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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Friday, May 25, 2012

'Thursday's Child' is Good and Gay

Thursday’s Child: A Gay Man's Memoir Told in Sessions of his Psychotherapy by Phil Cooper is a poignant, personal account of what it was like growing up gay in a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Baltimore from 1935, the year of his birth, to 1980.   Gay men who recall that era and their own experiences would certainly appreciate this memoir.  And younger LGBT people would get a sense of gay life prior to Stonewall.
Cooper decides to employ the services of a psychiatrist because of a fundamental question in his mind about his capacity to love and to achieve intimacy with another person.  The psychiatrist is a patient, calm and engaging professional who rather adroitly grasped the complexities contained in Cooper’s life and was eventually able to become Cooper’s beacon in unraveling the torments that have plagued him.

The unique structure of the book allows Cooper to discuss with the psychiatrist in vivid detail his relationships with family members, fellow students, business associates and love interests—anyone who has been part of his life—and how the burden of growing up gay during that particular place and time had taken a toll on his ability to forge genuine and intimate connections and to understand the nature of love. 

Cooper candidly brings to the surface his feelings to the therapist as they pertain to various people and events in his life. These one-hour, weekly sessions began March 1979 when Cooper was 44 and concluded in August 1980.  During that timeframe there were 72 such sessions but only 24—one-third of them—were depicted in the memoir.  The question begs, what transpired during the other sessions?

How these incidents and events in his life are presented form the foundation of the book.  Cooper recounts a specific memory each session, which effectively is the equivalent of a chapter in a novel.  After Cooper provides a re-cap of each that includes dialogue among the principals, the psychiatrist weighs in and engages the patient.  Then the two analyze what was said, and with the skilled hand of the psychiatrist guiding him, Cooper gradually achieves greater self-understanding.

Giving a nod to literary license, the reader must overlook the reality that Cooper could not have possibly recalled specific conversations, meals, drinks, or even Bridge hands from years, even decades in the past.  Cooper’s recounting of a day he was potty-trained by his mother and the instructions he received from her strained credulity.  But these events did occur as the author remembers them, and such minutiae were likely re-created for the benefit of the readers.

Phil Cooper

Most of the episodes conveyed during therapy were beautifully written and poetic in some instances.  Superbly presented detailed descriptions and good pacing helped to portray the angst that Cooper had to confront. 

Those that were especially riveting include descriptions of Cooper’s sexual encounters with an early lover, his experiences in Europe, the investigation of his homosexuality by Army officers, his drug-induced running through Bolton Hill in the nude after he jettisoned the Barracks Baths, a moving and dramatic conversation with his father, and a confrontation with his company’s co-manager.

A flaw in this work, however, is the scattershot sequence of the episodes.  While the therapy sessions were chronological, the incidents were not—one when he was older, another when he was younger, no timeline, bouncing around.  It was difficult to assess the cumulative effect these  events had on Cooper’s psyche when presented in this manner as it lacked context.  It is tantamount to randomly placing photographs of a person at various points in his life on a table but not in any order; discerning the person’s physical progression would be a challenge.

Nonetheless, I recommend this book to observe how a gay man in that era faced the trauma of coming out to family, friends and business associates; the disgrace of being discharged from the military because of being gay; the feeling of isolation, and the fear of being intimate with a person and how therapy enabled him to overcome those hurdles.  Many of us could easily relate to Cooper’s experiences and his anger at being unconnected, being left out. 

In addition, a number of familiar places in Baltimore were identified, which should appeal to Charm City locals.  Phil Cooper, who still resides in Baltimore, overcame the struggles and torments of his past, and with the help of this psychotherapy, he has lived a successful life. 

Thursday’s Child: A Gay Man's Memoir Told in Sessions of his Psychotherapy; Phil Cooper; Authorhouse; Feb. 2012;  244 pages, hard cover (ISBN: 978-1-5685-4616-3), soft cover (ISBN: 978-1-4685-4617-0) and e-book (ISBN: 978-1-4685-4615-6).

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