Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Ultimate Price for Blind Faith

If you heard a sad, strange disembodied sound wafting over the entire northern hemisphere Saturday night, it was probably the collective sobbing of millions of abandoned children across the United States.

Some now adults, others still children, all of them gay and lesbian, and anyone else who could relate, on a personal level, to the story in the premiere of the new Lifetime movie PRAYERS for BOBBY.

I predict many tears were shed that night and when word-of-mouth did its job, even more were shed the following night when Lifetime reran their newest TV movie and scored even higher ratings than the night previous.

I know a lot of tears were shed in my house. And, due to the full disclosure clause in my Blog agreement with myself, I also have to say that most of that crying was my own.

I cried a lot, as deep wounds, unhealed and long buried, were brought to the surface by the true story of a boy who grows up in a devout Christian family in the 1980s, in the town of Walnut Creek California, literally two towns over from Martinez, California where I grew up.

At the center of the family, a mother devoted to the idea that she, her husband and all of her children, will be together again in eternity if they all remain righteous, God fearing, Christians.

It is the kind of hope for eternal happiness, the kind of expectation that fuels most religions around the world and that includes the ones that fly airplanes into skyscrapers.

Do right by God, and He will reward you in the next life.

Whether the reward will be streets of Gold, a seat at God's table, Eternal happiness or seventy-two virgins, it is an age old religious con that is responsible for centuries of hate crimes, skyscrapers that have crashed to the ground, and oceans of blood from untold numbers of slaughtered men, women and children.

All because of this abominable religious pandering.

Playing on our basic human fear of death. And the other cancerous fear that plagues all of mankind: the fear that creates the need for men to have absolute power over other men.

I don't apologize for my opinions about religion. This blog is my opinion and it may be radically different from yours. About this and any number of things.

But just so we understand each other, should we disagree, my observations and opinions here come from the things I have learned through my own life experiences and in this blog I am speaking from my own personal experiences with religion.

To say I am angry and bitter about organized religion would be an understatement. I have watched it firsthand destroy lives and propagate bigotry and superstition. And I see little difference in the way it uses fear and hatred and the way Hilter and other masters of control used it for their own nefarious purposes.

There are very few religions I can think of that don't have the unwritten mandate of reigning people in, calming their fears, taking their money, and going about the business of controlling them.

You don't need the DaVinci Code to see, simply by looking at religion and its history, that it was created to gain power. That whatever spiritual and positive philosophies it may have started out as, it soon became lies and propaganda, designed to turn people against their own natures and so enslave them.

I know the phrase that religion is the opium for the masses is overused, but I would go even a level deeper and darker. Religion was designed essentially to tell people how to think. How does someone wield this kind of power over so many others?

By ordaining themselves as the sole interpreter of God's written word: the Holy Bible.

History has taught us there are many versions of the Holy Book, meaning there have been countless translations and editions of the book where it is believed mortal men wrote down the actual words and laws of God.

As a result, there have been many versions, some with conflicting teachings and each adopted and sometimes even adapted by different religious groups.

The widely used King James version for instance, was one edited and adapted to best fit the lifestyle of then King James. To me, this fact alone speaks for itself as to the questionable nature of many of the mandates people take as Bible (pun intended).

The Bible has always been used for political gain as most recently illustrated by the Bush administration, who shamefully destroyed the idea of the separation of church and state by using the word God time and time again to reframe some of the most Godless acts this country has ever perpetrated.

All of this supports the fact that most religions work the same way: once you have set yourself up as the only one with the truth about God's plan and the secret to your eternal happiness? Anyone believing this is now controlled by you.

And you, the believer has willingly given your control to them. And given your power away as well. Your personal power: of thought, choice and action.

If you are a religious person you may take offense to my perspective, or at the very least say, "most religions but not mine". I grew up in a very Catholic family. I was baptized as an infant, meaning they asked me if I denounce Satan and all his works, while I was still too young to form words.

Someone else, my Godfather, was chosen to answer for me, since I didn't know what the Hell was going on as they poured water over me in a big stone fountain in the back of a dark and pretty scary place.

Then came First Holy Communion, where you were allowed (around grade one or two) to take the body of Christ in your mouth. But only if you had confessed your sins and your body was a clean temple to accept the body and blood of the savior.

(A very young me on the day of my first Holy Communion)

Later, I was confirmed as a Catholic. That's when you get to be thirteen or fourteen, and they ask you again, now that you can put sentences together, are you committed to the Faith you have chosen?

But wait a minute --I didn't choose this Faith! You did! I'm only fourteen! And you chose it for me back when I was a baby! To protect my soul from being snatched in its infancy by Satan himself!

(Me at fourteen on the day of my confirmation. Call it being inaugurated into the flock. You take an oath to be Catholic)

Who the Hell is gonna say 'no' I don't want this religion, when it's all you ever taught me? It's my whole world! You were taught nothing else since you were born, attended Catholic school from the first grade, and literally regard the boys and girls at the public school across the street from your school as "the bad kids" the unsaved and the sinners.

At fourteen I had been a practicing altar boy for four years. My point is, at fourteen, I was still just as helpless to answer whether I wanted to be a Catholic or not, as I was at baptism!

Helpless to say no or to think for myself. I was terrified of Satan, apoplectic about temptation, and like most fourteen year olds, wanking away on a regular basis and then feeling a crushing shame that I was evil and dirty.

I say all this to explain the world I have come from, because it was the world for the most part, depicted in PRAYERS for BOBBY.

(Mary Griffith (Sigourney Weaver) consoles her son Bobby (Ryan Kelley)as he starts on the long road to his personal salvation and away from homosexual attractions)

And as unpopular as it may be, I still contend, that with very few exceptions, most religions take control over their congregations and with no sense of conscience or consequence, inspire hate and fear, either subliminally or overtly, toward all those who do not think like they do.

The terrible price that Mary Griffith paid for not questioning these religious beliefs or the commonly held interpretations of the Bible of her Faith, was the suicide of her twenty year old son in 1983.

(Bobby's tragic final moments)

And after watching PRAYERS for BOBBY, not surprisingly, I was left with a very heavy heart and a deep feeling of melancholy that I have still not been able to shake so many days after watching it.

I know part of the reason is that I had a ringside seat to this kind of bigotry and hatred masquerading as God's will, growing up gay in my own dysfunctional family.

My happy young mother, who one day, while glimpsing a Gay Pride parade on TV, off-handedly said that "those people should all be lined up and shot."

She didn't know her sixteen year old son, standing next to her, was one of those people she would be putting against that wall, if she pulled the trigger.

Imagine my shock and utter dismay in hearing that line almost word for word, in PRAYERS for BOBBY, spoken by Bobby's grandmother in one of the early scenes in the film!

Talk about a buried land mine in me. And you're talking about someone who has been in therapy over half their life now and dealt with a lot of these painful issues! Still, I heard that and it all came back to me. When I heard my own mom say this, that she wanted gay people dead, she, whether she meant it or not, changed forever in my teen-aged eyes that day.

(My beautiful mom and me. Probably about twenty here and of course, too young to be the mother of three)

Mom was no longer the woman who loved me and encouraged me, and woke me up to watch The Invaders when I was only ten.

She was someone else now.

And like The Invaders, she was suddenly, another of the enemy I needed to hide from. And for my own self-preservation, I could no longer trust. She was not a safe place and because my step-father who was a bully and a rage-a-holic, on top of his drinking, I was left me with no safe place in my own home.

Hearing my mother's contempt for those who felt what I felt, created a shame in me that I still sometimes struggle with today. Long buried pains that I have been sitting on for decades with my own means of mood altering and medicating.

(One of the many arguments Bobby has with his mother about his inability to change what he feels)

I think everyone who grew up gay, knows what I am talking about.

That horrible secret life you found yourself in. That constant paranoia that you would be found out, scorned and then punished, coupled with guilt and shame for having the simple human attractions that nature had assigned you, and that puberty was busy pumping through you.

And if you were a gay boy coming of age in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, or even today, you were leading the ultimate double-life before you were even old enough to shave.

(Bobby confides in his big brother (Austin Nichols) about his gay feelings and dreams)

There was pain and fear everywhere.

The pain came from every gay joke you secretly had to endure, and every time the word "gay", "faggot" or "c***sucker" was used to attack someone, you felt a punch in the stomach, and sank a little deeper into your own self-loathing.

(My graduation portrait. I would be eighteen here and well into living the double life of the self-loathing, gay, Catholic, American teenager)

When these comments and jokes came from family or friends, they hit even harder and cut even deeper.

And in the real life story of Bobby Griffith, the subject of PRAYERS for BOBBY, a greater price was paid by this boy, far beyond anything I ever had to endure.

Fascism always pretends to be about "the salvation of the world" and the most bloody wars have taken place, and still do, in the name of God.

Being a child of the 60s, raised by a devout Catholic, and attending Catholic school for eight years, I know that the first order of the day in raising me and all my brothers and sisters, was to "break that child's spirit", discourage his curiosity and begin the crippling process of shaming him for any desire outside the one to serve his God.

Not knowing at that age, that "God" was really the very mortal men and women who had control over my life and decided for their own interest, the way I should see myself.

(Me at seventeen with my grandmother Slibowski, who had disowned her only son, my uncle Phil, when she found out he was gay)

In the film PRAYERS for BOBBY, his mother's religious resolve caused her to outright reject her once beloved boy. And this was certainly the case with my own unforgiving mother, who cancer took a few years after she had discovered her son was "one of them."

(The real life Bobby at sixteen (center with curly blond hair) and his brother and sisters and mother, Mary)

Bobby Griffith, with seemingly no support from his father and the little good his brother or sisters could do for him, in the midst of their own brainwashing, Bobby Griffith struggled to accept his true self -- which was a sweet, smart and good-hearted kid who also happened to be gay.

(Ryan Kelley as the ill-fated Bobby Griffith)

It was a struggle because he was also enduring his mother's various attempts to help him resist temptation (you're sick and God can heal you), including attending classes to help him stay on the Christian path and to ensure his spot in the hereafter with his family rather than burn in the fires of Hell.

The film and book tells the story of Mary and her painful journey to become one of the great crusaders for gay rights, one who ultimately went on to help other parents of gay and lesbian children avoid the devastating mistakes she had made.

As a gay boy (still a boy at heart anyway) I started out by hating Mary (and being reminded of my own mother) and her homophobic, church sponsored abuse of her son. Including sending him pamphlets with titles like AIDS: God's Wrath on the Wicked, etc.

(The only gay relationship portrayed in the film. Bobby's romance with a young man who he meets while vacationing away from the family. Cudos to Lifetime for showing a guy-guy kiss in this scene, which normally I would have expected them to shy away from)

But Mary Griffith learned a lesson about the mob mentality of any group, religious or otherwise, who blindly follow the beliefs of others without ever questioning them. Mary would ultimately pay the most horrible price for her beliefs any parent could ever pay -- the death of their child.

After four years struggling to accept who he was, and enduring probably as much fear and confusion as an abandoned and shame-filled twenty year old could, Bobby finally jumped off a bridge into the path of a 18 Wheeler on a busy freeway.

I 'll be honest, I was hating this woman and feeling completely unforgiving toward her throughout the first half of the film, and dealing with a lot of long buried issues with my own mother.

How they both seemed blind and ultimately uncaring about the incredible agony and pain they were causing their precious and fragile sons.

Boys who were trying to become men. The men they were born to be. And the price they would pay by following their own hearts: they would pay the price of losing their mother's love and support. Sending them into self-loathing hate spirals that were often impossible to pull out of.

If when you were young, awkward and the most vulnerable in your social evolution you had to hide a secret about yourself, one that would alienate you from your parents and your family and the better part of the world, you understand what I keep harping at here.

(Bobby attends Bible classes to help him overcome his tempations)

I think my greatest anger about my mother, and about the character portrayed in the film, was that ultimately these were two women more concerned about how they looked as mothers, than about their own children's mental health or happiness.

This seems to be some kind of prevalent social disease: how am I perceived as a parent? It's a fear that runs so deep that it seems to ursurp one of the strongest bonds in human nature: the mother's bond with her son.

Somehow, in my mother's generation, the perception of you as an adult in the community was more important than anything that was really happening with the health or happiness of your own family.

Maybe this fear of humiliation comes with the territory when you are basically still a child yourself, struggling with the role of being someone's parent --and having been constantly humiliated by your own.

Unconditional love did not exist in my family or in Bobby's. I only found it years later with my oldest sister who had also survived the brutal emotional life we all led growing up.

(Mary insists on family therapy to help cure Bobby)

Mothers are not always the loving creatures we expected them to be (those damned expectations again) The ones we saw on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, THE BRADY BUNCH or THE DONNA REED SHOW. These were mothers created by writers and Madison Avenue for the express purpose of selling you cigarettes, popcorn and shampoo.

In real life, mothers were complicated women and sometimes brutally abusive as they acted out their own shame and fear.

And in the film, when the boy realizes he is gay, Mary shames him not only for who he is, but at a key moment in her frustration, she tells him that if he chooses to be gay, then she "has no son."

After the tragic death of her boy and the dissolution of their family, Mary Griffith, unable to forget and maybe forgive herself, searches for answers among the evil and unclean gay world her son was experimenting in.

(Mary tells her husband she cannot come to terms with Bobby's death)

Mary learned there were challenges to the essential "gay hate" passages so often quoted by the Bible boys who were acting as Mary's God. "If two men should lay down with each other, they should be put to death", is one passage Mary clung to through most of her battles with her young son.

After his death she learned that should that passage be taken literally, then so should similar Bible passages that go on to say death should be the penalty for an adulterous woman or a disobedient child.

Mary learns that the gay hate-speak from the Bible and from every Christian radio and TV program, has been very selective, in order to be able to maintain its credibility and survive scrutiny from the public.

So out goes "put your children to death" but what stays is "put homosexuals to death". Mary, blindly following her religious beliefs as most of the country (and the world) does, having an expectation of what her future, her family and her son will be, results in a tender, good-hearted boy being abandoned.

(Dan Butler as an understanding priest at the gay friendly church the MCC)

Having been rejected by both my mother and my father for their commonly held bigotries that sent their 18 year old son into the world without their love or support, this story is especially meaningful to me.

In PRAYERS for BOBBY, I did often feel like I was watching a Cliff Notes version of this very complicated story about the tragic crossroads this mother and son came to. The TV adaptation avoids some pretty major story points that the book does not:

As Bobby struggled with his self-worth and abandonment issues, he became a male prostitute for a time, sending money home to help his mother who didn't know where his money was coming from.

The TV film also avoids other family dynamics like Mary becoming addicted to prescription drugs and the problems she had with her husband and her paranoia about his real or imagined infidelity.

When I mentioned this to one friend who had seen the film, he responded it was better that they avoided these other issues because the point of the story would have gone needlessly off track.

In all fairness, from the standpoint of a filmmaker, I feel the need to say the movie plays like a typical Lifetime Movie, the network it was created for.

And as much as I despise giving reviews in public, and while my hat is off to everyone who got that movie made, if you find it (it will be repeated all this month) you won't find any groundbreaking filmmaking or drama.

(Director of the film Russell Mulcahy filming in Michigan)

The director (Australian Russell Mulcahy) moves us through the story pretty much by the numbers and he doesn't seem to be too inspiring for the actors. The script, by Katie Ford, again had the task of simplifying and sanitizing a very complicated series of life events, and in my own personal experience in trying to write this way, I have found this often results in writing proclamations into a screenplay rather than things that tend to feel and sound more authentic.

I felt the script and the film were both too broad or too "on the nose": a term they use down here for a film that has its points sledgehammered home with unsubtle or cliche methods.

Not having ever directed TV (but certainly wanting to) I don't know if its the producers, director or writers that are the ultimate culprits in Bobby staying at that all too familiar mediocre mark that Lifetime movies seem to stay at.

But don't miss my meaning: I would be a hypocrite to say that I didn't thoroughly enjoy this film, or as I already said, cried my eyes out watching it.

And an even bigger hypocrite if I didn't admit that I find myself watching Lifetime movies at least one or two a month, when I want to just unwind or am hungry to see some topic addressed that regular networks always seem to avoid.

I would like to say that Sigourney Weaver does have some of her best moments in recent years in this small screen tale (I also adored her in THE TV SET with David Duchovny) but the truly exceptional thing about this movie and so many that find their home at Lifetime, is not the film or the filmmaking, but the message and the discussion they leave behind.

(Mary gives a standard, (and a prerequisite for Lifetime movies) though moving summation of the tragic loss of her son at a city council meeting where a Gay Pride Parade is being debated)

If Lifetime movies are oversimplified and sanitized, so be it. They are also one of the few venues that actually tackle subjects like these, and get the word out.

And that, is a miracle in itself. And should be applauded.

And justifies or counterbalances most of the criticisms I might have about the movies on that network.

In fact, it might make them the second most significant network broadcasting today, after the mighty HBO (and of course Comedy Central where you can actually hear ballsy, brave intelligent political discussions that aren't afraid to challenge conservatives and liberals alike)

Mary joins a Gay Pride Parade and hears the rantings of good Christians explaining the eternal damnation of her dead son.

The most moving and the most tear jerking moment in the film for me, is at the end, when Mary has arrived at her first Gay Pride Parade and as she is marching, Mary sees her own son, Bobby, sitting in the crowd, watching the parade.

We know Bobby is dead and she does too, but I found the moment inescapably powerful and sad and am tearing up as I write of this memory.

Oh the mistakes we make. Oh the terrible prices we pay sometimes for learning. Oh the ache of the heart. And the long, never ending journey back to forgiving ourselves.

In the scene, Mary steps through the crowd and comes up to her son, who is smiling at her, and she throws her arms around him and holds him like she will never let him go. If this doesn't cut you to the bone, you may need to make sure you still have a pulse.

As she looks the boy in the eye, it is no longer Bobby, but another boy Bobby's age who has come to watch the parade.

This moment in the film, had many extras of course, and when I saw this still from that scene, I recognized the real-life, white-haired Mary Griffith was one of the extras, next to the actor playing her son Bobby.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like, to be Mary at this moment, watching her movie self hug the movie version of the son she lost so tragically?

Mary was a loving mother whose beliefs, whose commonly accepted bigotries, helped her push her son to suicide, -- and to watch this young boy, a boy playing the son she lost so tragically, being held by Mary and in essence, being forgiven, I had to stop and take a breath and compose myself.

Did crushing guilt and tragic redemption meet at that moment watching this scene being filmed? I couldn't help feeling overwhelmed at what might have been going through real life Mary's mind in the shooting of that very emotional moment.

Mary Griffith is a woman who took a tragic mistake and transformed it into a beacon of light.

The suicide rate for gay teens is four times higher than for other teens. Nine times higher for gay teens who are rejected by their families. A message of hatred and shame hangs over them, battering their self-esteem, and resulting in depression, sexual acting out, and all kinds of destructive behavior that I have known in my own past all too well.

(Bobby in the final moments of his life on the bridge he will jump from)

Is it a direct result of being abandoned by the people who we need the most, at a time we need them most? I have my answer. And maybe you have a different one.

There is, in our country, a horrifying and ongoing abuse of our children that no one ever talks about because it wouldn't make a good Jerry Springer show or a Dr. Phil segment. The kind of abuse I am talking about doesn't wear the robes of a priest and it isn't the unspoken sexual nightmares that take place in the home between some parents and their children.

The abuse I am talking about, we do by cutting the education budget, underpaying teachers and cutting arts programs. I'm talking about the kind of long term and very damaging abuse we do to our children, by not educating them about themselves in honest and healthy ways.

We also do it by destroying the planet, the one they will inherit with their children's children, and mostly the abuse I mean to point out, is the child abuse that occurs when we abandon them, by shaming them, repressing them, or throwing them out of their homes and into the streets -- often times into the hands of drugs and predators (the other damaged and abandoned children of previous generations) who will do them much more harm than good.

PRAYERS for BOBBY shows us just how much we can really lose our way when it comes to our children. Especially when we let scared men make decisions for us. Desicions that we agree to because they are wrapped in the American flag or the Holy Bible.

Mary said it best. We forget that every time we say or do anything, claiming that gays should all be shot against a wall or that people of the same sex are not worthy of the right to marry, we forget that while saying all this: our kids are listening.

And deciding if they are worthy human beings.