[Be forewarned: the following is meant to be an homage and a confession, but in the truest spirit of Murat11’s blogs, it will be, first and foremost, as we all know, a ramble.]
This past week, in the wake of the Larry Craig buzzing, I was driving in early morning traffic, listening to an addle-brained local broadcaster engaging in faux journalism with his incessant “I’m just askings.” I suspect that his apparent attempts to be “objective” had more to do with Mr. Craig’s Republican affiliations than with any issues of sexual orientation; I seriously doubt that the likes of, say, Melissa Etheridge would have been accorded the same deference.
At one point in this faux-caster’s radio twaddle, he invoked the phrase “homosexual lifestyle.” So much for journalism. Just what is, I ask you, a homosexual lifestyle? What, for that matter, is a heterosexual lifestyle? It’s clear, from subsequent comments that Mr. Faux made, that you could substitute “cruising and promiscuous” for the words homosexual lifestyle. If cruising and promiscuous = homosexual lifestyle, then there are quite a few of us out here in hetero-land that qualify for new sexual designations.
Howzabout we retire “homosexual lifestyle” to the graveyard, right beside “I’m just asking.”
So saith the hummingbird darting outside my window.
It is very clear to my visitors that, when not going all goo goo and nostalgic, I have lately been deeply involved in The Episcopal Church’s and Anglican Communion’s quagmire regarding issues of “full” or “non” inclusion, as it relates to the blessed place of all people, regardless of sexuality, to be accorded equal standing (seating, and kneeling) within both TEC and the AC: equal standing here = LGBT rights to marry within the church, rights to have marriages and unions blessed within the church, rights to serve in capacities from diaconate right on through to Archbishop of the See of Canterbury. The word “rights” seems a terribly legalistic and inappropriate word for something which, to my mind, should be a given. I don’t think the Son of Man was into parsing the “rights” of women, children, and men: he kept it simple—a two-pronged mantra. If we can’t think with the clarity and hearts of children, we end up with the primatial mess in which we’re currently embroiled.
Over the past few weeks, all of this has had me thinking again of Bill.
In September 1978, I moved to Austin, to attend the University of Texas Graduate School of Social Work. I was, as it happened, also newly married, and newly cast in the role of stepfather to a beautiful 4 year old stepdaughter. Most of the “enlightened” folks around me thought “one” of those new developments would have been challenge enough, without going for all three. I chalked that kind of talk up to just the kind of thing I would expect from social workers with agendas to grind; they may have had a point, but who lives a life as “rationally” as all that?
One of the earliest items of business our first day of school was getting our assignments for field placements and field supervisors. I was assigned to Bill; I would be working with him at the Travis County Child Welfare unit. The prospect scared me to death.
In a meeting full of intensely dour world-savers, Bill stood out with his infectious (well, not infectious to his dour brothers and sisters) mirth, his bright smile, and his raucous, cackling, grackle-like laughter. As I sat in terror of knocking on the doors of child abusers, I wondered, what in the hell does this man have to be so happy about?
Here’s where the details get a little fuzzy, so the actual chronology may be just a bit off.
I found that, in addition to my terror with regard to knocking on doors, I was also terrified about the prospect of meeting with Bill for our weekly supervisory meetings. Intimacy with older men was not something I had ever been comfortable with. I had, for all practical purposes, been a fatherless child, and while my relationships with two stepfathers had not been in any real way hostile, they had been marked by a great deal of anxiety: silence always weighed heavily in the air of any car rides that may have featured just the two of us. And Bill expected me to show up weekly for a meeting with him to bare my soul and work ethic?
Here’s where we get to the cutting edge:
Somewhere in these early weeks, a new friend of mine mentioned that she had been a therapy client of Bill’s; to this item, she also posed a question: “Do you think he’s gay?” I didn’t know if he was gay, but after the question, I did know one thing: I was terrified by the possibility. And I can’t even say exactly what that new terror was even about, which is my point here: I think homophobia is much more than fear of being the same, or of being seduced, or any of the other absurd and ridiculous notions that attend it. Because what I felt was pre-verbal: it went to the very core of me: there were no thoughts, images, or specific worries: there was just terror.
[If this terror is what the global Anglican Communion has institutionalized, as my friend Kenny Strickland suggests, then we have our work cut out for us.]
So, added to my pedestrian terrors, I could add the angst of a deeply existential one. I was absolutely horrified by the prospect of my next meeting with Bill. But, I couldn’t duck it.
There are things you do in life about which you cringe upon recalling them later. I do not cringe about that next meeting with Bill, but the me that grew through my relationship with him is astonished that I was once so very confused and lost.
We went through our meeting pretty much as before, looking at my cases, my documentation, looking at my – old social work catch-phrase – “use of self.” Social work has gotten no better, perhaps even worse, at its penchant for ridiculous neologisms.
Near the end of our session, Bill asked me if there were anything else I needed to talk about. I should have just asked him if I could throw myself out his two-story window, but instead, I blurted out: “Are you gay?”
As if that were any of my fucking business; as if it made one bit of difference.
The room was very quiet. Bill smiled a very warm smile and his face turned beet red. He leaned towards me, clasped his hands, and said gently, “In all my years of supervising students, you are the first person to ever ask me that. I’ve been expecting the question for years.”
“Yes,” he said, “I am gay. And I am perfectly fine with telling you this. But: I expect you to respect this information, and not ever hurt me with it.”
I was astonished by his honesty, and by the courage of his vulnerability. I was simply blown away—and so was the terror.
Bill was the one true mentor in my entire 20 years as a therapist. He was by far the greatest of my human fathers. He passed away several years ago, but I love him to this day. His genius as a clinician was to keep things elegantly simple, and not get caught up in a wash of psychobabble. He taught me the deep healing of laughter in my work with my clients. Once, when I called him to refer a good friend of mine for counseling, he listened to a laundry list of what my friend was struggling with, laughed, and said, in summary, “Oh, so he’s just a big ole mess. We’ll have a lot of fun.” My friend came to love Bill just as I did.
(Bill loved messes and challenges. Later in our year of working together, he told me that when the supervisors were divvying up the new students, no one would touch me. “They thought you’d be too much of a challenge. I told them to give you to me, that we’d have a lot of fun.”
Two students in that incoming class were Harvard graduates. Both of us were shunned for the same reasons: Bill grabbed us both.)
The truly great therapists are so much more than clinicians: they are shamans. Bill was one of the greats.
He may have blown away my existential terror at our meeting at the Rubicon, but it took a bit longer to take care of my more pedestrian fears. A few weeks later, we met after I had managed to run off all the clients he had assigned me. These were all individuals who had been reported for ALLEGED child abuse or neglect, claims that were in need of investigation: I was responsible for substantiating the claims, not swallowing them whole hog.
Bill said: “You know, if you sum up your approach to these folks, you’re just another cop. These people have plenty of cops in their lives, plenty of bossy parents. They don’t need another one. You need to figure out how to be something different.”
The key was simply getting to know them, talking to them, hanging out with them. I never lost another referral that year. And I took that simplicity into my 20 years of practice. My goal at all times, even in the most heinous or difficult of situations, was to be able to speak of things as if we were simply breathing.
Bill was born in Gonzales, Texas. He’s buried down in Lockhart. He lives in my heart.
I’ve been reading a lot of Louie Crew’s Anglican Pages over the past few months. There’s a Bill, if I’ve ever seen one.
Labels: Folger's coffee crystals, severally, W. H. Auden