- David Leavitt and the Etiological Maternal Body
“My mother made me a homosexual.”
“If I give her enough wool, will she make me one too?”—Graffiti
To notice that there is a frequent maternal presence at the center of certain narratives of male sexuality will strike readers familiar with, or even those possessing a mere passing acquaintance with, the contemporary fiction of David Leavitt as an assertion so demonstrably true as to be banal. Certainly the cluster of texts under primary consideration in this essay—some stories from Leavitt’s debut collection, Family Dancing (1984), and his second novel, Equal Affections (1989)—speak so incessantly of, and perhaps to, the mother that, despite not being narrated from her point of view, they unmistakably position her as the pivotal figure. To speak, on our part, of the mother is not inaccurate, since there is a strong sense that this is a recurring figure; many details link the mothers of disparate stories together, as if to suggest that these women, whatever their names and whoever they are mothers [End Page 439] to, are oddly just manifestations of one being. Several, for instance, are afflicted with cancer: Anna Harrington of “Counting Months,” Louise Cooper of Equal Affections, and the mother in “Radiation.” While the last two women used to work as shipyard welders, the former two seem to be under the treatment of the same doctor, or at least both find themselves attracted by similar fish tanks in the waiting rooms. The resemblance between two mothers, apparently, may even be physical, as both Barbara Campbell of “Territory” and Louise were told, when they were young, that they looked like Gene Tierney. The ease with which these intertextual details can be located arouses a growing suspicion that the narrative is somehow offering up, repeatedly and compulsively, the figure of the mother, in all her different permutations, as if she embodies the trauma that it is trying to work through.
What subtracts from the banality of making these observations is the existence of a coincident set of narratives where the mother occupies a central place: theories concerning the etiology of homosexuality. In 1916, when D. H. Lawrence was asked by Robert Mountsier, his American agent, to pen an article about the fact that women had taken over many men’s jobs during the war, Lawrence refused, saying, according to Paul Delany, that he hadn’t “the guts” to write it:
All I can say is, that in the tearing asunder of the sexes lies the universal death, in the assuming of the male activities by the female, there takes place the horrid swallowing of her own young, by the woman. . . . I am sure woman will destroy man, intrinsically, in this country. But there is something in me, which stops still and becomes dark, when I think of it. . . . I am sure there is some ghastly Clytemnestra victory ahead, for the women. . . .
I don’t want to think about it anymore. . . . My way is elsewhere. It is not I who will stay to see Medea borne up on a chariot in heaven. That belongs to the tearing asunder, of which I have had enough. I am now going out of this Sodom.(qtd. in Delany 281–82)
Despite what seems like a self-imposed taboo against using the word “mother,” Lawrence’s apocalyptic letter depends fully on an equivalency between “the female” or “woman” and her role as mother or, more [End Page 440] accurately, as the archetypal references to Clytemnestra and Medea suggest, as The Mother. There is not only something “intrinsic”—a word pointedly punctuated—about mothering that devours the son, but something unsurprising and inevitable as well; by choosing the conjunction “but” (instead of, say, “And there is something in me . . .”) to explicate his response to women’s destruction of men, Lawrence thus posits the dark fear “in” him as a reaction to an always already existent capacity in mothers—a capacity that brings into existence an entire milieu, “Sodom,” which threatens to destroy male heterosexuality. 1
As striking as the rhetoric of this letter is, the panicked sentiment that it expresses was probably as unstartling, perhaps even...