The experience of the closet

Dr. Nisha Gupta, a psychotherapist, has produced a cinematic poem about being in the closet. It’s called “illuminate.” Nisha is a friend of mine.

A still from “illuminate”

When I first clicked Play to watch “illuminate,” I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about my father. After all, he came out to me in 1975. Our conversations would span another three decades before he died. He surely would have told me everything about living his life in the closet.

I was wrong.

Dr. Gupta’s research included intensive interviews with closeted or formerly closeted sexual minority participants. Her findings suggest that the closet is experienced as a “traumatic loss of existential rights: the right to truth, freedom, love, hope, and power.” These losses come to light in her film.

While watching the film, I realized I could never fully know what life in the closet was like for my dad.

And, really, how could I?

As a member of the straight majority, unlike my father, my life experience didn’t include threats to my life for this reason. I was never the victim of a police sting operation that resulted in an arrest for kissing a same-sex lover. I didn’t lose a federal job when the Civil Service Commission discovered my sexual orientation, or get rejected by the Army for the same reason. I never had to monitor or control my gestures to mask my true self. My dad did, though, all of these.

Then again…

For years as a child and into young adulthood, I suffered debilitating night terrors. One in particular had me trapped in a small windowless room with walls that gradually closed in on me. My screams woke me up right before I suffocated. Did my dad have this nightmare, too? If so, did he stifle his screams?

I wish he were alive now to see Nisha’s film. We’d discuss it afterwards over root beer floats in tall frosty mugs in his favorite diner. I’d ask questions I didn’t think to ask while he was still alive.

Walking back to the car after the film, he’d grab hold of my hand when we crossed the street just as he’d always done, whether I was a child or an adult. But he couldn’t protect me from what he himself feared.

I must settle for watching the film FOR him.

Growing up in a closeted family, my psychological inheritance was something I couldn’t put into words for a long time, even to myself. It’s still a challenge. Even as I write my memoir, I sometimes tell myself it isn’t my story to tell, that it’s my dad’s. The pain is his.

But it’s mine, too.

My body told me so during the film: first, through the heaviness I felt in my heart and then the feel of it spreading deep in my bones.

By the final scene, my body began to quake. Perhaps it was sloughing off some of the unconscious trauma my dad unintentionally bequeathed to me. If so, I wonder if this sloughing off process works backwards, too. Wherever he is now, might he be healing some of his own trauma, too? I love the idea that this might be true.

I also love Nisha for creating this film – for today’s marginalized communities, for those from past eras, for my father, and for me.

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Dr. Nisha Gupta describes herself as a LGBTQ-affirmative and trauma-informed psychotherapist. She created her short poetic film, “illuminate,” as part of her doctoral work in clinical psychology at Duquesne University. You can read more about Nisha and her filmmaking process in Art With Impact’s exclusive interview with her.

Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming eventually to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.

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