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People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Christopher Capozzola:
Review of Peters, For You, Lili Marlene

Christopher Capozzola, Columbia University.

Review of Peters, Robert. For You, Lili Marlene: A Memoir of World War II. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. 107pp.

CLGH Newsletter 11: 2-3 (1997)

Memoirs have a bad reputation these days. Although they still top the bestseller lists, the tide in the book world has turned and publishers' advances have shrunk. In the academy, scholars have grown more critical, and now examine the social construction of memory in the written text rather than simply mining memoirs for historical evidence.

Despite these trends, however, Robert Peters' brief recollection of his World War 11 service demonstrates the continuing value of memoirs as evidence for gay and lesbian history. All too often, histories of gay and lesbian people during wartime have examined just two groups: the openly gay and the bureaucrats and physicians who encountered them. Well recorded-by Allan B6rub6, among many others-are the social networks gays and lesbians constructed and the debates among military policy makers. Lost are the silences that surrounded the experiences of many who would later identify themselves as gay; lost as well are the actions and experiences of those who would never so identify themselves.

The most striking feature of Peters' memoir is its careful record of ambiguity, ambivalence, and confusion. Peters describes his memoir in part as "the story of my struggle for self-knowledge" [xiii] and that knowledge is consistently fragmentary. There is no triumphant moment of coming out, no blissful consummation of romance, no menacing interrogations by officers. Instead we find brief moments of awareness, acquired through rumor, suggestion, hints, and hearsay. Furthermore, the meaning of these moments always remains cloudy. A fellow soldier dismissed from the army is fondly remembered, while a fantasy about another soldier brought denial: "I was not a homosexual!" [94] In fact, Peters passed up most of the opportunities for intimacy, and with it access to the social networks of gay men that other historians have described. Peters moved through his army years without ever acknowledging his sexuality or really even grappling with it. The moments of awareness add up to no clear "self-knowledge" (though how such a person could go to his junior prom with a boy in a dress and not know something was up remains a mystery).

This book claims to be a memoir not of sexuality, but of World War 11, and here Peters is somewhat less successful. The daily life of an army bureaucrat in a modern war, whose life is marked more by paper pushing than the terrors of combat, is well-depicted. But when Peters attempts to locate himself in the context of the war's major milestones, he stumbles. All the landmarks-Pearl Harbor, D-Day, surrender-are woven into the narrative, but usually awkwardly and with little more than superficial reflection.

The stories Peters tells-like the episodes in so many people's lives-are frequently left unfinished. While this is part and parcel of Peters' attempt to tell an ambiguous story, he sometimes does a disservice to his readers. In a brief epilogue, we learn that Peters faces some restlessness upon his return to Wisconsin, and that he marries, but he gives us no hints what kind of influence the events of his wartime years had on his later life, or more specifically his sexuality.

For historians, ultimately, Peters' memoir reminds us of the need to dig deeper in our search for sources, and the need for active encouragement of memoirs and oral histories of older gay and lesbian people. Robert Peters was never investigated, psychoanalyzed, or locked in the brig; his sexuality has left no mark on the written record save his recollections fifty years after the fact. Memoirs are fallible texts, as much the product of the time in which they are written as the time they record. But they remain invaluable sources as we attempt to describe the silence-and the moments of awareness-that Peters so eloquently evokes.


© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].

This text is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, November 1998

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 2 January 2020 [CV]