by Carol Lynn Pearson
Pivot Point Books, $14.95
For the purpose of full disclosure: long before I opened Carol Lynn Pearson’s new book, No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay Loved Ones, I was familiar with the story she told in Goodbye, I Love You. It was an account of Pearson’s marriage to and amicable divorce from a gay Mormon man, as well as her ex-husband’s later AIDS-related illness and death in Pearson’s home. I’ve never read Goodbye, but after my first engagement ended with the discovery that my fiance was gay, several people told me about it. They mentioned the book not as a source of solace but of affirmation.
After I’d realized that my fiance was gay, broken off the engagement, and talked to him about it, he came out. I chose to continue our friendship, though without its former romantic aspect. I faced harsh criticism and quite a lot of social pressure to reject my friend. People spoke of him as if he were subhuman, as if he were somehow not a child of God, and they demanded that I do the same – not because he had deceived me, but simply because he was gay.
The pressure I faced to sever my relationship with my former fiance was almost as difficult to deal with as the emotional aftermath of our broken engagement. I found a few women who’d been in situations similar to my own, and they told me Carol Lynn Pearson’s story. It was a way of supporting me in my choice. For that reason, I began No More Goodbyes quite positively disposed toward Pearson.
Now that my bias is out in the open, I’ll move on to discuss Pearson’s book. I ask that out of respect for the author, any discussion in the comment thread of this post focus on the book and my review, rather than the story I recounted above.
No More Goodbyes addresses the experience of religious people who are homosexual, or whose loved ones are homosexual. Though the book’s primary intended audience is Mormons, it is secondarily addressed to all adherents of religions which discourage or discriminate against homosexuals. In format, it’s a collection of true personal accounts from many people, interspersed with commentary from the author. Most of the people who contributed are Mormons. However, there’s a smattering of material from adherents to other Christian churches, and even a story from one Muslim woman in Egypt.
Pearson’s purpose in writing seems to be to share several types of coming-out stories with the reader: stories about abandonment by church and family, stories about love and kindness from church and family, stories about entire families’ rejection at the hands of church members. The author expresses the conviction that we fear and reject what we don’t understand, and that in providing us with the real experiences of gay and lesbian Mormons and their families, she is providing us with the tools we need so that we may respond lovingly to our gay and lesbian coreligionists.
This is a worthy goal, and the collection of stories Pearson provides gives insight into many permutations of life as a gay church member. She presents the stories of such activists as Stuart Mathis, torn forever in the paradox of desire for full fellowship in the church and awareness of their own essential sexual and romantic inclinations. She presents the stories of mixed-orientation couples, some of which end in divorce and some of which do not. She presents the stories of individuals who aren’t torn, who simply leave, or who simply stay. Such information cannot help but affect us.
One story in particular made me weep. It was the story of a man named Brad Adams. As reported in the book,
He was converted to the Church in his early teens. He had never known such warmth, such good people, such love as he found there. He drank it in, a thirsty true-believer. But – he was gay.
“I’m one hundred percent gay, not just ninety-nine percent,” he told me. “I have never had the slightest sexual feeling toward a woman. When I was baptized – I knew I would change. I knew Jesus would heal me. But it didn’t happen, and I didn’t understand why. I loved the Lord, I loved the Church, I loved the gospel… I obeyed all the commandments… I went on a mission… I was still gay. I was terrified.”
After a year of work with his bishop, Adams concluded,
My emotions were dead. And at the end of the year, I thought to myself, it’s never going to happen. I am never going to change. I’m destined to go to the lowest place in God’s kingdom, and I’d just as well go now.
So I figured out how to get a lot of pills… One evening I took them all. I knew I would have about fifteen minutes until the effects set in, so… I drove up to the Provo Temple. I figured that would be the place I wanted to die. I believed there would be kind and helpful spirits around the temple, and that when I passed over, there would be someone willing to help me…
Adams woke from a coma two weeks later. Despite the sympathy of his bishop, Adams believed he would never belong in the church, and that he couldn’t bear to remain severed from his emotions. He left, despite the pain it caused him, and despite the fact that he remained committed to Mormonism and the LDS church for the remainder of his life. His final words to the reader: “The Mormons have got to stop being so rejecting. To be rejected by something so wonderful as the Mormon church is nearly more than a person can bear.”
Faced with stories like Adams’, how can we remain untouched? This is the great strength of No More Goodbyes.
Some things are lacking in the collection of narratives, though. A longstanding phenomenon in Mormon discussions of homosexuality is the heavy emphasis on male experience, to the virtual exclusion of women. Relevant church publications, talks, ward gossip, usually focus on gay men. Women are traditionally a footnote, if they are mentioned at all. This bias is present in Pearson’s book. The author mentions Mormon culture’s traditional ignorance of lesbian members, acknowledges the existence of Mormon lesbians and includes a few of their stories. However, the heavy emphasis on the experiences of gay men inadvertently reinforces the idea that Mormon lesbians are rare, or at least unimportant.
Given Pearson’s life experience and her resulting public persona as an activist for the compassionate treatment of gay men in the church, it’s quite possible that she has greater access to men’s stories than to women’s. Frequently, the introductions to men’s tales include some mention that after reading her first book, the narrators called and introduced themselves to her. Lesbians were not central to that book, and may not have felt the same motivation to contact her. Perhaps this has simply led Pearson to collect more stories from men than women. However, the gender disparity is a problem which Pearson should have addressed more carefully in the text.
Pearson’s self-presentation is also likely to present challenges for many Mormon readers. She gives a concise, effective summary of the basic scientific findings which point strongly to a biological basis for homosexuality. She compliments it with statements from several church leaders on the church’s current position, as well as these words from Alan Gundry, head of LDS Family Services’ Department of Homosexual Concerns: “Ten years ago, I would have said that all these guys can be changed, but I know now that’s not true.” Such information could doubtless bring comfort to many readers. However, Pearson has a tendency to use New Age-influenced language and philosophy throughout the book – including an rather mystifying short essay on the power of “consciousness” at the book’s end. This is likely to alienate many of those in greatest need of the comfort and accurate information she’s provided, simply because such cultural referents are so foreign that they may discredit the author and her knowledge, at least by the standards of traditional Mormon culture.
Nonetheless, this is a useful resource for us as we think about the place of gays and lesbians in our church. The stories included can provide us with a basis for the establishment of empathy with those whose Mormon life is complicated by issues of sexual orientation; and Pearson’s most basic contention – that empathy will allow us to develop compassion for those who suffer – is doubtless correct.
Addendum – Carol Lynn’s response:
Much thanks, Taryn. I appreciate your review and the positive things you said about the book. Also grateful for your own story. Certainly, I hope the book’s impact will help us to feel, as you said, more Christlike toward our gay brothers and sisters.
I would have liked to have had more stories of lesbians in the book. I had to work to get the ones that I did. The lesbian women I know personally were not interested in their stories being published. One formerly LDS lesbian said to me that its much easier for lesbians to silently and comfortably leave the Church because being women they’ve already been on the periphery of importance anyway.
Thanks for moving the conversation along. If any inquire, the book is available right now on www.nomoregoodbyes.com. In a few weeks it will be available in bookstores.