The LeVay boys, late 1950s
I was born in 1943 in
Oxford, England. I was the second of five sons of an orthopedic surgeon and a
pathologist turned home-maker. For most of my childhood we lived in West
Dulwich, an upscale district of South London.
One of my earliest
childhood memories is of my older brother holding my finger in the gas fire. I
also vividly remember falling through the floor, but that must be a false
memory, because however rotten the floorboards may have been, one of my parents
would surely have fallen through before a small child did. So maybe the gas
fire thing is a false memory too.
In spite of these early
traumas, or imagined traumas, my childhood was uneventful. I attended Dulwich
College Preparatory School, where I was caned by the headmaster for talking
during assembly. All I did was respond to a question posed to me by Timothy
Gilkes. But Timothy was the son of the headmaster of Dulwich College itself—the
Prep School’s parent establishment. So of course Timothy didn’t get caned. That
was an early lesson in life’s unfairness.
Most of the time I was miserable,
but only mildly so – it wasn’t a Dickensian-style misery. Several times I
recall teachers repeating that Victorian mantra, "Schooldays are the happiest
days your life." Which made me wonder if life was worth living at all. I
now think that old age are the happiest days of one’s life—and social science research
supports that. Maybe it’s because the gap between what you have and what you
want gets smaller. Or maybe it’s just that the brain cells for misery die off
faster than the brain cells for happiness.
The reason I was mildly
miserable was that I was a mildly “sissy” child, which didn’t make me
particularly popular among my peers. I didn’t like team sports, fighting in the
playground, and such. I preferred reading. I think I worked through most of
Dickens before I was ten, except for Pickwick Papers, which didn’t include
enough misery to hold my attention. I’m reading that book right now—it’s quite
funny in a Dickensian sort of way.
I was, and still am,
very bad at recognizing people’s faces. I have to see someone quite a few times
before I can recognize them later. This has had some social consequences—I
mean, people sometimes think I’m deliberately ignoring them. I recently read a
study in Science which reported that reading uses a region of the cerebral
cortex that otherwise would have been devoted to face recognition. So I suspect
I overdid the reading and cannibalized too much of my facial recognition
cortex. Oliver Sacks is another example of a voracious childhood reader who is
very bad at face recognition. He’s a lot worse than me – he has full-blown
“prosopognosia”. But there also counter-examples, where excessive childhood
reading didn’t impair a person’s ability to recognize faces.
Having been “prepared”
at the Prep School, I went on to Dulwich College itself when I was about ten or
eleven. I was happier there, because I was a bright enough student to do well
in class, and that earned me a certain amount of respect among other
overachiever types. But on sports days I always asked my mother to provide a
note saying I was sick and couldn’t play rugby football or cricket or whatever sport
was happening on that particular day. “Your mother should wrap you and your
brother up in cotton wool,” I recall one sports instructor telling me. My older
brother was quite like me.
Being the son of
doctors, I got to hear and read a lot about diseases, and I remember thinking
how horrible it would be to get some of them. The worst, I thought, was
something called ankylosing spondylitis, where (according to my Dad, anyway) your
bones gradually fuse together and immobilize you. A couple of years ago I was
diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, but thanks to modern drugs it hasn’t
bothered me at all—in fact, I’m beginning to doubt whether I actually have it.
Education at Dulwich
College was a competitive activity—it was all about beating other boys (there
were no girls) and getting the best marks. There were never any collaborative learning
activities—that would have been cheating. One time we were quizzed in Geography
and we had to change desks according the correctness of our answers. The teacher
asked “What is the principal export of Madagascar?” Or maybe it was Zanzibar.
The question went round the class and no-one knew the answer, until it got to
me. “Cloves, sir,” I said smugly, and I got to jump about twenty desks. The
reason I knew the answer was that it was in the textbook, and I liked reading.
Looking back, though, it seems improbable that cloves could be the principal
export of anywhere.
My parents divorced when
I was about eleven, and my father moved out. That was a good thing as far as I
was concerned, because I hated my father for his (verbal) cruelty to my mother,
to whom I was very attached. She told me that I was her favorite son, which I
found quite gratifying. Recently a couple of my brothers told me that she said
the same thing to them.
I think I was 13 when I
realized I was gay—or “queer” as we said back then. I was always strongly
attracted to certain other boys in my school year – smart but rebellious types.
Nicky Lafitte was one of them. His father wrote leading articles for The Times. Nicky was a scrawny, gangly
boy. Later, he developed schizophrenia, and he killed himself in his late
twenties. It wasn’t a sexual attraction, or not a conscious one anyway.
When I was fourteen I
became sexually active with other boys in my year. Any kind of gay sex was
illegal in England at that time, so I was committing crimes, but that didn’t bother
me. I was a “day-boy”, because we lived near the school, but I envied the
boarders on account of what they were able to get up to at night.
Some American gay men of
my age have told me that, when they were teenagers, they had never heard of
homosexuality and they thought they were the only person in the world who
experienced such feelings. That couldn’t have happened in England, where
homosexuality was widely known and talked about, even if not in a positive way.
I think I was unhappy at
being gay for about the first week after I realized that I was. I thought: you
were worried about getting ankylosing spondylitis and now you’ve got something
much worse. But after a short time I was happy to be gay. None of the straight
boys in my school got even a fraction of the sexual satisfaction that I did, so
I considered myself lucky.
At Dulwich College I
specialized in “Classics,” meaning Latin, Greek, and Ancient History. For most
of my later life this education proved completely useless, except for feeling
snottily superior to people who mangled their etymologies. For example, at
Harvard Medical School two profs wrote a paper about a part of the brain they
named the “corpus gangliothalamicus”. What, I thought – a Harvard education and
neither of them knew that “corpus” is neuter?
Of course I was correspondingly
deficient in the language of science. For example, I didn’t know what the word
“titrate” meant even when I was a post-doc, which was quite embarrassing. Another
reason I didn’t know the word was that I was a graduate student in Germany,
back when Germans spoke real German and didn’t use germanicized English words
Recently, my knowledge
of ancient languages and history became surprisingly useful – but I’ll get to
Back to my schooldays: Although
I didn’t like team sports, I did enjoy bicycling. I enjoyed the freedom it gave
me. One Sunday I rode down to Brighton, on the south coast, and back. This was
over a hundred miles round trip, and far more than I’d ridden before. When I
got back I told my family what I’d done. My brothers said “You liar!” Then I
pulled a stick of Brighton rock out of my pocket. That’s the
toothpaste-flavored hard candy that has “Brighton” written all the way through
it. “So you don’t want any of this then?” I said—which floored them.
This reminds me of how,
in early medieval times, people who had committed grave sins were told by their
parish priests to go on a pilgrimage to Rome as a way of expiating their offences.
Once they had reached Rome and prayed for forgiveness at the tomb of Peter,
they had to purchase some kind of token or souvenir that they could show to
their priests when they got home, to prove that they had actually made it all
the way. The manufacture of these souvenirs was a small industry – long before
there was tourism in the modern sense. I wonder if anyone manufactured fake
souvenirs of Rome in, say, London, so that the sinners could save themselves a
great deal of trouble and expense (but damn themselves to an even deeper circle
of Hell). I don’t think you can get Brighton rock anywhere but Brighton.
I was surprised to find
that I was a stronger bicyclist than many of my “athletic” classmates. That was
probably because I was on the small size and skinny, which is a help when
bicycling, especially on climbs.
Another activity I
enjoyed was singing in the school choir. I learned the words and music easily.
I wasn’t a particularly good singer but that didn’t matter in a large choir. I think
I liked choir because it was a highly structured social activity—you didn’t
have to make conversation or anything, you just sang. Singing was also a point
of contact between me and my stepfather, a psychiatrist who married my mother
when I was in my mid-teens. He played the piano, and we worked our way through
Schubert’s song cycles – Die schöne Müllerin
and Die Winterreise, and some others.
A couple of weeks ago I
was watching The Amazing Race, and
the contestants had to learn and sing one of those songs—Die Forelle (The Trout) – with the Vienna Boys’ Choir as a backing.
They all totally mangled it—not one of them could get the words or the music
right or stay in time with the piano. I thought—what’s so hard about that? I
would have been through that challenge and on to the finish line long before
anyone else had mastered the first verse. But I would have had more trouble
with some of the other challenges, like jumping off the highest structure in
When I was sixteen or
so, I went on a school trip to Greece, with about 15 classmates and a couple of
teachers. It was fabulous—seeing the places we’d read so much about in Homer or
Thucydides or Aristophanes. Of course we tried to use our ancient Greek to
communicate with the modern Greeks, and of course they barely understood a
word, even when we adapted to the modern way of pronouncing Greek words, which
is to drop ‘h’es and ‘g’s and speak almost every vowel as “ee”. So hugeaia—“health”—becomes
ee-ee-ee-a, which I thought was pretty funny. I managed to room with another
gay boy. We didn’t especially like each other, but that was no bar to getting
it on. On the long train journey back from Brindisi to Dunkirk the carriages
were very crowded, so we slept in the luggage racks, above the other
passengers’ heads, and they were terrified that we’d fall onto them, but we
When I was seventeen I
fell in love for the first time—with a boy in my class named Denys. He wooed
me, in a sense: He kept coming round to our house after school and asking me to
go for walks with him, which I did. So my falling in love with him was a kind
of reciprocation of his advances. He wasn’t gay, so it never became a physical
relationship, but it was certainly an intimate one. It put a stop to my sex
life, because I had to keep myself pure for him—not that he cared one way or
Like Nicky Lafitte,
Denys died very young, in a hang-gliding accident, when he was about thirty. I
was out of love with him by then, but it shook me up badly. I don’t have any
photos or mementos of him, which is sad. Somewhere I have one of my school
essays on which he scrawled the word “phluareis” in his spidery handwriting.
“Phluareis” is ancient Greek for “What drivel.”
destiny was to become a doctor, but under Denys’s rebellious influence I
decided I wanted to be a composer instead. I sat at our piano—which I couldn’t
play—and pretended to extemporize some wonderfully soulful and elegiac music.
One day I quite by accident hit on the famous “lost chord”—or so I excitedly
told myself—but it quickly went lost again. Becoming a composer was the dumbest
idea I ever had. I soon realized that and refocused on medical school, to the
relief of my long-suffering parents.
Being in a rebellious
phase did lead to some interesting experiences. I joined an anti-war or
anti-nuclear demonstration outside the American embassy in Mayfair. I got
arrested, along with the philosopher Bertrand Russell and some other people.
When we got to the police station Russell was taken off to a prison hospital
and treated like an earl, because he was ninety years old and world-famous—and
he actually was an earl. The rest of
us able-bodied proles spent the weekend crammed in a tiny, smelly, overheated
cell modeled after the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Anyway, after that
experience I considered myself a close friend of Bertrand Russell and I read
his History of Western Philosophy, a work that I found really boring—philosophy
just doesn’t grab me. The one passage that held my interest had to do with the
infamous medieval forgery known as the Donation of Constantine. More on that
In order to go to
medical school I had to catch up with all the science I’d missed out on at Dulwich,
so I spent time at some private educational dump in central London taking
chemistry and physics and such. I fell in with a shady guy called Keith who ran
a gay nightclub, and we started an affair. This was my initiation into the
London gay scene. The British sodomy laws were repealed around then, but only
for people over twenty-one. I was nineteen so I was still a criminal,
technically. Then I took what was called a “first M.B.” course at St. Thomas’s
Hospital, where I completely out of the blue volunteered to play rugby
football, and enjoyed it. A smallish player can do quite well, I discovered, if
he just avoids colliding with any of the big guys. I also played the clarinet
in the orchestra, even though my clarinet-playing was only marginally more
proficient than my piano-playing.
I got into Cambridge
University to do my first three years of medical study, but before I started
there I had a gap year at the University of Göttingen in what was then West
Germany, working as a technician in an electron microscope lab. I really liked
this, plus I got to learn German. It’s hard to explain how beautiful biological
tissues are under the EM. There’s none of the fuzziness that you see when
looking through a regular microscope – everything is crystal-sharp. The view is
black-and-white, so electron micrographs are often colorized to make them more
appealing, but I’ve always hated that. It’s like colorizing I Love Lucy.
Even though I was an employee
I had quite a bit of freedom to do what I wanted, and I wrote one extremely
insignificant study about the spinal cord of chickens that got published in
some German journal. At the time I was proud to be a published scientist, since
I wasn’t even an undergraduate yet. But later I suppressed it and never cited
it (rather like my middle name, which I hate). So I was gobsmacked at a lecture
about 30 years later when the speaker mentioned the study as being relevant to
some issue in spinal cord development.
I was a bit lonely at Göttingen,
and there was no gay life in that small town that I knew about, but I did have
my bike with me and I got to ride all over West Germany, especially the Harz
Mountains. At the end of my time there I rode my bike down to Athens and joined
a group of German students who went on a boat among the islands in the Aegean. I
also sang in the choir of one of the churches in Göttingen.
In my early twenties,
that is during my student days at Cambridge, I experienced several episodes of
severe depression—bad enough to require hospitalization, drugs, and
electroconvulsive therapy. These episodes interfered with my studies in a major
way, but I did manage to graduate.
Therapists I saw often
drew some connection between my depression and my being gay, but I don’t think
that was the cause. I was actually quite comfortable being gay; I moved in a
gay circle at Cambridge and was in a couple of relationships that lasted months
or longer. Both of my parents had suffered from severe depression at times—and
they certainly weren’t gay—so I think I probably inherited the genes for
depression. Still, some of the bouts that I’ve experienced were clearly triggered
by life events. Depression has been much less a part of my life since my
twenties, thank goodness.
That reminds me of
something else about my parents: they both dropped dead rather than languishing
through some terminal illness. So I’m hoping I’ve inherited the genes for
dropping dead. I have frequently had to listen to horror stories about the slow
and extremely demanding decline of my friends’ parents, some of whom are still
at it today, making their children’s lives a living hell through no fault of
Between the episodes of
depression there was much that I enjoyed when I was at Cambridge: I liked
learning science, and I liked the kinds of recreational activities that most
Cambridge students engaged in, such as punting on the river and sitting around
in coffee houses debating the meaning of life.
I also got into bicycle
racing. This was more of a “town” than a “gown” sport, and most of the students
who did participate had accents that identified them as grammar-school kids.
This was long before it was cool to have a regional or working-class accent—or
to ride a bicycle, for that matter.
Sometimes we’d train by
riding behind trucks. Back then trucks were very underpowered by today’s
standards. I think they were restricted by law to 40 miles per hour, and they
often traveled slower than that. So it wasn’t that hard to find the sweet spot
where eddies in the truck’s wake pulled you along at high speed, and you could
stay there for miles, spinning like crazy, so long as you could stop anyone
else from muscling in and taking the sweet spot away from you. All the time
you’d be breathing in the foulest exhaust-pipe emissions you could imagine, but
no one cared about that.
My bicycle was a yellow Witcomb, hand-made
from Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing and equipped with all Campagnolo Record
components, Mafac sprint rims, DT spokes, Clement silk “imperforabile” tires, and
a Brookes copper-riveted saddle. In other words, the best. I bought it
second-hand for five pounds. Nowadays you can’t buy a pair of brake blocks for
that amount of money. I’ve had plenty of much more expensive bikes since then,
but none gave me the thrill of ownership that the Witcomb did.
I was best at climbing,
but the Cambridgeshire countryside was too flat to let me excel. Also I was a
smoker at the time, if you can believe it, which didn’t help. I did win the
regional hill-climb championship one year. It was a ridiculously short hill,
and my winning time, as I recall, was about 45 seconds. I rode it with most of
the components removed from my bike to save weight, including the saddle. It
was an out-of-the saddle sprint anyway, and it was too short to require much
breathing, so my smoker’s lungs were no impediment.
Although there was a very out-of-the-closet
gay community at Cambridge, many of the gay students went back into the closet
after they left university. The actor Ian McKellan was one example. When he
“came out” in 1988 I thought, what—how can you come out, you’ve been openly gay
since the year dot. But apparently he wasn’t.
Another example was a
student I’ll call Bill, with whom I had quite a long affair. Although he was
openly gay at Cambridge, he afterwards married a woman and was to all
appearances heterosexual. He went into business and became managing director of
a company. About 10 years ago the company fired him for visiting gay saunas
during working hours. Bill sued the company, saying that he only visited those saunas
for relief of his bad back. The judge bought his story and awarded him several
hundred thousand pounds in damages or lost wages. I laughed when I heard about
One summer I and three
other medical students bought a World War II army ambulance and drove it to
Syria. My father gave me two syringes preloaded with morphine in case of
emergency. Sadly I never got to use them, on myself or anyone else. (My youth
was pretty much drug-free, actually, in spite of it being the
nineteen-sixties.) My stepfather gave me 5 cases of baked beans from his
brother’s baked-bean company. No one else would eat them so I lived on an
all-baked-bean diet for a couple of months. We slept in the four stretcher
berths in the back of the ambulance.
The ambulance’s gearbox
had no synchromesh. After a while the
brakes gave out, so we had to use the gears to slow down: if you missed the
downshift because of the tricky double-declutching you could only save yourself
with the steering wheel, which didn’t work very well either. This led to some
We stopped off at the
ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus in Greece, where we saw a performance of
Berlioz’s ballet ‘The Damnation of Faust’ by the Paris Opera. One of the
dancers was about the most beautiful guy I’d ever set eyes on, and I’m very
proud of the fact that I had the guts to lie in wait for him after the
performance and suggest getting it on in the adjacent olive grove—which he
readily agreed to. His name was Norbert.
We continued on through
Turkey, where we blew the ambulance’s engine and had to wait about a week for
it to be fixed: we found someone who was familiar with those vehicles from his
WWII service. Then on to Syria, where we visited all the cities that are now
riven by civil war. But our main objective was the Roman city of Palmyra, which
is located in the center of a vast desert far inland from the Mediterranean.
The temples and other buildings were very well preserved, and the whole effect was
quite hallucinatory after the sensory deprivation of desert driving. I suppose
it would be difficult to go there now without being abducted by Al Qaeda or
On the way back home I
took a side trip by bus to Epidaurus, hoping to find Norbert still there. He
was, and I got to spend some time on the ship he and his company were staying
on. It was hard to tear myself away and rejoin my friends in Athens. I did see
him once again, in Paris, but the magic was over at that point. He became a
After graduating from
Cambridge I began the clinical part of my medical education at University
College Hospital in London. I wasn’t the greatest people person at the time
(nor am I now) so I didn’t find clinical work particularly congenial. Also, I
disliked the way patients were treated. For example, we saw one poor old woman
who had a fulminating breast tumor that had erupted through the skin – it was suppurating
and gross-looking and she was obviously very scared. The chief surgeon told us
all about the patient’s case right in front of her, using code-words like
“mitotic lesion” instead of “cancer.” Then she patted the patient on the
shoulder and said something like “You’re worried that you’re going to need an
operation, aren’t you? Well I can reassure you, that won’t be necessary.” As if
she could expect a complete recovery.
My discomfort with
clinical work, plus another episode of depression, led me to drop out of
medical school, even though I only had a year to go. The dean said: “You can
come back and finish your studies anytime you like.” I wonder what they’d say
if I showed up now, at the age of 70, and told them that I was finally ready to
complete my medical education.
Not knowing what to do
with myself, I returned to the German lab where I had worked after leaving
Dulwich. That turned out to be a good move for a couple of reasons. First, I
was able to enroll in graduate school while continuing my full-time job, so I could
support myself. My dissertation concerned the synaptic organization of a
certain part of the visual system named the corpus geniculatum laterale (note
geniculatum). What I found there was
that the then-accepted dogma of neuroscience—that information enters a neuron
via its dendrites and exits through its axon—was violated in an interesting way.
The other reason was that I met an American
exchange student named Richard Hersey, and we become lovers. I recall the exact
moment when that happened. We were at a party in the room of a mutual friend,
Christian Wehrhahn, listening to a Bob Dylan song, and we caught each other’s
eyes and looked at each other for about 10 seconds longer than is permitted
between people who aren’t lovers. That sealed it.
It felt great to finally
be in a serious long-term relationship, and we did many worthwhile things
together, such as taking a trip to Sicily. While in the city of Agrigento in
southern Sicily we noticed that all the men were walking in couples, holding
hands. I thought, is everyone gay here? But it turned out that was just what guys
did in Agrigento—I don’t know if they still do.
We were hitch-hiking,
and drivers made passes at Richard a couple of times. I was quite jealous
because I didn’t think he was so much better-looking than me. Perhaps he had
something that appealed to Italian men specifically. One time we had to tumble
out of the car in the middle of nowhere to save Richard from further
molestation. We had to walk several miles to the nearest rail station and take
We visited England and
Richard met my family. My father was never too comfortable with my being gay
(and my older brother being gay too). Much later, in a TV interview, he said “I
think about it as nothing better, but also nothing worse, than having a child
with a cleft palate.” But both he and Richard were extremely well-read and they
chatted happily about books. My mother and my stepmother both liked him a lot. (My
stepfather was out of the picture by then, having committed some nameless
When Richard finished
his exchange year and returned to California I made up my mind to get a job in
the U.S. So in 1971, freshly graduated with a “Doktor rerum naturalium” and some
kind of distinction, I flew to New York, met Richard there, and we did a
job-hunting-cum-tourism trip around the U.S. I looked at postdoctoral positions
in Boston and Wisconsin and New York, but the one that appealed to me most was
in Boston, in the lab of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel at Harvard Medical
School. They were famous neurophysiologists who everyone expected to win Nobel
Prizes, which they finally did ten years later.
At the time we made that
trip we were both pretty hard up, and we saved money every way we could. The
night before visiting Hubel and Wiesel, for example, we slept on a golf course
in the Boston suburbs, and we were woken at first light by the hiss of a giant
jet of irrigation water that was circling towards us. We just managed to
scramble out of the way before we, and my all-important electron micrographs,
got a cold soaking.
This reminds me of
another occasion, some years later, when we slept out on the grass runway of
the little airport at North Conway, New Hampshire. That time we were woken by
the noise of an airplane speeding towards us on its take-off run. It was another
test of how fast we could sprint two seconds after being woken from deep
Hubel and Wiesel offered
me a post-doctoral position. I don’t think it was because I was a particularly
meritorious candidate, but because they had just purchased an electron
microscope and they had no idea how to operate it. Also I had exactly the kind
of well-bred English accent that makes Americans think you’re several times
smarter than you actually are. Sadly, my English accent is in bad repair now,
after living in the US for 40 years.
After the Harvard visit
we bought a secondhand VW bug for $600 from a young woman in Boston, and drove
west. While crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats I thought I might just as well
drive on the salt flat as on the road, but this turned out to be a mistake,
because the car got stuck up to its axles in the salt. Some guy with a rope
hauled us out.
We eventually reached
Richard’s home in Orinda, California, where I met his parents and sister. Richard’s
dad (an ex-Navy officer who recently, at the age of ninety-something, published
a fascinating WW2 memoir titled A Ship
with No Name) took us sailing under the Bay Bridge. They were all very nice
and hospitable people, and they’ve remained good friends over the 42 years
since, in spite of the tough times that we all had to go through.
After a couple of weeks Richard
and I headed down to Mexico, where we both got the worst gut rot ever, down by
Mazatlan. I think it came from swimming in the ocean near a raw sewage outlet. Somewhat
recovered, we headed back to the U.S. and did a quick tour of the Grand Canyon
(which we hiked down), Zion National Park, and Yosemite, where we hiked from
the Valley up to Tenaya Lake near Tuolomne Meadows. I must have had a better
head for heights then than I do now, because I recall some incredibly
vertiginous drop-offs that we had to traverse.
When we were near the
top of Cloud’s Rest I stopped to clip my toenails, because my boots were a bit
tight. A whole lot of ants came running up, grabbed the clippings—several ants
to a piece—and ant-handled them off into their nest, for what purpose I know
not. It gave me a fuzzy at-one-with-the-biosphere kind of feeling. Spiritual,
kind of—or as close to spiritual as a hardcore atheist like myself is likely to
get. At the end of the summer we sold the car at a profit in Berkeley.
My trip at an end, I took
a night flight to New York, did some sightseeing, and then took another night
flight to Frankfurt. At Frankfurt railway station I ran into my brother Julian,
quite by accident. He had run out of money on some trip, and he was panhandling
to raise his fare back to England. I gave him the money and bought him a meal,
and we chatted for several hours. I had gone two nights without sleep (I can
never sleep on planes) so I was extremely tired. On the train back to Göttingen
I finally fell into a deep slumber, and I missed my stop. I had to sit out the
rest of my third night at Nordheim station, waiting for the milk train to take
me back to Göttingen.
Richard had to finish
his studies at Berkeley, and my job in Boston didn’t begin until the following
year, so we spent most of a year apart. It wasn’t like now, when you can Skype
someone on the other side of the world for as long as you like, for free. We
communicated by letter, and I remember the high anxiety I felt every morning
when going to check my pigeon hole for a letter from him. I still have a thick
pile of them, but they never came frequently enough.
The following fall we
joined up in Boston. Richard had decided to go to medical school, and because
he was an English major he had to do a year’s catch-up study, just like I had
to do. He did it at Boston University, and we lived on Beacon Hill in an
apartment that turned out to be rat-infested. It was a great year. One
highlight was when we came home one evening and found a burglar in the act of
wheeling one of our bicycles out of our apartment. We grabbed him and got him
down onto the floor, and he begged us not to turn him over to the police. He
was quite a good-looking young guy, and we briefly toyed with the idea of
striking a deal with him that involved our pleasure followed by his freedom.
But while we were mulling this over he wriggled out of our grip and dived straight
through the closed window and was gone, with the key to my Kryptonite lock in
his pocket. So we had to replace the window and the lock—it probably would have
been cheaper to let him take the bicycle, a cheapish Motobecane ten-speed.
Another time a really
flaky young woman who lived in the apartment above ours left her gas cooker on
and went out partying, whereupon the apartment caught fire. The fire brigade
arrived and pumped masses of water in, which of course came down into our apartment
in large quantities. One of the fireman came and knocked on our door – I thought
he was going to order us to evacuate, or else apologize for the mess, but he
just wanted to use our bathroom. Several hours later, at about three in the
morning, the young woman came home to find her apartment burnt out, and she wailed
loudly enough to wake everyone on Charles Street.
We also did quite a bit
of traveling, and there was another occasion when we had to make an emergency
exit from a car that had picked us up. This was in Nova Scotia. This time it
wasn’t a sexual thing: the driver was so drugged out that he was slaloming all
over the road, and we had to bail out before we got into a head-on collision.
Department at Harvard Medical School, where Hubel and Wiesel’s lab was located,
was full of incredibly bright and well-educated scientists, post-docs, and grad
students. I felt very poorly equipped for the job but did reasonably OK and
gradually made a decent name for myself. Hubel was easy-going and jokey and
Wiesel was dour and moralizing. For lunch Hubel would order cholesterol-drenched
hot sandwiches from the local Italian sub shop, while Wiesel would eat non-fat yoghurt
with a light sprinkling of granola—or ‘birdseed’ as Hubel derisively called it.
Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Wiesel is still very much
alive whereas Hubel died recently, even though he was younger than Wiesel.
Most of Hubel and
Wiesel’s great discoveries were made with the help of a tungsten microelectrode
that Hubel invented. Everyone who joined the lab had to learn how to make these
electrodes, which was quite tricky. Once made, you had to insulate them by
dipping them into some kind of sticky industrial solvent called Stoner-Mudge.
You had to lower the electrode backward into the Stoner-Mudge while watching
under a microscope, so as to leave the very tip—just a tiny fraction of a
millimeter—bare of insulation. I never really got the hang of it, but I loved
doing it, because I would get high from the Stoner-Mudge vapors. I could happily
spend a morning nodding woozily over the foul-smelling solvent, and then I
would order a box of electrodes ready-made from a supply house in New Hampshire.
Richard was admitted to
UCLA medical school, so we split up again, and though we remained nominally
partners we only saw each other from time to time, and we both had our own
things going. That was pretty sad because I think we were a good couple and I
was very much attached to him. One time I was flying out to visit him when
someone called in a bomb threat. The pilot dropped the plane out of the sky
faster than I knew a plane could descend and landed at some god-forsaken
airstrip in the middle of nowhere, whereupon we all slid down the evacuation
chutes—something that I’d always wanted to do. As instructed, we ran away from
the plane as fast as we could. Once at a safe distance we turned round and
waited for the plane to blow up, but it didn’t, unfortunately.
After I completed my
postdoctoral studies I stayed on in the Neurobiology Department and gradually
ascended the academic ladder. My big diversion from work was still bicycle
racing: I raced with the Northeast Bicycle Club and then I was cofounder of a
new club, the Boston Road Club. By that time I was a “vet”—meaning an over-35
rider, so I raced in age-graded competition. I rode all winter; if it snowed we
raced on rollers in a bike shop in Harvard Square.
But most of all I liked
club training rides in the countryside around Boston, when we would sprint for
every town-line sign. This works really well in New England, because the signs are
far from any town: they’re located at the boundaries between one parish and the
next, and they are huge white boards with curlicued tops. So you could spot them
from far away, but sometimes they would surprise you as you rounded a corner.
Eventually I learned where they all were, which gave me a big advantage because
I’d be in the right gear and near the front and ready to jump before they came
into sight. It was good training for criterium racing, the
round-and-round-a-city-block-type races that are the bread and butter of
amateur bicycle racing in the U.S. Still, I preferred mountain racing; my
favorite was the Mt. Washington Hill Climb in New England, in which I twice got
second place—the second time by half a bike length after several thousand feet
of climbing, which was quite frustrating.
Among the people who
worked in my lab was a postdoc named Helen Sherk, who had been a grad student
at MIT. Helen and I spend a year or so studying a little-known part of the
brain named the claustrum. This was one of the most enjoyable projects I was
engaged in, because it was pretty much terra incognita and we eventually
published three back-to-back papers in the Journal of Neuroscience that dragged
the claustrum into the world’s awareness.
Much later, Francis
Crick (he of DNA fame) developed a whole theory of how the claustrum
contributed to consciousness, based in large part on our studies. It always
feels odd when theoreticians seize on some observations you made and tell you
what they mean, and I’m not convinced that Crick’s theory of the claustrum is correct.
But at least the Crick name helped draw more attention to this part of the
brain. Helen is now on the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle.
She and her husband Tom have been as much into long-distance running as I’ve
been into bike racing.
After Richard completed
his medical studies at UCLA he came back to Boston for another year to do his
internship at Boston City Hospital. We lived together again in the Beacon Hill
area, but in a much nicer and more spacious apartment than previously, and we
had quite a series of visitors come stay with us for shorter or longer periods.
The Pope came by one time—I mean not to our actual apartment, but he drove past
and waved and smiled at us. Maybe he didn’t know that this was Boston’s gay
That year was another
great one for me, even though Richard was so busy that we only had limited free
time together. One time there was a record-breaking blizzard that completely
covered our car. When we dug it out we found a parking ticket attached to the
top of the radio antenna. Another time I came home looking a bit green. Richard
took one glance at me and said “You have appendicitis.” He was right, and they
whipped it out that same evening. It’s useful having a doctor in the family.
Then Richard moved to
New York and became a kidney specialist. We would still see each other about
once a month, but we drifted apart again and developed other relationships. I
thought about moving to New York so we could be together, and I even applied
for and was offered a position at Columbia, but I didn’t take it, and that probably
saved my life.
In the early 1980s I
took U.S. citizenship. I swore to “abjure foreign potentates”, although I was
careful to check that my British citizenship wouldn’t be affected, so in a way
I was lying.
On the same day that I
abjured foreign potentates I also abjured meat, and I’ve been a vegetarian ever
since. To celebrate this double abjuration I held a small dinner party at a
French restaurant. Among the guests were Geoff Hastings, a technician in the
department who was also a bike racer, and his then girlfriend. The food was
excellent but small in quantity, especially for Geoff and myself who typically
burnt through a lot of calories on our bikes every day. I remember the next day
Geoff confessed to me that he had to get up and raid the refrigerator in the
middle of the night. He’s now a physician specializing in radiation medicine in
the Bay Area, and a big-time mountain climber.
The reason I took
citizenship had nothing to do with my career. It was because I wanted to ride
with the U.S. team in the World Veterans’ Bicycle Championships, which was held
in St. Johann in Tirol in Austria. My youngest brother Ben came over from
England to join me, but he went to another St. Johann, St. Johann in Pongau, by
mistake, which caused a lot of confusion—there were no cellphones in the early
eighties. I was reading Proust at the time and I got through most of one paragraph
while waiting for Ben to show up. Proust’s paragraphs are very long and
After Ben arrived we
attended a cyclists’ mass in the local church, in which the priest blessed us
and our bicycles. I didn’t win the race but they handed out cups well down the
finishing order, so I got to receive one at a Third-Reich-style nighttime ceremony,
and I added it to the pile of knick-knacks I’d won over the years. One was a
cup made from empty Budweiser cans, which I got by winning a circuit race in
Connecticut. (The race was sponsored by the local brewery.) One time, when my
mother visited, she polished up all my trophies and medals while I was out at
work. Maybe I was her favorite son
In 1983 I was offered a
position at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the rich northern suburb of San
Diego, and I accepted. I had to come out to San Diego a few times during the
following winter to make arrangements. One time I flew to San Francisco and
rode my bike the 560 miles to San Diego in four days. Another time, the day
after Christmas, I was riding along the coast highway north of La Jolla when I
fell in with a group of about 100 cyclists, mostly racers belonging to the San
Diego Bicycle Club, who were setting out on a weeklong tour of Southern
California, and I joined them on the spur of the moment. The hardest day took
us from Palm Springs to Julian via the Salton Sea. There was a ferocious
headwind that turned into a blizzard as we climbed the Banner Grade from the
desert floor to the pine-clad summit. Only a few of us finished the stage on
our bikes, the rest had to be sagged in.
I made several friends
on that trip that I rode with for years afterwards. One of them, an artist and
really nice guy whose name was Travis, had a girlfriend who worked in stained glass.
I commissioned her to make a set of stained-glass windows for my lab
illustrated the history of brain research. I sold them to the Institute when I
left, and I believe they’re still in place there.
One time Travis and I
were standing next to the track at the San Diego velodrome, watching a race and
waiting for our turn to ride, when two riders banged wheels and one of them
came straight for us and collided at high speed with Travis, knocking him
unconscious and removing a couple of his front teeth. We were used to
bike-racing accidents, but getting hurt this way as a spectator was a first.
When I visited him in hospital the next day he had no memory of the incident,
which was probably a good thing. Travis was an amazingly good climber—he
finished the Death Valley to Mt. Whitney race about 20 minutes ahead of the
next rider, and close to an hour faster than me. (In my hubris I’d elected to
ride with the big boys rather than with my age group.) By the time I got to
Whitney Portal Travis was cooling his feet in a mountain stream.
A couple of years after
starting at the Salk Institute I was visiting Richard in New York, and he told
me that he’d been diagnosed with AIDS. It was a death sentence at that time,
and he knew that better than anyone, being a physician and having seen what
happened to lots of guys in the New York gay community. He was in his
mid-thirties and just getting going with his career. It was horrible news to
hear, and that began the worst four years of my life.
For the first three
years Richard did reasonably well—he got one infection after another, but they
were all beaten down with increasingly toxic drugs, and between times he led a
pretty normal life. He actually did a bicycle trip in Iceland by himself, and
he went on to the Faroe Islands and Scotland. I don’t think I would have dared
to do that with the possibility of a serious complication popping up without
notice. He came out to San Diego quite often, and I also visited him frequently
in New York, especially when he was hospitalized, which was several times a
year. His parents did the same.
At some point in his
illness the first AIDS drug, AZT, was identified, but it wasn’t yet available
to be prescribed. I looked in the chemical catalog in my lab and found that I
could buy it there, but at a price that would ruin us both within a few weeks. Luckily
he did get AZT before long, and it helped for a while.
Eventually he was too
sick to look after himself, and he moved in with me in San Diego, where he
spent the last year of his life. It was nightmarish. I had to take the year off
work. Not only did he get serious complications, such as an eye infection that
nearly blinded him, he also developed some kind of brain condition that put him
in a state of delirium for weeks. There needed to be two people around at all
times to cope with that, so a stream of his relatives and friends came and spent
time with us.
It was very hard for
everyone. For him, obviously, but also for us. Imagine trying to perform a
central vein infusion (to save his sight) while he was flailing at demons, and
incontinent along with it. It would have been very easy to stick oneself with a
contaminated needle. Sometimes, when I was alone with him and feeling deserted
by the world, I wondered whether I should simply put him out of his misery, for
his own sake and for mine. And I did feel a certain anger towards him—for
contracting AIDS, and for demanding so much from me when really we weren’t
partners any more. But love won out, I guess.
Amazingly, when we thought he was completely beyond
recovery, he returned to his senses over a period of a few days, which made me
glad that I hadn’t done what I’d been thinking about. We hopped on a plane to
England and spent time with various members of my large extended family. It was
all too short an interval of reasonable health—pretty soon he became
breathless, they looked inside his lungs and found Kaposi’s sarcoma, which had
spread from his skin, and he died not long after, in early 1990. He died peacefully
in our home after not eating or drinking for several days; his father and I
During the periods when
he was OK Richard had worked on our back yard, laying out herb beds, planting
some trees, and building a Japanese-style arbor or pergola, and a composting
station. Recently I went back to visit the place: the California pepper tree
that we’d brought home from a nursery in the back of my little car now towers
over the whole house and yard. I love pepper trees: each one is its own tree,
particularly as they get older; their drooping foliage is almost willow-like, and
they add a splash of green to the most arid landscapes. They’re so ubiquitous
in southern California that it’s hard to believe they’re not native. But this
particular pepper tree means a lot to me.
During the first few
days after Richard died I felt extremely calm, almost buoyant—perhaps because
the constant anxieties of looking after him had been lifted off of me. I
remember inviting a couple I knew to dinner, and I mentioned that Richard had
died two days before, and they looked at me as if there was something wrong
with me that I wasn’t showing any particular grief. So I thought that I had
done all my grieving before Richard died, but that turned out not to be true,
and I fell into a severe depression that only lifted gradually after I’d been
in hospital for several weeks. My good friend, colleague, and fellow bicyclist
Don MacLeod and his wife had me live in their home for several weeks more after
I left hospital, which was a life-saver.
Of course, what happened
to Richard, and how it affected me and his parents and everyone else who knew
him—that was being repeated all over San Diego and the whole country. We used
to see other men with KS on their faces being wheeled around town, and I had to
sit by the bedside of one or guys I knew who succumbed to the disease. But at
that time I wasn’t nearly so engaged in the gay community as I’ve been since,
so I didn’t loses scores of friends like many gay men did.
The only good thing to
come out of this mass tragedy was that it motivated many gay people to come out
of the closet and get involved with their community and gay causes and politics.
There was a kind of productive energy among the survivors that I hadn’t seen
before. Thus, although the short-term effect of the epidemic was to demonize
gay men, the long-term effect was quite the opposite. It also brought gay men
and lesbians together in ways that hadn’t been common before the epidemic.
Lesbians were helping out when everyone else was turning their backs on the
Once back at work at the
Salk Institute I felt a loss of interest in what I had been working on
previously, and I seriously considered quitting the Institute and doing
something else, though I didn’t know what. In any case, the Salk really never
suited me—it’s a place for research czars who manage huge labs, not people like
me who like to do bench research themselves with a postdoc or grad student or
However, I was intrigued
by a study that had been published a year or so before by Laura Allen and
colleagues in Roger Gorski’s lab at UCLA. Gorski and other colleagues had
reported some years earlier that a group of nerve cells in the hypothalamus of
rats was “sexually dimorphic”, that is, different in size between the sexes—in
this case, larger in males than females. This difference comes about because
male rat fetuses are exposed to higher levels of testosterone during
development than females, and testosterone promotes the survival and growth of
cells in this region. Allen’s study reported on a similar sexual dimorphism in
the hypothalamus of humans. The name of the cell group is INAH3.
I decided to see whether
there might be differences between gay and straight people in the size of
INAH3. It was kind of an odd thing to do, given that I was a vision researcher
and my salary was being paid by the National Eye Institute. However, I scraped
together some money and got permission from a Human Subjects Review Board to do
the study. Then I had to get some brains, which I did with the help of several
neuropathologists in various parts of the country. I remember one time I flew
to Chicago to pick up a specimen. It was February, and I completely forgot that
it was winter back East, so I went just in shirtsleeves. I nearly died of
exposure waiting for the T.
You have to do this kind
of work “blind”—meaning that the individual brain specimens are coded, so that you
don’t know which specimen comes from which subject. That’s to prevent your own
unconscious (or conscious) bias from skewing your findings. In practice that
means you’re working for months without knowing whether there’s anything
interesting in the data, until you open the envelope and match the data from
each specimen to its subject.
Several people have
asked me whether Richard’s brain was one of the specimens that I studied. It
wasn’t---that would have been way too macabre. Just processing brains from
other gay men who died of AIDS—men I didn’t know—brought back enough painful
memories. We buried Richard up in Oakland without an autopsy.
When I did open the
envelope there was a very significant difference between gay and straight
men—INAH3 was about half the size in gay men that it was in straight men, on
average. This was the result I’d been hoping for, but not really expecting,
because most scientific hunches are wrong—in my experience at least. So I wrote
this up for a paper that I submitted to Science,
and when it came out, in August of 1991, it got a lot of media attention.
Among all the interviews
and such that I had to give, the most significant for me was appearing on the Oprah
Winfrey Show. Not so much for what happened on the show—she actually stacked
the deck against me, because she also had several pairs of identical twins on
the show, all of whom were discordant for sexual orientation (one gay, one
straight). I would say something fairly academic about the biology but then
these twins would tell heartrending stories about what happened in their lives
to make one of them gay and one straight—as if life experiences were the sole
determinants of a person’s sexual orientation. You can’t compete with that, not
on daytime TV anyway. After the show I had lunch with the gay member of one
twin pair, and he said to me “You know, Dr. LeVay, my brother is gay—he just can’t deal with it.”
The significant thing
for me about appearing on Oprah had nothing to do with what transpired on the
show. It was that my appearance let to meeting my present partner Mike, who
I’ve been with ever since. Mike saw me on the show, and he asked his band
manager to track me down. At the time Mike was a drummer in a professional rock
Eventually we met up,
and we never looked back. For me it was an amazing reversal of fortune, because
I really thought that my life—my love life at least—was over after Richard
died. I think what made it possible for me to fall in love with Mike was that
he was utterly different from Richard, so he didn’t remind me of Richard at
all. After this happened, I felt doubly sad for Richard’s parents, who couldn’t
hope to get a new son like I got a new partner. I’ve stayed in touch with them
– they and I and a couple of other friends meet up at Richard’s grave once a
year for a brief memorial, and then we have lunch together. It’ll be the 24th
time this January, although that’s hard to believe.
In 1992 (just before I
met Mike) I moved to West Hollywood, both to help found a gay school (the
Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education) and to devote myself to writing. The
school did well for a few years but eventually folded. Still, I’m very happy in
West Hollywood, and Mike and I have had a home together there since 1993. One
of the things I like about Los Angeles is the all-year-round good weather:
yesterday I and some friends did a ride in the Santa Monica Mountains, and conditions
were perfect: cool and sunny with incredibly clear views in every direction—what
more can you ask for? Back East a snowstorm was raging, and in England it was
the usual cold damp dark winter’s day.
Mike often visits his
parents in India for a few weeks after Christmas. In the summer we generally
spend several weeks or months in England, but we also squeeze in a camping trip
to Yosemite or some other National Park.
I’ve been scribbling
away over the years since I left the Salk Institute, and I just published my
twelfth book, a historical novel set in eighth-century Italy titled ‘The
Donation of Constantine.’ As I mentioned earlier, I first read about the
Donation in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy when I was
seventeen years old, and it struck me then that it would make a great topic for
a novel, particularly as very little is actually known about who wrote it and
why, so there’s plenty of room for the imagination to fill in the blanks.
I thought about this on
and off for the next fifty years, but it was quite impractical for me to
actually write the novel. For one thing, I was way too busy with my scientific
career. Also, for most of those fifty years it was incredibly difficult to get
access to the medieval documents that were relevant to the story—you’d have to
go to some remote monastery in Bohemia and persuade the folks there that you
had some academic standing in the field, and so on. But then the Internet
arrived, and historians have placed thousands of documents relating to medieval
history on the Web. Most of these are in Latin, but I dug the now-rusty Latin
out of my hindbrain and was able to make reasonable sense of them. Luckily, early
medieval writers didn’t use the convoluted syntax of Cicero or Catullus: their
sentences read more like English translated into Latin, if you know what I
Mike and I went to Rome
to do some on-site research—which wasn’t really necessary, because Google Maps
can show you everything you need to know. What I’d really like would be a version
of Google Maps that you could wind back century by century until you reached
the year 751, the year my novel begins. Anyway, we had a great time: we stayed
in a tiny studio apartment in Trastevere—that’s Transtiber, which in the 8th
century was a working-class neighborhood where the “little people” of my novel
lived and worked.
One of my characters is
a Moslem relic-trader named Omar. He would bring relics, such as the bones of Christian
martyrs, from the East and sell them to people who believed in their power to
cure diseases or whatever. Later, fed up with traveling, he simply made them
himself in his workshop. The faith that early-medieval folks put in relics is
amazing. Early in my book Omar tries to sell a tear shed by Petronilla, the
daughter of St. Peter, when her father was martyred—the tear is in an
ancient-looking glass vial. When the customer tells him that Petronilla died
before Peter, Omar makes up a story about how her body remained uncorrupted and
guarded by an angel, and her eyes miraculously shed the tear at the moment of
Peter’s death. Omar’s teenage son Zaid is in love with the girl next door,
whose mother casts spells for a living—for example, to help people win
lawsuits. Zaid eventually smashes the tear relic, but Omar quickly makes a new
Another amazing thing
about people in those days—the clerics, anyway—was their willingness to get
into endless disputes about the most arcane details of the Christian faith. Was
Christ made of the same substance as
God (“homoousion” in Greek), or only of similar
substance (“homoiousion”)? Was he co-eternal with God, or did he only come into
existence when he was born of the Virgin Mary? If it was a no-no to worship graven idols, was it OK to venerate them? Patriarchs excommunicated
each other over issues like these, and Emperors went to war over them. Today
Catholics and Protestants may battle each other, as do Sunnis and Shiites, but
their religions don’t seem to be the real issue: they’re just labels that
identify groups that come into conflict for other reasons, so far as I can tell.
Back then, it really mattered whether you said “pax vobis” or “pax vobiscum”—one
would get you to heaven and the other to hell, but which was which—that was the
In the evenings of our
visit to Rome I helped Mike prepare for the “Life in the UK Test”—this is the
test that would-be immigrants into the UK have to take. (We are thinking of
moving to England, in spite of the dismal weather.) I took the U.S. version when
I was naturalized, of course, which involved learning lots of useless details
about U.S. history like who won the battle of wherever, but the British version
is much more practically oriented: how to claim unemployment benefits and that
kind of thing. Mike aced the test and he now has a settlement visa for the UK.
One of the things we did
in Rome was visit the catacombs—the Catacomb of Priscilla, to be specific,
where some snogging takes place in my novel. (Google Maps recently started
mapping this catacomb.) While deep in the furthest tunnels, seemingly miles
from the entrance, we ran into a young Croatian man who had walked all the way
from Sarajevo in order to pray at the tomb of one particular martyr. That
reminded me that the eighth-century worldview lives on in the minds of some
Christians today. What must it be like to have that kind of faith?
After thinking about the
novel for fifty years I wrote it in a mere five months. However, it got some
serious critiquing from various people I showed it to, and I spent the best
part of a year after that revising it. I self-published it in October of 2013.
This was my first venture into self-publishing—my previous eleven books were
all put out by mainstream publishers. It was really fun to have complete control
of the process, including designing the cover, and as a self-published book I
get more money per copy sold than with traditional publication. As everyone
says, the hard part about self-publishing is promoting the book, but that is
where Mike has come into his own. Like, I would never have the chutzpah to
cold-call the editor of a leading publication and demand they review my book,
but Mike did, and it looks like they may do so.
That reminds me of my
basic belief about relationships, which is that difference, not similarity, is
the key to long-term stability. Couples who are too similar to each other
understand each other too well and may have little practical need for each
other. Admittedly, most social science research says that similarity between
partners is the key to relationship satisfaction, but nearly all those studies
have been done on heterosexual couples, who already have the difference and
mystery of the opposite sex to deal with. Mike and I are about as different as
two gay guys can be, and that has worked for us for the last twenty years.
Having just passed my 70th
birthday has caused me to think about death a bit. Not that I feel like I’m
likely to die any time soon, but still, I’ve had my threescore years and ten,
so anything beyond that is gravy. And the Grim Reaper could come knocking
before I’m expecting him. My older brother Martin died when he was younger than
I am now, and though I can rationalize that as “his fault”—he was a chain
smoker and he died of lung cancer—the fact is that looking after one’s health
doesn’t guarantee that you will live to an advanced old age.
I certainly don’t
believe in any kind of life after death. However, I do think that worrying
about death or being dead is mistaken, and the mistake has to do with a
misunderstanding about the nature of time. That is, people think that there’s
something objectively real about the present moment that distinguishes it from
the past and the future, but there isn’t. The only thing that’s objectively
true about time is that is has a direction. So you can say that person A lived
after person B, but you can’t say that person A is objectively alive while person
B is objectively dead. Your whole life is just there, as are the lives of everyone else who has ever existed or
will exist. Recently I read that
Einstein wrote about this in a letter of sympathy to someone who had just been
bereaved. I don’t know whether the recipient found Einstein’s words to be a
comfort, but they are to me.