Published in January 2017, Such Charming Exiles is the autobiographical story of the love and self-awareness of two gay women from the perspective of their 47 year relationship. The lessons they share about their struggles with societal, familial, and professional expectations hold true for all women.
MB Marilyn and Betty, thank you for talking with me about your new memoir, Such Charming Exiles: How Two Gay Women Learned to Live Openly and Love Fiercely. What made you decide to share this story now?
MM Betty and I have been together for 47 years and we’ve been through a lot together. In the late 1960s and early ’70s our country was in turmoil, and it was especially challenging for minority groups. And now it’s not just hard for women or African Americans or for gay rights but for all of us, all over the world. We’re hoping that some of the lessons we’ve learned might help others.
MB Yours is a unique journey that started with marching for racial justice and against the Vietnam war, alongside Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. And you’ve kind of come full circle, wearing pussy hats at the Women’s March in New York just a few weeks ago. As personal as this story is though, there are themes that people can relate to on a universal basis, regardless of one’s politics, gender, or sexuality: love, betrayal, conflict, sobriety, religion, secrets, shame…
BW The story is really about us, being women who love women, women who were smart, well-educated, and ambitious. Conforming to society’s norms of what women should be like was not our strong suit. Neither one of us.
MM No, indeed. I grew up in a Mormon family and Mormons have a big long list of “don’t don’t don’t don’t.” But hey, no one ever said don’t do those things with women. (laughs) We both had to keep a lot of our lives secret and that’s not healthy. We were studying Humanistic Existential Counseling…
MB Please explain.
MM In short, people have choices and they also have responsibilities, and among them is the need to be honest and authentic about their lives. Especially with one’s sexuality, secrets can be not just toxic but lethal. In my career as a psychologist and counselor, I’ve seen so many young people who are ashamed of being attracted to someone of the same gender. So they deny it and hide it and it becomes a monster of a secret. Utah, where my Mormon family is from, has seen their teen suicide rate nearly triple in the last ten years and it’s now the leading cause of death among 10- to 17-year-olds. Not all of them are gay, of course, but I believe it’s a factor for far too many. However, I’m glad to say none of my patients were rejected by their families after coming out together in counseling—or even after they left counseling.
MB Hopefully, the act of seeking support and counseling is a step toward a more positive outcome with one’s family.
MM Right. Coming out is hard but it’s healthy; it makes you real to yourself and other people, makes you more of who you are. If you have a therapist, she or he can help or even be there when you tell your family. And when you come out it’s important to tell them that you’re gay and you love someone and someone loves you, because that’s what parents truly want to hear. Not that you’re sorry and ashamed.
MB Unfortunately, being sorry and ashamed is still too common and was even more so 40-50 years ago.
MM Even when Americans were opening up to more liberal views in the ’70s, lots of progressive things were happening in psychology and people were telling everyone everything about themselves. People would admit to incestuous affairs. But being gay was the one secret you never tell.
MB That’s so disturbing and shocking.
MM We had been warned by friends who were also gay to keep it a secret no matter what. But at a certain point I needed to shift my energy from hiding in exile to building my career, writing articles, and developing a counseling practice. Thankfully, our relationship therapist and our individual counselors were very supportive.
MB Back then, it was considered a career-ending decision to come out, or be outed to your co-workers. Sadly, I think that’s still a real concern even today in many places. But I can’t imagine how difficult it was for you to do it. Marilyn, you especially seemed to not be completely ready internally.
MM Well it took me a long time to get comfortable with the whole idea of me being gay, let alone admitting it to others. People today talk about “safe spaces” and for me it finally came in the shape of a women’s consciousness group of other psychologists and mental health professionals. We had all agreed that nothing we said would ever be shared outside the group. And when it was my turn to speak, I put it all out there and it was completely liberating.
BW You might think everything was fine at that point. On the surface we looked like two solid professional people. I was publishing and working as a professor at USC and Marilyn was a psychologist at Children’s Hospital. But we had a lot of conflict and a lot of problems that usually break people up; there was addiction.
MM We allowed other people into our relationship, having affairs on both sides. As you might predict that caused sadness, jealousy, and a separation at some point. Our collection of secrets was threatening our relationship.
MB Betty, you have talked about your sobriety and how important it is to be free of dishonesty and secrets, and there’s a recurring theme in the book about trust, or the lack thereof.
BW It’s taken me a long time to trust Marilyn, to trust people in general. Not because of anything she’s done but because I grew up in an environment in which trusting others wasn’t wise. And for me it wasn’t really possible. On a lighter note, I’m a perfectionist and there are two things I do perfectly—I don’t drink anymore and I don’t smoke anymore. Perfectly. I used to smoke three packs a day and I could really knock back some whiskey. So don’t mess with me on that! (laughs) After getting sober I separated myself from the social groups we had that were full of drinkers. It wasn’t fun for me anymore and I decided to keep them out of my life, as much as that was possible.
MM Betty is really special, unlike anyone I’ve ever met. So gregarious, always charming and “on”; the life of the party - the funniest person in the room. So it was quite a surprise when she stopped drinking. She became very quiet, reserved, less social, and kept to herself much more.
BW Well I like my own company, and I don’t like everyone I meet. Let’s face it, some people are awful. So I’m “selectively social.” Isn’t that a nice way of putting it?
MB It seems clear that Betty is still the funniest person in the room. . . So where can we find hope from where we are right now as women, gay and straight alike, with the new administration and the intolerance and hatred we’ve seen swell up in this country?
MM This country has made a tremendous mistake.
MB “Huge! Sad! Bigly!” Excuse me, I needed a light moment to cope with reality.
MM But seriously, it’s just horrible. I thought we were on a trajectory of change: equal marriage, almost 50% of medical residents are women, every profession has women who are striving and succeeding—well almost every profession. But now I don’t believe so. However, as discouraged as many people are, I do believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand it. But if we’ve learned one thing from our life together these 47 years, it’s that you gotta believe you can change and make change, or just stay under the covers. And we’re not about to do that. Come on, everybody! Get your boots on and start marching!
MB If you met today, do you think you would still fall in love? Would you still be together, happily married, as you are now?
MM Yes. Betty, you are very special. Yes.
BW Yes. I think so. I would overlook all her faults. ~
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