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.
From this nadir and, we are led to believe, turning-point, Ryan returns to an episode of childhood molestation that he describes in a manner as coolly observant as the previous chapter was overheated. For about a year the young Ryan was molested in the attic studio of a neighbour’s house by Bob Stoller, a Korean War veteran who had set up shop as a child photographer. The molester gained the young Ryan’s trust and then, his seduction achieved, skilfully turned his victim’s sense of violation into the sort of shame that would guarantee his silence. The end came when Stoller’s mother discovered her son with Ryan in suspicious circumstances, and soon Stoller departed town. Noting his own ‘eagerness’ in their final meeting, Ryan says: ‘I believe the most insidious part of sexual abuse is in the creation of desire in the molested child, the way it forms a shape for desire that can never again be fulfilled, only substituted for and repeated, unless – if he’s lucky and can find help – he ceases to identify with the molester.’
One of the great virtues of Secret Life is that the themes of sexual molestation and disorder so powerfully stated at the outset disappear for long stretches of his subsequent account of an All-American Fifties and Sixties adolescence. Ryan enlists the reader in the mystery of what is and is not the effect of Bob Stoller on his own subsequent behaviour. By the age of ten he ‘forgot’ Stoller, but the sense of badness, always acute in Catholic kids, ‘burrowed so deeply I couldn’t connect it to anything outside, to something that happened to me or something that I had done. It was simply there.’
Ryan made me realise how creepy much of what I took for granted as normal in the Fifties really was. Take booze. His father, it almost goes without saying, was an alcoholic. Paul Ryan’s drinking did not interfere with his work as an accountant, but his nightly binges in the basement bar affected the entire family, especially Michael Ryan, the youngest of three children. They learned to transact important business in the hungover mornings and to dread the sodden, unpredictable evenings. Physically Paul Ryan was a wreck, with high blood pressure and angina and a battery of pills to control them, but none of this affected his daily intake of bacon and eggs, steaks and chops, two packs of cigarettes (unfiltered) and a fifth of whiskey (blended). (He died at 55 in the classic Fifties manner: a heart attack.) His lecture to Ryan on sex was worse than a parody: ‘Gonna talk to you about sex. When you’re with a woman, wear a rubber.’ And he bequeathed to his son the weak, insecure, resentful man’s touchy sense of his own ‘toughness’: ‘There was one thing I should always remember. I was a Ryan. Just keep that under my hat.’
A good deal of the pleasure to be had from Secret Life is due to the fact that Ryan gets so much down and so exactly right. The obsessive, badge-collecting culture of the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts; the equally obsessive (and obsequious) indulgence-counting piety encouraged in Catholic grammar schools – ‘JMJ’ inscribed on every letter and piece of homework, altar boys volunteering for grim 6 a.m. Mass duty (‘I happily offered it up for the Suffering of Christ’), the mental contortions of deciding whether one had a ‘vocation’ for the priesthood; the care and sculpting of elaborate DA haircuts; the unspoken but ironbound ethnic geography of class pecking-order in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Ryan grew up; the sweaty rituals of pre-pubescent slow-dance parties (‘Fifteen couples, pressing and caressing as if to fuse their nervous systems ... There were enough pheromones in that basement to ripen a warehouse of green peaches’).
Sport, then even more than now, was the proving-ground of American virility and self-respect. How good you were at games determined how respected you were in the society of boys; how much you were noticed and doted on by adults, especially men; how much you thought of yourself. In baseball Ryan enjoyed one spectacular season as a pitcher by virtue of an eccentric wind-up and delivery, becoming cocky and overbearing about it, until some older players in the next league up proved with their bats what an unrepeatable fluke that season was. Ryan then became a skilful bowler, only to be drunkenly berated by his father for missing a perfect 300 game. (He quit bowling soon after.)
The two major pathologies of Secret Life – sexual predation and the cult of ‘toughness’ – intersect in Ryan’s portrait of Casey Connor, his baseball and basketball coach. An ex-paratrooper with the élite Big Red One division, Connor inflicted his win-at-all-costs ethic and ruthless discipline and tactics on his pre-teen charges. Like Richard Nixon he referred to himself in the third person; like the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi he constantly repeated: ‘Winning’s not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.’ Connor’s hypermasculinity and aggression masked an even more serious problem: paedophilia. His ‘one-on-one’ coaching sessions were screens for molestation: one of Ryan’s best friends maintained sexual contact with Connor through high school and college. Years later Connor was sent to prison for child abuse, where he met the fate common to ‘short eyes’: death at the hands of other inmates. This is real American Gothic.
Next is high school. ‘Humiliation, in a thousand forms, was a fact of daily life. Who was (and who wasn’t) the best-looking, the best athlete, the toughest, the smartest. Who was sharp and who was dorky. Judgment, ranking, pecking order. I participated wholeheartedly.’ Gifted with brains and wit, but burdened by pugnacity and social maladroitness, Ryan managed to turn himself into the school oddball and pariah: ‘My nickname freshman year was “Menu” because I had so many food fights in the cafeteria you could usually tell what was being served that day by looking at my shirt.’ It is a convincing self-portrait of a young creep and class clown.
The creepiness expressed itself in his fledgling sexual experiments. One of the best cameos in the book is of Freddy DeLuca, the sort of terminally smutty-minded kid who would take the epithet ‘sex fiend’ to be a compliment. Freddy had a basement well stocked with Playboy, a neighbourhood route for peeping Tom expeditions, a relentlessly foul mouth, a technical expertise in masturbation that amounted to near genius. Ryan began a string of weird, half-consummated flirtations, wordless and sexually-charged episodes of footsy and massage with girls in his classes and his sister’s friends, barely sublimated sex without a shred of intimacy. His adolescent chubbiness shed, Ryan had some success in dating, but rarely dated the same girl more than twice, having ‘gotten as far’ as the strict zoning regulations of heavy petting allowed. ‘It was as if the boundaries of myself were the boundaries of what I could get away with sexually.’
Even Ryan’s intellectual gifts found their expression, at high school and later at Notre Dame, in episodes of fraudulence and overweening competitiveness: he won a national science contest by cooking the data on a botched biology experiment. His academic achievements gave him ‘a charge like sex’. Like many academically-successful students, Ryan’s compulsive ticket-punching and campus preening masked fears of inadequacy. An episode in which he experiences a hallucination of Stoller during a near-fatal car accident while on the way to an interview for a prestigious fellowship powerfully suggests the way in which that violation shadowed his every action. Again, seduced himself by a male Notre Dame professor, Ryan suddenly remembers having had sex with Stoller, his will to forget demolished by the recurrence.
Secret Life leaves much untold and unexamined, however. We get nothing of Ryan’s post-collegiate career, his marriages, his development into a skilled and compulsive seducer. The final chapter circles back to his endgame at Princeton. His descriptions of his sexual ‘invasions’ of his students ring disturbingly true, as does his self-loathing (‘I had felt this way my whole life, but I had never felt it more intensely, a bitter self-pity impacted to the core’), but his remorse and his dawning awareness of himself seem synthetic. Speaking of one lover/victim, Ryan’s language turns wooden and second-hand: ‘Her guilt was part of my abuse of her, every bit as much as my guilt was part of Bob Stoller’s abuse of me ... She was only one in a long line of students with whom I re-enacted my own sexual abuse.’ The book concludes with a stagey revelation of his ‘discovery’ that his mother might have known of Stoller’s reputation, and with a confrontation and bestowal of absolution: ‘I told my mother it was okay. I told her I didn’t want to be angry with her anymore for who I was.’ This is unfortunate, in the smug assumption that forgiveness is Ryan’s to offer as well as in the clichéd phrasing.
Ryan’s association with Sex Addicts Anonymous has clearly helped him; the troubling question that shadows Secret Life, however, is whether the price of such a transformation is buying into a belief system that blunts sharpness of perception and expression. As they say in AA, ‘It works if you work it.’ Ryan might well ask why he should stop ‘working it’ in his memoir when it has ‘worked’ well enough in his life. In contemporary America many people are seeking release from self-defeating and destructive patterns of behaviour, and the recovery movement often delivers. But the recovery process is one of gradual and sometimes dramatic externalisation; of opening up, not a journey into the interior. Though people who speak at recovery meetings may tell compelling, cathartic narratives, these do not instantly qualify as literature.
One of the most apposite of the 12-step slogans that walk the boundary between the trite and the profound could serve as this book’s epigraph: ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets.’ Michael Ryan has told us his in a fashion that mixes art and therapy in unsatisfying proportions. The result remains powerfully disturbing in ways that more smoothly related memoirs never come near.