The Letter I sent to my first love, 35 years too late

Sunday, May 20th 2001

Dear John,

I said I wouldn't get in contact again. Well, I intended to keep to that statement and I don't normally make promises I am not going to keep, but I found I was totally unable to do so because I had something that I had to tell you. I was going to tell you this when we met, if we met, or hoped that I would be able to. Only, of course, the mobile phone cut out, and you left me that voicemail message that brooked no reply, and I finally didn't have the guts to call you back again. It took a lot of guts to dare to find you and to dare to call you at all. It took a lot of self confidence to persist long enough to get you to talk to me. And with each call I had to summon up all my courage. What I wanted to tell you is encapsulated in these seven long sentences here in italics. Maybe after reading this letter you will understand both why there was a gap of more than 30 years since we met last, and also why I got back in touch. I doubt it will surprise you totally. I hope you will do me the kindness of reading to the end, and trying not to judge me.

When I was thirteen, I came to a new school, new insecurities and new potential friends; I came to know one well, a confident, happy and outgoing boy, and liked him a great deal

As time passed, a very short time, I realised that I was hoping for more than friendship, and that I liked him more than I could ever say, more than was desirable, certainly by him; because of this I put myself through hell inside my head, yet it was not his fault.

When I left that school, when I went to university, when I met and married my wife whom I love deeply, when our son was born, all this time I hoped my feelings for him would fade; I tried to allow them to fade, I tried to make them fade; I was unable to make them fade.

Until your phone message I was still living deeply in my past, knowing that I loved someone I may not love, should never have loved, and loved him with all my heart; even marriage and fatherhood and distance in years did not dim the feelings I had for him, though he was a young man always in my head.

I tried all this time with all my power to make this fade into sweet and cherished memories of a fantasy, no a fantastic set of possibilities, but I failed, even though I succeeded in patches.

Today I am clear in my wants, needs and hopes; all I want is for the boy I loved more than life itself to know now he is a man that he was loved, and to feel untroubled by that knowledge, for he did nothing to lead me to believe that he did ever, would ever, could ever return that love.

I want you to know, John, that you are the boy I loved all those years ago, and that you were a friend as well; you have the right to know this, and have no need to fear me nor anything about me, nor to see me again, nor even to acknowledge what I have written here; simply, I wanted you only as a friend, but I grew up very suddenly at thirteen to find that I was gay, and that I had fallen in love with you - something I do not regret, for you were truly lovely; for anything that has troubled you, both in the past, and now, I apologise.

If I'd been unable to speak I was going to give you a piece of paper with those sentences, slightly different, written on it as we parted company, had we met.

I know you must have known all these years about at least a little of my feelings although I was never important to you. I know because I'm sure, certain, that your brother Peter knew while we were at school that I adored and worshipped you. I remember he said to me in the Chequers "You must come and meet my sister Marion. You'll like her. She looks just like John." If you were half-close as brothers you'll have talked and laughed about me, joked about 'Tim, the queer kid who fancies John'. Well I did meet her. And she did look like you, but she wasn't you. It wasn't looks. You were always handsome, and she was as beautiful as you, but it was you that I loved, the entire person, not just the frame. I always knew it was hopeless, futile, but I couldn't help loving you.

I was hoping to meet you recently for only one reason: to put this to rest once and for all. I don't expect, need, nor want anything from you. I am not trying to proposition you, nor to seduce you. It isn't possible. It never was. All I wanted was the chance to tell you. Ideally it was to be in person. Now I have had to tell you in a letter. You are probably recoiling in horror. You may not even have read this far, or if you have then you may be disgusted. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to disgust you, and I'm not disgusting. Nor am I a sad old git like we all imagined gay people to be when we were at school. I'm just a gay man, and one who adored you.

There are so many things I want to apologise to you for. Simplest of these is the fact that wherever you were, I was, too. I gave you no space, and was always like a puppy trying, hoping, praying to make you notice me and feel something for me in return other than despising me for being gay. Perhaps that's why you either were able to forget me or feigned having forgotten me when I phoned you approximately a year ago. I am 90% certain it was feigned forgetfulness, for you went on to mention "That awful cycling holiday" to the Isle of Wight. I didn't know it had been awful. I remember the trip from Epsom to Winchester as being foul, but not that the rest was awful. I remember it as wonderful freedom, being away from school and parents, being free as air, able to get served in pubs for the first time, and being with you. But then that was maybe because I was so deeply in love with you that any torture was worthwhile just to be near you. I had intended, hoped I would be brave enough on that holiday, to tell you how I felt. It was away from school, and regardless of the other two being present, I felt alone with you.

Other things to apologise for are almost too numerous, and all trivial, yet all, I think, will have caused you some inner difficulties. Always sitting next to you in chapel or Big School, at least once stroking your arm unsubtly enough for you to notice and make public complaint. "He was fingering me in chapel!" you told everyone loudly. I nearly died when you did that, but I deserved it. Persuading you to sail with me, and not knowing how to treat you because I was furious with myself for not being able to tell you that I felt so deeply about you, so treating you badly.

I remember the bad things, the things that either upset you, or that I was worried might have upset you. The good things are that, knowing or unknowing, you helped me to survive an awful school, and a pair of horrible parents. I remember once when we were sailing at [Sailing School], in some sort of a race that I was helming and you were crewing, and we won the race by miles, even against the omnipotent P****** brothers. I was so happy I wanted to drop the tiller and mainsheet, put my arms around you, kiss you on the cheek and tell you how much it meant to me, to have won a race with you, yes in front of everyone. I was so proud, and so much prouder that it was you there with me and you had made it possible. I remember watching house rugby matches and being so proud whenever you scored a try. One of those is etched into my memory. And I remember being scared every time you were tackled in case you were hurt. I loved you, John. Totally. Just loving you was enough on one occasion to stop me from killing myself. It is the only time I had ever seriously contemplated death, and I chose life because I loved you, and I needed to see you one more time before I died. You may think that melodramatic, but it is a fact even so. You were not the reason I almost decided to die, though being gay was, in part. You were the reason I decided to live.

"But why didn't you ever tell me?" Those are the words I always imagined you asking if I was ever brave enough to speak. And there are reasons for that, too. That I know you would have rejected me is not one of them, for rejection, even total rejection, would have been a welcome closure. You must find that in your professional life if you have subscribed to victim/offender confrontation and reconciliation. But, I was terrified. If you are still reading, let me try to explain.

When I first fell in love with you I was horrified at myself. I had been brought up as a model child, a model little heterosexual, though my parents raised me as a china doll, not as a boy. My immature fantasies were always of girls, and I expected with confidence to fall for a girl, marry and raise a family. I had looked forward to sexual fulfilment with girls. And then I was in love with another boy, with you. Not, and this is important, in lust, but in love, and self aware enough to know how different I was from everyone else. I felt alone, and terrified of loneliness. School morality meant that I could not tell you, nor anyone else. So I looked up homosexuality in the school library hoping it was curable, and found what they did to queers in the 1960s. I've enclosed an extract from a modern document which shows you what I found:

Having defined homosexuality as a pathology, psychiatrists and other doctors made bold to "treat" it. James Harrison, a psychologist who produced the 1992 documentary film Changing Our Minds, notes that the medical profession viewed homosexuality with such abhorrence that virtually any proposed treatment seemed defensible. Lesbians were forced to submit to hysterectomies and oestrogen injections, although it became clear that neither of these had any effect on their sexual orientation. Gay men were subjected to similar abuses. Changing Our Minds incorporates a film clip from the late 1940s, now slightly muddy, of a young gay man undergoing a transorbital lobotomy. We see a small device like an ice pick inserted through the eye socket, above the eyeball and into the brain. The pick is moved back and forth, reducing the prefrontal lobe to a haemorrhaging pulp. Harris's documentary also includes a grainy black-and-white clip from a 1950s educational film produced by the U.S. Navy. A gay man lies in a hospital bed. Doctors strap him down and attach electrodes to his head. "We're going to help you get better," says a male voice in the background. When the power is turned on, the body of the gay man jerks violently, and he begins to scream. Doctors also tried castration and various kinds of aversion therapy. None of these could be shown to change the sexual orientation of the people involved.

So, I was terrified. The more so because my mother had already committed her sister to a mental institution for ECT – Electro Convulsive Therapy – twice and I feared, rightly, that she would have sent me to be cured when my only crime was to have fallen in love, and, because I am wired differently from heterosexual men, had fallen in love with a boy. And there was no-one to confide in at school. Housemaster? Chaplain? Exactly! No-one. And even telling you might have meant that one of these people got to know, and then I was headed for the mental hospital and being trashed. There were enough mental hospitals in Epsom and Banstead to terrify anyone who feared being incarcerated. I also had an uncle who had been lobotomised for Parkinson's Disease. It was supposed to cure it. It turned him into a cabbage. And other details that I read proved that no-one was "cured" by all this pseudo science. No-one. But I was imperfect. My mother always rooted out imperfection, so did my father. China doll children are not homosexual, so homosexual china doll children are taken to the doctor and cured. And the doctor was not only a family friend, but was also the father of the P****** brothers. And I feared exposure as well as the cure. My mother has not denied that she would have taken me to be cured. I challenged her and she has not denied it.

In any case, homosexuality was not legalised in the UK until December 1967, and then only between consenting adults in private. Well, I was law abiding, too. And my terror was also of prosecution as well as ECT or a lobotomy. I was too young, you were too young. Even if you had returned my hopeless passion it was illegal.

All this, plus the fear of being ostracised at school, maybe even being beaten up, was enough to make sure I never told you. "Look, there goes that fucking queer, Tim!" I was wimp enough already. Under those circumstances, who would tell? It would have been insanity.

Throughout my adult life I have wondered what became of you. When I went to university I tried very hard to become a "normal" heterosexual man. I regret very much that I lost touch with you then. I always felt that, had we been in touch then, there was a possibility that I would have summoned up the courage to say to you the words that had been burning a hole in my soul since September 1965, and would then have heard your rejection at first hand instead of waiting three decades and hearing it in your tone of voice in a voicemail message.

The thing you may never understand, even after getting over the probably half expected shock of knowing that I loved you hopelessly for over 35 years, is that I wish you only well. I am happy beyond measure that you have been married for 20 or more years and have a fine family. I think from your voice while we were chatting aimlessly a year ago that I felt that you are a contented man, and I am pleased about that, the more so because it means that my oppressive (from my viewpoint) love during the time we spent together at school did not harm you.

I, too, am married, and happily so, with one child, a wonderful 16 year old son, A***. That in itself was a surprise, for I never expected to fall in love again, and I did so and married in 1979. M******, my wife, knows about my unrequited love for you. She is a wonderful and beautiful lady. She knows I am a gay man, she knows I have devoted much of my life recently to helping gay kids worldwide come to terms with their orientation and to work out how and when to tell their own parents or others that they trust. She knows that I work with badly abused kids (and the adults that those kids become) to help them to become fully functioning people again, able to face the world without fear or the guilt of the victim. A*** knows all about his dad too. I wanted you to know all this because without you I could not have done it. We all touch others in surprising ways and cause surprising results, even unknowing.

I am not "out" as a gay man, and I am trusting you with this information. Unless you get in touch I doubt very much that we will meet or speak again. I wish that were not so, for I would like to be able simply to look you in the eye and shake you by the hand; nothing else, just that. If you do contact me, or if we meet by chance, please, John, please remember: I am not trying to proposition you, nor to do anything to harm or embarrass you or your family. I just fell in love with you in 1965, and finally got over you in 2001. I am extremely grateful for having known you, and yes, for having loved you. From the bottom of my heart I apologise for anything I have ever done that has hurt you in even the slightest way.

I feel very nervous writing and posting this letter. It has taken about six weeks to write and rewrite. I am sending it to you at work because, if your home is like mine, mail is opened happily by both of us. I simply would like you to see this first. Before your wife. Because you deserve to see it first, not because it is a thing I feel the need to hide from her, but because it is, first, for you.

I send this with all the love I have felt for you, knowing how much it has meant to me, and certain how little it has meant to you.

And I sent it. I don't expect a reply. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when he received it! Can you imagine his face?

I had many advisors. One helped me to get my thoughts into order for the seven italicised sentences, several said "Do not send this letter." Several said "Send it." None knew inside my heart. Afterwards many have said "You are brave." But I'm not brave. If I'd been brave, IF I'd been brave I would have said in 1965 when we were both 13, "John, I love you." This wasn't bravery. This was the last stage, I hope, of ridding me of a ghost. It's been a pretty public exorcism.