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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : Parents' Eye-Opening Lesson Transcends Its Gay Context : THE FAMILY HEART / A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out by Robb Forman Dew ; Addison-Wesley$22, 256 pages

July 06, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Family Heart" is a curious but remarkable memoir, a pearly accumulation of sweet memories and bright insights wrapped around a hard pebble of pain.

Author Robb Forman Dew is a novelist, and she makes good use of her eye for detail in evoking the day when her college-age son, Steve, made a shocking announcement. She describes the smell of lilacs in bloom, the "CBS Evening News" on the set in the next room, the crossword puzzle she is working, at the very moment when Steve entered the room.

"There's been something I've been meaning to tell you," he said.

Of course, we already know from the subtitle of Dew's book what Steve has to say to his parents, but the moment of revelation--indeed, the whole premise of Dew's book--is somehow ominous and unsettling.

"Both of us had the feeling that somehow Steve was slipping away from us, as though he were being swept off by a strong current," she writes of herself and her husband, Charles, "and we wanted desperately to catch hold of him and pull him back to shore."

At first, Steve's parents are models of good manners and supportive rhetoric, but Dew now recognizes the "paralysis of politeness" and, indeed, the unspoken cruelty in their response. "We love you, Steve," are his father's first words. "Nothing could ever change that." But Dew helps us understand that their expression of love for their son in spite of his being gay is a kind of insult.

At first, Dew sees Steve's sexual identity as her failure. She grieves for her son, alive and healthy and present, "very much as if someone had died." She recalls the comforting moments of Steve's childhood, the days when they were "safe as houses," but now she feels as if they have become "a counterfeit family." She wonders if her son is a pedophile, and she worries that he will become a victim of AIDS.

And, of course, she asks herself the inevitable question, the hardest question: "Was there something Charles and I had done or not done as parents that might have caused Steve to choose his sexual orientation?"

Ultimately, Dew sees how wrongheaded the question really is, how insulting, how pointless. "Sexuality is only one facet of personality," she writes. "Sexuality, is in fact, as intricate, essential and unique as fingerprints."

By the end of the book, Dew writes, she and her husband have come "out of our own closet." They have become activists in their own right: "The idea of keeping silent," she observes, "is inevitably transmogrified into an emotion akin to shame." And out of Dew's insistent self-scrutiny comes a definition of family values that is real and practical, and yet deeply compassionate and full of love.

"A family is a complicated beast," she concludes. "Its definition is as elusive, really, as that of love, or joy, or pornography--we can't define it, but we know it when we see it."

Dew is a mother who has come to understand what every parent must learn about his or her adult children: We cannot live their lives for them, we cannot bear their pain, we cannot shelter them from a sometimes dangerous world--we can only seek to find out who they are, and to find a way to make some loving connection with them.

Dew's book reminded me of Dan Butler's one-man show, "The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me," a play that shows us, among other things, how Butler's father reacted when he came out. On the night I saw the show, the sold-out house was sprinkled with middle-aged and elderly folks whose sons and daughters and grandchildren, I imagine, had brought them to the theater to open their eyes to what it means to be gay.

"Family Heart" is the same eye-opening experience as seen from a different point of view, and it's a book that either a straight parent or a gay child might give to one another as way of delivering a consciousness-raising message.

But "Family Heart" does not speak only to families where sexual identity is a hot issue. Rather, Dew has something important to say to every parent, every adult child and every family.

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