Over the last few weeks the topic of suicides related to bullying has made headline news. And in many of these cases the bullying focused on the perceived sexuality of the victim. These recent tragedies bring to mind the many people that believe Toole was driven to suicide because of his repressed sexual identity. There is no clear indication that Toole was being bullied; however, one might argue that a society intolerant of homosexuality, forcing and trapping many people in the proverbial closet, is a society of bullies.
But the fact is, Toole is not here to tell us his tale and what he left behind offers nothing definitive that suggests his sexual preference. Several publishers have requested that I address the topic and so in the book I give a full explanation of my take on the issue, surveying and weighing the testimonies I have collected in my research.
I comment on the topic here in brief. I have come across many people that are quick to label him as a gay writer, many people that did not know him. And I suppose they think somehow by doing this they make a case for the dangers of repressed sexuality, while attempting to demonstrate the contribution that talented gay and lesbian people make to our world every day. But I also presume “outing” someone against their wishes and without any substantial evidence is quite taboo within the gay community, let alone simply insensitive. And despite the seemingly inclusive spirit in which this label is placed on Toole, isn’t it similar to what we now understand bullies do in schools and businesses across the nation?
Alas, this seems the fate of a writer that never had a chance to shape his legacy. Perhaps he attempted to shape his legacy in his final letter to his mother. But she destroyed it, leaving the questions surrounding his death a mystery. Her destruction of the letter may have been out of grief, but it was also her first step in molding the story that she wanted. And it seems to me others have continued that tradition of molding his story for specific ends. Perhaps identifying Toole as latently homosexual gives readers what they want out of Toole today–an explanation of his suicide that speaks to contemporary society. Indeed, many people have tried to own his story. But no one owns it, except him. And thankfully, the contributions of Joel Fletcher and Joe Sanford demonstrate that crucial balance between honesty and sensitivity that anyone telling the life story of another person must have.
I fully understand my role in this tradition. I am in the process of telling his story. Hopefully, I will not be the last. I expect people will be reading his novel for generations to come. They too will be plagued by the same questions we ask today. Who was John Kennedy Toole? How did he create such a brilliant work of humor? And what lead him to take his own life?
But I wonder if 100 years from now our society will still be consumed with questions of sexual identity and sexual expression. I wonder if these questions will still hold such a grasp on our social discourse. And if not, if we have somehow moved on to other questions, other ways to understand our selves, will we also ask different questions about the lives of people that left behind such mysteries? In doing so we might find we need very different answers.