Memoirs: Chapter One
I have never been a believer in the formative role of childhood experiences. Instead, I subscribe to the existentialist concept of self-creation. This process, I believe, takes place over many years. For better or worse, I am the one who has made me what I am.
Moreover, I have never been very interested in genealogy (though I am not averse to acknowledging biological elements in human behavior).
Here is what I know. My ancestors have been on this continent for several generations, going back for the most part to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the American south. They were chiefly of Protestant Irish stock. Yet they were not Scotch Irish, as they seem to have mainly come from southern Ireland. This combination would appear to be something of an anomaly. Further inquiry into the matter might be interesting, but it strikes me as otiose.
Both my biological parents came from families engaged in agriculture. The Conways, my father's folks, maintained a large dairy farm near Fort Worth, Texas. The Colemans, my mother's less prosperous family, grew cotton at a place called Fate, east of Dallas.
Early on Brant Brown Conway (1907-2002), my biological father, showed an inclination for the natural sciences. Accordingly, he studied physics at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. My mother Jean (born Mary Geneva Coleman; 1909-1979) had come to Fort Worth to work as a secretary. She met my father when she took some extension classes at the university. Unlike my dad, she never completed her course work, but continued all her life to have a strong interest in literature. Between the two of them then, my parents incarnated the binarism of the "two cultures": science and the humanities.
At all events, I was born on August 23, 1934 in Fort Worth, Texas.
After trying teaching for a while, Brant ended up as a guided-missiles specialist for the US Navy. He really was a rocket scientist, though a person I rarely saw.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, my parents divorced when I was three years old. My mother then sent me to live with my paternal grandparents on their dairy farm, where I was surrounded by a happy throng (or so it seems to me now) of aunts and uncles.
This idyll ended in 1939. My mother had decided to remarry and to go and live with her new husband in Southern California. So she collected me from the farm, and we went by train to San Diego, where Grady Dynes, the new husband, met us. First we lived in San Bernardino, and then in Los Angeles. It didn't seem so at the time, but moving to California was probably much to my benefit. Later I took my adoptive father's surname, changing from (Robert) Wayne Conway to Wayne R. Dynes.
It turned out that my stepfather, who had been educated at Pomona College, had been a Communist in the 1930s. Eventually, he converted my mother to these beliefs, and ipso facto me too. Yet fortified by reading the writings of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, I rebelled, becoming an "ex-Communist" at the tender age of 14. (See Chapter Four for more information on my political wanderings.)
On only one occasion (the funeral of my grandmother) can I ever remember being taken to a church. My parents were atheists, a creed I found arid - and an excuse, most years, for denying me Christmas presents. So this upbringing had an effect contrary to the one intended, giving me a strong interest in religion. Young people find things that are taboo inherently attractive. Yet this counterparental straying was not strong enough to make me convert to a particular faith.
When I was about six years old, a neighbor boy Jimmy (who was about twelve years old) inducted me into his male harem. Assembling in his parents' garage, we would take our clothes off and play with each others' penises. Some would say that these early experiences - which were enjoyable and never exposed to public knowledge - "made me" a homosexual. That I doubt.
Was it pedophilia? No, because we were all prepubertal kids. Above all, there was no penetration, not even digitally.
We all have our own personal horrors. One of them, to me, is the idea that a child might have to undergo penile penetration of the mouth, anus, or vagina. As for nonpenetrative intergenerational sex, it presents its own problems, but they strike me as being of lesser magnitude.
What I experienced with Jimmy and his charges was erotic play, but not sex in any fundamental sense. It was more akin to "playing doctor."
In my view one of the problems with the current concern with pedophilia, from whatever side it stems, is that it tends to conflate degrees of involvement that need to be carefully distinguished.
My stepfather's alcoholism kept him from providing properly for his family. Accordingly, my mother took a job at Camp Haan, a burgeoning army base located in the vicinity of Riverside, California. There was a war on. She soon rose to a position of responsibility in the personnel department, where she often had to work overtime. Since she felt that I could not be left at home alone after school, she found a friendly family living in Lake Arrowhead, a resort in the mountains, who would take me in. I was eight years old.
At first troubled by this exile, I soon adjusted to it. There were two other kids boarding with this family, a boy and a girl, both ten years old but with different parents. Dealing with this pair gave me a useful experience in the negotiations that ordinary siblings must undertake. Biologically, I was an only child.
At Lake Arrowhead there was swimming in the summer and skiing and tobogganing in the winter. School was taught in an old-fashioned facility with all six primary grades in one class. In those days there was much sympathy for the Chinese as victims of Japanese aggression, so our teacher chose China as the subject of a year-long project. In this connection we all learned to make pots out of clay (the Chinese were of course the inventors of porcelain). Once the piece had been fired, what a thrill it was to hold in my hands the finished product of my own endeavor! Today I collect ceramics. The experience was also the beginning of my life-long concern with Chinese culture - literature, art, and calligraphy.
In the spring of 1943 I was glad to learn that I would be welcomed back to live with my parents, who had moved to Los Angeles. Grady, my stepfather, seemed to have conquered his alcoholism. As far as I could tell, he remained sober for a good many years, though late in life he reverted to the old ways. Handicapped by this problem, he had failed in his earlier attempts at establishing himself in several professions. Finally he found a job with the Railway Postal Administration, sorting mail on the trains that plied back and forth to Flagstaff in Arizona. Writing, his first love, was of necessity put pretty much on hold, but he loved the trains.
Grady had received an excellent education at the elite Pomona College. He particularly revered James Joyce. For a while my parents hosted a writer's club in their home, where participants would read their writings for an instant critique. From my point of view, Grady was an excellent stepfather who never beat me or even administered a harsh word. From him comes my interest in writing.
At first we lived in a small apartment in Hollywood. I went to Cahuenga Elementary School nearby. Many years later I was to learn that Harry Hay, eventually to become the founder of the American gay movement, had attended that same school twenty years before. I like to think that in some occult way his spirit had lingered on that spot where it ministered kindly to me.
At all events we scraped together some money and bought a house near Venice Boulevard and Crenshaw in LA, then a prosperous middle-class district. Even though the mortgage payments were low my parents struggled to meet them. The reason was my mother's mental illness which set in a while after after we had moved. To this day I do not understand her exact condition, but she was incapacitated and had to be moved to a series of institutions over a period of about a year. To finance these stays, my stepfather (whose loyalty to my mother never wavered) had to borrow money from various shady loan firms, It took years of scrimping and saving to pay these debts off. In this way our status went down - from solid middle class to genteel poverty. As a rule I had only two pairs of pants, wearing one while the other was being laundered. One year the pants shrank, but I had to wear them anyway. My mother excelled at preparing economical dishes, some of them barely edible. Sometimes I was sent out to buy horsemeat from the pet store.
During most of these years we couldn't even afford a car. Being carless was not as bad as it sounds, because in those days LA had a surprisingly good public transportation system. But by the time I got to high school, though, our lack of wheels was an embarrassment, for not only did other families have cars, so did many of my peers, other teenagers.
My mother and stepfather had generally sensible views about parenting. They made me eat my vegetables, and retire at an early hour (for a long time at 9 PM). In the fourth grade Maxwell B., who became my best friend, introduced himself by saying: "I see you have a vitamin mother too." We both had sandwiches made out of wheat bread, instead of the awful white stuff the other kids received.
Faced with their own problems, my parents left other things pretty much up to my (immature) judgment. To judge from photographs I was an unkempt urchin with poor hygiene. I suppose that they thought that in due course I would correct these faults - and I did, eventually. But the damage was done. I was a loner, and my naive uncouthness intensified the isolation.
I retreated into the world of reading. At first I was attracted to books on astronomy and architecture, but it emerged that the humanities were more my bent. I developed a strong interest in history, reading popular biographies of such figures as Cleopatra, Genghis Khan, and Frederick the Great of Prussia.
I also became interested in languages. My bible in this area was Frederick Bodmer's Loom of Language (1944). Although it was a popular work, this book did provide a good deal of useful information on the principles of linguistic analysis, together with starter accounts and vocabularies of major tongues, most of them European. For more solid information I turned to the works of Otto Jespersen, a Danish linguist, then at the top of the field. Among other things, Jespersen was interested in artificial or international languages. The best known of these was Esperanto, which I studied for a time. Dr. Zamenhof had created it by combining features of a number of European languages. Though not entirely, for later when I went to Turkey I recognized that Esperanto had borrowed the principles of word formation found in Turkic languages.
In his youth working in the alfalfa fields in California, my stepfather had become fluent in Spanish. I began the study of that language in junior high school. However, I was never much taken with it, and decided to teach myself French. While I read French books with ease now, I never took a formal course in the language. Much later the Spanish came in handy during my travels in Latin America.
I also became interested in literature. In the aftermath of World War II, Goethe was being promoted as the model of a "good German." He was also hailed by Lancelot Law Whyte as a "unitary process thinker." I got hold of a volume of translations ostensibly selected by Thomas Mann. These renderings were so wooden that I couldn't make much out of them. I only learned German later, when I was in college.
From the library I took out a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. Since I had been raised in a purely secular household, the religious message of the Italian writer seemed strange and transgressive - as if I had somehow wandered into an opium den or porno palace. For a while I could not accept that Dante, clearly a very intelligent man, actually believed what he had written. I thought that the Commedia was somehow a satire. Under the guidance of Leo Strauss, some scholars have maintained something like this view for Plato and a few other eminent thinkers, though not I believe for Dante Alighieri.
With all this book-worm stuff it was almost inevitable that I would go to work at the public library, where I served as a page, beginning when I was in the ninth grade. The pay was meager, 75 cents an hour, and I devoted most of it to buying books myself. This was the beginning of my book mania: I now house some 14,000 volumes in my New York apartment.
I also became interested in classical music. In those days Los Angeles had an excellent music station, KFAC, and I would listen late at night when my parents thought I was asleep, my ear glued to the tiny radio. At first I could make almost nothing out of it. One night though they played Robert Schumann's Rhenish Symphony, and all became clear. I had arrived at an intuitive understanding of sonata form and the pattern of movements - fast, slow, fast - that governed a typical symphony. To this day I am grateful to Schumann (or rather his shade) for providing this beneficial lesson. Later, I came to dislike most of the other romantic composers, preferring baroque and modern music. Broadway musicals, such a gay favorite, never had much appeal for me.
With my interest in literature and classical music, I was well on the way to becoming a confirmed "culture vulture." What I didn't anticipate is that this predilection would migrate to the visual arts, the field where I was ultimately to earn my living.