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Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Life Intrudes

While I was settling into my new department, helping to shepherd our Ph. D. proposal through the many stages of review and approval and developing the SUMMA program through IASH, two things of the very greatest importance happened that had nothing at all to do with philosophy, Afro-American Studies, IASH, SUMMA, or South Africa. The first concerned Susie, the second my son, Tobias.

The house we had built was situated on a country way called Buffam Road in the little town of Pelham. Our section of Buffam Road ran straight for several miles, up and down gentle hills. Susie had carved out for herself a nice three mile walk that she took most mornings, early enough so that she might see birds, rabbits, the occasional deer, and even the flock of wild turkeys that had taken up residence in the woods behind our house. One morning in late April 1993, as Susie was on her walk, she experienced a sudden weakening and instability that almost made it impossible for her to get home. She had had a previous, even more dramatic episode twelve years earlier, while living in Chapel Hill, but no explanation had ever been given for it, and it had not recurred. This time, tests showed that she was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis.

MS, as the disease is universally referred to, afflicts somewhere in the neighborhood of one tenth of one percent of the population. It is an autoimmune disease, the causes of which are very poorly understood, that attacks the myelin sheaths surrounding the axons in the brain and spinal column. It afflicts young people principally, and women more than men. The damage to the nervous system produces a bewildering array of symptoms, ranging from disturbing bodily sensations sometimes described as "tingling and burning" to progressively more severe loss of mobility. It also can produce in a variety of cognitive problems, such as loss of attention span, forgetfulness, and the inability to follow sequential instructions like recipes or driving directions.

Two forms or stages of the disease are distinguished simply from observation, since they have never been correlated with clinical data of any sort. The earlier form, called "relapsing-remitting," presents as a serious of discrete attacks or exacerbations, after which the patient recovers most of the physical capacities that have been lost in the attack, but typically at a somewhat lower level of functioning. Over time, a series of such exacerbations can dramatically reduce the patient's mobility and well-being. In later stages, this sequence of attacks gives way to a slow, steady diminution of capacities, referred to as the "secondary progressive" phase of the disease. There are a great many medications that have been developed either to address the symptoms or to slow the progress of the disease. Many of those suffering from MS become extremely knowledgeable about the latest experimental treatments, and share information and experiences in support groups .

Although MRIs revealed signs of lesions in the her brain and spinal column, indicating a loss of myelin, Susie's case was promising for several reasons. First of all, she was sixty when the dramatic exacerbation occurred, and all the evidence suggested that MS was less serious in older patients. Secondly, she very quickly recovered from the debilitating weakness, and seemed restored to her normal active, vigorous condition. Nevertheless, under the care of a neurologist, she began a series of self-administered injections, first with a substance called Betaseron, later with an different medication, Copaxone.

Susie responded to this sudden and frightening affliction with enormous courage. After discovering that there were no MS support groups in our part of Western Massachusetts, she organized one herself, and from then until we moved away, fifteen years later, she welcomed a group of MS sufferers into our home one afternoon a month. The promising prognosis proved correct, and for a very long time, Susie's MS made very little difference in our routines, save for the regimen of injections. We continued to take overseas trips, to Paris, to Dubrovnik, to Italy, to Israel, and to South Africa. She resumed her walks, and at least for some while was able to handle the entire three mile course [which, I discovered on the rare occasions when I accompanied her, was not so easy!]

As the years passed, Susie took to walking with a cane, and she began to suffer some of the cognitive effects of the disease. But I have always said that I hoped its progress would be so slow that we would never quite be sure whether any loss of abilities was a result of MS or simply of age. When I first starting saying that, it was, I think, a bit of bravado, a secular prayer. But now that we are both past the midway point in our seventies, I think my prayer has been answered. There is no doubt that the disease has diminished Susie's abilities in ways that I can see each day, but we have just returned from a three week trip to Paris as I write these words, and in November, we shall go on one more safari -- a Massachusetts Audubon trip to the Serengeti Plain. Not bad for a pair of senior citizens.

The second life-altering event occurred later that same year. In November, 1993, my son, Tobias, came up from New York to join Susie and me for Thanksgiving dinner. Following his graduation from Yale in 1992, he had been spending some time working in New York City as a paralegal before attending NYU Law School. Tobias walked into our house with a broad smile on his face, wearing loafers without socks and carrying a large leather satchel on his shoulder with his clothes and things. After hugs all around, he settled onto the sofa in the living room, and said he had something to tell us. With very little preliminary, he said that he was gay, and had decided to come out both to me and to his mother.

After he made this announcement, I told him that I loved him. I then said that for a very long time I had been concerned about him, because, although he worked very hard and had made a brilliant career for himself at Yale, I felt that his libidinal energies were not engaged, that he did not seem to have in his life the sort of intense erotic and emotional experiences that were, I thought, an essential component of a fulfilled life. I said I very much hoped, now that he was coming out to his parents and to the world, that he would fall in love and experience the joy of being intensely and intimately involved with another person.

Having a gay son has opened my eyes to things in the world that I might before have grasped intellectually, but did not appreciate with an emotional immediacy. Odd as it may sound for me to say this, the impact on me was rather like the effect of becoming a member of an Afro-American Studies department. One brief story will perhaps convey something of what I mean.

A year after coming out, Tobias enrolled in NYU Law School, where he promptly ended at the very top of his first year class, was elected editor of the NYU Law Review, transferred to Yale Law School, was elected as an Articles Editor of the Yale Law Journal, and in 1997 was awarded the JD degree by Yale. He was then selected to serve as a clerk to William Norris on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Los Angeles. Tobias invited me to drive out with him to LA, and I jumped at the chance [although, in the end, he refused to allow me actually to drive his beloved Toyota 4Runner, so I went along as a passenger.] We took the Northern route, and spent a day in San Francisco, where Tobias had friends, before continuing down the coast to LA.

The afternoon that we got to San Francisco, we visited the apartment of his two gay friends. Several other gay men were there as well. It was a quite casual gathering, and one or two of the men were lounging on a sofa idly watching a rerun of a nighttime sitcom. Like most sitcoms, it revolved around a romantic relationship between a man and a woman. I glanced at the television screen, and suddenly it struck me that a gay man watching a show like that must experience a very deep cognitive dissonance. The writers of such shows, and of novels and movies as well, assume without giving it much thought that their audience will be straight men and women who will, if the story is written skillfully enough, identify with one or another of the characters, and derive a good deal of their enjoyment from that identification. But a gay man cannot, in that way, identify with the male lead [or with anyone in the storyline]. So inevitably, there must be a distancing that takes place as he watches the show. The same thing will be true for the countless advertisements that use sex as a commercial lure, for popular music, and for virtually every other element of our high and popular culture.

There is nothing novel or particularly insightful about this realization, and I imagine that at an earlier time, I would have got all the words right if I had been asked a question about it. But it was only then, with my own son inextricably implicated in the contradictions of being gay in a straight world, that I felt its full force. Once again, I find that my deepest moral and political convictions and commitments flow not from theoretical deliberation but from my immediate personal involvement with someone I care about.

In the seventeen years since coming out to me and to the world, Tobias has matured into an extraordinarily accomplished legal scholar, but also into one of the leading gay legal rights activists in the United States. In addition to publishing groundbreaking legal articles on the subject [which is not at all his specialty within the field of academic law], he has played an ever more prominent and important political role in the ongoing struggle for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons [from which comes the oft-repeated acronym -- LGBT]. In 2004, he served as an advisor to the John Kerry campaign on these issues, and in 2008, he chaired the Advisory Committee on LGBT issues for the Obama campaign. In that latter campaign, he spent endless hours [and a good deal of his own money] working in states around the country to mobilize support in the LGBT community for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

At the same time, Tobias has authored amicus curiae briefs in a number of important state legal cases deciding whether same-sex couples will be allowed to marry. He regularly consults with the White House on such matters, and with the Pentagon as well. In short, he has become an important public intellectual. To say that I am proud of him would be like saying that Mt. Everest is a very high hill. If I may borrow a phrase from the world of gossip and celebrity spotting, I think I can fairly say that I have two trophy sons. At long last, little Toby's rueful plaint has been put behind him. Tobias quite definitely has "a national reputation."


Anonymous said...


jeff house said...

In Canada, gay marriage was first preoclaimed by the Ontario Court of Appeal, which held that male-female-only marriage was discriminatory.

At that point, no US court had ruled to the same effect.

The Chief Justice who wrote the decision, Roy McMurtry, has a gay daughter.


Robert Paul Wolff said...

One of the many ways in which our Northern neighbors lead the way. But then there is Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter and remains an unreconstructed bigot.

enzo rossi said...

Perhaps Cheaney is a closet tolerant who panders to bigotry for political gain. Laura Bush comes to mind. Despicable either way.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Boy, I don't know which is worse! As you say, despicable either way.

David Pilavin said...

Either way is better than a closet bigot who panders to tolerance for political gain.