The Toll of Hiding One’s True Self

In his new memoir, Seán Hewitt describes coming out of the closet—only to build another one for himself.

silhouette of half a man's face with two earrings against an orange horizon
Photograph by Matthew Leifheit from "To Die Alive," published by Damiani, 2022

The poet Seán Hewitt begins his memoir, All Down Darkness Wide, with a remarkable description of how St. James’s Cemetery in Liverpool became a place for men to meet for anonymous sex with each other. In some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read in years, Hewitt remembers cruising with his heart in his throat, keeping one eye on the living men moving in and out of the shadows while being aware that he is surrounded by the dead. He is just out of a relationship with Elias, one of the two ex-boyfriends around whom the memoir revolves, and he is looking for some relief from his feelings, or lack thereof—the relationship’s end has left him both raw and numb, alternately raging and still.

This is not a break-up memoir, however. Hewitt is recuperating after a season spent taking care of Elias, who is suicidally depressed. He has also just learned that Jack, an old flame of his, has died, possibly having taken his own life. The primary subject of the book seems at first to be these two love stories—between Hewitt and Jack, a beauty he falls for at school, and then between Hewitt and Elias, a happy-go-lucky young Swede he meets in Colombia, where he travels after college. But the two lovers serve another purpose for Hewitt: They are mirrors for something unsettling he recognizes in himself, something he can no longer ignore. This intensely original memoir’s real subject is what appears to Hewitt, in the aftermath of these relationships, as a thread that connects these men to each other, and to himself—“a sort of curse, a brokenness in them, in us.”

After their blissful first meeting abroad, Hewitt and Elias settle down together in Sweden, but Elias falls apart emotionally as the year darkens and winter comes. As Hewitt struggles to help him, Elias describes his fear of being abandoned by everyone he loves if they discover who he really is. He has had, since he was young, “an ominous sense … that the future wasn’t a place he could live, that of all the worlds he could see around him, none seemed made so that he could be happy in them,” Hewitt writes. “He would be found out, exposed, and everyone would leave.”

Hewitt is chilled but also moved by Elias’s confession. He has also felt this way for a very long time. Over the course of the memoir, Hewitt realizes that his upbringing and surroundings have forced him to hide his true self—his class background, his desire for the sort of sexual community he found cruising around the graveyard—and that doing so has taken a toll. But he also realizes how the same might be true for Jack, for Elias, and for all those men he sensed around him in the dark.

An HIV scare after that night in the cemetery reminds Hewitt of a blood-donation drive at his high school, and the moment he began to obscure his authentic self:

Catching the bus into school each morning was enough to mark you as an outsider, hailing from some close but far-off place where the house prices were lower, the vowels slightly more lengthened. Wearing the wrong shoes, the cheap blazer, the hand-me-down sports gear—anything was enough to elicit a look or a comment.

Being who I was, I had learnt from a young age the stealth tactics of conformity: how to hide a lisp, how to correct a too-expressive walk, how to pitch my voice lower, which I practised in my bedroom for many weeks during puberty. But it wasn’t until I was seventeen that I was faced, consciously, with a non-conformity I couldn’t finesse my way out of.

As he and his classmates prepare to donate blood, Hewitt is handed a questionnaire about his lifestyle—specifically, whether he’s had sex with men. Looking at the clipboard, he isn’t afraid that he might have HIV so much as he’s worried that he might be forced out as queer—in particular, the wrong kind of queer. “I had changed my accent, studied hard, cultivated myself into inviolability,” Hewitt writes. “And so, for everything I had worked for, for the safety of my one-man kingdom, I scratched a quick pencil line through the box that said ‘no’, and handed the clipboard back to the nurse.”

Even as a teenager, Hewitt knows that he doesn’t want to be that kind of gay—with the wrong accent and the wrong clothes, but also the wrong kind of sex life, which is to say, any kind of sex life at all. For gay men in the U.K. at the time, their sexual identity alone kept them from donating blood. He isn’t struggling with internalized homophobia exactly, though that is part of it. His desire for inviolability is also the desire to become part of the white-male ruling class—complicated by the knowledge that, if he were to be exposed as gay, all the efforts he’d made to hide his lower-class upbringing would be worth nothing.

The inner conflict shared by Hewitt and Elias is one that Hewitt has wanted to escape since childhood, so after months of trying to save their relationship, he leaves. In college, Hewitt had come out and gained his mother’s acceptance, a circle of friends, a boyfriend. But what he sees in the aftermath of his relationship with Elias is that he has made a life out of  “the freedom of invisibility,” where he is accepted as a gay man, but not as the gay man he is. He didn’t really come out of the closet—he just built another one and moved into it.

In 1980, the poet Adrienne Rich analyzed why feminism needed to embrace lesbianism in her groundbreaking essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” The essay insisted that lesbianism has distinct qualities that separate it politically from heterosexuality as well as from male homosexuality; it is an identity created out of not just desire, but a refusal to participate in what Rich describes as a life of forced labor, forced sex, and forced childbirth—all in the service of the patriarchy. Rich did not theorize male homosexuality in the essay, but it’s easy to imagine what she might have said: that for men to participate in queer liberation, they must also refuse to participate in the prevailing status quo.

This, I suspect, is what the young men in Hewitt’s memoir weren’t able to do—because their culture convinced them that it is a fate worse than death to be seen as less than a man. But the real torture is to be what society expects you to be when it is not what you are. The irony of Elias and Hewitt’s fears of being abandoned is that by pretending to be someone they are not in order to be loved, they end up just as alone, if not more so, for the way they have abandoned themselves.

In one scene near the end of the book, Hewitt finds a poem called “My Twin Brother” that he wrote as a young man. In the poem, the speaker kills, in a series of brutal blows, the perfect version of himself that everyone else loves, shocking bystanders on the street. “I had kept him alive while I could, but in the end, the bastard needed to go,” Hewitt writes. But then, a paragraph later, he wonders, “Am I still mimicking, still living in his shadow?”

At the end of the memoir, Hewitt goes home to help his mother sort through his late father’s things. He finds a photo of himself at age 5 holding a caterpillar up to his father for inspection, and finds himself staring at the expression in his young eyes:

Perhaps it is strange to say I was confronted by my own innocence, but it felt as though I had come face to face with someone I had lost, someone who was watching me. I loved him. I loved him and I felt the love inside of me. It was like I had been shouting into the past and finally I had summoned him, that original self, and he was returning my gaze, my echo, as though to ask me what had happened.

Hewitt closes here, trying to imagine how he might invite this original self back into his life. He doesn’t say if he succeeds, but perhaps that will be this memoir’s sequel. It’s the one I’ll hope for, at least.