Brian Francis's nonfiction book Missed Connections explores body image, desire — and the price of secrecy
This interview originally aired on September 25, 2021.
Brian Francis is the author of the novels Fruit, Natural Order and Break in Case of Emergency. He is a writer and columnist for The Next Chapter on CBC Radio and lives in Toronto. His first novel, Fruit, was a finalist for Canada Reads 2009.
In 1992, Francis was a 21-year-old university student, gay but still in the closet. That year, he placed a personal ad in the newspaper: "Real cute university student, 21, seeks same." And now, from his perch in midlife, he answers some of the letters he received in reply.
His nonfiction book Missed Connections uses these letters as a starting point to reflect on everything that has changed for him as a gay man, exploring the price of secrecy and the courage it takes to be unapologetically yourself.
He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Missed Connections.
Looking back at old letters
"The truth behind the story is that I was home one day from work and I was going through some old boxes. I had saved these 13 letters that had responded to my ad. But I had never responded back to these people.
"I don't know why I saved the letters. Maybe it was some sort of artifact from a chapter in my life. Maybe I felt bad throwing them out. So on this day, I sat down and re-read the letters again and I thought, 'Well, how would I answer these letters now at this stage in my life?'
What would I say to my younger self? What were the things that he needed to hear at that time in his life?
"Certainly not a spry 21-year-old, but a decidedly more wrinkled 50-year-old at the midpoint of my life. What would I have to say to these respondents about my own life in the almost 30 years that had passed since I received their letters?
"But also, what would I say to my younger self? What were the things that he needed to hear at that time in his life?"
The authentic self
"I was looking for a connection, which is where the title of the book comes from. In a lot of ways, I had been in the closet up until that time.
"I was struggling to accept myself. I was looking for someone to know the real me. I don't think I'd ever had that experience before. I'd always been sort of hiding from the world, being gay and being in the closet. I reached a point where I started to come out and I think I was looking for love.
I was struggling to accept myself, and I was looking for someone to know the real me.
"Well, that's what I told myself at the time. But I think I was just looking to have an adventure to meet people that I had never met before. At the heart of it all was me trying to find a connection with people. I hadn't felt that connection in terms of who I was at my most authentic self for my entire life."
"Sadly enough, the personal-ad experiment did not go according to plan. I met a lot of nice people, certainly made some connections with them, but there was no love connection as a result of placing those personal ads. Sadly, $65 went down the tubes.
"I probably had some idealized version of what 'seeks same' meant to me at the time. It was obviously somewhat around my own age or someone that I could again find that connection with. It's such a loaded term because you are closing yourself off to a lot of people who may not be the same as you.
I probably had some idealized version of what 'seeks same' meant to me at the time.
"But at the time, what I really meant was to seek the same in terms of another male. That was something that I had never sort of come forward with and said that I was seeking someone of the same sex."
Brian Francis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.