What They Always Tell Us is entitled based on the remark “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you” and Alex remarks, “Yeah, that’s what they always tell us” (p. 70). Martin Wilson writes a story that appeals to older teens with siblings, or readers who may be facing the issues of sexuality or depression. It is ultimately a story of support between siblings in coming out.
The story is told with a quiet tone to mark the sadness and intensity of, and the contrast between, two brothers, James and Alex. The two brothers, growing up in Alabama, are night and day, James the extroverted high school senior, and Alex more withdrawn, introspective, and considerate. The brothers are initially close, but James begins to withdraw and avoid Alex after an incident at a party in which Alex drinks Pine-Sol in an apparent suicide attempt.
The undercurrent of the story revolves around Alex’s sexuality, which is indicated but not referred to directly at first, much like the subtly referenced gay longings of the character of Peter in William Sleator’s House of Stairs.
The first time the reader knows to whom Alex’s sexual attraction is directed is when Alex becomes very close with James’ friend Nathen. “Alex and Nathen are friends now, for sure. But it’s a different type of friendship. Or it feels like it is. It’s not like he and Nathen are hanging out drinking beers, or talking about girls, or even going to parties together” (p. 100). When the two are at the locker room of a sports club, Alex steals glances at Nathen’s body, while feeling insecure that he is not toned enough, his hips are too wide, and his butt is white and “too plump” (p. 105), all thoughts that are indicative of his sexual preference. This passage still leads one to wonder at times if he is merely idolizing Nathen, as Nathen is one consistent friend while others have stopped being Alex’s friends.
Alex and James’ parents regularly ask James if something is wrong with Alex or if it is just that “[m]aybe he’s going through the whole sullen teenager phase” (p. 31). When younger, Alex was able to maintain an affinity with his two friends Tyler and Kirk because neither of them had dated, either. This dynamic begins to unravel as the story progresses, and it intensifies his depression. Homosexuality is not overtly addressed at first. Alex does not want to go to church, and James does not attend any more either (p. 44). Alex’s interest in Nathen is returned when Nathen seamlessly and naturally nudges him into the same shower stall at the sports club and they begin kissing (p. 122). In short order, they are dating, and the jock clique that James is a part of immediately begins to notice that there is something going on between Nathen and Alex.
While the story is written in third-person, the chapters alternate which brother the perspective focuses on. The alteration of focus indicates that the sexuality awareness affects more than just one person and has some bearing on the brothers’ relationship. What looms larger is the guilt that James feels for not being able to help Alex or make him happy. This guilt expresses itself by a feeling of hostility James develops towards Alex for not being “normal” (as in not depressed). James immediately suspects that something is going on between Alex and Nathen, and the text implies that he knows it is a relationship, but his real discomfort comes from Nathen’s ability to make Alex happy and lift him up when James could not. Even with this jealousy rising up in him, his love for his brother prevails, and he defends Nathen when there are allegations of Nathen being a “fag” (p. 177). Eventually, Alex comes out to James because he cannot hide some of the taunting going on at school. In spite of the taunting, Alex is happy in his relationship with Nathen. James tells him “I know you’re happy. An I’m glad. I mean it” while patting him on the shoulder, and James sobs with relief because he feels he has finally been a good brother (p. 240).
What They Always Tell Us has a somewhat atypical coming out backdrop because it is almost exclusively in the context of the brotherly relationship. While there is one passage that insinuates their mother knows Alex is gay, this area of exploration is not pursued, perhaps because this will happen after James leaves for university the following year. This story is one of absolute support. James is, in fact, only able to give full support to Alex once Alex puts all of his previous troubles in context by sharing who he is.
Wilson, M. (2008). What they always tell us. New York: Delacorte Press.
Reviews of What They Always Tell Us, from Martin Wilson Writes.