The memoir of the Boy in the Yellow Dress
Rachel Cook talks to author Victor Marsh about his memoir which depicts an incredible journey of discovery.
One of Victor Marsh’s great loves as a child was putting on his mother’s yellow dress. While it’s not unusual to see little boys in dresses at more progressive kindergartens and primary schools these days, in the 1940s in Australia the act could conjure up an unimaginable dread in parents.
Marsh, 69, was raised in Western Australia. He was elected captain at his high school and was active in sports - the little boy in the yellow dress may have been long gone, but the memory of those moments came flooding back after his father’s death when Marsh was 47 years old.
Via old photographs the scene he had played out again and again as a child came flooding back and became the impetus for his memoir, The Little Boy in the Yellow Dress.
“I liked the dress because it glowed,” Marsh says.
“Of course it was really long and when I twirled in it, it used to make a circle in the air so I started doing this ritual with the dress like I was some Sufi dancer”, he laughs, “I didn’t know what I was doing but it felt really good.
“After the twirling I’d settle down on my heels and spread the ample folds of cloth all around me on the floor and I’d close my eyes and I’d be completely centered in this feeling of home and then I’d come out of it with the harsh reality that boys don’t do that.”
One day he went to his mother’s wardrobe looking for the dress and it was gone. Sometime later he found the dress’s burnt remains in a tub in the outside the washhouse. While his parents had never admonished him or in fact even spoke about the dress to him, Marsh knew that he had done something wrong. He also knew that what he had done was so upsetting it couldn’t even be mentioned.
[Image] Marsh's new book takes readers on a journey detailing his, at times, painful childhood.
This for Marsh, like so many queer identified people who remember moments in their childhood when it becomes apparent they are ‘different’, would be the first in a string of those moments.
“I would hear my brother and my father talk about sissies and homos and then I would go to school and I’d want to play the skipping game with the girls but they would send me back to the boys,” Marsh says.
Then came the day Marsh’s sister - after catching her brother, now 13, and his friend Daniel with their pants around their ankles - called him a ‘homosexual’.
Unsure of what it meant Marsh consulted not only Webster’s Dictionary, but Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing – a psychiatrist and author of Psychopathia Sexualis. It is via von Krafft-Ebing that Marsh discovers a homosexual is a social, legal and moral outcast.
The following years would be spent grappling with his sexuality and going to the depths of self-discovery on a quest to shake the shame he felt had been placed on him for who he was. He read copious amounts of books on religion and spirituality, experimented with LSD, had a relationship with a woman and then at the age of 27 became a celibate monk.
“I was a monk for 11 years,” Marsh says. “I felt like I was conducting a scientific experiment and in terms of my sexuality it was a relief to put it on hold.”
Marsh attributes his spirituality and meditation practice to his Guru. He believes this was integral to rekindling what he sees as the essence of himself, someone who that little boy in the yellow dress was in touch with from the beginning.
Marsh identifies as queer and believes in the Native American Two-Spirit concept and has long been interested in anthropological studies which show that same-sex attracted tribe members have often been revered over the millennia. The two-spirited people were believed to embody both the male and the female and operated not only as mediator between the men and the women of the tribe but also between the spirit and the human world. They were seen as advisors.
“In my PhD and my book about Christopher Isherwood I talk about spirituality as being a searching inquiry into the nature of being – people can do that however they want to, some do it though science or however, I did it through a mediation practice via a young Guru in India.”
Marsh’s memoir begins with the death of his father, follows his career in television which took him to Los Angeles, his time in ashrams, his PhD at the age of 62 and is ultimately the story of a man who found a great happiness while the whole world seemed to tell him that would be an impossibility.
The Boy in the Yellow Dress is a very personal story but it will no doubt resonate with anyone who has faced similar battles:
“I hope that one day as a society we realise that if instead of shaming people we supported people and imagine what they can become, then we’d maybe see how the whole of society benefits.”
[Main image] Victor Marsh as a child
The Boy in the Yellow Dress will be launched at Hares and Hyenas, 63 Johnston Street Fitzroy, Saturday May 24, 5pm. Visit www.hares-hyenas.com.au