Sweet Tooth is Tim Anderson’s memoir of homosexuality, high school, the eighties, and diabetes, all south of the Mason-Dixon line. This seems like a recipe for disaster, but luckily things don’t go as badly as you might imagine.
At age 15 Anderson was diagnosed with diabetes following a blood sugar high so severe, doctors were shocked he wasn’t comatose. The typical coming-of-age awkwardness was then made worse by finger pricks, insulin jabs and terrifying attacks of hypoglycemia.
The pain of adolescence rings true in many of Anderson’s tableaus, from his attempts at dating and fashion, to high school parties where booze and weed combine with blood sugar crashes to result in social disaster. Gay or straight, diabetic or not, we have all been there to some extent, wrestling with our identities, trying on new roles, getting it all wrong. But Anderson’s narrative is brushed over with a glossy coat of humor that is ultimately unconvincing. His endless jokes, most of them dependent on shock value rather than depth or nuance, operate as camouflage for his pain. It’s not that humor and pathos cannot co-exist – in fact, I think they are often both more effective when they do – but here the humor is used as a smokescreen to hide or at least mitigate the pathos, and as a result both are weakened.
Luckily, Sweet Tooth does have redeeming moments of graceful prose that reveal that Anderson is a stronger writer than he gives himself credit for.
His real talent comes through in a series of sub-stories, tucked neatly between each chapter, in italics and written in third person: He Loses Control, ten times. The distance of the third-person perspective allows Anderson to drop his guard and show us a picture of a kid struggling to figure out how to survive high school, relate to his parents, hold down a job, sleep with boys, and fall in love, all interrupted by hypoglycemic episodes that leave him either confused or convulsing. Each time that boy loses control we see with startling clarity how dangerous this disease is, how difficult it is to understand and manage, especially in the eighties when insulin delivery was even less precise than it is today.
Those interludes became, for me, the heart of the book. Written without self-pity, with a slight brush of humor but not a heavy hand, they let me into the heart of the diabetic life. The teenage Anderson is extra vulnerable, just at the time when he is meant to be gaining independence in the world. The extra complication of diabetes meant many things for Anderson: that he had to attend a special summer camp and miss out on a trip with his first big crush, that his parents worried more than the usual parent does already, that his friends had to learn the signs of blood sugar crashes and how to force food into him despite his hypoglycemic belligerence. It meant that he often felt like a burden to those who loved him, including the man who eventually becomes his lifelong partner, and that he would have to wrestle with the ensuing guilt and shame before taking real control of his life.
Most intriguing to me in this personal history was the parallel processes of adolescence, sexual awakening, and diagnosis. Anderson had to go through all three at once: the struggle to find his independence taking place alongside confusing sexual feelings, the loss of control of his body and the inability to live the carefree teenage life. At the same time that his body was having its first intense sexual reactions, it was also having its first experiences with a malfunctioning pancreas. As he came to acknowledge and accept his sexuality, he also came to accept his disease. Eventually, his sexuality led to a loving life partnership, while his disease became well-managed in adulthood.
So ultimately Sweet Tooth left me with sympathy mixed with frustration, the feeling that comes each time we see someone struggle with vulnerability and mask it in too many layers. Those layers might be made of make-up and plastic surgery, or they might be heavy-handed jokes about gay sex, but each time we often want to say: it’s okay, just let it go. If you’re going to write the memoir that reveals all your bruises, just let them shine.
Sweet Tooth is available on Amazon.