Book Review: The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs

7 Oct

velvet rage

 

I don’t usually review nonfiction, but this is a book that you’ll either love or hate.  Basically it’s a self-help book for gay men, and the reactions online tend to either be “It is the most important book for gay men ever!” or “I don’t identify with these men at all, this is clearly speaking from a position of a gay man that’s out of date!”  (Actually the second group doesn’t usually say this so politely.)

I’m pretty positive on this book, however, I think it needs to be read with the right eyes.   See, straight kids get quite a lot of guidance down the road of life, often more than they really want, but there’s loads of people doling out advice to them.   Gay men typically don’t get this sort of support, even when they come from loving families, unless they’re raised by other gay people, there’s nobody around to show them the ropes, and explain to them the tricks as to how to have a happy life.

What this really is, is the advice that you never got from the gay dad you didn’t have.   To be clear, while I believe that Downs is speaking from his experience as a therapist for gay men, I don’t think of this book as a clinical guidebook.  I don’t think Downs claims this himself, but one of the biggest criticisms that I’ve seen towards this book is criticizing this like this was supposed to be a therapeutic model, which it most certainly is not.

Why I think this book is so important is that it deals with the issues of shame and validation that manifest themselves uniquely in gay men.  Even if you are a gay man who doesn’t have these issues, chances are you’ve gotten close to those who have.   This book does not claim that gay men are victims because of this–what it states is that because of shame and the need for validation, certain patterns emerge that can be broken if you are conscious of them.

What Downs emphasizes, and what I agree with wholeheartedly, is that coming out is not the end of the journey, it’s just the beginning, and gay men have to make a journey towards authentic living once they’ve taken the leap.

I have two criticisms of this book.  First I think his three stages are a bit hokey and very broad.   There’s a grain of truth–most gay men start out closeted (stage one), then they come out and overcompensate (stage two), and then balance themselves and become an individual (stage three).  However, I’m skeptical that things are always this clear cut–most personal journeys are not in straight lines.

Second, his examples are a bit stereotypish.   There’s the men who sleep around and party all the time, the ones who want the perfect house and a bunch of things, the ones who will not open up to others.  We’ve heard these stories before, about how all these things turn out empty.  However, I am not any of those men.

But, then there’s the other situations–the relationships that end abruptly with no explanation, the difficulty in getting close to others, the thin line between honesty and abrasiveness.   These are lessons we all could learn.

My suggestion is to read through this with an open mind, and pick and choose what is useful to you.  I really like how Downs speaks to gay men, as a gay man, with respect and frankness without pandering.   The last bit of the book has a bunch of suggestions for how to live more authentically, and some of them I’ve taken him up on.

All in all, I recommend this book.  Even if you disagree with every page, it makes you think, and it makes you look at yourself.

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