Drawing on original research from medical texts, psychiatric case histories, pioneering statistical surveys, first-person accounts, legal cases, sensationalist journalism, and legislative debates, Jennifer Terry has written a nuanced and textured history of how the century-old obsession with homosexuality is deeply tied to changing American anxieties about social and sexual order in the modern age.
Terry's overarching argument is compelling: that homosexuality served as a marker of the "abnormal" against which malleable, tenuous, and often contradictory concepts of the "normal" were defined. One of the few histories to take into consideration homosexuality in both women and men, Terry's work also stands out in its refusal to erase the agency of people classified as abnormal. She documents the myriad ways that gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities have coauthored, resisted, and transformed the most powerful and authoritative modern truths about sex. Proposing this history as a "useable past," "An American Obsession" is an indispensable contribution to the study of American cultural history.
An encyclopedic history of how the American medical and scientific communities' perceptions of homosexuality constructed it as "abnormal" rather than as part and parcel of "the normal." Terry (comparative studies/Ohio State) confesses in her Introduction to an obsessive personality which stimulated her throughout the writing of this mammoth tome, and it may well take a similarly addled reader to wade through this text, its 80 pages of endnotes, and its 40-page bibliography. Obsessions, however, are not always without their rewards, and the reader who can match the author in zealous devotion to the topic will be amply recompensed. Through historical analysis breathtaking in its sweep and scope, Terry fractures scientific claims of objectivity in analyses of homosexuality to uncover the ideological and cultural agendas implicit in such work. Moving from such late 19th-century sexologists as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis to 20th-century figures like Alfred Kinsey, Terry deflates the cultural baggage which these scientists brought to their studies with her pinpricks of common sense and rational discourse. In her considerations of medical texts, psychiatric case histories, legal cases, personal narratives, and journalistic accounts, Terry exposes with patience (and, at times, with resigned humor) the ways cultural bias infects the supposedly objective arena of science. The anecdotes commonly underscore the demonization of the gay individual and community, making Terry's work itself a testimony to the importance of contesting cultural narratives. Terry is no dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants but a giant herself, towering over the misperceptions of past medical dwarfs with their insidious visions of homosexuality. (Kirkus Reviews)