Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

Father’s Day reverie

Every Father’s Day until this one, I’ve spent most of the day agonizing over the same dilemma:

Should I insult my father by not calling or should I call and make myself subject to his anger and disapproval. Over the years, I’d say it went about 50/50. A complicating factor was always that my birthday fell within a few days of Father’s Day. Daddy never remembered my birthday and it was always embarrassing to be lectured by him for not calling on Father’s Day, when I had not heard from him on my birthday.

But I’m glad I did reach him last year at my brother’s home. He surprised me by getting very emotional and sentimental, telling me over and over that he loved me. When he died in November, I was grateful that I had this memory.

Of course, the pleasant memory was rapidly undone. It turned out that soon after my mother’s death in June 2006, he went to his lawyer and disinherited me. No explanation was given. In fact, the will said, “For reasons known to him, I have made no provision for my son Clifton.”

That he had already written me out of his will when he effusively told me how much he loved me — and he’d done the same thing the Christmas before — is a perfect expression of my lifelong relationship with him. He constantly pulled me in and then rejected me. He could destroy me with a five minute telephone call, making me miserable for a week. This pattern became so familiar to my last partner almost 20 years ago, that if he answered the phone and it was my father, he immediately hung up on him without saying anything to me.

During that time, I severed just about all communication with Daddy for a few years and never asked for or accepted another penny from him. He had been relatively generous to me throughout my 20s and the first half of my 30s. Of course, the money had always been delivered with a devastating lecture that increased my guilt tremendously. Eventually, I realized I had received far less of material value from my father than many of my friends received from their much less prosperous parents.

My mother was a stroke patient most of the last 15 years of her life. Unable to walk, read, write or talk, she became totally dependent on my father, who moved her into assisted living a few years after her stroke. My relationship with my mother had not been much better than the one with my father. She likewise seemed to take every opportunity to tell me what a disappointment I was. A few years before her stroke, she and my father did apologize for their complete lack of acceptance of me as a child. I was glad to hear that, but it was quickly forgotten by both of them and our estrangement never really ended. I remained terrified of them both until the last two years of their lives.

With both my parents’ deaths, I was thrown into rumination about my childhood — something that took me by surprise. I even made a trip to Charlotte to visit the houses and neighborhoods where we’d lived when I was a young child. The houses were all modest and made me appreciate how hard my father had worked to become as successful as he was. Mainly, though I was overwhelmed by painful memories of my mother’s continual disapproval of me. Oddly, I had very few memories of my father because, traveling constantly, he was rarely home. When he was at home, he never really seemed present. I remembered almost nothing of my two brothers, either. Both younger, they shared a room and bonded with one another.

I was invited into one of the houses I visited. I went in my tiny bedroom, off the kitchen, and began crying almost instantly. My childhood is in great part a memory of hiding in my room in one house after another. In those early years, without the distraction of books and music, I developed the habit of curling up and imagining myself falling through outer space. The object was to become as numb as possible. I remembered doing that constantly in that room. I also remembered that it was in that room I learned that I got my mother’s best attention when I was sick.

What was the cause of my parents’ disapproval? I know that my mother decided I was likely gay when I was five years old. That’s when she took me to a psychologist for the first time. I think she wanted me to be happy but her solution, even more than my father’s, was always to try to make me change.

She seized complete control of my time, picked my playmates (no girls) and activities (tumbling at the gym, but no drawing or reading), basically trying to make more of a man of the five year old me. This continued without relent until I was about 10 or 11, at which point she gave up on me and simply criticized everything I did. My father mainly just absented himself, but regularly lectured me about making my mother miserable. He also constantly criticized me for being depressed, telling me relentlessly that it was my attitude that made me unhappy.

I can easily summarize what my parents didn’t do that they should have: They never accepted who I was, much less cultivated who I was. As a breathtaking example, I was placed in one of the first programs for the gifted in North Carolina during middle school and my mother convinced me to drop out of it after a year, thinking it only added to my peculiarity. On the contrary, it was the happiest time of my childhood, but I didn’t argue with her mandatory bid for normality. When I won a state poetry contest, rather than celebrate it, she focused on how the judges had misunderstood one of my poems. This would be my perpetual lot in life if I pursued any form of art as a career, she warned me.

All of this, which I’ve written about in depth before, came back Father’s Day because of a website I happen to stumble onto: Family Acceptance. It’s a site created by Jeff and Patti Ellis, the religious parents of a gay son, Adam (who is now 25). It documents their struggle to accept him after he “came out” at 16. Their motivation in creating the site was helping other parents in the same situation.

I found their story moving, to say the least. Their son experienced much of what I did — rejection from his peers — and pressure to conform to the normative. But his mother writes that she and her husband knew early on that they had two choices — to try to change Adam or to accept him. After some earlier attempts at changing him or hoping that he would change spontaneously, they worked their way to accepting him. They both write movingly about their disappointment and fear when Adam came out to them in high school but they also write that in their confusion they never lost sight of the fact that they loved him.

Adam does not contribute to the site, so there’s no testimony from him that he felt loved throughout this process. But it’s hard to believe that such a site, amply illustrated with pictures of him, would exist without his support. He works with his mother in real estate, so if there were any wounds from the past, they seem to have been healed. Even their real estate site refers people to the Family Acceptance site.

I don’t mind admitting that reading the family’s story late on the night of Father’s Day made me cry deeply. That kind of love is so alien to me. As I wrote above, I never got the sense that my parents wanted me to do anything but hide. When they gave up trying to change me, they didn’t, like Adam’s parents, take the different route of cultivating a deeper relationship with me or supporting me to become more of myself, instead of hiding. Ironically, this long crippled me as a writer. When I received a book contract at 30, I became immediately blocked and I knew from the moment I signed the contract that I would not be able to write what I was being paid in advance to write because I knew it would embarrass my parents.

I am more the age of Adam’s parents than his own age. His family’s story gives me great hope that life for kids growing up gay really is changing. I’ve tried to communicate this to my own clients many times: What is most damaging to a child is not the mistakes parents make or the unkind things they hear from peers. What is crippling is having no refuge, no sense that somebody loves and values them just as they are. Children can withstand all kinds of pain if someone is there to tell them that they they don’t have to change a thing about themselves to be loved.

Hiding in my room throughout childhood, depressed and struggling not to feel anything, it never crossed my mind to tell my parents anything about myself, like my confusion about my sexuality, that would make them more disapproving. Only my grandmother, with whom I maintained a basically secret relationship into my late 20s, gave me a taste of the unconditional love Jeff and Patti Ellis knew they had to give their son, Adam.

I am angry that my father left me this legacy, his disinheritance of me, as a reminder of his lifelong rejection. For all the pain my mother and I suffered together, I know she would have been furious at him for acting with me as he often did with her — like a child instead of an adult. He was literally incapable of seeing the bind in which he placed me — anger if I wasn’t around and contempt if I was there.

And so, while things will never change with my own parents, it makes me very happy to see young men like Adam Ellis have such a different experience.

Here’s the link for the site again:

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