Family Fellowship Forum Review

Review presented at the Family Fellowship Forum in Provo, Utah, June 27, 2010. Reviewed by Janet Heimbigner. Review posted here by permission of the author.

I will be reviewing the book, No Going Back by Jonathan Langford. As described on the back of the book, it’s a story about “a gay teenage Mormon growing up in western Oregon in 2003. His straight best friend. Their parents. A typical LDS ward, a high-school club about tolerance for gays, and a proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution. In “No Going Back” these elements combine in a coming-of-age-story about faithfulness and friendship, temptation and redemption, tough choices and conflicting loyalties.” It’s published by Zarahemla Books since it’s something that as the author says, “has PG-13 content and was probably the only Mormon publisher that would touch the book.”

The story starts out as 15-year-old Paul comes out to his best friend, Chad, and then to Chad’s dad who happens to be the bishop of their ward. Chad has a problem with the news at first but eventually becomes a firm friend. At the bishop’s urging, Paul tells his mother. He begins to attend the Gay Straight Alliance club at his school. Through it all, Paul stays strong in his determination to go on a mission, attend BYU and marry in the temple. The club members don’t understand how Paul can be both “gay” and “Mormon” and this illustrates the huge gap in the way the church views being gay and the way much of the rest of the world does, a recurring theme in the book. Bad things happen to Paul in the story, of course. There’s bigotry, taunting and he’s outed to the ward through gossip. And going against the bishop’s advice outs him unexpectedly to the school.

Overall, the teenage characters, their interaction and language seemed believable. Teenagers do swear, even in Utah. They tease and mock each other. Chad struggles with Paul’s news in a realistic way and he finally comes to terms with it and his and Paul’s friendship becomes as easy as it had been before. This, however, is a stark contrast to the way the other ward members treat him.

Paul’s mother and bishop respond with love and compassion. I especially love the character of his mother, Barbara. She responds to Paul’s pronouncement with a calm love. “Barbara nodded slowly. Inside, she felt her mind go into a deep freeze. I have to be a mom right now. I can fall apart later… At times like this, she wished she’d grown up in an active LDS family. Maybe there would have been a talk or lesson somewhere along the line that would have given her a clearer idea how to handle this.” Ha! I only wish that were true. Maybe someday. Then she responds to Paul calmly, “You’re still my son. I still love you. Whatever happens in your life, I’m on your side. Okay? This doesn’t make me love you any less or think less of you.” If only every mother could respond as Barbara does. At one point, Barbara is asked, “How do you deal with it? Not just Paul being…whatever. But the attitudes of the ward members. Of people you know.” Barbara responds, “When it comes down to it, it’s not really that hard to choose between your child and the rest of the world. You do what you have to do. Whatever you have to do.” She has what Millie calls the “mother bear” attitude.

She later attends a PLFAG meeting. “Barbara had imagined that a lot of it would be about the challenges of raising gay teens, helping them make good choices and learning how to understand what they were going through…a lot of it, though, seemed to be talking about ways that homosexuality and lesbianism and things like that could be accepted better by society. No one seemed to have a problem with the idea that their children were that way—or if they did, they weren’t saying anything about it. Partway through, she had what seemed like an epiphany. These are good people. A lot of them are parents just like me. All they want is for their children to be happy. But they’re trying to get there by supporting them in things the church teaches will ultimately make them only miserable.” Again underlining the recurring theme in the book, if you don’t follow the Church you will reap pain and sorrow. It makes one wonder what the Barbara’s of the church would do if her son did embrace his sexuality and leave the church.

Paul’s bishop also responds in a calm and caring way. Of all the characters in the book, his seems the most contrived. He seems to respond in ways that we’d HOPE a bishop would respond. He calls Paul to be Teacher’s Quorum president even after Paul tells him he is gay. Paul relates the interview to Chad. “I told him I was gay. He got a really weird look on his face and asked if I’ve ever done anything, you, know, gay with someone else. And then…it looked like he was thinking. Then he said he figured that as long as I was doing what I should, it didn’t make much difference what I was tempted to do. Then he said I could still be a good teacher’s quorum president if I follow the same standards everyone else is supposed to follow.” This concept, ironically, is difficult for most members of the church to understand. Coming to terms with ones sexuality is not the equivalent of embracing pedophilia or an unchaste lifestyle. Paul continues, “We talked awhile. He said he didn’t know why some people turn out gay, but I shouldn’t be too quick to decide I’m really gay. Except he called it same-sex attracted, which apparently is what some people in the church call it. Whatever.”

Paul attends the GSA club at school and gradually “outs” himself there. He makes a friend, Jared. This leads to some experimentation not once, but twice as Paul gives in to the tangible sexual feelings of the moment, as opposed the his very intangible desire for exaltation. Perhaps Paul was testing the bishop’s warning to not to be too quick to label himself gay. Maybe the lack of information and openness within the church about same-sex attraction contributed to these situations. He enjoyed the experience but suddenly does a complete turnaround, confesses to the bishop and then tells Jared he can never see him again, essentially cutting off any sort of friendship with him, even though they have much in common. At the urging of his bishop he also stops attending the GSA club. This emphasizes the recurring theme in the story that if you go against the church’s council, bad things will happen to you. It’s this type of thinking can all too often lead to a life of misery and heartache if a person is continually promised that if they follow the church’s teachings and serve a mission, get married, etc. that they will find a happy ending.

I asked my son and a couple of his friends to read the book. One of them, Mike, wrote me a four page letter of his thoughts and gave me permission to share some of it with you. Mike is a very active, lifelong member of the church, has served a successful mission, and graduated from BYU. He also is struggling with the realization that he is bisexual. Here are his thoughts: “Okay, so, the book… Oh, where to begin? I can definitely say that this work took me across the full spectrum of human emotion. I laughed, I cried, and then I became incredibly angry. I believe I understand the author’s intentions in writing this book and obviously who his target audience is. I also understand, from a gospel perspective, why he wrote the book and the plot the way he did. Ultimately, however, I must admit that I don’t agree with him at all. The protagonist’s experience is , I imagine, supposed to be representative of the average LDS teenager’s experience of coming out and trying to be true to himself and his faith. This author’s agenda, however, is to promote LDS values and supposed gospel principles to tell young people how they need to respond to their specific situation. I also assume that the author is gay and this how he elected to respond and react. I am firm in my belief that everyone is different. What works for one individual won’t work for another. He (the author) may have found peace in his testimony but how long will that last and how can he guarantee his methods will work for other people? Ultimately my thoughts on the book are 1) That it’s not okay to be gay even though no one can help it. 2) Being a harassed, closeted Mormon is more important than finding personal peace and happiness. 3) That gay and lesbian young men and women are as one-sided and stereotypical as most Mormons claim them to be. 4) And members of the LDS church are as bigoted and narrow-minded as the rest of the world proclaims them to be. Are these the messages the author wants his readers to take from the book? I hope not.”

The book seems to be marketed to a Young Adult audience yet the author warns that “It’s not intended as a manual for gay teenagers in the Church. In fact, one of the things I worry about is that gay teenagers reading this story might find it simply too depressing, since some pretty awful things happen to Paul over the course of the story.” He says his intended audience for the book was “faithful adult members of the Church (with a taste for reading fiction that’s more realistic than what you’d find in Deseret Book) who may have not had any direct experience of dealing closely with someone who has experienced same-gender attraction--at least, not that they know…ideally before they know this is a problem they’re going to be dealing with on a close level.” So I suppose I was his intended target two years ago, before I knew my son was gay. As well as our bishop, who had no idea what to tell my son when he told him he was gay and quickly turned him over to LDS Social Services.

But the main idea in this book after all else is stripped away is that a gay Mormon has two choices. 1) Stay in the church and live a life of denial and loneliness on the belief that as Paul puts it, “I’m only gay is this life but I’ll always be Mormon.” Or 2) to leave the church.

I found the ending to be crushingly depressing and at odds with the book’s title, “No Going Back” as Paul does, indeed, try and go back. Back into the closet and hiding what and who he is.

Those of you who follow the Family Fellowship Forum on Yahoo probably saw the post this past week from a mother whose teenage daughter was taken aside by a member of their Stake Presidency and told she could not go to girls’ camp in order to “protect” the other girls from her. I guarantee every mother reading that had the adrenaline pumping and was ready to give that bigoted, self-righteous man a piece of her mind. But maybe more books on this polarizing subject can open discussion within families and local leadership. The author puts his motivation for writing the book this way: “I…wanted to communicate a sense that being same-gender attracted is not something that falls outside the range of normal life experiences…I wanted…to have a flavor of normalcy, in part so that LDS readers who may not have experienced same-gender attraction in themselves or seen it in someone close to them may be more inclined not to see it as something wholly other and alien but rather may see some of the ways that it falls within the realm of typical teenage experience.” A very lofty but noble goal for a book.

I give the writer high marks for tackling this subject at all. And whether I agree with the ending or the church’s position, it did open a very enlightening discussion with my son and his friends. For that reason alone I would recommend this book and I hope there are many more books dealing with this subject to follow.