Feathering the Nest by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dear Son:

The other day you got in the car, took a deep breath and cheerfully declared that it smelled like your childhood. I had just gotten a manicure—something I did more regularly when you were little—and I too was transported back in time. But what struck me even more was you referring to your childhood as your past. At seventeen, in the homestretch of your senior year of high school, and just shy of six feet tall (where does your height come from?) you are most definitely no longer a child.

in just a few months you’ll be expected to conduct yourself like an adult. I suggest you jettison the idea that you will be grown up by the fall and simply concentrate on being a college student. If there is ever an in-between stage in your life, college is that time. You go to college to engage in the life of the mind, but along the way you bump up against coping skills you need to have.

Your high school advisor recently told you that if she had to pick the most important housekeeping chore you need to learn, it would be to get in the habit of ironing. Much to my embarrassment, she must have noticed your wrinkled shirts over the years. As much as I love and respect your advisor, I’d say in the domestic realm you must first and foremost remember not to machine wash and dry your sweaters. There are dry cleaners near campus; I’ve seen them.

But alas I will not be near campus, and I’ve been anticipating this inevitable change, this moving out of our house, throughout your nail polish-scented childhood. The campus is a proving ground as much as it is a launching pad. You’re an astronaut of sorts, and I’ve been watching you soar since the day you were born. You belong to the stars; you are part of the ocean.

Which brings me to telling you that I’ve tried to give you the things, to expose you to the experiences, that I didn’t have. For example, I never went to camp and don’t know how to swim, but I made sure you and your sister learned. That’s just one of the many things in which you’ve surpassed me. In fact, one of the most humbling moments in parenthood for me was when I realized that you and your sister were more intelligent, more capable than I. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating. I say this filled with wonder. And although I always knew that would be the case, I was still happily surprised.


A strong word of advice regarding your prodigious intellect: there will always be someone smarter than you in the lecture hall, the dorm, even the party. You’ll encounter those people very early in your college career. Don’t compete with her. Don’t resent him. Admire her. Learn from him. Jealousy mars true scholarship; it taints the soul.

For these past few months, people have been telling me that my nest will be empty come the fall. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loathe the expression, “empty nest.” When I hear it, I think of random feathers floating in the air. The rest is just twigs and mud and loneliness. You’ve been my constant companion for these past few years when your sister has been at college and Dad has been on the road for work. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit you’re the reason I cook dinner. You’re the guy around whom I structure my workday as a freelance writer. But I won’t miss sounding like a foghorn in the morning, screaming at you to get up. And it will give me great joy to look at your consistently tidy room while you’re away. I will travel a bit with Dad, travel a bit for myself. I’ll even come visit you at school once in a great while to take you to dinner. As sick as you are of my chicken potpie (what can I say, I’m a one trick pony in the kitchen—once I learn a recipe I latch on to it), you’ll be sicker of cafeteria food.

As for that nest of ours—it won’t stand empty. I’ll do a bit of rearranging, but always leaving room for you and your sister. Please know that our family is the best thing that ever happened to me. This life we have together surpasses my dreams. I hope and pray that your adult life— it will happen to you sooner rather than later—exceeds all of your expectations. And for the record, it never mattered to me whether or not you were the smartest guy in the room. I just wanted you to have the kindest soul of anyone in the world. I think you do, wrinkled shirt and all.

All my love,


Bearing Witness and Feeling Other: The Poetry of Jehanne Dubrow

The Arranged Marriage is Jehanne Dubrow’s powerful new volume of poetry, and it bears witness to her Jewish Honduran mother Jeannette’s complicated life story. Her family left Germany in the late 1930s for Honduras, and Jeannette was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1946 for medical reasons. Immediately after the birth, mother and child returned to their family in Central America where Jeannette lived until she was 15.

Jehanne Dubrow

Jehanne Dubrow

Dubrow, who is an award-winning poet, captures her family’s traumatic departure from Europe in a poem from the book called “Limen.” She writes: “I think of my mother’s family, circa 1936—/folding Warsaw and Berlin in their steamer trunks, /beneath prayer shawls, pictures of the dead./That shipped to Honduras.”

In a recent interview Dubrow notes, “My mother came from a Yiddish, German, Spanish speaking household.” Her father was the son of assimilated German Jews who made their way to Miami through Cuba just before the Holocaust. He spoke German as a child and Dubrow remembers her grandparents’ heavily accented English.

Dubrow, who was born in northern Italy in 1975, also grew up in a stew of languages. Her parents were in the American Foreign Service and were posted to countries that included the former Yugoslavia, Zaire and Belgium. Her first languages were English, Serbo-Croatian, and later French and Swahili. “When I was very little my mother tried to speak Spanish to me against the backdrop of whichever country we were posted to at the time, but in those spaces many languages were happening simultaneously. I can sort of understand Spanish, but I feel guilty that I don’t really know it.”

Jehanne Dubrow

Her Latino family’s hybrid identity is one of the three stories that Dubrow braids together into a poignant, poetic history. A second strand encompasses poems that the poet Claudia Rankine has described “as a mosaic of violence.” The impetus for those verses came out of Jeannette’s nightmare experience as the hostage of a man who escaped from an insane asylum. She was just 20 when she was held for over 24 hours.

A third strand picks up after Jeannette’s father bullied her into a first marriage to a young man from a wealthy Jewish El Salvadoran family. Jeannette was forced to abandon her college education for a ketubah — a marriage contract — with a man she did not love.

The inevitable dissolution of the marriage came with Jeannette’s parents, particularly her father, sitting shiva for her. Dubrow portrays that tragic and extreme reaction in a poem called “My Mother, Temporarily Disowned.” She begins: “For seven days she was gone to them. They sat in a room the way mourners do, mirrors dressed in black, black garments rent at the sleeves. Daughter: a synonym for disloyalty.”

Dubrow, who is also an associate professor of English at Washington College in Maryland, notes that “I wrote this book with my mother’s permission. The material is based on interviews I did with her so I could present a more formal conversation about these stories.” Dubrow also points out that the process of “transforming a narrative into a poem can turn it into a different story. Poetry can fictionalize or fetishize the experience. I worked closely with my mother editing the poems, ordering the poems. And I mingled the strands to evoke living with trauma over a long time.”

The prose poems in The Arranged Marriage are also notable in that they represent a structural departure for Dubrow. “I’m usually thought of as a formalist. I use traditional rhyme and meter and I love writing sonnets. But the [sonnet form] felt inappropriate for my mother’s story. These poems had to be more detached in order to avoid going into a mode of hysteria. This meant that I could not call attention to craftsmanship in the same way a sonnet does. By working in the prose poem I was able to create a naturalistic effect.”

Dubrow’s technical virtuosity is on display in her previous books. Many of those poems have detailed her experiences as a military wife as well as growing up as a Jew in Poland. “All of my books speak about being alien somewhere. I’m comfortable with being different, but I also feel a kind of otherness.”

While the experience of otherness is beautifully captured in The Arranged Marriage, one of the poems in the book, “Rules for Passover in the Tropics,” introduces the subtext of adjusting expectations. “Your matzoh won’t arrive. Convene a kaffeeklatsch. Debate the leavening of corn when mashed to meal. Wine will break in transit. Invent a substitute for the crate of shards and purple stains.”

Dubrow further explains that the poem is also about “making do and making your own version of Passover. [Honduran Jews] are not frivolous or flighty about Passover, pre-Internet they just embodied different forms of observance [out of necessity],” she says. “A shank bone may have come from a goat that someone killed down the road. ”

It’s not a surprise that Passover is Dubrow’s favorite holiday on the Jewish calendar. “It’s such a wonderful narrative in which food and story are brought together,” she explains. “It was also one of the times when my mother’s stories [about growing up Jewish in Honduras] were actually funny.” The holiday is also an opportunity to have “conversations about interpretation.” The same sentiment holds true in reading Dubrow’s poems — verse that exquisitely addresses the nuances of survival, adaptation and exile.

Mark Rothko: Crossing the Boundaries by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Annie Cohen-Solal feels a deep kinship with the artist Mark Rothko, the subject of her excellent new biography, Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel. An academic and a cultural historian, Cohen-Solal is also the author of award-winning books on Jean-Paul Sartre and the influential New York City art dealer Leo Castelli. In a recent interview with the Jewish Advocate, Cohen-Solal, who lives and works in her native France, explained the impetus for writing about Rothko for Yale University Press’ series on Jewish Lives. “ Like Rothko I am between nations and cultures and I too am a cosmopolitan Jew.”

Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia, now Latvia, in 1903. His father Yacov Rotkovitch, a pharmacist, was a bookish secular Jew. His mother Kate came from a privileged Jewish family in Saint Petersburg that was barely touched by anti-Semitism. The marriage was a social coup for Yacov who brought his bride back to Dvinsk where the couple had four children. Mark, the youngest, was the only child to attend cheder. Cohen-Solal explains that Rothko’s “education in Talmud Torah did not align with his family’s secularism. He was fourteen years younger than his oldest brother and at the time there was this threat of thrusting Jewish boys into the Russian army. He went to Talmud Torah to avoid getting drafted.”

Alarmed by encroaching pogroms, the elder Rotkovitch immigrated with his two older sons to America in 1908. Two years later, Kate followed with her daughter and her youngest son. The family settled in Portland, Oregon where they had relatives. They lived among other Russian Jews in a neighborhood nicknamed “Little Odessa.” Three years after the family was reunited in Portland, Yacov died. Cohen-Solal points out that the family was so secular that ten year-old Mark, who had the most Jewish education among them, was the only relative who said the Mourner’s Kaddish for his father.

Marcus Rothkowitz, as he was known in Portland, excelled in high school and earned admission to Yale University along with two of his Jewish classmates. When Marcus arrived in New Haven in 1921, the campus was a WASP bastion of privilege and anti-Semitism. “He was disillusioned and disappointed,” Cohen-Solal said. “He didn’t agree with the policies of the closed fraternities. He was a rebel at heart and created a newspaper called the Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which destroyed the values of the institution rather than complying with them.” She further delineates the classist rivalry between Yale’s German and Russian Jews. Having immigrated earlier to the United States and succeeded socioeconomically, German Jews had an easier time fitting into Yale life.

After his scholarship was revoked in his sophomore year, Marcus left Yale and went to New York. Legend has it that his art career was launched after he visited a friend studying figure drawing at The Art Students’ League. “At the age of 20 Marcus was already a role model,” says Cohen-Solal, “He was an intellectual, a fighter, an educator. He was an individual who confronted the injustice of American society, the narrow-mindedness he encountered at Yale all the way through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art was a form of social action for him.” Young Marcus’ career took off when the American artist Milton Avery mentored him. “Avery was [Marcus’] American role model and a father figure to him.”

The 1920s was also a time when Rothko negotiated his internal tensions between Europe and the United States, the West Coast and East Coast, as well as his Jewish and secular influences. In his artwork from 1928 and 1939, Rothko moved towards his signature style by first painting landscapes, watercolors and oil paintings with enigmatic, phantom-like figures. Come the late 1930s Marcus Rothkowitz became an American citizen and changed his name to Mark Rothko.

Cohen-Solal notes that by the 1940s, “there was so much in Rothko’s work as a painter that could be described and integrated by his Judaism. Like many Jewish artists at the time, he thrived in the abstract, which may have been influenced by the Second Commandment about not making ‘graven images.’”

As for Rothko, many of his Jewish values came together in the paintings he did for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Commissioned by Jean and Dominique de Menil, the chapel is an ecumenical space dedicated to peace. As Cohen-Solal notes, three immigrants, one fleeing pogroms in Russia and two escaping Nazi-occupied France, created a meditative space that was as much political as it was spiritual.

“What Rothko has done with his art is to talk to the 21st century,” says Cohen-Solal. “Think of the terrorist attacks in which art has been destroyed. An immigrant carries tools that he can turn into destruction or creativity. Rothko’s life is not only a model for immigrants today, he demonstrates that the history of art is the history of hunger over compliance.”

This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2015 issue of the Jewish Advocate

Quitting My Meds, Slowly by Judy Bolton-Fasman

by Lior Zaltman for the Forward

by Lior Zaltman for the Forward

Three years ago I decided to take Abilify, an anti-psychotic medication, prescribed to me to boost the waning effectiveness of my anti-depressant. I had been on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) since the fall of 2001, and Abilify would be the third psychotropic prescription in my pill organizer. Almost immediately, though, Abilify wreaked havoc with my blood sugar and I was forced to weigh its psychological benefit with the physical risk of getting diabetes. And so last year I tried to taper off it.

In light of my situation, I have been reading Diana Spechler’s excellent ongoing series “Going Off” with keen interest. Spechler, a novelist and essayist, has been documenting her experience of going off her psychotropic medications for the New York Times column, Anxiety. Her regimen of medication, similar to mine, included an anti-depressant, Trazadone (a sleep aid) and Lorazepam, a benzodiazepine. Although she responded well — her depression mostly lifted — she was anxious about being on the medication. .

The more I read, the more I felt that Spechler was a kindred spirit who I wanted to talk to directly. At the outset of our phone conversation, she put me at ease about my decision to stay on medication. “My goal as an artist,” she said, “is to undo shame. My goal with the Going Off series is to chip away at the taboos around meds and mental illness by writing frankly about my own experience.”

My own history of anxiety and depression has a straightforward trajectory. I had my first panic attack in 1980 when I was nineteen. The dread and anxiety that took up residence in my mind and in my soul left me alternately agoraphobic and claustrophobic. Yet I was resolute about getting through anxiety without medication. In my twenties I opted for therapy and it helped. When Prozac came along I was tempted to try it, but there was no data about its effects on pregnancy.

Soon after, I married a wonderful man and gave birth to two children. Yet panic was always lurking, and sometimes outright stalking me. And then September 11th happened. My husband was out of the country, my children were very young. I felt utterly alone and frightened and my anxiety felt different — I couldn’t get through the panic.

I held my husband’s hand as I cried throughout the appointment with the psychiatrist. He was a gentle man who listened to my loop of why I didn’t want to take Klonopin or Lexapro. I reasoned that I had been so stalwart all those years without any help. But with childbearing behind me, there was my quality of life and the lives of my children to consider.

I took the medicine. And it did change my life in concrete ways. I slept through the night, I could sit still without worrying about panicking. I could drive long distances on a highway. But even on the medication, I occasionally slipped back into depression and anxiety. That’s where the Abilify came in. Shortly after I started Abilify the difference in my demeanor was notable. Yet when I looked at the crowded slots of my pillbox, it felt like too much. I wanted to go back to just taking an SSRI.

Spechler sympathizes. “I also worry about the long-term effects of these drugs, which are still relatively new to consumers,” she told me. And in one of her Times essays she wrote: “I worry about Big Pharma. My stomach clenches when I read about studies and the ugliest side effects of the very medications pharmaceuticals companies hard-sell to psychiatrists, including pediatric psychiatrists.”

At first I didn’t notice any withdrawal symptoms from the Abilify until a Sunday last April when I couldn’t stop crying. Sundays are historically difficult for me — a day of anxiously anticipating the week ahead. But on this Sunday I felt the anxiety of my pre-medication days. I went back on the Abilify and my mind quieted down.

Back in 2001, when SSRIs made such a difference for me, I swore that if anyone tried to take away my Lexapro she would have to pry it from my cold, dead hands. I was the SSRI poster girl, a recovering phobic, a long-distance driver. These days, though, I worry that my psychotropic medications have become a crutch and, given the bad reaction I had to tapering off Abilify, a liability.

Spechler’s essays have dovetailed with psychiatrist Julie Holland’s recent op-ed in the New York Times’ Sunday Review. Dr. Holland writes that, “one in four women takes a psychiatric medication compared with one in seven men. Women are nearly twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of depression or anxiety disorder than men.” Furthermore, she reports that Abilify outsells not just psychiatric medications, but all other drugs in the United States.

Although I own my ambivalence about taking psychiatric medications, Spechler is not advocating that I go off them. “One of the disturbing responses that I’ve gotten [to my essays] is that it’s going to encourage people to go off their meds. I want to clarify that I’m not encouraging anyone to go off her meds. I’m only acknowledging that this is something people go through, that it’s something I’m going through, and it’s not being talked about enough in mainstream media.”

My psychiatrist and I are aiming to try again to taper me off Abilify. This time I’m grateful to have Diana Spechler’s experience and empathy at the ready.

Nobody’s Runner Up: A Havana Love Story for Purim by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Nothing in Brooklyn could rival the formal dances in Havana at the Patronato de la Communidad Hebreo de Cuba. And nothing in the world could rival the exquisite Purim Ball of 1954 at the Patronato. Although my nineteen-year old mother was not selected as the Queen Esther of the ball that night, she was one of Esther’s four attendants—a very high honor for a girl whose father couldn’t afford to buy the title for her. It was also the night she fell in love with Manuel. She was wearing a black sleeveless velvet gown that her mother made for her, the neckline studded with tiny, starry rhinestones.

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Falling in love with Manuel was fated, she thought. Not three weeks earlier, my mother tripped on the University of Havana’s famous stone staircase that fanned down to the street. She limped to the university clinic where a handsome doctor had dressed her scraped knee. Here he was again at the Purim Ball.

My mother has always believed in signs more than she believes in God.


On her first day of classes at the university, my mother ventured forth alone to the campus from her flat on La Calle Mercéd in Old Havana. She had just enough money for bus fare and a Coca Cola. It had been a fierce struggle to persuade my grandfather, my Abuelo, to allow her out at all. In his mind, the university was no place for a girl, particularly a Jewish girl. Abuelo slapped my mother when she told him she had been accepted to the university. And in one of his drunken rages, he beat my grandmother, Abuela, for encouraging my mother to apply.

“A girl needs an education,” Abuela screamed. “She’ll work like a burra, if she doesn’t go to school—a burra like me sewing until her fingers fall off.”

Abuelo begrudgingly, soberly relented, but gave his daughter grim odds: “You will come home with a Christiano,” he predicted “and if you do—te lo juro—I swear—you will be dead to me.”

But at the ball my mother defied her father’s odds and danced with the Jewish Manuel all night. Manuel stroked her knee, now fully healed, through the black velvet of her dress as she sipped lemonade. This was love, my mother thought.


By the winter of 1959, my mother’s heart was broken forever. She had followed Manuel from Cuba to New York. She believed that Manuel had not asked her to join him in the United States right away so that she could finish her studies in case Batista reopened the University of Havana. But soon after she arrived, she understood his noble gesture for what it was: Manuel did not want her.

My mother stayed in America anyway, where she endured the cold and year-round homesickness in a room she rented from her father’s cousins. When she came down with pneumonia during her first New York winter, she stayed in bed, feverish and disoriented. The Hungarian girls she worked with at the watch factory, where she typed invoices, brought her homemade pastries. While her friends’ political conflagration in Budapest happened in 1956, Castro had only recently come down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains, marching into the center of Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959.

Once she was well enough, my mother’s cousins encouraged her to go to Saturday night dances for Jewish singles, but she preferred to stay in with them and watch Perry Mason and Lawrence Welk. Those dances were for chusmas—girls who wore ankle bracelets and bright red toenail polish—on the prowl for men of equally questionable status.


Bound up in my mother’s lifelong sorrow has always been the loss of her nineteen-year old self, the girl who was so nearly the belle of the Purim Ball that she inflated the honor of runner-up into a victory of its own. “I was prettier than any of these girls,” she sighed when we watched a beauty contest on television.

That part she got right. The proof is in the black and white photograph I have of my mother taken shortly after the Purim Ball. Her head is slightly turned to the right; she seems to be gazing off into the future. Her wavy black hair is loose and cascades down her back. Her lips are dark, her eyebrows arched like a movie star’s.

At nineteen, my mother is magnificent. She is nobody’s runner up.

Monster Love by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I met my first boyfriend Monster by way of the Hebrew Home when I was sixteen and he was eighteen. His great-grandfather had a room across the hall from my grandmother. My mother and his grandmother were often the only relatives visiting the place. They started talking about this and that and soon planned to fix up their children.

Monster’s grandmother brought his high school picture for my mother’s inspection. A portrait really—retouched in rosy-cheeked pink and framed in a heavy dark wood. He was exactly the kind of boy she had in mind for me and for her. Monster’s grandmother saw the proofs of my high school yearbook picture—raw and unfinished and scarred with acne. Monster called anyway.

Rugby-shirted, tall with dark curly hair, he was was the handsomest, most grown up boy I had ever seen. He asked if my big sister was home when he picked me up. That first date lasted eight years.

Shortly after, Monster left me behind in high school for his freshman year of college. I wrote to him like crazy and thought this is what love feels like—the urge to pen long letters about everything and nothing. He wrote back that everyone in his class, including him, wanted to be a doctor.

The next year, I went to college locally. Monster’s mother cooked food for him that she froze and delivered to me. I took a train down to see him and brought those meals in a duffel bag I could barely carry. My roommate called me Judy Birdseye and Monster called me Burger after the frozen hamburger patties. By the time I reached him, the bags were sweating, beaded all over with drops of water.

After I graduated from college, I went to New York to continue with Monster who was in medical school by then. I found a publishing job that came with a meager paycheck. I rented a hole of a room six blocks and two avenues away from my boyfriend in an unairconditioned, overheated Y. This all seemed reasonable at the time.

But as soon as I arrived at the Y Monster abandoned me. He wanted to compare. He met women everywhere—in restaurants, bookstores, buses. Two months later I took him back after just one phone call. He was flunking out of medical school.

I quizzed him until he passed two out of the three classes, but he couldn’t make a go of microbiology. He would have to repeat the entire subject and the only accredited course was in Philadelphia. I lied to everyone about Monster’s whereabouts that summer. I told his roommate that he was on an extended vacation in Mexico recuperating from a tough year.

In an era before cell phones, Monster waited at the same phone booth each night for my call. “Why do I have to learn so much microbiology?” he lamented. “What does it have to do with being a doctor?”

At the end of the summer I walked Monster to his microbiology test. It was like accompanying a condemned man to his hanging. He passed, but barely, and I moved in with him in his third year of medical school. He gave me half of his closet, two drawers and insomnia.

Monster and I never broke up exactly. But I knew our time had run out when I watched him walk across a dais to receive his medical school diploma. Soon after I moved back to the Y and waited for him to call anyway.

Twenty years later, one of my mother’s daily scans of the obituaries in my hometown newspaper turned up a notice that Monster’s father had died. My condolence note brought us to a restaurant in Boston. Monster wore a dark suit to lunch. He gave me a dozen roses. He was bald. His hands shook when he held his turkey club sandwich. He had a lawyer on retainer to keep his teen-age son out of trouble. His soon to be ex-wife frequently locked him out of the house.

That afternoon I talked and Monster listened. I told him that a man should only have to apologize once. I told him that I was happily married and the mother of two beautiful children. I told him that I still have a recurring nightmare in which I call information and the operator says that his number is unpublished.

I almost felt sorry for Monster during that lunch. But then I didn’t. Lunch was finished and so were we.

This essay originally appeared on the Forward’s Sisterhood Blog

Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Kids by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo love to tell the story of how they founded their website, everyoneisgay.com. “The short answer is that it began as a joke,” says Owens-Reid, 29. In 2010, Owens-Reid, an actor and comedian, had started a comic website called Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. “I was getting a lot of flak about stereotyping lesbians, and I felt that was unfair.” She mentioned her dilemma to an acquaintance, Russo, 33, who also has a theater background but at the time was studying for a master’s in gender studies. In response, the two women decided to launch a website that addressed Owens-Reid’s negative feedback while also fielding advice questions from the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning community. That idea evolved into everyoneisgay.com, their website and organization aimed at helping LGBTQ youth. To support their cause the women tour schools, give advice weekly from their Tumblr account, and offer support to families through a companion site, theparentsproject.com. They estimate that over the past four years they have answered more than 50,000 questions, ranging from what happens when “I fall in love with my best friend” to coming out to religious family members. Owens-Reid and Russo’s most recent project is “This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question & Answer Guide to Everyday Life.’’

Q. What are your coming out stories and how have they influenced your work?

RUSSO: I was home on Thanksgiving break from college in 1998 and was working through feelings I had for a woman from high school. Yet I was unsure about identifying as gay or homosexual. My parents had been asking me since I was 13 if I was gay. When they asked me again at the Thanksgiving table that year, I unexpectedly came out. My parents shaped the moment for me. They told me that they loved me. But my dad worried about discrimination, and I struggled with my mom who was raised a very religious Roman Catholic. She was taught that being gay was a sin, and anyone who acted on those feelings would go to hell. Because she loves me with every bone in her body, she couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t join her in heaven. Luckily, my mother never stopped challenging herself and revisiting those feelings.

OWENS-REID: I’m from South Carolina and was raised in a very proper Southern way. But when a girl kissed me in college, I came out almost immediately after that. My dad has always put my happiness before anything. Nothing fazed him about my sexuality. All he wanted to do was help and that was very comforting. My mother has had a few struggles. It wasn’t an easy road for the two of us. She would say things like, “You’re so pretty. Don’t you want to get married?’’

Q. Can you talk a little about how the coming-out process works its way through families?

RUSSO: “There’s so much benefit in allowing parents to go through their own [coming-out] process. A woman came up to us the other day on our book tour and told us that “you saved my relationship with my daughter. She reads your work and you told her that I need to come out as well.’’ It’s giving permission to everyone involved to assess the moment.

OWENS-REID: One of the most meaningful things that we write in the book is for kids to think about the process of the person they come out to. Your mother or father has to tell family members, the people they work with. It’s also important for parents and kids to understand that the first reaction to a kid coming out will not always be perfect. People have to work through the news and not talking about it is one of the worst things you can do.

Q. Should parents refrain from directly asking their child if he or she is gay?

RUSSO: My mother asked me about my sexuality when I was 13, and the question confused me. I wasn’t aware of my identity yet, and I thought that she was asking me because people perceived me as gay. Also, if a kid is not ready to tell a parent he can panic and say he’s not gay. In addition to tackling the coming-out moment, he feels as if he’s lied to his parents. Even in a particular situation where your child is leaving hints, it’s not the best idea to ask. Instead, make a welcoming environment in which you love and accept all people regardless of their identity.

OWENS-REID: A cool thing you can do as a parent to make it easier for your kid to come out is to ask if she is interested in someone at school. Give your child gender-free triggers.

Q. In the book you condemn the words “choice’’ and “fault’’ when discussing sexual identity. Why do those particular words concern you?

RUSSO: I find conversations troubling when parents say that “homosexuality wasn’t my kid’s choice.’’ It implies that if you could choose you wouldn’t be the person that you are. Sexual identity is not a choice, and I don’t feel that I was born with a particular sexual identity.

OWENS-REID: Fault and choice are terrible words. Nothing in particular makes your kids gay. A television show or a piece of clothing does not influence sexuality. It doesn’t make any sense. When people assign fault or blame they imply that there is something wrong, that there is a negative air about gayness.

Q. Do you think parents of LGBTQ children feel they have more to worry about than those whose children are not?

RUSSO: Parents of gay children may struggle a little more because they don’t have a clear picture of what LGBTQ lives look like. The best thing that parents can do is gather information and figure out what throws their picture of the future into disarray.

OWENS-REID: Parents worry. It’s in the job description, and they would also worry about their heterosexual child finding a good partner. Talk to your children. We have learned so much from the LGBTQ young people we meet. They know things and want to talk about them.

Interview originally published in the November 18, 2014 edition of the Boston Globe