Prayers for Bobby: A Coming Out Story for a Son and A Coming of Age Story and His Mother
Prayers for Bobby is a true story based on the life of Bobby Griffith, a young man who from age 16 to 20 struggled with being gay while being raised in a devout upper middle-class Anglo-Saxon fundamentalist evangelical Christian family, before finally ending the struggle by allowing himself to fall off a bridge into the path of oncoming traffic, tragically ending his life in 1983.
It was his family's and his community's religious intolerance that drove Bobby to take his own life, yet it was his mother Mary who redeemed his memory as she herself, through gay right's advocacy, came to grips with the effects of her own internalized bigotry in the wake of his death. After seeking solace and understanding from the local Metropolitan Community Church, ultimately she redeems both herself and her son's memory, eventually denying the religion that fueled his self-loathing, and coming to accept and acknowledge Bobby's orientation as a gift bestowed on him at conception.
Bobby was a typical all-American boy who began to question his sexuality (according to records found in his journal) around the age of 14-15. This journal entry reveals how around the age of 18, he was ensconced in a terrible conflict between contrasting values of expected religious ethical behavior, and his own inner desires and longings:
"What's wrong with me? I wish I could crawl under a rock. God, do you enjoy seeing me stumble around this world like a stupid idiot? I think you must. There's probably some kind of pill somewhere that would heal my brain or there's probably some kind of vitamin that I'm not getting enough of. -- Bobby's diary entry for Sept. 28 1981"
Clearly, Bobby was caught in the tension of conflicting contrasts between psychic imprints of 'normalcy' , and the influence of local cultural values and customs imposed on him and his family. Unaware that these types of values are socially constructed, he and his family unquestioningly bought into the ideas that had been inculcated as part of their values system through frequent, repetitive religious and cultural reinforcement.
As the matrix of Bobby's values system, his mother Mary provided the source material for his conflict. She herself had been raised in a religious environment in the 1950's, a period of time that thought suspiciously about homosexuality in general. The general attitude of the times condemned gay people as being sinful and destined for damnation. Bobby himself was born into the ascendency period of the Moral Majority's right wing evangelical movement's ideology which made the topic of homosexuality one of its more vocal targets of attack, thereby increasing the climate of hatred and bigotry around the topic of homosexuality in general. Bobby's mother had absorbed these ideas into her own value system, and imparted these negative attitudes to her own family, as they had been imparted to her. Sadly, she failed to adjust her own bias, even though the American Psychological Association had stricken homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual in 1973. Reparative Therapy began to be valued as the solution for 'curing' homosexual tendencies. Some of those who failed to reap the promised effects of these therapies were left to struggle with the cognitive dissonance of homosexual attraction and subsequently were left feeling rejected (by God), betrayed (by their own bodies) and abandoned (by the community) when their prayers to be changed were left unanswered and their attempts at resistance were met with failure.
Bobby's central life stage challenge at the time of his blossoming sexuality would require reconciliation of the biopsychosocial tasks inherent in the Identity versus Role Diffusion phase of his development. According to Erikson, this is a time when adolescents proceed to establish a sense of personal identity relative to their particular systemic connections, or they become confused about who they are and what they want to do in life. It was perfectly obvious that Bobby, under the circumstances, would not be able to meet the challenges of this phase, reconciling his rising biological impulses with those of the social environment he was enmeshed with. As a result, his own psychological development and balance would be interrupted and inhibited from further integration, leading him to exist in a state of constant conflict and unresolved psychic tension.
Further contributing and undergirding his conflict was the authoritarian manner in which institutional influences dominated his environment, as regards the demands placed on him to adhere to their set of behavioral requirements. His own mother stated "I won't have a gay son" which to a 16 year old with no other recourse, would seem like an ultimatum and an indictment. The pastor at his church preaching about the 'evils of the flesh' and the local school culture cracking jokes about 'fags' would further incriminate him and support a rationale for suppressing his true nature. In an effort to 'fit in', he experiments with heterosexuality, but he quickly realizes this is not his true self, and is obviously repulsed when his date encourages him to make a pass at her. Later on, when he moves away from home, Bobby finds a boyfriend and enjoys a dinner together at their family home. As he observes the nature of their transactions, he notices the stark contrast between how accepting they are of their own son's orientation and how rejecting his own family. Ultimately, this realization supports what he has already come to accept as true about himself: that there is something wrong with him that cannot be fixed, and from this point on, his own self-loathing becomes a permanently fixed. Unfortunately, Bobby does not resolve and reconcile the tasks associated with the Identity versus Identity Role Diffusion stage.
Though not apparently explicit in the story, the film did hint at the violent consequences that Bobby would suffer if he were to reveal publicly his true self. At one point after he confides in his brother about his struggle with his homosexual feelings after trying to kill himself by taking a bottle of Bufferin, it becomes apparent that the community finds out, and at a scene where Bobby attends a school dance, the supporting characters are seen exchanging furtive whispers as he mingles with the crowd, and at one point he is intentionally bumped by the shoulder of another boy who looks at him with loathing, daring him to meet the challenge of defending his own dignity. Bobby slinks away, aware that to do so with no support to back him up, would be suicide.
How ironic, since Bobby's life was inundated with patterns of suicidal themes and tendencies. After all, his entire life up to this point had been formed and shaped within the aegis of a religious and environmental culture that killed the initiative impulse. Rather, the forces that controlled him, placed so many restriction on the types of activities that were permitted and those that were not, that this would have caused him to fail to resolve the tasks of the earlier Initiative versus Guilt developmental stage, and may well have impeded his ability to resolve those required in the Industry versus Inferiority development stage as well.
As a result, when Bobby leaves home to live with his cousin in a different part of the country in order to escape the strictures of his repressive life, he finds himself at a crossroads. His new life exposes him to an environment that is the antithesis of everything he had been bred to embrace. He starts hanging out in unhealthy sexually permissive environments that are more exploitative than nurturing. He frequents a strip bar; he begins to drink alcohol, and while he himself is not shown to engage in risky sexual encounters, in a later scene he observes his boyfriend leaving an establishment arm in arm with another male. This crushes Bobby's spirit and apparently is the 'straw that broke the camel's back', as the next scene in the movie shows him at the bridge when he commits suicide.
For Bobby, the breach of trust was too much to take. The rejection by his own mother, whose attachment bonds were conditional, the strength of which depended on her approval of him and his behavior, had a devastating effect. The larger themes of abandonment and rejection dominating his life had reached their apex, and he found himself faced with the irresolvable conundrum that he could not change himself to align with the expectations of God, mother and society, and so he ended the conflict once and for all in a tragic act of self-destruction.
The roots of Bobby's conflict did not begin in adolescence. They began far sooner than that in the earlier stages of his development and the issues arose for him primarily from within the authoritarian style of upbringing. No matter what the stage of development, Bobby had not be allowed to learn from his mistakes, and all his behaviors were closely monitored and controlled. His trust bond with his primary care-giver was conditional. His Autonomic power was limited by the range of values that could be explored within the context and confines of his family milieu; shame for this family was a powerful inhibitor of behavior. As mentioned earlier his Initiative was suppressed as he was discouraged to develop interests that lay outside the range of his own white fundamentalist family value system, encouraging him to avoid 'bad' things not approved by the family value system, and therefore developed a 'negative' style of engagement with life. Assuming all the challenges inherent in the previous successive stages of development had been satisfied and resolved, Bobby's life would have carried on in a much different manner.
Had a favorable trust bond been immutably imprinted without condition, he would have proceeded through subsequent sequence of life stages with far greater success. He might not have questioned his own capability and potential; he might not have lived with the ultimately unbearable stress and strain of internal conflict that caused him to end his life.
Out of the ashes of Bobby's life arose a new dove, a phoenix of hope that helps us all to see that when we question those values we've assumed as sacred truth, our survival is not at risk. Certainly, Bobby's mother clung to a value system that kept her psychic life in tact as she refused to compromise it, but, in a strange ecosystem quirk of morality and values, her refusal to risk compromise caused something else to die: her son. Had she been open minded enough to question her rigid mindset, and instead engaged an objective dialogue when first presented with the issue as a contrast of conflicting values, her son may be alive today. Even though she went on to transform her ignorance favorably for those who, like her son, struggle with the negative messages transmitted culturally around LGBTQ issues, it still remains that as long as those who hold the power of governance to shape and mold the attitudes that define what is culturally acceptable according to some arbitrary moral system based on dogmas and outdated, unfounded attitudes and superstitions, then the values of social justice upon which this nation were predicated will be mere empty lip service impotent to empower those most vulnerable to the rapacious thrust of majority rule.
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