This book is hard to read but even harder to write about.
Moira Greyland not only wrote it, she lived through a childhood hell that is little short of unimaginable to most people. The Last Closet is her story.
Have an open bottle of bourbon on your reading table when you get to Chapter Ten. You’ll need that and a shower afterward.
I first ran into Marion Zimmer Bradley’s work in college. A friend who had steered me right on several occasions, (Dune, Canticle for Leibowitz, Lefthand of Darkness) strongly recommended City of Sorcery to me.
He was overdue for a clinker. City of Sorcery had a number problems for me. It wasn’t an ideal first entry to the Darkover world. It was jumping into the middle of an established universe. If you weren’t all that familiar with the rules of this world as established by the author, then you had to puzzle out a lot stuff as you read the book. Bradley was disinclined to fill in the blanks. Also, back in those days I was Science Fiction Snob. Sure I’d read Tolkien and Leiber and yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons. But as an SFS I viewed science fiction books as vastly superior not least because they didn’t run to eight hundred pages and fantasy was starting to do that…a lot.
This book was clearly fantasy mascaraing as science fiction.
Also it was just a little bit…off. There was no one thing I could really put my finger on. Just a general feel of something that wasn’t quite right here. Sort of when you walk in to a mist spray of fine vinegar, you know something’s wrong but it’s a little too diffuse to say what.
There was a miasma of something very off putting with the women in this book. An unpleasant edge, almost like they were the anti-Bujold characters. The heroines were the Renunciates. It wasn’t explicitly stated what they had renounced but it was obviously heterosexuality. It was a club for angry lesbians with the quasi religious overtones of a goofy hippy religion, (which as as Gen-Xer I had little use for). The protagonist was the Chief Terran Agent on Darkover who had gone native and married another woman and were somehow raising a kid together. The enemy was a bunch of evil space lesbians who were plotting…something(?),..I forget what. It was the characters that mattered in this book and I didn’t like any of them.
When my friend asked me about it, I made some joke about, The Lesbians In Spaaaaaace. He didn’t like the joke at all and told me so. I replied that the author was clearly writing about that of which she knows. My friend laughed a little too loudly because he was about to ‘one up’ me, in true Gamma fashion.
“Nope, she’s happily married with two kids,” he smirked.
“Yeah, I got my doubts about the happily part,” I replied.
Holy crap, I never spoke truer words.
I was tangentially involved in fandom. Enough so that I became aware of the cult status among the women’s lib types regarding Marion Zimmer Bradly. Something to the effect of them liking to roleplay the Darkover stuff. A smallish shudder went through me when I heard about it and I added a note to my Red Flag File, ‘avoid Darkover Chicks in the future,’ end note.
When Mists of Avalon blewup big I picked it up off the shelf at Walden Books in the mall, saw that it was an eight hundred fifty page plus monstrosity, just like all the fashionable fantasy books were becoming. And I put it back on the shelf. No thanks, one Marion Zimmer Bradley book was enough.
A few years later I was thumbing through Locus at a soon to be closing science fiction bookstore. I saw that Marion Zimmer Bradley had died. It had a brief blurb of a biography and it noted in passing that her ex-husband was in prison for child molestation. I thought briefly of my friend’s smug, superior laughter.
In my life, I’ve found that the more you understand, the less you forgive. Yet Moira Greyland transcended that nasty little dictum of mine. I have no idea how she did it. The childhood she lived… The childhood she survived should have produced an unspeakable monster.
Just liker her Mother.
Just liker her Father.
But somehow it didn’t. Moira Greyland fought tooth and nail for her soul.
Both Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen suffered hideously abusive childhoods. Marion’s involved beatings and repeated rapes by her father. Walter Breen’s mother withheld all love from him and treated him as a pointless burden needlessly thrust upon her. Both suffered physically and traumatically during their upbringing.
It doesn’t justify the monsters they became, it just explains why they were what they were. Both were gay or at least claimed to be gay. Marion’s pathology is interesting in that regard because I’m not entirely certain that she was a lesbian by natural inclination. It may have been yet another a way for her to desex herself. Walter appears to have been the genuine article but he did have sex women…and little girls.
The thing is most people that are that fucked up have the sense to not have kids. The Breen-Bradleys chose have them because they wanted to someone to brainwash from the cradle onward. Someone whose sexuality could be warped into a broken funhouse mirror reflection of their own. And so they brought Moira into the world with the explicit and deliberate intention of utterly corrupting her.
In heart breaking detail Moira recounts the horrors of her childhood going year by year. Sparing neither herself nor you her reader. Details are painted in bold, terrible colors, page after page. All the while you are wondering, why didn’t anyone DO SOMETHING.
The answer to that is, her father Walter Breen had in abundance the only truly female personality trait that gay men have. A desperate, unquenchable thirst for attention. He was intelligent, erudite and the life of every party, provided that no one else ever tried to speak. He easily dominated the people around him because he had selected them quite carefully.
Walter Breen was also a gifted predator of children. And I mean gifted in both senses. He was both a genius with an eidetic memory and an avid hunter of male innocence. Like any good hunter he chose his hunting ground with some care. He settled on Science Fiction conventions. He and Marion became well known figures in that scene decades before Marion hit it big with the Mists of Avalon.
Moira recounts how Walter would pick a highly visible spot, like in the dealer’s room and play with a shiny toy until he was approached by a young boy who wanted to learn more about it. The things a boy would learn from Walter would leave him screaming into his pillow twenty years later.
Appallingly, it was well known among fan circles what Walter was doing. And when anyone objected, the Truefen would circle the wagons around him. People that I had (in ignorance) admired, actually defended him, knowing what he was.
In the beginning the only anti-Walter people were theGibsons and Danny Curran. Joe let it be known that he kept a loaded revolver on his mantel and that if Walter ever showed up at the Gibsons, he would use it. And of course Walter was one of the main people Joe had in mind when he wrote thatSHAGGY article. Danny also lost no opportunity of putting Walter down. I once accused him of being Square. Danny said, “Hell, it’s not that. You know I have homosexual friends. But I think Walter is a shit. And this is a handy club to hit him with.”
So, at first Berkeley was indifferent to Walter’s sex life. This gradually began to change. There were two main causes for this. At a GGFS meeting at the —–‘s, S—- walked into her son’s bedroom — age 13 — to find him in bed with Walter with Walter’s arm around him. They were watching TV. (Walter is incredible.) S—- wasn’t about to take this. She didn’t make a scene at the time, but from then on, someone else was anti-Walter. Thenceforth the ——– kids were under instructions to retire into their room and barricade the door with furniture whenever Walter was in the house. They did too. S—– wanted to ban Walter from the house entirely but Alva felt great reluctance to reject any fan.
Most people were rather amused by this incident, feeling that the kid could say “No” and even if he said “Yes” the experience probably wouldn’t hurt him any. After all, Walter is so child-like himself that it would be just as if the kid were playing around with another kid. And quite apart from the sexual connotations some people were outraged that an adult could prefer the society of children to that of adults, as Walter does.
The second cause was Walter’s sex play with 3-year old P———– —————-. He had her trained up to the point where she would take off her clothes the minute she saw him. He would then “rub her down” and all that. I recall one occasion — a fairly large gathering at the Nelsons — in which he also used a pencil, rubbing the eraser back and forth in the general area of the vagina, not quite masturbating her. (Walter is incredible.) Many people were somewhat displeased by this — most particularly her parents. No one thought he was actually psychologically damaging P——— (she being so young) — obviously —– and —- would have interfered if they thought he had been — but the spectacle was not thought to be aesthetically pleasing. Years later Walter found out about the reaction and said, “But why didn’t somebody say something! I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing it if I’d thought someone objected.”
Walter was lying through his food encrusted beard over that one. He had entered a society where no one ever rejects the weirdo no matter they do. The thing about the old Truefen is that they only had each other. That was it. Only each other. Pretty much all of them were on autism spectrum to one degree or another. Anyone being exiled from fandom was being sentenced to death by loneliness because there was no other place for these people. Their Mundane Lives lived in service their fantasy identity.
After Star Wars came out Science Fiction and Fantasy merged into something very approachable by the masses.
Before then it was safer to be caught in public wearing ass-less chaps and a posing pouch than it was to be seen in a Star Fleet uniform.
The people that went to the cons never fit in anywhere else. Most were at least one standard deviation above the norm in terms of intelligence but it didn’t do them any good. Instinctive knowledge of social mores was impossible for them. The truth is their efforts to raise their status among their peers with frequent displays of superior intellect, annoyed the crap out of everyone around them. They paid for it socially and a failure loop was established. Today we would think of these people as high functioning autistics. The truth is that a normal life was always beyond them.
Most of them were poor as well. The money to get a hotel room and pay for Con registration was a major investment for them. When you are poor, anything you invest in, you automatically overinvest in because you have so little to start with.
Loneliness infected every facet of their lives. No one shared their interests or if they did, those normal people had the damn good sense to keep that shit to themselves. Sharing those interests with nerds was nowhere near worth the ensuing real world pariah status.
When the Cons came along, these defectives could wrap themselves in a world where they could pretend that they were secret kings. The Identity of the TrueFen was established along with their lords and leaders the SMOFs. It was their safe space. It was their only social outlet. It was their escape.
Their real lives were lived entirely in support of this secret identity. An identity that gave them worth and eased the pain of loneliness. The real world turned into the Mundane World and became even more hated than it was before.
And the secret horror beyond imaging was being forced out of it. The SMOFs had that power. So what happens when a SMOF turns out to be an unspeakable abomination?
Simple, you don’t let yourself think about it. And you scream until your lungs blow out at anyone who tries to make you. It’s called doubling down.
However in 1964 the organizers for WorldCon had had enough and banned Walter Breen. There was significant backlash from the Truefen.
“The fan nuisance we were subjected to was nothing like as nasty as the horrible things that were done to you two but it was bad enough that we could get nothing else done during the weeks it went on and utterly spoiled what should have been a pleasant, happy winter. But it resulted in a decision which has made our life much pleasanter already…We have cut off all contact with organized fandom.” – Robert Heinlein to his friend Marion Zimmer Bradley
I highly recommend this exceptional book. It is a hard but necessary read. This book is why we fight, The Breen-Bradleys were everything our enemies want the world to be.
*Greyland, Moira. The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon (Kindle Locations 4739-4741). Castalia House. Kindle Edition.