Sally Ryder Brady's memoir of marriage, "A Box of Darkness"

By Marie Arana
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:57 AM


The Story of a Marriage

By Sally Ryder Brady

St. Martin's. 240 pp. $23.99

Marriage is hard. I've never known one that wasn't. For all the pretty mythology, for all the romance and high hopes we invest in the institution, it is tough work, a chastening business - heaven to fall into, hellish to sustain. If we are lucky, we get as much love as we give. If we are unlucky, we take comfort in what we can: the children, the rituals, the quotidian pleasures of making our own little cornerstone of society function. But the moment we start totting up, testily enumerating who gave what and if any of it really is enough for us, surely the love is over. Why anyone would want to reckon those accounts publicly after a life partner is dead is the question I can't help but ask after reading Sally Ryder Brady's blistering memoir, "A Box of Darkness."

The marriage this book describes - by all outward appearances - was golden. Upton Brady was a successful publisher, executive editor of the Atlantic Monthly Press; Sally was bright and imaginative: a pert, pretty mother of four. Our hero was verbally gifted, impeccably dressed, a stylish man of letters; our heroine, a spirited suburbanite, attentive helpmeet, who wrote freelance in her spare time. They danced well together, had happy, fruitful sex, entertained literary luminaries. But in 1970, eight years into their marriage, he came home one morning after a drunken night out and told her he'd slept with another man.

"How many times has it happened?" she asked him, in shock. He didn't answer. He picked up his martini, knocked it back, and that was that. Subject closed. Or so he thought. Forty years later - and three years after the heart attack that killed him - "A Box of Darkness" is Sally Ryder Brady's attempt to answer that question. As Kafka might have said, it's a desperate axe flung at the frozen sea within.

He was gay. She suggests that in retrospect there was abundant evidence for it: Take his natural flair for dancing, for instance. Or the fact that he always wore freshly ironed handkerchiefs tucked in his breast pocket. When they were first married and unable to afford fancy clothes, he made her an evening dress - not from a pattern, mind you, but cut from the drape of the silk. He could knit; he could cook; he knew just what to do for her when she was nursing a baby. With such circumstantial substantiation does she argue the case.

In truth, there were concrete signs that the man was struggling with his sexual identity. After he was cremated, his body scattered to the winds, Sally found a stash of magazines hidden in his drawer, bursting with "beautiful, nude young men with gleaming bodies." After that, came a cluster of videos, tumbling unbidden from an old suitcase: The slipcases showed a bevy of naked men, frolicking openly.

As months wore on, Brady found it impossible to put those striking images out of mind. What else had he been up to when she wasn't paying attention? "I question our marriage over and over again," she writes, "wondering how he could have made love to me for all those years when what he really wanted was a male lover."

So much of Brady's story is a product of its time and place. If Upton were indeed gay, it would have been standard operating procedure, in the 1950s, for him to try to mask it, bury it away in some semblance of a married life. One can't help but feel, in this raveling narrative, that Brady doesn't comprehend that pressure. When, in 1977, she realizes that Upton's married brother is gay, she is the essence of understanding. But when it comes to her own husband, she is a woman wronged, the victim.

Upton and Sally had met at the Boston Cotillion in the summer of 1956. She was a New England WASP, Barnard girl, a budding bohemian on the cusp of a career in theater. Friends with Joan Baez, girlfriend of Nikos (a dashing Greek studying at Harvard), she was on her way to a very different life from the one Upton ultimately offered. At the cotillion, Upton cut in during a dance, propelled her across the floor, their bodies fitting "leg to leg, pelvis to pelvis." He was drunk, as he would continue to be for most of their marriage, but, oh, could he dance.

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