S I M O N L e V A Y
My Life -- A Personal Sketch
(for the basic facts, see my CV)
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? For shame!
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 like “titrieren”.
Recently, my knowledge of ancient languages and history became surprisingly useful – but I’ll get to that later.
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 Norway.
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 didn’t.
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 the other.
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.”
My parent-ordained 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 later.
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 their own.
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 this.
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 scary moments.
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 something similar.
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 well-known choreographer.
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 a train.
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 infidelity.)
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 slumber.
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.
The Neurobiology 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 ghetto.
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 complicated.
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 after all.
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 were there.
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 epidemic.
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 two.
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 group.
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 mean.
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 one.
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 tricky question.
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.