Breaking Free cory allen book review
book review

Book Review: Breaking Free

BREAKING FREE: A saga of self-discovery by a gay secret service agent by Cory Allen is an illuminating, powerfully personal story where everything and nothing is secret.

Breaking Free

by Cory Allen

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / LGBTQ

ISBN: 9781953610621

Print Length: 226 pages

Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman

In this illuminating, powerfully personal story, everything and nothing is secret.

Cory Allen presents a multi-faceted look at his professional and private life in his memoir Breaking Free: A Saga of Self-Discovery by a Gay Secret Service Agent

He came out at age 26 in the mid-2000s. At 40, he began to write his memoir. In this intimate, thorough account, he reveals his perceptions of older male relatives who shaped his values and outlook on life, and he gives an honest assessment of a gay marriage that didn’t work out. He makes a probing effort to stay faithful to what he really wants in life and what he’s here to do.

His father left when he was two, and his mother had a string of relationships. One man seemed he might become a kind, involved stepfather, and the family moved with another man from Western Pennsylvania to Virginia, but neither stayed. Unfortunately, a physically abusive, drunken man moved in when Allen was nine and lived with them throughout his teenage years. Allen describes the abuse explicitly. He manages a positive outlook, saying that growing up with this man in the house inspired him to go into law enforcement.

On the other hand, he had many positive influences, like his maternal grandfather, whom he saw as “larger than life.” His grandfather often told stories about how his plane was shot down over Europe in 1943, after which he was hidden by the French for months, then captured by the Gestapo and forced to walk 800 miles until the British came to save him at the end of the war. He spoiled his grandkids with attention and treats and was also “my moral compass.” Allen’s nostalgia for this part of his childhood, woven with the abuse he endured as a teenager by another man, gives a comprehensive and complex picture. He tells us all this in an inviting, friendly,   conversational voice.

In 2001, he enlisted in the Virginia Air National Guard. That September, when the terrorist attacks occurred, he wasn’t yet far enough along in his training to be deployed to the Middle East, so he always “felt as though I hadn’t sacrificed like others I knew.” However, he did continue in a similar career, becoming a police officer.

In his mid-twenties, he realized he was gay. He immediately bought a home to live near a gay man he’d befriended (though that man still lived with his ex). Allen ended up marrying this neighbor in 2009, and they traveled to Boston to make it legal, as same-sex marriage wasn’t yet offered throughout the country. “We were the first gay couple we knew of to get married,” he recalls. Through his precise choice of detail, he confesses his ambivalence: “My vows were on a sheet of paper and Sampson’s was on his iPhone…I felt as though I should’ve been more ecstatic.”

In 2010, following a background check, physical fitness classes, and weapons training requirements, Allen joined the Secret Service: an elite, armed escort of thousands of agents devoted to the protection of the U.S. President and important people in his orbit. Working close to the President himself was considered a prestigious assignment that had to be earned. 

Allen, for his part, started the job in a Miami office. He tried to keep quiet about his sexuality and present a certain persona, cultivating “my prized six-pack of ab muscles” while having “bought into the idea that effeminate gay men were less acceptable than masculine gays,” but truly “there are no secrets in the Secret Service.” He was frustrated that his identity had been “an open secret from the top down” before he was hired. Nonetheless, it seems he felt he could manage the risk, as he was far from the only gay agent.

We can’t expect to hear much about the Secret Service job. It’s too secret. Allen includes a caveat at the beginning that he’s altered some details to protect certain people’s identities.

Instead, most of Breaking Free focuses on his marriage.He and his husband had differences about work and the family life they envisioned. “I had always known I wanted to be a father,” Allen says, but his husband didn’t fully share that life plan.They opened up their relationship sexually, enjoying vacations on cruise ships where they met men they wouldn’t necessarily see again. He narrates these escapades with some explicit detail. A decade later, Allen knew it was finally time to end his marriage when he had a totally new romantic and sexual feeling with another man: “His smooth skin felt electric against mine.”

This memoir challenges preconceptions one might have about gay men’s relationships and sexuality. In society generally, gay relationships are talked about less frequently and with less detail, so even for gay men themselves it can be hard to get accurate information. Some men do marry the first man they kiss. Some are family-oriented. Some are in long-lasting marriages. And none of this entails that a couple is sexually monogamous. Furthermore, though they may live in gay-friendly neighborhoods and have LGBTQ community, they may not know anyone else with relationships similar to their own. Breaking Free gives one man’s perspective and experience of coming out into his true, liberated self mostly during his personal time away from work, while making a significant effort to meet others like himself.

The memoir raises profound questions about how we become who we are, discover ourselves all at once and then gradually, and how we choose to pursue what we need, together or separately. Sometimes we see in the dark, and sometimes we wait for the sun to rise.

Allen tells us frankly what it was like for him to have a sexually open marriage. Such freedom had long-term benefits and drawbacks. Now at mid-life, he believes he knows more about what he wants. When you read a life story like this, one that illuminates sexual topics of the sort that casual acquaintances don’t usually talk about, it’s like putting on night-vision goggles: Everything and nothing is secret.

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