I don’t believe in the ghosts that haunt me, even though they taught me a lot about sex. As a queer kid coming up, but not out, among the cornfields I had no guides other than ghosts to teach me about carnal calamity. In those days I had neither internet nor cable, so I coaxed out the queer in my kin. Make no mistake: virtually everyone I knew—teachers, relatives, classmates—was actively engaged in trying to offer me countless examples to counteract my queerness. They wanted me to find role models just as badly as I did, but emulating their specimens would have meant a petite mort for me—and not the sexy kind. I was not my football-playing brother or my classic car-repairing father. I was weird from the word go and though I paid dearly for my difference, I was inexplicably strong enough to stay the course.
Nevertheless, I needed navigators who knew more than I did about coitus and its consequences. I felt the longings of lust—usually for the men who hated me most—when I saw those corn-fed clods in their football gear or soccer shorts, but I understood them as essentially different from me despite the fact that we shared a locker room. Their careful carelessness and studied standoffishness made them into men I could not be, or even understand. I felt alien even to myself, turning inward and wondering how I would survive their ceaseless onslaughts of humiliation and heckling. It’s not easy feeling acute physical desire for one’s enemies, especially with no ally or compatriot.
I turned first to Ethel because of her photographs. My mother guarded them greedily because she had lost them once before when Gram stole them while visiting for Christmas in ’75. The situation was ironic: the photos had been hers for years and she had only given them to Mom a year or two earlier. Apparently she regretted their relinquishment and reconnoitered to regain them once more. This was not unusual; Gram loved to steal back her gifts. When Mom realized they were missing, she thought at first they had been lost in a recent move and then it occurred to her that Gram had grifted them. In any event, they re-entered our lives in ’86 just as I was starting to piece together my positions on love objects and the laws of desire.
Those photos were a blessing and a burden because Mom felt compelled to share them with me, flashcard-style, on scorching summer mornings when it was too hot to be outside. She expected me to memorize their memoirs so that I might share the stories when the pictures passed to me. Ethel had been a Porter when that name was still important. I liked that she enjoyed power and position, not to mention glamor and gentility. Many of her photos were professionally shot, illustrating her privilege in those days before her family lost all its money. The unposed pictures captured her driving a Paige or attending a Chautauqua her family helped host. She was beautiful and formidable—and in a fashion I found fierce.
She was also strange. At nearly six feet tall, there was an otherworldliness about her. In some photos she looked like a Gibson Girl, but there was always something somehow mannish about her despite the fact that she did not look masculine. I felt a calming consanguinity when I looked at her because even though I did not look like a woman, I was forever feminine to the people I encountered. My behaviors and actions always betrayed me and opened me up to torment because I did not perform in a way they found pleasing in conjunction with my personhood.
I knew something of Ethel before I saw her snapshots. Up to that point, I had always imagined her living in the large coat closet in my parents’ foyer. To be more exact, she was newspaper-wrapped china and crystal to me; she was the beleaguered bride who “died of a broken heart.” For as long as I could remember, the flotsam of her finery had filled a cardboard André champagne case on the second shelf of the closet. As with any respectable resting place, we had been admonished not to disturb her detritus. Those were “Aunt Ethel’s dishes” and they were too delicate to disinter. Aunt Ethel—Ethel Mae Porter Brownlee, Gram’s paternal aunt—had died in 1925. From what I could tell, her dinnerware had been effectively deceased, too, ever since. I also knew that Mom had owned her wedding dress for a while, but she pawned it in a pinch sometime in the ’70s.
Ethel ceased being those plates and flutes when I finally saw her smile in those old pictures. She was strange and delightful, never showing her teeth and forever projecting some private pain with her eyes. My first impulse was to imagine her as a man in drag; I sometimes still see her that way. I imagine what it might have been like if she were a man and her marriage maladies stemmed from her sex. While I don’t think that’s true, she has frequently been the vehicle for my imaginings about capturing queerness in eras bygone but better than my own. For me, she became a figure of fantasy, fighting conformity as she confounded her parents’ plans and dashed her husband’s desires.
The facts are fairly straightforward. Ethel was born into money and raised as a society statue engineered, first and foremost, to be beheld. From what I know, she understood her circumscribed circumstances and adhered for some years before she learned to let loose and defy the demands placed upon her. She bought a car—a Paige roadster—and taught herself to drive on the cornfield compound they called home. She was interested in education for the poor and she was unafraid to be photographed in her swimming costume. She was a Millie of the thoroughly modern sort and I loved that she condemned convention.
Until she fell in love with Howell, that is. From the photos, he was something of a hunk, a burly Brownlee with blond hair and boyish looks. He was not unlike the boys who abused me. He had no fine attributes other than his ambition, and he was insistent upon eloping with Ethel. Knowing better, she pushed her parents into accepting him. Ethel’s father, Willie B, gave Howell a job as a kind of overseer on the farms, and Cora Belle, Ethel’s mother, set about staging a society wedding for a match that made her mad with misery. He was not Ethel’s equal; all her plans, she prophesied, would perish. The wedding itself, if pictures can be believed, was unparalleled: white tents, a trousseau from Paris, carriages clamoring in from counties far and wide. Cora Belle knew how to perform and the pageantry was peerless.
After all the pomp, however, her parents saw no progress. She did not produce children or abandon her causes. She continued to drive and be driven, in spite of the fact that women in those days did no such thing. Howell, the rumors hissed, had started to look around for other company. Ethel wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give him what he wanted. When my mother told that story, her peculiar qualification always captivated me; had Ethel chosen not to acquiesce? Was there something unusual about her anatomy that disqualified her from indulging his desires? Or did she simply not want what he had to offer? I saw only possibility and positive perversity in her disregard for the dominant mores of the time.
Unfortunately, her autonomy and audacity were to take a hit in the late teens. While her marriage seemed secure despite its dysfunctions, fate was about to reveal that was largely due to her resources. Her parents were as generous people as they were fanatical about appearances. Ethel had always had the best and they believed any switch in that status reflected poorly upon them. That is, until the money ran out. The how and why of all that is a different and dark story that no one quite knows, but somewhere around ’19 their wealth went away. The most common explanation is that Ethel’s brother, Irvin, gambled it away in a calamitous card game, but that seems entirely too easy to be true. Nevertheless, overnight everything was gone—including Howell.
Without her dowry, Ethel was entirely too excessive in every way for him. She spoke her mind and required at least a yard more dress fabric than an average woman. If she couldn’t pay his passage, he would pleasure himself with some unpunishing plebe who knew how to make him feel like a man. Ethel, whether she intended it or not, was eternally emasculating. She was never a real woman to him, which he underlined by demanding a divorce on her dime. In short order he installed an immigrant woman of German descent who spoke no English as his new bride and lost no time lamenting the ethereal Ethel, who ceased to be sexy once the corset—and the cash—collapsed. Ethel was forced to return to her parents, even as they searched for somewhere to live since they were suddenly homeless.
After her grand calamity, Ethel only survived a few years longer. She did so, however, with grim determination and a fierce resolve that she would not be undone by something some man—or men—had done to her. She worked and helped support her parents as best she could, but her health deteriorated and by April ’25 she was dead. I always wondered if her parents were truly bereaved or simply relieved that their unconventional failure of a daughter—the first of their DAR-chartered family disgraced with divorce—could no longer cause them discomfort. She left no children or other satisfactory symbol that she could conform or produce, offering instead some now-impractical etched crystal in the “Star of David” pattern that would undoubtedly sour its contents no matter the pedigree of the cellar from which they came.
Rather than confront—let alone defend—the queer contours of her complicated life, her parents created her as cloying cliché: the lovelorn woman dead of a broken heart. “Howell,” their hushed whispers hissed, “was her reason for living. Such a pity she never gave him children.” Lest you pity him, Howell went on to several other wives and multiple children. No matter the cause or kind of her queerness, Ethel resides for me as a symbol of resistance, with an antipathy to assimilation. I admire her defiant dominance and her refusal to reign herself in to satisfy her family. I also love that her life, at least in part, remains a vibrant mystery; she died—I like to think in protest—without explaining her excesses and exceptions. Gram always liked to say Howell killed her with his unkindnesses, I prefer to posit that she lived life on her own terms and set an expiration date that suited her own style.
Coincidentally, my other queer kin also met an untimely end in his youth. My “uncle” Jack—really my first cousin once-removed—died of a gunshot wound on the morning of March 1, 1957. He was Ethel’s great-nephew, born just a few years after her death. He too, oddly enough, is a spirit who haunts my closet—a small cherry bookcase he made himself now hides at the back of my pantry, holding ramekins, casseroles, and gratins. Like its maker, his little bookcase never quite seems to fit naturally anywhere and though it was intended to hold books, its shelves are too narrow for the task. I have carried this heavy little piece with me throughout my life, just as I carry the demands of his demise.
Whereas Ethel taught me about independence, difference, and defiance—even choosing the how or if you want to have sex—Jack taught me that desire can be deadly. It helps to know, too, that he was the literal offspring—the product—of a passion preempted. His mother, Dorothy, whom we always called Dede, had fallen in love with a drifter type in the early ’30s. Much to her parents’ horror, she got pregnant and the two surreptitiously married. Roscoe Booth, as he was called, intended to take her back to his home state of Virginia, where he could raise his son as a Booth in the proud Confederate tradition. Dede, apolitical in her outlook and languorous in her lust even while pregnant, saw no problem with this plan since a man finally had mated with her. She had seen old maid–hood as her trajectory, so this abrupt alteration set her alight.
It was not to be. When Willie B and Vieva caught word of their daughter’s distasteful desire to leave, they would have none of it. While he may no longer have possessed any of the wealth to back it up, Willie B could still harness all the hauteur of his heritage and in short order he sent Roscoe running, never to return. Dede was crushed, but her parents didn’t care. They seemed to regard her as their appointed future nursemaid, and therefore her crushes would have to be curtailed to ensure they received their proper care. Jack was born shortly thereafter, a Booth in spite of Willie B’s protestations. The child served as an unwelcome reminder of Dede’s wanton waywardness and the price one pays for passion.
It’s hard to say if Jack grasped what he signified to the family, but I suspect he did. From early on he was troubled and angry, often acting out and expressing rage at the state of their lives. Somewhere along the way Dede managed to meet a much older man who offered to marry her. The catch: he also saw her as his caretaker. Shawn Ryan’s wife, Rynie, had recently died and he failed to function on his own. He needed a wife to wrangle the household and corral his clothes. Dorothy saw dollar signs in the midst of the Depression and decided gaining her freedom meant she could forgo fantasy this time. She and Jack moved to Oskaloosa after the marriage and lived happily for a brief time until Shawn died of cancer and the lawyer embezzled her inheritance, forcing them to move back in with her parents in Monmouth, IL once more.
By this time Jack was ready to finish high school and plotted to leave that life altogether—he joined the navy in the early ’50s. He served his enlistment and then decided to part ways when the opportunity arrived. He made big plans to become a forest ranger and live a life far from his family. He did so for a short while and then hurt his back badly and couldn’t tolerate the cold climate in Monmouth, Montana, where he had made his home. Like the sinkhole he considered it to be, Monmouth kept swallowing him. He returned once more, this time to live with Vieva and Dede—Willie B having died in ’50. The arrangement was far from ideal, but his military experience made him eligible for a job as a policeman while he took classes at Monmouth College and plotted his next escape.
In his mid-twenties by this point, he felt a bit out of place in classes at the college but he was relieved to make friends with a classmate who invited him home for dinner one night. As it turned out, his friend Kenneth, a freshman, was living with his sister and her husband, a local dentist. While the initial friendship was relatively short-lived, it opened the door for something far more important with Austin McGreal, the dentist, and Lynn, his wife. In no time, he quickly became a third in their relationship, going out with them for dinner or a movie or hanging out at home with their son Terry, just watching TV. The chemistry of the three together worked a kind of magic and they became an inseparable ménage à trois.
People quickly took notice, too. Kenneth immediately resented Jack’s insinuation into his life and wondered why he had to hang around all the time. Others in the community remarked on the oddity of a police officer chumming up to a doctor and his wife. “Doesn’t seem quite right,” was the phrase on all their lips, but Jack was happy for the first time in his life. He had formed a chosen family, though no such concept existed at the time. Dede, who had experience with the dangers of deviant desires worried what would happen, even as she wondered whether it was the dentist or his wife that Jack wanted. Or both. Could he have wanted both?
Worse yet, did they want him? Everywhere they went, they caused a stir. Dede and Vieva encountered uncomfortable murmuring about the trio at the theatre or when people saw Mrs. McGreal out without her husband, accompanied by Jack. The cute couple with the charming kid were starting to suggest kinkiness and their conservative college town didn’t care for it. Things progressed this way for quite some time, titillating all the tattle-tales in town. By all accounts, their time together was blissful. Jack appreciated Austin’s love of theater and Lynn’s sense of humor. It was nice to be with a family that felt like a family instead of the fragmented dysfunction in which he had grown up. As for a future, it seemed formless—and that was just fine with him. He could court his couple continuously without care.
And then Lynn got pregnant. Jack’s co-workers on the force started to tease him about being the father as the word spread like wildfire. He could have been, but even he was uncertain. Perhaps it did not matter at all among them; or it’s possible that something that had been innocent on some parts ceased to be so. We will never know how much of what went wrong was internal and how much had to do with external approbation. Lynn and Austin both became distant and detached; Jack lived in fear and fury. The complicated chain of events in which this culminated can only be characterized as calamitous; Jack and Lynn both ended up dead by gunshot.
When I was old enough to hear these stories, I was using Jack’s bookcase as a nightstand. I also had been charged with preserving his church confirmation certificate and his police badge. Atop his shelf stood his mother’s 1960s black-and-white television set. I used to have nightmares about them each entering my room, Poltergeist-style, through that television that took at least 15 minutes to warm up enough that it provided a pointillistic picture. He had died for his desire with a bullet through the brain and I felt sure his stuff registered some residue of his rage at eradication. Subsequently, his mother had unsuccessfully attempted suicide by overdose several times, leaving her belongings with a sense of possession by extreme sorrow. Both their erotic experiments rendered them rotten, somehow, and life sought to destroy them at every turn.
Jack’s transgressions became front-page news as he was claimed as culprit for the carnage. In an extremely detailed and surprisingly lengthy description, the case was argued in the newspaper even as certain silences stood. The author argued that Jack killed Lynn and then himself as the baby slept in a nearby bedroom. He wore only dungarees and Lynn was naked, shot from behind. The article remarks that she may have been running or unaware that her carnal compatriot meant to kill her. It also lays out an exceedingly strange account of events in which Kenneth found the star-crossed couple dead and rather than calling the police collected the kid, picked up Dr. McGreal at his dental office, and then brought everyone back to the scene of the crime for a fucked-up family reunion. The entire piece reads as a coverup for a number of suspicious choices that suggest far more was going on than anyone realized.
This, however, is not an attempt to vindicate or exonerate Uncle Jack, per se. What interests me so intensely about these events is that his desire and the sexual nature of death became front-page news. The article even mentions that the couple often socialized with Jack and that he was a “close family friend.” In the 1950s, an age of alleged prudishness and propriety, nudity and the implication of fornication featured prominently in the paper. Even more ironic, Vieva would have been responsible for copyediting the piece as she was working for the Review Atlas in that capacity at the time. The levels of public humiliation and sex-shaming are manifold and mind-boggling.
In my family and among his close police friends, Jack was a victim of murder—dead due to his own desire. Though the paper reported that he had resigned the day before, no one seemed to know this before the paper was printed. He still possessed his service revolver—the weapon that killed them—and his badge. Furthermore, he’d had his station wagon serviced the day before and appeared to be making plans to leave town. None of his actions suggest he was suicidal or ready to kill. But he was a single man exploring pleasure in a place everyone agreed he had no business, so it was not hard to convince the prying public that the pervert had been put in his place. It was too bad that those kids lost their mother, but considering her state of undress at her murder what kind of mother was she anyway?
For the next few years, Dede kept trying to kill herself over the loss of the son she kept hearing come home at night—which was documented in her suicide notes that Gram stole and secreted away among her other papers. He was a phantom from which she could not take flight. She knew he had not killed that woman or himself, convinced that the job had been done by Kenneth or Dr. McGreal. It’s possible that Kenneth suspected the three had entered into a relationship and simply could not tolerate what he saw as only tawdry. It’s also possible Lynn and Jack intended to leave together and McGreal, who could have been queer himself, could not permit such an affront to the public face he had created. It was the sex that haunted Dede, the contorted configurations she could imagine that made her question how her kid could have liked something so louche.
For me, his love—especially as I imagined it as a queer kid seeking company—was not lewd. He felt something that didn’t confirm to the norms—even if he was only pursuing a straight love affair—and paid the price with his life. He proved disposable because his desire disrupted the so-called decency of the dentist’s life. The duration of their friendship before the murder also leads me to believe there were queer contexts at work in the conflagration, though on whose part—one or several—it’s impossible to know. It terrified and sobered me to realize as a young teenager that loving the wrong person could cause me to lose my life. This terror was further compounded by the enduring shame and sorrow his private and public desires caused his family.
The news of the murders, neatly narrated and foreclosed as it was, went national. The policing of pleasure has such powers, especially when tales can be twisted into teachable deterrents for like-minded lovers. I read the rebuke in these reports and I understand its mission is to marginalize and minimalize those who cannot contort into the sexual conformity demanded of them, even today. This moral—devoid as it is of any legitimate morality—was driven home to me sometime during the summer of ’96 as I was struggling with coming out to my college friends and attempting to compose a coming-out letter to my parents, whom I was terrified to tell.
My mother called late one afternoon to tell me my sister had secured a babysitting job for a woman we vaguely knew who had married my father’s cousin, whom we also only sort-of knew. The haziness of the entire situation struck me as wildly unremarkable and I could not imagine why she was bothering me with such minutiae, especially as she annoyed me with an account of how the woman “has a million kids” by “several different men.” In other words, Mom thought she was a whore and felt I needed to know this. Had I pointed that out to her then—as I would now—she would have recoiled and denied that truth. It’s an automatic response that becomes so ingrained that such behavior becomes invisible.
The point, it turns out, was not the woman’s promiscuity. Rather, she wanted to tell me where Amanda was babysitting: 218 Pine Park. My sister had secured employment at the scene of the crime—a place in which, incidentally, our obscure relatives had taken up residence. If I were a fiction writer, I would like to think I could craft this serendipity into a scintillating supernatural scene, but it’s probably too on-the-nose. Mom’s violently visceral reaction to this news left a mark on me; the events of Jack’s short life still managed to have a serious impact upon his family. She even mused aloud about the possibility of the place being haunted and how she had not said any of this to my sister for fear of how it would affect her. Instead, I got the call.
Whether she intended it that way or not, I interpreted her message as a warning: you are at risk. People who buck the system come to bad ends, as both Ethel and Jack had. She even hinted that our new cousin-in-law may have started her marriage in a murder house because of her poor choices. My mother is not a prude, nor does she often tend toward this kind of moralizing, and yet somehow it still emerged as she voiced anxieties that have yet to be culled from our culture. Queerness complicates—and sometimes even kills—life, and she wanted me to heed her warning because whether what I am is inherently right or wrong, it comes with serious consequences. Had I been a different sort of person, perhaps I would have taken that call more seriously. In the end, though, I could not help thinking that both Ethel and Jack managed to make many moments of magic and meaning in their short lives and ultimately that seems far more important than clinging to a conformity that could have killed them otherwise.
Both of their stories ended abruptly, with varying degrees of violence. Interestingly enough, however, theirs are among the standouts in our family history since they were unique, queer, and punished for their passions. Like Gram, they played the game on their own terms, and despite their having paid a steep price for their deviations, I cannot help but admire them all. I think Gram must have looked to them, too, for she kept their possessions among her other accoutrements, careful to make certain that their stories continued to count, despite a number of attempts to erase them completely.
Joshua G. Adair is an associate professor of English at Murray State University, where he also serves as coordinator of Gender & Diversity Studies. Adair’s work and teaching, whether in literary, historical, or museum studies, examines the ways we narrate—and silence—gender and sexuality; his work has appeared in over fifty scholarly and creative nonfiction journals. His recent publications include Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities, 2nd Edition, edited with Amy K. Levin (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017); “O [Queer] Pioneers: Narrating Queer Lives in Virtual Museums” (Museum & Society, 2017); “The Art of Shrinking: Minority Stress, Coping, and Camp in Beverley Nichols’s Merry Hall Trilogy,” co-authored with Rebekah Goemaat (Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 2016); and “Not Satisfied with the Ending: Connecting The World in the Evening to Maurice,” in The American Isherwood, edited by Jim Berg and Christopher Freeman (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Photos in this essay are courtesy and copyright of the author.
Cagibi Issue 5