It Happened in Jersey
Daniel A. Burr
Resembling a memoir in its early pages, Hidden turns out to be about nothing less than a man’s search for God. As such, it belongs to a literary tradition that encompasses St. Augustine, Dante, and Thomas Merton. Author Richard Giannone knows these authors well. He began teaching English at Notre Dame in the early 1960’s. In 1967, he moved to New York to take a position at Fordham, where he is now a professor emeritus.
The move to New York placed him at the center of gay liberation and launched his internal struggles as a gay Italian-American with a Catholic upbringing and a promising academic career. Like Augustine in Confessions, he was burning with lust: “The pagan in me pitched a tent in the freewheeling sensual fray.” But not for long. A near-death experience with hepatitis B caused him to give up sex and to turn away from close human relationships for more than a decade. Later, the love of another man, caring for his dying mother, and the AIDS epidemic would bring him back to a “meaningful gay life”–and put him on the path to faith.
As an adult, Giannone did not consider himself religious, but he never stopped thinking about his relationship with God. He faced the dilemma of those who cannot surrender to religious dogma but still feel what he calls “spiritual desire.” The issue was deeper than a gay man rejecting a homophobic church; it was the challenge to discover a grounding for faith in the actual experiences of his life. For years Giannone walked twelve blocks from his apartment to evening Mass at St. Joseph’s Church. There, though he could not pray, he took part in the Lord’s Supper. These physical acts–walking, taking the host, drinking the wine–were the closest he could come to faith.
In 1981, some friends introduced him to Frank, a good-looking, brawny Italian-American man who had recently left the priesthood. The two walked through the Village getting to know each other. Frank’s “natural emotional intelligence” brought Giannone out of his isolation. Falling in love with this man taught him that “being gay and seeking God are inextricably bound at the generative vortex of one’s nature,” and the two men became life partners. Giannone makes it clear that their relationship has been one of struggle and growth, but that story is not the focus of the book, and after a powerful chapter on their meeting, Frank recedes into the background.
A large part of Hidden is devoted to Giannone’s “mothering journey,” an account of how for 28 years he took a bus from the Village to his family home in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, where he cared first for his mother Nellie and then for his sister Marie in their long, terminal illnesses. The physical journey was also a spiritual journey. The qualities that made him a successful academic were not the ones that would enable him to care for old women whose minds were slowly slipping away. Caring for the dying requires humility and acceptance, the ability to sit silently with another person. Giannone struggled with his impatience and a desire to control, and came to understand that the way Nellie pulled him away from himself and into her needs was like “bumping into God.”
Giannone believes that his mother and other old women in his Italian-American community had a “quality of knowing” that surpassed his understanding and enabled them to face death with grace. Since these women are mostly silent figures whose thoughts we never know, there is a risk here of appropriating their lives for his own purposes. By the time Nellie was in the final stages of her illness, AIDS was running rampant in New York and Giannone knew many who were dying. He links AIDS to the spiritual journey he was on with his mother. Writes Giannone: “Disfigured seekers encircled us at the weekday liturgy. I could not help but have faith in the prayer of the stigmatized.” Here the appropriation may go too far. Those who suffer may or may not have faith, but they do not suffer so that others may benefit in their search for faith.
Hidden is strongest when Giannone explores his own transformations. He had an “evolution of the heart” after he met Frank, and caring for his mother made him aware of a “gender fluidity” as he assumed traditionally female functions. This ran counter to the Italian immigrant mores in which he was raised, but not to his nature as a gay man. Giannone describes the powerful bond that can exist between a gay man and his mother with great feeling. Nellie, whose formal schooling ended early, shared in the education of her gifted son until he moved beyond her ability to keep pace.
When he returned to the family home to care for her, he wanted to know this woman, whose life would be forgotten after her death, as a person. Thus he called her Nellie instead of mother. At the end of the book Giannone meditates on his own impending death. His faith still knows doubt and uncertainty, but, he declares, “God will have to take me as I am.” These words are a worthy summation of this thoughtful and gracefully written book.
Daniel A. Burr is assistant dean at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he also teaches in the medical humanities program.