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How A 'Mama's Boy' And His Mama Found A Path Beyond Politics

Apr 28, 2019

Dustin Lance Black's new book Mama's Boy is a memoir about two Americas, told through Black's relationship with his beloved mother, Anne.

She grew up in the rural South, survived polio and, despite all odds, raised three boys — practically by herself. She was also deeply religious, and converted to Mormonism. Black was the middle son of the three; they grew up in San Antonio, Texas, while Anne worked for the U.S. military.

Black was just as devoted as his mother to the values of the Church of Latter Day Saints — until he realized he was gay. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles, graduated from UCLA's film school and became an Oscar-award winning screenwriter for the movie Milk. And so Mama's Boy is also the story of how a mother and son came to reconcile their differences and realize the importance of family.


Interview Highlights

On growing up gay

For a little gay boy growing up in Texas, it was about as stacked a deck as you could get, I'll tell you that. And growing up in that world — which, by the way, I loved. I loved the food, I loved the community, I loved the security of the faith, even, but it also meant I had a lot of words, pejorative words to define being gay, by about the age of six. I knew that around the people I loved and valued most, I was a sinner, and a criminal, and perhaps even mentally ill. That I would be damned or put in jail for who I was, and that's a lot for a little six-year-old to carry.

On what it means to be a mama's boy

I loved the food, I loved the community, I loved the security of the faith, even, but it also meant I had a lot of words, pejorative words to define being gay, by about the age of six. - Dustin Lance Black

I was so incredibly close with my mom. I had to be, I mean, she was raising me, but in a way, us three boys, we were helping raise her still. She couldn't move most of her body, and our father had abandoned us at a very young age, so we needed each other. We had no option but to find the bridges between us at every single turn. We had no choice, and so for survival's sake we did that.

I had been wanting to write a book for some time, and I just couldn't figure out the reason why. And all of a sudden, we found ourselves in this time where it seems family members are divided from one another, communities are becoming divided, mostly because of our differing political views. And in that way, it started to help me see the relationship between me and my mom, and me and the rest of my family, and even me and the church that I grew up in, the Mormon church with our deep deep divides, and I started to think that maybe that was how I should start to examine my life with my mom, and that perhaps, perhaps if I could shine a light on how my mom and I found that higher plane than politics, this book might serve a purpose. It might help other families in the country I love.

On coming out to his mom

I did not plan to come out. It was Christmas evening, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell was in the headlines at the time, and Bill Clinton was making it clear he was going to sign it, and my mom was angry about it because she was now working for the military, and she thought that it wasn't right that LGBT people could serve in her military, even if they were closeted. And she was just going on and on about that, late into the night, talking to me as she was sitting on my bed. And my tears just started to fall, because I was an out gay man back in Los Angeles, and she wasn't just talking about gay people in theory, she was talking about me and my friends. And I couldn't stop those tears. And a good Southern mom can read tears like tea leaves. And she knew.

On what she'd think of the book

I think my mom would be taken aback at how candidly I discuss her disability, and her difference — it's not something she talked about in her life; I think we mentioned it twice. So I dug through a lot of boxes, I made a lot of phone calls, I did a lot of interviews to make sure my memory was as close to accurate as possible, and I discovered a lot of things about my very flirtatious young mom that I did not know ... she was such a good Mormon mom by the time I came around, I had no idea that she was this, you know, this little teenaged blond girl in a children's hospital in New Orleans, fighting for her life but at the same time writing letters to the young priests, trying to get them to leave the priesthood and marry her!

Those are the sorts of things that become clear when you do the right research, and I think that she'd be proud of me for rising above my own political beliefs to show curiosity in others. And I think she would share my hope that our little American story might inspire others to find that higher plane than politics too.

This story was produced for radio by Sophia Boyd and Caitlyn Kim and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

"Mama's Boy" by Dustin Lance Black is a memoir about two Americas encapsulated through Black's relationship with his beloved mother, Anne. She grew up in the rural South, survived polio and, despite all odds, raised three boys practically by herself. She was also deeply religious and converted to Mormonism. Dustin Lance Black is the middle son of Anne's three boys.

They grew up in San Antonio, Texas, while their mother worked for the U.S. military. And he held the same devotion as his mother to the values of the Church of Latter Day Saints - until he realized he was gay. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles, graduated from UCLA's film school and became an Oscar award-winning screenwriter for the movie "Milk." "Mama's Boy" is the story of how one son and mother came to reconcile their differences and realize the importance of family. Dustin Lance Black joins me now from London. Welcome.

DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I want to start by you telling me about your people, where you come from and how you grew up.

BLACK: Well, I mean, you went through so much of it there so quickly. I saw my life flash...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

BLACK: ...Before my eyes. For a little gay boy growing up in Texas, it was about as stacked a deck as you could get. I'll tell you that. And growing up in that world - which, by the way, I loved - I loved the food. I love the community. I loved the security of the faith even. But it also meant I had a lot of words, pejorative words, to define being gay by about the age of 6. I knew that around the people I loved and valued most, I was a sinner and a criminal and perhaps even mentally ill, that I would be damned or put in jail for who I was. And that's a lot for a little 6-year-old to carry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did that manifest itself with your relationship with your mom? I mean, what did it mean to you to be a mama's boy?

BLACK: I was so incredibly close with my mom. I had to be. She was raising me. But, in a way, us three boys, we were helping raise her still. She couldn't move most of her body. And our father had abandoned us at a very young age. So we needed each other. We had no option but to find the bridges between us at every single turn. We had no choice. And so for survival's sake, we did that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you write in the prologue, (reading) to outsiders in this day and age, my mom and I should have been enemies. Our house should have been divided - North versus South, red versus blue, conservative versus progressive, coast versus mountain or plains or however you choose to name such tribes. Instead, my mom and I fueled each other. Her oil lit my lamp. And, eventually, mine lit hers.

BLACK: That's so true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain a little bit about that.

BLACK: Well, you know, I had been wanting to write a book for some time. And I just couldn't figure out the reason why. And all of a sudden, we found ourselves in this time where it seems family members are divided from one another. Communities are becoming divided, mostly because of our differing political views.

And in that way, it started to help me see the relationship between me and my mom and me and the rest of my family and even me and the church that I grew up in, the Mormon church, with our deep, deep divides. And I started to think that maybe that's how I should start to examine my life with my mom and that, perhaps - perhaps if I could shine light on how my mom and I found that higher plane than politics, this book might serve a purpose. It might help other families in the country I love to find their higher plane, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you to tell one of the stories in the book about your coming out to your mom. It's a very powerful scene.

BLACK: Yeah, boy. It was a - I did not plan to come out. It was Christmas evening. And don't ask, don't tell was in the headlines at the time. And Bill Clinton was saying - making it clear he was going to sign it. And my mom was angry about it because she was now working with the military. And she thought that it wasn't right that LGBT people could serve in her military, even if they were closeted. And she was just going on and on about that late into the night, talking to me as she's sitting on my bed. And my tears just started to fall because now I was an out, gay man back in Los Angeles. And she wasn't just talking about gay people in theory. She was talking about me and my friends.

And I couldn't stop those tears. And a good Southern mom can read tears like tea leaves. And she knew. I don't think I ever, ever had to say the words. And I do remember when - I get tearful thinking about it. She just asked me why, why I had chosen this. And I remember looking at her with the braces on her thin, withered legs and the crutches behind her. And I said, why did you choose those? And that was it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The way she understood there was no choice there.

BLACK: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think your mom would think of this memoir?

BLACK: I think my mom would be taken aback at how candidly I discuss her disability and her difference. It's not something she talked about in her life. I think we mentioned it twice. So I dug through a lot of boxes. I made a lot of phone calls. I did a lot of interviews to make sure my memory was as close to accurate as possible. And I discovered a lot of things about my very flirtatious young mom that I did not know.

(LAUGHTER)

BLACK: The letters she wrote...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's always a happy surprise - not (laughter).

BLACK: Oh, my gosh, she was such a good Mormon mom by the time I came around. I had no idea that she was this - you know, this little teenage, blonde girl in a children's hospital in New Orleans fighting for her life but, at the same time, writing letters to the young priests trying to get them to leave the priesthood and marry her.

You know, those are the sorts of things that become clear when you do the right research. And I think that she'd be proud of me for rising above my own political beliefs to show curiosity in others and that I think she would share my hope that our little - our little American story might inspire others to look for that higher plane than politics, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of the successes of the gay rights movement are being challenged again now. As an advocate, do you think that this is going to be the way that it is? For every step forward, there might be at least half a step back.

BLACK: It's the way it is. It is the nature of civil rights work, of equality work. I get asked this question whenever I speak at universities. The young people say, how long do we have to fight? And I say, forever - forever. That's the nature of defending the rights and equality of people who are treated differently under the law. But it is soul-feeding work. It is worthy work. We ought not complain that it is work that will continue forever. And I challenge people to rise to it and to join in the fight because that's the only way you win.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dustin Lance Black's new memoir is "Mama's Boy." Thank you very much.

BLACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.