April 21, 2015 - Henry (1st person I approached)
“It’s Henry with a ‘Y.’ The English version,” he told me when I asked about the spelling. I always ask.
“Will this be on a blog or something somewhere, where others can read it?” I told Henry that if he agreed to chat and let me take his photograph, it would be on my website, my Facebook page and various social media sites.
“Well, as long as it doesn’t take too long, I suppose that’s ok. Go ahead, you can start then.”
Henry was born in Windsor, Ontario.
“Actually, it was in a small town called Walkerville, but it doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. Walkerville, founded by the owner and producer of ‘Canadian Club Whiskey’ and referenced in the television show ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ was amalgamated into Windsor.
“The Mayor of Windsor wanted to live in Walkerville, but there was a prohibition against Jewish people owning land from way back. He fought it all the way to the Crown court in England, and won. So Walkerville was incorporated within Windsor. That removed the restriction against Jewish people owning land,” Henry told me.
“There were a total of eight children in our family. I am the second youngest. My twin brother is the youngest,” he said, with a slight smile.
“I was born twenty minutes before he was.” His mother was a full-time homemaker, and his father was an illustrator for print magazines, newspapers and advertising.
“His office was in Detroit (Michigan, USA), and he commuted daily,” Henry said.
“I went to elementary and high-school in Windsor. I wasn’t very outgoing or social. You see these awkward kids today on the bus or walking home from school, on their own. That was me. I was just awkward around other people. If my parents had any awareness of psychology, they would have sent us (twins) to separate schools. We were always being compared to one another, not treated as individuals. My mother used to dress us the same as well. It wasn’t until I was a bit older, maybe around the time of puberty that I said I didn’t like it, and started to dress differently from my brother,” he told me.
“We had a Christian upbringing, read the Bible at the dinner table every night.”
“I did well in school,” he told me.
“If you looked at my student card, it had the number 'thirteen' where it stated years in education.” I thought Henry was alluding to a typo.
“No,” he chuckled, “I was a professional student. I did post-secondary education for thirteen years after graduating from high-school. I worked for a year right out of high school. For the Chrysler Corporation of Canada. I was in the mailroom. Then one of my bosses gave me a series of aptitude and intelligence tests. I still have the report from those. They suggested I should be back in school. I suppose someone else might have just spent their life working in the mailroom. I went to university,” he said.
“My major changed about six times. I started with psychology, then sociology, and psychoanalysis. I even did some zoology before finally settling on English Literature as my major.” Henry mentioned he had gone through some psychoanalysis and found it interesting, but he didn’t say anything about why he had been in therapy.
“I did two years at the University of Toronto, but most of my education was at Windsor.”
Henry got his Master’s degree, and had almost completed his doctorate in English Literature.
“I did very well in the written examinations that would get me out of school,” he said, with a hint of exasperation. We both laughed at him implying he needed to get out of school, rather than complete it.
“I did so well in the written examination, that I had to go before a panel of professors. It was an oral examination, where they asked me all kinds of questions. This started at 8am, and was to end at noon. With about five minutes left, one of the professors asked my opinion on a novel by Virginia Woolf, ‘The Lighthouse.’ The required reading list was almost fifteen hundred books. I hadn’t read this one particular book. Well. They were all up in arms and suggested that perhaps I should redo the program. I had done all this psychoanalysis and worked very hard. I just knew I wasn’t going to repeat the program,” he said.
“Besides, I already had a job teaching English Literature in another university. I just never completed my doctorate. There wasn’t any point.”
After teaching at several universities across the country, Henry came to British Columbia (BC), to teach at UBC (University of British Columbia).
“Well, yes, I came to teach at UBC, but also, it was the '60’s. Everyone was travelling around and moving to various places in Canada,” he told me. Henry spent the rest of his career teaching in BC.
“I travelled for vacations and did trips, but I taught here for the rest of my time.”
Having once offended an older woman by asking if she had ever married, I’m always a bit apprehensive when I ask about this. Besides, I don’t want to presume that a fulfilled life has to include betrothal. I asked if Henry had ever been married, or had any children or been in a long-term relationship.
“No, I’m gay,” he said.
“My family outed me when I was about twenty-one. They sat me down one night at dinner and told me I was a homosexual. And I agreed. Being raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, them approaching me about this did not indicate they were okay with it. No, not at all. Reading the Bible every night. There are three or four verses that can be interpreted to speak against homosexuality,” he said.
“But I wasn’t ostracized for being gay.”
I wondered how Henry’s family felt they knew he was gay.
“Wow. That’s an interesting question,” he said, pondering his answer.
“I think because I would come home late at night drunk,” he said, laughing.
“In those days the only place to meet other gay men was in a gay bar. My family didn’t drink at all. Teetotallers, both my parents. I would also get telephone calls from gentlemen. I had gone with a girl in my teen years, but then realized I wasn’t interested in women that way,” Henry said.
"My father told me he wished he could go to hell for me. What a dreadful thing to say to your child,” he said, emotionless. Perhaps as I wasn’t quite emotionally attached to his story, I wondered if there wasn’t some great beauty in the words of his father. An expression of love, in that he would rather go to hell himself, than have Henry go.
“Yes. I can see that. He was saying that he would rather suffer, than have me suffer... We corresponded for years. The rest of his life. He wrote me the most extraordinarily beautiful letters.”
I asked Henry if he had any opinions or gratitude about how things have improved for people who are gay. He's seen many changes, even though there is still work to be done.
“It means very little to me nowadays, even less as I get older. But yes, I was born illegal, and for many years, even being gay was illegal. I imagine that on the day I die, it will mean nothing whatsoever to me. In the last 75 minutes of my life, my sexuality won’t even be in my thoughts,” he said. Henry is eighty years old.
“For the most part, I’ve lived a satisfying life. I’ve been in relationships, but I’m not now. I don’t want to live with someone else. No. I have a lot of friends who are gay, and some who are straight. I was talked into getting on Facebook for a little while. Some people who I don’t even remember, apparently I went to high-school with them. They would send me messages and ask how I was doing. In time the interest wained of course. I’m not on there any longer. Too many. Oh what do you call them? Passwords. Too many passwords and things to remember,” he told me.
I asked Henry if he minded telling me why he underwent psychoanalysis when he was younger. He quietly contemplated this, and I assured him that if he didn’t want to discuss it, that was perfectly fine.
“Childhood issues, deep seated things from the past. The things everyone has to a certain extent. We could all benefit from some form of therapy,” he told me. I agreed, telling Henry that I’ve been sober for sixteen years and that I've always said anyone could use a twelve step program. Just insert whatever the issue is, and repeat as required. He chuckled and nodded in acknowledgement.
“I’ve lived a number of years as a clean addict. A drug addict,” Henry said. This took me by surprise, and was most unexpected. We talked about the many people I’ve chatted with and the stories that have been shared with me. I’ve certainly learned not to judge a book by the cover, and here was Henry, yet again, another example of that truism.
“I was a drug addict, from my thirties until I was fifty-four years old. Heroin and cocaine. I preferred to inject, rather than smoking them. It was the sixties. I did psychedelics as well,” he said. We both were of the opinion that, for us personally, LSD and Magic Mushrooms were not in the addictive drug-use category, and were recreational rather than addictive usage.
Henry, for the most part, was a functioning addict. He continued to live his life, and teach and not be outwardly restricted from his life by his addiction. When the time came for him, Henry told his employer he was going to NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and that he was a drug addict.
“They said it had come to their attention that something was amiss. The next semester, had I missed any more time from teaching, there was going to be a conversation. They would have recommended treatment for any staff, rather than dismissal, at that point. Although one or two of my colleagues were let go,” he told me.
In the twenty-six years since getting clean, Henry has on occasion used drugs.
“The last time was about, oh, eight months ago. But I don’t use in the same manner. I can’t. My eighty year old body can’t take very much. If I took too much, I’m sure I could easily overdose. I don’t do it often and certainly not much at all, in terms of quantity,” he said.
“It’s more of a recreational thing. It’s not about escape.”
We chatted about how comfortable Henry was with what he had told me, and whether there was anything he didn’t want me to write about.
“When I was younger, I used to bother about that, but in all honesty, I don't care if others judge me. It makes no difference to me,” he said.
I told him I wouldn’t write anything he asked me not to. There wasn’t anything he wanted left out. My intent, I said, was a hope that the stories I share, help to break down barriers, and perhaps even shift perspectives.
“Yes, I can see that happening. Good for you! Go ahead, you can write about any and all of it. I’m sorry I never asked you any questions about yourself, though.” #notastranger