“He must have seen the large tractor trailer approaching from under the Couch Street overpass and timed the jump. Bobby executed a sudden and effortless back flip and disappeared over the railing. The driver tried to swerve, but there was no time … Robert Warren Griffith, age twenty years and two months, had died instantly of massive internal injuries.”
~ Prayers for Bobby
I have written about Prayers for Bobby before, some time ago. It is both a nonfiction book written by Leroy Aaron and a movie by the same name. For some reason, I have felt impressed to write about it again; it's message bears repeating.
Mary Griffith, Bobby’s mother, wanted the best for her children – not material things, per se, but a good home environment that was centered on faith and trust in God and living according to the teachings of the Bible. She loved her children and wanted no empty chairs for her family in the life hereafter.
Bobby was a near contemporary of mine, but unlike me, he came out to his parents in his senior year in high school. He was a kind, bright, sensitive young man who had been a devoted member of his parents’ church. Yet, he came to sense that there was something different about him. Something awful. Something he didn’t want, but couldn’t deny: he was attracted to men.
When he came out, his mother undertook an unrelenting campaign to “change” her son. His self-confessed homosexuality ran counter to everything she believed in. She could not accept this in her child. She felt that if she just tried hard enough, prayed hard enough, God would cure her son and everything would be as it was supposed to be. She quoted scripture, assured Bobby that he could change if he really tried, bolstered by the teachings of her church and her understanding of the Bible. Bobby tried, but came to hate himself more than ever. Eventually, the seemingly irreconcilable conflict within him drove him to suicide. He simply couldn’t live with himself anymore.
"If only we had known ..."
It was only after her son’s death, as she agonized over whether or not Bobby’s suicide had consigned him to hell, that Mary Griffith's grief drove her to deeply examine not only her conscience but the religious teachings that had driven her zealous campaign to “save” her son. She eventually came, after an intense period of self-examination, prayer and study, to the horrifying conclusion that her son had been sacrificed on the altar of her religious fanaticism.
“Looking back,” she wrote, “I realize how depraved it was to instill false guilt in an innocent child’s conscience, causing a distorted image of life, God and self, leaving little if any feeling of personal worth … What a travesty of God’s love, for children to grow up believing themselves to be evil, with only a slight inclination toward goodness, convinced that they will remain undeserving of God’s love from birth to death.”
In a letter to Bobby three years after his death, Mary wrote:
“We were not aware (at first) of the conflict that was slowly breaking your spirit … You were the apple of God’s eye just as you were. If we had only known. Out of the many discussions we had, the one phrase that comes back to me is the age-old chant, ‘You can change if you want to.’ How that must have angered and hurt you. You began to feel like you did not fit into your family anymore. You wanted to believe that you were not the person the Bible had interpreted you to be. You were at the mercy, as we all are, of the false interpretations of the Bible concerning homosexuality …”
A turning point for Mary came as she spoke at a local city council meeting about something as innocuous as approving a resolution calling for a “Gay Freedom Day.” In a scene brilliantly acted by Sigourney Weaver in the movie based on the book (see clip below), Mary made an impassioned plea to the council members and her community:
“Because of my own lack of knowledge, I became dependent upon people in the clergy. When the clergy condemns a homosexual person to hell and eternal damnation, we the congregation echo, ‘Amen.’ I deeply regret my lack of knowledge concerning gay and lesbian people. Had I allowed myself to investigate what I now see as Bible bigotry and diabolical dehumanizing slander against our fellow human beings, I would not be looking back with regret for having relinquished my ability to think and reason with other people …
“God did not heal or cure Bobby as he, our family, and clergy belived he should. It is obvious to us now why he did not. God has never been encumbered by his child’s genetically determined sexuality. God is pleased that bobby had a kind and loving heart. In God’s eyes, kindess and love are what life is all about. I did not know that each time I echoed ‘Amen’ to external damnation, each time I referred to Bobby as sick, perverted and a danger to our children, his self-esteem and personal worth were being destroyed. Finally, his spirit broke beyond repair. He could no longer rise above the injustice of it all …
“It was not God’s will that bobby jumped over the side of a freeway overpass into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck which killed him instantly. Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parents’ ignorance and fear of the word gay … There are no words to express the pain and emptiness remaining in our hearts. We miss Bobby’s kind and gentle ways, his fun-loving spirit, his laughter. Bobby’s hopes and dreams should not have been taken from him, but they were. We can’t have Bobby back.
“There are children like Bobby sitting in your congregations. Unknown to you, they will be listening to your ‘Amens’ as they silently cry out to God in their hearts. Their cries will go unnoticed for they cannot be heard above your ‘Amens.” Your fear and ignorance … will soon silence their cries. Before you echo ‘Amen’ in your home and place of worship, think and remember. A child is listening.”
Returning again to the letter Mary wrote to her son three years after his suicide, Mary lamented: “I believed I was doing right the name of Christ. I did now know my soul; my conscience was in bondage to the people and ministers who stand in God’s stead. I went along in blind allegiance, unwittingly persecuting, oppressing gay and lesbian people – my own son. The scales of ignorance and fear that kept my soul in darkness have [now] fallen from the eyes of my soul, my conscience. I have been set free to have faith in, trust the dictates of my conscience.”
Mary then wrote these words that never cease to move me, no matter how many times I read them:
“I would rather be branded a heretic while helping a child of God out of the gutters of this world, where the church and I have thrown them, than to pass by on the other side muttering under our breath, ‘The wages of sin are death.’ Rather this that to look away from the pain and humiliation of a child lying helpless. The heart that hungers and thirsts for God’s love will find it in the Bible. It has been said the eyes are the mirror of one’s soul. When we look into God’s mirror [the Bible] will we see God’s reflection of love gazing back? Or will we see an evil reflection of man’s inhumanity?”
The Empty Chair
I was a member of the LDS Church for almost 30 years of my adult life. I am a parent. I myself was once as Saul, driven by my deep self-hatred, my homophobia, to embrace the teachings of the Church concerning homosexuality. I had bought into them myself and was, to my shame, guilty of bigotry. Fortunately, the only person I hurt through such acts was myself. Yet, I have experienced, in other situations, the intense pain and regret that has come through putting the Church and its teachings ahead of the welfare of my children. I have repented of such actions and vowed never again to let anything stand between me and my children.
There is much that could be written on and about this subject; but for now, I would simply implore Mormon parents who know or suspect that they have a son or daughter who is gay (or, if you prefer, struggling with feelings of same-sex attraction) to read Prayers for Bobby and/or watch the movie by the same name and then to open your hearts and minds to its message.
You may not realize how close your child is, or may have been, to resolving the conflict in their hearts and minds the way in which Bobby Griffith did. You may not fully appreciate the pain in your child’s heart. You may not have ever allowed yourself to question the religious teachings that may have caused a separation between you and your son or your daughter. Please do it now, before it becomes too late and you lose your precious child, either through death or alienation, and you mourn not the empty chair in heaven but the empty chair in your own house where he or she could have been sitting, smiling back at you.