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.

Yay Sunstone!

It's too bad I can't go to the Sunstone Symposium this year -- so many cool people will be there! Just have a look at their nearly final program. Especially take a close look at page 40! :D

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


On my earlier post on wellness and woo, Eliza R. Snitch left a question that I think deserves a serious answer:

Acupuncture worked for me to get rid of terrible back pain. I'm a fan of alternative treatments. I don't really care if it's placebo-- whatever works, right?

I want to keep everyone guessing, so I'm going to have to say that that's a fairly reasonable solution in this particular case. To find out why, read this article.

In a nutshell, chronic pain (and back pain in particular) is something that's not as well-understood as other conditions. Some research indicates that retraining your brain's pain response is as effective as surgery or more.

Unlike prescription pharmaceuticals, surgical procedures aren't required to pass clinical trials to demonstrate that they're more effective than placebos. (It's not clear that it would be possible or ethical to give your control group sham surgery.) And just because surgery is doing something real, it doesn't mean it's necessarily doing something useful or relevant to your condition. The article explains how it's possible for a surgical procedure to become popular and widespread without ever really being proven effective.

For chronic back pain -- between acupuncture and disc fusion surgery -- here's the score: Acupuncture may be pure placebo effect or perhaps there's something about poking the skin that affects the pain response -- but either way, it's not going to do you any real harm. Disc fusion surgery is also not really demonstrated to help, but it carries a real risk of doing serious, permanent damage. So if you have chronic back pain that resists treatment, and you've decided you're going to try either acupuncture or surgery, the acupuncture may be the better choice. Of course physical therapy is probably a better choice than either of those two.

That said, in general there are serious ethical concerns and dangers associated with promoting "alternative" treatments which are fundamentally bogus. For a simple explanation, see this cartoon about Homeopathy and my new Rational Moms post about placebos.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Paris, it's good to be home!

A few weeks ago, I went to Paris to meet some friends. As I expected, as soon as I stepped into the streets of Paris -- and especially as soon as I got into the Metro -- I had an immediate sense of the familiar; like going home.

Now I've read a lot of people say that Paris is overrated, that the Métro smells, etc. The thing is that Paris can't help but get overrated -- it's one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Naturally, it must have a whole lot of people recommending it, yet, like all cities, Paris has its particular character and advantages, which won't appeal to everyone. And, voilà, you have a recipe for a lot of people wondering what all the hype is about. Then, once you visit a few more European cities, perhaps you'll find one whose flavor suits you better, and you can show your sophistication as a traveler by picking a less obvious city to recommend to your friends back home.

It's a little like the Eiffel Tower itself. I remember, as a kid, wondering why the Eiffel Tower is so famous. It's not impressively tall compared to modern buildings, and it's just a steel framework like some sort of antenna. I figured (correctly) that you must just have to be there. It turns out that it's actually kid of pretty for an antenna -- and it's cool that you can see it from all over Paris, and it's fun to go up and see it towering over a huge plaza and park.

Personally -- as a kid and young adult -- I was skeptical about all the francophile hype. I don't know much about art history (or European history in general), so a trip to Europe was never really high on my priority list until I started learning to speak French (as an adult, in grad school). Then, when I first got to Paris, I was pleasantly surprised by how convenient the public transportation was. I could wander on foot or by Métro in any direction and always stumble upon something interesting. I was also surprised to learn how different a city can look from the way all the cities look in the US. Plus, the culture just exotic enough to be charmingly fun without being truly disorienting.

My first trip to Paris was magical -- I wished I didn't have to leave. And, since then, I've been back there so many times, with family and friends. So what if the Métro smells? It's a familiar smell now, and all of the crazy corridors with their shiny white bricks and their ad-posters all in French are like home.

Naturally, it has become increasingly obvious that a big part of the magic of France for me has to do with the amount of effort I put into learning French. It affects how I feel about the place, about the people there, and about myself. So I've recently started listening to some German recordings that are a translation of a series I used when learning French so many years ago. No matter how silly the story or how cheesy the music, I like listening to it at night -- it relaxes me -- because (for me) it's the sounds of success.

During this past visit to Paris, I loved hanging out with my friends, and I always love visiting art museums with people who know a thing or two about art.

Yet, perversely, I didn't love how all of this English-speaking made me feel like an outsider, not really part of the city. (It's a little crazy, I know, but back at my hotel -- if anyone asked -- I was from Switzerland, and I was ready to make it convincing with a few phrases of German, if necessary.) Two of the friends I was visiting, though, speak good German, and they were very polite about letting me subject them to some of my terrible German. And, while wandering around, I was occasionally reminded of Zürich, and stuff I like there.

At the end, I got back on the train and settled into a good book. And as soon as the train pulled into Zürich Hauptbahnhof, I had an immediate sense of the familiar. There's the big clock whose design matches my watch, the familiar poster-ads in German, the kinetic light sculpture and the giant flying lady hanging from the ceiling of the great hall of the train station. Then I got on the tram and sat back and enjoyed the sights as it squeaked and squealed its way to my apartment. There, I hugged my husband and sons, and thought: It's good to be home!