By Kirkland Hamill
I read the final pages of Kirkland Hamill’s “Filthy Beasts” as the Los Angeles solidarity march reached my apartment off Sunset Boulevard. I arrived downstairs to hundreds of rainbow flags framed between Mexican fan palms and the jagged Hollywood Hills. A question scrawled on a piece of cardboard stopped me cold: Do You Feel Liberated?
Returning to Hamill’s tragicomic memoir of a mother-son relationship, I couldn’t help wondering: What if Hamill’s childhood had been swaddled in the optimism of Obama-era rainbows? If he’d grown up watching “Will & Grace,” “Pose” and “Ellen,” would the author, who is gay, ever have spent a moment — let alone 35 years — in shame? Also, I wondered, what will I be reading two decades from now, when today’s L.G.B.T.Q. youth write their memoirs? With little doubt, few will share Hamill’s formative queer moment: dressed up at the age of 4 in a pink halter top and heels for a skit at his family’s Adirondack lodge, with a placard announcing “Gay Liberation” dangling from his neck. The crowd laughed; his mom was proud. Hamill would spend the next three decades struggling to keep her attention.
“Wake up, you filthy beasts!” Hamill’s mother hollered to her three sons on school mornings. Those were the all-too-brief good years, before divorce and alcoholism took her under; before Hamill and his brothers’ lives took on a feral quality. As with many gay men before him, Hamill’s axis of identity/sexuality hinges on his relationship with his mother. And, whoa, did Wendy Hamill ever deliver as an archetype: a beacon of distant fabulosity coupled with deft microaggression. As written here, Wendy (who died surrounded by her sons) deserves placement in the gay canon, somewhere between Endora on “Bewitched” and Jessica Lange in anything directed by Ryan Murphy.
[ Read an excerpt from “Filthy Beasts.” ]
Born working class in Bermuda, Hamill’s mother was an exceptionally beautiful and childlike woman. Over 61 years, two marriages and two countries, through alcoholism and megalomania, she nearly destroyed her children. Wendy watched them fend for themselves through the bottom of a highball.
But Hamill’s memoir is about survival — and recovery: of his identity, memories and compassion for his mother.
Wendy married into extreme wealth, but her son was born into it — immense, Nantucket-red-pants wealth. From an early age, Hamill became an astute observer of privilege, picking up the codes of the rich with a fluency only a formerly rich person could master.
His parents divorced when he was 8. Hamill and his brothers then fell from the Mayflower-stock private clubs of the Northeast to Bermuda, where there wasn’t enough food; there was barely enough water. From that point on, Hamill’s adolescence was shaped by a lack of supervision and his siblings’ intense heterosexuality. He writes, “My two brothers roamed the earth figuratively lifting their legs on everything around them and trotting off in new directions without feeling the slightest sense of shame.”
Without their father (who quickly remarried) and household staff, the Hamill boys discovered they were living with an alcoholic: “The gentle sloshing of the liquid in the bottle made my body tense.” These pages are steeped in gin. The collateral damage of a home with an alcoholic parent floats to the top. Hamill knew that “no one is coming to save us. I realized that I was increasingly living in a world in which I had no choice but to heal myself.” (Hamill found his way to Al-Anon. Both of his brothers have struggled with alcohol.)
In Bermuda, during his mother’s “self-imposed exile,” Hamill’s middle-child syndrome expanded. He was neither Bermudian nor English expat. At home, “I didn’t want to be a girl, but I knew I wasn’t performing boy correctly.” At Andover for high school, he was too poor to be at prep school, too privileged to be a townie. At Tulane, where he fell in love for the first time, Hamill was struck with the innate feeling of being “other.” The pop-psych term hadn’t yet arrived, but he had a scorching case of impostor syndrome. The screws began tightening with a sense of they’re going to find out — and that feeling would not begin to dissipate until he came out as gay. He did so at 35. Two years later, Hamill’s mother died, of liver failure.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother,” goes a popular bumper-sticker slogan oft refrained in the rooms of 12-step programs. At his mother’s funeral in Bermuda, Hamill and five other pallbearers struggled to get his mother’s coffin up the aisle of the church. The aisle was too narrow, and she was too heavy. “I let go,” Hamill writes. “I was tired of carrying her.”