Timothy Conigrave’s memoir and ‘coming-out’ story  is perhaps one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Ever. Poignant, uplifting and heartbreaking, Holding the Man, should be a considered an Australian classic.

Holding the Man is a first person narrative of Tim’s life, beginning when he is a young teenager who falls in love with another man. Set across a 20 year period, Holding the Man follows the incredible highs and lows of Tim’s romance with fellow schoolmate, John; from coming out to their Catholic parents, being separated by distance and eventually, the devastating impact of AIDS.

When I first picked up Holding the Man, I was intrigued by it, but it wasn’t until I started reading that I realised it was a true story. This made Tim’s story all the more heartbreaking. Reading a first person account of teenage years – awkward and confusing for most – can already be sobering, not to mention confronting. Reading about how a teenage boy is going through all the highs and lows of adolescent, as well having to come out as a homosexual? Horrific. And not because of the way that Tim feels about his sexual orientation, or even the very intense feelings of love he feels for John when he is still very young, but the responses of those around him. His father doesn’t want to believe him, his mother is appalled, John’s father refuses to accept that he exists. And throughout all of this, John and Tim feel ashamed for what is perhaps the greatest thing about being a human – being in love with one another. Not only are they going through a sexual awakening, and experiencing all of the joys that we feel during our first love, but they’re not allowed to express it? It’s frowned upon for them to hold hands in public, or to show affection for one another? I know Tim’s childhood was in the 70s, but sadly that stigma still occurs in certain social circles. And that honestly just breaks my heart.

Of course, the other devastating part of Holding the Man is when Tim and John both find out that they have contracted HIV, during a time when rumours and fear are rife about what causes the disease and how it spreads. While it was horrible to hear about the drawn-out death that John endures, and which Tim has to face knowing he may too face the same ending, it is the shunning that Tim faces afterwards that is perhaps more soul-destroying. Despite being his partner for 15 odd years, Tim never gets a mention in the obituary, and it is not mentioned at the funeral that John was a homosexual man. To take away a person’s right to be acknowledged during the hardest time of their life is not only cruel-spirited and selfish, but it’s also unfair to the memory of the person who has died. Once again, while things have improved, many homosexual couples still have to endure unfair actions by others because legally they aren’t seen as partners.

Though there were aspects of Holding the Man that I didn’t agree or sympathise with, particularly Tim’s continual urge to sleep with other men, I found his writing poignant, clear and at times, brutually honest. Tim paints a wonderfully bright picture of the life he and John create for themselves in a mesmerising, loud and colourful group of people, both gay and straight, that show how wonderful a life can be if a person is accepted for who they are. Furthermore, while I may not have understood why Tim was so interested in straying from John, I found it refreshing that Tim wasn’t afraid to tell the whole story – one that didn’t always paint him in the nicest picture. Many narrators would have shied away from this.

I loved this book. While I can’t exactly resonate with the characters, their stories have stayed with me long after I finished Holding the Man. Thinking about the plight that Tim had to go through – simply to love – filled my stomach with an unidentifiable feeling in my gut – like I wanted to cry, but knew I didn’t really have the right to. That same feeling is here right now, when I consider that as beautiful as Tim’s story is, it isn’t unusual. Many people have watched their loved ones pass away from AIDS, and unfortunately, most people who come out as homosexual have to face stigma and rejection from certain people, sometimes those closest to them.

Holding the Man is a tribute to the love that Tim Conigrave felt for John and the life that they lived together. It is an memoir that throws its hands up in the air and screams ‘It’s OK to be you!’, without holding back any punches or preaching how a person should live their life. Regardless of your opinions on same-sex couples or whether you were alive when the AIDS epidemic hit, read Holding the Man to see insight to how one person lived their life and loved to the fullest.

Have you read Holding the Man or heard of Tim Conigrave? Let me know!

PS For those who were wondering, Tim passed away from an AIDS-related illness two years after John’s death, in 1994.

holding the man by timothy conigrave

Holding the Man – (image taken from http://www.images.amazon.com)