(Part 3. New readers can click here to start at the beginning of the story.)
Cognitive dissonance is “the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information.”
I mention cognitive dissonance frequently when I write because it is what best describes my mind, and therefore my actions, for most of my life. Much like the dissonance found in music, dissonance in the mind is unsettling – it can subtly stir in the background keeping things just a tad off for an extended time, but there must eventually be resolution. As music critic Anthony Tommasini describes in this New York Times video, musical dissonance is used to set “the senses on edge.” In my personal experience, cognitive dissonance tickled at the back of my mind and even moved into glaring intellectual and emotional pain that demanded resolution.
For decades, I lived with that tickling. In my faith, questions and inconsistencies always churned but I chose to believe that those questions were “lies of Satan.” In my family of origin, the lack of health and genuine love stood out strongly even as I desperately tried to believe otherwise. In my marriage, I fended off that tickle in the back of my mind every time evidence of new infidelity arose. And with my son…? With my son, the force of that dissonance kept me awake at night reminding me that my son was born as he was and, contrary to church doctrine, accepting him was the right thing to do. My mind was on edge. For more than a decade, I was on edge.
From his youngest days I thought of my son as the kindest person I knew. He was always a kid full of smiles and cooperation and could not figure out why people just couldn’t get along. When I became too harsh with him as a parent and asked him to forgive me, his response was always, “Mommy, I already did.” He was nice to everyone and never got into altercations, though occasionally another boy would think that his kindness was weakness. Those boys learned a hard lesson when they realized that he was incredibly strong.
This super nice, super tender, super sweet nature mingled with his other differences and interests made him a near constant target of derision from men and boys in our conservative Christian circles. He often mentioned mean or rude things said to him, or the over-the-top men’s social events and behaviors that are the unspoken requirements to prove your masculinity within the church. In his younger years he didn’t understand the meanness and why he had to be defined in a certain way to be accepted, and he didn’t know how to voice it. Then, with encouragement from me, he stuffed it down. But in stuffing those feelings and pretending it was healthy, he hurt deeply. And, once he became a teen, that hurt mingled with his growing certainty that he was not normal and definitely not acceptable to most everyone around him. Our pastor, who had perfectly accurate gay-dar, picked him out of the boys in the youth group and said that he was concerned. He invited me to meet with him and I sat and added his concern to my already heavy mind. That concern showed up in their interactions as my son never seemed to meet the standards that other young men did.
From approximately age four to age eighteen I nudged my son into patterns of conservative Christian social compliance. I watched as his family, church, and friends pushed him to the outside. Sometimes this was done with conscious knowledge but most often not. It is just what conservative Christian people do. It is what their cultural system, built on their theology and doctrine, creates. And I was both observer and participant: parenting in ways that common sense and my maternal instincts told me not to because I valued that cultural system, the acceptance of my extended family, and my own self more than my child. You have perhaps heard the phrase “there is no hate like Christian love.” I have learned the harsh truth of those words. But first, I was those words.
But that isn’t something my mind settled on easily. As I mentioned, I lived constantly with dissonance. Afterall, I watched my son almost every day of his life. I sang to him at night. I heard his prayers. I listened to him discuss everything from his latest history lesson to the clouds he loved to watch to the arias he practiced. I watched him take responsibility for his actions and beliefs from childhood – even sitting in front of the TV or radio to listen to political debates so that he could make informed decisions before he was even of age. And I, more than anyone, had repeatedly received his kindhearted forgiveness. I had been with him since birth. No, I had been with him since before birth. Nothing evil had overcome him. He hadn’t been caught up in some sin or deviance as a small child. These things I knew in the depths of me.
But the belief, I had once been force fed and then consumed willingly, drove me to override those maternal instincts. I continued to push Dr. Nicolosi’s treatment directives. And, as I pushed those behavioral changes, my pastor, church, community, and family continuously pushed what can only be called bigotry. And my son sank deeper into depression and anxiety.
I despaired often – mostly because of this dissonance. And at this point I was still clinging to my faith beliefs despite the church showing me its true nature so often. I regularly spoke to my son as if a future as a straight man was his. As if saying it would cast a spell over him. Some Christians would call it prophecy or speaking a blessing. It should be called manipulation, and it was ineffective.
One Sunday after church, we sat around the table eating our simple Sunday lunch and discussing something mentioned in the sermon. It was something to do with the LGBTQ+ community. This was normal since our pastor so frequently added something political to his sermons. That day my son said, “You never know mom. I could be gay.” He admits now that he was testing the waters. He was fifteen.
A wave of anxiety flooded me at that moment though I did not know at the time what it was. “Why would you say such a thing?” I asked with some indignation. We had a bookshelf next to our little dining table and I usually set my purse on top. I stood, grabbed my purse, and turned in what felt like one motion. The urge to run swept over me. Fear overwhelmed me. I walked out the door, got in the car, and drove off.
My thoughts raced as I drove far too fast down our dirt road. There were several bridges near our home. I could drive off one. I prayed but my prayer seemed to echo off the ceiling of the car.
I thought of my children.
I thought of my son.
I must have been a bad mother. He wouldn’t be the way he was if I had done a better job. Maybe they would all be better off without me. The fear and anxiety chasing me, I headed for the one bridge that was under construction. The road was blocked – permanently blocked. I pulled up to the barriers and did a three-point turn. I sat on that old country road and wept.
I thought of my son.
I thought of my children.
I imagined them dealing with my death and I couldn’t bear that image. I spent maybe ten minutes gathering my composure before I returned home where my husband was having a conversation with my son upstairs in his room. Later he came downstairs and assured me that “our son is not gay”. It didn’t work to comfort me. A mother knows.
Our family made an unspoken pact that day, perhaps for my sake. For years we continued to pretend that the obvious wasn’t the obvious. And my son carried the weight of that burden alone until it wore away at his soul.
Former evangelical homeschool mom and one-time missionary and pastor’s wife, Stephanie Logan, aka Snicklefritz, writes from her life story and four decades of experience in the evangelical movement. Her views and stories are her own.
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