Retro Book Review: The Returns of Love, Part I

In May 1971, the American Psychiatric Association was bracing for trouble. They were preparing to hold their annual convention in Washington, D. C. The previous year’s convention in San Francisco had been disrupted by a militant band of gay activists. Strategically planting themselves in breakout sessions on sexuality, the protestors had successfully turned the academic event into a series of shouting matches. Research on conversion therapy was booed, individual psychiatrists were branded as Nazis, and demands for representation were made clear. Against this backdrop, the APA had agreed that the 1971 convention would host the organization’s first gay panel—a panel made up of self-identified homosexuals, speaking about homosexuality. But they suspected this would still not be enough. 

This suspicion proved correct, as chief activist Frank Kameny worked with Washington’s Gay Liberation Front collective to mount another systematic disruption. On May 3, they moved in. Amidst the chaos, Kameny picked up a microphone and addressed the Convocation: “Psychiatry is the enemy incarnate. Psychiatry has waged a relentless war of extermination against us. You may take this as a declaration of war against you.”

In October of that same year, an IVP book received its first American printing, after its British debut in 1970. The main title was The Returns of Love. The subtitle on the dust jacket was “A Contemporary Christian View of Homosexuality.” But on opening the book, readers would find a different subtitle printed on the title page: “Letters of a Christian Homosexual.” These “letters,” as explained in the introduction, were a literary device, crafted and arranged to record the author’s brutally honest struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction to his best friend. The name of the author, a young English Anglican, was given as “Alex Davidson.” This was not his actual name.

The book was published with a foreword by psychiatrist Armand M. Nicholi II, of Harvard Medical School. These were Nicholi’s opening lines: 

This book, the chronicle of an intelligent, sensitive Christian man’s struggle to overcome homosexual impulses, may prove enlightening and helpful to a large segment of the Christian community. It raises a number of pertinent questions. First, does a vital, biblically based faith provide immunity from mental illness? One cannot help but be impressed by the author’s strong commitment to Christ and his concern for carrying out the moral imperatives of his faith. Yet he also describes vividly the deep-seated and overwhelming nature of his homosexual desires.

Before the book’s second American printing in 1977, the DSM would officially remove homosexuality as a category of psychological disorder. The language of “sexual orientation disturbance” took its place—meaning, essentially, that one could only be diagnosed with a disorder if one’s sexual attraction caused distress. Otherwise, same-sex attraction in itself no longer met the new criteria.

Just over fifty years later, The Returns of Love is long out of print and difficult to acquire physically, though stray used copies can still be found. Fortunately, Open Library has preserved a couple rentable e-copies. But it exists firmly in the realm of the artifact—a work “of historical significance,” emphasis on “historical.” Yet, in its own time, it was a landmark work, particularly in the influential circles of evangelical Anglicanism. John Stott was so impressed by it that he singled it out in his own writing on homosexuality, saying no other resource had better helped him “to understand the pain of homosexual celibacy.” Nobody has ever successfully guessed the author’s identity, including two researchers who almost mistakenly credited the book to Stott himself (apparently missing what would have been a private self-referential joke in his own work). 

In more recent years, the book has enjoyed a kind of “underground revival” among self-identifying “Side B” gay Christians. Most recently, it is extensively cited in PCA pastor Greg Johnson’s new book Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn From the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality. Johnson points to the work as a supporting example for his thesis that evangelical Christians must “go forward by going back,” consulting Protestant voices from the era before the rise of the ex-gay movement. Anonymous “Alex,” he argues, is one such voice—a voice asking the church for “care,” whether or not his condition is responsive to “cure.” In Twitter discussion, Revoice participant Grant Hartley describes the book as “dated,” yet also the clearest example of “proto-side-B thought,” supposedly revealing that the identity language debates which roiled both the PCA and the ACNA last year have been “a regression.”

Based on such endorsements, the more conservative student of the history behind these debates might approach The Returns of Love with some baffled suspicion. What exactly is this? What was “Alex Davidson”’s angle, whoever he was? How do his conclusions map onto the current conversation? 

The answer to that last question is that they don’t, exactly. The Returns of Love, in more ways than one, is truly sui generis. To understand why requires serious engagement with its anonymous writer—engagement with the goal of understanding him, not for who people would like him to be, but for who he actually was. Because his story is so painful, this is at times a painful task. Yet, I hope to argue, it’s an ultimately fruitful one.

While we know little of Alex’s background, we can make a few safe inferences based on his writing. We can place his age around early-mid-20s by the fact that he reports struggling with same-sex attraction for ten years, if we assume that struggle began in his early-mid-teens. From his deep frustration in searching for a minister to whom he can unburden himself, we gather that he’s a layman. From his broad theological reading and organically comprehensive Scripture knowledge, we gather that he’s a theologically trained layman—a diligent auto-didact at least, even if he’s never attended seminary. In addition, there are all the “tells” that mark him as a product of the English boarding-school system—the King James and BCP nods, the elegantly precise prose, the reflexive ability to call up apt bits of the English canon on command. He also makes several references to C. S. Lewis, to whom this project clearly owes much in both substance and style. (Lewis fans know that the “letters” in Letters to Malcolm were a similar kind of literary device, though this work differs in that Alex explicitly tells us “Peter” is a real friend, and the “letters” are inspired by their real conversations.)

Alex provocatively introduces the work as a “sexual autobiography,” after T. H. White’s remark that he would publish one “for the benefit of other poor devils” if he “had any guts.” This, Alex tells us upfront, is his angle. By “the mere law of averages,” he reasons there must be many “poor devils” like himself sitting in church pews with no practical guidance for their next steps. This is his attempt to fill the gap, not merely with “information” (of which there was no lack in his time) but with “sympathy.” However, he warns the reader that it’s an “unfinished” work. He can’t deliver a happy ending for himself, and he won’t promise one for the reader. It is also an “individual” work: Since “there are as many different types of homosexuality as there are homosexuals,” his “fingerprint” will almost certainly not be an exact match for a given reader’s. He also makes the caveat that because he has created a “progressive” story arc with the “letters,” they’re not all going to be maximally mature. In fact, they might include some downright immature passages. 

This is a bold move, but by breaking the fourth wall so blatantly, Alex hopes to justify the project as a teaching tool without rendering it insincere. Although, to the extent that this is possible with such subject matter, he does allow himself to have a little fun with the device. “I’m glad to be putting this in a letter, rather than telling you face to face,” he says in one epistle, tongue firmly in cheek. In the middle of another, he invents the “X hours later…” meme fifty years early, getting down a sequence of thoughts, then inserting an italicized “Later…” before coming back to “review” them with a “Wait, what??” follow-up. The fact that this interrupts one of the saddest installments creates a contrast that could be off-putting, but somehow comes off endearing, perhaps because the black comedy of it all is delivered in a British accent.

But ultimately undergirding all is the project’s biblical foundation, which provides the same “map and compass” to every explorer, whatever part of “the jungle” they are lost in. Alex sets the tone with a severity that permeates the whole work:

That map and compass I take to be the word of God, both Christ the living Word and Scripture the written word. Why do people who are otherwise thoughtful and sincere find it so easy to break the third commandment? They take the name of the Lord, and call themselves ‘Christians’; yet they take it in vain, by emptying it of what is necessarily contained within it. The only Christ I can accept is not the tenth-hand Christ of the popular imagination, but the first-hand Christ of the New Testament, and once I admit him I find I have to admit a whole range of teaching which is inseparable from him—not only his own as reported in the gospels, but that of the prophets whom he upheld and ratified, and that of the apostles whom he taught and commissioned: in other words, biblical Revelation as a whole.

That almost fundamentalist severity makes it all the more startling when Alex proceeds in the very next, concluding breath to confess his “grand romantic passion” for “Peter,” the close male friend to whom the “letters” are addressed—a passion which is, significantly, one-sided. Here, he explains the book’s title, drawn from one of Walt Whitman’s many poems likely addressed to a young man. Out of Whitman’s unrequited love, he has “written these songs.” These letters, Alex tells us, are his “songs,” except that they are written in a Christian key. He offers them in the hope that just as any suffering can be turned to the good purpose of comforting fellow-sufferers, this work can serve the same purpose.

Initially, Alex confesses his feelings without even knowing Peter is also same-sex attracted—a discovery that comes as a shattering, unbalancing blow. The further tragicomic discovery that there’s no danger of a sexual liaison between them (after a dramatic “Goodbye, dear brother” letter where Alex soberly insists they must cease in-person meetings), throws him into a psychological paradox: He should be glad that his morally illicit love is unrequited, and yet he doesn’t feel glad. He leans into that paradox throughout the project, frankly articulating his strange and yet wholly believable commingling of relief and loss. Paramount in his mind is the question of how he can purify or sublimate his passion while still willing Peter’s best good. Readers might squirm through some of these passages as they’re uncomfortably reminded of their own long-buried youthful crushes. But Alex writes with such touching sincerity that one can’t help sympathizing with him in his awkwardness. Further, he writes with an unsparing self-awareness, constantly alert and ready to discard a failing strategy. If by the end of a given passage, the reader is thinking, “This isn’t going to work,” chances are good Alex himself will admit just that in the next “letter,” and will explicitly ask Peter to “be brutal and tell me.” This is the nature of the project’s “progressive” structure.

Alex concludes early on that his temptation—his “manward-bending eye”—is best analogized to a disability and thus not in and of itself a sin. He calls himself an “invert,” as distinguished from a “pervert,” the language used at the time to differentiate passive attraction from active promiscuity. Passages like this one take frustrated aim at people who can’t distinguish between the two in their attitude:

[They] really must face facts. [Alfred] Kinsey’s statistics may have all manner of doubts cast upon them, but when Kinsey claims that four per cent of all adult males in the United States are exclusively homosexual throughout life (not to speak of the tens of millions classified under the rest of his six-point scale, who are homosexual but not exclusively so) his percentage must bear some relation to the facts: those three million men can’t all be fictitious. And presumably there are corresponding figures for Great Britain. So even if you don’t count the culpable perverts, there are still plenty who can’t help being what they are. And even if within that group you don’t count the active homosexuals, there are still some of us who are neither perverted nor practicing. Here we are—there really are men like us, with a certain peculiarity in our makeup which is in itself no more morally blameworthy than left-handedness. We are not necessarily pansies, or bohemians, or maniacs, or lechers. Many of us do our best to lead decent respectable lives and to appear as normal human beings, and some of us succeed. And so long as our abnormal affections are never expressed in ways which are against the law, whether God’s law or man’s, the law speaks nothing against us. So why should an ignorant society? Why should a Pharisaic church?

On the one hand, this foreshadows the “born this way” rhetoric that was historically used to excuse perversion, even though Alex goes on to emphasize that “Kinsey won’t do as a guide to morality” and that an overwhelming urge to sin is no excuse for actually sinning. This passage also shallowly avoids the question of whether the ability to control an attraction is a necessary condition for justifiable social stigma. On the other hand, there’s still room for sympathy at Alex’s frustration, springing as it does from his own self-identity as a normal, morally serious, otherwise typically masculine young man whose mind is just stuck on a homosexual track. Then again, Alex himself could be accused of “internalized homophobia” for trying to distance himself from the “pansies, bohemians, maniacs, etc.” He still labels his affections “abnormal” and still grieves them as one would grieve disability or loss. 

That doesn’t make his scriptural exegesis consistently sound, however, particularly when he evaluates revisionist attempts to “queer” close biblical male friendships. He doesn’t do this himself, but he makes an exceptionally bad argument from silence that it wouldn’t matter even if they had a queer component:

[W]hat do such examples really show us? Simply this. If these two close friendships had involved homosexual activity, we may be sure it would not have gone unremarked and uncondemned; but in fact the Bible says nothing at all against the intimacy of Paul with Timothy, and of David with Jonathan. We may assume that the relationships were perfectly normal. But even if they were not, still we could infer nothing more than that they sprang from a homosexuality which was constitutional but not practising. So whatever ignorance or thoughtlessness or prejudice may say, the Bible at any rate says nothing against the invert who admits his inclinations but keeps them strictly under control. Its attitude is certainly not one of revulsion.

This is an ironic lapse of judgment, given the very tensions that color Alex’s own friendship/one-sided romance with Peter. (He seems to have forgotten his own emotional preparation to cut off in-person contact before learning, humiliatingly, that this wasn’t necessary.) It should be obvious that a sexual element would have rendered the intensity of affection we see in these biblical friendships completely inappropriate and unsustainable, whether or not it was acted on. This is one of the only passages in the work where people looking for “proto-side-B” thoughts might be able to find a toe-hold, since the architects of the Spiritual Friendship movement have superimposed a “David and Jonathan model” of philia onto an inescapably erotic sublimation project. (See Steve Wedgeworth’s old analysis here.)

And yet, taken as a whole, Alex’s project won’t be so easily “claimed” for Side B. This manifests especially clearly in passages where he discusses orientation change. Writing in 1970, he has no inhibitions about expressing hope, albeit cautious and qualified, that he might have success. Further, whether or not he does succeed, he heartily believes he would be a more healthy, whole man if he could “transfer” his romantic attractions from “Peter” to a woman. This cuts across contemporary attempts to “level the playing field” by inflating the word “disorder” to apply to all generalized non-monogamous attraction, or by repeating the stale meme that “heterosexuality won’t get you to heaven.” Alex is perfectly aware of this. “Getting to heaven” is not the point. Being sexually healthy is. Being able to fulfil a distinctly masculine sexual telos is. Furthermore, he dares to suggest that there could be a volitional component to the process, openly suspecting that many gay men remain so at least in part because they simply like where they are. Still, he’s not naive. He still needs to see, as he bluntly puts it, “the proportion of heterosexuality which is there to be worked on.”

For Alex, tragically, it emerges that there isn’t any, at least as of his writing. Despite all of his heteronormative marriage-mindedness—marriage-mindedness one only wishes one could inject into some less marriage-minded straight Christian men—he remains stuck. Peter, we learn, is more fluid (“you lucky dog!”) and thus more optimistic for Alex, prodding him to try therapy, to try dating, etc. Yet nothing seems to stick. And, as he comes to realize with brutal clarity, so long as he can’t pair-bond with a woman, he can’t and shouldn’t try to make a marriage run on lofty abstractions about “agape love.” “What about the girl?” he interrupts himself to exclaim at one point (emphasis original). His first stab at dating goes nowhere, as he desperately tries and fails to generate any sexual response to an unfortunate young woman he calls “Mary.” (“Then her mouth—well, it’s a mouth: the usual pair of lips and two rows of teeth!”) Most cruelly, he can’t shut off his mind’s constant comparison of “Mary” to “Peter,” of her bland features to the classical perfection of “the beloved.” “O Peter, Peter,” he exclaims, “If I loved Mary as I loved you, I should have proposed to her, refused to take no for an answer from her, and been engaged to be married to her, long before this.” 

One sympathizes with both Alex and Mary, while questioning whether this particular “letter” should ever have been set to paper. Yes, it’s a device, but to what extent is the very writing of it, the very dwelling on Peter’s beauty, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s an unsettling question, one that lingers with no easy answer. “Already I hate myself for writing all that,” Alex confesses, almost as embarrassed by the sheer emotionalism of his “pages of nauseating slop” as he is ashamed of their homoeroticism. If other passages in the work call into some question its utility for immature/youthful homosexual strugglers, this section decisively confirms that limitation. Though non-graphic, it’s best reserved for mature adult eyes.

Deeply painful as this episode is, it does serve as a useful cautionary tale for people who know not what they do when they blithely push the same-sex attracted towards opposite-sex couplings. (Alex is just lucky to be writing before the age of widely available pornography, whose tentacles have dragged down many men in such scenarios.) And by juxtaposing his personal failure with his willingness to try, Alex threads a needle that voices on both sides of the issue have struggled to thread. He cautions against glib promises of change, but he does so without resenting the suggestion that it is good and healthy to desire change.

But the question remains, simply and poignantly put by Alex himself: “What can I do? What can I do?” This is where his project reaches its most profound depths—as a study in lament. The next part of my review will explore this, as well as the light it sheds for readers in a counseling role. I will also discuss its place as a distinctly Anglican work, while treating Brown and Woodhead’s discussion in their CofE commentary work That Was the Church That Was.

Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is an American freelance writer whose work has been spotted in outlets on both sides of the pond, including Spectator UK and USA, The Critic, First Things, Plough, American Conservative, and more. She maintains a Substack, Further Up, blogs at Patheos under Young Fogey, and tweets compulsively @EstherOfReilly. She attends a dramatically tiny ACC church in an undisclosed Midwestern location, where the prayers of the 1928 BCP are still spoken and the songs of the 1940 hymnal are still sung.

'Retro Book Review: The Returns of Love, Part I' has 1 comment

  1. March 10, 2023 @ 11:33 am Lat

    Thanks for this interesting writing. I read this book 40 years ago, and remember it very clearly, though I no longer have a copy. Your insights appreciated.


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