Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled An affecting new memoir frees Carson McCullers—and its writer—from the closet
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

If you’ve read any novel by Carson McCullers, it’s probably The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, her bestselling 1940 debut, which centers on a loose group of outcasts in a small Georgia mill town. At the heart of the story is the touching relationship between two men who cannot verbally articulate their affection, as both are deaf and mute, but who develop a language of care all their own. McCullers’ work for the next 20 years would be populated by characters wrestling with a similar sense of isolation and unbelonging, with unnameable desire. They are often, in the word’s most basic sense, queer.

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For her sensitive treatment of these themes, McCullers has become a sort of patron saint of Southern queer lit, alongside peers Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. While it is generally accepted that she was queer herself, many biographies of her vibrant life struggle to state it explicitly. Essayist Jenn Shapland knew nothing of the author when she discovered her own interest in McCullers’ story. While interning at the archives where McCullers’ papers are held, she pulled requested letters between McCullers and Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach and was struck by their clear romantic tone. Wanting to know more about their relationship, she read everything by and about McCullers she could, but found their affair consistently sidelined for the straight narrative of Carson’s difficult, on-off marriage to Reeves McCullers.

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Frustrated, Shapland decided to start from the beginning, to reconstruct McCullers’ romantic life in her own words. Her most important source would be therapy transcripts from later in McCullers’ life, made available only in 2013, in which Shapland found her own question—was Carson a lesbian?—posed by Reeves himself when the writer was 19. On the porch one evening, Carson quickly denied it before expressing uncertainty, asking, “as though lesbians might be a club that she could consider joining, or an unfamiliar species she might study: How do lesbians behave? Where do they live? How do they interact?” Later in the same conversation, Reeves revisits the subject of when they might be married.

The question of her sexuality never seemed to scare McCullers—“she never hid”—but because she lacked the vocabulary for most of her life to respond for herself, others have answered for her. Shapland’s research uncovers one censorship after another: euphemisms, silence, and outright denial by parties competing to control McCullers’ story—a willful closeting. But if one could animate this book, it’d be with the cartoon trope of the exploding closet, with Shapland opening the door to be buried beneath a mountain of coded letters, chosen families, lavender marriage proposals, trips to Fire Island, and matching lesbian haircuts.

What makes My Autobiography Of Carson McCullers so different in spirit from other takes on McCullers’ story is Shapland’s open partiality. It takes a queer to know one, and as Shapland immerses herself in McCullers’ life, from examining “the patina of her skin” on an archived lighter to reading in the bathtub of Carson’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, she traces her own “protracted becoming.” Their stories, their words—and even, at one point in Shapland’s mind, their faces—overlap as Shapland relates her personal experience in loneliness and love as a lesbian writer living with chronic illness. In concise, affecting, and frequently witty prose, she captures a particular queer disorientation, present and past—“the feeling of not being real”—while calling into question readers’ assumptions about biography and memoir, and who gets to shape the record. By drawing on the work of Audre Lorde, Eileen Myles, Susan Sontag, and Maggie Nelson, Shapland brings a sharp modern lens to her reading of McCullers’ (and her own) life.

Her inquiry into McCullers’ relationship with Schwarzenbach leads Shapland to a long list of lesbian acquaintances and possible girlfriends, and a definite romance with McCullers’ therapist, Mary Mercer. It’s there in the letters, telegrams, and transcripts, their falling in love. Yet Shapland repeatedly confronts its denial: in McCullers’ childhood home that is now a museum, where captioned photos of Carson and Reeves are displayed to tell her life story, while only one of her and Mary (with the matching haircuts) is presented unlabeled; in the director of that same museum, who tells Shapland that he’s heard “in no uncertain terms” that McCullers and Mercer were “never romantically involved.”

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It is this maddening distortion that drives Shapland to call McCullers’ queerness what it is. Not by assigning her an identity she could not claim herself, but by simply taking her at her word. Or as Shapland writes, “When Carson says she was in love, I believe she means she was in love.” For Shapland and countless others who’ve been made to read between the lines of history to understand themselves, it means “recognition. A rendering of my own becoming. A love story I could believe.”

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