Watermark: By Tom Dyer, OCTOBER 1, 2009
I felt such a sense of shame that I could barely look at him. My one worthwhile accomplishment was raising decent, loving children. Had I failed even at that?
Those harsh sentiments appear near the beginning of a richly rewarding new book by local therapist Enid Duchin Jackowitz. The Rest of the Way tells the story of her son’s coming out. But make no mistake: it is about the author’s journey of self-discovery, from convention-bound Maitland housewife to spirited activist and counselor to hundreds of LGBT families in crisis.
“Michael’s coming out turned out to be the greatest gift of my life,” Enid now says. “I’m so grateful.”
Michael came out to his parents the summer before his senior year in college. It was 1986. Rock Hudson had died of AIDS the year before, and Syd and Enid Jackowitz had nothing but their fears and misconceptions with which to react: gay life is seamy; gay people are unhappy; gay relationships are unhealthy; gay sex will kill you. And importantly: being gay is something you choose.
Their Orthodox Jewish faith also taught them that homosexuality was an affront to God. A low point came when Michael later mentioned to his mother that he intended to keep Kosher. “Why bother?” she recalls saying bitterly in The Rest of the Way. “How can you even call yourself a Jew?”
Syd’s reaction to Michael’s coming out was typical of a father: What can we do to fix this? Enid’s was typical of a mother, and explains her greater anguish: What did I do wrong?
“We had expectations about where our kids were going; that there would be a lot of pride, a lot of joy,” remembers Syd. “In the space of a half hour that was all gone.” But slowly, and with the help of a good therapist, Enid began digging herself out of a deep depression, and the couple took some baby steps toward accepting their son.
In her pain, Enid reached out to different groups. She was exposed to more accepting forms of spirituality, and eventually made her way to a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting. It was an important breakthrough, and she wanted to share it with Syd. But when she asked him to join her at the next meeting, his response was clipped. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I wouldn’t be caught dead at a PFLAG meeting.”
By this time, it had been nine full years since Michael had first come out to them. They were progressing at different rates, and it was creating a rift for the once rock-solid couple.
Syd agreed to therapy, where he was introduced to the image of an anchor. He was urged to metaphorically throw the anchor as far as he could—no farther—and then use it to pull himself forward.
With that concept in mind, he agreed to join Enid at The Experience; a weekend retreat in Key West for those struggling with issues related to homosexuality. They were the only parents there. Most were gay men who had found self-love and self-acceptance elusive.
“For the first time, I grasped how hard it must have been for Michael to come out to us. Painfully, I saw how self-absorbed I had been. His coming out had been all about me.”
The Experience was yet another turning point for both. They saw first-hand the struggle that Michael had likely endured before coming out. And they came finally to accept that their son’s sexual orientation had never been a choice. Shortly thereafter Syd attended his first PFLAG meeting. He would later serve as president of the local chapter. Both volunteered to be board members at the (GLBCC) Center. They agreed to write a regular column for Watermark called “Parents’ Perspective,” and they memorialized their experiences for NPR’s “Storycorps” project.
Enid went back to school to obtain her master’s degree. She is now a licensed psychotherapist at the Center for Counseling & Consulting. All the while, the downloading process initiated by Michael’s coming out continued.
“When the day finally came and the struggle was behind me, I knew I could help other parents going through this difficult journey,” Enid says.
The title for The Rest of the Way is from a Talmudic story about a king who fights with his son. The son leaves, and after many years have passed the king, missing his son, sends word for him to come home. The son replies that it is too far to travel, and the king responds: “Then come as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.”
“What I came to see was that much of the turmoil I was feeling wasn’t even about Michael. He wasn’t the one who needed fixing—I was.”
The touching last chapter of the book is written by Michael, now a successful theater and opera producer. “When I read his chapter I just wept and wept,” Enid says. “I still feel so sorry that it was so painful for him.”
And if Michael had never come out?
“I imagine I would have remained self-righteous, judgmental, bitter,” Enid says. “My life would be so narrow.”