Michael Ryan's memoir, Secret Life, is a book essentially unthinkable before the triumph of the therapeutic in contemporary American life. By virtue of its core subject-matter - the consequences of Ryan's sexual molestation when he was five and what he terms his subsequent 'sexual addiction' as an adult - it raises the ante enormously in the matter of sexual revelation and explicitness. You can either applaud Ryan for the honesty with which he relates the queasy-making particulars of his sexual experiences - including near-intercourse with his dog during a period of frenzied adolescent wanking and his predation on his female students as a university writing instructor - or censure him for importing the manipulative pseudo-sincerity of the television talk-show and the jargon of Alcoholics Anonymous into the literary memoir. In a review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani warned of 'an approach that will be familiar to anyone who watches Oprah or Geraldo, an approach that is bound to become more popular in book-stores as the recovery movement insinuates itself deep inside the American psyche'. Writing more favourably in the Times Book Review, Daphne Merkin called Secret Life 'an extraordinarily absorbing and disquieting memoir'. It is between these two poles of censoriousness and uneasy empathy that most readers will shuttle as they attempt to resolve their own feelings about what Merkin calls Ryan's 'misshapen and opaque life'.
LRB 18 July 1996 | PDF Download