It was my therapist who suggested, after bearing witness to my despair about the end of my 12-year relationship, that I attend a Co-Dependents Anonymous meeting, a 12-step group geared toward those who "enable" addictive behavior in others. Because CODA is not about some specific behavior or substance abuse, it also serves as a catch-all for those who have become excessively dependent on something more amorphous than heroine or gambling. I've never taken a 12-step approach to my own life (I've never been an alcohol or drug abuser), but I did become dependent in love. I guess a 12-year relationship will do that to a person.
I was a little leery about subjecting myself to the 12-step way. I see many gay men -- having suffered the fallout of obsessive-compulsive behavior and various addictions -- who have turned to 12-step groups like a new drug, and sometimes the effects are as numbing as any pill they could pop in at any club. In an attempt to remove pain completely from their lives, they walk around like Stepford wives with pecs. They don't drink, smoke or do drugs. They smile a lot, and hug one another, like the Teletubbies. They are the new gay fascists -- skeptical of irony, downright hostile to whatever constituted a "bad attitude," yet still looking for the supreme male specimen. (That never changes.) Luckily they're in the minority of gay men.
But the bottom line was that I was suffering. I needed -- and was willing -- to experience the shock of recognition, so I went. For the record, this meeting wasn't full of gay Stepfords; these were men who were feeling all kinds of things, including an inordinate degree of negativity and isolation, and by the end I felt lightheaded from a mixture of empathy and despondency. But there was a moment of levity: During the meeting one of the participants wryly mentioned a new book of self-help he'd bought, called "Finding The Boyfriend Within," and even in a roomful of co-dependent gay men in pain, this was greeted with a hearty, knowing laugh. Apparently, more than a few had been down this path before.
Gay men in particular seem to be ideal customers for the self-improvement trade, whether they're self-anesthetizing types or smart people simply struggling with the external pressures of homophobia as well as the internal pressures of maintaining body and soul in an extremely unforgiving queer world. Books like "The Principles: The Gay Man's Guide to Getting (And Keeping) Mr. Right" and "How to Survive Your Own Gay Life" reflect this. "Finding the Boyfriend Within," the newest addition to the canon, was written by Brad Gooch, former model. For those familiar with Gooch's work, you could see this coming from the Fire Island Ferry, and revel in the delirious preciousness of it all. The author of one respectable book ("City Poet," a biography of Frank O'Hara), this is also the same man who only a few years ago wrote a novel called "The Golden Age of Promiscuity," with its cover art a glory hole. Not one to lag behind the times, Gooch has now embraced the healing power of aloneness. (That for many gay men there is a direct corollary between promiscuity and being alone is one of the many ironies Gooch glosses over.) Whatever you want to say about the age of promiscuity, it wasn't golden, and neither is celibacy, but unfortunately those are too often the only choices gay men give themselves.
That Brad Gooch would finally write a book that is a paean to self-love is too perfect. As one of the customer reviews at Amazon.com commented, "I always knew Gooch had this book in him ... that's why I've always hated him." The book's first 33 words tell you all you need to know about the lucky man: "Here's the situation: I'm in my mid-40s. Everyone says I look 10 years younger, more or less. I'm gay, but extremely flexible and historically not too worried, ashamed, or complicated about my predilections." What a man! Not only does the world acknowledge his eternal youth, he's "extremely flexible" to boot. (What, exactly, does being "extremely flexible" mean, you might wonder? It usually means that you've slept with a woman once in college, accidentally, when drunk.)
But the hilarity doesn't end there. By Page 16, Gooch is being pummeled with praise at a party. He meets another guest who tells him how great looking he is, what a good writer, such a nice guy, how he sees his picture in gossip columns. Gooch relates this to us so that we know the wide-reaching effects of his charm, talent and fame, but he does it in such a way that it's meant to look anecdotal. Next he's told snidely by his admirer that without a boyfriend, "it's all worth nothing." This little passage, like the opening gem, is a cagey bit of narcissism masquerading as reportage. We're supposed to take this as a lesson that even Gooch with all his good fortune can suffer the insensitivities of a world that devalues singledom.
By the time you get to Page 19, Gooch has repaired to his fabulous SoHo apartment (later we're told just how wonderful it is). He looks at the general mess of dirty laundry and scattered newspapers, and wonders: What would he do if he were expecting a romantic evening with someone?
"So I decided to experiment. I ... made the bed. Lit my yellow Museum of Modern Art vase-sized candle. Turned the light down to an amber glow. Prepared a cup of warm milk sprinkled with nutmeg and cinnamon. Put on a CD of Franz Liszt's late piano pieces. Eventually I drifted off into a cloud of sleep ..." At this point, you could stop reading; a happy ending has been found, with Gooch lying in his own buff arms, as it was always meant to be. But no; what then follows is a series of "awareness exercises" designed for the average gay man to get in touch with the beautiful, intelligent, sensual stud within -- just as Gooch has. These exercises include listing the pluses and minuses of having a boyfriend, listing the qualities of your outer "package" as well as your inner qualities (Gooch decides his outer package includes his package, his SoHo apartment and his fabulous writing career), and taking yourself out on a date. The book concludes with a quote from the 13th century Persian poet Rumi: "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere/They're in each other all along."
That Gooch is both handsome and shameless doesn't make him a liar. There are just enough homey truths in his book to comfort any number of world-weary individuals looking to be told that the secret of happiness is in embracing yourself. You're OK, really -- it's just that you're underappreciated, mostly by yourself, and that once you learn to love yourself, the right guy will come along to love you, too.
Gooch is smart to qualify his "findings" with this one word, and this is, of course, the caveat. The sad truth is that no matter how many goddamn cups of warm milk you might pour yourself, or no matter how many times you listen to the Brandenburg concertos before drifting off to sleep, there are no guarantees that true love and an end to loneliness will follow. Behind his sensual face and his chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach, Gooch ends up coming off as a cold-hearted cynic.
He exploits the emotional dissatisfactions of other gay men, the vast majority of whom don't enjoy the privileges of being an ex-model or a glamorous writer. What could be easier, and more condescending, than telling people that if you're just good to yourself, then good things will follow? That's his message, in 171 sugar-coated pages: The only person you have in the end is yourself. Twenty-one dollars, please.
No doubt the book is being sold with Gooch's chiseled mug on the cover to lure unsuspecting souls into purchasing it, and apparently this works: At Amazon.com, some of the readers' observations on the book were based on its cover alone. "Brad Gooch is cute ... an attractive spokesperson for the gay community and that is important." And from someone calling himself loveholy: "A great read!!!! And if I dare to say this ... this guy is Gorgeous!! He exudes such spirituality and those warm eyes ..." Just imagine the sales if he had posed nude for the cover.
After reading Gooch's guide to self-love, I realize I'm a lousy boyfriend within -- all I want to do is have sex with myself, roll over and sleep, and the worst part is: I don't mind. I guess I'm just treating myself like the cheap date I know I am.