[THIS POST DISCUSSES A BOOK AND CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS]
Over the course of a lifetime, we forget infinitely more than we remember. But some things stay with us forever and have an impact on us that we can never really explain. This is the story of one such thing: a book that’s been so dear to my heart for so long that it’s hard to know where the reverence ends and the obsession begins.
It was 1995 and the world was still a reasonably nice place. I was 21 and, ever the late adopter, I’d found myself in the throes of first love. My collection of comedy waistcoats was burgeoning, my passion for piano house music showed no signs of abating, I had a George Michael haircut and I’d just been overseas for the first time—life was good.
The previous year, I’d started a retail management traineeship and bought my first car, so I’d been feeling pretty lucky for a while. But 1994 was also the year that ended with my parents dragging me out of the closet that, until then, I’d never intended coming out of, so it’s fair to say that I needed the following year to be a bit special.
1994 was also the the year of the greatest number of AIDS diagnoses in Australia. These days people tend to think of the AIDS epidemic as a very 80s thing. But the number of AIDS diagnoses didn’t start to fall until the introduction of the first truly effective antiretroviral HIV therapy, which wasn’t available until 1995—thirteen years after the first local AIDS diagnosis and after a horrendous decade of misunderstanding, misinformation, fear, panic, no treatment, severe illness, so many deaths and a general sense of hysteria surrounding AIDS.
But I didn’t know much about any of that. At the time I didn’t have many gay friends, I didn’t spend much time in Sydney and I wasn’t into ‘the scene’ or a part of ‘the community’, so I was very much removed from the harsh reality of it all. I eked out a fairly narrow existence in Newcastle, where life seemed peachy-keen so long as I had my friends, the odd bottle of bubbly and a spot of clubbing every other weekend. Mine was the definition of the simple life.
Then, in July 1995, I snagged myself my first boyfriend. I’m certain my mother, who didn’t speak to me for several months after she’d evicted me from my closet, thought I’d conjured him up purely to spite her.
I’ve always been a writer, but rarely a reader. The BF was a reader. We’d only been together a few months when he introduced me to a recently published book he’d just read and suggested I should read it too. I don’t know how effective my poker face was, but I’m almost certain my inner monologue groaned and rolled its eyes at the prospect of me having to read an entire book. And at 300-odd pages, I’m sure I was daunted by what I would’ve considered at the time to be its War & Peace proportions.
I don’t recall exactly what his sales pitch was, but I remember the BF seemed genuinely moved by the story, which might’ve been all I needed to see. Whatever he said about Timothy Conigrave’s Holding The Man obviously convinced me to read it. And once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Saying that, I think I took the book home and did precisely nothing with it for a few days, a week, a month, or however long it was. Actually I think it was only about a week, but as far as I could tell it was just another memoir and far from the kind of thing I typically (if infrequently) read, so I was hardly champing at the bit to get started.
But thanks to the peculiar luxury of time afforded by an evenings and weekend work roster, once I finally did pick it up and start reading I almost literally didn’t put it down. In fact, I finished reading it the very next day. All 300-odd pages of it, done and dusted in two sittings.
“I guess the hardest thing is having so much love for you and it somehow not being returned. I develop crushes all the time, but that is just misdirected need for you. You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned. I miss you terribly.
Ci vedremo lassu, angelo.”
To say that I was a blubbering mess by the end of that last paragraph of the book after the first read would be one of the great understatements of the decade that was the 1990s. (By way of comparison, even when I discovered that I’d been booked for surgery on the day I had tickets to Kylie Minogue’s Intimate & Live concert three years later, I wasn’t left as emotionally destroyed as the ending of Holding The Man left me!).
Even now, every single time I read that block of words, I get that weird “I’m about to burst into tears” throat-lump / voice-strain / lip-quiver thing. Every single time. Without fail. I first read that sodding book four times, cover-to-cover, within the space of less than a month, 21 years ago! You’d think I would’ve acclimatised after so many readings and been kind of over it by now, right? But that’s not how Holding The Man works.
After that first read, I ended up sobbing in the foetal position, my head in the BF’s lap, while telling him how much I loved him and how much it would kill me if that ever happened to us, and how I couldn’t imagine how painful it would be to lose him in any way, but worse still if it was that way and how, if it was ever legal anywhere, I thought we should get married so that we could stay together forever and… oh dear. Love’s young dream—it does go on a bit, doesn’t it?
Of course, there was diminishing emotional turmoil with each subsequent read. The first time, I cried so hard for so long that I started kinda hiccuping—you know that thing that little kids do? I don’t know what it’s called. It probably has a name, but I’m sure you know the thing I mean.
On the second read, I only unravelled to the point of an uncontrolled-but-gradually-dissipating sob. It still got to me the third and fourth times, particularly those closing paragraphs, which are effectively the retelling of a letter the author wrote to his dead lover a year after his death.
The sense of loss was even more palpable by the fourth read because, by then, I was so familiar with the story and its characters that those last lines were far more poignant than they’d seemed the first three times I’d read them. But at least I only ended up going foetal once.
In short, Holding The Man had a profound effect on me. As silly as it probably sounds, it felt like I knew Tim Conigrave and John Caleo, the story’s resident star-cross’d lovers. It certainly gave me a clearer understanding of AIDS and how it had ravaged ‘my’ community over the previous decade, which was quite terrifying because as far as I knew at the time there was still no end to it on anyone’s radar.
Holding The Man is an emotional wrench and after each read, I felt utterly gutted. It was as if Tim & John had been personal friends of mine. I became… I don’t want to say “obsessed”, but it could well sound like something of an obsession. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the boys and their story.
By the time I first read Holding The Man, it was about a year since Tim’s death and just under four years since John’s. It was all so recent. It was all so real and so raw and so very, very sad. I had to do something. Something meaningful. I had to contact the families. I had to thank Mr & Mrs Conigrave and Mr & Mrs Caleo for their sons. I had to let them know that there were others in similar situations, people they didn’t know and who they’d most likely never meet, but for whom the love story of Tim and John meant more than words could adequately express.
But, of course, me being me, I certainly tried. I tried to use words to adequately express, as best I could, how thankful I was to them for both of their sons. And I posted both letters. I never heard anything back (not that I expected to). I don’t know if they were ever read, or even received. But I had to write them and I had to send them. It was almost a necessary post-book catharsis.
And the weirdest thing about all these weird things I’m saying is that it’s not just me. This book, Holding The Man, has had just as profound an effect on thousands of people since its 1995 publication, in largely similar ways. These are responses that people from all walks of life, all over the world, have reported experiencing.
According to Tim’s and John’s families, both of their graves are still being visited by far more people than they ever could’ve known in life. In a 2015 radio interview, Tim’s sister Anna and John’s mother Lois reported that they almost always discovered flowers, cards or letters whenever they visited the gravesites. Incidentally, I’ve never visited either of their graves (although, I acknowledge, I have thought about it) so, knowing that, I kinda feel a little less of a freak.
Since the first time I read the book, I’ve recalled the entire story, or portions of it, so vividly, so often. I didn’t need to wait for last year’s movie—I’ve had that screenplay in my head for 21 years. As someone who often struggles to remember what he did yesterday, it’s odd that this story still always seems so recent to me. Sometimes, I have to put the events of Holding The Man into the context of the day, just to jolt myself into re-acknowledging how long ago it really all was.
On the day that John died, for example—Australia Day 1992—I was just 17 years old. The first Big Day Out music festival was held at the Sydney Showground and it was only four years since the beginning of the nation’s year-long Bicentennary party. Bill Hayden was Governor-General, Paul Keating was a month into his Prime Ministership and the median house price in Sydney was $183,000. That week, the biggest news in TV was that Bert Newton had defected to Network Ten to host a new morning program, while on the charts Michael Jackson’s Black Or White had been replaced at #1 by Salt-N-Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex. “That’s what got us into this mess in the first place”, John had told Tim, shortly after their HIV+ diagnoses in 1985. Let’s talk about sex, indeed.
By comparison, the week that Tim died, in October 1994, was otherwise relatively uneventful. Hayden was still G-G, Keating was still PM and a house in Sydney still only cost $192,000. On TV, the pin was finally pulled on Network Ten’s short-lived revival of A Country Practice, while in music Kylie Minogue’s Confide In Me was dislodged from the #1 spot by Boyz II Men’s I’ll Make Love To You and the Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert soundtrack enjoyed its fourth week as our best-selling album. More parallels then, even if only tenuous and superficial.
It might seem flippant to bring the deaths of these two beautiful men down to the level of pop-culture events, but I have a very clear sense of all of those things having happened a very long time ago. I didn’t know Tim and John, however much it might sometimes feel as though I did, or I do. Sometimes, the connection with the characters and the story feels more real, more present, more current than it probably should. So sometimes, a pop-culture comparison is just something I need to do to maintain—or reinstate—a sense of distance and perspective where Holding The Man is concerned. Because it’s so easy to get tied up in knots about it. I need to maintain that distance and that perspective, in whatever silly ways I can, to make sure I’m reminded that, just as with Let’s Talk About Sex and Paul Keating and Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert, the whole thing really did happen a very long time ago.
Somewhere down the years, I’ve managed to mislay my copy of Holding The Man. I clearly recall what it looks like and I clearly remember seeing it in my bookshelf. I’m so intimately familiar with so many parts of the story, it’s as if I’d only read the book yesterday, yet I haven’t picked it up for years and, right now, I’ve absolutely no idea where it is. It certainly isn’t nestled neatly in my bookshelf with the many other far less-loved tomes that still reside there. If I said I didn’t find its apparent disappearance somewhat upsetting, I’d totally be lying.
Since 1995 it’s sometimes felt as if I lost close friends of my own when Tim and John died. Never mind the fact that I knew nothing of either of them until after they were both dead. But by all accounts, life after Holding The Man is rarely the same for anyone. It’s like experiencing a stand-alone, self-contained grieving process that exists parallel to, but completely separate from, your actual life. It’s just as real as any other grieving process, except it involves two people you never knew. And, like any other grieving process, it never goes away, it just changes shape.
Which sounds ridiculous, of course. And it is… isn’t it? I didn’t know these two guys. I didn’t know anyone associated with them. At heart, I’ve never been much into ‘the gay community’ or, for that matter, long-term relationships. Aside from the fact that they were gay and so am I—and possibly also the fact that Tim was apparently a bit loud and opinionated and could, at times, be pretty hard work for his nearest and dearest, not unlike myself—I don’t have anything at all in common with them.
So, as well as having utterly adored this beautiful story for more than twenty years, along with experiencing this weird-ass grief thing just from having read it, I’ve also spent two decades singularly failing to understand why this one story should’ve struck such a chord with me. And if whatever I’m left with as an after-effect is a version of grief, then what, exactly, am I grieving for? Them? Their loss? Their loved ones’ loss?
Or am I actually grieving for myself?
Am I really just stuck in a rut with this story, because it keeps showing me something I’d so dearly love to have, but which I’ve never managed to achieve with anyone—is that it? Am I actually looking inwards, grieving my own inadequacies and regrets and lost opportunities? I sincerely hope that’s not it. After so many years, having to acknowledge such an appalling degree of self-centredness, over and above a simple unadulterated love for a wonderful piece of literature, would be beyond disappointing!
I watched the film adaptation of Holding The Man for the first time last weekend. Not a smart move. I was nursing one of the greatest man-flus I’ve ever suffered through at the time. I could barely breathe and I was hacking up a lung at every unwanted opportunity. It’s never a good idea to watch the film version of the first book that ever made you cry under such conditions. Plus, I’ve watched virtually every scene of that movie in my head for 21 years, so this thing had a hell of a lot to live up to.
I approached my first viewing of the film with much the same trepidation I felt about seeing the stage play ten years ago. Back then, I decided it just wasn’t worth the public humiliation. However much a live production would inevitably strip from the book, if it was worth its salt—and I knew it would be—then it was always going to set me off. There was a very real risk of me ending up a blubbing mess in the middle of a theatre. More than once, just considering what the live performance might be like was enough to set me off, so it was a fate I wasn’t prepared to tempt.
I felt just as apprehensive about attending the premiere of the film last year. Once again I felt like some kind of traitor for staying away, as if I’d been unfaithful or something. It was like rubbing salt into the wound that I’d first created by not going to see the stage play. But whose wound? Was it the story’s wound? Or was I rubbing salt into my own wound, by showing such shocking disloyalty to a story I’d adored with such fervour for so long?
Thankfully, watching anything from the privacy of our own home allows a certain freedom to react and respond in ways we otherwise mightn’t when in public. In my case, those reactions and responses ranged from beaming smiles to the occasional knowing nod, from finishing some of the lines to an almost frenzied sobbing during the movie’s final minutes. Throughout, I also critiqued the production in terms of the many ways it varied from how it’s always looked in my head. John’s bed was on the other side of the ward, not that side; and the walls were pale blue; and the lighting was much lower; and Mary-Gert’s kitchen looked far more 70s than that… and so it went on.
I watched the movie three times in 24 hours. Then I bought the soundtrack album. The music makes me cry. I want to watch the movie again right now. Thinking about watching the movie again has me welling up. There’s too much cut out, but it’s perfect. It’s not sufficiently like the version in my head, but it’s every kind of magnificent. I’m obsessing about Holding The Man, all over again. And now, as if to prove it, I’m writing this!
When I was 21, I used to say that I wished I’d been born 15 or 20 years earlier, if only to’ve been around during the 70s and lived through the disco era. If I take nothing else from it, ever since I first read Holding The Man it’s always presented me with two stark truths: the first is that if I had been born 15 or 20 years earlier then, all other things being equal, I’d almost certainly have died of AIDS sometime during the 1980s; the second is that my generation was so lucky that it wasn’t born 15 or 20 years earlier, because it meant most of us were old enough to be acutely aware of what was going on, but young enough to avoid the same awful outcomes.
There’s a whole generation of gay Gen Ys and millennials who know virtually nothing of any of this. Medical advances are such that AIDS diagnoses haven’t been reportable since 2012 and, just last week, it was announced that the volume of them is now so small that AIDS is no longer considered a public health issue in this country. And HIV isn’t considered the death sentence it once was either, though who knows whether the younger generation actually understands why, or even what the difference is. They should all read or see Holding The Man.
I’m 42 now. My relationship with Holding The Man has lasted far longer than any relationship I’ve had with any actual man. It’s even lasted longer than the very love affair that spawned it. It’s such an important and real Australian story. In the end, I don’t really care if I get embroiled in it a little more deeply than might be considered healthy. It keeps me grounded. It reminds me that I’ve loved and been loved. It reminds me that I have far deeper emotions than I ever like to let on. And it keeps me reminded of what has been, what could’ve been and what could well be again.
I’m gonna keep holding onto this man for as long as I can.