Three queens & an ace
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Its truth notwithstanding, I've wearied of the too-oft-repeated Joan Didion quote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." In a warmer voice all his own, Dustin Lance Black has given it a new lease on life with his memoir, "Mama's Boy: A Story from Our Americas" (Knopf).
The only thing that might argue against its fundamental modesty — but doesn't, as you sink ever deeper into it — is its 400 pages. Reverence is at its heart, but never too imposingly to preclude what Black, the deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas son of the South, is up to, in his borrowed words: spinning a yarn.
As in Wagner, names are a thing here, but they change along lines of evolving family love more than pre-determined destiny. This being the boy's own story, the through-line is Black. But the indisputable Lilliputian giant of his tale is his mother, Roseanne.
With a little help from her middle son, who's happy to keep her second married name, her first name shortens to Anne. Her pet and only name for him is "Lancer," but Dustin doesn't reappear until he's called to accept the Oscar for his screenplay for "Milk," and then only reported as the single syllable — "Dus-" — the writer with excruciatingly acute hearing remembers before bolting out of his chair to deliver an acceptance speech that marked his arrival as a front-line advocate for LGBTQ rights. In the book, he's only Lance, though if you've ever heard his husband, British Olympic diver Tom Daley, say it, you will forever hear it as "Lahnce," with a wee dollop of double entendre.
In 1950, at the age of two, Anne gets polio, two vestigial legs, a hideously and increasingly misshapen spine, a childhood and adolescence spent in hospital beds and a lifetime of altogether out-of-the-ordinary paraplegia. Spared some if not all of the ghastly surgeries visited on polio sufferers of the time, she decides wheelchairs are for other people and learns to walk on crutches with leg braces, a rebellion against the life she was "promised."
It turns out the promise she will not break, and passes on to Lance, is to disbelieve limits and pledge lifelong allegiance to the Southern creed of "family first." As the reader watches her marry, more times than a Mormon strictly should, bear three children out of her own shriveled body, raise a succession of nuclear families in poverty conditions, it becomes less and less surprising that she later becomes a medical technician, her final job managing the flow cytometry labs at the Walter Reed Medical Center. Her work turns out to have direct bearing on AIDS research.
The esteem of GIs she nursed along the way earns her the sobriquet "Queen," but it's not a title she is able to keep for herself long. The successive stories of coming out — in a Mormon household where there was nothing worse than "ho-mo-sex-u-al-ity," as the adolescent Lance hears a church deacon drawl it — by the author and later, startlingly, by his older brother, Marcus, are nail-biting spell-binders. Queens for days.
Gratefully, Lance has made his own coming-out story one for the books, well beyond this one. As a writer and film- and video-maker, he becomes a master teller of other people's stories, only principally Harvey Milk's. Lance credits all manner of stories — not the least the ones his gay friends in LA uninhibitedly tell his speechless mother about their lives on her first visit to her uncomfortably, newly out son — as the germs of larger life and the ground for societal changes as big as the Supreme Court's "gay marriage" decision, in which Lance played a pivotal role he doesn't overstate.
There would be ample room for Lance to boast in this memoir, but you wait for it in vain. He's done what he's done and, here, told us how, with film-industry luminaries and gay activist colleagues, but even more compellingly through his deep, unbroken involvement with his family of origin and the transfer of that experience to what is now his own family, one-year-old child included. He's made surrogacy a subject of some of his most recent activist work.
"My mom and I share a gift of the kind of passion that's tough to ignore," Lance observes midway. "After all, we'd both been trained by the best storytellers on earth: old Southerners with Jack Daniel's on their breath, preachers leading congregations in Mormon and Baptists churches, and prophets beamed in from Salt Lake City to every LDS church on the globe." He's wincing at his mother's denunciation of all things gay moments before he, in his mind, prematurely ejaculates, "I'm gay."
"One single tear had betrayed me. And once I felt it there was another, and another," he writes. "A good Southern mom can read tears like tea leaves." With "Mama's Boy," now you can, too.