Rick Miller LICSW

Unwrapped

My Evening with Armistead

When an author is a mentor and his imagination is our inspiration.

Posted Oct 04, 2017

Let me start by saying it wasn’t just my evening with him. There were 119 others at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown, Mass., spending “An Evening With Armistead Maupin.” He read to us from his newest memoir, Logical Family. His book was just released in stores and online. 

My good fortune was not only that I got to see Mr. Maupin in such an intimate venue, but that I was seated in the second row, just about 20 feet from him, and it was as if he were speaking to only me. In the bits and pieces he selected from his memoir, he focused on his relationship with his grandmother. As a gay psychotherapist obsessed with how people grow strong while being diminished by societal norms, I am touched by how this gay man had early on figured much of this out and throughout the years has shared what he learned with the rest of us in his writing. 

On this evening, Mr. Maupin was particularly gracious and inspiring. He mesmerized us by his mere presence, and it was clear that everybody could feel it. He sat on a tall wingback chair with a lamp next to him, nothing fancy, like sitting in an older relative’s living room and simply being bathed in love. Yes, we were sitting around a hearth, and hearing about history, appreciating where we have come from, just like a grandparent or an aunt or uncle who connects the dots for us regarding our lineage. In this room, we could make sense of where we came from, a big chunk of it anyway, especially the way things unfolded decades ago in San Francisco. The room had a special glow that night, not the usual glow of the cabaret that is commonly associated with this space. This man seemed to reach each one of us. 

An important aspect of the stories that were shared were inspirational, reminding me that in life there is always a little more in front of us than we realize. Not only is there the content of what people tell us, but there are more significant lessons that we can extrapolate from these relational moments. We can choose to take what we hear and see at face value or to look just a little deeper for larger meanings and metaphors. Whether they are about life in general, or just about us, Mr Maupin provided several invitations to make our own meaning, to co-create in a way.

Since one of my projects involves exploring the relationships of gay sons and their mothers (GaySonsandMothers.com), I was delighted to hear him talk in some depth about his grandmother, and what she meant to him. He made several references to special times they had, the ways in which she profoundly impacted him, and the intensity of saying goodbye to her on her deathbed.

He spoke about the importance of a gay child having an eccentric aunt or grandmother. “We all have eccentric relatives to inspire us like Auntie Mame.” She would be the one who noticed us or whose odd presence encouraged us to flourish outside the box, making the struggle of being gay that much easier. Yes, anyone lucky enough to have such a figure in their life could receive the nourishment and permission he alluded to—and yet here he was, right in front of us, exactly that person! 

Looking around the room, most of us were of an age that we had grown up under his influence, having read his books and articles, especially Tales of the CIty. He is the one who taught us about gay life, the importance of community, and the power of being accepted by chosen family. And it was so wonderful to move into present time with him as he welcomed questions from the audience and spontaneously responded about his experiences and beliefs. 

As he read about his grandmother and spoke about his family, he became tearful. He was self-conscious about his tears and tried to hide them, but it was touching to see, a reminder that it is okay for us to cry and to appreciate our own families. He, our mentor and teacher, showed how love and reliance on family is important. Despite the silence of his own Southern family, he let us understand that despite the frailties of most families, especially in being able to support gay children, their love for us, and our love in return, is crucial to our wellbeing. He showed how compassion and acceptance are preferable to resentment and bitterness. 

I asked him about his relationship with his mother. He described his coming out process to her in 1977, and how he wished it would have been different. The letter he had written was the actual letter that was used in Tales of the City, and it set the backdrop of the entire story.

One couple in the audience asked for advice about growing older: “We are turning 50 this fall, any tips on this?” He hesitated for a moment, and the audience waited patiently for his response. “Chicken!” he announced. Of course, we laughed, but it was an honest nudge about holding to a good perspective. 

I write about this evening not only because it was such a delightful experience but because it is so important to find our mentors, and then to keep finding them—to remind ourselves about the importance of community, about the emergence of grace in unexpected moments, and about taking time to appreciate the people and places that we have visited along the way. Mr. Maupin’s time with us was a trance-like experience that continues to stay with me, and undoubtedly the others who were there.

Perhaps you can take a moment now to step back in time and to remember someone special, someone who embraced you without question or judgment, with whom you felt permitted to be you, and to appreciate what or who has shaped you and all the ways in which you were encouraged to flourish, to become the person that you are today. 

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