- Secret Life by Michael Ryan
Bloomsbury, 352 pp, £7.99, February 1996, ISBN 0 7475 2545 5
Michael Ryan’s memoir, Secret Life, is a book essentially unthinkable before the triumph of the therapeutic in contemporary American life. By virtue of its core subject-matter – the consequences of Ryan’s sexual molestation when he was five and what he terms his subsequent ‘sexual addiction’ as an adult – it raises the ante enormously in the matter of sexual revelation and explicitness. You can either applaud Ryan for the honesty with which he relates the queasy-making particulars of his sexual experiences – including near-intercourse with his dog during a period of frenzied adolescent wanking and his predation on his female students as a university writing instructor – or censure him for importing the manipulative pseudo-sincerity of the television talk-show and the jargon of Alcoholics Anonymous into the literary memoir. In a review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani warned of ‘an approach that will be familiar to anyone who watches Oprah or Geraldo, an approach that is bound to become more popular in book-stores as the recovery movement insinuates itself deep inside the American psyche’. Writing more favourably in the Times Book Review, Daphne Merkin called Secret Life ‘an extraordinarily absorbing and disquieting memoir’. It is between these two poles of censoriousness and uneasy empathy that most readers will shuttle as they attempt to resolve their own feelings about what Merkin calls Ryan’s ‘misshapen and opaque life’.
Ryan doesn’t help matters: he has essentially written two books in Secret Life – one a sexual confession full of shocking and shameful material, the other a more conventional account of a certain kind of mid-20th century growing-up that I, like Ryan an American Irish Catholic in my mid-forties, can attest is accurate. For much of Secret Life the reader can share the younger Ryan’s obliviousness to his early sexual violation and soak up the details of an American boy-hood and adolescence, until something compulsive and upsetting reminds us that Ryan’s early trauma has shaped not just his libido but his whole character – or so he convinces us.
It is the sexual material that Ryan initially brings to the foreground, in as offputting a first chapter as you are ever likely to read. He describes himself as a sex addict in the grip of an irresistible need to seduce, with a special preference for teenage girls. To Princeton and other campuses he came, burning with an indiscriminate, bisexual and, in the age of Aids, potentially fatal lust. Peppering this recitation of consummations real and imagined are the catch-phrases of 12-step programmes: ‘with God’s help one day at a time’, ‘The substance I used was human beings.’ That compulsive sexual behaviour is an ‘addiction’ is something Ryan nowhere feels the need to explain – this in itself speaks volumes about the influence of the recovery movement. Over-eaters, over-shoppers, over-workers – everyone has their confessional niche. Byron famously remarked that ‘Augustine in his fine Confessions makes the reader envy his transgressions’; no such envy is likely to arise from reading Ryan’s accounts of his joyless couplings. He reached his lowest point when he found himself driving hundreds of miles one weekend with the sole purpose of seducing a friend’s teenage daughter, before pulling himself back from the brink of such a disastrous action.