Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Steven H. Lee's "Falling into Life: A Gay Exmormon's Journey"

Falling into life. Taking the plunge into the great unknown.

For a few weeks now, I've been wrestling with trying to write a review of this book. The problem is that I want to call it beautiful and inspiring -- it is -- but it's hard to write that about a book that describes so much pain. Consider this scene of a young boy and his mother:

One time, when she was particularly distraught, she went and got my dad's pistol, walked through the house with it so I could see it, and I panicked. I followed her to the garage where she got into her huge brown car, set the gun on the seat beside her, started the car and then she sat, staring ahead and banging on the steering wheel. She was enraged, and I thought she might break her arms, she was pounding on it so hard. I was standing in front of the car, crying and screaming for her to stop. After a few minutes, she put it in reverse, and backed out and away down the street.

I was sure that was the last time I'd see her; I sat there in the garage waiting for her to come home. Three hours later, the garage door opened, I ran to her and she got out of the car. She had almost a catatonic look about her. I kept repeating that I was sorry, and just as she went into the house she looked at me, and with a stone-colored face shouted, "Sorry doesn't matter!"

As background to Steve's life story, we meet a mom who repeatedly frightened her son threats of suicide, starting from when he was five years old. We also meet a dad who misused his pharmaceutical license to get the mom prescription drugs that he felt she needed to deal with her depression.

When I was a kid, we were the quintessential "Mormon family" from what everyone else could see. My mom had an immaculately clean home, everyone in the ward knew this, and she took pride in it. It also drove her crazy due to the fact that my dad eventually became bishop and that meant constant visitors to our house.

I'm sure that faithful Mormons reading this will protest that the family's problems can't be blamed on Mormonism. I'd agree, and I'd even say some people thrive in Mormonism. But in this case (like others where there's real abuse and/or mental illness) -- even if Mormonism doesn't cause the problem -- it certainly doesn't help.

Steve grew up with his parents' terrible example teaching him what marriage -- eternal, celestial marriage -- is supposed to be like. And he grew up learning that that's the whole point of life, as he saw in his brother's "Plan of Salvation" poster:

It gave a drawing for each step of this poor sap's earthly sojourn. But what was missing, what scared me, was noticing that from age twenty to age seventy he had nothing going on, literally. His "earthly life" flew by as if nothing of note even occurred. I translated this to mean that the bulk of our lives have no meaning, whatsoever. You are simply a drone. You work away your life until the good stuff comes.

As he grew up, Steve was horrified and ashamed to discover that he had homosexual tendencies. It's important to realize that this part of the story took place several decades ago, and things have changed a lot since then, even for Mormon teens. At the time, homosexuality was totally taboo, and Steve naturally believed the common Mormon wisdom of the time: that homosexuality was an addiction, caused by masturbation, but could be cured by faith and prayer. Because he hated himself, he learned to hide his authentic self even from himself.

As a side-note, the book gives an interesting account of how he was humiliated and treated like a leper in his Mormon ward -- even though he was doing what a righteous man "afflicted with SSA" was counseled to do (namely marry a woman, have a family, attend Evergreen, etc.).

The catalyst that changes it all is a stunning scene of the watching the tragedy of 9/11. There isn't a short pull quote to do the scene justice, but you can read it in the book's preview here.

After that, you see Steve learning how to love himself, how to be himself, how to love others, and live life. This life, now. The book is rich with metaphor, so even if you've never experienced anything like this, you can feel what it's like. It's a passionate, dramatic, sometimes funny, human story.

Note that the book has a number of humorous chapters mocking Mormon history and doctrine, and faithful Mormons probably won't find those parts funny. But I don't think the book is written for them. I'd recommend it to everyone else, though, especially if you're interested in getting some more perspective on the experiences of (generation-X) gay Mormon men.


Raytheist said...

thanks for this. I just went and ordered a copy. :-)

Andrew S said...

I got here based on the comparative sort of review on MSP...I had previously seen your review of the wife's tale, but...it's so interesting to see things from the other perspective.

Buffy said...

Thanks for the review--I have another book added to my "buy" pile.

I'm sure that faithful Mormons reading this will protest that the family's problems can't be blamed on Mormonism.

I don't know about that. All that pressure to look perfect, act perfect and be perfect. That takes at toll on people who simply cannot be perfect because they're human. Add in situations like under-treated or mis-treated depression (which some people consider a character flaw, and some religious people say you could "fix" if you'd only believe and pray harder) and it only gets worse. Of course being gay makes you hideously bad so the pressure from the Church and church peers has to be overwhelming...

simplifyinco said...

Thanks for the review, Carol! I really appreciate it!

Kiley said...

I will have to pick that up!