University years

By contrast the bucolic meadows surrounding Amherst College in rural Massachusetts seemed an earthly paradise. My father had taken a second, part-time, job at Merrill Lynch brokers – its founder, Charles Merrill, was an Amherst alumnus – to enable me to apply for a full scholarship. Once there my recent awakening to literature and history turned 'classical' as a freshman, as I found myself mesmerized by John Moore, the senior professor of Classics. My other teachers – Henry Steele Commager, the great American historian, Reuben Brower, the literary historian, Leo Marx, the social historian - were also heavyweights, even giants in their fields, but Moore in his own way practiced the tenets of Platonic education through dialogue more than anyone. With his guidance I wrote a thesis on dreams in Aeschylus, which the new magazine Arion published (its first undergraduate thesis), and went on to do graduate work at Princeton. Yet not without progressing in my own mind 'the gay thing', as I internalized the looming menace. If the kids at Performing Arts were bursting out of their tights, Amherst by contrast was a desolate place for gays: frightened of being found out by the preppies in its fraternities and athletes on its manicured playing fields, we retreated with other students to study cells in a basement under the library nicknamed 'The Pit'.

George Rousseau Amherst’s desolation crippled the heart, for during my years (1958-62) it was completely in ‘the closet’. Its all-encompassing homophobia was chilling. If you struck up a conversation in this repressive, all-male institution, you were coming on too hard; if you looked at someone too attentively, you were hitting him up for potential sex. There was no exit except to bury your affections in study 24/7. I did that, mostly in the dungeon (how symbolic of the place) we all knew as ‘The Pit’; feverishly played Bach and Chopin; and trusted only one other gay student I knew was also suffering (he later killed himself in California). The two of us remained in Amherst over Christmas 1961 to work on our theses and spent much time consoling each other. If only Eugene Wilson, the Dean of Admission, had not taken ‘a chance’ in admitting us! Neither of us was a brilliant academic - rejection would have spared us from this prisonhouse of the heart. Just in the prime of our lives, when our preppie classmates were soaked in post-pubescent hormones and shagging girls throughout the Connecticut Valley.

In hindsight I am amazed I got a good education, which I now know was owing to an unconscious translation of work habits from the keyboard to the classroom. I graduated third or fourth in the class of 1962, which won me a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Classics and Comparative Literature at Princeton. But I matriculated – another all-male institution – expecting no relief from intolerable homophobia. I used most of my bursary to pay for weekly psychoanalysis in Manhattan. Dr. Shenkman had been trained at Columbia Med by ‘Conversionists’ who boasted they could convert any gay man if he just tried. The psychoanalysis failed of course: I wanted a boyfriend, not a conversion. I received a Ph. D. at Princeton in record time – a bit over two years – and got a job teaching literature in the Harvard English Department, hoping its more cosmopolitan urban setting would pre-empt a repeat of Amherst and Princeton. Yet liberation had to wait for California.