's Odyssey is the memoir of a man looking back over eight tumultuous decades at the complications of discovering at puberty that he is attracted to other men.
The ordeal of remaining true to what his libido tells him is right, in the midst of a disapproving and sometimes hostile society, is one side of his story. Another is the impulsive decision he made as a young adult to marry a woman who fascinated him. This led him into entirely unanticipated territory. He found himself suddenly a husband, a widower, a groom for a second time, and, finally, the father of four children and grandfather of six, though throughout it all, he never abandoned his erotic involvement with men. Perhaps most extraordinary is the story's happy conclusion: Charles Rowan Beye's wedding four years ago to the man who has been his companion for the last twenty years.
The remarkable journey from pariah to patriarch is told with an eloquence, an honesty, and a sense of humor that are uniquely Beye's own. A personal history that is also a history of evolving social mores, this wonderfully original, challenging, life- and love-affirming account could only have been written by the unconventional man who lived through it all.
In this heartfelt, often humorous memoir, retired classics professor Beye tells how a onetime gay teenager ended up marrying two women, fathering four children, and eventually marrying his longtime male partner. Born in Iowa in 1930 to a wealthy doctor who died when Beye was very young and his buttoned-up wife, Beye had money but lacked emotional support. His sexuality awakened during a year spent at prep school Andover academy.. When he returned to Iowa, Beye was eager to connect with other boys, even if they were straight (and most were). Clear about his sexual orientation, Beye nevertheless married his first wife, Mary, in 1951, because it seemed the thing to do and he genuinely liked her (and heterosexual sex was so novel!). Devastated by Mary's unexpected death a few years later, Beye soon wed his second wife, Penny, with whom he had four children while pursuing his PhD in classics. They divorced after 16 years, but it wasn't until years later that he met and fell in love with his husband-to-be. It's a deftly written personal story that will speak to a range of readers.
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Odyssey or a waste of time?
There is a distinct feeling, for me, after reading this, of something akin to he’s kidding, or wow… he’s lying. It feels as if the author isn’t being honest with himself. Being honest with the “you” is very difficult; and rarely practiced for good reason. It’s not always the prettiest or sanest side of us. I’m guilty. But if that’s his point, then this is well done. It is simply his view of his life. I felt it was as much a deception to us as it was to him, when he finally (after all of the explosion of social changes that wrought over the last 50 years that he somehow missed) discovered that the “winners” in life write all the mythology.
I too grew up (further north than he did) in the Midwest. It was very clear to me being a homosexual was not a positive thing. How he missed that “tone” in Iowa City in the 40’s and 50’s, and then to be shocked that he was caught giving blow jobs… and they were written on bathroom walls… how out of touch he must have been.
But after reading this, I’m not sure HE even understands how disconnected he was. (Side note: the psychiatrist his mother sent him too needs to be given a little attention: This man seems to have understood something for which Midwesterners don’t always get recognized – they are at times eminently practical, without judgment. “Be discreet.” It’s a brilliant work-around solution, given the times and location of Beye’s inability to control his sexualized expressions.)
And, despite his veiled poo-pooing (and complete misunderstanding) of the therapeutic process, he and his second wife did attend couples therapy, but only to discover she didn’t like moving. It just begs the question: what about his inability to honor himself in a committed relationship of his choosing? Wouldn’t that be the point of focus in a failing marriage? And then he has his realizing a “crushing [sense of failure]” at the demise of his marriage. He states: “The end of our marriage proved to be good for Penny.” Really. I wonder why? It’s almost comical these impressions he gives with absolutely no irony intended.
Being discreet is not the same as being clear and honest within himself, to his ex-wife and his children.
And despite his lack of reflection on the excellent (all irony intended) role model as a father, a male and a sexual being he presented, he manages to propose his children really didn’t know he was gay or at least having sex with kids his kids’ age. He seems to have had no inclination he impacted his children by lying about his orientation. Children born in the late 50’s and all of the 60’s had NO clue dad had sex with men in small intellectual, gossipy communities of Harvard, Stanford or Vassar? And frankly, his report of the children’s response sounds incredible.
If true, it’s just amazing he never considered his children at his 50th birthday party were the only ones that didn’t know he was gay and it didn’t filter through his controlling nature to think of them, at all, until after the party. These kids would have been into the 20’s by then and the NEVER talked to each other about their father’s behavior? Really?
Yes, Gay men can love women. But expecting to not have sex outside (from either the wives or himself) the marriage was just an academic goose chase. His wife’s expectations (I’m not clear on those for her, since we’re given his “analysis” filtered by a controlling academic who just wants everyone to be happy, even if he’s at the center of the charade) must have been based on the hetero-normative construct. Why else would she tolerate a relationship with a homo-phobic who was gay? Or was she just faking orgasms to keep the pay going?
It seems he is rationalizing something to someone. Having to (and it’s presented as an inconvenience to the closeted gay world with which he was literally having sex) come out (rather, come clean) to his children, while his ex, who knew he was gay, says that he cheapened the marriage.
It is a great example of American family dysfunctional reality. It reminds me of when my alcoholic father, while making a Bloody Mary after work, would lecture my brother on the evils of weed.
I would love to hear from the kids, especially the “older boy” who “seemed to demand a new truth.” There was no “new truth.” There was only one truth his son deserved; his father was made for unrestricted, unfiltered, and as far as details go, unprotected sex with men. What a great liar and role model for his children. All the other “truths” fall from that one single untold truth.
He even notes the irony: “It was so ironic that I, who had once been so open, now was hesitant, at least in office situations where people knew me as a divorced professor with four children.” (Italics are mine.) The irony isn’t that he had compartments of relationships that never mingled (that he was blissfully unaware of, perhaps). The irony is that he believed he’d been open.
A note about the writing style: he opens sections with a broad over view of what’s coming up. Then, he delves into those episodes with more details. But the details he brings out, and the sequence in which he places them, actually causes more questions than it comes close to answering. Of course, at the end of the section he attempts to sum up what was written, but his conclusions simply start ringing bells of warning. He confuses the time-line at points; so much I wasn’t sure who was doing what and when.
Finally, I don’t think anyone could have missed out on all the historical events that occurred from the end of WWII to 9/11, gay or straight, in any bio no matter what the line of the story is; they were in California during most of the Vietnam War. Did they protest? Did he find a hot hippy? Was he frightened for his sons and the draft?
This unintentional omission, as far as I can tell, reinforces this honestly narcissistic, vapid, self-obsessed presentation of a life: I suspect it’s all very true. And I too am asking, “What was that all about?”