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

Sunday, February 6, 2011

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 and 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 and 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 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, a 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.

Her mother objected vehemently. He was "lace curtain" Irish and therefore unacceptable. And yet his people had been "raised rich," as Upton liked to say. "They went to fancy schools, wore fancy hand-me-downs, cavorted with fancy people." His mother was the daughter of a well-known general and had grown up in the Far East "with amahs and finger bowls." The general had sported the very same tailcoat Upton had worn at the Cotillion, except that he had worn it to the White House. Upton's father was headmaster of the exclusive Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island. Strictly Catholic, occupants of good real estate, they led a life straight out of "Brideshead Revisited," complete with two sexually ambiguous sons.

Sex was an issue from the first. "I can't do this," Upton said, the first time Sally wanted it. "It's called fornicating. A sin." Eventually he gave in and became an ardent lover, "but sometimes before and even during sex, there was a shadow, like a papal frown." Life went on. They married, began domestic rituals; children arrived; he worked his way to success. Sally became fully responsible for managing four active youngsters, keeping them quiet when Upton was home. A flowing fount of martinis kept him mellow. He could be dazzling, when he wanted to be. But one swallow too many could turn their paradise into purgatory. He grew mean, even violent. Eventually, he started pushing her around. And then came the admission of the all-night spree with their mutual friend, the openly gay Edward.

A reader can't help but take this in with eager, almost prurient fascination. But, as Brady builds her case for her husband's bad behavior, one feels a lingering repugnance. Not to Upton's pointed, cross-gender infidelity - God knows we've heard that story before - but to his wife's long, self-pitying whine about it. We're told that Upton was good with words, a gifted storyteller, but there is no evidence of it here. Talents are mentioned but seldom shown. As time wears on, he gets himself to AA and sobers up, but he becomes a ghost of himself - out of work, impotent, grumpy - and, all the while, our author is on a rampage of self-absorption. Dead, he becomes even more unruly. He's left magazines, videos, a backbreaking stack of unpaid bills. Worse, she'll never know whether he really loved her or whether he felt loved in return. "Get over it," her son tells her. By mid-book, although we'll go on and read every last word, we want to shout out the very same thing.

Most unnerving of all, perhaps, is that the publisher insists that "Box" is an act of great love. It feels like anything but that. This is no eloquent examination of a marriage - as was Joan Didion's searing "Year of Magical Thinking," or Christopher Buckley's tough but profoundly tender "Losing Mum and Pup," or John Bayley's deeply moral "Elegy for Iris." We come away feeling as if we've watched a wife drag her husband into the ring and give him the thrashing he very well may have deserved. Except that the man is dead.

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