Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson (1975)
By Nava Atlas | On October 30, 2016 | Updated October 2, 2022 | Comments (0)
Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson is a 1975 novel that, surprising as it may seem now, was a much ahead-of-its time novel about a teenage boy coming out as gay to his parents.
So much so, that the term “coming out” wasn’t yet a common term; “gay” was on the radar already, but the more common term was simply homosexual.
The story begins in 1960 and is seem mostly through the lens of Tessa Lynn, the mother of seventeen-year-old Jeff. Though still unusual for its time as a sensitive (and, as it turned out, somewhat autobiographical) portrayal of a gay youth coming to terms (and coming of age) with his identity, reviewers found much to admire in the novel.
Prevailing attitudes towards gay people were markedly different in 1975 than in 1960, though clearly there was still a long way to go. Yet, if reader discussions on Goodreads are any indication, readers still find this novel touching and relevant.
Here are two reviews from 1975, the year in which this affecting novel by the author best known for Gentleman’s Agreement.
Review of Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson
From the original review of Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson in The Bakersfield Californian, August 1975, by Frederick A. Raborg: Laura Z. Hobson has written perhaps her most important novel since Gentleman’s Agreement.
In Consenting Adult she confronts the problems faced when Tessa Lynn receives a poignant letter from her seventeen-year-old son, Jeff. “Dear Mama, I’m sorry about all the rows during vacation, and I have something to tell you that I guess I better not put off any longer … You see, I am a homosexual.”
Tessa is shocked, and there are moments when she is described as she weeps over that letter not as “an ordinary weeping woman; it was rather, a roaring sobbing of an animal gored.” This is an incisive work, a polemic much more than a breast-beater. This is slice-of-life, not the stuff of soap operas.
Facing a new normal
Until Jeff’s letter, Tessa had led a busy above-average life in publishing. Her marriage is reasonably happy; she is proud of all her children. Finally she summons her courage to send a wire, “proud of you for letter … I love you as always. Mama.”
She then must face the need to tell her ill husband, and she must brace herself to swim the undercurrents thrust upon her by her other children.
A second letter, years later when Jeff has become a doctor, in which he relates the telling of his chief medical supervisor, whose response was, “So?” to other doctors and to all his friends, prompts Tessa to see him as courageous.
“No more evasions for him … no more hiding, no more fear. Nobody can threaten him, nobody blackmail him. He is free. I have never loved him so much.”
A mirror for parents of gay children
Hobson mirrors the countess silent mothers, the mothers who do nothing but accept some kind of guilt burden for themselves, and the mothers who join the march or Parents for Gay Liberation … all mothers of the millions of homosexuals who are locked into a battle they did not seek, locked from their families and often caught between their warring factions.
Many parents of gay offspring do all the wrong things about it. Consenting Adult, though a novel, offers guidelines in often painful sequence that emphasize the affirmative aspects of having a gay child rather than the negative.
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A plea for understanding
If this book can prevent one young man or girl for trying to escape a less than understanding home situation only to find himself or herself walking the streets of some major city … if it can prevent one youthful suicide (or for that matter, an elderly suicide, since there are no age limits), if it can make one employer understand that he average gay person offers no more threat than the average heterosexual, then Laura Z. Hobson deserves to attain the bestseller status her work is sure to have.
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See also: Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson
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Review of Consenting Adult (with spoilers)
From the original review in the Wichita Beacon, June 29, 1975: Back in the late 1940s, Laura Z. Hobson wrote a blockbuster bestseller titled Gentleman’s Agreement.
It detailed the silent, sometimes not-too-subtle prejudices practiced against Jews. Subsequently, the novel became a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck.
“Dear Mama,” the first chapter begins. A letter from seventeen-year-old Jeff to his parent: “You see, I am a homosexual. I have fought it off for months and maybe years, but it just grows truer. I have never yet had an actual affair with anybody, I give you my word on that … It’s just that I know it, more and more clearly all the time, an I finally thought I really ought to ask for help.”
Tall, strong, and good-looking, Jeff is a star running back and baseball player at the private school he attends. The novel centers only briefly on Jeff’s efforts to cope with his realization. Instead it spotlights the pain and fears of the boy’s family — his mother, Tessa, father, Ken, sister, Margie, and her husband, Nate.
There are weekly visits to therapists, family arguments, alienation. Thirteen long years of facing up to it.
Any reader seeking racy scenes of acts between consenting males will not find them. The book primarily concerns the doting mother desperately seeking to understand an issue about which she knows very little at the outset.
Ken does not react well to learning about his son’s homosexuality. To describe him as uptight is putting it mildly. All but refusing to discuss it with Tessa, his wife, he avoids Jeff and cooks up a business trip so he won’t have to attend his son’s prep school graduation.
Tessa keeps hoping against hope that her son will achieve the straight life by means of therapy. Jeff knows better. After four years of effort, “he had stopped believing that any happy little therapy existed that could ever transform him into that unattainable golden fellow, the average girl-crazy young man.
“This is it,” he had thought one day. “This is it for life.”
Becoming a doctor, acceptance from mom (and spoilers ahead)
After Jeff moves out of his parents’ home, he enrolls at CCNY instead of Yale, lives in a tenement room, and drives a cab at night. He graduates with honors and takes a job as a hospital orderly. Eventually he heads west, attends UCLA medical school, and becomes an M.D.
It looks as if it will take Jeff’s father forever to come around. Before that can happen, though, Laura Z. Hobson kills him off (heart trouble). Tessa, however, does accept Jeff. In the final chapter, Dr. Jeff flies east with a chap named Stuart for a Christmas visit. Tessa greets them at the door of her New York City home:
… two young faces, sensitive, strong, facing her with candor, together. Her beloved son and the man he loved.
“Consenting adults,” she thought, an a fullness rushed to her heart. To consent, to assent, to be in harmony, to give your blessing. I give my blessing, all my blessings. Then I am a consenting adult, too.”
More about Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson
- 1975 interview with Laura Z. Hobon in the NY Times
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- 1985 film version of Consenting Adult