Monday, September 25, 2006

review: In Quiet Desperation

Title: In Quiet Desperation
Author: Fred and Marilyn Matis, Ty Mansfield
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Non-fiction
Year Published: 2004
Number of Pages: 270
Binding: Quality Paperback
ISBN: 1-59038-331-1
Price: $15.95

Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle

In a very real sense, this book is really two books in one. The first
is a passionate and heartfelt memoir of a mother who has suffered
through, and survived, the worst tragedy imaginable. The second is a
sometimes rambling but always readable reflection of a Mormon man
caught up in circumstances beyond his control.

When the news first broke of the suicide of Stuart Matis, the press
made much of his Mormon upbringing, his choice of a Mormon public
building as the place where he would take his own life, and the
attitudes and teachings of his church that may have been contributory
factors. It is hard to imagine the pain he must have lived with, the
knowledge that his own inclinations were so contrary to the teachings
of the church he loved so much. It is harder to imagine how his
family survived the death of this young man with their faith intact.

Through this trial, the Matis's came to understand some of the
paradoxes of living the gospel in the midst of prejudice and
misunderstanding. One is reminded of the burden borne by people of
color throughout much of the Church's history. Being treated as
second-class citizens, shunned by fellow believers because of the
color of their skin, denied not just the priesthood but the necessary
socialization that comes with religious affiliation -- progress in
this area is to be applauded, although anecdotal evidence seems to
indicate that there is still much to be done.

Gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints find themselves in a similar
position. Marilyn Matis is unequivocal in her belief that sexual
orientation is not chosen, but rather is a part of a person's makeup.
"Same-gender attraction," the preferred term used throughout this
book, is therefore not viewed as a condition that can be cured, but
rather as an orientation that can, and must be, understood by Church
leadership and by the membership at large.

Central to Stuart's despair is his feeling that he somehow isn't
measuring up to the standards affirmed by his Church:

Stuart's entire life was spent striving for perfection. He
reasoned that if he were perfect, then he would find God's approval.
His efforts became a never-ending cycle: effort -- perceived
failure--effort -- perceived failure. The harder Stuart strove for
perfection, the more he hated himself. He hated his feelings of
same-gender attraction, and he hated being unable to change his
orientation because he believed that he not only *could* change by
that he *should* change.

When no change in his feelings occurred, no matter how hard he
worked at it, he came to the conclusion that he was not worthy and
that God did not accept his efforts. His self-loathing became so
intense that it began to affect his entire life. He lost confidence
not only in himself but in God. (p. 9)

The impact of Matis' message was not lost on me -- the seeming
contrast between an orientation that is innate, and attitudes which
are learned. Can it be that the constant quest for "perfection," no
matter how it is defined, left Stuart in a constant state of
hopelessness? It's easy to see when you consider how his innermost
feelings so contrasted with the teachings of his Church and the
attitudes of others in the Church.

Much of the problem centered on the insensitivity of members of the
Church, the same kind of insensitivity that made racist comments and
attitudes acceptable in former days. Matis sees some progress being
made, but earnestly desires her Church and its members to more fully
appreciate and understand their gay and lesbian members:

A cross has been laid upon those who have feelings of same-gender
attraction. We need to help them by loving them, having compassion,
and trying to understand them. We need to help them to carry their
cross and to know that they can make a joyful contribution to the
kingdom of God.(p. 27)

In the end, Matis lays some responsibility at the doorstep of her
fellow Saints:

When will the suicides stop? When will we, as members of Christ's
Church, begin to realize the pain that so many young men and women
experience because of the challenge of same-gender attraction? When
will we begin to love and succor them in their time of need? (p. 45)

Tough talk, indeed. Matis is not calling for a recognition of
homosexuality as an "alternative lifestyle." She sees that this is
inconsistent with the underlying message of the eternal family. But
she does break some important ground in her essay, emphasizing again
and again her conviction that homosexuality is not a chosen behavior,
and thus should not be punished as a chosen behavior.

Many readers will no doubt feel she didn't go far enough. They would
prefer she had insisted on ecclesiastical approval of the gay and
lesbian lifestyle. I believe she hit just the right notes considering
the current status of the Church and the eternal nature of the Gospel
principles it teaches.

The second, and larger, part of the book is an extended memoir of a
gay Latter-day Saint who has clearly done a lot of thinking about his
situation, a protracted struggle between his innate feelings and his
understanding of his Church's views on sex and sexuality.

His dilemma is well illustrated in a brief recollection of his period
as a teacher at the Missionary Training Center:

But at one point during that period of employment, I was
confronted for the first time with the reality that I had been wrong
in assuming that living the gospel was a guaranteed formula for
ridding me of my feelings of same-gender attraction. No matter what
level of personal righteousness I attained or how close I felt to God
, the feelings weren't going away. To the contrary, they were
increasing. It was a paradox! Was it truly possible to have an
increased love for God and a deeper understanding of His gospel and
simultaneously to have a greater desire for something that I had
always been taught was an abomination?

I wasn't sure if I should feel a greater sense of self-worth or
greater self-condemnation. It was as if I were experiencing joy in
Christ and tasting hell at the same time, and it didn't make any
sense. (p. 63-4)

The reader may immediately wonder, "How is it that a gay man was
allowed to teach at the MTC?" In fact, both Mansfield, the author of
this section of the book, and Matis, served honorable missions. They
served in their local wards and occupied leadership positions. This
may alarm some, but the facts are clear: gays and lesbians do not wear
a badge announcing their sexual orientation. They function at work,
in church, everywhere, with clear ability and dedication. But they
fear exposure. They feel, with some justification, that if their
orientation were known, they would certainly be shunned by many of
their friends and neighbors.

Mansfield's chapter, "According to the Lord's Own Will and Pleasure,"
is a shattering and moving look at his own painful passage through
acceptance of his sexual orientation and acknowledgement of its
permanence in this mortal life. He fully expects to live a full life
in the kingdom, when his own "thorn in the flesh" is removed. In the
meantime, his commitment to the gospel requires him to live a celibate
life. He is very frank about how difficult this is for him.

Later, he says:

Each of us, whether we experience same-gender attraction or some
other challenge, is a divine work in progress, and the Lord is working
with us individually. In the meantime, we are going to inflict our
weaknesses and our misunderstandings and our ignorance upon one
another, and we must learn patience and forgiveness. We are each
growing spiritually on different levels, and God is passionately
interested in the salvation and growth of each of His children.

Mansfield's hope for the future is reflected in his thoughts on topics
you don't read about very much these days: he speaks of a "married
God" (p. 90) and of us as "Gods in embryo" (p. 106) Here is a fellow
who takes his Mormon theology very seriously. Likewise, he
demonstrates a strong reliance on the Scriptures and the teachings of
the General Authorities, both of which he cites voluminously. In
these words he finds comfort.

"In Quiet Desperation" walks a fine line between loyalty to the Church
and its leaders and despair over how little sensitivity there seems to
be among the members of that same Church. It walks the line well.

I recommend this book on many levels. And I return again to the race
issue as it has been, and is, confronted by the Church. People tend
to dismiss the impact of their words, words often used casually and
lightly. Words can hurt, and do hurt when used against people of
color. They still hurt, when used against people who are attracted to
others of the same gender. So long as we think that this is just some
"phase" that can be grown out of, or some perverse choice made by a
rebellious youth, we will never truly understand the cross these folks
must bear.

I commend the authors for penning a painful record of their journeys.
I further commend Deseret Book for bringing this to print. I hope it
attains wide readership. And I truly hope it provides a catalyst for
all members of the Church to become more aware of this sensitive
issue, and more accepting of those struggling with this orientation.

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