The most important story is the self: who we say we are and where we tell ourselves we come from. This is the basis of memoir, a genre that gives selfhood a beginning, middle and end — even for lives barely half over. This is not only evident in Dustin Lance Black’s “Mama’s Boy: A Story From Our Americas,” but elemental: The book is a treatise on using storytelling to get what you want.
If this sounds negative, it’s not. But it is skeptical. First, the basics: Dustin Lance Black is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” a biopic about the nation’s first openly gay elected official. After the 2008 success of Proposition 8, Black organized a publicity campaign intertwined with legal challenges to marriage inequality that culminated in the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling.
Raised in a Mormon family with Southern roots, Black’s closeted sexuality isolated him first emotionally, then geographically. His mother, who lost the use of her legs as a toddler, is the book’s hero. Raised by sharecroppers, she lists “the things she’d been told she’d never do,” including going to prom, driving a car, going to college, having children — milestones denied those who, by fault or fate, fall outside the American narrative.
No one reading this is naive enough to think Rose Anna Whitehead, or Anne, will not accomplish them all. Despite her conservative roots, she is intolerant of racism — “Because polio didn’t discriminate”— and even comes to embrace her son’s sexuality. She goes far in her career and raises three strong boys. All of this Black renders in delightfully sentimental, cinematic prose that provokes genuine gasps, laughter and tears. Overall, “Mama’s Boy” is a book to be enjoyed, even loved — a rare enough achievement in memoir, but a unicorn among its celebrity subgenre.
But Anne’s life is only the book’s scaffolding; politics is its architecture. “If my mom and I could set foot on the bridge between us, then perhaps our neighbors and those closest to us could too,” Black writes. He calls this “a higher plane than politics,” which is odd since politics is the public discourse that shapes our civic relationships, including familial. There’s nothing wrong with writing a political memoir, and this mask — that “hearts are what change minds”— is not only the book’s vulnerability, but also its hidden aggression against the lives it advocates for.
One sees this most irascibly in Black’s attitude toward his LGBTQ peers: “Those fighting Prop. 8 were almost exclusively putting straight faces forward, talking more about rights than lives, love, or families. … Their campaign came off as cold, often confusing and spineless.”
Instead, Black suggests to queer elders that they “focus on personal stories: our love, our families, our children.” They should avoid “the language of any one part of America to argue this case.” Yet, throughout this memoir, there is only one language that matters: “That’s why you don’t mess with the institution called ‘family’ where we come from. It’s just too powerful and necessary.”
It is family, after all — and its variations, including the Mormon church — that creates such misery in “Mama’s Boy.” When Anne’s first husband strays, her bishop blames her for not creating a good home. Her second is violent, and the church forbids her to engage the police. Yet Black is grateful for the church, which offered protection, solidarity and even cash. (Never mind that they isolated her from civic life and made her ashamed of her disability, which she blamed for her husband’s infidelity.) It is this church and Anne’s homophobia that give Black a shame so intense he contemplates suicide.
Again and again, he defends “the passion and power of absolute familial primacy.” Another term for this is “family supremacy,” which becomes a tribe — Black’s unwitting shadow-word for “family”: “Today’s boxes, the ones created for the world’s tribes to fit in … must be built of rather angry blades, because instead of keeping us safe, they cut our families, our homes, and our world to pieces.”
Family, through its own primacy, cuts itself to pieces, as anyone nearly destroyed by their own family knows. To wage a campaign of civic equality based in family supremacy is disingenuous, the consequences of which — as primarily white gay nuclear units are embraced by corporate marketing — are clear. Today, the LGBTQ community is sharply divided. To adhere to the same “family values” as those who vote hatefully is not building a bridge; it is merely crossing it. It is escaping familiar words —“Fag. Faggot. Homo. Pervert. Sodomite. Pansy. Queer. Mama’s boy” — only by mimicking those who torment you.
“We knew we had to stand up straight and tall, and have the guts to invite [a] bully out to a proper fight.” This is Black’s defense for taking marriage to the Supreme Court. But he did not go alone as a wealthy, white, handsome and marketable gay man. Before that same bully, he brought all LGBTQ people — including trans and non-binary individuals, the most at-risk people in America. He gambled their futures alongside his. Today, he is married and a father. Many trans persons live in states that refuse to recognize their gender, and the nation’s homeless population is disproportionately queer youths of color.
“We tell each other stories to help make us stronger,” Black says. The story of “Mama’s Boy” is admirable. It even comes from a good heart. But whose mind does it change? The line of privilege has shifted in America, and rather than make ourselves stronger, it seems wiser to lift the voices of those whose stories mean nothing on “the most consequential stage there is: the family dinner table.” It seems crucial that everyone be recognized as wholly human, even if there’s no home, no dinner and no family to turn to.
By Dustin Lance Black
406 pages; $27.95
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