Queer Therapy


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written the kind of book she has always been accused of. Queer theory, with which Sedgwick’s name has become near synonymous since the publication in 1990 of Epistemology of the Closet, is characterized by its critics as therapy conducted in print, a forum for self-indulgent academics to ruminate publicly on their unhappy childhoods and personal sexual histories. A Dialogue on Love confronts this cheap shot head on and turns it elegantly around on itself: Sedgwick has produced a fascinating memoir of her childhood, her sexuality, and, well, her therapy. And she’s done it in haibun, a form she borrows from 17th-century Japan by way of James Merrill, that studs prose with haiku. And she’s interspersed her own words with excerpts from her therapist’s notes. If this sounds like a bit of a mess, it is, but an oddly inviting and ultimately moving one.

Sedgwick went into therapy in 1992, a year and a half after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Having survived a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, she found herself inexplicably depressed to still be alive. Dialogue is hemmed in by death and disappearance; one of her former students is diagnosed with and succumbs to AIDS in the course of the book, and by its close Sedgwick’s own condition is worsening. Yet the book has a ruminative and leisurely air, as if Sedgwick’s encounter with her therapist granted her a weekly reprieve from the pressure of these losses. In the process of recounting her emergence from depression, Sedgwick also offers insight into the connections between lived experience and literary criticism. An account of surviving despair, Dialogue is also an intellectual autobiography.

Sedgwick has written about herself before, and about the anomaly of her status as a gay studies guru who is also heterosexual and married. Dialogue fleshes out the story by focusing on her alienated childhood, which couldn’t read more queerly. Pale, chubby, and eerily smart, Evie Kosofsky was regarded by her darkly handsome family as a sort of changeling: “They were apt to treat me as a kind of independent contractor living in the house—or ambassador of a neighboring principality, maybe.” As a kid who had to convince her parents she really belonged to them, Sedgwick developed a habit for improbable affiliations that eventually led to her intense identification with gay men, and her bid to be accepted and loved “as an essential, central member of a queer family.” It was an attempt whose sheer absurdity constituted, for Sedgwick, its most compelling attraction; as one haiku sums up, “It’s like a big dare,/also like a big/allegory about love.”

We also learn a good deal about her frequently frightening sexual fantasies, many of them revolving around elaborately staged scenes of punishment. These passages are interesting enough on their own, and they also offer a genealogy for her passionate academic work. Knowing how Sedgwick’s fantasy life links shame and enjoyment, we understand more clearly her criticism’s awareness of the embarrassingly intimate nature of reading pleasure.

Sedgwick’s unlikely interlocutor in these dialogues is a therapist named Shannon Van Wey. Straight, white, “big-faced, cherubic,/barrel chest, long arms, short legs,/Rumpelstiltskin-like,” Shannon has definitely never read Sedgwick’s notorious essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”; Sedgwick spends several hilarious pages fretting about his air of complacency and his gift for “guyish banalization.” Still, he is agile and open-minded, and the dorky avuncularity proves part of his charm (responding gamely to one of Sedgwick’s s/m fantasies, Shannon offers, “That part where the one guy is tapping on the stick in the other guy’s ass—I like that detail, I can feel it”). The notes that he takes on their discussions, large portions of which are reproduced here, are alternately baffled and insightful. Over time, the pronouns indicating therapist and patient begin to waver confusedly, as if “Shannon” and “Eve” are just different attitudes taken toward the shared problem of Sedgwick’s depression. Probably, Shannon is just good at his job—and yet the quality of this partnership has an urgency and a sweetness that makes it read more like a love story than a case study.

It’s hard not to admire Sedgwick’s nerve in choosing this approach for a book apparently designed to reach an audience outside the academy (Dialogue is her first book to be published by a non-university press). Despite its patent artificiality, the book’s form proves surprisingly versatile in reproducing the halting rhythms of thought and speech. As Sedgwick puts it, the haiku are “the fat, buttery condensations and inky dribbles of the mind’s laden brush.” They capture precisely the way we attach a sense of ceremony to certain phrases, italicizing, savoring or stumbling over the words as we arrive at them. As she relates it here, the haibun form was developed to recount journeys, and its peripatetic feel suits this meandering narrative.

Sedgwick reports that since her cancer diagnosis she’s become obsessed with crafts and weaving—the concrete joys of “making stuff” offering relief from more troublingly abstract concerns. This book, densely colorful but deliciously extracurricular in tone and form, partakes of a similar aesthetic. Sedgwick, whose academic work has been
attacked for its obscurity, has rarely written this accessibly. It’s disarming to learn that this radical critic refers to her husband of 25 years as her “fella,” and there’s equal enjoyment in seeing this fiercely analytic theorist of homosexual identity as she uses her gaydar to suss out look delicate. Or gay.”). One of the right’s favorite critiques of queer theory is that it”s “masturbatory”—to which this book prompts the obvious response: so what? Dialogue reminds you that it’s impossible to separate public intellectual pursuits from private erotic ones; it also definitively proves that there are pleasures to be had in watching someone enjoy herself.

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