Beyond Abuse: Modeling Repair in Jonathan Alexander’s “Bullied”

March 25, 2022   •   By Will Clark

Bullied: The Story of an Abuse

Jonathan Alexander

“IT TAKES A lot more than clarity to keep someone going,” Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart explain in The Hundreds, an experimental, genre-bending project on writing and worldmaking published in 2019. “[T]here’s more at stake than just knowing.” Both professors working in gender and sexuality studies, Berlant and Stewart jettison traditional academic writing to assemble sketches and reflections on everyday life with a conceptual bent. Using the personal as an entryway to literary theory’s more abstract mode of thinking, they ask: What can we learn by considering theory through lived experience?

These questions linking selfhood, genre, and social theory are the foundation of Jonathan Alexander’s recent book, Bullied: The Story of an Abuse. Published in late 2021, Bullied orbits around a half-remembered abuse by an uncle that drove Alexander to fear his own queerness through his early adult life. In a nonlinear narrative that is part memoir and part critical reflection, Alexander — an editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books — processes the way abuse amplified the homophobia that already saturated his world in the South of the 1970s and 1980s. Along the way, he explores how the internalized homophobia that dominated his young adult experience — as someone marrying a woman and at starting his academic career — shaped and continues to shape his experience now as gay man married to another man and as a tenured professor of English in California. Along the way, Alexander connects his personal experience being bullied and abused to a broader culture of hostility toward queer people, a culture that shapes and, in its way, distorts gay subjects.

As Bullied weaves between memories of the past and reflections on queer life now, Alexander wonders: How do men, especially young men, learn not to become a “penetrable male”? How do abuse, bullying, and other forms of trauma work together to shape how queer people adapt to a hostile world? Most troublingly, he asks: “[W]hat happens if [a] totalizing event, the traumatic occurrence, is one you think might have happened, but maybe didn’t”? Following Berlant and Stewart, he agrees that “there is more at stake than just knowing.” Perhaps it’s the process of telling the tale that matters.

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Bullied begins with a jolt. Alexander describes being “in my mid-twenties, talking on the phone with the woman I will soon be marrying” — and reveals the way the impending marriage spurs him to use the word “‘abuse’ to talk about my first sexual experiences.” Growing increasingly unsettled at the prospect of marriage, Alexander recounts beginning to realize that marriage would not satisfy desires to which he could not yet put a name. In this way, he lingers on a feeling perhaps familiar to many: the unexpectedness of seeing himself as queer when, in many ways, his life had felt secured by its normative trajectory. What jolts is pairing this realization with the more particular — though by no means unique — memory of abuse.

More unsettling about Alexander’s encounter with marriage, queerness, and abuse at the start of the book is that his moment of self-realization is abruptly interrupted, his agency removed. Alexander relates how, days before he’s to be married, he starts sobbing uncontrollably, to which his father responds: “I think I know what it is. You’re a homosexual.” After this, Alexander confesses having been molested by his uncle and feeling that “‘it’s given me these thoughts, these feelings … I don’t know what to do.’ That was as close as I could get to the truth at the time.” In this foundational moment, Alexander recounts what could have been a coming-out moment subsumed by the specter of abuse, forever linking queerness with trauma, perversion, and disempowerment in his mind.

This initial scene of lost agency introduces a sequence of questions about Alexander’s own relation to experiences “with shame-inducing homophobia” that he’s tried to unpack since. More tellingly, this opening conflict between normativity’s allure and queerness’s uncertainty metaphorizes Alexander’s strategy of suspense, which applies to his description of queerness and abuse alike. Though abuse appears in the book’s title, readers only belatedly encounter the resurgent memory of being molested by his uncle in a movie theater when he was a boy. In withholding its details, Alexander moves away from seeing trauma as a revelation, without diminishing its harsh effects.

If this seems a bit confusing, that is by design. More than telling a cohesive life story, the project of the book is to trace the ways trauma refracts over a life. The book addresses these refractions indirectly, and we’re left to reconstruct a narrative that Alexander himself seems to wish us to find opaque. After divorcing his first wife and marrying a man (Alexander withholds details about both marriages), his narrative chronicles memories and desires that still inflect his now stable life as professor. These memories erupt across the book: he remembers being given an enema by his father at a young age and speculating that his gayness is linked to the memory; he remembers having an orgasm after being tied up by his wife and wondering about the pleasure of this play; he asks what it means that he thought it “totally OK to think of men while masturbating if I was dominating them” because the power exchange in such fantasies “somehow reinforced my sense of my own masculinity.” Readers meander through these memories, while Alexander purposefully keeps specifics and narrative cohesion at bay.

In the process, he forces readers to inhabit uncertain territory. In meandering through rather than documenting the direct experiences of his abuse, Alexander emphasizes the lasting “psychic damage” of being treated with “scorn and contempt and hatred.” At the same time, he purposefully blunts our access to scenes of pain, instead focusing our attention on its lingering effects. We’re left to confront the feeling Alexander himself describes as being in limbo, caught between feeling a “diffusion of agency” and a “saturation of the world around me with threat.”

These memories are often raw and unsettling. And that very rawness speaks to Alexander’s broader intellectual interest in the longstanding association between gay men and perversity. In this way, the experimental mix of the personal and the theoretical in Bullied extends from Alexander’s previous book, Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (2017), which one reviewer called a “meta exercise in memoir writing” and that Alexander described as a “‘critical memoir’ mixing personal narrative, textual analysis, and theoretical speculation.” On the one hand, Alexander traces experiences of internalized homophobia that are well documented among gay men like himself, and that continue to have powerful afterlives today. On the other, he wishes to mine the depths of what it feels like to understand the history of homophobia intellectually and to live with its effects nonetheless.

This bridge between the personal and theoretical speaks to a rising interest — especially among academically minded queer authors — in using the self as a site to demonstrate queer theory’s insights. Since Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), such self-theorizing narrative has gained prominence. Tracing the rise of this mode, Robyn Wiegman — a professor at Duke University — has traced the recent “pollination” of so-called “autotheory,” demonstrating how current manifestations draw from earlier 20th-century practices.

For Wiegman, autotheory revisits the individuality of autobiography, which, especially in the late 19th and 20th centuries, challenged the “hierarchical predilections of dominant history-making” by claiming space and presence for the marginalized. Autotheory continues in autobiography’s lineage, but speaks to a moment less interested in individual lives than in expanding the conversation about how structural exclusion operates and is sustained. Because queer lives often reject the scripts of normative life, autotheory’s mix of the personal and political and its interest in the nonlinear pays productive dividends. It is toward this project that Alexander adds his voice, sharing with us a personal narrative that materializes theory’s abstractions through his own experience.

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At its best, Bullied provides a timely meditation on familiar traumas that many queers face. As the title suggests, bullying and abuse are related phenomena — ones that are often foundational experiences for queer people that cue feelings of depression, alienation, anxiety, and more from a young age onward. Though Alexander doesn’t focus on the specifics of events like the bullying he experienced, he notes the damage of being treated with contempt. From this damage, Alexander wishes to excavate “simple pure” moments of resilience that his youthful self “will not remember.” In this way, Bullied confronts experiences of abuse with safety, care, and growth, modeling a process of queer resilience in the process.

This personal method of modeling resilience runs into limitations, however, when Alexander more directly addresses our present day. At times, Alexander places his experiences beside events like Jussie Smollett’s staged homophobic attack by Trump supporters; the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida; and other moments of spectacularized queer trauma. In the process, he risks analogizing his experiences growing up with abuse in the South of the 1970s and 1980s to a broader aura of damage that queers, and especially queers of color, feel.

While these associations are provocative in the way that they trace the violence queers of color face in our moment of resurgent white supremacist violence, they too often pay insufficient attention to the particularities that separate violence against queers of color from white gay men. For example, there’s a tendency to introduce scenes about racist anti-queer violence through Alexander’s own fear of “how exposed I’m making myself, how visible, how much a target” by being out in the world. Especially for a book blending the theoretical and the personal, these reflections would have benefited by being in conversation with the work of activists, writers, and scholars of color to unpack how queer of color embodiment — the intersection of race and sexuality, more generally — contains substantial particularities not experienced by white queers. The kernels of such an analysis are here, but a direct articulation would have benefited both Alexander and his objects of comparison.

Nonetheless, this very conundrum emphasizes one of the knottiest questions of Alexander’s project: Who has the authority to interpret? What I find moving is that Alexander himself wonders what authorizes him to reexamine his own foundational assumptions about how trauma shaped his queerness. Reconsidering the scene of abuse that was so foundational for coming to consciousness about his sexuality, Alexander concludes:

But what happens when the scene, the originating scene, is lost, or perhaps less than primal, or more diffused through a set of social relations that position you as always already outcast, thrust to the margins? What if the abuse, the violation, isn’t particular, localized, chronologically contained […] but part of the formlessness of your existence itself? […] Is this the lesson we keep thrusting down our throats, the lesson I keep fucking myself with, again and again?

In the end, Alexander reexamines an array of the ugly feelings he’s lived with: the shame he internalized about his interest in S&M, his desire for the kind of men who tormented him when he was young, his fascination with sexual transgression, among others. Along the way, he moves beyond the abuse from which his story originates. By lingering on ambiguities between abuse and its afterlives, he ultimately provides a daring and necessary reminder that our relation to events can change.

At the end of the day, Alexander is circumspect regarding the traumas Bullied processes in view of its larger self-assigned critical project. Reflecting with candor on the way his sexual shame was shaped both by a broader societal violence toward queers and by the half-memory of abuse he experienced, Alexander both recognizes the reality of trauma and attempts to find ways to live beyond the negative affects it engendered. Toward the end of the book, he observes that our “transferential monsters drive us at times to surprising destinations.” Through trauma memory, Alexander’s journey looks back on those experiences and grants grace to the self of the past, admiring the resilience of the person he has become. In synthesizing the remembered past and reexamining the present, he models a kind of critical practice that navigates alienation to lead him — and us — toward the utopian possibilities of confronting our worst and most vulnerable selves.

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Will Clark is an assistant professor of English at San Francisco State University, where he writes and teaches about US literature, queer studies, and critical race theory.