Born That Way

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In 1892, a theater-loving woman named Mabelle Webb moved to New York with her three-year-old boy, contemptuously dismissing the father of the child, a mere railroad ticket clerk. “He didn’t care for the theater,” she said, and she kept him from playing any role in her son’s life, refusing even his surname. She put the boy in the way of show business from the start, training him in music and dance. He left school at thirteen to enter the theater, eventually becoming a mainstay of Hollywood, playing characters similar to himself, sophisticated, condescending, and prissy. He was always her “little Webb.” Notoriously overbearing, she lived with him until her death at age 91. They were smotheringly close. After she died, he let his health go to ruin from grief. He had never married, but had carried on a discreet homosexual life, with mother’s complaisance.

Clifton Webb was born that way.

In 1934, an exceptionally handsome thirteen-year-old boy was haunting about a London cinema house, watching horror films. His happy home had been broken when he was young, by a working arrangement that kept his father in the city while the son was raised by his sister and his nanny, and later by an aunt. He was vulnerable, and a young medical student noticed it. After they watched a movie about a mummy, the student invited him back to his flat, saying that he could give him an experience of mummification, if he was interested.

The boy agreed. He wrote later in his biography that he did not then “know” what life was about. The student gave him a drugged drink, stripped him naked, and bound him in bandages and tape from his toes to his face, leaving only his genitals free. Then he took a cold knife and laid it across the genitals, whispering into his ear that he could kill him or mutilate him now, but of course he wouldn’t, that wasn’t what he wanted. The boy’s heart raced for terror. He thought he was going to die. The student had his way with him, untaped him, and let him put his clothes on and get lost. “At last I knew,” he wrote, thirty years later. He would never marry. He entered show business, and tried to have an affair with an actress or two, but it never lasted. Instead he settled into a life with another man.

Dirk Bogarde was born that way.

In 1949, a judge in the Bronx gave a ten-year-old boy a choice. He could live in juvenile confinement, or be sent away from his family to an acting school. He chose acting school. It does not appear that he could have chosen better, at least in practical terms. His parents, recent immigrants from Sicily, had lost control of him. He had been thrown out of his Catholic elementary school. He had joined a street gang and been convicted of armed robbery. Later in life he would be known as “The Switchblade Kid.” One of his off-on affairs with an actress resulted in a pregnancy, which they snuffed out. He became, for about a dozen years, a great heart-throb in Hollywood, with his velvety voice, dark complexion, and large eyes. He also carried on affairs with men, and produced and starred in a play featuring a homosexual prison rape; he was the rapist. He never knew an ordinary family life.

Sal Mineo was born that way.

Young Clifton Webb as Sid Sawyer in a stage production of “Huckleberry Finn” (1902)

Young Clifton Webb as Sid Sawyer in a stage production of “Huckleberry Finn” (1902)

In 1933, a thirteen-year-old boy who had landed a part on Broadway decided to stay in New York, away from his family. His father was a violent, abusive drunk, and his mother squandered much of their money, traveling roundabout to discover her aristocratic lineage. Later in life he said he remembered nothing of his childhood, other than never being in one place for long. He became a great actor, with a run of twenty years of first-rate roles, in some of the finest American movies ever made. The father he loathed contributed to his success, thus: whenever he needed a mental image of obstinacy and ignorance, against which to rail in uncontrollable rage, he thought of his father. He was a gentle soul who sought in the director John Huston the father he never really had. He too carried on affairs with men, and drank and drugged himself to a premature death.

Montgomery Clift was born that way.

It was inevitable, when Rock Hudson was born, that his parents would divorce when he was a little boy, and that he would be raised on a ranch by grandparents he disliked. It was inevitable, when Tab Hunter was born, that his mother would divorce the abusive father and divest the children of the man’s name. It was inevitable, when Raymond Burr was born, that his mother would divorce his Canadian father and move to southern California, raising the boy with her parents. Drunkenness, hatred, loneliness, missing fathers, rape, molestation, over-mothering, all these are inevitable when a certain kind of boy is born.

One of the most emotionally disturbed students I’ve ever taught would muse aloud in class, entirely irrelevantly, about being bathed by the boyish actor Elijah Wood. His father had shot himself in the head when the son was nine. His mother then married another man whom the boy detested. That was inevitable too. The child was born that way.

The only boys who are not born that way are ordinary boys, who, if they’re given half a chance, play cops and robbers, organize themselves into baseball teams, build go-carts, roam the woods, hunt small game, commit everything about (fill in the blank) to memory, play with fire or electricity or catapults, and start to notice the pretty girls they try for years not to notice. They are socially constructed; magically so, since similar behaviors are to be found among boys in every age and place and culture known to man.

We are mad, quite mad.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.

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