Gay and Alcoholic: A Lost Autobiography

Robert Hutton’s Of Those Alone (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1958) may be the earliest memoir of a gay alcoholic writer.

I came upon the book’s existence serendipitously, while browsing the papers of Marty Mann at Syracuse University. Mann was the first woman to achieve sustained sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous and the founder of the National Council on Alcoholism in 1940. In a letter, Hutton thanked Mann for her help and revealed that he had portrayed her, thinly disguised, in his autobiography — as a character named Temeraire (an anagram of Mann’s nickname, Mart).

During the 1920s, when Hutton encountered Mann in London, she “was apt, when in her cups, to become belligerent and would have taken on and probably defeated Joe Louis.” When sober, by contrast, “she was a sagacious and amusing companion with a raffish insight into other people’s foibles.” Hutton also divulges that Temeraire “prefers women to men,” as did Mann herself, though she fiercely shielded her private life from public scrutiny.

Of Those Alone was written in the wake of the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (1957) — familiarly known as the Wolfenden Report — which recommended that such acts, conducted in private between consulting adults, should no longer be proscribed or prosecuted. There was enormous controversy about these findings, and they did not take effect for a decade.

Published during the long interim, Of Those Alone decried the ignorance and intolerance of the British public. “The average individual,” states the dust jacket, “is baffled by something which appears to him to be both unnatural and vicious, and the tendency is for society to ostracise the offender.” The book, described as a “social document” as well as an “enthralling” human story, poses an issue for every “intelligent reader”: how much was the author a victim of “an outmoded and unimaginative legal ethical system, and how much was he himself to blame for the disasters which came upon him?” Hutton also takes up the prior question: whence homosexuality itself? Congenital or acquired? Destined by Nature or created by Nurture? Or both?

Invented by sexologists, the term homosexual came into use during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Hutton uses homosexual exclusively. He also uses queer twice, but only as an adjective.  

Alcoholic as a noun was the reification of alcoholic as an adjective. This term was coined during same period, and it became entangled with homosexual in an influential 1908 paper by Karl Abraham, the most loyal of Freud’s minions. Abraham asserted that alcohol loosened the inhibitions of same-sex libido. That is, alcohol allowed repressed homosexual desire to be enacted, however vicariously.

The idea was soon stretched into the doctrine that all alcoholics were “latent homosexuals.” This notion held sway into the 1940s, when it was strongly resisted — primarily by Marty Mann, whose many books and lectures promoted the “disease concept” of alcoholism as a clinical entity rather a moral defect. This idea became one of the foundational tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous.[1]

Given Hutton’s his ties to Mann, it is not surprising that he adopted her ideas — but only to a point. “I am a member of that large section of people who believe that Alcoholism is a disease which attacks certain individuals,” he wrote. “The key symptom is the incapacity to moderate drinking or otherwise to accept abstinence as the only way out.”

But Hutton adds in the epilogue to Of Those Alone that he has “discussed the question of homosexuality and alcoholism with many eminent psychiatrists and there is little doubt there is a link. One doctor gave it as his opinion that the incidence of alcoholism among homosexuals is fifty per cent higher than it is among normal people. One does not have to look far to see the reason,” which has nothing to do with any supposed linkage between alcoholism and homosexuality. Rather alcohol serves as an escape from the torment of homosexuals:

“From the moment that a person realizes that he is homosexual, the conflict between instinct and conventional thinking begins. Certain things, which he has been brought up to believe are normal, are impossible for him. Other things, which he has been taught to think wrong, are for him inevitably right. It is not a question of behaviour but of feelings, and feelings are something which we can control, but which we cannot change. . .

“If the legal ban were removed from the practice of homosexual acts between adult men, there would also be removed the burden of fear, of blackmail, of prison and of disgrace under which the homosexual is now condemned to live. And there would be removed that burden of shame which is both unjust and unmerited. . .

“Neither alcoholics nor homosexuals are as they are from choice; they are made that way and there is nothing they can do about it. That is not to say, though, that they are, either of them, monsters. They are human beings, with all the frailties and faults of human beings, and with an added disability to cope with, which is not the lot of the average person.”

Although Of Those Alone has a didactic dimension, the book primarily traces the conjunction, but not a causal linkage, between Hutton’s “ghastly years” as a homosexual and his gradual but irreversible descent into alcoholic hell. The appalling disarray of his life, he asserts, was accountable to his drinking, but the drinking was accountable to the stigma of homosexuality.

Hutton had his first homosexual experience at the age of sixteen. In the army a year later, the underaged Hutton was seduced by a colonel. Out of service after World War One, he cruised the West End. He was arrested one night for soliciting: “I had stayed a little too long; I had walked once too often; I had allowed what I wanted to appear too plainly.” His guilty plea served to reduce his sentence from six to three months. He served another stretch two years later and yet another during his twenties.

Hutton recounts his many affairs, which were increasingly degraded by drinking. The last and most intense led to the death of his lover. He also had an abiding friendship with a woman, who often came to his aid, financial and otherwise, to whom he was eventually married.

Moving from place to place in Europe and America – London to the Midlands, Paris to the Cote d’Azur, New York to San Francisco, and stops in between — Hutton held a variety of jobs, none of them lucrative and all of them transient. His talent, such as it was, lay in quasi-architectural design. But all his forays into business failed.

Alcoholic binges are all alike, but each is horrific in its own way. Hutton’s narrative is far from monotonous because of its broad range of lively persons, places, and things. His experience is recounted with “brutal and astonishingly objective insight,” as the dust jacket says.  Indeed, Hutton’s unflinching exposure of his alcoholic depredations resembles AA’s fourth and fifth steps: an honest and thorough inventory of himself and the sharing of it with another human being.

Years later, Hutton learned that Mann was “tub-thumping for Temperance, all over America . . . Something called Alcoholics Anonymous. All very odd!” The seed was planted, and Hutton followed up an ad for AA in 1947. He attended a meeting in February 1948 during the inaugural days of the London group. “I am on the verge of entering the seventh decade of my life and I have been sober for nine years.”

[1] For some time, the term Alcoholism itself has been dropped by the DSM (Diagnostic Standard Manual), the quasi-Biblical index of psychological pathologies. First the diagnostic category was changed to Alcohol Abuse and now to Alcohol Use Disorder. That is, like everything else, these medical neologies have shifted from binary terms to a continuum model. Drinking is “on the spectrum,” one might say, from teetotalism to Korsakoff’s Syndrome. (AA still clings to the binary idea: you are either an alcoholic or you are not, though there is an incongruous category short of alcoholism: “heavy drinking.”) In effect, what was formerly a “disease” has now reverted to a behavioral choice as well as a medical category, and thus a moral as well as a clinical matter. The irony here is dumbfounding. But there has long been an unresolved tension between involuntary mental diseases and voluntary choices that enact them. For example, drunk driving or driving under the influence or driving while impaired are determined by a “scientific” test for an arbitrary limit of alcohol ingestion and punished severely even if the perpetrator’s Alcohol Use Disorder might arguably be a mitigating factor.

2 thoughts on “Gay and Alcoholic: A Lost Autobiography”

  1. In this illuminating review of a book previously unknown to me, John W. Crowley (whose work is very well known to me) writes “In effect, what was formerly a “disease” has now reverted to a behavioral choice as well as a medical category, and thus a moral as well as a clinical matter. The irony here is dumbfounding.” There is no irony, of course, if we reject the classification of alcoholism as a “clinical matter”. The medical profession is not qualified to comment on the causes of alcoholism, only on its consequences. In fact, they are the last people who should be consulted on alcoholism (and drug addiction) because their training actually emphasizes the need to refrain from making moral judgements. It is difficult for many people to accept the classification of alcoholism as a “moral” issue primarily because, as with the word alcoholism itself, most people have only the vaguest and subjective understanding of what the word actually means.

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