Can We See Him Yet?

Reviewed by Robert McGill

Timothy Irving Frederick Findley. “Tiff,” to those who knew you. By any measure, you were a major Canadian writer, counting among your achievements two Governor General’s Awards and a string of bestsellers before your death in 2002. I never met you, but I attended your public memorial service in Toronto because two of your novels, The Wars and Not Wanted on the Voyage, were among the best I’d read.

Tiff, you’d be glad to know that Sherrill Grace’s biography has given you the comprehensive treatment a major writer deserves. It’s the treatment you virtually demanded, having spent most of your adult life documenting your days in countless diaries and workbooks, as if to ensure that biographers would have the right material. But part of you couldn’t wait for someone else to write your life, so you published two autobiographical books, Inside Memory and From Stone Orchard, with another, Journeyman, appearing posthumously. There was also your penchant for incorporating family history and personal experiences into your novels, plays, and short fiction. Sometimes, as I read Tiff, it seemed that Grace’s biggest task had been to organize into a single narrative the stories you’d left behind and to untangle the relations between fiction and fact.

In those respects, Grace serves both your aficionados and newcomers with aplomb. I’d already known, for instance, that you were born to a wealthy Toronto family in which ancestors loomed large—not least, your uncle and namesake, the first Tiff, whose death after soldiering in the First World War was the stuff of clan legend and material for The Wars—but I hadn’t known, and never would have guessed, that the improbably named “Captain Leather” in your novel got his moniker from an officer serving with your uncle.

I’d also known, of course, that you were gay—and, moreover, one of few Canadian artists to be out to the public as early as the 1970s—but I hadn’t known that you came out to your mother in 1944, at the age of fourteen, and to your father the next year after he returned from service in the Second World War. Grace says that your mother took the news better than your father did, although I wonder how you reacted when she later became involved in the Moral Re-Armament movement, which Grace calls “an authoritarian, homophobic cult” (79).

As for your father and your older brother, Michael, they come off as awful and pitiable in complementary measures: your father physically and emotionally abusive toward your mother and brother while struggling with career disappointments, alcohol abuse, and depression; Michael inheriting your father’s destructive relationship to alcohol and his violent tendencies to a life-ruining degree; both of them greeting your coming out with derision. One marvels at the fact that you managed to preserve relationships with them. Perhaps you recognized them as early emblems of something you’d later claim to be one of your key epiphanies about humanity: namely, that “[w]e are all a collective hiding place for monsters” (qtd. in Grace 165).

You dropped out of high school halfway through grade ten—the result, Grace suggests, of bullying due to your sexual identity. It’s no surprise that you went on to seek a place in communities promising some measure of belonging: first ballet, then theatre. It must have felt glorious when, at the age of twenty-two, you were chosen to act in the first season of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, appearing on stage with Alec Guinness in Richard III. Grace doesn’t tell us exactly how the relationship between you and Guinness evolved from there, but we know that he footed the bill for you to study acting in London while lodging with him and his family. Grace also says that you faced his “expectation of sexual favours” and that you came to be disturbed by whatever arrangement he had with his wife (131). Beyond that, we’re left to speculate about particulars—and presumably, that’s how you wanted it, because it turns out that you were intensely private, almost silent, even in your diaries, about your sex life. You’d probably be glad to learn that although Grace was diligent in tracking down friends and acquaintances to interview, they’ve largely been as loyal to your wish for discretion as you could have hoped.

What we do get of your life story is often a page-turner, albeit in part because the unhappiest narratives can be the most gripping. In Tiff’s account of your time in England, you watched friends and lovers get the acting roles you wanted, you drank to excess, and when you returned to Canada, you continued toiling in obscurity on stage, while mentors such as Thornton Wilder and Ruth Gordon told you that your future lay in writing. The nadir was 1960, after your six-month marriage to fellow actor Janet Reid was annulled. She’d known all along that you were gay, but you were also, by your own later testimony, “confused to the point of panic” about your sexuality (qtd. in Grace 168). Then, during a court appearance to finalize the divorce, her lawyer outed you. A homophobic taunt from the judge garnered laughter from those present. After that ordeal, you spent time as a patient at the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, then at a clinic for people recovering from alcohol addiction, and you were treated by a psychiatrist who believed in “curing” homosexuality.

Knowing that you’d spend the final forty years of your life in a loving relationship with Bill Whitehead, I felt a certain euphoria upon reaching the account of your meeting in 1962, at which point he was a fellow actor. Apparently, you gave each other the courage to surrender your theatre dreams: Whitehead took a job at the CBC, while you focused on finishing a novel. It seems that early on, you both decided that he was going to be the provider in the relationship, the one to take care of the business end of things, whether handling contracts or typing drafts.

Sometimes, he also hid alcohol from you. Grace reveals that there were episodes of binge drinking in which you’d disappear for days. They became less common over the years, but you struggled with alcohol most of your life, using it to deal with anxiety and depression: a way to militate, as your personal motto had it, “Against Despair.” It sounds, though, like drinking brought more grief than it subtracted. Given your fiction’s excoriations of violence, I wonder how you felt that alcohol could bring out violence in you? Grace relates how once, in a drunken dander, you bit Whitehead on the arm. Another time, after he confessed to removing the alcohol from the house and locking it in the trunk of the car, you ended up banging his head against a door while he smacked your head with a saucepan. Whitehead himself recounted the incident in a comic mode, claiming that it ended with the two of you “collapsed in helpless laughter,” but he also admitted that your behaviour could leave him feeling suicidal (qtd. in Grace 192). I imagine your shame about such moments—shame, not least, at how your violence echoed your father’s and brother’s.

It couldn’t have helped your mental health that the first twenty years of your writing career featured few straightforward successes. There was the time that your agent insisted you burn the manuscript of your first novel—and insisted, moreover, on witnessing the act. As for your works that got a public audience, critics tended to receive them coolly. As Grace tells it, your play The Paper People, on which CBC Television lavished a $300,000 budget for its Festival series in 1967, left viewers “shocked or confused” by its “savage condemnation of English Canada’s failure to produce meaningful Canadian art” (192). The same year, your first published novel, The Last of the Crazy People, turned out to be too sensationally violent in its picture of family life for reviewers to square with their ideas of Canadian fiction. Your film script Don’t Let the Angels Fall, produced by the National Film Board, premiered at Cannes in 1969 to little love. And your play Can You See Me Yet?, staged in 1976 at the National Arts Centre, was generally loathed by critics. It wasn’t until the next year, at the age of forty-seven, that you finally achieved widespread acclaim with The Wars.

In Tiff, the triumph of that novel is a victorious summitting after a long ascent. Subsequently, there’s still a life story, but the tension eases, and we settle into the narrative rhythms of an established author in middle age, then later life, seeking to make each new work better than the last, enjoying a large circle of friends—including national icons such as Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Glenn Gould, William Hutt, and Margaret Laurence—and repeated commercial successes, while still caught in periods of anxiety and anguish, and certainly still drinking too much. There were further critical disappointments, health issues, and the deaths of friends and family members, but there’s no set piece or dramatic arc to match the heady plotline of the younger you striving to be known—and striving, too, to find the kind of lasting relationship you achieved with Whitehead. Instead, Grace sedulously follows you through your research and writing, residencies, lectures, holidays, home renovations, and book tours. There are extensive discussions of your books, as well: useful refreshers for those who’ve read them, fulsome teasers for those who haven’t.

At times, for all Grace’s assiduousness, Tiff itself can feel like a teaser for your life, given the glimpses it offers of things on which Grace is unable to elaborate. What was it like for you to have spent your “whole childhood,” as you once recalled, “with maids, sitting in kitchens” (qtd. in Grace 187)? How did you make the decision to come out in your early teens? What was your relationship like with Nora Joyce, who for twenty-five years was both your friend and your house cleaner? At such moments, Tiff betrays the shocking severity with which details of a life, if undocumented by those who lived it, can be lost forever, slipping beyond the threshold of biography and leaving fiction writers such as you to imagine them. Grace admirably shows us what remains to see of you; just as compellingly, she leaves us wondering how much more of you there is to know.

This review “Can We See Him Yet?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 167-169.

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