When Dr. Loren Olson called to talk about his autobiographical new book Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, a Psychiatrist's Own Story, he had just received a letter from his ex-wife who had just finished reading the book. Because I have several friends who came out "later in life" after marriage to women and the raising of children, I was curious about that letter and about his current relationship with a husband, two adult daughters, their spouses and his grandchildren. Dr. Olson had been a reader of my Bilerico advice column, and I was pleased to find myself in conversation with a wise, cordial and trustworthy 68-year-old gay shrink
Dr. Olson wrote Finally Out for spouses, counselors and a more general audience beyond those men who are leading secret gay lives. "I didn't want to make it a how-to manual. In fact, it is very hard to market a book like this to the hidden gay audience because they are often afraid to purchase a book that might be found by a spouse, son or daughter, exposing their secret," he said.
Dr. Olson's goal for Finally Out was to use his both his personal account of agonizing growth and his psychiatric training to show how self-identity is formed in both functional and dysfunctional ways. He is convinced that unhappy gay men have the power to change how they feel about and conduct their lives. The key to attaining happiness is to adjust your definition of "ideal self" so that your self-assessment will lead to self-esteem.
Dr. Olson's laughter is warm and easy; and he was not hesitant about answering my doubts about his claim that he did not know he was gay until he was 40-years-old. He admits that many men challenge the veracity of that statement.
"There are two things that explain this. My father died when I was very young and in my mind, I could attribute any sense of my being 'different' to not having a strong male role model. I used it as an excuse to explain away things that might have been obvious indicators that I was gay. The second is disassociation. Like the myth of Santa Claus, you believe it when you're young. Then you become suspicious and suddenly the truth explodes. Our minds don't allow us to see things that are too painful. I had adolescent sex with other guys but I dismissed it. My sexual desires and fantasies before I was 40 were nebulous and not really focused on men or women. It wasn't until I was kissed by the married man I had an affair with that I finally realized the full experience. That happened when I was 40. That kiss forced me to reinterpret everything in my life. A lot of the younger gay guys who have grown up in a different world don't get that."
Because south Florida is full of men who have arrived after completing and shedding an earlier closeted life, I was interested in what Dr. Olson had to say about the false steps made by men who try to make up for lost time. Our discussion moved swiftly from the humorous to the grim.
Dr. Olson himself did what many older men do who want to rapidly join their newly discovered gay brotherhood. He set out to earn his gay merit badges at warp speed. He learned that cruising can be both ego-bruising and dangerous. The book includes an account of a close friend of his named Ken who picked up the wrong two men after a night of drinking and brought them home where they murdered him while his daughter slept in an adjacent bedroom. Dr. Olson stresses that self-esteem will lead a man beyond just repeated sexual encounters in which he will wonder if he is causing his wife and children great pain just to have sex.
On the topic of older men entering a new gay life, Finally Out covers everything an older gay man might not know about loving what he calls "Men With Rounded Corners." In a satisfying 24-year relationship with the man he married, Dr. Olson speaks with authority and sympathy.
Dr. Olson told me one very important tool he personally used to navigate the dangerous waters of cruising gay bars when he briefly went through that period of his life. "When I would go into a bar in a city where I was a stranger, I would always include a very large tip when I paid for my first drink and I'd say to the bartender 'Keep an eye on me. I'm older but I'm new here.' It helped me not to be victimized by someone known to the bartender as bad news." I think this is excellent advice not just for older men but for anyone out of his element and well worth the extra expense. Enlisting the help of a bartender may not guarantee your safety but it might increase your chances of avoiding someone dangerous. I insisted that Dr. Olson add this advice to the second edition.
How about that letter from his ex-wife? Dr. Olson reported "It was such a thrill to hear from her and to know that she absolutely loved the book. I told her that even if nobody else buys it or likes it, I will feel successful because she liked it."
I suspect many others will buy and like Finally Out.
For more about Dr. Olson and his book: http://www.magneticfire.com/
(A version of this profile appeared recently in South Florida Gay News.)
(Bilerico readers interested in learning about Fort Lauderdale singer/songwriter Ray Boltz' experience of coming out to his wife and children will find his story at SFGN online.)