Was Mohamed Atta Gay?

My Son JohnMy friend Connor Kilpatrick just told me the incredible news that the Cold War classic My Son John is being released this summer on video.

I first learned about this film—which features Helen Hayes, an incredibly campy Robert Walker, and Van Heflin—in Nora Sayre’s fantastic book Running Time, which I also recommend.

I had pretty much forgotten about the movie. Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly rumors began to surface that Mohamed Atta was guy.

The whole thing was so reminiscent of the plot and premise of My Son John that I had to revisit the film and write about it for a piece I did in the New York Times Magazine.

It’s funny re-reading that piece now; you get a vague sense of the weird frenzy of paranoia and fear that set in immediately after 9/11.

So in honor of the film’s coming release, here’s a bit from thatTimes piece.

During the cold war, red-hunters loved digging in the dirt of radical lives, particularly when it yielded a juicy bit of gender trouble. Joe McCarthy called Dean Acheson — no Communist, but a confirmed Democrat — “the Red Dean of Fashion.” A psychological profile read by J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower explained, in hopeless bureaucratese, ”The tendency seems to be that in Communist marriages the wife is the more dominant partner.” Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party, was described as ”henpecked.” And then there were the Rosenbergs, perhaps the most confused couple since Samson and Delilah: ”Julius is the slave and his wife, Ethel, the master.”

But it took the Technicolor dream machine of Hollywood to really put the pink in the pinkos. In ”My Son John,” the urtext of sexualized McCarthyism, a limp-wristed Robert Walker camps his way through his scenes, cooing at his mother, played by Helen Hayes. Meanwhile, his father, an American Legionnaire, pummels whatever remnant masculinity the boy might have salvaged from his mother’s embrace. Eventually, Walker goes off to college and finds manly reprieve in the Communist Party. When Hayes confronts him about his tendencies, she suggests that if only he had played football like his brothers, her two ”fighting halfbacks” in Korea, he might have been spared this political perversion. Begging him to seek help from the F.B.I. — You listen to me, John, you’ve got to get in this game, and you’ve got to carry the ball yourself. . . . Take the ball, John!” — she launches a desperate final cheer: ”My son John. My-son-John. My son John!”


  1. mindweapon June 2, 2012 at 5:59 pm | #

    What does the movie “My Son John” have to do with Mohammed Atta’s sexual orientation?

    I think Dr. Rubinstein needs to adjust your meds, Corey.

  2. Mark Erickson June 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm | #

    Atta was gay (typo).

    FWIW, I didn’t get any weird frenzy of paranoia and fear from the piece.

  3. Glenn June 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm | #

    The revelations allegedly made by Bradly Manning are unexplainable by any examination of their context, and so must derive from his sexual orientation.

    Who could find the murder of innocents objectionable but a gay?

    Us straight guys eat children for breakfast; it puts spring in our step.

    What could be more wholesome than the smell of children roasting in napalm, or white phosphorus,Fallujah style, in the morning?

    I got the 9/11 frisson. Probably due to my ability to maintain long term memories. Hardly normal in this age dominated by untroubled, “beautiful minds”, Barbara Bush style.

  4. BillW June 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm | #

    These issues are losing their relevance for the younger crowd. I overheard a conversation yesterday between a cousin (freshman in college) and his girlfriend in which by way of discussion of Trekkies the name of George Takei came up. The gf said, “oh, the gay one!” and my cousin said why does anyone need to bother with his being gay in almost an offended tone (even though Takei is far better known among those too old to remember Star Trek reruns for his anti-homophobia activism).

    Interestingly, there’s an alternate twist to such homophobic labeling. There was a time when even someone like Thomas Mann could blame some of the deeds of Nazis on their “perversion”. This was a relatively common ploy among Germans for several decades after the war when something like Auschwitz could conveniently be blamed on Hitler’s repressed sexuality (or his physiognomy esp. the rumor of his “missing testicle”, or his vegetarianism, or teetotalism, etc., etc.). The neat thing about such a ‘Find Waldo’ approach to history is that it let everyone else off the hook.

    Movies such as Damned and Night Porter also explored the sexual aspects which were undoubtedly there, but the question is if they were as it were the operative factors. People like Dagmar Herzog have explored the issue and come up empty on the importance of the sexual side having any appreciable explanatory power.

  5. Frank Moraes June 4, 2012 at 11:06 pm | #

    Today, the New York Times reprinted Bosley Crowther’s 9 April 1952 review of *My Son, John*:


    I found it very interesting, because Crowther savages the film, especially its politics. So many Hollywood films today are hysterically pro-military (pro-spy, pro-American imperialism), and yet I almost never see any discussion of their politics. It is nice to see that such a thing once fit in the NYT, although I doubt they would have run Crowther’s review one or two years later.

    BTW: The film is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch. Leo McCarey was at times an okay director (An Affair to Remember, Duck Soup), but I think I’ll take a pass. I’m sure that “The Return of Don Camillo” would make for a more pleasant evening.

  6. SMW June 5, 2012 at 7:02 am | #

    I read the NY Times magazine piece. Since when do we have a “liberal democracy,” Corey? And is it so-called liberals who think in these terms?

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