MiniReview: "The Velvet Rage" by Alan Downs

What is it?

It’s a non-fiction book by American psychologist Alan Downs, first published in 2005 and reissued in a revised edition in 2012.


What’s it about?


Downs, a clinical psychologist and a gay man, has treated many gay guys during his years of practice. Throughout the course of his work, he has deduced that many (or most) gay men suffer from a sense of shame, which manifests itself in a variety of ways throughout their lives. In The Velvet Rage, he sets out to explain the stages of the gay man’s life, in terms of dealing with shame, overcoming it, and developing authenticity beyond shame. 


Did this make sense to you?

Oh boy, did it! This book made for some pretty uncomfortable reading at times, as Downs frequently seems to be describing me, although we’ve never  met. His observations are wise, accurate, and well expressed in language that is not in the least “clinical.” I have a habit of using yellow marker to mark passages of books that resonated with me; my copy of The Velvet Rage is yellow like a banana!


So I’m guessing you’d recommend this book to gay men?

I definitely would. Actually, the last quarter of the book could be read with benefit by anyone seeking ways to live a more authentic life, even if Downs’s examples are always drawn from gay lives. But most of the book does focus more specifically on homosexuality: the young gay man’s relationship with his father, various tactics gay men use to compensate for the shame they feel (this helps to explain so many things, such as why gay men are so fabulous and bitchy), and problems that are endemic to gay intimate relationships (it’s a small miracle that any gay men have healthy intimate relationships!). I found it all fascinating and instructive, and I loved the fact that Downs looks at gay men as a “culture” that can be described psychologically, rather than focusing solely on sex.


Any reservations?

Downs talks a lot about gay men who compensate for shame by being conspicuously “successful”: rich, living in splendid homes, giving amazing dinner parties, etc. I assume this must be the type of gay man he meets in his clinical practice, and as we learn in the Epilogue, Downs himself was this way when he was younger. Personally, I don’t really know many gay men who fit into this pattern, so there were times I felt a bit distanced from what he was writing. There are also some issues that he doesn’t deal with in any great depth (the effects of chronic bullying and sexual abuse, for example), as he is seeking to describe what might be considered a more or less “normal” or typical gay life, one that is untroubled by other complicating factors. But really, these are quibbles. What Downs has to say is important, wise and relevant.


Are you going to give this a star?

One star, yes. I think this book is an important work for understanding why things like legalization of gay marriage, Gay Pride and increased presence of queer characters in Hollywood films won’t solve gay men’s biggest issues, which are psychological rather than social/legal.

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