Thursday, October 23, 2014

How I saw myself as a gay Mormon youth / how others saw me

My mom has Alzheimer's disease. It really became undeniable about two years ago, when I and my siblings gathered with her and my dad to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. My brother Mark had put together a beautiful video about my parents' marriage which we watched together as part of the celebration. My mom watched it blankly -- as if she were watching a video about somebody else's life. We could ask her questions about events in her life as recently as a week before, but she couldn't answer them. Mom was happy to be surrounded by family. She still recognizes us, though it's hard for her to communicate. Her language has become a jumble of mostly incomprehensible words (except for phrases like "I love you!" and "I'm so happy to see you!"), making any form of communication but face-to-face expressions of love and affection frustrating. Gradually I have come to accept that from here on out, Mom and I can't really talk about the past or the future any more. I can be with her only in the present.

Ironically, one of Mom's greatest gifts to me has to do with memory. Before I was born, Mom started a scrapbook of stories of significant events in my life, photos, important documents and mementos. She called them "books of remembrance." A few years ago, when Mom was still lucid, she and Dad paid me and Göran a visit at our home in Minneapolis and she presented me with two volumes that she had lovingly kept up to date through some time after I started Grad School. Recently I've begun to read through them, and I'm astonished with the level of detail and thoroughness with which she recorded anecdotes, milestones, and significant events of my life, from infancy to adulthood. (Being a nurse, she also fastidiously kept track of every illness I ever experienced until I graduated from high school!) 

To give some idea of the level of detail, my mom actually periodically took note of the words in my vocabulary as I was learning to speak. My first language was Finnish, and my family's nickname for me growing up was "Jukka." (Mom's journal was kept in Finnish until about 1969.) In one entry from when I was two, Mom wrote, "Jukka's vocabulary at the end of February was isi, äiti, mummi, ukki, vauva, tyttö, poika, tonttu, tähti, pupu, kissa, kau, tiikeri, kala, kotka, kuumaa, ei saa, ei satu, se on, siinä, näin, siellä, vesi, suihkuttaa, kauhea, kukka, kakku, minä, bye, hi, o boy and o dear." (Mostly Finnish, with a few English greetings and exclamations!) Apparently the first time my Mom ever heard me praying out loud, she found me in my bedroom interceding on behalf of "pupuja" (bunnies).

Recently, I decided I wanted to put together a timeline of significant events in my life and in Göran's (my husband's) life. I have a sense of our respective biographies, the major twists, turns and decisions that have made us into who we are today. So I began by simply jotting down a rough outline of the major life milestones and events from memory. This was a good exercise, if only because it demonstrated the limits of unaided memory. There were many things I remembered only vaguely, and important events in my life that I remembered but couldn't remember exactly when they happened.

For instance, I remember being in a major car accident with my mom. In her book of remembrance Mom recorded that it took place on November 6, 1975. "Jukka hit his knee, Joseph got a little bump on his head, I hit my head and elbow. No-one was seriously hurt - but our car was demolished.... It was a terrible experience." It was a terrible experience. I remember weeping when I saw the occupants of the other car being helped out by paramedics, and saw a little girl with blood all over her face. What I hadn't remembered was when the accident had occurred. I would have placed it in 1971 (after I started the fourth grade), but it had actually taken place four years later, shortly after I had been ordained a deacon. I also hadn't remembered that my little brother Joe, an infant at the time, had been in the accident as well.

Going through Mom's books of remembrance, and through my own files and correspondence has not only helped me construct a timeline of my life more accurately, but it has also given me unexpected perspectives on myself, on the kind of person I was. I was apparently a very sensitive kid, with a goofy sense of humor. I was very open with my emotions. Apparently I cried a lot. I also prayed a lot. I was surprised to see how frequently my mother took note of times when I had encountered some hurt or disappointment, and my response to the situation had always been to immediately go to my room and pray. I had long forgotten this part of my growing up, but Mom took note.

Junior high was the time I remember being most difficult growing up. My mom remembered me frequently coming home from school in tears. My internalized self-image from that time of my life was that I was unpopular, not well liked. I pretty much stuck with three very close friends -- Bill McAlister, Ed Kaufman, and Erik Carlson -- without whom I can't imagine how I would have survived junior high.

During that time Mom wrote in her journal, "[Jukka] has courage against his peers and I'm thankful for that." She kept a report that one of my teachers had sent her of "comments [about John] made by his classmates." Here's a few that were typical:
A very serious person whom people need to listen to [to] completely understand.
John is the type of person I wish I had the strength to live. He seems to possess confidence in himself.
John's a pretty bizarre guy. He can be really funny. His parrot jokes used to crack me up. He has very definite and well defined values which he is willing to share with others. At the same time he is open-minded and accepts the way others think.
John is a person who sticks to his morals regardless of any peer pressure. He's intelligent but doesn't make others know it. Being kind and sincere he never hesitates to help another person. Being a Mormon isn't easy with a lot of peer pressure, yet John doesn't let this affect the way he expresses his opinions.
It surprised me to see those comments lovingly preserved in the book of remembrance. I didn't remember being admired; I mostly remembered feeling alone and vulnerable. Even though my parents (and apparently my peers) saw me as religiously devout and self-confident, I didn't feel either.

Around the time that Mom and I were involved in that terrible car crash, I was experiencing the beginnings of a psychic car crash. The onset of puberty was setting the stage for a terrible internal conflict between my religious sense of self -- the self that I projected publicly -- and my sexuality -- which I kept hidden and which became more and more of a crisis for me as time went on.

Mom once reminded me that as soon as the car stopped spinning in the aftermath of that November 1975 car crash, the first thing I thought to do was to pray. Prayer was my first resort in dealing with my sexuality too, though seemingly to no avail. I was praying for help to overcome it, for it to go away. I didn't really get an answer to my prayers until the summer of 1986, after I had given up all hope of "changing," after I had nearly committed suicide, when all I was left with was to confess to God that despite all my efforts, I was gay. It was only then that God spoke to me clearly, giving me guidance about where to go and what to do from there.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the challenges facing LGBT Mormon youth today. The challenges today are so different, and yet also the same. Some aspects of that experience seem to heighten the pressures and raise the stakes in terrifying ways, but in other ways, LGBT Mormon teens have more resources available to them than I could ever have dreamed of. It was helpful to me to read these notes in my Mom's journal, if only to get a sense of perspective about what LGBT Mormon teens are facing today.

Why did it take so long for my prayers to be answered? Why did it take more than a decade of painful struggle? Maybe it is just that there are no shortcuts to maturity and self-understanding. Maybe it is that the process of struggle itself is what refines us. If my fifty-one-year-old self could magically go back in time to my twelve-year-old self and tell him all "the answers," it wouldn't have mattered anyway. It wouldn't have saved me any struggle, because it was not having the answers that would help me, it was finding them.

What could help at that time in my life me was actually what I already had -- though it was hard for me to see it.

I had parents and friends who were trying to tell me about the good they saw in me. They saw a person who trusted God to help him deal with his challenges. They saw a person who was willing to be weird and unique and who was willing to stand for what he believed was right when nobody else was willing to stand with him. They saw a person who was kind and cared for others, and listened to and was considerate of others, even when he disagreed with them.

The challenge was learning to trust God enough to accept answers from him that were not what I was expecting to receive. The challenge was to apply my strong sense of morality to what I was beginning to learn about myself as a young gay man. The challenge was to listen to myself, and show myself the same compassion I tried to show others.

All the strengths that others recognized in me were there to help me sort through things, even though it was difficult for me to recognize them in myself. It just took time.

My advice to LGBT youth today would be simply that I can't offer you answers, because no answer can make sense to you unless you've wrested it for yourself, through whatever struggles and trials lie ahead. But you have strengths in you that you may not be able to see, and you have the ability to find those answers and make them work for you. And in time, you'll be able to use those strengths not only to help yourself, but to help others along the way.

When I came out to my parents, it took them time to wrestle with that information and come to a place of understanding and peace about it. It took Mom much less time than Dad. The weekend I flew out to Boston to meet with my parents and talk to them about it, Mom says she knew I was OK by the time they were taking me back to the airport to return to Minnesota. She told me that the Holy Spirit spoke to her in an audible voice as we were riding in the car to the airport, reassuring her that her son would be OK. Perhaps part of the reason Mom could know this, part of the reason she could receive that assurance, is because she had been writing love letters to me since before I was born. She had been watching me and telling me stories about my strengths and my gifts in a language that only my mother could know. That gift of memory Mom gave me, reminding me of what I have known since childhood, and what she knew that I knew, of God, of the Church and of myself and of my path through life is a gift I'll carry with me for the rest of this life and into the next.


Armando Bravo said...

Gracias por tu excelente y conmovedor relato, y gracias por permitirnos conocerte. Al Padre celestial le pido que te de la fortaleza y el cariño para acompañar a tus papás en la enfermedad de tu mamá. Gracias también por haber encontrado a Göran. Ah, y por supuesto, también a Coco. Saludos.

Bill McAlister said...

Thanks, John, for the mention as one who helped you survive Junior High. It's strange looking back that the four of us could be so close and yet none of us really knew what inner turmoils the others might be facing. As for me, I will forever be grateful that you had the courage to introduce me to the Gospel, something that has made my life infinitely more meaningful.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Bill - I wonder if you and Ed and Erik realize how much of a life-raft your friendship was to me?

And, of course, I am so grateful to have had the privilege of being involved in your conversion to the Gospel, and so grateful that you continue faithful. You were the first person I ever baptized!

Please remember us in your prayers from time to time... I'd love to see you again, maybe next time we're in Tennessee visiting family.

I've occasionally chatted with Ed... One of these days we'll venture over to Indiana and spend some time with him. I'd love to see a reunion of the four of us some day (before the next life!). :-)

Bill McAlister said...

I've wondered if there is more that I as a leader in my ward can do to reach out to young men who I know are struggling like you did, maybe not with SSA per se but even with guilt about masturbation.
Once a few years back, a Young Men's president told me about a boy who had burst into tears while at a sleepover that weekend at his house with his son and several other members of his teacher's quorum. The YM president was bewildered. I knew the kid well enough to know he had sexual feelings for his friends and that it was tearing him up inside. Fear (of how his parents and other church leaders might respond) kept me from ever broaching the subject with him. He's 22 now and I've heard only that he's no longer active.