The Letter They Passed around the Dorm

"But most parents don’t have the advantages I did of learning from parents who were losing their children to rough conditions – about how to let children really live their own lives in the time they have on the earth."

The Letter They Passed around the Dorm
A bee working on the butterfly weed in our front garden.

I’m having one of those days where I feel so useless to the world, I’ve decided to self-medicate by sharing this letter that I wrote in the spring of 2019, in the hopes it helps somebody.

I wrote this letter to a friend of my son Kepler when they were both first-year students at the University of Chicago. (They graduate in a couple of weeks.) At the time I wrote it to his friend, I gave Kepler a copy so that he would know what I had written, since it implicated him in some ways, too.

Kepler told me that this letter ended up being passed around the dorm over the years because people in his house found it helpful. That made me very happy.

Dear [redacted]:

Kepler told me that you came out to your dad and are now heading home for spring break with the stressful situation of your mom having said she hopes you’re not a lesbian. I thought I’d just drop you a note of sympathy, having been in something like this position, although for me the issues were my atheism and being sexual at all. (With Catholics like my parents, there was not going to be any sexuality that was really okay.)

As I mentioned the first time we met, I think you’ll find you have to come out to your parents (or at least your mom) over and over again once you’re out with them. There’s a certain degree to which parents choose what to see and not see. I see that in myself as a parent sometimes.

Parents generally reject their children’s identities out of what they think and even say is love. They want you to be as happy as possible, so anything that is an identity that gets in the way of that (in their view) is of course something to be disregarded, ignored, downplayed, and/or rejected.

It is difficult for me to say why I dropped out of Georgetown at 19, but a big part of it was the realization that as long as I was living off my parents’ money, I was not going to be free, and if I was not free, I was going to die. So, I quit and moved out and became a mortgage broker.

I think the advantage you have in your situation is that you’re at a school that actually encourages free thinking, whereas I was at a Catholic school. Not only that, I was surrounded by the women I called the “pre-weds.” I couldn’t find very many people who were intellectual, and my professors were not at all interested in having us be independent thinkers. (I found this particularly odd given that my theology professor was an ex-nun married to an ex-priest.)

You, by contrast, are at a place where the [redacted] confirms your existence as legitimate and real, and you have an environment that encourages you to think. I think in such a circumstance, I would definitely have continued to mooch off of my parents.

But you’re still stuck in a terrible circumstance where you can’t really be yourself at your own home, and that is very rough. For me, that was rough not just because I felt so trapped but because it felt like an eating away at my integrity. My mother (Kepler can tell you) is conservative Catholic but is also very much about the ancient Greek philosophers, and she really raised me with the sense that what matters is your sense of integrity. That’s why putting up with them condemning me (and my sexual self) was so hard.

It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with the issue of kin. Being a mother has given me more sympathy for my parents, but has also accentuated for me how badly most parents confuse their own identities with their children’s. Parents tell themselves they are “just doing what’s best for my kid,” but in fact they are so often steering their own children in ways aimed at making the parents look and feel better.

I was lucky that before Kepler was born, I was studying disability and birth defects and had talked to so many parents facing such complicated medical situations for their children. I really learned “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and everything except cloacal exstrophy is the small stuff.”

But most parents don’t have the advantages I did of learning from parents who were losing their children to rough conditions – about how to let children really live their own lives in the time they have on the earth.

Anyway, the point of all this is to give you some sympathy but to also make a suggestion: It may help to recognize, as you are having to deal with the stupidity of some kin, that sometimes forgiving kin for their stupidity has a nice way of feeling like it repairs the integrity they are undermining. What I mean by that is that if it is possible for you to just recognize (quietly, to yourself) that your mom’s attitude is about her, and not really about you at all, it may help to stop it from feeling like it tears at you.

When she rejects the possibility that you are lesbian, she is in the end damaging herself. It need not damage you. You can, as I have done with my parents, feel sorry for her without letting her diminish your sense of self-worth.

I had some really good therapists when I was about your age, and they helped me see that, earlier than most people, I needed to recognize that I could not rely on my parents emotionally. They had been through things in their lives that limited what they could do, and the truth is, all of us are limited in our capacities.

I learned relatively early to choose to make my own sort-of family with friends, and that is what I did. It is, as you know, historically what most out gay people have had to do, although these days there is less need for that as social stigma drops and parents become less obsessed with their own “reputations” (or whatever it is that is being smeared with stigma that causes them to do the unthinkable and reject their own good children).

So, I hope you can find some degree of peace when you are home, even if that means reminding yourself over and over again that you are not the problem. Because you are not the problem. You are a fine person and there’s nothing wrong with you.

With love,

Alice