Sunday, April 1, 2018

Blaming Your Parents

I have a friend I love dearly. He’s a great guy. In hindsight I realize we became friends because we’re both terribly codependent, and we recognized each other as broken brothers. He's the gay adult child of alcoholics. I’m the gay adult child of teetotaler Mormons. Both our backgrounds placed us at risk for serious codependency.

Unfortunately, my friend and I have a tendency to elicit codependent behaviours from each other. For both our sakes, we can’t spend much time together right now.

I blame his parents. Not mine.

This week I read Native American author Sherman Alexie, Jr.’s most recent book, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. It’s a searing but funny memoir about Alexie’s relationship with his mother Lillian. Alexie felt compelled to write the book after her death a couple of years ago.

For various reasons, I probably would never have gotten around to reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.* However, the last time I was across town picking up something from my parents’ house, my mother handed me her copy as I was leaving. Mom said she particularly liked the poetry Alexie wrote for the book. So I had to come home and read it.

As I occasionally mention, ever since I was a teenager, my favourite author has been an obscure twentieth-century Scottish woman who wrote under the penname Jane Duncan. My mother’s favourite author rubbed off on me.

I was pleased when my college friend Henry reported he’d tracked down copies of some of Jane Duncan’s books and enjoyed them. Henry’s recent comment reminded me of the only time I ever got someone hooked on Jane Duncan. It was the lovely red-haired girl I dated in grad school. (Yes, sometimes I’m bizarro Charlie Brown. Long story, remind me to come back to it.) 

What I remember most vividly about the episode was her later saying “I didn’t realize these were your favorite books in the whole world. All you said was that you liked them.” [Ed. Note: notwithstanding the Canadian coffee-shop wi-fi, “favorite” is spelled the American way because it’s a quotation; the original conversation occurred in Utah during the 1980s.]

In hindsight, I may not have conveyed my enthusiasm for Jane Duncan to my Mormon girlfriend in language that would be comprehensible to normal humans. It’s a family thing. We only communicate via written text. Or via subtext. Or both.


By some weird coincidence, just before starting to read You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, I published “Writing Cascades.” This was the blog post about traveling with my engineer grandfather to tour the Grand Coulee Dam, still the largest all-concrete structure ever built.

Sherman Alexie is around my age. He grew up on the other side of mountains from me, on the Spokane tribal reservation near the Grand Coulee Dam. We each escaped our pasts and moved to Seattle in the 1990s. Nevertheless, Alexie’s entire professional life has been as an Indian writer, endlessly wrestling his with tribal identity. (I’m not like that at all.)

As with the Coastal Salish tribes I live among, for centuries the world of the Upper Salish tribes revolved around salmon. Sherman Alexie’s ancestors ate and worshipped salmon. Then the world changed. At his mother’s funeral, Alexie and his siblings laughed when they realized none of them even knew the native word for “salmon.”

Today, like a spawning salmon, you can start swimming upstream at the mouth of the Columbia River. Hundreds of miles later, Grand Coulee Dam (together with its more recent neighbor Chief Joseph Dam) is the first hydroelectric project you will encounter where the United States government didn’t even bother with the fig leaf of fish ladders. Instead, eighty years ago, engineers from the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers made Grand Coulee Dam the last exit for the salmon. And for the People of the Salmon.

Out of respect for my grandfather and his Greatest Generation, I edited out of “Writing Cascades” most of my outrage over this ugly fact: after four centuries of relentless attempts at the genocide of this continent’s indigenous peoples, including the Interior Salish tribes, the United States government delivered the coup de grace by squashing their sacred fish with 12 million cubic yards of concrete.

Even in this hyperbolic age, “genocide” is not a word I use lightly.

In You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie reports the last wild salmon in the upper Columbia River was sighted in 1938. It swam all alone to the foot of the Grand Coulee Dam. Where it glared futilely at all that concrete.

Alexie’s parents were part of the first generation of Spokane Indians to grow up in a world without salmon. Not coincidentally, Alexie’s parents were also among the very last native speakers of the Spokane tribal language.

I love salmon. I grill it. (I’m such a dad). Everyone around here loves salmon. In the Pacific Northwest, we “worship” our salmon: coho, sockeye, king, Copper River… We also fetishize the indigenous people’s relationship with salmon, from the ubiquitous native-style salmon designs, to the “authentic” salmon bake for tourists at Tillacum Village. In front of every local casino, you’ll find the obligatory statue where some embarrassed salmon is batting its eyes at the orca across the fountain.

Even with their treaty-guaranteed share of the Pacific salmon harvest, life for members the Coastal Salish tribes is hard. (I can tell from the job descriptions for tribal attorneys.) Without salmon, what’s left for their Interior Salish cousins? A bleak radioactive reservation. A vanished culture. And a few dreary tribal casinos, where perfunctory statues merely remind observers how different the world was before my grandfather’s colleagues at the Bureau of Reclamation severed the Interior Salish tribes from the salmon they worshipped and needed.

You Don’t Have to Say I Love You is the most powerful book I’ve read so far in 2018. It beat out some highly-rated competition, including Call Me By Your Name, and Robert Wright's The Moral Animal.

I loved Alexie’s lyrical language, including the poetry. I related to both Alexie’s professional and familial lives. Indeed, I could have framed this meditation as a “Doppeler” essay about another individual whose life has paralleled and/or crossed threads of my own story – including multiple times just this week.

In addition to the timing coincidences, Alexie and I share numerous substantive connections. Our writing explores many of the same themes: Tribal relationships. Leaving without leaving. Being a writer. Being a dad. Being a son. Taking our meds. Facing the scars of ancient traumas. And that doesn’t even count Alexie’s explicit references to being codependent, just like me and my gay adult-child-of-alcoholics friend.

However, I truly recognized Sherman Alexie as my shattered brother when I reached page 128 of You Don’t Have to Say I Love You. Alexie reveals he suffers from PTSD by describing the moment as an adult when he encountered a particularly loaded trigger, and he suddenly projectile vomited.

That happened to me a couple of years ago, too.

In You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie is very hard on his mother. In a loving, kinda forgiving, and visibly conflicted way. But he’s very, very hard on her.

More like vicious, actually.

Sherman Alexie publicly reveals his mother’s very darkest and most private secrets, not his own. At best, he accuses her of complicity in the childhood abuse that traumatized him on and off the reservation. At worst, Sherman Alexie bluntly accuses his mother of neglect. Loving, miserably tragic, parental neglect. Parental neglect that Sherman Alexie has made a career out of spinning through his story-telling. While obviously never escaping.

Sherman Alexie’s parents made immense but still insufficient personal sacrifices for their children. To me, the neglect described in You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me looks like a clumsy, unarguably loving attempt to raise Sherman Alexie. A doomed attempt to prepare him to face the world awaiting him – a world his wounded parents accurately foresaw would be unspeakably cruel to their children. Starting with their own cruelty.

Like most people who met her during her lifetime, I’m terrified of Lillian Alexie. And apparently like most people who met her in real life, I think I would judge her a lot more kindly than her son Sherman does. 

Here’s a link to the entire YouTube montage of Dawson and 
other on-screen teens climbing through bedroom windows. You’re welcome.

Have you ever had the experience of lying upstairs in your bed late at night, and realizing the noise you’re hearing is someone outside throwing rocks at your window to get your attention? The last time it happened to me, I was probably a teenager.

Until one night last year, when two separate guys threw rocks at my window, a couple of hours apart. (These are the kind of logomaniacal incidents that made me realize my life is too implausible for mere fiction.) The first was my gay codependent friend who is the adult child of alcoholics. The second was a troubled friend I hadn’t heard from for many months, seeking some free legal advice. We’ll call him Trailer Park Single Dad.

Trailer Park Single Dad voted for Donald Trump. He’s not out of the closet. He has a lot of other baggage that clashes with mine. Nevertheless, we became friends. Partly because I’m codependent and want to save the world. Trailer Park Single Dad has a child from his dysfunctional former relationship with an equally troubled woman. Our sons are about the same age. Trailer Park Single Dad is always in hot water with authorities like Child Protective Services over anger management, substance abuse, and other issues.

These days, folks who work in the recovery and domestic violence fields are cautiously optimistic. Men and women in Trailer Park Single Dad’s socio-demographic cohort are part of the first generation of survivors who had access to decent support services before they became parents themselves.

But it’s going to take a long time to break the cycle.

It’s Easter Weekend. It’s also the Mormon Church’s 188th Annual General Conference. Christians (including Mormons) believe in sin. Supposedly they also believe in redemption. So do I.

Two Original Sins attended the birth of our nation, and are inscribed in the Constitution: (1) race-based slavery, and (2) the displacement and extermination of America’s indigenous tribes. We all live in the shadow of these evils.

Thinking of my grandfather reminded me that good people can do things with bad consequences. During World War II, Pops served with the Army Corps of Engineers in the Pacific. He believed Truman made the right choice to drop the atomic bomb and end the war in August 1945, rather than begin a long and bloody invasion of Japan. 

The United States government did a lot of destructive things to the Upper Salish tribes during Lillian Alexie’s lifetime. My country dammed the upper Columbia River, extinguished the salmon population, sent native youths away to abusive boarding schools, relocated families from the reservation to urban areas, neglected vital human needs, enforced assimilation, and entrenched a vicious cycle of poverty, addiction, and abuse.

Federal bureaucrats did not anticipate many of the consequences of their actions. They not intend to commit genocide. But they still sinned in our name.

This weekend marks the Mormons' first General Conference with their new leader. Earlier this year, Mormon church president Thomas Monson died after a ten-year tenure as Prophet. His successor Russell M. Nelson is a 93-year-old retired heart surgeon. 

Before his elevation, then-Apostle Nelson made waves when he used a Mormon youth conference to double down on the church’s anti-LGBT rhetoric. Perhaps more disturbingly, President Nelson’s first official act as Prophet was to replace President Monson’s kindly counselor Dieter Uchtdorf, a retired Lufthansa pilot, with senior Apostle/homophobe Dallin Oaks. I wrote in “Driving Brother Dallin” about President Oaks’ lawyerly contribution to the Mormon church’s long-running campaign against LGBT people. Oaks clings to a “cure” model of sexual orientation that other Mormon leaders have quietly abandoned – with no acknowledgement of the decades of trauma caused by conversion and electro-shock therapy, doomed mixed-orientation marriages, and relentlessly homophobic messages.  

At their introductory press conference in January 2018, Presidents Nelson and Oaks fumbled their answers to a predictable question about the church’s relationship with LGBT people. (Nelson: God loves his children regardless of “their challenges”;  Oaks: leaders have the responsibility to teach love but also “commandments from God.”) 

As I’ve mentioned before, my quixotic gay BYU roommate John Gustav-Wrathall is the Executive Director of Affirmation, the advocacy organization serving LGBT Mormons and their families. As much as I tease John, I’m an optimist, too. Yesterday at General Conference the Mormon church announced President Nelson had called two new Apostles. Both are men of colour. They’re from a younger generation than Presidents Nelson and Oaks. Elder Gerritt Gong is a Chinese-American Rhodes Scholar with an openly gay son. Friends report the Gong family does not treat their son’s sexual orientation as a “challenge,” but as an important part of his identity. Mormons like the Gongs and my parents are how redemption begins.

In my tribute to my father on his birthday, “I Come From Good People,” I wrote how at every meeting of Codependents Anonymous, someone reads the following words:

Many of us were raised in families where addictions existed - some of us were not. In either case, we have found in each of our lives that codependence is a most deeply rooted compulsive behavior and that it is born out of our sometimes moderately, sometimes extremely dysfunctional family systems. We have each experienced in our own ways the painful trauma of the emptiness of our childhood and relationships throughout our lives. 

I also pointed out the contrast between the home I grew up in and the typical codependent’s experiences:

I’ve listened to other codependents’ horrific stories about growing up in homes racked by addiction and abuse, and how the result has been a lifetime of failed relationships and personal unhappiness. Sometimes I feel like Tina Fey in the 30 Rock episode where she accidentally follows her crush into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, then pretends to be an alcoholic to fit in. No, it’s not “false consciousness” or the Stockholm Syndrome, I really do have nice parents. Besides, they’re the kind of Mormons who would never drink alcohol or coffee. But still Mormon, dammit. I can be pathetically codependent too, really... obviously....

I've also never blamed my parents for the not-talking-about-your-feelings thing. Everybody was like that back in the day. Plus we come from dour Mormon pioneer stock. Between snarky jokes, I'm sure my three brothers would agree this reticence suits us – to the exasperation of my three sisters-in-law and all my exes. 

Looking back at my various blog posts about codependency over the last year, I realize I have made essentially the same point deflecting blame away from my parents on multiple occasions. Often enough that Freudians would accuse me of denial. Often enough that Ockham’s razor or Sherman Alexie would suggest a simpler, more accusatory explanation.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Besides, we’re no more repressed than countless Catholics and Lutherans. And not just conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans – we’re no more repressed than many ELCA Lutherans I know.

In the end, I’m comfortable with the conclusion my parents have no specific personal responsibility for the youthful traumas I endured growing up as a sensitive gay Mormon best-little-boy-in-the-world. I could have been Catholic or even Episcopalian. Or Jewish. (Yes, I know everyone thinks I’m Jewish. We're just a different tribe of Israel). I’m proud of my pioneer heritage, and I don’t blame my parents for being Mormons. Not even for the parts of being Mormon in the 1970s and 1980s that traumatized so many gay youths.

On the other hand, I’m not absolving the Mormon church (or the Catholic Church, or the Lutherans or anyone else) for their sins. Irrespective of religion’s other effects, good or bad, churches have done – and too often continue to do – an immense amount of cumulative damage to LGBT people. Just as churches damaged women, slaves and their descendants, and other people of colour.

True Christians acknowledge these sins. In case you’re looking for a reliable heuristic for determining whether someone is indeed a true Christian.

My parents had it easy when I finally came out of the closet twenty-three years ago. They only needed to go to a meeting of PFLAG  ("Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays") to pick up a few pamphlets before becoming the type of perfectly supportive parents recently represented in the movie Love, Simon

Not to belittle PFLAG or pamphlets. We’re a reading family. Books and pamphlets are how we’ve always processed things together.And sardonic humour.

1My daughter Rosalind and I are a little more up to date. We’ll text each other across the room if we need to talk about something important.

Note to parents of other newly-out queers: My parents both are very smart, but even if you’re kinda slow yourselves, I promise you’ll only have to go to a few PFLAG meetings before you get the hang of this. You don’t have to be like my mother and go to every local PFLAG meeting, board meeting, picnic, parade, festival, and conference for the next 20 years. To the incalculable benefit of an entire of generation of Bellingham’s LGBT community and their grateful families.

My friend who is the gay adult child of alcoholics says he often finds my blog posts confusing because they start out by talking about a topic, and then never seem to return to it. Apparently subtext is a Leishman family thing. Or an English Major thing. 

For my friend's sake, this time I’ll explicitly return to my original subject: the parents of codependent children and other survivors of childhood trauma.

I take alcoholism and other addictions just as seriously as I take mental illness. I don’t have a propensity to substance abuse myself. But as a codependent person, I've demonstrated a propensity to fill my life with addicts, narcissists, and other troubled people. Over the years, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about and empathy for people who live with addiction. And for the family members and friends who live in the orbit of addicts. 

I'm endlessly hopeful for the many alcoholics and other addicts who keep trying to change. Like Lillian Alexie. Even though she spent her entire life on a genocidal salmon-free Indian reservation, married to a drunk, Lillian successfully gave up alcohol forever when her son Sherman was seven years old. 

I’m also a big believer in the principle of “harm reduction” – meeting people exactly where they are, and supporting them as they identify and choose the least bad option from among often terrible choices.

Everyone has choices. As a person living with mental illness, I’ve always made it my highest priority to avoid collateral harm to my children, regardless of what’s going on in my own life. I’m hardly perfect. I cut myself some slack, hopefully about as much slack as I would want any other parent to give or receive. But on the whole, I am proud of the kind of single father I’ve learned to be, even under often challenging circumstances.

Any kid would be lucky to be have the kind of parents I have. And, as a result, any kid would be lucky to have the kind of parent I try to be.

*FINE PRINT TRIGGER WARNING: As I’ve written elsewhere, Sherman Alexie is the subject of credible accusations of sexual misconduct. The allegations are particularly horrifying because they involve one of the worst evils Alexie denounces in his memoir: a flawed tribal elder who contributes to the tribe’s multi-generation cycle of abuse by preying on weak acolytes. All of Alexie’s accusers are adults – but they are also young Native Americans or other women of color Alexie mentored as writers.


I wrote this meandering essay in honour of my mother, on the occasion of Mother’s Day. Not Easter.

I wanted to remind her and everyone else how much I love her. And I wanted my parents and everyone else to see the best possible evidence that I’m inconceivably healthy these days: for the first time since childhood, I’ve become the kind of person who finishes major writing projects early.

Weeks early. It’s getting disturbing.

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