The Stigma of Aloneness

COMMENTARY

I FIRST encountered Barney Frank almost 20 years ago. He was a tutor at Winthrop House at Harvard University. I was a sophomore who delivered linen there. I recall Frank striding purposefully across the courtyard, an intense young man in a hurry. A friend had told me he was an aide to Boston's new mayor, Kevin White. I was immensely impressed at someone who could manage such a double life - Harvard's intellectual cloister and the political roughhouse across the river.

Frank next came to my attention about 10 years later, as a young legislator in Massachusetts. He was gaining a reputation as a political rarity, an ardent liberal who looked and acted like a real politician.

Who could not be charmed by a beefy, disheveled guy named Barney who talked like a cross between a pipe fitter and Elmer Fudd, who espoused unpopular causes and yet chewed a stogie like an old-time pol, and who ripped off one-liners that made even opponents chuckle.

When he ran for Congress, he wrote his own fund-raising letters. They were honest and without a hint of wooden, direct-mail hype. In a city obsessed with imagery and promotion, Barney - as everyone called him - seemed all the more genuine because he had so little concern for appearances.

Then I attended a congressional hearing sometime in 1985. When I had left a staff job on the Hill a couple of years before, Barney was still an unvarnished dynamo of insight and wit. Now, the wit was still evident, but the Barney I had known was not. Coifed and svelte, it was as though his voice had been transplanted into another body.

One had to hand it to him. Dropping 70 pounds isn't easy. But the extent of the makeover suggested deeper, and vaguely troubling, changes as well.

The rest is now well known. There has been a chorus of condemnation and news media frolic, and the whole thing makes me sad. Barney Frank is a public figure of unusual candor and promise. Yes, he should have known better than to get involved with Steven Gobie, a low-life male prostitute. No, his explanation doesn't wash in all details. Still, it's hard not to feel for a man who bore his homosexual leanings a secret for so long, and who now must watch his most intimate life details hauled out for all to see.

But in one respect at least, Barney Frank was like millions of other Americans: He lived alone, in a nation that considers this some sort of defect. Underneath Frank's passionate commitment was a growing sense of personal desperation. During the day, he told Newsweek, he was a noted member of Congress. But at night, at home, ``there was no one.''

This does not excuse his behavior. But American culture does not do much to buoy loners. Instead, there is suspicion, compounded in Frank's case by his being a single male. Why wasn't he married, people asked.Was there something wrong with him? (Single women bear a similar burden. Isn't she attractive? Couldn't she get a man?)

What turns aloneness into loneliness is in part the stigma that society puts upon it. Underneath the stigma is a strange reverse Victorianism. A hundred years ago, people felt guilty if they were having a good time. Now, in the undertow of Freud, people feel guilty if they aren't.

The price of this petty-minded intolerance is more than personal misery and desperation. When society inches forward, it is usually on the backs of those who forsake some measure of private life for the larger life of the whole. Such individuals should get our admiration and support, not carping suspicion.

Early in his career, Ralph Nader had to contend with such insinuations regarding his capacity to devote all his energy to his causes. ``Is it so implausible, so distasteful,'' he finally asked an interviewer, ``that a man would believe deeply enough about his work to dedicate his life to it?''

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