As humans, we often try to erase painful experiences from our memory. As a result, we inadvertently end up throwing out the things that helped us through our darkest days. I was recently reminded of the book that literally saved my life when one of my dual enrollment English composition students at the community college I teach at wrote about a scenario that was eerily similar to my own in one of her essays.
The essay I had assigned asked students to recount a past event in their lives that they wish would have gone differently. Much to my surprise, one of the essays ended up tugging at my heartstrings much harder than the rest. It was written by a quiet high school junior who recounted how her mother and father reacted to the revelation that she was gay a few months earlier. While reading it, there were points in time when I had to put her essay aside and think about something happy because the scenes and dialogue that she included shook me to my core.
It was as though she was chronicling my coming out story instead of her own. Like my mother and step-father, her parents knew that she was gay and confronted her about it. Like my parents, hers gave her an ultimatum ― become straight or risk being kicked out. And, lastly, she made the same exact decision that I had roughly 10 years earlier by deciding to betray her authentic self in order to survive.
After finally making it all the way through her essay, I was reminded of “Prayers for Bobby: A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son,” Leroy Aarons’ 1995 nonfiction book about the real-life Mary Griffin and the tragic suicide of her son Bobby. I was first introduced to the book by my 10th grade honors English teacher the day that I came to school in tears after my mother and step-father told me to become straight or get out of their house. Although the book didn’t immediately make everything right in my life, it showed me that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It made me realize that if Mary Griffin could go from being a bigoted homophobe to a full-fledged LGBTQ ally, then there was hope for my own mother.
In my response to my student’s essay, I recommended that she read Aarons’ book. I told her that I’d be happy to loan her my copy if she’d like.
Weeks went by and she never mentioned her essay to me or my offer. In fact, it seemed like she was avoiding me altogether. But then I heard a knock at my office door one day before class. There she was. Tears were streaming down her face. Her hands were shaking violently. She was the mirror image of my younger self the day that my teacher gave me a copy of “Prayers for Bobby.”
She asked if I had a minute. I told her that I would cancel the class that day if I needed to. Although she assured me that she was fine and that I didn’t need to, I decided to go ahead and cancel all of my classes for the day because I knew all too well the pain and hurt that she was feeling in that moment.
Having known that the day might come when she would ask for it, I had brought my tattered old copy of “Prayers for Bobby” with me weeks earlier and had placed it on my bookshelf. I pulled it out and handed it to her after allowing her the opportunity to vent about the cruelty of her parents’ decision to have their pastor come to their house and try to “pray the gay away.”
Like me when I was her age, she had never heard of the book before. After giving it to her, I explained that I had been on the verge of suicide but was saved from actually following through with it because of the book. Although she did so politely, she scoffed at the idea that the book had saved my life. “I don’t care how good this book is, I don’t think it’s going to solve all of my problems,” she countered. I nodded my head and agreed that the book wouldn’t solve all of her problems, before stressing that it would at least assure her that her problems were in fact solvable.
During the following class, she came up to me and told me that she was almost halfway through the book. To her surprise, she said, she understood why I attributed the book with saving my life because the book was giving her “the courage to persevere in the face of my parents’ hatred.”
The reason why the story of Mary and Bobby Griffin is as poignant today as it was when it was first published nearly 25 years ago, is because it gives LGBTQ youth hope that one day their parents will realize that God doesn’t have to heal them because there’s nothing wrong with being gay.
Written by an openly gay man, “Prayers for Bobby” is one of those rare books that is able to speak to each and every reader, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race or political leanings. Although the message of the book is that Mary finally realized her fatal mistake and then worked diligently to help others from following in her footsteps, it also aptly shows LGBTQ teens that they aren’t alone by tapping into what it’s like to suffer under the suffocating grip of disapproving parents through direct excerpts from Bobby’s personal diaries.
Aila Alvina Boyd is a writer, educator and award-winning journalist. Her writing has been featured by Vice, Autostraddle, Gay Star News, The Washington Blade, qnotes, English Journal and HuffPost. She holds a terminal graduate degree in writing from Lindenwood University.