Matthew Clark Davison on Care, Abuse, and the Narrative Possibilities of Brotherhood
The Author of Doubting Thomas in Conversation with Paul Lisicky
Matthew Clark Davison’s novel Doubting Thomas is the story of a rough year in a life. The end of a relationship, a family member’s illness, a false accusation that leads to multiple betrayals from a community that once provided sustenance: these are the struggles that threaten to sever his narrator’s connection to vitality. But in Matthew’s vision, losses aren’t the exception; they don’t simply come in threes. Instead, they’re part of the grain of self. Growth doesn’t come without damage, and even the most destabilizing losses are entangled with invitations if one chooses to look hard enough. Over the course of a week in mid-March, Matthew and I talked about our writing, our shared interests, and what it was like to grow up as one of three brothers. Is one always a brother, even after one thinks one has moved on?
Paul Lisicky: I’m always interested in where any long narrative starts: is it an image, an exchange, the sound of a voice? Where did Doubting Thomas begin, and how did it grow over time? Did any of its turns surprise you?
Matthew Clark Davison: A visitor to a fourth-grade class told an administrator (in front of me, and others) that a boy had been “inappropriately touched” by his teacher. That was the inciting incident that I dramatized and fictionalized to turn a bunch of scenes about a trio of brothers—one terminally ill, with a kid—into Doubting Thomas. The merging of the family drama with the accusation absolutely surprised me. The visitor called the teacher “flamboyant.” It turned out the teacher only touched the child’s shoulders. The visitor couldn’t reconcile his notions of flamboyant man and boy in the same space.
The terror I experienced in my body (first for the boy, then for the teacher, and finally for abused kids who are abused and aren’t believed) morphed into another mix of feelings: fury and dread and despair.
The book changed and changed over the seven years I worked on it. One line that came early and remained: when Thomas’s older brother James said, “I see a Black president and gay men on every channel” (of the TV), as if racism and homophobia were banes of the past. I was raised to believe that we’re our siblings’ keepers. But I wonder: are humans truly capable of taking care of one another? And if so, what are the circumstances that set that care into motion?
PL: Well, I’m thinking of two kinds of care. One of them is one-on-one care, and I think many humans enact that in their daily lives all the time. That care often doesn’t look like care, it might not even think of itself as care. It might be as simple as listening, paying attention, which is often harder to do than it sounds. It’s not about advice-giving or control or telling someone they’d do a whole lot better if only they bucked up.
The other kind of care is structural care, and I don’t think humans, at least many humans in the US, understand what that really entails, even after this year of re-evaluation. Otherwise, decent people think that because they might have had it hard, others should have it hard too—or harder. The quote from Thomas’s brother is of a piece with that mindset; it comes from a complacency that doesn’t want to hear that policy creates marginalization. It would rather believe in the fiction that everyone has the same shot as a way to avoid thinking about one’s complicity.The notion of white supremacy was constructed for profit. Misogyny also seems intentionally and strategically engineered, and homophobia feels related to misogyny.
Which brings me to the larger question of brothers. Doubting Thomas is part of a tradition of literary queer narratives that think about identity through the lens of brothers, especially growing up with heterosexual, cisgender brothers; two that immediately come to mind are Justin Torres’s novel We the Animals and Michael Cunningham’s story “White Angel.” Could you talk about how Thomas understands himself alongside his two brothers?
MCD: I had, for years, wanted to write about some of the particularities of my failure to assimilate among brothers that fit squarely into the tropes of a butch boyhood. I loved We the Animals. After finishing Torres’s book, I kept wondering about how the sibling-trio’s adult relationships would play out because of how expertly Justin portrayed their childhood closeness and interconnectedness.
I knew my lingering curiosity about Justin’s characters told me more about what I needed to write. Doubting Thomas started a bit like We the Animals fanfiction. Instead of writing about Justin’s characters, I explored themes inspired by his book.
To answer your question, Thomas saw himself as part of a duo with Maddy, his mom. He’d lumped Stuart, James and Jake into trio: “the boys,” strange, powerful objects. During adolescence, Thomas yearns to be more like his schoolmate Chad, who moves more fluidly, but he also wants to be like his brothers, especially James. He can’t be either, so he turns inward.
I yearned for a story portraying brothers who love and are captivated by one other because of the intimacy that comes before they acquire their identity labels.
Cunningham’s story “White Angel” is a great example of this “before” kind of bond. Of the many readers’ delights, Bobby witnesses his brother having sex in the cemetery. Talk about private, intimate moments! Cunningham portrays so much about brotherhood in that scene (and those that follow), but Bobby has yet to experience the act of sex. I love the fact that Carlton plans to set Bobby, at nine, up with his first sexual encounter and that Carlton wants to be there. I’m mortified by it (my inner prude is clutching her pearls), but I love that Cunningham did it. Because of Carlton’s tragic and fatal accident, we don’t get to see how their adult relationship plays out.
Re-reading “White Angel” I know that whole time (at least in my head) that Bobby’s queer. How? Is it his particular power of observation? What he doesn’t say?
Also, we can’t leave out your novel, Lawnboy.
I remember the feelings of surprise and self-recognition to things I didn’t know about myself (this combination is a huge reason I read) in how you portrayed the strangeness of Evan’s and Peter’s bond, their shifting positions and allegiances within the family as captured when Peter puts his hand on the small of Evan’s back and asks him if he’d jump off the twenty-something floor of the hotel in Miami.I might have always been death-haunted, even when I was a child, and the 90s AIDS years intensified that.
How would you say your work is informed by being a brother? Was Lawnboy inspired, in part, by “White Angel”?
PL: I also grew up with two brothers, though I’ve never fully dramatized that triad in my work. I’m interested in how a third smashes a binary, and how the power dynamics in that combination can shift from hour to hour. The identities my parents constructed of us probably had their roots in our birth order, and to this day I’m still disciplining myself out of behaving like the oldest brother whose duty it is to give direction to his younger siblings!
It’s no wonder that I metabolized some of this in my writing. It strikes me that Evan and Peter are probably rebelling against their parents’ early narratives of them and don’t seem to know how to reconfigure themselves without a total split. As far as “White Angel”? I know I was definitely compelled by its older-younger brother relationship, the intimacy and trust of it, but the dynamic between Peter and Evan turned out to be much more tense and ashamed, fraught with secrets, challenges. Unlike Carlton and Bobby, they’d never go out in a snowy cemetery after dropping acid, even though Evan might have wanted that kind of closeness more than anything.
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about when it comes to family: Each member of Thomas’s family strikes me as being shaped by the nearness of illness. Some of that has to do with the crisis around his brother’s bout with cancer, but other health scares are in the air as well. As a gay man, Thomas came of age at a time when the possibility of seroconversion was just part of the texture of everyday life. He can’t remember his first San Francisco apartment without being haunted; it fractures his syntax: “The two weeks in between the drawn blood and the HIV test’s result. Distracted amidst his students’ worksheets, sitting at the Formica kitchen table he inherited from a guy, dead of AIDS, who had lived and died in that apartment.” What’s the role of illness in the novel, especially in regard to Thomas? How has it shaped his relationships, his sense of the future?
MCD: None of us escape illness and its effects. I’d be slow to compare racism to cancer because cancer is something the host often cannot prevent. My husband is a scientist and a cancer researcher, and so I also know two things: we’ve come a long way in treatment, and there’s still very little we can do to cure it. Racism? The notion of white supremacy was constructed for profit. Misogyny also seems intentionally and strategically engineered, and homophobia feels related to misogyny. The world is riddled with racism and queer- and transphobia. Cancer, AIDS, the effects of racism and these phobias impact our lives, so it must impact syntax. I encourage my students to experiment with syntax to highlight or contrast what’s happening on the page. I just heard a great lecture highlighting C Pam Zhang’s use of syntax in How Much of These Hills Is Gold, not only to give shape and form to scenes, but also to drive the story forward. The scene (one of gravedigging) was utterly compelling.I yearned for a story portraying brothers who love and are captivated by one other because of the intimacy that comes before they acquire their identity labels.
In Later, you talk about waiting to get tested for HIV. You portrayed the complexities of that decision (or indecision) for those of us, including Thomas, who were around during the time, and I related to it. Thomas, always wanting to maintain an illusion of control, rushes to get tested after a possible exposure. He tests negative, but he never fully recovered from his scare and subsequent loss of his first boyfriend, Tony. It’s rendered in flashback, but a pivotal moment in my reading. You and I both attended countless memorials for people we knew. Thomas, thinking he could avoid that pain, hatched his Portland/teacher good-boy plan.
You also refer to Walt Odets’s brilliant Out of the Shadows, a book which weaves the author’s memoir with the cases he studied as a psychologist, and closely examines those who were in the thick of it, but also folks more like Thomas, as well as subsequent generations of queer folks who’ve never lost anyone they’ve known to AIDS. He shows how none of us escape.
I was interested in exploring Sheree’s HIV through Thomas’s lens. He has a complicated set of reactions to the fact that she’s a person who is healthy, thrives and lives with HIV. He hears her speak about her worries about anti-Black violence more than her HIV-status, and this impacts him emotionally, pushing him to reevaluate.
You’ve mined the 90s AIDS years (a time period I used for backstory) so masterfully in Later. Do you also feel coined by what we witnessed and survived? And what has come up for you during this pandemic about that one?
PL: I might have always been death-haunted, even when I was a child, and the 90s AIDS years intensified that. My work is full of people struggling against illness, limited time, and the urge to fill that time with as much life as possible before it’s taken away. Would I have written that work if I’d come into the world at a different time? I don’t know honestly.
The two pandemics: it’s sort of like two brothers comparing themselves to each other, right? In any competition, one is expected to win. I’ve been thinking a lot about time in respect to the two viruses: how COVID can be so ruthlessly swift, and how HIV takes years to reveal itself—a different kind of ruthlessness. I’ve been thinking about pandemic being the norm when it comes to human history, and inter-pandemic, a term I heard recently used by an epidemiologist, being the exception. I’ve also been thinking about the 33 million lost to AIDS—and about how we’d be in a different place if the world’s superpowers hadn’t decided that so many lives were expendable, and instead corralled their resources toward funding an HIV vaccine decades ago.
So one last question: what are you working on now?
MCD: Wow, Paul. Comparing the pandemics to brothers! I’m going to have to think about that, a lot.
I have a textbook I’m finishing up. It’s coming out in 2022, co-written with my friend Alice LaPlante. It’s partially based on The Lab, a generative writing workshop I’ve been doing online and “live” in San Francisco, for years.
I’m also finishing a run through of a draft of a novel I’ve held on to and tinkered with even longer than I held on to Thomas. It’s called Letters to the Dead. Its early drafts were inspired by Carole Maso’s The Art Lover. Like you, I’ve always been death-haunted. I’m also interested in what happens after losses pile up, but it’s quite different from Doubting Thomas. It’s half-epistolary, narrated by a “failed” writer who overdoses after her gay best friend dies. Chapter 1 takes place right after she flatlines. It’s set in an 80s performance art space, which turns out to be purgatory (borrowed from my real life, where going to performance art can be heaven or hell, and one never knows until one arrives). She’s revived, and later comes-to in a lockdown rehab where she’s encouraged to write letters to the dead people to whom she owes amends. The first half is the rehab. The second half is the letters.
I think of it as a a dark comedy. No reader ever agreed. Then I read Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo and something unlocked. The revision I’m trying to finish is also the reason I haven’t yet read The Narrow Door. I will when I turn Letters over to my agent. Janis (my character) and her best friend are both artists with two very different kinds of ambition. I’ve read enough about The Narrow Door to know it may be too close and, to be honest, I don’t want to compare and despair. Next time we talk I’ll also tell you about a memoir project I tinker with, but for now, I’ll say, “Until then.” You’re a hero, and it’s been a joy to connect. Thank you from my death-haunted heart to yours.
Matthew Clark Davison’s Doubting Thomas is available from Bywater Books.