Coming out as lesbian or gay is often (and rightly) celebrated as an act of self-assertion, pride and political courage. Many people trade stories about coming out, and many of those stories focus on a particular event in their lives—a revelatory conversation, first kiss or momentous divulgence to family, friends or co-workers. Often, these narratives emphasize the singularity of the event: Coming out is thought of as a discrete day or moment in time, in keeping with the idea that it is possible, via a Facebook post, a letter to mom or a heart-to-heart conversation, to release one’s true identity into the public sphere, like a dove released from a cage. What is sometimes lost in this focus on the significance of publicity, announcement and revelation is that grasping one’s sexual identity is, in itself, sometimes the more difficult thing to do.
Though coming out may take courage and self-assertion, sometimes the deeper struggle rests with the process of simultaneously discovering and creating one’s sexual identity. It is her willingness to probe this process that makes Lori Horvitz’s memoir The Girls of Usually so refreshing and engaging to read.
In 32 short essays, Horvitz demonstrates that the route to self-understanding is not always a straight line (pun intended). With brio, candor and self-deprecation, she traces her circuitous path through romances with men and women, men again, then again women. All the while, she recognizes that her experiences are inflected with other aspects of her identity—she is a New Yorker, a Jew, a woman, white, an artist, middle-class, highly educated—which equally require reflective recognition.
Indeed, it is the particularity of the ways in which aspects of herself intersect that makes Horvitz’s writing compelling. In these interwoven narratives, we feel the messy contours of a real life—replete with doubts, false starts and stops, joyful surges and episodes of despair. In this space of uncertainty, of trial and error with respect to romance, friendship, career and family, Horvitz offers readers stories both soulful and funny. The stories she tells take the reader on amusing misadventures to roach-infested New York apartments, to a feminist Christmas tree farm, by train across Communist Russia and China and onward to graduate school and artist’s residencies full of outrageous characters—not to mention the vagaries of internet dating.
The book is loosely tied together by Horvitz’s childhood fascination with magic. “I loved the world of illusions,” she writes, “and if I pulled a trick off without a hitch, I started to believe the illusion myself.” Thus, she establishes a central metaphor for the project of self-understanding: The self is a tricky set of illusions, often compelling—sometimes the more so for being self-made.
In the book’s epilogue, Horvitz describes her feelings about giving a speech to graduating LGBT students at the university where she teaches. “My keynote speech felt like a coming out celebration for me,” she writes, “a chance to be a strong and confident role model.” No doubt, Horvitz’s speech and example fulfilled this promise. Yet she expresses incredulity about occupying the position of role model: “Who knew my once-closeted self, the person who lied and evaded the truth about her sexuality, who hated herself and popped her dead grandmother’s Xanax to get to sleep, would be telling her ‘inspirational’ story to a roomful of graduating college students ready to step out into the world?”
It is this very incredulity that makes Horvitz’s voice authentic. The need to put “inspirational” in scare quotes signals Horvitz’s own discomfort with an account of coming out or sexual identification that appears too neat, pre-packaged or linear. The accomplishment of her book lies in its frank exposure of the loops we travel in trying to know ourselves and the unpredictable magic of self-making.