A Hero’s Journey
I wrote this piece seven years ago, as a piece of blog content when my first novel came out. To my amazement, it was the most visited page for as long as I had it up. I’ve dusted it off, made a few tweaks and offer it now as my first article here on my re-vamped site. It feels good to do that. I hope you enjoy it! — LM
A Hero’s Journey
I was probably thirteen when I first read that some of the great Renaissance artists dissected cadavers to get the anatomy right in their figures. Forced to imagine someone so driven to depict the human form accurately that he would willingly break serious contemporary laws and risk disease to examine dead bodies, I was disgusted as only a pimply teenager uncomfortable with what was happening in his own body could be. But over time, I have come to admire those pioneers who understood that their art required this knowledge. They understood that what was inside, unseen, gave power and dimension to their work.
The more I have surrendered to my love of writing, the more fascinated I have become with certain clearly identifiable themes in human experience – the ones that just will not go away. These archetypal themes are the bones, gristle and organs of good stories, and they have their own rules, just like the physical heart has its rules – blood in from the body through this vein, blood out to the lungs through this artery, blood from the lungs through the only vein that carries oxygenated blood, and then blood out to the body through the aorta in a rhythmic pattern that must be sustained if a person is to live.
One such archetypal theme is the Hero’s Journey. In some form, it lies at the heart of every adventure in which the hero grows or is otherwise deeply changed by his quest. Some adventure stories like Superman or Indiana Jones are entertaining, but basically neither the hero nor the world around him will change as a result of his struggles: in the end, evil is once again held at bay, and life goes on as it did before. Those stories can be fun, but they will not be told a thousand years from now. The stories of Inanna, Gilgamesh, Heracles, Orpheus, Parsifal, Ged the Wizard of Earthsea, Bill Wilson, Iron John and so many others will be told over and over, long after we’re gone.
I promise this isn’t going to be an academic monograph. There are plenty of books written about the Hero’s journey that go to far greater depth than I can take you. For those interested, I recommend Frazier’s The Golden Bough, or Joseph Campbell’s riveting Hero With a Thousand Faces.
What I want to do is share with you something I love – the psychic anatomy, so to speak, that provides the structure of meaning for the heroic stories that both entertain and nourish the soul in their telling.
In outline form, most theoretical versions of the Hero’s Journey look something like this:
1. Separation from the Familiar World
a) The Call to Adventure – restless, or feeling discomfort, the hero is separated from the status quo, and something happens that triggers the adventure
b) Acceptance or Refusal to Answer the Call
c) Supernatural Aid – once the Call is answered, things/forces beyond the hero’s understanding guide or assist him
d) Crossing the First Threshold – this is the point of no return. The hero enters the underworld, and the Adventure is in control
e) The Belly of the Whale – the hero knows he’s helpless, seemingly ill-equipped for the Adventure, and does not know what to do next. His old skills seem less relevant
a) The Road of Trials – the hero encounters certain challenges or tasks. His efforts begin to change him
b) Meeting the Goddess – because of his efforts, the hero receives guidance or help from a strange but powerful figure – help he needs to survive and succeed
c) Temptation From the True Path – the hero is required to make critical choices
d) Atonement with the Father – the hero becomes reconciled with larger, governing reality. This could be genetic father, authority, or simply acceptance of a true natural order
e) Apotheosis – as a result of the Atonement, the hero is psychically and spiritually reborn or lifted to a new understanding. This is a spiritual event, not a religious one: the experience is unique and internal
f) The Ultimate Boon – gaining the key to the quest, or perhaps the quest object itself
3. Life-Giving Return
a) Acceptance or Refusal to Return
b) The Magic Flight or Rescue – in his effort to return to the “regular” world, the hero may receive assistance from forces beyond his understanding
c) Crossing the Return Threshold – the hero returns to the regular world, bringing the gifts of his struggles. These gifts benefit others and the world in general
d) Master of The Two Worlds – the hero retains the ability to function effectively in both the regular world and in the underworld
e) Freedom to Live – the hero is no longer “special” as before, but is self-realized, often carrying new responsibility and authority
However, just as knowing human anatomy does not necessarily make one a great Renaissance painter, knowing an outline of ideas does not necessarily enable a writer to use it creatively.
This is not a “fill in the blanks” formula that will make any story work – I’ve read some really atrocious (mis)uses of the Hero’s Journey. Like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a writer can deliberately summon the power of this pattern and unleash archetypal forces he has no business meddling with, and which are beyond his ability to understand, let alone control authentically. The result is not a story that heals, inspires or illuminates, but a story that goes nowhere significant, and spawns confusion, empty sensationalism and cynical chicanery on its pathetic way to nowhere significant. (And no, I don’t have any strong feelings about this at all!)
Because so many of our examples of a hero’s quest-journey are in the vein of Arthurian Knights, Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, it’s easy to forget that this archetype is – if anything – an internal pattern, regardless of how the external aspects of the adventure may unfold. One of the few immutably external events occurs at the beginning – the Call to Adventure always seems to be triggered by an external event, because the hero is not able to spring free of his familiar world all by himself.
What I’d like to do here is abandon the swords-and-glory images of the familiar hero’s journey idioms to focus our attention on a profoundly internal adventure – the Hero’s Journey of coming out.
Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyperreality, says “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”
How does that apply to the Hero’s Journey of coming out? I don’t have a single friend who has said to me, “Yes, I could have been perfectly happy living as a heterosexual for the rest of my life – I was absolutely fulfilled. But I became so enamored with the lives led by my many homosexual friends that I happily gave up my home, marriage, family, career, legal protections and social standing to live openly as a gay man. And it was such an easy transition – I never had a moment of self-doubt, discouragement, self-loathing, ANY of that stuff one reads about sometimes. I was constantly supported by everyone around me, I didn’t have to make a single hard choice about career or how I lived, and in fact I never had to give up anything at all in order to live as my real self.” That certainly was not my story, either.
So the Adventure starts.
1. Separation from the Familiar World
Our 17 year-old hero, Harold (a time-honored heroic name!), is athletic, intelligent, charming. He is on the track team in warm weather and plays hockey in the winter. He’s an above average student. He’s effortlessly popular with both male and female classmates. Yet he feels vaguely on the outside of things, even though apparently nobody else notices that he doesn’t quite fit. He wants to emulate the modeled behavior he sees all around him at home, at school, in movies, on TV. The expected social context for his life is constantly trumpeted in advertising, magazines, conversations overheard on the bus, everywhere. He believes that his fulfillment lies in the promises offered by those expectations, but there is a kind of restlessness in him that keeps him from feeling like he really belongs.
a) The Call to Adventure
One day, Harry is on the bus, and a beautiful young man sits next to him. The beautiful stranger has his iPod playing, and is completely oblivious of Harry’s presence. But Harry is stunned and mesmerized. He feels hot, nervous, short of breath, queasy. Sure, he’s had twinges of feeling for his locker-room buddies before, but that was manageable – just hot, competitive testosterone among comrades. But this – this is far stronger than what he almost felt when Therese Pirelli pushed her marvelous soft breasts into his chest and sucked on his lower lip in that dark corner at the Prom. This is wild enchantment. He wants this strange boy with blond curls and elfin green eyes. He wants to kiss him gently, and talk, and feel, and – oh god, not that. I’m not queer! Harry refuses the Call to Adventure. Common sense tells him – rightly – that nothing but disaster lies ahead on that disgusting path.
Harry is fine for quite a while, and he pretends he has forgotten the terrifying tsunami that rose in him that day on the bus. But then one day the team gets a new equipment manager, and fuck, it’s him. Harry sees him every day at practice. This kid comes smiling and joking through the locker-room, doing his job, when Harry is naked. It’s too much. Then one day after practice, outside the familiar school boundaries, the kid approaches him. It happens. Oh, god. What the fuck did I do? Harry has answered the Call to Adventure, and – rightly – is scared shitless. He’s no longer in control of his life. The Adventure is taking him down, down, exactly to where he never wanted to go.
Harry and the kid go at it for weeks. Harry’s grades go to hell because Harry is lost – lost in the ruthless grip of the Adventure. He doesn’t have a clue what to do. His performance on the team begins to suffer, too, but when he’s kissing the kid he doesn’t care about anything else but the taste of those lips, the feel of his skin and the exquisite rip of a condom packet.
b) Supernatural Aid
In a moment of clarity, Harry realizes that he’s got to get a grip on this or he’s really lost for good. He’s got nobody to talk to, nobody he trusts with news of this insanity. One day in a video store (other than the one he usually uses – gosh, how did that happen?), he finds himself miraculously in front of the gay section. He has no memory of getting there. He rents A Beautiful Thing. That night he plays it on his laptop. Twice. He understands. The gods have given him a vision that all is not lost. With the enormous courage of every hero who would have much preferred to stay an honest coward, Harry gets it.
Harry goes to the school psychologist, who by some even greater miracle understands and doesn’t ridicule or try to change him. Week by week, the counselor supports Harry’s journey to realize that the kid is not necessarily a one-time shot. What then, Harry? What are you going to do?
Harry prepares for the Big Moment with the psychologist, who supports him without steering him. The gods have been kind to Harry by giving him a skilled and trustworthy guide, but the journey is Harry’s, and only Harry can cross the threshold.
c) Crossing the First Threshold
One night at dinner, after the younger sibs are off somewhere else, Harry collars his parents. He tells them he’s gay. Harry has crossed the first threshold, and there is no turning back, no pretending that he hasn’t just said what he’s said. His parents react with restraint. They are good people, and they try hard to understand this horror. But something’s changed. Their dreams have been shattered, and they fear for Harry as he faces a world full of grave dangers. They cannot accompany him into this world, even if they wanted to. All the terrible stories they have ever heard about gays – the bashings, the drugs, the debauchery, the disease, the dissipation – they all rise like wraiths hovering over their oldest son, ready to devour him before he can even launch into the life they had always hoped he would have.
d) The Belly of the Whale
That night, alone in his room, nothing looks familiar to Harry. He’s changed, his family is changed, and nothing will be the same ever again. This room belongs to a young man who no longer exists. That Harry has vaporized. Harry feels like a stunt-double standing in for the old Harry, an interloper in his own sanctuary. The Adventure, like an enormous fish, has swallowed him. He sits in the belly of the fish, strangely hopeful, but not knowing what to do next, or even how to talk now to his parents, let alone the sibs. If his team-mates find out… shit.
Harry has begun his new life for real. This is no longer just a clandestine affair with an elfin youth who makes him hard just thinking about soft blond curls. This is real life, now. His parents know. This really counts. What to do next?
a) The Road of Trials
Well, Harry’s team-mates do find out. They beat it out of the elfin equipment manager, who smiled too sweetly at one of the guys, and that’s that. The battered boy transfers to another school without saying goodbye, without ever learning that Harry forgave him the second he learned what had happened. Harry withdraws from the team and jettisons his hopes of an athletic scholarship at State. After talking with the psychologist and his parents over the next couple of weeks, Harry transfers out, too, to a school with a healthy Gay/Straight Alliance. Harry cleans out his newly vandalized locker, and turns his back on the people who don’t want him now that he’s known to be a fag.
Harry finishes high school well, and gets into State without the scholarship, thanks to his parents. He declares a major in economics. He stays away from team sports and works out at the gym religiously. Harry learns immediately that a gay college boy with a muscular body can get laid any time of day or night, without more effort than sauntering downtown to one of those bars. Heck, Harry doesn’t even have to like the guy. Harry lets the guy buy him a beer, chat for five minutes, and then it’s off to the sack and sweet release. Of course he’s careful – he’d never bareback, either way. Harry knows he’s not really having fun, but it sure as hell is better than nothing. He misses the elfin boy more than he can say. Or admit.
b) Meeting the Goddess
One night at a bar, Harry has way too much to drink. He remembers throwing up, then dry heaving for an eternity, with something large and green beside him – a scaly lizard, snake or something – before passing out. Harry wakes up and sees the emerald green sequin gown hanging over the back of a chair. Oh, shit. The drag queen in charge of the karaoke. She was huge. I could never have… oh, fuck. Wait. Harry is still dressed in his vomit-stained jeans, lying on a plastic sheet spread over the couch. Thank god.
The Goddess swirls into the room as any force of nature might: without the slightest explanation, uncompromising, loud, magnificent, overwhelming in her fuchsia-feathered bathrobe. She hands Harry a mug of coffee as soon as he can sit up. “Now, don’t you be worrying about what happened last night, honey,” she booms in a bass voice that shakes the windows, “’cause nothin’ happened, thanks to me. The sharks were surely a-circlin’, though, sugar. No tellin’ where you woulda’ ended up in your condition. You gotta be more careful about where you get plastered, child! Not every man in that bar is your friend, you know.” She sighs and pushes a wayward tuft back under her purple turban. “Sweet Jesus, you newbies are so clueless. You just stir up all my maternal juices, even though most of you don’t even want this momma’s help.”
Harry thanks her for the coffee and manages some conversation. He can’t remember exactly what she said, but he knows he felt a lot better for listening to her.
Harry goes back to the bar next Karaoke Night, and after the show he and the Goddess talk far into the night. She tells him things that he has to know for the remainder of his journey as a gay man, and she gives him her phone number, just in case.
c) Temptation From the True Path
In spite of the Goddess’ guidance, Harry slides into sketchy company. There are parties in very fancy penthouses, the high-quality drugs are free, and the older men are appreciative and very generous. Harry enjoys being worshipped. He enthusiastically trades on his good looks and good body. It sure is easy money, even if some of the clients want him to do weird stuff. Harry scrapes through freshman year with acceptable grades, and the phrase “working his way through college” has taken on meaning he never would have imagined only two years ago. Unfortunately, Harry also seems to spend a lot on alcohol and other substances when he’s not working at the penthouse.
d) Atonement with the Father
Harry’s sophomore advisor calls him in and reads him the riot act. Unacceptable grades, skipped classes, shoddy work. Why don’t you talk to one of the staff psychologists and see if you can’t get clear on why you are here at State. If this keeps up, you can’t stay.
Harry makes the appointment with a counselor and then rummages through his desk until he finds the Goddess’ phone number. They meet at her apartment, and talk all afternoon. The Goddess tells Harry her story. Harry is amazed, moved. From the Goddess’ living room Harry calls the man who hosts the parties in the penthouse and tells Pimp Daddy that he needs some time off, just to think about things. Pimp Daddy is coldly clear: he’s made commitments that Harry would be at the penthouse by 9:00. People are expecting him. If Harry isn’t there by then, there’s no need to call back. Ever.
The psychologist is a decent man. “Who will you listen to, Harry?” he asks. “Who will you give your life, your body to? What are you going to do about your heart?” Harry feels the warmth, promise and hard work of real life knocking on the door of his heart, offering to come in.
Harry gets it. It’s about the heart before it’s about anything else. Starting with the Goddess, Harry begins to build a circle of real friends. It’s not easy, learning to be a real gay man instead of a product of the path of least resistance. And it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. But Harry is lucky. Slowly, slowly his path as a sentient gay man begins to come clear. One night he is reading something by Joseph Conrad: “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” Harry puts the book down, writes the quote on a blank sheet of paper, and tapes it to his desk hutch. He calls Jake, and they go down to applaud the Goddess as she holds karaoke court.
f) The Ultimate Boon
Harry realizes he doesn’t want to be an economist, any more than he really wanted to be a drugged-up hustler. He switches his major to psychology, and he feels like he’s come home. He writes his parents to let them know he’s found what he was looking for. They are cautiously optimistic, having heard a few of the nicer war stories from freshman and sophomore year. Self-knowledge and fulfillment constitute his ultimate boon. But even so, his work isn’t done.
3. Life-giving Return
a) Acceptance or Refusal to Return
Harry buckles down to his studies, builds a life with his friends, and even helps the Goddess save a few drunk kids from trying to drive home, or being raped by predators.
b) Magic Flight/Rescue
For the last two years, Harry has volunteered at the gay/lesbian center on Bute Street, counseling, helping with HIV testing, answering the phone. He finds that in the context of his new life, even his darkest experiences are a useful resource as he helps others of his tribe who are struggling. He discovers that helping others is changing him, giving him new internal dimension, new depth as a human being.
c) Crossing the Return Threshold
After only one extra year and financed by student loans, Harry graduates with honors. On the strength of his volunteer work, he gets a prized internship at a clinic serving youth with gender, sexual orientation and addiction issues. He’s accepted into State’s Masters program.
d) Master of Two Worlds
It’s three years later, and Harry lives with his lover, Nathan. Harry is keenly aware he’s still a work in progress, but he can navigate in the gay underworld as easily as in the professional. Relationship is hard work, especially without the heterosexual social supports that help straight couples make it through hard times. But Nathan’s a good man, and it’s good. Not perfect, but good.
e) Freedom to Live
Harry has gone home to be with his mom as she succumbed to cancer. It’s been three months of leave without pay and away from everything familiar to his new life, but for Harry it was essential. As he packs to return he sees things clearly. He and his dad quietly built an adult, realistic relationship between them, and even the sibs, now at college themselves, reinvented their connection with him. Toward the end, it was ok for Nathan to move into Harry’s old bedroom with him for the last couple of weeks. The afternoon after they’d discussed it, Harry’s dad had wordlessly taken out Harry’s old single bed and set up a double all by himself. Just a few days before she passed, Harry’s mom had taken Harry’s and Nathan’s hands and pressed them together between her cold, bony ones with what little strength she could summon, making them promise to be good to each other. Harry promised, as did Nathan, both knowing that even though their relationship might not last, they would indeed be good to each other, as best they could be. That’s a promise Harry can keep, now.
So – this is just a sketch of the anatomy of a Hero’s Journey, as applied to a generic coming out story. The living story that can come up on these bones is infinitely variable. Because I was only cursory with this little story, which I made up for this piece, it has a certain “fairy tale” quality to it that may not appeal to you. But imagine this same story with a refusal of one of the invitations – any of them. What if Harry had refused the Call to Adventure in the first place: there are many bi men who manage a heterosexual life and live honorably. What would his challenges be? What would be on his Road of Trials in that case? Or maybe Harry refused to atone with the Father: what might his life looked like then, if he had not come to terms with his presence in the natural order of things? What would his relationships be like then? Any number of other variables represented in this archetypal journey might be changed. What a character does within the archetype depends entirely on his character.
I also want to be clear with you that while being a prostitute turned out to be wrong for Harry, it might not be wrong for someone else. As far as I’m concerned, being a prostitute can be as honorable a profession as being a psychologist. But that’s a different – and long – discussion!
My very best wishes to all of you on your individual journeys, especially to you who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. To me, you are heroes in the truest sense. I believe every gay or lesbian person should be awarded an Olympic gold medal for courage in the extreme. Maybe it won’t always be that gay and lesbian people in this society need extra courage to live life authentically, but that’s certainly the way it’s been. And ultimately, of course, it takes real courage to be authentically oneself, regardless of sexual orientation.
As e. e. cummings said, “To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
© 2005, Lloyd A. Meeker, all rights reserved