Today I am honored to welcome Kathryn Shay, author of The Perfect Family back to Colloquium! When I first read the book’s synopsis, because I am a civil rights attorney, I was very anxious to read it and see how Kathy would treat the subject matter. At that time, I was not aware of her extremely personal connection to the topic, but learning of her own experiences only enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of her work. You can read my very enthusiastic review here.
In addition to contributing today’s very special guest post, Kathy has also graciously provided one autographed copy of The Perfect Family to be awarded to a lucky reader! (See entry details below.)
Talking about The Perfect Family
Thanks to Colloquim for asking me back to blog again!
Today is a good time to talk about my book, The Perfect Family. I probably don’t have to tell you about the events of the last few weeks, but I’d like to recap a few of them. A young Rutgers male student was secretly videotaped with another boy and when his roommate put the video on You Tube, the student committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. Nine gang bangers tortured a recruit to the gang in gruesome, brutal ways because they suspected the boy was gay. At the same time that this was happening in New York City, the Republican nominee for governor of New York called the gay pride parade disgusting and labeled gay people as abnormal and perverted (my interpretation of his sentiments). He later retracted his statements but as we all know, you can’t really take back what you said. And my last example is a young man in the Midwest who committed suicide after a city council meeting where the community did not support getting rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. As the mother of a gay son, I’m appalled—and frightened–by these occurrences. As the writer of a book about tolerance and acceptance of gay teens, I’m very sad to hear all this.
National Coming Out Day was just a week ago. We have gay pride parades, laws against discrimination, many organizations such as Gay Alliances and PFLAG to help gay people and their families. But given the above, it does seem like we’re backtracking. It’s amazing how many people feel they have a right to vocalize their hatred of a segment of the population. How did we get to be like this?
For those of you who don’t know, The Perfect Family is about a gay teen coming out to his parents. The Davidsons are an average American family, happier than most, I’d guess, who love each other dearly. But the ramifications of the son’s disclosure on the family itself, the community, the school and the two churches involved are extensive. Though the book is fiction, I used some of what happened to our family when my son came out and a lot my feelings about being the mother of a gay teen is in the novel.
Interestingly, I remember when I was writing The Perfect Family wondering if, by the time the novel got published, it would still be relevant. How naïve of me. I decided to set it in a small town to “validate” the events because I thought these circumstances of prejudice and bias maybe wouldn’t happen in a bigger city, a bigger school. How wrong I was. But truthfully, in the nine years since my son has come out, I thought things had gotten better for him and others like him. But things haven’t gotten better and it hurts my mother’s heart. Obviously, considering the events of this month, my concern about the story’s relevance was invalid. I’m sorry to say that and wish I could do more.
Why is it so hard to accept each other? Why do individuals refuse to tolerate differences in someone else? And why — WHY — do gay people scare our society so much? Yes, I know the common religious, familial and cultural reasons, but watching the news this month makes all those objections so insignificant.
Now I’m at the point of hoping my book can help the families of gay teens prevent some of the tragedies like those listed above by emphasizing how important it is to there for their kids and by speaking out against society’s prejudices. Let’s all do our part!
Kathryn Shay is a lifelong writer. At fifteen, she penned her first “romance,” a short story about a female newspaper reporter in New York City and her fight to make a name for herself in a world of male journalists — and with one hardheaded editor in particular. Looking back, Kathryn says she should have known then that writing was in her future. But as so often happens, fate sent her detouring down another path.
Fully intending to pursue her dream of big city lights and success in the literary world, Kathryn took every creative writing class available at the small private women’s college she attended in upstate New York. Instead, other dreams took precedence. She met and subsequently married a wonderful guy who’d attended a neighboring school, then completed her practice teaching, a requirement for the education degree she never intended to use. But says Kathryn, “I fell in love with teaching the first day I was up in front of a class, and knew I was meant to do that.”
Kathryn went on to build a successful career in the New York state school system, thoroughly enjoying her work with adolescents. But by the early 1990s, she’d again made room in her life for writing. It was then that she submitted her first manuscript to publishers and agents. Despite enduring two years of rejections, she persevered. And on a snowy December afternoon in 1994, Kathryn Shay sold her first book to Harlequin Superromance.
Since that first sale, Kathryn has written twenty-one books for Harlequin, nine mainstream contemporary romances for the Berkley Publishing Group, and two online novellas, which Berkley then published in traditional print format.
Kathryn has become known for her powerful characterizations — readers say they feel they know the people in her books — and her heart-wrenching, emotional writing (her favorite comments are that fans cried while reading her books or stayed up late to finish them). She has won five RT BookClub Magazine Reviewers Choice Awards, three Holt Medallions, two Desert Quill Awards, the Golden Leaf Award, and several online accolades.
Even in light of her writing success, that initial love of teaching never wavered for Kathryn. She finished out her teaching career in 2004, retiring from the same school where her career began. These days, she lives in upstate New York with her husband and two children. “My life is very full, but very happy. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to pursue and achieve my dreams.”
An excerpt from The Perfect Family
Maggie heard Jamie come into the laundry room, where she was trying to make headway with the family’s clothes. Turning, she saw him drop to sit on the step and she got a look at his face. “You all right, honey?”
“Yeah.” Jamie gave her a fake smile. “I gotta talk to you.”
Her pulse rate sped up. Good news never followed that statement. She set the shirt on the washing machine and leaned against it. “Shoot.”
“I have a date Friday night.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“I think so.” His gaze locked with hers. “I hope you do, too.”
“Of course I do. Can we meet her?”
“It’s not a her, Mom. It’s a him.”
“A him?” She stared at her son blankly. The sound of the refrigerator across the room, the ticking of the clock on the wall seemed unnaturally loud. When realization hit, her mother’s heart tightened in her chest. “You have a date with a boy.”
A long pause. “It’s okay, isn’t it?”
Please God let me handle this right. After a moment of speechlessness, she said, “O-of course it is.”
Jamie’s fingers tightened on their dog Buck’s collar. Suddenly, her son seemed smaller, more fragile, in his jeans and sweatshirt.
Maggie crossed to him, knelt down and took both of his hands in hers. His were freezing cold. “Honey, you know there’s nothing you could ever tell me, ever do or feel that would make me love you less.”
A frown. “Yeah, I know that.”
Well, she’d done this right. At least he knew her love was unconditional. But oh my God…the ramifications of his admission were far reaching.
“I just…I don’t want this to make you sad. Especially now that you’re so happy about Aunt Caroline.” He glanced down at the linoleum, then back to her again. “Are you upset?”
“That you’re gay?”
You have no idea. “No, honey. I love you for who you are.”
“Do you feel bad?”
How honest could she be? With Jamie and herself?
“Only that you didn’t tell me sooner.” Not quite the whole truth, but part of it. The easier part. Again, she thought of all they’d shared. Yet, dear Lord, he hadn’t told her something so vital to who he was. The notion made her stomach cramp.
“There wasn’t any need to tell you. I never wanted to date before. Now I do, which is why I said something today.”
“I guess I can accept that.” Later, she knew, his withholding would haunt her. Pushing away the selfish thought, she cleared her throat. “Does anybody else know?”
His expression was wry. “The guy I’m going on a date with.”
“Who is it?”
Her jaw dropped open. “Luke Crane? Your brother’s teammate?”
“Ma,” he said, sounding like the adult in the situation. “One out of every ten people is gay.”
She’d knew the stats, had brushed up on them for a section of Psyche 102 she taught.
“I know. I never suspected it about him, though.”
“Did you, about me?”
Maggie had had some concerns. Once or twice she’d brought them up to Mike. The discussion always upset him, so she kept her worry to herself. One night, though, over a bottle of Merlot, she’d confessed her fears about her son to her best friend Gretta. She’d sensed all along Jamie was different, but in the end she decided the best course of action was to let Jamie tell her when he was ready. “I had some suspicions, Jame.”
“Why? Because there were no girls in the picture?”
And because he’d been interested in theater, and then started hanging out with a group from the plays. Paul and Nick were gay, she knew from Jamie himself. Also, Jamie had no desire to participate in sports beyond a brief stint at diving. Stereotypical thinking, which embarrassed her, but it had been there nonetheless.
Maggie moved to sit next to her son on the step. Buck compensated by lying at their feet. “Does Brian know? About you or Luke?”
“Did you tell any of your friends? Julianne?”
“No, definitely not her. She’s so right wing Christian, Mom, I can’t talk to her anymore. Especially about something like this.”
“I’m sorry.” Maggie knew she shouldn’t ask, but like prodding a toothache with your tongue, or taking off a Band-Aid to check a wound, she couldn’t leave this alone. “Did you talk to an adult, honey?”
“Um, yeah. Ms. Carson.”
A sudden prick of tears, which she mercilessly battled back. He’d told another grown woman and not his mother. “H-has she helped you?”
“Yeah. A lot.”
“Luke and I aren’t gonna hide being together, Mom. We’re not gonna broadcast our dating either, but kids will find out.”
She groped around her mind for the mother role, one she usually fell into so easily. “How close are you two, Jamie?”
“We’ve been hanging out since the Valentine’s Dance. We got to be friends, then it turned into more.”
“Are you happy?”
He nodded. “My first boyfriend.” His expression turned sappy and Maggie’s heart ached and rejoiced at the same time. Then anger took over–that he’d been deprived of this normal adolescent feeling for so long. “It’s fun, Mom.”
“Good for you, honey.”
They talked about the times Jamie had seen Luke and his giddy feeling was even more evident, making it easier not to think about all he hadn’t shared with her.
After a half-hour, she glanced at the clock. Mike would be home soon. So she was forced to bring up the mechanics of dealing with what Jamie told her. “How do you plan to handle this at home? With the family?”
“Brian’s gotta know before anybody at school finds out. I’ll tell him. You tell Dad.”
Which they both knew would be the hardest part of all this.
Mike’s love for his son was deep. But how on God’s earth was he ever going to reconcile Jamie’s homosexuality with the Catholic religion? He was so single-minded about the church. The thought of how his attitude would influence this huge benchmark in their lives terrified Maggie. She squeezed Jamie’s arm and left her hand there, more for herself than him. “Dad will want to talk to you about all this.”
“What about the rest of the family?”
Since he was a baby, Jamie always got this certain expression on his face when he was troubled. Maggie could read it like a neon sign. “No.”
“I don’t want to announce to anyone I’m gay, Mom.”
“What does that mean?”
“That I’m a son, a brother, a friend and an actor, not just a gay man.”
“I understand that.”
“And you didn’t feel the need to announce to anybody that Brian’s straight, did you?”
How wise he was for sixteen. Of course, he’d had time to think this out. And she was still reeling about the effect his disclosure would have on Mike. On all their lives.
“All right. I can abide by that wish, until it’s time for people to know.”
Like Brian’s graduation party, a few months away, if Jamie decided to bring Luke as his date. There were several possibly homophobic people in their lives.
A half-grin from her son. “We’ll tell people on a need-to-know basis.” Standing, he reached out a hand to her. She took it and prayed he didn’t feel hers trembling. When she got to her feet, she hugged him. He held on longer than usual. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too.”
“Come on, Bucky,” he said to the dog, and they both disappeared down the hallway. She heard his feet pound on the steps, the bathroom door close and Buck bark at being left outside.
Dazed, Maggie picked up Mike’s shirt and stared down at it unseeingly. Her heart thudded in her chest as the ramifications of Jamie being gay flooded her. She picked up the stain spray to apply more to cuff, but dropped the can to the floor. Gripping the shirt to her chest, she swallowed hard.
“Stop it Maggie,” she said aloud. This wasn’t a tragedy. If Jamie had a terminal illness, or hit somebody while driving and killed them, or was into drugs that would be a tragedy. His sexual orientation was a simple fact of life.
Forcing herself to move, she put the white clothes in the washer, but random images bombarded her: Brian teasing Jamie about not having a girlfriend…Jamie’s dislike of proms… discussions about having kids, and Jamie saying he wanted some. She thought about Brigadoon. Her son was a boy who’d never experienced longing for the opposite sex but he always played the romantic, heterosexual lead in the plays he loved so much. What had that been like for him?
Her heart ached for her child—what he’d gone through alone, and what he would still go through, even in this day and age. In bigger cities, gay kids were more accepted, but Sherwood was different. And she knew the shattering statistics on gay teen suicide—three times higher than others in the age group.
After she closed the machine’s lid, she went to leave the laundry room, but instead, slid to the floor and wrapped her arms around her waist, trying to squelch her negative thoughts—like the wish to go back to how her life was an hour ago. Like the wish that…no, she wouldn’t even think about that. It took her a while but she won the battle and chose instead to figure out how she could help her son. And her husband.
With Buck at his heels, Jamie took the stairs two at a time. He catapulted into the bathroom, slammed the door and lowered the toilet seat. Dropping down onto it, he buried his face in his hands.
Breathe in, breathe out. Again. And again.
When his stomach settled and he didn’t feel like he was going to hurl, he stood and crossed to the sink in front of the mirror. He looked the same. Too skinny. Great hair, now that it was longer, normal nose. Eyes that, some cheerleader had told him, could get him into any girl’s pants. Showed how much she knew. But as he stared at his reflection, he sensed he wasn’t the same and never would be after what just happened in the laundry room.
He’d told her! Finally, after years of self-doubt that made him sick to his stomach, and when that passed, months of feeling like he was going to bust open from the inside if he didn’t let go of his secret, he found the courage to tell her. Luke’s last text message said, If you do, I will. They’d made a pact to approach both their mothers today.
But, oh God, he’d upset her, this woman who’d been the most important person in his life. He could see it in her face, always filled with gentle love and an acceptance most kids couldn’t fathom.
Typical of her, she’d tried to be brave. She said the right things. Yet he knew her almost as well as she knew him and what he’d revealed would cause her worry and pain. He’d pretended he was good, too, that he hadn’t had sleepless nights over who he was, hadn’t gone through stages of self-loathing and recriminations. He was, after all, an actor. And he had come out on the other side, had accepted who he was. Rejoiced in it, even. Finding Luke just brought it all together.
Still, this step was done. Finally, finally done.
After throwing some water on his face, Jamie opened the door and made his way to his own room. Flopping on the bed, with Buck leaping to the foot of it, he checked his text messages. None. He was dying to know how it went with Luke, who was scared shitless of his parents. But like Jamie, being gay had gotten too big to keep inside any more. It took too much energy to keep the door closed on a closet full of secrets. How would Luke’s Mom and Dad handle it? Would they explode, say awful things that could never be taken back? Luke feared the latter, and having gotten to know the Cranes in the last few weeks, Jamie expected the worst.
Linking his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling, he thought about his mom again. She hadn’t said any of those awful things and she never would. She’d deal with his being gay and any problems that caused inside her and make his coming out easier for him. Yet Jamie wasn’t out of the woods. Brian would freak, and Jamie would have to smooth over not telling his brother sooner. But it was his Dad’s potential reaction that woke Jamie up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Because of the church he belonged to and the religion he embraced, his own father could reject him. His Dad might say those things he could never take back.
And Jamie didn’t know what he’d do if that happened.
Probably sensing tension in him, Buck barked and moved in to nuzzle him. Jamie petted the dog for a while, then grabbed his phone and sent a text saying, So, how’d it go telling your parents?
After a while there was a chime. I couldn’t do it, Jamie. Maybe we should both wait.
Jamie’s hand curled around the cell. “Now you tell me.”
Disappointment shot through him, harsh and acute. When he got past it, he messaged Luke that it was okay, he should wait until he was ready. But it wasn’t okay, really. The plan was to share the joy of coming out to their parents. He wanted to share everything with Luke.
“Shit!” he said aloud. Bolting up, he knew he had to get out what he was feeling, so he went to the desk, to his journal, which was the only place he’d been honest for months. Once again, he poured his heart out on the pages.
I am alone in this.
I didn’t think I would be.
He promised he would tell.
It was too much for him.
Fear mixes with joy.
Joy colludes with hope.
Hope brings about expectation.
Was he wrong to have told all?
His real self speaks:
No, no, no.
It’s right. No matter what.
Right to be the person you are.
Enter to Win an Autographed Copy of The Perfect Family
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Friday, October 29, 2010, at 11:59 p.m. (Pacific time)
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