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« In Which Patricia Highsmith Endures A Depression Equal To Hell »

The Inner Life of Patricia Highsmith


I opened the first of the American author Patricia Highsmith’s notebooks with trepidation one cloudy day in the Swiss National Library. The austere, modernist library building located just outside the historical center of Bern, Switzerland is the improbable final resting place for Highsmith's literary journals, private diaries, manuscripts, and other personal papers. As an American citizen who was born in Texas and who spent most of her life in the United States, Highsmith made the unconventional decision to leave her literary remains to the Swiss government because of the large sum she was offered (she disparaged the University of Texas at Austin’s proposition of $26,000 as merely "the price of a used car").

The record of her life she left behind is extraordinary, totalling more than eight thousand pages, many of which contain incriminating and revealing insights into her complicated and at times alienating life. Highsmith’s death in 1995 sparked two biographies, both of which recount her many tumultuous affairs with women and men — Highsmith herself described her love life as "tortuous" — and cite her frequently homophobic and misogynistic remarks. I was expecting to learn a little too much about one of the most compelling American novelists of the twentieth century.  

What I found by reading through her notebooks written in the postwar period, when she wrote her most celebrated novels The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, was not the ramblings of a homophobe or a misogynist, but a series of conflicted, even anguished entries about being a lesbian in Cold War America. Highsmith was frustrated, horrified, baffled and intrigued by her sexuality, and at times, defensive and proud of being gay.

It couldn’t have been easy to be queer in the fifties. The cultural and political climate of the U.S. in the postwar period was extremely hostile to homosexuals. Kinsey’s finding that at least 40% of American men had experienced homosexual sex "to the point of orgasm" drove widespread panic about homosexual latency in heterosexuals. The U.S. government fired hundreds of gay and lesbian civil servants owing to what was deemed their threat to national security interests. It was, as Highsmith wrote in an afterword to her lesbian novel The Price of Salt, a time in which "homosexuals male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell."

Highsmith's notebooks written in the fifties reveal her struggle over understanding the social reality of being gay, one which informed her depictions of gay characters in her psychological thrillers involving murders, forged identities and double lives. A few years before she wrote Strangers on Train, which centers on a homoerotic bond and a murder pact between two men, one entry in her journal reads "Yes, perhaps sex is my theme in literature – being the most profound influence on me – manifesting itself in repressions and negatives, perhaps, but the most profound influence."  

Highsmith underwent psychoanalysis in 1948 in an effort to "get myself in a condition to be married," as she wrote in her diary. She was incapable of enjoying sex with men — she wrote that it felt like "steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place," though she tried it with several men — and so submitted herself to twice-a-week therapy sessions, which were costly enough to force her to take a job as a clerk at Bloomingdale's. Ironically, this effort to turn straight inspired The Price of Salt, in which two women meet in a department store and begin a passionate affair.

It is obvious from reading Highsmith's notebooks that she felt guilty about being gay. Under "Notes on an Ever Present Subject" in her notebooks, Highsmith often focuses on the transience of gay relationships in the fifties, offering stock psychoanalytical stereotypes: "Homosexuals are really very reticent about their affairs. Under a pretence of sanctity, they hide the triviality and transitoriness of their relations. This is their real shame and baseness." Highsmith’s volatile, fleeting relationships with women caused her deep pain: the fear of being rejected and abandoned haunted her for most of her life. This feeling was exacerbated by psychoanalytical literature she read on the subject, which suggested that homosexuals were essentially unfaithful and promiscuous, and therefore unhappy, people.

At Yaddo, where Highsmith wrote the first draft of Strangers on a Train, she wrote in her notebook: "Tonight a heterosexual young man discussed it so plainly and simply: 'Homosexuals aren't particularly faithful.' The root of all their unhappinesses." Highsmith feared that homosexual life in the fifties was one of exclusion from normal life, an exile which could possibly affect her writing about ordinary existence: "Notes on conversation with L.P. at midnight: that homosexuals' writings always lack the knowledge of the pleasure and the pain, the life and death, the sadness and happiness of sexual passion." Highsmith often uses a clinical language in her notebooks to distance herself from her sexuality and to view it as a treatable disease, as she was taught to do in her therapy sessions.

Highsmith intersperses this homophobic commentary on gay life, however, with entries on the social rather than the intrinsic difficulties of being queer. In these, she acknowledges that restrictive social norms forced gays and lesbians in the fifties into positions of secrecy, self-loathing, and despair, and seems very far from the self-hating homophobe of other entries. She writes for instance of "the realized taboo of homosexuality... my realization, even at six, and at eight, that I dared not speak my love, and of course this persisted with its ramifications of social life, guilt. Unfortunate that this is so buried, for consciously I am not in the least ashamed of homosexuality, and if I were normal, and equally imaginative, I should probably consider it very interesting to be homosexual, and wish I'd had the experience."

Highsmith's notebooks also include anguished entries about the limits of gay life in postwar America, of the impossibility of being "married with kids": "Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore. I know this will never be, yet will be partially that tantalizing measure (of a man) leads me on. My God and my beloved, it can never be! And yet I love, in flesh and bone and clothes in love, as all mankind."

In one memorable image, she describes dancing with a man on a river cruise at night on the Mississippi, all the while fantasizing about dancing with a nearby woman:

Even in his arms dancing, one feels her in one's arms dancing. The brain dully occupied with him, dreams with a clarity and a sentiment (not being controlled by its logical mechanism) that stifles the breath, bringing tears. One dreams of dancing with her, in public, of a stolen kiss more freely given and taken than any heretofore, in public. One  is utterly crushed with the thought which had become reality now, here that one is for eternity an imprisoned soul in one's present body... One knows then too, and perhaps this is no small portion of the sadness, that life with any man is no life at all. For the soul, with its infallible truth and rightness, its logic derived from perfect purity, cries for her one loves, her! 

Highsmith was acutely aware that being gay in the fifties meant living a double life, one which made her feel, at times, hypocritical and unreal. At 24, she wrote "I am troubled by a sense of being several people (nobody you know). There is an ever more acute difference — and an intolerableness — between my inner self which I know is the real me, and various faces of the outside world." Highsmith was shy and often reticent around people, even going as far as to cross the street to avoid meeting acquaintances. She speculated that it was "the sexual hypocrisy in me, of which I've been aware since about thirteen. I may feel, therefore, that I am never quite myself with others, and hating deceit, constitutionally hating it, avoid its necessity." Many heterosexuals also struggled to conform to the sanitized norms of family and domestic life in the fifties.

Highsmith's sense of deceit in concealing forbidden desires was shared by many living under the repressions of Cold War America. In one entry, she writes, "my personal maladies and malaises are only those of my generation, heightened." From Highsmith’s perspective, "sex in America" was on "a very high, thin, and obvious plane," one which was simply not representative of people’s actual sexual or romantic attachments. Highsmith describes this world as one full of illusions and fantasies, even for those happy to live within white picket fences: "All the world is unreality... Therefore, why do my parents assert that I live unreally? ... Theirs happens to be the dream of the heterosexual world which lives undisturbed, untormented, buying and living in houses with the persons they love, as I cannot."

Highsmith’s unique perspective as a lesbian gave her insight into the hypocrisies of postwar life. In response to her mother's accusation that she "doesn't face the world" in her affairs with women she wrote: "since the world faces reality sideways, sideways is the only way the world can be looked at in true perspective." To look at the world "straight" or from a normative perspective was to miss recognizing the unreality of postwar life.  

In this repressive climate, Highsmith was forced to transpose, as one biographer relates, her "forbidden desires into fiction," a technique she borrowed from Proust. She writes of the woman of her fantasy on the river cruise that "I am left to recreate her in the only way I can, the possession of her by molding her in my hands... as an artist. Oh cold comfort of the artist!"

Much like her notebooks, her fiction also contains stereotypical portrayals of homosexuals, as well as more nuanced examinations of the social pressures placed on gays and lesbians. Although most of Highsmith’s gay characters are criminals, her novels also suggest how this criminality results from restrictions placed on homosexuals. By assuming the queer or "abnormal" perspective of a gay man or a lesbian, Highsmith's novels suggest how violence and criminality can proceed from repressive sexual norms. Repressed emotions, as Highsmith suggests in one notebook entry, can lead to murder: "no one murders who has a satisfactory sexual outlet. This I apparently unconsciously did in Bruno and Kimmel." (Two of Highsmith’s queer characters.) In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom Ripley kills the man he has fallen in love with when he realizes that they will never be together as a couple. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno loves Guy "more than a brother," and concocts a murder plot that creates an indissoluble bond between them. Highsmith in fact suggests that murder can be a substitute for forbidden or impossible love.

She writes of falling in love with a female customer while working at Bloomingdale’s, but later finds out — when stalking the woman at her New Jersey mansion — that she is married with children. Highsmith writes at this moment of discovery of the impossibility of her love for the woman that she "felt quite close to murder... murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. (Is it not, too, a way of getting complete and passionate attention, for a moment, from the object of one`s affections?) To arrest her suddenly, my hands up on her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue." Of course, there are straight criminals too in Highsmith’s fiction, who much like their gay counterparts, suffer from forbidden desires in the fifties, such as fantasizing about leaving their wives or husbands, getting off the corporate ladder, or assuming a double identity to create a new life.

For Highsmith, life in the "middle twentieth is a catalogue of various subterfuges and camouflages, sedatives and intoxicants" that average Americans resort to in order to cope with everyday restrictions and pressures. She notes the "sense of chaos and decadence pervading my age. The greatest achievements in my age in writing will be made by students of chaos. Lines fly off in every direction, and where they cross is no point of sanity or security."

In Highsmith's fiction, symbols of Cold War progress, mobility, and expansion often conceal subversive desires and bonds. On the opening page of Strangers on a Train, a train barrels through the Texan desert, a symbol of postwar economic expansion, and at the same time, the site of a sinister murder pact. Highsmith’s prose in her thrillers is similarly rapid and linear as she depicts chaotic events, unlikely alliances, and homoerotic attachments. By assuming the perspective of the abnormal, the criminal, and the queer, Highsmith penetrates the veneer of Cold America, exposing the desires, fears, and anxieties under the surface.

Kate Hart is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Montreal.

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Reader Comments (10)

Beautiful job, Ms. Hart. Enjoyed this a great deal.
August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRR
I have read this twice now, very good, obviously.
September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor
Interesting read. I would love a look at those notebooks.
December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMo
Very engaging stuff. Nicely done.
February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDes
Thank you for this.
August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDW
Great read -- heck, one of the better ones on here sans superfluous cynicism.
August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarl
patricia highsmith to me is an average writer...
September 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersimone
Nice read. :) I'm looking forward to the 'Price of salt' film adaption!
October 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJayne
Gostei muito do blog =)
October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLara Mello
Kate Hart displays a profound understanding of the sociological and psychological impacts of this gay repressive time period and how it shaped both Patricia Highsmith's art , behaviors and very thoughts into the person and author Ms HIghsmith became. As a personal and academic student of lesbian herstory, I agree with all her perceptions and am grateful for her skillful articulation.
February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRC

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