Loving a son, accepting his sexuality

June 20, 1994|By Renee Graham | Renee Graham,Boston Globe

Despite its subtitle, Robb Forman Dew's wistful book is less about her son's revelation of his homosexuality than about the mighty weight of parents' expectations. It is a touchingly written account of family members coming to terms with their son's sexuality, and also with their own unspoken prejudices, and the realities that peacefully lay some of their dreams to rest.

It is spring 1991 when, during the most casual of conversations with his mother, Stephen, then a Yale sophomore, comes out of the closet. Of course, when the revelatory words are spoken, Ms. Dew and her husband, Charles, express their love and exchange reassuring hugs with their son. "It doesn't make any difference to us. We love you no matter what," Ms. Dew tells her son.

There is no doubt of the sincerity; their love for their son is steadfast and real. But the suddenly opened door of Stephen's closet knocks his parents, especially his mother, off their feet. Like any proud parent, Ms. Dew had always viewed her sons as golden boys, heirs apparent of the world's treasures -- and heterosexual. Stephen is still attractive and bright, but he is now also gay, and his mother desperately tries to imagine what will happen next.

Yet for days after his announcement, Ms. Dew and her husband say little about it, to each other or to their son. Instead, their home becomes shrouded in a "paralysis of politeness," born of fears that an unchecked thought could cause hurt.

Still, for all this surface civility, Ms. Dew can find no peace within her family's suddenly altered landscape. She worries about Stephen's possible exposure to AIDS. She frets about how to break the news to her younger son, Jack. She laments the children Stephen may now never have. She fears the hidden but prevalent homophobia that may cost her family friends and allegiances.

"If our son were not damaged by the nature of his own sexual orientation, if we were not flawed by virtue of having a son who was gay, then why hadn't I ever heard mention of any other gay child or family of a gay child?" Ms. Dew writes. "If there was no context in any one of these communities for homosexuality, then it must, indeed, be a terrible and shameful thing. And yet, I knew that there was nothing -- nothing -- terrible or shameful about Stephen."

Ms. Dew and her husband even begin to avoid daily rituals that would mean running into friends and colleagues, people who might make innocuous inquiries into the well-being of their sons. Her husband shuns faculty lunches at Williams College, where he teaches, and Ms. Dew takes to grocery shopping at off-hours. "But now and then, I was caught in conversation, and it made me miserable to be trapped among the canned tomatoes and asked anything about my family," she writes.

Ms. Dew, who won the 1982 American Book Award for her first novel, "Dale Loves Sophie to Death," has a Southerner's gift for storytelling. She imbues moments with both pathos and charm, mentioning the odd thoughts that elicit nervous laughter in difficult situations.

Such a sad, funny moment comes when, during a family drive to Virginia for the graduation of their other son, Ms. Dew is shocked to learn that Stephen never liked the soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches his mother would put in his lunch for school. She would make the sandwiches months in advance, freeze them, then put them in his lunch box to defrost on the way to school. She is stunned, not only because her idea was unappreciated, but because she then believes five years of soggy sandwiches may have had a greater effect on her son.

She writes: "There's almost no end to the ways mothers can blame and martyr themselves. I was trying out a scenario in which coping with frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had made Stephen decide to give up women and become gay."

The process by which Ms. Dew and her husband come to terms with their son's sexuality -- as well as with the fact that his homosexuality is neither their fault nor a choice of Stephen's -- unwinds slowly. They begin to notice homophobic attitudes in unexpected places (teen movies, television shows) and among the usual suspects -- Pat Buchanan's hate fest at the 1992 Republican National Convention -- and come to realize it is society, and not their son, that must change. They can at last release their son from their expectations and begin to truly love him unconditionally.

"Children shouldn't be burdened with the responsibility for their parents' happiness," Ms. Dew writes. "And parents don't have the right to appropriate either the successes or the failures in the lives of their children. But it takes parents -- including me and Charles -- longer than it should to understand that."

BOOK REVIEW

L Title: "The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out"

Author: Robb Forman Dew

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Length, price: 229 pages, $22

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