Lord, bless John Ames Boughton,
this beloved son and brother and husband and father.
—Ames blessing Jack, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
I met Marilynne Robinson twelve days after Donald Trump’s election, seventy-five weeks after coming out to a pair of flummoxed parents, and over three years after a spinal cord injury left me temporarily paralyzed below the waist. Three devastating moments, and had it not been for one of America’s greatest novelists, I wouldn’t have made it through any of them. At times when I was stripped of the support systems upon which I depended—when my identity and the very sanctity of my soul were called into question like the flimsy story of a suspect interrogated by police—it was Robinson who galvanized me not simply to accept my “prodigality” but to glean all the wisdom I could from bearing the burden of this wondrous label.
First things first: what do I mean when I use the word “prodigal?” Not necessarily one who is financially irresponsible, as the Latin adjective prodigus (wasteful, lavish) suggests. No, in this case, the cognate verb proves more helpful: prodigo, a compound of the prefix pro (forward) and ago (to drive or do), which literally indicates that one who’s prodigal resorts to errancy—conveniently, as will become clear—in a forward or progressive direction. To put it more figuratively, then, a prodigal individual often parts ways with the hegemonic status quo, and perhaps even traditional Christian decency.
Repudiating one’s father figure likewise falls into this category, as Robinson reminds us in her 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, a reworked iteration of the biblical Prodigal Son parable. Here, she turns to the epistolary form to spin out a story of the aging reverend John Ames who, after suffering through the loss of a wife (and daughter) in childbirth, consigned himself to perpetual bachelorhood. That is, until the transient Lila comes along one Sunday, seeking refuge from the rain in Ames’ Congregational church. Their courtship proves brief and unconventional; they marry one another, and before long, Lila gives birth to a son. He’s only eight when Ames is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and begins penning a letter to Robby so that he’ll have something to remember the reverend by. What begins as a reflection on their family history, however, soon metamorphoses into an account of Ames’ tumultuous relationship with his recently-returned prodigal godson—and namesake—Jack, the forty-something child of his lifelong compatriot and fellow minister Robert Boughton.
Previously known for his vicious childhood pranks, Jack fled town after impregnating a young girl years before. Now he’s back, and Ames is soon the only one who knows why. Their talks, first awkward, then strained, then cordial, and finally intimate, if never completely unfettered, at last impel the minister to admit to Robby, “You might wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing this all out,” but “he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him” (232).
Having read Gilead as a newly-minted first year—when bouts of homesickness and estrangement were daily demons—I turned to Home less than a year later. This second novel of Robinson’s Iowa Cycle, which focuses on the same two families in the same small town of Gilead, Iowa, became my primary fountainhead of solace after an accident that transformed life as I knew it on the fifth of July, 2013. My father and I left our one-story ranch for a bicycle ride after breakfast. As we traversed Bigger Road not two minutes away, my ears vaguely registered a horn, stentorian and strident on a morning still suffused with patriotism. Then pain. Nothing but shattering anguish from the shrapnel of a lumbar vertebra that rendered me near-feral, howling primordial groans which seemed incapable of claiming as their source a human of the twenty-first century. Numbness, at that same moment, overtook my latter half with the surprising speed of power going out in one’s home during stormy weather. One moment an opposing wall’s in view; the next minute it’s not. Unable to recoil from cars whipping by, powerless to crawl from the middle of the street, impotent to move my legs, knees, ankle, feet, toes, I was paralyzed.
It took six months to relearn the art of walking.
A crowd gathered round; two nurses, passersby, emerged from the fray to assist; an ambulance soon arrived and delivered me to Kettering Hospital after fifteen minutes of enduring a broken back bound to the rigid board of a gurney. Mine was a short stay—less than twenty-four hours in the ICU—because a team of doctors ruled out surgery due to osteopenia (a precursor to the osteoporosis with which I now grapple, having unwittingly turned my proverbial old phone in for the upgrade) that’s resulted in dangerously impoverished bone density since childhood. So the following day a longer ambulance ride was in store, this time to the University of Cincinnati Hospital for a spinal-fusion surgery of my L1 vertebra with two vertebrae above and two below. After five hours, a ten-plus-inch incision, more than thirty staples (that eventually had to be extricated from the flesh of my scarred back with something eerily akin to an everyday office staple-remover), eight titanium screws and two rods, I found myself the possessor of what some have since coined a bionic back. Still, I didn’t then—nor do I now—feel like Wolverine with his adamantium. One week later, the last (and lengthiest) of my paramedic escorts left me for the long haul of rehabilitation at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton—just twenty minutes away from my hometown of Kettering, Ohio—where they were wont, at the Godforsaken time of 7:00 am, to serve me greasy ham omelets for breakfast with barely-melted slabs of Kraft singles wedged into the fold. The worst part was that I don’t even like eggs, let alone ones that, had the cafeteria staff burned them any further, would have been delivered to me the tawny color of colonial parchment, always with pink chunks of a meat whose gritty texture I strove to ignore.
This stage nevertheless proved the easiest segment of a recovery experience that continued long after a month of inpatient therapy and my eventual discharge. Only then did I move back into the childhood home away from which I had just begun to appreciate my existence. Indeed, I had been counting on going away again—and the summer lasting only temporarily—once having assumed that life would march beyond the shelves of Hardy Boys books accumulating dust in my Wedgewood-walled bedroom, the long-untuned strings of the piano that at one point had claimed thirty minutes of daily practice-time, the marching band memorabilia and varsity-tennis trophy for sportsmanship still displayed on our living-room mantle. Now I was returning—possibly to stay, because it was clear that I’d need to take the first semester of my sophomore year off. After that it was anyone’s guess. I was still using a wheelchair. And a walker, much less the cane I rely upon now, seemed like a very distant goal.
So too, the heroine of Home, Boughton’s daughter Glory, returns to Gilead. For years she’s assured her father, and the rest of the family, that she’s “[s]till teaching, still engaged to be married, yes,” and “twice the fiancé had actually come home with her, had shaken hands all around and smiled under their tactful scrutiny,” but now everything’s changed (7). She quit her teaching job in preparation for a wedding, which never materialized, Glory’s hope snuffed out like candles on a birthday cake. Lacking funds and a fiancé, then she’s presently “alone with poor old Papa, sad old Papa, upon whose shoulder much of Presbyterian Gilead above the age of twenty had at some time wept. No need to say anything, and no hope of concealing anything either.” To Glory, her hometown “seemed different,” “now that she had returned there to live,” Robinson explains, though of course “the old place and the old stories were” dear. Still, “the past was a very fine thing, in its place,” and “her returning now, to stay, as her father said, had turned memory portentous” (8). For Glory, “[t]o have it overrun its bounds this way and become present and possibly future, too” was, “they all knew,” “a thing to be regretted.” I, too, had plenty to regret—and ostensibly little to be thankful for, despite that I was in my own room again. Well, not exactly, because we had to jettison the old bunk-beds for accessibility reasons: the bottom tier was too low, and the top one made its counterpart too difficult to access anyway.
The thing you don’t realize at the time is that in the hospital, nurses, therapists, visitors, care packages, candies, cards keep you perpetually busy. You’re occupied in this sterile environment which somehow transforms into a kind of home—my father going so far as to request a mini-fridge by the conclusion of our stay (our, because my parents slept over every night)—and that’s the most effective medicine when contemplation shepherds you only towards reflecting upon how you’ve become crippled—the word my grandmother used one afternoon on a phone-call with her best friend. Not that she meant anything by this, fear flickering across a weather-beaten face when she realized what descriptor had evaded her failing mental censors. It’s what I was becoming, after all, with no one to tell me otherwise.
No one except for Glory. We spent quite a bit of time with one another, this ever-tearful, thirty-eight-year-old protagonist of Home and I, as we navigated our forced homecomings together—she to her father Boughton, yours truly to his ruddy-bricked house in the quintessential suburbia of southwest Ohio. Without the presence of a sibling like Jack.
“Why do you keep saying that you wish you could go back to school?” my mother demands to know one morning during Meet the Press—a new family ritual following church while we enjoy homemade eggs with globular bits of salsa, broccoli from microwavable packages, and cheddar cheese. The first time Mom serves one of these frittatas after the hospital, I groan inwardly—inwardly, because this is the person who’s done everything for me, from advocating on my behalf to embracing her son on mornings when unyielding tears cascaded down the contours of his face—take one bite, struggle to roll myself away from the table, and vomit in the hall bathroom with a newly-installed sliding door which replaced the old one we’d open in the normal fashion. This spontaneous compulsion to throw up jarred me, because I’d eaten omelets of far poorer quality in the hospital, but I suppose you expect to be at their mercy there. You know you’re not free. Still you hope—even dream, and I don’t use the word melodramatically—that once you get out everything will change. When you finally realize your wishes amount to nothing more than a fanciful ignorance of what the word rehabilitation truly means, symptoms such as nausea may ensue. By the time we get into it while listening to Chuck Todd’s roundtable moderation, however, I’ve overcome this aversion to my mother’s breakfasts, about three or four weeks following my return from Miami Valley and midway through August. Now, it’s the prospect of a semester starting without me at Washington and Lee University, where I’ve already completed one year with friends and mentors who seem to have known me far longer, that looms large in my mind. “Can you not find joy in spending time with us?” she interrogates, “or your grandfather,” who’s ensnared within the final stages of a progressive neurological disease.
Not unlike Glory’s aging, increasingly-ill father Boughton. I thus find refuge, and absolution from festering guilt, in those opening lines of Robinson’s second Gilead novel: “‘Home to stay, Glory! Yes!’ her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought,” though the Presbyterian minister manages to correct himself to add, “for a while this time!” (3). He takes her bag, “first shifting his cane to his weaker hand,” and all she can manage to think is “dear God in heaven,” “[h]ow could her father be so frail.”
I’m reading Home, in fact, when Mom trudges over to perch on the arm of a couch that’s only two feet away from the recliner, once Dad’s, which I’ve now commandeered as my own. Angled across from a fifty-inch television in our bonus room, she asks if I could perhaps put my book down for a moment. Black hair pulled back with a clip, sweatshirt askew from doing the dishes, crevices under two eyes slumping towards her mouth from exhaustion and anxiety and age. She shouldn’t be doing all of this. Hell, at sixty, she’s a senior citizen. But so am I—ever since my physical therapist had the nerve to congratulate me on a much-improved gait during our last session. Sweaty, miserable, fatigued, I was ready to celebrate, until she told me that I’d achieved the ambulatory rate for an average ninety-year-old male.
“I know you don’t want to talk about this,” Mom murmurs now, “but we have to: I managed to get us into the outpatient physical therapy clinic three times this week—Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and—just brace yourself here—it’s going to have to be at 9:00 in the morning.” I could do the math: it took over an hour-and-a-half just to get ready—and that’s if I didn’t shower—between the bowel program I was still administering to myself, and the compression stockings I daily hiked up to my thighs to prevent a blood clot, and the series of transfers that were required of me just to get from point A to point B, so take that and add it to another thirty minutes to get to the hospital—plus another half-an-hour to eat the breakfast my parents would force me to consume (yes, I know, it’s the best meal of the day)—and we’re looking at a 6:30 wake-up call. I can’t even remember the last time I woke up at six-thirty.
One consoling fact sustains me in the face of this news: at least I’d get to rest for the remainder of the day.
But that’s not quite right either. “On Monday afternoon, you have to get your blood drawn, on Tuesday, you have a check-up appointment with your physiatrist, and then after that we have to drive back over to Dr. Teater,” our family physician. Probably because they’re afraid a pesky UTI—non-medical speak: a urinary-tract infection—might be lingering after I catheterized myself six times a day in the hospital. “Wednesday, the home-health nurse comes.”
“Can I at least nap after physical therapy Friday?”
“Honey, uh, don’t you remember that you have your occupational therapy appointment once a week, after PT?” I obviously hadn’t, so she takes me in her arms and kisses my forehead, and leaves me to ponder this novel identity. I’m a patient, which means my time is no longer my own. (Make no mistake about it: patient and passive both derive from the Latin patior, to suffer.)
Glory, for her part, experiences a similar forfeiture of individual autonomy when, for instance, Boughton offers her their family abode towards the close of Home, as it becomes increasingly clear that he won’t be an occupant much longer. This is not the life she wanted for herself. This is not the life she planned. And even before Boughton broaches the subject of bequeathing her the house, she doesn’t particularly relish going “off to help her father put his socks on and shave and get his shirt buttoned,” not because she doesn’t love him but because it contrasts so starkly with her expectations for what life was supposed to amount to (33). “At least I know what is required of me now and that is something to be grateful for,” she thinks while assisting the aging Presbyterian minister “with his tie and his jacket.” Glory’s even patient when her father insists that she “won’t mind waiting on” him and Jack “this one time,” after the prodigal son first arrives home, to which she responds, “This one time, now” (35). Jack’s needs likewise prove a source of constant anxiety: “Why hadn’t she bought clothes for him weeks ago?” Glory wonders while watching him work outside (194). “Because he was a stranger and she was afraid of offending him with so personal an attention. Because her buying clothes for him would allude to his poverty and offend him. Because it might seem like a subject of conversation for people who saw her buying them and this would embarrass and offend him.”
All this to say, she’s no longer a teacher. She’s no longer a lover. She’ll never be a mother, and she’ll never enjoy a life beyond Gilead. Glory relinquishes her dreams “of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent” (102). I’ve meanwhile become wheelchair-bound—as people so often say—a spinal-cord patient, and a college drop-out, unsure which of these will define me for the remainder of my life. In other words: just as Home’s protagonist must salvage her life in the wake of personal loss, so too am I challenged to envision a repurposed future for myself. It becomes my task, like Glory’s, to forge new joy from very changed circumstances. Together, we learn to love our prodigal selves.
For Glory, this involves learning to love her prodigal brother too, which proves no mean feat. Even old Boughton fears his “children might not be getting along” (72). After living together for several weeks, however, their trust begins to fortify, ever so slightly at first, over a relatively insignificant question: when to return a library book, Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. It hasn’t been checked out for twenty-five years, so Jack slips it into a grocery sack to “tantalize [his] sister’s budding interest in Marxism” (140-141). At first she’s of firm mind to “take the book back tomorrow,” to just “slip it onto a shelf,” but when Jack asks her to wait so that he might be able to read it, she concedes, “I’ll take it back day after tomorrow. Next week. It won’t make any difference. I might read it” (142). Then, finally, Jack laughs. He’s stolen a book—and what a prodigal book it must have been during the Cold War—but Glory agrees to keep his secret, and even to revel in his lawlessness.
The siblings’ situation progresses from there: one evening, Jack admits that “the fellow who did not marry [Glory] was a very foolish man” (149). But she counters that he was “[n]ot altogether. He was a married man” (149). We realize then that Glory committed adultery. The seemingly upstanding school teacher-turned-caretaker, warden of the family home, committed adultery. “Oh,” Jack replies. “So he said,” she continues. She “didn’t know it at the time,” but Glory qualifies her defense with a suspect “particularly,” to which Jack laughs. “You know what I mean,” she says, explaining that she “could have figured it out if [she]’d wanted to.” Then he comforts her: “Ah, that’s hard. I’m sorry.” By now, we realize the difference between propriety and prodigality hasn’t just been blurred but rubbed out completely. Later, Jack even begins a conversation with the address, from “[o]ne sinner to another” (137). Mutual waywardness bonds them one to the other, so much so that when her brother finally bemoans that he was unable to attend their mother’s funeral because he was incarcerated, Glory rebuts, “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. Not that it matters. I don’t care if you’ve been in jail” (289). And when, just a few short days before he leaves, Jack admits that Ames told him he is “a good man,” Glory insists, “Well, I could have told you you are a good man. I’ve said it in so many words, surely” (308). Prodigality kindles an intimacy that’s never quite burned before.
So too, the fire’s aflame in Kettering, but threatening to incinerate us all. That my mother has gone to such lengths to arrange appointments, finagle extra physical therapy sessions, chauffeur me to whatever doctor has staked a claim to my case this week, suggests there’s something to fix, to rehabilitate, to cure. This conclusion indeed seems obvious: I can’t functionally walk. So on the one hand, I remain to this day thankful for her indefatigable efforts. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but wonder why it’s so essential to walk in the first place. Admittedly, there are medical reasons to do so: immobility increases the risk of blood clots, decreases your muscle mass, and often leads to obesity. Yet is there something more? Perhaps—just perhaps there is in this country of rugged individualism, football, the great frontier, a nearly-religious fidelity to independence, and an Internet meme that features Clint Eastwood scowling with the caption, “No one owes you a damn thing; get off your ass and earn it.” We eschew dependence, we fear vulnerability, we despise weakness with a pathological vehemence, despite that the meek supposedly inherit the earth. Even so, very few impaired characters are played by disabled actors on TV and in the movies, which is to say that even when we’re watching something about impairment we crave the reassurance that in real life, at least, the performer isn’t actually disabled. Somehow this helps us enjoy the experience more. The Super Bowl’s tonight, as I write this, and my parents ask over the phone whether I’m planning to watch it. But what reason do I have watch something that enforces the cardinal virtues of fitness, strength, and physicality? What does this tell us about the human condition, I ponder, besides that my “manliness” will indeed be held up to the ideal, the paradigm, of Tom Brady. To hell with him. I’ve wandered from this norm, now in my lameness, and that makes me prodigal.
Nonetheless, lameness doesn’t seem so lame because of Marilynne Robinson.
The third of Robinson’s Iowa Cycle novels centers on Ames’ wife Lila: she’s rescued from an abusive household by a woman named Doll, the two of them fall in with a group of itinerant workers supervised by the patriarch Doane, Lila eventually leaves the group, only to become a prostitute and then a maid. And then a transient wanderer with neither work nor resources. She’s not gorgeous or literate, though she works assiduously towards the latter end. She’s not religious either. But Lila’s prodigality—as I would like to think mine does—instills within her a provocative body of experiential knowledge that impels the sex-worker-turned-nomad-turned-Christian to problematize her husband’s, and Gilead’s, religious norms. After settling into a stable home-life for the first time, she can’t help but wonder:
What does it matter if some ignorant man nobody would even notice loses the pride he has been so careful of all his life? If somebody said to him, No work here, mister—that’s just how it was no harm intended. But it was also a great voice they heard everywhere, saying, Now, those half-grown children will be hungry and you’ll have the shame of it and there’s nothing you can do but wish at least you didn’t have to look at them. And he did seem to begin hating the sight of them. But they were bitterly loyal to him for the insult he suffered because his pride had been their pride for so many years. (111)
The “he” is Doane, who “turn[s] mean” because “there wasn’t much he could spare” his wife (75). Here, and throughout her eponymously-entitled novel, Lila reflects upon why cruelty manifests itself rather than decrying those who exhibit it, and she urges others to do the same.
It does matter, Lila insists, that “the world” could “go on the way it d[oes] when there were so many people living the same and worse” (112). Poverty is nothing she acknowledges—even being tired and hungry is nothing. But Lila demands that the reverends Boughton and Ames show consideration for those “only trying to get by,” so little respected that “even the wind [is] soiling them” (112). She encourages the Gilead establishment to reconsider their entrenched assumptions because, as she listens to her husband’s closest friend one afternoon, Lila realizes “Doll [is] not … among the elect” (97). This newcomer to Gilead cannot help but contemplate how, “[l]ike most people who lived on earth,” Doll—her mother-figure, her alpha and omega for so long—“did not believe and was not baptized” (97). In fact, “[n]one of Doane’s people,” alongside of whom Lila navigated her most formative years, “were among the elect.”
From her unique standpoint, not as a physically-disabled individual but as someone dispossessed, heathenish, and previously-nomadic, Lila thus begins to challenge the epistemic norms of Ames’ community. Her foremost task is to reconcile the reverend’s Christianity with her perspective that the why remains more important than the what. And so Gilead’s newest arrival becomes increasingly concerned with whether the Christian paradigm cherished by her husband hinges upon the spirit or the letter of its religious texts—whether appeals to loving one’s neighbor intimates hope for Doane and Doll or whether their lack of faith presages damnation, despite the threads of forgiveness and salvation woven through Christianity and its holy book. During a conversation about predestination, she even points out that the concept of the elect seems contradictory to the idea of “being saved” (G. 152). “If you can’t change,” she adds, “there don’t’ seem much purpose in it” (152).
One evening, while speaking with Ames, she comes right out with it: “I’ll tell you the truth, I’m scared of Him. I’m always dreaming that Doll’s trying to hide from Him. That’s why she don’t want no grave, so He can’t find her” (L. 142). She presses Ames about her concerns until he admits, “That’s fine. I just want to say one thing, though. If the Lord is more generous than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm and very happy.” In another case—and after a similar discussion—Ames asserts that “God loves the world. God is gracious,” but that he cannot “reconcile, … hell and the rest of it to the things [he] do[es] believe” (99). Lila, all the while, explains that she has “been tramping around with the heathens. They’re just as good as anybody, so far as [she] can see.” And concludes that “[t]hey sure don’t deserve no hellfire.” Lila does not ask Ames. She tells him.
This proves one of my favorite conversations in the entire Cycle because it reveals Robinson as the truly prodigal writer that she is, and—to digress momentarily—because the argument Lila makes parallels my own experience of trying to access inaccessible venues. Toiling to do so can often feel like languishing as one of the damned, lingering in a stairwell, for instance, while you hear the festive sounds of the elect standing, mingling, dancing with ease up above in a friend’s apartment. I’ll be the first to admit that I never realized how important accommodations are to so many before my own experience of existence with an incomplete spinal-cord injury.
In the end, Lila finds shelter and community in Gilead. And, if only tenuously, religion too, but in her own way and with her own approach that ends up teaching others as she develops it—not unlike disabled individuals who must devise strategies for maneuvering through a life evolving, I would contend for weal as well as woe, by physical and emotional challenges unknown to their able-bodied counterparts. Lila will teach her son the hymns. He will recite his verses and prayers, but only because the God Lila herself chooses to worship understands that it couldn’t be fair to punish scoundrels who happened to be orphans, or whose mother didn’t even like them, and who would probably have better excuses for the harm they did than the ones who had somebody caring about them. It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good. (259)
So too, I tried to be “good,” and I think my parents believed this to be the case until I came out as gay to them a short two weeks after returning home for the summer once junior year ended. Of course, the decision to divulge this information was not an easy one, but then again, no pursuit of identity is. Not when you spend your dinners in a college dining hall wondering why you don’t find the ladies your best friends call to one another’s attention attractive; why you command no desire to make out with a woman while watching two peers kiss at a Friday-night party (Okay, maybe that’s because dance-floor make-outs are gross.); or why on quiet evenings when you’re alone in your room after three suitemates have tucked themselves in for the night, you Google pictures of “hot male movie stars,” and then the next time something a little more action-packed, and then the time after that something even more titillating, like surreptitiously pilfering first beer then whiskey then Everclear from your parents’ liquor cabinet when they’re not home (the irony being that I lived a banally unadventurous youth). To be honest, I enjoyed those images immensely, which proved the most devastating reality of all, sickening even, since I was still secured within the harness of the heterosexual paradigm, and just as hamstrung as those rowdy children you see restrained on leashes, frenetically attempting to escape the clutches of their walkers.
As all of these personal moments culminated over the course of my junior year, sleepless nights and tongue-twisted speech ensued, as did hours spent reading the same few pages of the Canterbury Tales while I grew increasingly fidgety, distracted, caught off guard by a book out of place, cords askew, or an undershirt whose truncated sleeves crinkled in my arm-pits. It wasn’t until I considered the situation in terms of my accident that I achieved some semblance of inner peace. First, I came out to my closest gay friend, then to several straight peers whom I knew were supporters of gay marriage—which still seemed an appreciable risk at the time—finally, to my advisors, and then I returned home for the summer, pledging to be honest with the two people who have most impacted my life. It’s true: I owe them everything I have and all that I’ve accomplished, after years of Mom taking dictation for stories rife with run-on sentences when I was still too young to write; years of Dad listening to the books I read in college while travelling for work so he could discuss them with me; years of them both fostering the passion for musical theater I cherish to this day, which was conceived when they took me to see Peter Pan on Broadway at age four.
But “How do you know?” and “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” and “Why do you want to make your life even harder?” and “What about your health?” are the mainstays of the first and subsequent conversations we have on the subject. My parents and I both fire phatic bullets we’ll most likely always regret. Probably because I didn’t foresee that Mom, to whom I confide first, and then my father, who reads the letter I eventually write for him a week later, are confounded, hurt—and utterly unsatisfied with the answers I have for them. Frankly, because they aren’t good. How am I to explain that I just know, that this is not a decision but a realization, that this is simply who I am because, gosh, I’ve never dated and don’t talk about women and once called a sixth-grade teacher handsome?
In other words, I have a choice, between spilling everything—that when I first watched High School Musical Zac Efron evoked within me a response whose full potential I had yet to take advantage of, or that the 2012 Olympics sparked a troubling interest in Ryan Lochte, or that I made an effort to shake a certain classmate’s hand every day in high school just because he was attractive—or nothing at all and imploring them to believe this son of theirs who’s had a pretty good track record when it comes to making life decisions so far. The former option seems insufferable, and so an appeal to the mutual trust that’s always defined our relationship becomes the answer. Only this tactic founders. When their baby-boomer fears regarding the ostracism that’s sure to accrue as a result of my coming out fall on unreceptive ears, a Cold War envelopes, and suddenly I find myself the brunt of a Rainbow Scare that threatens brinkmanship at every turn. We only children tend to become the sole portfolios into which our parents invest money, so it proves all the more alarming, to all of us, when I’m deemed the “prodigal son”—a Jack or Lila with their sexually deviant pasts.
When I was in middle school, we met my mother’s best friend from high school at an LGBTQ-themed television station where she worked in New York City. But after witnessing her lonely struggle with cancer—and subsequent depression—alongside few friends and no family members, they yearn only for a future halcyon with ease on the heels of the adversity we’ve faced together. They don’t kick me out or damn me to hell or cut me off—since such hatefulness is alien to them—but still I feel lost in the wilderness, left to tend the filthy pigs of my psyche. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that I turn back to Robinson. Just as Lila’s experience of prodigal poverty endows her with an epistemological cachet unknown to Ames or Boughton, so too it becomes clear that had I not undergone the accident and rehabilitation process, I would not have learned to accept my homosexuality, much less come out.
That is, the accident overthrew for me the despotism of normalcy that had hitherto governed my personal decisions—my conception of Pasquale Toscano. I had aspired to be normal in all those traditional ways: attend college, become an attorney, marry a woman, raise a family and probably construct around my house an enclosing apparatus with two horizontal rails to which one affixes tapered planks. (Otherwise known as pickets, which infantrymen once utilized to ward off the cavalry in war.) Much of these expectations, in turn, are predicated upon society’s obsessive need to control and regulate the body: you’re expected to be well enough to conceive a child; you’re expected to insert your genitals only into certain orifices; and you’re expected, at twenty-one, to be able to ambulate without a brace and certainly without a cane. Not so for me. At one point, I wasn’t even sure that walking again would ever be possible.
In a split-second—or the time it took for a car to careen into me—therefore, I had escaped these physiological parameters. I was living beyond the pale of rules that govern the body because my body was abnormal, which instilled within me a sense of terror and liberation in the selfsame moment. It no longer seemed so feasible that I would be able to conceive a child through natural means—and it thus didn’t seem so infeasible that I would be able to have sex with whomever I’d like. Though people try, their powers prove vastly inconsequential compared to the fundamental fragility of our human condition.
And so I came out, accepting, finally, that I feel certain ways towards certain people. My prodigality revealed a new way forward—admittedly, with torturous side-roads and roundabouts en route—at a time when I was being pulled into the past. It was Robinson who taught me to encourage, rather than suppress, my waywardness to see what discoveries it offers.
I am who I am because of Marilynne Robinson.
Just when I was coming to terms with myself as a gay, disabled individual, however, a series of ostensibly unfounded claims to carrying the support of America’s silent majority coalesced into reality: Donald J. Trump was elected to be the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. A man who mocked the reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, joked about grabbing women’s genitalia, and has, since the election, signed a “religious freedom” executive order legally justifying discrimination became the leader of a country in whose commitment to individual autonomy I desperately yearned to take stock. In the aftermath of such a victory, the fortifications of my identity began collapsing like a great pile of sand without any angle of repose. I don’t believe I’m particularly unique in this regard, either. Many people felt, and feel, marginalized, expendable, even vilified amidst this nostalgic return to a bygone era of American greatness.
When was that again?
A month before the election, I return home over Washington and Lee’s long, reading-days weekend, where I catch-up with extended cousins at a family birthday party. Five of us sit in my great-aunt’s cluttered living room. Their eyes churn with disaffection and dread.
“We need someone who’s going to get the job done, a real businessman,” says one.
“We need someone who’s going to protect family values—I mean why the gays have to marry is beyond me. I don’t want another president like Obama who lit the whole White House up when it suddenly became legal. We sure as hell didn’t vote for that,” insists another.
“It’s not a world I want Anderson to grow up in,” yet a third nearly hisses of his son, who’s five and murmured the other day that he “loves me,” I suspect, without his parents’ exhortation and certainly not while under their supervision. His father Griffin wears an Ohio State sweatshirt, exhaling air that reeks of cigarettes.
“They wanna change this country. Liberals. Muslims. Black people, Mexicans, they all want to make it their own. They’re just moaning and crying around,” his sister Gingy reiterates before she glances over at me. “What do you think?” Meanwhile, I’ve been sitting on a couch that faces this cousin twelve years my senior, mentally picking over the few knick-knacks which are situated across a chaotic mantle to her rear: an encased baseball signed by Cincinnati Reds players from 1972; a picture of my family after the one still-successful wedding we’ve celebrated in five years; a dusty model of the car I’m told my great-grandparents once owned, but now with a wheel snapped off so that it wobbles if you so much as look at it. Redirecting my attention, I notice that the mole beneath Gingy’s mouth seems to have contracted; that her hair’s the color of wheat just when it’s about to be harvested; that a patina of coffee-brown skin belies her abjuration of tanning beds. Anything to occupy my mind because I’m at a loss for what to say. They still don’t know about me—that I’m gay—and I haven’t told them, partly because my parents insisted I wait till I’m sure, since they’re sure “the right woman is going to come along soon,” and partly because of, well, this. I don’t even feel like a member of the family anymore. Already, they sense my strangeness, especially since I went seven hours away to college.
For a moment I don’t say anything, hoping that they’ll lose interest, that this will all go away—not just them, but what I’m hearing, and their attitudes. No one moves. “Do you really want a president who imitates someone with a joint condition?” It’s a whisper, really.
Gingy’s twin butts in: “Maybe they get all whiny over at your college, but here we just want someone who says it like it is.” So by then, the whole conversation’s getting contentious. Feelings are about to be hurt. We’re talking about more than what we’re talking about.
I hoist myself up and walk through a threshold into the adjoining rec room, past this coven of cousins from the couch at the far side of what now feels like a narrow crate, thinking of what they say behind my back. Maybe they’re calling me “one of those gays” already. Probably a “fairy” when they’re feeling especially down on their luck—in the face of one pending divorce and another recently-completed, an endless routine of ballgames with nothing much else in between, unemployment, mounting debt, and the claustrophobia that accretes when couples, families never enjoy time to themselves, though none of this crowd ever leaves their hometown. It’s rural, pastoral, even serene at points, but increasingly dilapidated—closing shops, moldy siding, boarded windows, peeling paint—with Confederate flags peppering yards and cobalt political signs that appear regal until you make out the white names plastered across them.
All this to say that in the months before the election, I desperately needed affirmation of who I was and who I hoped to still become and the marvelousness of my prodigal being.
It was lucky, then, that one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities soon struck: I was invited to attend the Dayton Literary Peace Prize ceremony by an English teacher with whom I’d remained close since high school, particularly after the accident. She and her husband proposed that they bring me along to this celebration of literature aiming to promote peace as a graduation gift, mostly because Marilynne Robinson was named 2016’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Our paths were again crossing. Once more, the country’s preeminent voice on faith and the American heartland was coming into my life at the time I most needed her—perhaps more than ever before. I yearned for those elegiac turns of phrase, the grave meditations of an Ames or Glory or Lila, when it seemed that so many people were speaking on impulse alone, talking, shouting, degrading, as a result of anger and depleted empathetic faculties.
Events divagated towards the even more unexpected two weeks later. A close friend of the award program’s director, my former English teacher asked me, on her behalf, to introduce Robinson, I’m guessing because of my unique perspective as a millennial on novels set in the 1950s and the entire honors thesis I wrote on her over the course of my senior year—and, most importantly, because someone else backed out at the last minute. I said yes, of course—probably bellowing it over the phone with stop-sign-red cheeks and sweaty palms and legs that attempted to project me out of a rickety desk chair until my nervous system reminded those languishing muscles that things aren’t so easy these days. Frumpled but not deflated (this time), I plopped back into my seat while wondering at the news. Now it was only a matter of whether I would be able to endure what seemed to be a truly herculean task, a labor of the most euphoric kind.
Part of me never thought such a day would come to fruition. It couldn’t, surely.
And yet, that fateful Sunday before Thanksgiving indeed stuttered into the present, an evening on which I would need to plead with brittle bones and loosening hardware to heave my mildly-overweight body onto the stage of Dayton’s most elegant theater—crowned with a sky of stars that replicates the evening our native Wright Brothers first lifted off the ground—before nearly four-hundred of the writing community’s most notable voices. Tables were set with florid centerpieces of pink and vermilion, silky tablecloths, and sparkling cutlery; men in their tuxedoes and women in their ballgown ensembles of azure and chartreuse and magenta found their way to assigned seats, all of them forming a grandiose semi-circle around a single lectern placed nearly on the stage’s outer edge. Studious waiters served me steak with potatoes and asparagus for dinner, but most of it stayed on the plate.
I caught only a glimpse of her beforehand—gray hair shimmering to either side of a sagacious face, a simple but elegant black outfit paying homage to true Midwestern austerity, a subtle, soft-spoken radiance that engaged and intimidated with equal strides. Here was a woman whom even President Barack Obama saw fit to interview, but she clearly didn’t care a lick about proving it to anyone. I was captivated, though mindful too of my father’s admonitions against giving her cause to request a restraining order later.
When I stood up at the appointed time, as I forded my way through a zagging stream of chairs turned every which way in preparation for the keynote speaker of the evening, my knees were quaking from side to side, rejecting what little muscle innervation’s left, recalling, as I did, recent nightmares of trips and tumbles and blood splattering across the likes of someone like Anthony Doerr. Despite such formidable portents, however, I actually managed to wait for my own introducer to call me up. I managed to stumble up to the podium—meekly huffing under my breath as a still-paralyzed left-foot caught on the penultimate stair, even with the calf-high brace I wear to secure my ankle and minimize the chance of tripping, until a lifting of the knee managed to prop rigid toes over what has at other times sent me dashing to the floor. I re-claimed my balance by resting both hands upon the podium and at last focused on Robinson.
Our eyes locked; she nodded; her smile evinced the serenity that I imagine once characterized Siddhartha himself. And everything seemed to crystallize into focus—my hopes and dreams and vision for a future that had become indefinitely distant since the eighth of November, 2016—as I set my sights upon a group of thinkers and creators and trailblazers who reminded me of the perseverance and indomitability of the human spirit when invigorated by a profound love, kindness, and zeal for its co-inhabitants on this earth.
What now comes to mind about that night is not so much what I said, or what I felt as I was saying it, the confidence that seemed to subsume me as I was articulating what had been bursting forth from my core since the first line of Gilead—Ames’ gentle explanation to his son that he will be leaving soon: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old” (3). But what happened immediately afterward, as I stepped down, and Robinson stepped up with outstretched arms at the ready to envelope me and offer up explanation as to why, despite everything, I still adore this world of ours. We stood there, before much of the American literary intelligentsia, me with my head in the crook between her neck and collarbone, Robinson with a hand that tenderly patted my shoulder, one ensconcing the other in a moment of intimacy almost holy.
“Today, many people cloak bigotry in the guise of traditional values,” she commenced, and her soft-spoken mellifluousness liquefied into the very marrow of my bones.
I realized then with a conviction unknown to me until that evening why I read and why I write and why I return to the Ameses and the Boughtons: theirs is the community I need and the refuge I want, a second family to stress that biology only gets to tell part of my story. It seemed especially true as Robinson spoke of a divided nation, of hatred and fear, of customs and a culture still antipathetic to so many, and to so much of who I am, that writers create life-saving worlds in which countless others like me have found their homes. Patient and passive may hail from patior, but so does “passion”; that night, I rediscovered mine for literature.
The guilt of prodigality—that is, of disappointing parents, disassociating myself from a (biological) family, upturning all that people once expected of me—washed away, leaving behind only its glittering splendor, like a long-lost artefact revealed by sediment that shifts with the changing tides of a stream. Enthralled, I marveled; still amazed at its radiance, I rejoice. And so I keep the faith—in this world, this life, this country, and in me—because of Marilynne Robinson.
Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: Picador, 2004. Print.
Robinson, Marilynne. Home. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
Robinson, Marilynne. Lila. New York: FSG, 2014. Print