H. Wayne Schow
Letters to Brad
[p. 77]In January 1979, when Brad left home for the University of Utah, we began corresponding. That June he revealed his sexual identity to his mother and me. In the early fall he moved from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, where he lived for a little more than three years. He then spent several months in Hawaii.
The distances that separated us during those four years were in some ways a metaphor for the distance in our relationship. Though there was no definitive break between him and us, his move away from conformity, his search for new values, and his decision to embrace his sexual orientation softened the ground that separated us, made it boggy and difficult to negotiate. He needed space in which to work out his self-definition. We recognized that. He felt stiff with us, not surprisingly since our resistance was unmistakable; we were diffident about intruding when it might be unwelcome, when it might be misunderstood. There was, I am convinced, a desire on both his part and ours to overcome this strain, to get comfortable with one another again, but it was more easily desired than accomplished.
One result of this was that our contacts with him were less frequent than I might have wished. He came home once or twice a year, and we visited him in Los Angeles twice. The telephone was our easiest means of connection, probably once every three or four [p. 78]weeks. He wrote fewer letters than we did, but we did not overburden the postman.
As it turned out, Brad saved the letters we wrote him during those four years. They were left among his few belongings when he died. Most of my letters to him were follow-ups to telephone conversations, my attempts to give a more enduring, and therefore a potentially more influential, form to my arguments about values. That he saved these letters tells me something, though I know his ties to the past were becoming less relevant at the time.
I have recently reread them. They reveal a great deal about family tensions of the period, about issues that concerned us, about ideological jockeying for position on his part and mine as he went about the business of attempting to create an authentic self and as I tried to exert a father’s influence on that process according to my agenda.
I reread them now with considerable ambivalence. They reinvoke for me the sense that Brad was attempting to navigate treacherous waters and that I needed to share my experience with him. At the same time I am chagrined to recognize the limits of what I then knew outside the boundaries of liberal religious orthodoxy. I confess that as a result my advice was sometimes flawed. I acknowledge that my good intentions were not always helpful.
Both Brad and I in some ways assumed I knew more than I did. He wanted to trust his own experience where it contradicted my advice, but he was intimidated by the veneer of sophistication in which my opinions were packaged. I failed to recognize that the world offers a wider range of legitimate personal possibilities than I had grasped, and that I too was involved in a process of broadening my philosophy.
And yet that is not wholly accurate either. For there is some evidence in the letters that on one level at least I did acknowledge my need to participate in a genuine dialogue. Over and over I declared to him my intent to approach him as an open-minded friend. Because I cared for him I would willingly hear and weigh his truth. I think I was sincere in these expressions. But both of us [p. 79]had a hard time forgetting the built-in power distribution in our father-son relationship.
I realize now that these letters are problematic texts. They demonstrate the contradictions inherent in the prison house of language through which we attempt to understand the experience of others and ourselves. On the surface they contain a father’s well-meant counsel, the best advice he was able to give at the time. But they are filled with subtexts that run counter to the explicit statements.
These contradictions—indicative of complexity in the situation and the relationship—can be decoded by a careful reader. For example, the text states repeatedly: “I am not now a domineering father, I am your friend; I don’t want to make authoritarian negative judgments about your experience.” Subtext: “Nevertheless, I have much more experience than you, I am demonstrating that by what I write, and here is what I think you should be thinking and doing.” The text reads: “If you must be homosexually active, find a worthy long-term companion and be monogamous.” Subtext: “I don’t even like the thought of your living with another man, and therefore I’ll not be available to meet your lover, not here nor in L.A., not now and likely not in the future.” And again, the text reads: “I want to accept you as you really are.” Subtext: “You’d better be prepared to prove that identity. Moreover, your asserted sexual orientation is so repugnant to me that I can hardly bring myself to say the ‘H’ word; thus my written style is characterized by all sorts of delicate verbal avoidance and indirection.”
Such subtexts weren’t there by conscious intention. But I see them now, and I am convinced Brad recognized them at the time.
I try to give myself the benefit of the doubt. I remind myself that I cared very much about what was happening in Brad’s life—not altogether selfishly–and that I wrote letters with his best interests in mind. Nevertheless, as I reread them, I keep hearing echoes of Shakespeare’s Polonius, Laertes’s pontifical father. Besides serving up a generous portion of platitudes, my advice was at times simply [p. 80]wrongheaded. For example, when I said things like “This step has, inevitably, enormous consequences for your future life,” it sounds like a philosophy of fear. I should have lightened up a little. That might have helped him to do the same and to see his life as a natural process of trial, error, correction, growth; it might have helped him look more optimistically at his future possibilities. Instead, with my gravity I weighted him down.
Not the least Polonian aspect of my stance was the sense that he was racing ahead of me in his development, that I was trying desperately to catch up and influence what had already occurred. And weren’t my attempts at diplomacy too transparent and condescending? And didn’t he know that? I did so much want to be his friend, but did I instead rob him of self-confidence?
What I present here are excerpts from the letters, specifically those parts that bear on Brad’s situation and our dialogue about values. I omit informal small talk, family developments, local news and weather, comments on books, films, politics, etc. Although their omission makes the letters seem more formal, such matters are not germane here.
* * *
17 February 1979
We were glad to get your last letter. As your mother read it to me on the phone, I smiled at your poetic description of your butterfly-chasing propensities and said to myself once more: “Yes, he is undoubtedly a romantic.” In Lord Jim, Stein, an old Dutch trader in the Far East, says the same thing about Jim—and he was right. Sometime you will have to read that book.
Romantic temperament has its positive dimensions; it is idealistic, rebellious, individualistic, intense, glamorously impractical, emotional. It has also its disadvantages: egocentrism, constant [p. 81]unrest, unpredictability, disregard of objective realities. The romantic is a paradox: he is both superior and limited.
I know something about this temperament because I have a bit of it in myself, though I cover it from others’ notice pretty well. This strain of my personality was stronger when I was your age. On the other hand, of course, I have a good deal of the practical “mensch” in me, the side you are more familiar with—the rational, even-keeled, cool-headed part of me.
So do you. You are not a pure romantic but a mixture. It is useful to recognize that. The trick for people “like us” is to acknowledge both sides of our dual natures, and to maximize the advantages of both while minimizing their disadvantages. To do this is to move away from extreme romantic behavior, of course; it is also to forego cold, unimaginative pragmatism. One needs to avoid the roller coaster ride between extremes, keeping some practicality, some self-discipline while also nourishing a certain amount of idealism, intense feeling, sensitivity, and healthy individualism.
I didn’t mean for this to sound like a lecture or even heavy advice. And in calling you a romantic I intended to pay a compliment. These facts about my life may give you some familial perspective on your own. So look out the window at your butterflies, admire their beauty, chase them on Saturday afternoon for the fun of it. But for the rest of the time, keep focused on your practical affairs. Interestingly, romantic goals can sometimes be realized–but if that happens it is usually because the person pursued the dream by means of disciplined strategies. A nice paradox, eh! …
Stay well, stay productive, stay happy. Dad
* * *
Sunday, June 24, 1979
My Dear Son,
Though I said that your declaration did not come as a com-[p. 82]plete surprise to us, still we both find that after all we are not, were not, emotionally prepared. You must understand that this requires a radical reorientation of thought about many things, for it is inevitably, inextricably tied to so much—in the past, the present, and obviously the future. This awareness has been with you for some years now, and it has taken you this long to come to your present vantage point. You must be understanding, then, if we require some time to come to terms with a phenomenon we do not entirely understand, especially since it involves the renunciation (quite possibly) of some of our fondest hopes. I say this at the outset because it seems to me that we did not measure up to your hopes of us as you declared your situation. You wanted, clearly, that we should understand the matter in all its complexity as you presently do, that we should accept what you now consider to be your course, that we should not cling to the possibility of other explanations, of the possibility of a future change given further experience. You wanted us not to urge our old values and our doubts on you, for that only makes things harder for you. Isn’t that so? Perhaps you went away questioning, if not our love for you, at least our intelligence, wondering if we lacked the courage to face facts, wondering if after all we don’t still mean to exert our subtle tyranny over you.
I am sorry that we could not, after all, entertain your friend. To have done so would have reassured you and been demonstration of marvelous broadmindedness on our part. But surely in retrospect you can see that was expecting too much too fast. It is one thing to bring us to a confrontation of the likelihood of your homosexuality; it is yet another big step to ask us to evaluate a man whom you are considering as a lifelong companion. You see, don’t you, how very, very difficult that would be to handle with equanimity in the space of forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, I would like so much to feel that you went away from us strengthened rather than frustrated, and I’m afraid that was not the case.
You may be wondering at this point if, after all, it was the best thing to have told us. Well, do not have any second thoughts on [p. 83]that—it was best that we should know. If there is pain involved for us, certainly there has been pain for you for a long time—and will probably continue to be in some degree. If love between us means anything, to me it means sharing this fact together. Our lives are bound together in ways which cannot be undone, and if our relationship is to have real meaning, it must not flinch from such a test. To be in a family implies ideally that we support each other in the best way we can (perhaps even by resisting), and that cannot happen in ignorance.
As you know, I read the long letter-essay that originated at BYU [i.e., Prologue], and your mother is well along in her reading of it. I have also done a little reading at the university library and plan to do more. At this point it seems that no one pretends to have full knowledge of the phenomenon of homosexuality and its causes. But I did see several books (recent studies) which say there is a continuum in sexual responses, that the disposition of people is not into two wholly separate camps, that bisexuality is possible, with varying degrees of commitment to either side, etc. At this point I assume that you feel sure of where you stand on this continuum, but I am not confident that you have certain knowledge of all your options or your emotional and sexual possibilities. You will say, do say, that your experience with girls to now has convinced you that your basic inclination is not toward them: I would argue the possibility, at least, that your teenage experience did not adequately, fairly test your sexual compatibility with women. How much sexual experience with girls did you have, after all? You always complained that they hadn’t enough intellect—but then how many of your male teenage friends did you find intellectually stimulating? It is probably too soon to conclude reasonably that females cannot provide adequate intellectual stimulation for you—there are very bright ones around, in fact.
Perhaps, as the BYU letter writer argues, one does not choose his sexual proclivity; still how to respond to it as a given does involve some choices. Yesterday in Soda Springs I observed a [p. 84]young woman with her child, and it reminded me powerfully of what a pleasure it was to be very close to your mother as you and the other boys were prenatally formed, as you were born, and as you grew up with us. Pleasure is not an adequate word—it was to observe something very beautiful at close hand, intimately. It was to have a modest part in a wonderful creative process, to know through that cumulative experience perhaps the truest joy of my life. It is very sad for me to think of your missing that, particularly if you need not miss it.
But, you will say, “You are trying to impose your values on me, you aren’t willing to grant me freely the right to choose my own course. Furthermore, I don’t want the hassle and responsibility of children.” OK. But do you really know your own mind on these points just now? Many young men don’t. I’ll give you a specific case, Harry Donaghy, who as you know was a priest until past thirty when he decided that he very much wanted children, a family. And now the delight he takes in Nora and Marty is clearly visible whenever he is around them. Don’t put such experience out of reach prematurely. It is still too early. You are in college, a period when one is bombarded with new and heady doctrines, philosophies, ideas. So many persons have vacillated hither and thither in the midst of this stimulating growing experience, only to see certain old values gradually reemerge in their lives and thought. “But,” you will say, “my sexual inclination has long been clear.” And I say—perhaps. But can you just now absolutely know where determined sexuality ends and other social, intellectual sympathies begin—or vice versa? When I spoke the other day of homosexuality being a kind of religion for you at this point, perhaps I was not kind. Still you seemed to agree. If that is so, it suggests that you may in fact be dealing with a preference which is more intellectual-psychological (and thus changeable) than psychological-genetic. May, I say, for I do not know. My question is still, do you know absolutely? Probably not. Wouldn’t it be wise then to be cautious?
I am proud of you for many of the things you said in our [p. 85]two talks during your visit—that you are determined at all costs to avoid promiscuity, a homosexuality that has its raison d’etre in superficial sensuality, that you are preparing yourself to be a real contributor in an enduring relationship, that you are committed to proceeding very carefully and very slowly. I pray you will not waver in that resolve. In a situation such as you find yourself in, where the risks are even greater than in the process leading to heterosexual marriage, and especially when your own goals and desires may be less than fully clear, a chaste homosexuality would still be the wisest possible course. A friend of the type who could be a fine long-term companion will be willing to wait until you have had sufficient time to be sure. “How long must I wait, Dad?” you said, and perhaps not very kindly I replied: “Until thirty.” Well, there is no magic number, but you can afford a couple more years at least of intelligent “cruising” among both sexes. Give each side its day in court; you haven’t done so yet, though I think you’ve tried. But teenage experience is not a sufficient trial. You have so much more to offer now, and so does a potential female partner. “I don’t plan to date,” you say. OK, don’t date. But do you date homosexual friends? Do see females who are intellectually stimulating to you, explore your common interests and share some good times with them. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even come to want to date.
When you left and I said we’d be praying for you, you said that was irrelevant but to go ahead if we derived any comfort from it, words to that effect. I don’t think you understood me quite. We will not pray that you be necessarily “changed,” but that light and understanding and strength and courage will be yours (and ours) and that you may find a way to a happy and rewarding future. I don’t pray too much in conventional ways, but I believe that the world is permeated by divine spirit and that we can put ourselves into harmony with it. I believe that others through faith and seeking can influence our lives positively in this way. If I were you, I’d look for some of that divine guidance on my own, and I would not [p. 86]discount the value of the sincere prayers of others on my behalf. Let us hear from you.
Your loving father
* * *
13 July 1979
It was good to speak with you the other night. I’m glad you called us back. It goes without saying, I suppose, that you have been in our thoughts almost continuously since you were home. On the more mundane level we have been wondering about whether you would find adequate apartment and job; more significantly we review over and over what you told us, trying to interpret it, trying to gauge its implications for the present and the future. Personally, I can come to no settled state of mind about it, my assessment vacillating from day to day. Of one thing, however, I do feel convinced, that it would be a mistake for you on the basis of your present position to conclude confidently that your future must necessarily deviate from the more conventional patterns of sexual relationship. Of one other thing I am sure, that your mother and I want to be as supportive as we can, helpful, understanding, loving friends who desire only your present and future happiness, friends who will respect your individuality while at the same time holding up a mirror to some things which you may not see. I am hopeful that we can talk again about these matters—if you wish to. But I will try to avoid intrusion if it is unwelcome.
You will see that I have included a book for you [Surprised by Joy]. I know that you have admired some things by C. S. Lewis, and I find that he can always be read with profit. This spiritual autobiography is one I have just discovered and appreciated. So many of Lewis’s youthful sympathies and experiences reminded me of yours that I felt you would enjoy a kindred spirit’s account. You will see, among other things, that he values greatly intellectual male friend-[p. 87]ships, that he too has found relatively few very close friends. I will be interested to learn what you think of the book …
* * *
4 February 1980
… Apropos of the moral vision in Garp [by John Irving], I’m not particularly impressed. It is more defensive than positive or affirmative. It is a response to the gothic and grotesque elements in life; and while the grotesque and the gothic certainly exist, one needn’t allow them to dictate the terms of one’s existence. Acts do acquire moral significance by virtue of the human dimension in them, but that doesn’t need to mean total relativism or arbitrariness. I reject a morality where one chooses anything he wants and justifies it as OK. If some religions have been narrow in their moral creeds, that is no argument in favor of an equally untenable chaos. Rather, the discovery of narrowness should impel one to pursue a holistic view of morality, one that seeks to perceive all the subtle implications of a moral choice and to act responsibly in accordance with that broad, intelligent perception. The moral philosophy of Jesus Christ, as I perceive it, is not narrow but rather encourages the fullest, most sensitive response from us. To see it as restrictive in a negative sense is to have bought someone else’s bill of goods, not Jesus’s. I’m not sure I understand in what it is you have felt cheated, but I can’t believe that real Christianity, real Christian ethics are responsible.
Nor do I quite agree that all religious systems are intended to hold man in subjectivity, ensuring their survival by instilling in him the need for what they proclaim (isn’t that the essence of your statement?). They may, of course, degenerate to that. But man’s need for morality is part of his nature, I think, necessary for his spiritual well-being. Consider the analogy of weightlessness in [p. 88]space: it may be a lark for a while, but before too long one yearns for something firm to push against. Only within a physical environment where something solid exists to thrust against can one’s action be decisive, effective, meaningful. Similarly, we need—each of us—the equivalent in the moral-ethical realm, something to push against, and so it is in our nature to seek moral certainties, firm places. I believe they exist, but we must find them with holistic, responsible vision.
Well, this is too complicated a topic to be handled in a single page, but I did feel inclined to respond to your brief comments—which I may not have understood. Wish we could have a long relaxed talk about this … .
* * *
22 May 1980
… And how are things with you, my friend? Your change of address and change of roommate come as a bit of a surprise and naturally leave us with many questions. What happened with Jon? What kind of person is your new roommate? What is the nature of your relationship with him? And, of course, all of the questions which bear on evaluating your situation at present. You have obviously come to the end of a chapter, one that must inevitably have enormous consequences for your life. I am wondering if you would not be wise at this point to give yourself a breathing space before you embark on another intimate homosexual relationship, time to get some perspective on where you are and where you want to be going. Obviously, I am hoping that the new roommate is not more to you than a friend and someone to share expenses. More than that would be unseemly haste.
Even as I write this, I am conscious that once again I may be intruding as a heavy parent, trying to exert a dominating influence. [p. 89]Well, I don’t want that, don’t want to deprive you of the right to live your life. But I feel that I want to be your friend. I hope you’ll regard my comments as indicating the best kind of interest, concern, and love rather than as intrusive and insensitive meddling.
Perhaps a homosexual life is what you will finally opt for, in spite of its difficulties. But in my mind at least, there is still some possibility that you could find a satisfying heterosexual life. (Have you seriously considered counseling?) And I am still convinced that in the world of real relationships, your chances of achieving a stable, happy, productive life will be far greater if you can find a female companion and are willing to help make a good marriage. There is much to be said for having some degree of stability in your life. A series of twelve-month, or short-term, relationships will keep you off-stride unceasingly, unable to settle down. There is just too much biologically and socially that militates against happy long-term male homosexual relationships.
At this point you have not gone too far to turn back. You have tried the homosexual life and you have lived in the homosexual ambience. Undoubtedly you will say you learned from it—but that is quite possibly because you had to make sacrifices and compromises in living with another person, not because of the homosexual dimension per se. Do you see what I mean? You have time to be patient. You’ve opened one present before Christmas: now settle back and don’t be in a big hurry. You might just decide you want to look for the presents under a different kind of tree. As Conrad points out in Heart of Darkness, many men get smashed on the rocks because they are not capable of restraint. Whatever your choice may be eventually, you’d do well to cultivate restraint just now.
As for the uncertainty about getting back into school, I don’t know how to read that. Is it that your private life is unstable and so emotionally absorbing that you can’t concentrate? Is it just that you don’t have a certain career goal? Is it that you can’t handle the financial problems associated with getting back into school? Per-[p. 90]haps you just don’t care about “formal learning.” But lack of restraint and stability may have some bearing on the matter.
Brad, you and I both know that you have a keen mind, one that can benefit from more rigorous mental discipline. A good liberal arts education continued on the present foundation will be ever so valuable to you, aside from the question of careers. Maybe you’ll end up wanting more than just four years, but at least when you get that B.A. you won’t have to hesitate about searching for, applying for jobs that have a future, because not only will you have a better trained mind, you’ll have a recognized credential. So why wait to get on with it? Set your goal, then if there are obstructions, find ways to get around them. As for being a waiter, that’s OK if it’s a means to an end, like getting ahead so you can go to college again. But not just so you can work less. Work more! Get two jobs if necessary! It will do wonders toward relieving ennui, and it will make you positively glad to get back to school.
Well, this may give you something to grind your teeth about—or to think about. Whatever your reaction, these thoughts are at least well-intended on my part … .
* * *
Sunday, 24 August 1980
… Ron and I had some good talks while we were hiking, about God and our relation to Him, about goals for middle-aged types like us; and we talked some about you. Ron seems to be quite openminded about homosexuality, that is, he is convinced that it isn’t well understood, that the jury is still out on some aspects of it. Certainly he feels that many people are unchristian in their response to homosexuals. I think he doesn’t consider it the best way to go if one has any choice in the matter, but he acknowledges the possibility that one may not. His concern for you just now was that you [p. 91]may be in an environment that is not desirable in terms of your total development. He raised the question of the kind of friends you may have, not necessarily whether they are homo- or heterosexual, but what kind of values they may have otherwise in the larger scheme of things. It was an interesting question for someone like me who is greatly interested in your happiness and welfare. It causes me to think of those areas that Socrates spoke of as essential in our lives—the good, the true, and the beautiful. Or call them ethics, knowledge, and aesthetics, if you will. I think you should reflect on the implications of these facets in your life, particularly consider the tension that exists between the ethical and the aesthetic. I think the richest life comes as a result of keeping these in an appropriate balance, and I think if there is a tendency in your life just now, it would be to be vulnerable to the aesthetic life, to the exclusion of the ethical. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean to suggest that you are hedonistic or lacking in principles, etc., but you are certainly living in an environment which leans very heavily toward the aesthetic orientation. I am speaking not particularly of the gay community, about which I am not well informed (though I know that many in that subculture are primarily aesthetically oriented) but about the kind of attitudes that are widely prevalent in the free lifestyles of southern California. I can’t develop this very satisfactorily in a one-sided letter conversation, but it’s something for you to think about. How are your friends and acquaintances oriented? What really matters to them? Are they the kind who will stick with you when things go a little awry? Are they durable? What do they stand for in terms of building and preserving culture? Do their basic values square with yours? This is not the heavy father but the friendly, loving father speaking to a son whom he very much respects. Perhaps sometime in the near future we’ll have an opportunity to talk of these things in person, and if you are interested I can refer you to Matthew Arnold, Thomas Mann, Thomas Carlyle, Plato, and others who were interested too in these matters … .
[p. 92]P.S. I do need to know what you want done with your church membership records. Can’t you send the name of your friendly neighborhood ward? Then you can establish whatever kind of relationship or nonrelationship with them you wish. If it is a problem for you, it is nonetheless one for which you should take the responsibility.
* * *
26 October 1980
Well, it’s been a week since you interrupted with your most welcome phone call just as I wrote the date on this page … . Again, thanks for the letter you wrote us. I delight in your awakened interest in the many facets of life around you and in their interrelationship. That your experience in L.A. has stimulated your desire to learn, to gain basic practical knowledge is all to the good. Remember that completing your college education is only a part of the process. Much of what you want to learn can be (and ought to be) learned informally through private reading and discussion and activity. You mentioned having fallen into the habit of sleeping excessively. That doesn’t sound consistent with the thirst for growth you described in your letter. I expect it was temporary, but you could use 2 or 3 or 4 extra hours daily to very good advantage. The things you want to accomplish are worthy, but they require some organization and some discipline. Read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. We can all learn something from him in that respect.
I was interested in what you wrote about ethics and moral obligation. That is a very complex and important subject. One can’t be fully human without having worked out some kind of ethical position. Certainly there are differences of opinion about what ethical behavior involves, and it would be surprising if you and I or anyone were to agree on every particular of what is moral and ethical. Thus I understand what you mean, I think, when you [p. 93]wonder if my ethics is entirely relevant in your situation. But at the same time there is a bedrock of ethical principles on which I hope you and I agree, including the following: the golden rule, honesty and fairness in dealing with others, respect for others’ rights, respect for life, willingness to contribute one’s share to the common good, etc. If your evolving ethical philosophy doesn’t embrace these, then I’m concerned for you. But I feel pretty confident that regardless of our differing experience, we’ll continue to accept these basics. I would enjoy some extended discussion of this subject with you when we can (indeed, it’s a subject I enjoy discussing with just about anyone) … .
Much love, Dad
* * *
9 April 1981
There is a lull in the action at this State Board meeting which will give me time to write a few thoughts to you. We were glad to talk with you the other evening, though I must confess that the substance of your call, that is, your decision not to continue with school, came as a considerable surprise to me. I believe it was that element of surprise more than anything else that left me somewhat vague in my response. “The readiness is all,” says Hamlet at one point, and it seems that what you were trying to tell us is just that the moment is not ripe for you to be at the university now. No one is more convinced than I that pursuing a course at the university is frustrating and almost pointless if you are doing so without enthusiasm, if your heart isn’t in it, if the work seems unrelated to your life or your future goals. You can only force it to a certain degree; beyond that it doesn’t work. I have seen more than a few students in just your state of mind—and have seen the difference in them and their work when they returned after a few years with an honest motivation originating in their own desires, not in family or social [p. 94]expectation. I know too, of course, that many able, determined individuals have succeeded in life—professionally and personally—without a college degree; a degree is not a sine qua non. When one reads John Henry Newman’s classic treatise, The Idea of a University, a liberal arts education seems like a highly broadening, tempering experience; unfortunately many college degree recipients don’t have that kind of education anyway—they just get practical training—and job training in some kinds of work you can get elsewhere.
You are the one most in touch with your life, your goals. And you have time (I remember that my own college experience occurred largely after I was married—ages 23-26, 28-32). So don’t feel pressured to do what is not “ready.” I suspect sometime in the future you’ll feel an inner urge to do some more college work. When that happens, if it does—and it might be twenty years from now—you’ll find satisfaction in it along with the hard, sometimes frustrating work. But please don’t ever feel you have to do it for the people you know in Idaho. If you never go back and you are happy with the results of that decision, it is certainly all right by me.
Parents try to advise their offspring in terms of choosing paths that are in general most likely to lead to satisfying outcomes. But what is good in general may not be good specifically. You are now an adult and able to make good decisions for yourself. Perhaps it will be for you as it is for some, you’ll bounce around, progressing by trial and error rather than moving straight towards your goal. Well, such learning is part of life. College learning can be very good for some people, it can have good effects—in general. But it is only in the general sense that we encouraged you along those lines. I’m sure you see what I mean. I really hope you know that “my goal” for you (a misleading phrase) is not that you should be made in my image. And I hope you know that I have confidence in your ability to plan intelligently for your future. After all, it is yours to plan and live.
I was sorry to learn how you feel about coming home. I hope it [p. 95]is not because you feel you have to defend your life against criticism from us. And I hope you know that our love for you and our concern for you are not conditioned by or qualified by “where” you are now. Maybe the problem is that you feel some ambivalence in yourself between the old life here and your new life in California—and coming home is apt to stir up that tension. If that is the difficulty, I guess you’ll just have to resolve it yourself, and that may take some time. Years perhaps? I hope we won’t have to wait that long to see you. In any case, I hope your problem with coming home is not due to your not being able to respect and appreciate any longer our values and the way of life here.
April 20: Have just read the paragraph above and have a different thought about it: relax about the coming home business. Don’t make a bigger deal of it than it deserves. If you expect trauma, the expectation will probably be self-fulfilling. Accentuate the positive, as the song says … .
We think of you often and send our love. Dad
* * *
12 July 1981
… Apropos of my trip to L.A., I still have extremely positive feelings about it. You were a very fine host/guide, and I enjoyed simply everything we did and saw. But most of all I was glad to revitalize our relationship as close friends. I am glad to have learned some of the things you taught me; I sincerely feel that my perspective was broadened by several degrees—and in more ways than one. I would be glad if you were to feel similarly benefitted by our dialogue, which I found challenging and enjoyable. I had begun to forget how much we have in common aesthetically and intellectually.
It is exciting to see someone (like you) intensely engaged in the business of self-discovery, self-definition. Though it is a strug-[p. 96]gle at times, the kind of conscious quest you are involved in can be—on the whole—so rewarding. I came home convinced that you are making good progress in your effort to find authenticity. I found you developing your sensitivities on many fronts, and I rejoice to find that you are cultivating your ethical sensibilities as much as anything else. I want you to know that I do believe in you, that I have faith in your ability to find authenticity and a meaningful future, that I am proud of you. You have great challenges ahead of you, and though you are taking some risks, I think you will manage to stay in control. But I do not think anyone is invulnerable. It does not seem smart to me to prolong risk-taking indefinitely when the learning or benefits involved begin to decline.
I was much impressed with what you had to say about mind/mental control of one’s life, relationships, health, etc. I believe you are right in asserting that a person can have enormous influence on his own “destiny,” his own course of development. One of the reasons I believe strongly in your future is that you believe in it and are determined to make it fruitful. You are facing a number of practical problems—financial and social—and you must make important education and career choices. Regard these not as obstacles but as opportunities. I am confident you can find solutions and can handle the occasional frustrations that go along with choosing not-the-easiest path … .
Apropos of your coming home for a visit: I still think it is important that you do it this summer, and I trust you remain of a similar persuasion. One of the most important things I gained from my visit was the example of the Boyd family [an extended family, observed at a 4th of July picnic, which showed comfortable and loving acceptance of a gay son and his friends]. Through them I now know—not just intellectually but on a deep emotional level—that the relationship of a gay family member like you to the greater family can be close and rewarding for all—including your brothers’ eventual wives. So it is essential that we continue to cultivate our [p. 97]knowledge and understanding of each other in person as much as possible … .
* * *
21 November 1981
Just a quick note this afternoon, mainly to say hello and let you know we are thinking of you. Particularly as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches and we will be getting together with the Schow clan in Preston, we’ll miss you. I do hope that you will be with friends you enjoy and that you will have something like a traditional meal to feast on … .
In this season of Thanksgiving, one of the blessings I am most grateful for is that you are my son. I love you deeply, and I feel you have much to offer me and others. It seems to me that you have a fine future ahead of you; I feel hopeful and optimistic for you. Your route may not be the most direct one to your goals, but you will get there. From my point of view, our relationship is now moving into a very rewarding phase, partly because your self-growth enables you to perceive me differently, no longer as a domineering force but as a caring, supportive friend. We will always be father and son to each other, but I hope in the most positive sense of that relationship.
Have a happy Thanksgiving. Dad
* * *
19 May 1982
The semester is over, grades are in, commencement past—and now I can take a little time to put the details of my life—academic [p. 98]and private—back into order. So I’ve made a long list of such things to attend to, and sending this note is at the top.
You’ll find enclosed the story by Andre Gide [“The Prodigal Son”] that I mentioned to you. When I read it, I was deeply moved, for much in it seemed to parallel your experience and the various possible responses that in one degree or another have followed. I am sure you will see that the story can be read symbolically—and I am also confident that you will agree with me that the people and situations in it are not exactly analogous to the circumstances in our family. You will, I’m sure, find Gide deeply perceptive, deeply sympathetic, and extraordinarily honest about the nature of individual experience. I think you are aware that Gide himself was homosexual. He was indeed a great writer. Perhaps you would enjoy reading other things by him, for example “The Pastoral Symphony,” a short novella.
In “The Prodigal Son,” the religious establishment is symbolically presented and its limitations revealed. In thinking about your experience, one of the sad and disappointing things for your mother and me—and doubtless for youis that the church, which ought to have provided help and understanding to you, was incapable of it. You did not leave the church so much as it left you … .
Just one thought as I close. When we last spoke on the phone, you said your self-esteem was—for the moment at least—dragging. Well, I just want to remind you to keep some perspective on things. Seems to me you’re doing very well in some important ways. Seems to me you’re taking charge of your life very responsibly, digging yourself out of a bit of a financial hole—that won’t take you too long, and in the meanwhile you seem to be learning about other rewarding, relatively inexpensive, long term pursuits. That’s not bad at all. 23 years is, after all, still an early age. Anyone who makes you feel that you need to have arrived by 25 or 30 or even 35 is a fool. Consider my case—I went back to school at age 28, stayed at it four years, didn’t complete my dissertation until I was 35. Don’t let the worldliness of the L.A. life blind you to the fact that you are unique, have your own rhythm, your own pace, your own values, [p. 99]your own way. Have patience! Keep your own counsel, stay attuned to your own feelings, your own inner voice—and of course keep your intelligence awake and your antennae out. (I know you are doing that.) Time and patience, my son. In the meanwhile, think well of Brad. He’s a fine young man with a promising future. Remember that you have our love—and our respect as well.
* * *
16 June 1982
I have been thinking a good deal about our recent telephone conversation. After such a talk, one is always mindful (or should be) of the inherent difficulties in interpersonal communications: is what you said and meant really what we heard and understood—and vice versa? That I do not fully see your situation as it appears from your perspective is a given—each individual’s perception is to some degree subjective and cannot be entirely shared by another. Bearing this in mind, I nevertheless want to comment on several things we talked about, and their implications. My intent is not to lean on you heavily in paternal fashion but to share my views with you as a friend, one whose perspective may well be worth considering, one who cares deeply about your happiness and well being.
To be frank, Brad, I see you getting more deeply into a situation, the dangers of which I am becoming increasingly aware, the dangers of which you appear to be at least nominally aware but which you dismiss somewhat fatalistically. I am not speaking of homosexuality per se. Notwithstanding the social difficulties it entails, I believe it possible for homosexual preference to be compatible with a healthy life, both physically and psychologically. I am no longer hung up on that point, and I think you know that.
Rather, I am thinking of the grave dangers to physical and mental health posed by certain extreme dimensions often associated with [p. 100]gay lifestyle—the health problems associated with sexual promiscuity. This applies in both sexes of course, but now, for reasons unknown, especially among gays. The hepatitis you are, we hope, recovering from is not to be taken casually. Its potentially damaging effects on the liver are no light matter, and recurrence of it could be very serious. The possibility of venereal diseases, including herpes, is ever present in a promiscuous climate, and now especially there is “Morbus Kaposi,” the exact nature of which is unknown but the deadly results of which are clear. This together with the mysterious weakening of the immune system which opens the gates to a variety of ills. The day after our talk on the phone, I came across the enclosed article in Der Spiegel, the German news magazine. Its contents deserve your attention, even if you have to struggle with translation or find some translating help. Among other things, it suggests the likelihood that the use of marijuana and other drugs may be related to the problem of weakened immune systems.
So what is my point, or points? (1) That homosexuality and macho gay promiscuity are not necessarily synonymous, that the latter is highly unlikely to bring you fulfillment in either the short or the long run, and that the health risks it presents are so great that a wise person will certainly not run them; (2) that there is still a great deal about the impact of drug use—even light drug use—that is not understood (just what “responsible” drug use means is not clear); (3) that you should not allow yourself and your life to be so dominated by your gay sex life in all its dimensions that it wholly absorbs your energies and keeps you from being able to focus on other meaningful goals and desires you wish to pursue. Mind you, I’m not saying you are thus dominated, but several comments you made last week on the phone so strongly suggested a fatalistic acceptance of all the health hazards we were discussing that I wonder if you shouldn’t strongly remind yourself of the choices you can exercise. You take charge of your life, don’t let circumstances dictate your course.
You said you would run the risks, enjoy the ride, and if you were unlucky, bear the consequences. I’ve no doubt you would. That [p. 101]takes character, and I believe you have it. You said you’d kill yourself rather than linger as a burden to anyone. Well, that may or may not be an admirable resolve, but it may be considered admirable only if you do all possible to avoid arriving at that extremity. You cited the native cultures in which old or otherwise burdensome people voluntarily eliminate themselves. But I guarantee you that in those societies such people generally do everything they can first of all to be survivors.
Life is given us as a resource. I think we have a moral responsibility to husband it well. It ought not to be squandered, ought not to be rashly risked. I don’t mean life should only be lived timidly, but I think one should live with the aim of being a survivor if one possibly can. Life has many rewarding facets and the possibility of some duration. So don’t put all your chips on a few quick throws of the dice for just a limited return. You have a fine future ahead of you, Brad. I really believe that. Live partly for that future, and don’t sacrifice too much for the present. That was Esau’s mistake, you remember.
Should you resent the tone I’ve taken and feel I’m presumptuous to advise you, remember that any man, regardless of his age or experience, is fortunate to have caring friends of different persuasions who will share their views as touchstones.
Harry Truman once said, “The most important things one learns are learned after one already knows it all.” I know I don’t know it all, and I trust you’d acknowledge that you don’t either. So let’s keep flexible and continue to sift what comes our way.
With love, your father
* * *
25 July 1982
… We’re all anticipating our California trip. Your mom hasn’t had a real vacation in some time, Roger is eager to get some feel for things down there, especially in the Sacramento area, and of [p. 102]course Ted is more than ready to see additional parts of the world. I hope our coming to visit you is still compatible with your plans. Our intent is to leave home August 15 probably and reach L.A. about Friday, August 19. That way we can have the weekend with you.
Well, how are you feeling about the relocation to Hawaii by now? In one sense your disclosure came as a surprise; in another sense it is not surprising at all, at least not in the fact that you are discovering some good reasons to leave L.A. and your present environment. As exciting as the place is for you, and enticing as you find the fast-paced life there, you are—it seems—recognizing some negative dimensions to it, dimensions not compatible with your personal well-being immediately and in the long run. That your good judgment would bring you to this realization was something I expected to happen eventually, and that it apparently is occurring now is, I believe, all to the good. I have the impression that the gay life in L.A. is hedonistic to an extreme—and that brings with it not only the much publicized health dangers (which you would indeed be wise to take seriously) but also dangers to the psyche, the will, undermining your sense of purpose with a continuing and debilitating quest for sensations and nouveau experience. That way lie frustration and personal nihilism—which I am aware you do not want. I speak in general terms—and with no intent to preach.
I gather from your telephone remarks that your intended relocation is a result of two developments: (1) your recognition of these negative aspects of life in L.A. and a desire (with mixed feelings) to start in a somewhat different direction elsewhere, cultivating more consistently friends with positive attitudes and “simpler” lifestyles, avoiding the haunted dimensions of life in the ghetto; (2) your promising relationship with Drew, who apparently embodies these more positive values. And of course there is your general desire to see the world. Have I stated it correctly?
Well, the new start could certainly work to your personal advantage, Brad. That it would be fun to see Hawaii and live there [p. 103]for a time is obvious enough, but that is not the primary issue as I see it. Rather, the question is whether you will improve your situation in more vital respects. I do think that a stable, loving relationship will do much to give meaning to your life, if you can achieve it. It requires some renunciations, of course, but they are worth it for the sake of the positive benefits (see Ecclesiastes 4:8-12). You have had some experience now, and that should help you in sizing up Drew. Does he want the same things you do? What kind of renunciations is he willing to make for long term happiness? And his health—could he pass a blood test, etc.? Will life with him help you to clarify and reach your career and personal goals—or otherwise?
As for the change in environment, Honolulu will doubtless also have a hedonistic gay community similar to that in L. A. if you seek it. The change in location will be positive only if it corresponds with a change in you and a resolve to redirect your life and habits. Certainly the right kind of friends will be a great help if this is what you want.
As for the financial aspects of it, you are in the best position to assess that. I expect your past experience will prevent you from getting burned again in the same ways. Just make sure your arrangements are cleanly made and clearly understood. I know you don’t want any more holes to climb out of.
I guess these may sound like the words of a Polonius, a great piling up of platitudes. Well, make whatever use of them seems best to you. If you want to employ us as a further sounding board, we are always available.
I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks. I miss seeing you oftener. I confess the long distance between here and Hawaii saddens me some.
I pray for you always—after my fashion. Pray for us too—after yours.
* * *
[p. 104]30 October 1982
… You remember last week that you made a few comments about work, especially about your feeling a bit disillusioned by the necessity of it. Then there followed a little exchange about the value of work if it is a means of connecting one to vital living rather than alienating one from life. A couple of days later I happened to be looking at a back issue of Quest and came upon an article entitled “Workers and Lovers.” I’ve made an enclosed copy of it for you. I read it myself in the context of our telephone conversation, and I found several things in it that were thought provoking. It was interesting to me to make a little self-assessment in terms of the lists of conflicting values on page 16. I found myself to be partly worker, partly lover, the former especially by background and some of the values in my upbringing, the latter perhaps especially by virtue of my grounding in the humanities and sympathy with self-discovery and quality in one’s living. I suppose, in other words, that my good fortune in finding a kind of work to do that is personally rewarding for the most part has helped me avoid becoming submerged in the worker mentality and has helped me avoid alienation in my work. Maybe you won’t at all agree with my assessment of myself. Incidentally, I have no ulterior motive in sending the article. I’m sure you’ll find much of it very compatible with your thinking. Perhaps you’ve seen it already.
Remember the xeroxed articles you sent home with me in August? I’ve read them with interest. The article on literary patronage—à la foundation and university support—was a new perspective on the subject for me, and useful, since that is a subject I sometimes talk about with students. Apropos of the articles on LSD, what can I say? To deny outright on the basis of my present personal experience (or lack of it) that the use of this drug can result in something positive for some people under the right conditions would be foolish. To deny that use of such a potent agent can be potentially dangerous, depending on the person and the condi-[p. 105]tions, also seems foolish to me. So I suppose you and others must make your personal choice, weigh the risks and the rewards. How does one intelligently weigh such a matter? Perhaps with reference to one’s whole life and one’s happiness in that whole perspective. Does use of such a drug alienate you from the reality to which you must inevitably return, or does it make that reality better, easier to sustain, happier? Does it make life in general a good experience, or does it leave one cloyed, disillusioned with the daily routine. I say this in relation to your remarks last week in which you expressed a degree of disillusionment about the future; you spoke of being jaded. I’m sorry to hear that, for at 24 the world and the future ought to be opening out, with a positive sense of desirable challenges and opportunities ahead. I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that drug experience is necessarily responsible for your present feeling of alienation, but I do think that what I am suggesting here is a good way to assess any kind of experience at any stage of life: does it reconcile one to reality and make the possibilities within that reality seem richer.
Let me give you my considered testimony. On the whole, life is good, desirable. At times the world may seem mad (this has always been so; it is not just a reflection of present absurdity), but order and meaning on a small and personal scale are possible. Happiness may not be possible perpetually on a day-to-day basis, but meaningful living is—if there is something in one’s life that one is willing to sacrifice for. This may be useful work that is rewarding, it may be goals of achievement that one is striving to reach, it may be someone who matters enough to work and sacrifice for. To be meaningful, life must be a challenge—otherwise it would get dull in a hurry. But to any intelligent, thoughtful individual, life’s challenge cannot be other than apparent. It is not always easy to avoid alienation, cope with discouragement, and accept oneself. But with time, the focus sharpens, and meaning and satisfaction seem to be more consistently available. Your mom, for example, has struggled over the years for self-definition; and that struggle is now paying off. She is happier now, more confident, more accepting of [p. 106]herself, more capable, more creative, more relaxed, more fun to live with than ever. I, too, though my pattern has been a different one, feel more relaxed, more self-accepting, find more pleasure in my environment, feel more in tune with my life.
Well, you can decide if there is anything of value in these beliefs of mine, this qualified optimism. Let me presume to offer a bit of advice: avoid whatever kind of experience leads to your feeling jaded; cultivate that which gives a sense of purpose, achievement, self-acceptance. You have a fine future to look forward to, and you have the equipment—mental and physical—to make the most of it.
Another one-sided conversation, but we’ve had such good, intense talks that I can almost feel you are present here. Now I wait to hear your response—whenever a good and suitable occasion shall allow. You were right to remark on the phone that it would be so very nice to be together and have a long conversation. How would you like to come to snowy Idaho for Christmas?
With love, Dad
* * *
4 January 1983
At least a month has passed since that longish telephone conversation in which we talked of religion, and you said that your contact with the born-again Christian and his hyper-positive pronouncements had reawakened some old uncertainties in your mind. I trust that that mood has passed to some extent by now. Nevertheless, I know how someone like that can bowl one over temporarily, if, that is, one is of the type who acknowledges that some things in life seem uncertain, and what sane man doesn’t? Then in blows the guy who knows all the answers, and all the answers are simple! It’s the level of his confidence that causes one to pause and say, “Could this gullible fellow be right after all?” Well, I’ll stake everything on his [p. 107]being wrong; otherwise God is demeaned and our human dignity and stature as his children are undermined.
Here are a few of the premises on which my religious faith rests:
1) God is not running us through an arbitrary obstacle course for his own glory and satisfaction; he is not interested in punishment as such. He is not a legalistic tyrant waiting to pounce when we stumble. These notions are contrary to the nature of a loving, patient God; they are contrary to the dominant tenor of Christ’s teachings as we have them in the Gospels.
2) God wishes to foster our individual growth and development. He does not mean earth life to be primarily restrictive, inhibiting, but rather expansive and conducive to our progress.
3) In the long run, “rewards” and “punishments” are inherent in our deeds, our ways of living and being; they are not arbitrarily imposed from outside by a stern judge. Joseph Smith understood this, I think. In the Doctrine and Covenants occurs this passage which you will surely remember: “There is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (130:20-21). I take this to mean that the consequences of our acts are inherent in the very nature of those acts. That is, doing good deeds for others generally makes us feel good and has a beneficial effect on the long range development of our character. Selfishness (i.e. preoccupation with self to a degree that an appropriate balance between the self and others is not maintained) does not lead to peace of mind or a good feeling about oneself. Being useful in the world, doing something that seems worthwhile with one’s hours, brings satisfaction; idleness ultimately leaves one empty and dull and possibly frustrated. Etcetera. You can supply numerous examples as well as I. This is almost like saying that we create our own punishments and re-[p. 108]wards—or choose them at least, but always within the eternal law. And the law is eternal not because God said arbitrarily, “Let it be so!” but rather because the relationship of acts and their consequences are very consistent and have always been so.
Such a view is consistent with my conviction that God is interested in our growth, and that he allows us to work out our paths in relation to what we learn through our ways of acting and being. In this sense, “sin” is following courses that frustrate our quest for growth, wholeness, harmony. “Sin” alienates us from self and from others by creating barriers, stumbling blocks, frustrations.
Clearly, then, we must assess the rightness or wrongness of our behaviors by continually evaluating their results. Sometimes this is easy because the results are obvious in the short run; other situations are more complex, and short term outcomes may not hold consistently as time passes. But God is not keeping a book to effect punishment. He simply allows us to become the sum of our acts. That is his “judgment.”
Because it is sometimes difficult to gauge the long-term effects of our acts, we can often assist ourselves by studying the lives of others, the cumulative experience of the race. Still, that does not suffice by itself. Existentially considering the truth of our own experience is finally inescapable. That entails living with some uncertainties; that means, as Sartre put it, that we are willing to assume the “burden of freedom.”
Apropos of your born-again friend and his assertions, you might remember that Christ’s statements in the Gospels are filled with a number of striking ambiguities, paradoxes, even outright contradictions. The reborn Christians pick and choose rather restrictively, but we must accept the gospel in its completeness and its complexity. Perhaps it’s time for you to reread the Gospels yourself in order to be able to point this out to him more effectively. More impor-[p. 109]tantly, you may find a good deal of clarity for yourself by engaging those provocative texts from your present vantage point.
Enough for tonight. Love, Dad