A clinical psychologist who has worked gay men for more than three decades reflects on what it means to survive and figure out a way to live both for the men who endured the upheaval of the HIV epidemic and for the younger men who have come of age since then, at a time when an HIV epidemic is still ravaging the gay community, especially among the most marginalized.
Some sections skew overtly technical, mostly in the chapters that use psychiatrists Erik Erikson and Judith Herman’s theories to expose the long-reaching impact of negative early-life experiences and gay men’s responses to stigma and shame. But as a package, Odets’ trifecta of social commentary, memoir and therapeutic analysis is an astute statement on how to overcome trauma, loss and isolation to live a proud, self-actualized and fulfilling existence as a gay man ... Perhaps the most resonant (and tears-inducing) segments of Out of the Shadows are Odets’ recollections of personal traumas, including the death of his mother when he was a child. The final two chapters in which he describes the long road to coming out and his deep love for his lifelong companion, Matthias, and Matthias’ partner, Hank, are some of the most on-point and beautifully written thoughts on love, acceptance and family I’ve read in some time.
Some of these case studies (and the conclusions Odets draws from them) feel dated and not particularly profound, and Odets is at his best when focusing less on his patients and more on the gay men with whom he has shared his own life. Out of the Shadows finds its purpose in its strong last two chapters, including an extraordinary one focused on Odets’s small chosen family of friends and lovers. Here, his writing is poignant and achingly beautiful—so much so, in fact, that I occasionally had to put the book down to avoid weeping on the subway. There’s sadness in Odets’s life story, but there’s mostly resilience, tenderness and a willingness to fashion an unapologetic gay life, sometimes against all odds. (The exquisitely told story of Odets’s longtime friend and lover, who fled a trailer he shared with a brutally homophobic family and built a life bursting with meaning and intimacy, is the most compelling story of gay self-actualization I’ve ever encountered.)
Out of the Shadows balances its bleak portraits with a faith in therapeutic self-reflection. Odets’s clinical method is to help patients make unconscious feelings available for conscious assessment, so that deeply ingrained behaviors can be recognized and altered ... But what does the book promise for gay communities, collectively? Odets is committed to the idea of diversity but only sporadically attentive to its practices. He criticizes marriage politics for marginalizing 'nonconformers' and fracturing gay social worlds, but his proposed solution to those failures is perhaps even more atomizing ... his scale of analysis—and the tautological imperative that 'we act out of who we are'—risks further narrowing our imagination. Which may be inevitable, given Odets’s therapeutic aims. He writes perceptively about the more local task of constructing an identity with others, risking the vulnerabilities of love and sex without the safety net of social sanction. That challenge still defines gay lives. I should probably confess my deep aversion to the language of 'authenticity' that Odets so values ... Having read Out of the Shadows, I still don’t know if my gay identity is 'whole' or 'expressive of internal agency,' or if I’m acting out of the me that’s most me ... I trust that Odets has saved many...and his book might save many more.