When I was in high school, my favorite book was The Man Without A Face by Isabelle Holland. I took it out from the school library ten times. The school librarian noticed that I kept re-reading it, and at some point she began recommending other YA novels with gay and lesbian characters to me.
In The Man Without a Face, fourteen-year old Charles is desperate to get away from his family, especially his mean older sister. His only chance is to pass an exam to get into a third-rate boarding school. But Charles is a chronic underachiever and he has no idea how to even begin studying for the test. In his summer island community there’s a man named MacLeod, whose face is horribly disfigured by burns. He keeps to himself and everyone is a little afraid of him. Still, one of the tamer rumors about him is that he used to be a teacher, and so Charles convinces MacLeod to tutor him.
Charles has always been haunted by his father’s death, and the feeling that his family is keeping secrets from him. He’s cynical, a bit of a loner, doesn’t have many friends, and he hates the word “love.” So it’s a big surprise to him when he finds that he really likes and trusts the reclusive MacLeod. In fact, he wants to get closer to MacLeod, wants to touch him. Charles is a little worried that this might mean he’s “a queer.” By the end of the book, Charles has to come to terms with his family secrets, the truth about how MacLeod got his scarred face, and his feelings for MacLeod.
This story made a profound impression on me as a teenager. Of course, reading the book again as an adult, I see it with different eyes. MacLeod’s actions— befriending a neglected child/teen and spending lots of time with him without his parent’s knowledge — are like a blueprint for being a child molester. I find that set-up creepy. The Man Without A Face is very much a story of its time, and that time was 1972. It’s full of the hot topics of the period, such as “broken homes,” “the Establishment,” and “doing your own thing.” Being gay is referred to infrequently and with a tinge of shame. Charles has an erotic experience which Isabelle Holland describes so obliquely that the reader may not be able to understand what happened. MacLeod says things like, “I’ve known what I am for a long time,” and “Homosexuality can crop up anywhere,” not exactly waving the Pride flag. But that’s the point, we’ve come a long way. In 1972 it was groundbreaking even to admit that gay people existed and to portray gay and questioning people in a positive light. And Isabelle Holland’s writing and wonderful characters really stand the test of time.
Like I said, the thoughtful and kind librarian recommended other queer-themed novels to me, and I read them all.
The thing is, I wasn’t a lesbian back then.
I liked boys; not with the same monomaniacal passion of most of my female friends, but I was moderately interested. My feelings for my female friends were intense, but completely platonic. I was a little embarrassed that the librarian had gotten it wrong but I didn’t know how to explain it to her. When I graduated, she de-accessioned the copy of The Man Without A Face and gave it to me. I was really touched.
Later on I fell in love with someone amazing who happened to be a woman. She was really excited to introduce me to lesbian culture, and kept recommending classic books to me. Annie on My Mind? Rubyfruit Jungle? Happy Endings Are All Alike? She was confused when she learned that I had already read them all.
I realize now that the school librarian gave me a priceless gift. My coming out experience was virtually painless, and this was because of people like the librarian, the people who made it clear when I was a kid that being gay was totally fine. I have mad respect for librarians, and I will always have a special place in my heart for The Man Without A Face.
Nora Olsen's Debut novel, "The End," about a group of LGBT teens who must travel through time to save the world from nuclear war, will be released in December 2010 by Prizm books. Queer teen sci-fi - I can't wait to read it!
Thanks for this guest post, Nora!