Memoirs: Chapter One
I doubt the common view that childhood sets the course of one's later life. Rather, I subscribe to the existentialist concept that one creates oneself. Of course we must all confront various obstacles and contingencies that inevitably arise along the way. We cannot simply decree what we will be, but must achieve maturity through a continuous process of negotiation.
For better or worse, I am the one who has made me what I am.
What is personality and how is it shaped? Broadly speaking, there are two opposing models. The first stresses the dominance of our genes, upbringing, and social circumstances. These are the factors that rule. The other model is the individualistic one that emphasizes our freedom of choice. The sky's the limit - or so it seems.
Let me put it to you in another way. Either we are robots, responding to our programming - and nothing more - or angels, living in a utopian state of complete freedom. I lean more to the latter view, but with considerable qualification. At all events, lots of things in my life and conduct were not exactly angelic.
BACKGROUND: THE BASICS
As a rule, genealogy bores me - though I am not averse to acknowledging biological elements in human behavior.
Here is what I know. My ancestors have been on this continent, mainly in the American South, for several generations, dating back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Chiefly of Protestant Irish stock, they were neither Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, nor were they privileged Anglicans.
Both my biological parents came from farming families. The Conways, my father’s folks, maintained a large dairy farm near Fort Worth, Texas. The Colemans, my mother’s less prosperous family, grew cotton at a place called Fate, east of Dallas.
Brant Brown Conway (1907-2002), my biological father, had a knack for the natural sciences. He studied physics at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. My mother Jean (born Mary Geneva Coleman; 1909-1979) came to Fort Worth to work as a secretary. She met my father when she took some night classes at the university. Unlike my dad, however, she never completed her course work. Throughout her life, though, she continued to have a strong interest in literature.
In an influential 1959 lecture, the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow introduced the contrast of the Two Cultures. Snow maintained that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society" was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities. In their separate but equal ways my father and mother combined to illustrate this contrast.
In any event, I was born on August 23, 1934 in Fort Worth, Texas.
It was the middle of the Depression, and times were tough for my father. After a brief stint teaching, Brant found himself unemployed. Eventually his luck changed, and he landed a respectable, well-paying job that played to his intellectual strengths as a guided-missiles specialist for the US Navy. He really was a rocket scientist. Unfortunately, he was a person I rarely saw.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, my parents divorced when I was three years old. My mother then sent me to live with my paternal grandparents on their dairy farm, where I was surrounded by a happy throng (or so it seems to me now) of aunts and uncles.
"GO WEST, YOUNG MAN, GO WEST"
This idyll ended in 1939. My mother had decided to remarry and to go and live with her new husband in Southern California. So she collected me from the farm, and we went by train to San Diego, where Grady Dynes, the new husband, met us. First we lived in San Bernardino, and then in Los Angeles.
It didn’t seem so at the time, but moving to California was probably much to my benefit. Later I took my adoptive father’s surname, changing from (Robert) Wayne Conway to Wayne R. Dynes.
It turned out that my stepfather, who had been educated at Pomona College, had been a Communist in the 1930s. Eventually, he converted my mother to these beliefs, and ipso facto me too. Yet fortified by reading the writings of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, I rebelled, becoming an “ex-Communist” at the tender age of 14. (See Chapter Four, for more information on my political wanderings.)
On only one occasion (the funeral of my grandmother) can I ever remember being taken to a church. My parents were atheists, a creed I found arid - and an excuse, most years, for denying me Christmas presents. So this upbringing boomeranged. It had an effect contrary to the one intended, giving me a strong interest in religion. Young people find things that are taboo inherently attractive. Yet this counterparental straying was not strong enough to make me convert to a particular faith.
When I was six years old, a neighbor boy Jimmy, who was about twelve years old, inducted me into his male harem. Gathering in his parents’ garage, we would take our clothes off and play with each others' penises. Some would say that these early experiences--which were enjoyable and never exposed to public knowledge--”made me” a homosexual. That I doubt.
Was it pedophilia? No, because we were just kids. And there was no penetration.
We all have our own personal horrors. One of them, for me, is the idea that a child might be forced to undergo penile penetration of the mouth, anus, or vagina.
What I experienced with Jimmy and his charges was erotic play, but not sex in any fundamental sense. It was more akin to “playing doctor.”
In my view one of the problems with the current concern with pedophilia, from whatever side it stems, is that it tends to conflate degrees of involvement that need to be carefully distinguished.
My stepfather’s alcoholism kept him from providing properly for his family. Accordingly, my mother took a job at Camp Haan, a burgeoning army base located in the vicinity of Riverside, California. There was a war on. She soon rose to a position of responsibility in the personnel department, where she often had to work overtime. Since she felt that I could not be left at home alone after school, she found a friendly family living in Lake Arrowhead, a resort in the mountains, who would take me in. I was eight years old.
At first troubled by this exile, I soon adjusted to it. There were two other kids boarding with this family, a boy and a girl, both ten years old, but with different parents. Donny and Joyce were two years older than me. Yet Joyce and I were from stable, well-educated families. By contrast, Donny came from a broken home. Interacting in this dynamic gave me my first crash course in playground negotiation. As an only child I was at first unequipped to compete. Nonetheless, I learned the ropes quickly. Since two of us inevitably paired up, one was always left out in the cold. Gender, age, or personality often determined who was linked to whom in our little game of musical chairs.
At Lake Arrowhead there was swimming in the summer and skiing and tobogganing in the winter. As there were so few of us, school was taught in an old-fashioned schoolhouse, with all six primary grades grouped together in one class. In those days there was much sympathy for the Chinese as victims of Japanese aggression, so our teacher chose China as the subject of a year-long project. In this connection we all learned to make pots out of clay. (The Chinese were of course the inventors of porcelain). Once the piece had been fired, what a thrill it was to hold in my hands the finished product of my own endeavor! Today I collect ceramics. The experience was also the beginning of my life-long concern with Chinese culture - literature, art, and calligraphy.
In the spring of 1943 I rejoiced to learn that I would be welcomed back to live with my parents, who had moved to Los Angeles. Grady, my stepfather, seemed to have conquered his alcoholism. As far as I could tell, he remained sober for a good many years, though late in life he reverted to the old ways. Handicapped by this problem, he had failed in his earlier attempts at establishing himself in several professions. Finally he found a job with the US Railway Postal Administration, sorting mail on the trains that plied back and forth to Flagstaff, Arizona. Writing, his first love, was of necessity put pretty much on hold, but he adored the trains.
Grady had received an excellent education at the elite Pomona College. He particularly revered James Joyce. For a while my parents hosted a writer's club in their home, where participants would read their writings for an instant critique. From my point of view, Grady was an excellent stepfather who never beat me or even administered a harsh word. From him comes my interest in writing.
At first we lived in a small apartment in Hollywood. I went to Cahuenga Elementary School nearby. Many years later I was to learn that Harry Hay, eventually to become the founder of the American gay movement, had attended that same school twenty years before. I like to think that in some occult way his spirit had lingered on that spot where it ministered kindly to me.
At all events we scraped together some money and bought a house near Venice Boulevard and Crenshaw in LA, then a respectable middle-class district. Even though the mortgage payments were low my parents struggled to meet them. The reason was my mother’s mental illness which set in a while after after we had moved. To this day I do not understand her exact condition, but she was incapacitated and had to be moved to a series of institutions over a period of about a year. To finance these stays, my stepfather (whose loyalty to my mother never wavered) borrowed money from various shady loan firms, Years of scrimping and saving were needed to pay these debts off. Thus burdened, our status went down - from solid middle class to genteel poverty. As a rule I had only two pairs of pants, wearing one while the other was being laundered. One year the pants shrank, but I had to wear them anyway. My mother excelled at preparing economical dishes, some of them barely edible. Sometimes I was sent out to buy horsemeat from the pet store.
During most of these years we couldn’t even afford a car. Being carless was not as bad as it sounds, because in those days LA had a surprisingly good public transportation system. By the time I got to high school, though, our lack of wheels was an embarrassment, for not only did other families have cars, so did many of my peers, other teenagers.
My mother and stepfather had generally sensible views about parenting. They made me eat my vegetables, and retire at an early hour (for a long time at 9 PM). In the fourth grade Maxwell B., who became my best friend, introduced himself by saying: "I see you have a vitamin mother too." We both had sandwiches made out of wheat bread, instead of the awful white stuff the other kids received.
Faced with their own problems, my parents left other things pretty much up to my (immature) judgment. Photographs reveal that I was an unkempt urchin with poor hygiene. I suppose that mom and dad thought that in due course I would correct these faults - as I did, eventually. But the damage was done. I was a loner, and my naive uncouthness intensified the isolation.
My unpopularity increased as it became apparent that I needed to wear glasses to correct my nearsightedness. For a while I had a progressive condition in which the correction - and the thickness of the glass - had to be increased every year or so. This condition made me a "four-eyes."
The world of reading was my refuge of choice. Starting in the sixth grade I became an avid consumer of science fiction. My stepfather had begun bringing in copies of Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, leading examples of the pulp magazines that were then the main vehicles of this genre. Basically, I was drawn to the trend known as space opera, where an intrepid adventurer, brainy but brawny as well, confronts challenges on an interplanetary or interstellar scale. In this category my special favorite was the Captain Future series in which the hero is accompanied by several interesting companions, including a robot and an android. My favorite, though, was his counselor Simon, who was just a brain in a box.
Science fiction had great appeal for nerdy teenagers. For me, though, it also served as a kind of bridge connecting the two cultures of science and the humanities.
The covers of the magazines often showed scantily clad women in transparent space suits. Sometimes they would be threatened by the dreaded BEMs (bug-eyed monsters). Yet inside the mag there was nothing sexual; in fact any notice of the subtleties of human character was minimal, for the yarn was the thing. Finally, in 1948 Arthur C. Clarke’s early masterpiece “Against the Fall of Night” showed that science-fiction novels could in fact be more ambitious. But I was ready to move on to other things.
Other reading fare beckoned. At first I responded to books on astronomy (as one might expect), and on architecture and city planning, but in due course it emerged that the humanities were more my bent. I developed a strong interest in history, reading popular biographies of such figures as Cleopatra, Genghis Khan, and Frederick the Great of Prussia.
I also became interested in languages. My bible in this area was Frederick Bodmer’s Loom of Language (1944). Although it was a popular work, this book did provide a good deal of useful information on the principles of linguistic analysis, together with starter accounts and vocabularies of major tongues, most of them European. For more solid information I turned to the works of Otto Jespersen, a Danish linguist, then at the top of the field. Among other things, Jespersen was involved in the cause of artificial or international languages. The best known of these was Esperanto, which I studied for a time. Dr. Lejzer Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish-Jewish oculist, had created it in the 1880s by combining features of a number of European languages. Yet these were not his only source, for later when I went to Turkey I recognized that Esperanto had borrowed the principles of word formation found in Turkic languages.
In his youth working in the alfalfa fields in California, my stepfather had become fluent in Spanish. I began the study of that language in junior high school. However, I was never much taken with Spanish, and decided to teach myself French. While I read French books with ease now, I never took a formal course in the language. Much later the Spanish came in handy during my travels in Latin America.
I also became interested in fine literature - the classics. In the aftermath of World War II, Goethe was being promoted as the model of a “good German.” He was also hailed by Lancelot Law Whyte as a “unitary process thinker.” I got hold of a volume of Goethe translations ostensibly selected by Thomas Mann. These renderings were so wooden that I couldn’t make much out of them. I only learned German later, when I was in college.
From the public library I took out a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Since I had been raised in a purely secular household, the religious message of the Italian writer seemed strange and transgressive--as if I had somehow wandered into an opium den or porno palace. For a while I could not accept that Dante, clearly a very intelligent man, actually believed what he had written. I thought that the Commedia was a satire. Prompted by the example of Leo Strauss, some scholars have maintained something like this view for Plato and a few other eminent thinkers, though not I believe for Dante Alighieri.
With all this book-worm stuff it was almost inevitable that I would go to work at the Los Angeles Public Library, where I served as a page, beginning when I was in the ninth grade. The pay was meager, 75 cents an hour, and I devoted most of what I earned to buying books. This was the beginning of my book mania: I now house some 14,000 volumes in my New York apartment.
I also became involved with classical music. This connection began casually. When I was in the fourth grade our school did a production of Hansel and Gretel, the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck. I was in the chorus. This was in the middle of World War II, so we were told that the two kids were not German but Dutch! This is the earliest example known to me of revising history in the interest of Political Correctness.
In those days Los Angeles had an excellent music station, KFAC, and I would listen late at night when my parents thought I was asleep, my ear glued to the tiny radio. At first I could make almost nothing out of it. One night though they played Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, and all became clear. I had arrived at an intuitive understanding of sonata form and the pattern of movements--fast, slow, fast--that governed a typical symphony. To this day I am grateful to Schumann (or rather his shade) for providing this beneficial lesson. Later, I came to dislike most of the other romantic composers, preferring baroque and modern music. Broadway musicals, such a gay favorite, never had much appeal for me. I tried several times to learn to play the piano, but since my parents couldn't afford a teacher I failed to progress.
With my interest in literature and classical music, I was well on the way to becoming a confirmed “culture vulture.” What I didn’t anticipate is that this proclivity would migrate to the visual arts, the field where I was ultimately to earn my living.
At the beginning of this chapter I dissented from the view, still rife in some quarters, that childhood experiences are decisive for the course of one's later life. Rather, I emphasized the creative role of the individual in responding to circumstances.
The circumstances to which I responded show certain patterns. On reflection it seemed to me that some variety of situation - in my case differences of geography and the familial constellation - is stimulating. There must not be too much variety, though, for that is destabilizing. The contrasting appeal of the two models, science vs. the humanities, also helped, even though I ended up choosing the latter. While I ultimately rejected both atheism and Communism. this exposure helped me on the way to thinking for myself - and not just accepting the conventional wisdom, an all-too- common stance in those decades of conformity.