Book review: Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, by Niobe Way

Niobe Way presents an important exploration of how young people’s same-sex relationships affect society

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Sun, May 08, 2011 - Page 14

I don’t think any of my subsequent partners or lovers will object if I say that the most emotionally intense attraction I have ever felt was at the age of 13, for a fellow male school student.

I have never again experienced such an acute obsession, such physical trembling at someone’s proximity, such jealousy, such flushes of embarrassment, or such a total absorption. Yet this attraction, despite exhibiting so many “romantic” features, was — at least as it seemed to me at the time — entirely non-sexual.

Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets is about such same-sex friendships among modern early adolescents in the northeastern US. How did we, as workers in the field of developmental psychology, overlook this for so long, she asks. She and a team of helpers have been researching the topic for nearly two decades, and colleagues at Harvard and New York University often asked them along the road how they got their teenagers to be so confiding. There was no need for any special techniques, they replied — it was impossible to stop them talking about the subject.

They talked in terms of love, of “best friends,” of trust, and of having someone they could tell everything to, even their deep secrets, without fear of mockery or of their secrets being passed on. Many of them said that another boy could be trusted better than a girl, who might appear friendly one day, then be casual and nonchalant the next.

One special feature of the research is that it looked at a large swathe of non-white boys. Middle-class white boys were included, but only in the proportion they inhabited in northeastern inner cities — by and large, not very many.

But these intense romantic relationships were not all that Way uncovered. She also found, to her barely concealed dismay, that when interviewed two or three years later, her most informative interviewees all expressed intense disappointment at the fact that these friendships had ended, that they had been “betrayed,” and that now, in senior high-school, they had nothing to replace them with. They may have felt more “mature,” even more “adult,” but they also felt inconsolably alone. Only friendships with girls were able in part to fill the gap.

Niobe Way looks at her astonishing discoveries against a background of normal perceptions about adolescent American boys. Whereas same-sex crushes are accepted as being almost the norm for teenage girls, boys are commonly supposed to reject emotion in general (except perhaps anger), and to display testosterone-fueled aggression, competitiveness, unsociability (dropping out of school far more often than girls) and exhibiting supposedly “manly” interests such as playing aggressively competitive sports and fixing cars.

The author isn’t at a loss to explain the disappointment her subjects experience in later adolescence. It’s the noose of mainstream perceptions of masculinity tightening, she believes. And the result is a “crisis of connection” throughout the entire culture. People in general have fewer friends they feel they can trust than they used to even 20 years ago, she writes. The US’ culture in general is suffering from its uniquely macho assumptions, and they go against what nature is telling these young teenagers.

Way contrasts the current US situation with Asian and African countries, where young males openly express close friendships (holding hands, for instance) and adult males go on to have long-lasting friendships in which any suggestion of “gay” is totally absent. She also contrasts the situation with past centuries in Anglo-Saxon countries where deep same-sex friendships were entirely free of any gay associations. Indeed, she argues that American homophobia is largely responsible for what she sees as the catastrophic US situation today.

Her older interviewees, for example, have got into the habit of adding “no homo” to many of their statements about their same-sex friendships, or lamented lack of them, meaning that no gay imputation should be put on their remarks. In their innocence, none of them had felt the need to say this three years earlier.

But she also suggests that US girls may themselves be partly to blame. Is it they, she wonders, who are behind the pressure on their boyfriends to become aggressive fighters, macho sports players, and eventually the wild animals of the money markets? (This last manifestation, I must admit, is mine, not hers).

The wider context of this book is a general move in the academic world to question the aggressiveness of the North American male, and to break the common association of literacy, artistic interests, and sensitivity in human relations in general with concepts of “feminine” and “queer.” The author even quotes her father as having advised her, if she wanted to see the US male adolescent in perspective, to go and take a look at China.

Deep Secrets, then, tells a story of American teenagers in baggy jeans and T-shirts, with a basketball under the arm, expressing extraordinary sensitivity and tenderness about their same-sex friends, and expecting the same in return. The disappearance of this gentle world, it seems, scars them for life, and appears to do extensive damage to the culture at large.

There are many parallels in English literature, largely ignored here. Robert Graves’ account in Good-Bye to All That (1929) of his intense friendship at school with someone he calls “David” is only one. Such friendships were a common theme in late-Victorian and Edwardian UK school stories before consciousness of a possible gay interpretation effectively put a lid on the topic. Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) alone shows how the death of an adult same-sex friend could be mourned in ways barely imaginable today.

In short, this is an extremely important book, a revelation in a way, and one of the most absorbing academic publications I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.