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Mama's Boy

A Story from Our Americas

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Dustin Lance Black wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk and helped overturn California’s anti–gay marriage Proposition 8, but as an LGBTQ activist he has unlikely origins—a conservative Mormon household outside San Antonio, Texas. There he was raised by a single mother who, as a survivor of childhood polio, endured brutal surgeries as well as braces and crutches for life. Despite the abuse and violence of two questionably devised Mormon marriages, she imbued Lance with her inner strength and irrepressible optimism.

When Lance came out to his mother at age twenty-one, she initially derided his sexuality as a sinful choice. It may seem like theirs was a house destined to be divided—and at times it was. But in the end, they did not let their differences define them or the relationship that had inspired two remarkable lives. This heartfelt, deeply personal memoir explores how a mother and son built bridges across great cultural divides—and how our stories hold the power to heal.
 
Mama’s Boy is a beautifully written, utterly compelling account of growing up poor and gay with a thrice married, physically disabled, deeply religious Mormon mother, and the imprint this irrepressible woman made on the character of Dustin Lance Black. Their extraordinary bond left me exhilarated—it actually gave me hope for the future of the republic, which is no mean feat, given the dark mood of our current moment.” —Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula and Under the Banner of Heaven 
 
“Hang on to your apron strings, there hasn’t been a more memorable Southern mother memoir since Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. In Mama’s Boy, Dustin Lance Black redefines Steel Magnolia. From page one, readers will root for this matriarch, who demurely ruled every room since she was a child.” —Helen Ellis, author of Southern Lady Code and American Housewife
 
“A magnificent achievement. I cannot remember a book where I cried so often. Brave, insightful, unflinching, funny, sad, triumphant . . . everything. And both a warning and a hope for the times to come.” —Stephen Fry, author of Heroes and More Fool Me
 
“The story of how a mother and son came to reconcile their differences and realize the importance of family.” —NPR
 
“Dustin Lance Black’s memoir comes at exactly the right time; his complicated, surprising, and ultimately touching journey with his mom is a great example in our ideologically divided times.” —Andy Cohen, author of Superficial and The Andy Cohen Diaries
 
“A fast read with witty observations, and all the emotions to go along. . . . [A] testament to the powerful impact a good parent has on children. . . . Black and Mama’s Boy show just how far the unlikeliest of children can go with pure, unabashed grit.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Black’s tender and heartfelt love letter to his remarkable mother is an act of courage and reclamation. It’s a well-deserved tribute.” —New York Journal of Books

“A fascinating and poignant combination of memoir and family history. . . . Both personal and universal. . . . The most emotional moments come as Black finds himself in personal encounters with those who might be considered obviously antagonistic to his world, including leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and more conservative members of his own family. . . . Finding common ground is indeed the powerful throughline in Mama’s Boy.”—Salt Lake City Weekly
 
“Reverence is at [this memoir’s] heart. . . . There would be ample room for Lance to boast in this memoir, but you wait for it in vain. He’s done what he’s done and, here, told us how, with film-industry luminaries and gay activist colleagues, but even more compellingly through his deep, unbroken involvement with his family of origin and the transfer of that experience to what is now his own family.” —The Bay Area Reporter

“A memoir of an enduring mother-son bond that transcends even the deepest ideological divides. . . . [A] heartfelt tribute.” —USA Today, “5 Books Not to Miss”
 
“A loving portrait of [the author’s mother], a tiny, fierce woman who didn’t let any of her challenges—including poverty, the polio that cost her the use of her legs, and two bad marriages—stop her from living a full life, setting an example for her three sons.” —San Antonio Express-News
 
“[A] sharp, affecting memoir.” —Town & Country

“At the center of this thought-provoking memoir, Black, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay for Milk, offers a heartfelt tribute to Anne, his courageously inspiring yet deeply religious and politically conservative mother. . . . Black provides a wholly engrossing account of how a mother and son evolved beyond their potentially divisive religious and political beliefs to uncover a source of strength and unity through their enduring bond. A terrifically moving memoir of the myriad complexities of family dynamics.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Black grew up in the South, surrounded by stories—the telling sometimes fueled by Jack Daniels—that made people stronger. As a result, he fell in love with the magic of storytelling and has himself become a consummate storyteller, as he demonstrates in this beautifully written, vastly entertaining, and moving memoir. The most powerful stories are the most personal, Black believes, and, in that context, the most important figure in his story is his indomitable mother, who, a victim of childhood polio, had no use of her legs but refused to let that stop her. From her tough, stubborn heart, he inherited his own strong will and optimism. . . . Black seems incapable of writing a dull word as he evokes his stirring life and times, ultimately inspiring comity by word and example. His book belongs in every library.” —Booklist (starred review)
© Raul Romo
Dustin Lance Black is a filmmaker and social activist, known for writing the Academy Award–winning screenplay of the Harvey Milk biopic Milk, and for his part in overturning California’s discriminatory Proposition 8. He divides his time between London and Texas. View titles by Dustin Lance Black
Prologue

A hot, gauzy morning in the late summer of 1987. That was the first time I ever laid eyes on the streets of Los Angeles. I was thirteen years old but looked ten at best—an agonizingly shy Texas boy with eyes like water, hair like the sun, and a tanker truck’s worth of secrets. I was jammed in the backseat of my mom’s mas­sive yellow Malibu Classic between my little brother, Todd, and our stinking cat, Airborne. My mom said we were “on the move.” Others would have called it “on the run.”

Days earlier, my family had packed up what little we had of value and vanished without notice from our lives in the Lone Star State—leaving behind my middle school in San Antonio and our Mormon church in the Randolph Ward, heading west. My mom was behind the wheel, her hairspray-stiffened curls resting on worried shoulders as she worked the hand controls to speed up and slow down her beast of a car: a colossal artifact from a former life that now had to be wrested into submission by a woman who walked on crutches, her legs in braces, her spine fused and held together with metal bars hid­den just beneath the scars that ran the length of her body.

My big brother, Marcus, sat up front beside her. His hair was just as long as hers but kissing a black leather punk-rock jacket covered in pins and buttons that shouted obscenities my mom had miraculously (if not willfully) grown blind to. He had a map spread out on his lap. We were lost. We were scared. But in good Southern, Mormon fash­ion, we kept our terrors to ourselves.

Here’s the thing: we’d been taught our entire lives that places like Los Angeles were filled with folks who’d traded their souls and sal­vation for fame, booze, drugs, cash, cars, hetero sex, group sex, and dirty, filthy faggot sex. Los Angeles was the embodiment of an unfa­miliar, exotic America that we’d been warned to avoid: liberal, often coastal, a place for sinners and moral relativists. For our ragtag family on the run, passage through this city was a test of spiritual strength. So we plugged our noses in back, Marcus did his best to navigate up front, and my tiny runaway mom rotated the hand control that turned the gear that pressed down on the gas pedal that she hoped might propel us to safety.

Two hours later, Marcus and my mom finally spotted the entrance to the 5 Freeway heading north. The terrain grew steeper as we headed into the hills and over the Grapevine, a stretch of highway out of L.A., where the snarl of traffic gave way to golden grasses, a reser­voir lake, ranches, and a meadow filled with wildflowers. These were more familiar sights. This felt more like home. My mom looked up into her rearview mirror, found my eyes, and with all of her mighty love and warmth, sent me a strong, silent message: You’re safe now, my Lancer.

I took a breath or two, pulled out a pen and a spiral notebook, and wrote a letter to a girl back in San Antonio. She and I had recently par­ticipated in a one-act drama competition. She’d played Eve. I’d played Adam. Her mom was our drama teacher. I described Los Angeles as the “second gayest city in the world.” It wasn’t a compliment. I was already fairly certain that San Francisco was in first position thanks to AIDS hitting the national news when Old Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson fell out of his closet and into his grave. Since then, even the news shows in Texas had started offering up images of emaciated gay men, most in San Francisco, but others in New York and Los Angeles, dying terrible deaths thanks to their “lifestyle choices.” So yes, it seemed that San Francisco was the closest to hellfire, but I was fairly certain Los Angeles wasn’t far behind. I suppose I felt it neces­sary to let someone in Texas know I’d survived our journey through this foreign land.

But as we reached the top of a mountain, something in my God-fearing heart stirred, and I looked back toward the city. It was calling to me. If I’m being honest, it had started calling well before we set out on this adventure. If Los Angeles was dangerous, I was curious. How true were the stories I’d heard? Did the people there really do so many strange things to their bodies, their minds, and one another? Did they really make all of those movies and TV shows I’d fallen in love with on the rare occasions we were allowed to watch them? And the most dangerous question of all: Did the nation’s current teen heartthrob, Ricky Schroder, with his golden hair and ocean-blue eyes, actually live somewhere down in all that chaos?

That question, and all of its invasive roots and sticky webs, lin­gered longest in my mind as I watched the city glimmer and shine in the morning sun until it slowly disappeared behind a veil of blue-white smog.
 
 
 
Thirty years have passed since that drive, and for more than two and a half decades of that time I’ve called this City of Angels my home, with all of its sunshine, celebrities, workers, artists, headaches, egos, booze, dreams, lies, cigarette butts, body parts, hot tubs, invitations, hangovers, trophies, and yes, reliably progressive values. And like most Angelenos, I’ve spent much of that time in my car getting from place to place, tucked inside my bubble. Isolated. And in a hurry.

So whenever I heard a siren, I did what most Angelenos do: look forward, left, right, check my rearview mirror, and keep on driving. As an Angeleno, the last thing you want to do is tap the brake. The clock is ticking. We have places to be, coffees to order, deals to make, and great things to accomplish by lunchtime.

But something happened a few years back to strip me of that habit. I was driving home down Hollywood Boulevard when my mom called. I hit the icon on my dash to answer. She sounded gloomy and called herself a “dinosaur” twice. I’d rarely heard her in such a state. I was worried. So I added a three-day layover via Dulles Airport in Virginia to my next love-fueled flight to London to see the Brit I was fast falling head over heels for. It was a little surprise visit to lift my mom’s spirits, and a big birthday present to myself.

My mom now lived in Manassas Park, in a house built right on top of the bloodied Civil War battlefields of Bull Run, where more than twenty-four thousand soldiers gave their lives in the debate over whether all men are created equally—a scar on our nation, remind­ing us of how divided we once were, and in many ways still are.

My mom cried with joy and relief when I walked into her bed­room. I spent all three days with her there. We blew out candles. We ate cake. We ordered in from a local restaurant and enjoyed our din­ners on her bedroom floor. Then I opened the presents she’d ordered off her laptop from her perennial perch atop her bed.

She wasn’t feeling well, but that was nothing new. For a variety of reasons, big and small, she’d long been forced to use her not incon­siderable strength to fight off this illness or that. We’d done this ailment dance many times. We simply took advantage of her sleep­less nights to share stories, watch NCIS, check out the Home Shop­ping Network’s jewelry specials and buy a few pairs of earrings she couldn’t afford on a military retirement check, sneak far too many Oreo cookies, and witness a sunrise. Her spirits were lifted by the company. So were mine.

Just before I left, my stepdad arrived home from work to take her to the doctor for a checkup, and get her some antibiotics for what she felt sure was a bladder infection. Love hungry and London bound, I ordered a cab to the airport.

It was a markedly quiet ride. I don’t remember music ever even being turned on. But then my cell phone rang. The caller ID said “Mom.” Nothing unusual. This was her regular call to say she missed me already, and I would say the same, because it was true. Instead, when I said hello, my stepdad’s trembling voice rang in my ears: “Your mother collapsed. In the garage. Her heart stopped. The med­ics got here. They did CPR and revived her, but she isn’t conscious. It’s bad, Lance. It’s really bad.”

I couldn’t process it. This was the same brave mom who had suc­cessfully slayed the City of Angels years earlier with three little boys and no use of her legs. It was impossible to imagine her having to be revived by anyone. My mom was the one who kept everyone else safe and strong. Her tough, stubborn heart didn’t need a stranger’s help to keep going.

Choking out the words, I told the cabdriver what I’d just heard, and bless his heart, he plowed right over the grassy center median and turned back the way we’d come. Soon we heard the siren. Then we saw an ambulance take a left turn off of my mom’s road, rac­ing away from us toward the local Manassas hospital. That’s when I noticed that, like they did in Los Angeles, the drivers in this small, polite, Southern town mostly didn’t bother to pull over for ambulances either. Maybe a brief pause to let it pass, then a chase to make up their lost time in its wake. As we raced to catch up, I grew more and more distressed by this surprising similarity. My mom, my best friend, my rock was inside of that ambulance fighting for her life, and even here in her treasured South, no one seemed to give a damn. Our terror was their inconvenience.

Just like my mom, when things get bad, I get quiet. The worse they get, the more silent I become. The cabdriver looked back. I hadn’t taken more than half a breath since I told him to turn around. I must have looked like a ghost. And with far too much peace in his voice for my comfort, he said, “What is meant to be now, will be.”

I started to shake. Until then, I hadn’t considered that she might die. Everything I’d ever built was thanks to that stubborn heart of hers, and there it was, racing away from me in the back of an ambu­lance. Suddenly, I didn’t know if I’d ever again feel the warmth of her hand, know the might of her will, or stand atop the foundation she’d built for our family with the strength of her steel-clad spine.

My mom had grown up in the South. Louisiana and Georgia. She had been deeply religious. Baptist, then Mormon. She had worked for the U.S. military. She had voted for Ronald Reagan and Bush Senior. I now had spent decades living in that wicked city she’d refused to let us set foot in when I was thirteen. I had gone into the arts. Heck, I’d outright fought for progressive causes like marriage equality. 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, coasts 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. The tools I learned to wield growing up in her conser­vative, Christian, Southern, military home were the same ones I’d used to wage battles that had taken me from a broken-down welfare apartment where gunfire sang me to sleep to the biggest stages in the world, and to the front row of the United States Supreme Court to fight for LGBTQ equality.

Although my mom and I had often disagreed politically and per­sonally, she’d led our family by example, instilling in us a can-do atti­tude that often defied reason—an optimism many would call foolish, ignorant, and naïve, but an optimism that occasionally shocked our neighbors and our world with its brazen veracity. She was my reason.

It’s not something I’ve shared until now, and I know it may sound silly to some, but I had often hoped our relationship was like a pebble thrown into a pond, breaking the surface and sending ripples to the water’s edge. If my mom and I could set foot on the bridges between us, then perhaps our neighbors and those closest to us could too. Perhaps our diverging Americas wouldn’t be doomed to destroy each other the way our news shows and politicians would have us believe. And perhaps more could find a higher plane than politics.

So I let the cabdriver know that I’d pay for any ticket he got, but that if he didn’t push his pedal to the floor, he was asking for a big old can of whoop-ass from yours truly. He didn’t need much convincing. My red eyes had already made the stakes abundantly clear. My mom had to live. Because deep in my gut, I feared a storm was coming. Beyond the headlines of the day, I could just make out the sparks of division catching fire in the disparate places we called home, and I knew that my mom and I had much more to discover and build if we were going to help our neighbors and family weather the terrible schisms this storm would bring.

So I held my zen-like cabdriver’s gaze until he looked back out toward the ambulance that was now racing away from us, and he hit the gas.
ONE OF BOOK RIOT'S BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Mama’s Boy is a beautifully written, utterly compelling account of growing up poor and gay with a thrice married, physically disabled, deeply religious Mormon mother, and the imprint this irrepressible woman made on the character of Dustin Lance Black. Their extraordinary bond left me exhilarated—it actually gave me hope for the future of the republic, which is no mean feat, given the dark mood of our current moment.”
—Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula and Under the Banner of Heaven
 
“A fast read with witty observations, and all the emotions to go along. . . . [A] testament to the powerful impact a good parent has on children. . . . Black and Mama’s Boy show just how far the unlikeliest of children can go with pure, unabashed grit.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“A fascinating and poignant combination of memoir and family history. . . . Both personal and universal. . . . The most emotional moments come as Black finds himself in personal encounters with those who might be considered obviously antagonistic to his world, including leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and more conservative members of his own family. . . . Finding common ground is indeed the powerful throughline in Mama’s Boy.”
Salt Lake City Weekly


“Reverence is at [this memoir’s] heart. . . . There would be ample room for Lance to boast in this memoir, but you wait for it in vain. He’s done what he’s done and, here, told us how, with film-industry luminaries and gay activist colleagues, but even more compellingly through his deep, unbroken involvement with his family of origin and the transfer of that experience to what is now his own family.”
The Bay Area Reporter


“A memoir of an enduring mother-son bond that transcends even the deepest ideological divides. . . . [A] heartfelt tribute.”
USA Today, “5 Books Not to Miss”

“A loving portrait of [the author’s mother], a tiny, fierce woman who didn’t let any of her challenges—including poverty, the polio that cost her the use of her legs, and two bad marriages—stop her from living a full life, setting an example for her three sons.”
San Antonio Express-News


“The story of how a mother and son came to reconcile their differences and realize the importance of family.”
—NPR

“Dustin Lance Black’s memoir comes at exactly the right time; his complicated, surprising, and ultimately touching journey with his mom is a great example in our ideologically divided times.”
—Andy Cohen, author of Superficial and The Andy Cohen Diaries


“[A] sharp, affecting memoir.”
Town & Country

“Black’s tender and heartfelt love letter to his remarkable mother is an act of courage and reclamation. It’s a well-deserved tribute.”
New York Journal of Books


“At the center of this thought-provoking memoir, Black, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay for Milk, offers a heartfelt tribute to Anne, his courageously inspiring yet deeply religious and politically conservative mother. . . . Black provides a wholly engrossing account of how a mother and son evolved beyond their potentially divisive religious and political beliefs to uncover a source of strength and unity through their enduring bond. A terrifically moving memoir of the myriad complexities of family dynamics.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


“Black grew up in the South, surrounded by stories—the telling sometimes fueled by Jack Daniels—that made people stronger. As a result, he fell in love with the magic of storytelling and has himself become a consummate storyteller, as he demonstrates in this beautifully written, vastly entertaining, and moving memoir. The most powerful stories are the most personal, Black believes, and, in that context, the most important figure in his story is his indomitable mother, who, a victim of childhood polio, had no use of her legs but refused to let that stop her. From her tough, stubborn heart, he inherited his own strong will and optimism. . . . Black seems incapable of writing a dull word as he evokes his stirring life and times, ultimately inspiring comity by word and example. His book belongs in every library.”
Booklist (starred review)


“Hang on to your apron strings, there hasn’t been a more memorable Southern mother memoir since Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. In Mama’s Boy, Dustin Lance Black redefines Steel Magnolia. From page one, readers will root for this matriarch, who demurely ruled every room since she was a child.”
—Helen Ellis, author of Southern Lady Code and American Housewife


“A magnificent achievement. I cannot remember a book where I cried so often. Brave, insightful, unflinching, funny, sad, triumphant . . . everything. And both a warning and a hope for the times to come.”
—Stephen Fry, author of Heroes and More Fool Me

Dustin Lance Black, author of MAMA'S BOY and Oscar-winning screenwriter of MILK | BOOKS CONNECT US

About

Dustin Lance Black wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk and helped overturn California’s anti–gay marriage Proposition 8, but as an LGBTQ activist he has unlikely origins—a conservative Mormon household outside San Antonio, Texas. There he was raised by a single mother who, as a survivor of childhood polio, endured brutal surgeries as well as braces and crutches for life. Despite the abuse and violence of two questionably devised Mormon marriages, she imbued Lance with her inner strength and irrepressible optimism.

When Lance came out to his mother at age twenty-one, she initially derided his sexuality as a sinful choice. It may seem like theirs was a house destined to be divided—and at times it was. But in the end, they did not let their differences define them or the relationship that had inspired two remarkable lives. This heartfelt, deeply personal memoir explores how a mother and son built bridges across great cultural divides—and how our stories hold the power to heal.
 
Mama’s Boy is a beautifully written, utterly compelling account of growing up poor and gay with a thrice married, physically disabled, deeply religious Mormon mother, and the imprint this irrepressible woman made on the character of Dustin Lance Black. Their extraordinary bond left me exhilarated—it actually gave me hope for the future of the republic, which is no mean feat, given the dark mood of our current moment.” —Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula and Under the Banner of Heaven 
 
“Hang on to your apron strings, there hasn’t been a more memorable Southern mother memoir since Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. In Mama’s Boy, Dustin Lance Black redefines Steel Magnolia. From page one, readers will root for this matriarch, who demurely ruled every room since she was a child.” —Helen Ellis, author of Southern Lady Code and American Housewife
 
“A magnificent achievement. I cannot remember a book where I cried so often. Brave, insightful, unflinching, funny, sad, triumphant . . . everything. And both a warning and a hope for the times to come.” —Stephen Fry, author of Heroes and More Fool Me
 
“The story of how a mother and son came to reconcile their differences and realize the importance of family.” —NPR
 
“Dustin Lance Black’s memoir comes at exactly the right time; his complicated, surprising, and ultimately touching journey with his mom is a great example in our ideologically divided times.” —Andy Cohen, author of Superficial and The Andy Cohen Diaries
 
“A fast read with witty observations, and all the emotions to go along. . . . [A] testament to the powerful impact a good parent has on children. . . . Black and Mama’s Boy show just how far the unlikeliest of children can go with pure, unabashed grit.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Black’s tender and heartfelt love letter to his remarkable mother is an act of courage and reclamation. It’s a well-deserved tribute.” —New York Journal of Books

“A fascinating and poignant combination of memoir and family history. . . . Both personal and universal. . . . The most emotional moments come as Black finds himself in personal encounters with those who might be considered obviously antagonistic to his world, including leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and more conservative members of his own family. . . . Finding common ground is indeed the powerful throughline in Mama’s Boy.”—Salt Lake City Weekly
 
“Reverence is at [this memoir’s] heart. . . . There would be ample room for Lance to boast in this memoir, but you wait for it in vain. He’s done what he’s done and, here, told us how, with film-industry luminaries and gay activist colleagues, but even more compellingly through his deep, unbroken involvement with his family of origin and the transfer of that experience to what is now his own family.” —The Bay Area Reporter

“A memoir of an enduring mother-son bond that transcends even the deepest ideological divides. . . . [A] heartfelt tribute.” —USA Today, “5 Books Not to Miss”
 
“A loving portrait of [the author’s mother], a tiny, fierce woman who didn’t let any of her challenges—including poverty, the polio that cost her the use of her legs, and two bad marriages—stop her from living a full life, setting an example for her three sons.” —San Antonio Express-News
 
“[A] sharp, affecting memoir.” —Town & Country

“At the center of this thought-provoking memoir, Black, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay for Milk, offers a heartfelt tribute to Anne, his courageously inspiring yet deeply religious and politically conservative mother. . . . Black provides a wholly engrossing account of how a mother and son evolved beyond their potentially divisive religious and political beliefs to uncover a source of strength and unity through their enduring bond. A terrifically moving memoir of the myriad complexities of family dynamics.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Black grew up in the South, surrounded by stories—the telling sometimes fueled by Jack Daniels—that made people stronger. As a result, he fell in love with the magic of storytelling and has himself become a consummate storyteller, as he demonstrates in this beautifully written, vastly entertaining, and moving memoir. The most powerful stories are the most personal, Black believes, and, in that context, the most important figure in his story is his indomitable mother, who, a victim of childhood polio, had no use of her legs but refused to let that stop her. From her tough, stubborn heart, he inherited his own strong will and optimism. . . . Black seems incapable of writing a dull word as he evokes his stirring life and times, ultimately inspiring comity by word and example. His book belongs in every library.” —Booklist (starred review)

Author

© Raul Romo
Dustin Lance Black is a filmmaker and social activist, known for writing the Academy Award–winning screenplay of the Harvey Milk biopic Milk, and for his part in overturning California’s discriminatory Proposition 8. He divides his time between London and Texas. View titles by Dustin Lance Black

Excerpt

Prologue

A hot, gauzy morning in the late summer of 1987. That was the first time I ever laid eyes on the streets of Los Angeles. I was thirteen years old but looked ten at best—an agonizingly shy Texas boy with eyes like water, hair like the sun, and a tanker truck’s worth of secrets. I was jammed in the backseat of my mom’s mas­sive yellow Malibu Classic between my little brother, Todd, and our stinking cat, Airborne. My mom said we were “on the move.” Others would have called it “on the run.”

Days earlier, my family had packed up what little we had of value and vanished without notice from our lives in the Lone Star State—leaving behind my middle school in San Antonio and our Mormon church in the Randolph Ward, heading west. My mom was behind the wheel, her hairspray-stiffened curls resting on worried shoulders as she worked the hand controls to speed up and slow down her beast of a car: a colossal artifact from a former life that now had to be wrested into submission by a woman who walked on crutches, her legs in braces, her spine fused and held together with metal bars hid­den just beneath the scars that ran the length of her body.

My big brother, Marcus, sat up front beside her. His hair was just as long as hers but kissing a black leather punk-rock jacket covered in pins and buttons that shouted obscenities my mom had miraculously (if not willfully) grown blind to. He had a map spread out on his lap. We were lost. We were scared. But in good Southern, Mormon fash­ion, we kept our terrors to ourselves.

Here’s the thing: we’d been taught our entire lives that places like Los Angeles were filled with folks who’d traded their souls and sal­vation for fame, booze, drugs, cash, cars, hetero sex, group sex, and dirty, filthy faggot sex. Los Angeles was the embodiment of an unfa­miliar, exotic America that we’d been warned to avoid: liberal, often coastal, a place for sinners and moral relativists. For our ragtag family on the run, passage through this city was a test of spiritual strength. So we plugged our noses in back, Marcus did his best to navigate up front, and my tiny runaway mom rotated the hand control that turned the gear that pressed down on the gas pedal that she hoped might propel us to safety.

Two hours later, Marcus and my mom finally spotted the entrance to the 5 Freeway heading north. The terrain grew steeper as we headed into the hills and over the Grapevine, a stretch of highway out of L.A., where the snarl of traffic gave way to golden grasses, a reser­voir lake, ranches, and a meadow filled with wildflowers. These were more familiar sights. This felt more like home. My mom looked up into her rearview mirror, found my eyes, and with all of her mighty love and warmth, sent me a strong, silent message: You’re safe now, my Lancer.

I took a breath or two, pulled out a pen and a spiral notebook, and wrote a letter to a girl back in San Antonio. She and I had recently par­ticipated in a one-act drama competition. She’d played Eve. I’d played Adam. Her mom was our drama teacher. I described Los Angeles as the “second gayest city in the world.” It wasn’t a compliment. I was already fairly certain that San Francisco was in first position thanks to AIDS hitting the national news when Old Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson fell out of his closet and into his grave. Since then, even the news shows in Texas had started offering up images of emaciated gay men, most in San Francisco, but others in New York and Los Angeles, dying terrible deaths thanks to their “lifestyle choices.” So yes, it seemed that San Francisco was the closest to hellfire, but I was fairly certain Los Angeles wasn’t far behind. I suppose I felt it neces­sary to let someone in Texas know I’d survived our journey through this foreign land.

But as we reached the top of a mountain, something in my God-fearing heart stirred, and I looked back toward the city. It was calling to me. If I’m being honest, it had started calling well before we set out on this adventure. If Los Angeles was dangerous, I was curious. How true were the stories I’d heard? Did the people there really do so many strange things to their bodies, their minds, and one another? Did they really make all of those movies and TV shows I’d fallen in love with on the rare occasions we were allowed to watch them? And the most dangerous question of all: Did the nation’s current teen heartthrob, Ricky Schroder, with his golden hair and ocean-blue eyes, actually live somewhere down in all that chaos?

That question, and all of its invasive roots and sticky webs, lin­gered longest in my mind as I watched the city glimmer and shine in the morning sun until it slowly disappeared behind a veil of blue-white smog.
 
 
 
Thirty years have passed since that drive, and for more than two and a half decades of that time I’ve called this City of Angels my home, with all of its sunshine, celebrities, workers, artists, headaches, egos, booze, dreams, lies, cigarette butts, body parts, hot tubs, invitations, hangovers, trophies, and yes, reliably progressive values. And like most Angelenos, I’ve spent much of that time in my car getting from place to place, tucked inside my bubble. Isolated. And in a hurry.

So whenever I heard a siren, I did what most Angelenos do: look forward, left, right, check my rearview mirror, and keep on driving. As an Angeleno, the last thing you want to do is tap the brake. The clock is ticking. We have places to be, coffees to order, deals to make, and great things to accomplish by lunchtime.

But something happened a few years back to strip me of that habit. I was driving home down Hollywood Boulevard when my mom called. I hit the icon on my dash to answer. She sounded gloomy and called herself a “dinosaur” twice. I’d rarely heard her in such a state. I was worried. So I added a three-day layover via Dulles Airport in Virginia to my next love-fueled flight to London to see the Brit I was fast falling head over heels for. It was a little surprise visit to lift my mom’s spirits, and a big birthday present to myself.

My mom now lived in Manassas Park, in a house built right on top of the bloodied Civil War battlefields of Bull Run, where more than twenty-four thousand soldiers gave their lives in the debate over whether all men are created equally—a scar on our nation, remind­ing us of how divided we once were, and in many ways still are.

My mom cried with joy and relief when I walked into her bed­room. I spent all three days with her there. We blew out candles. We ate cake. We ordered in from a local restaurant and enjoyed our din­ners on her bedroom floor. Then I opened the presents she’d ordered off her laptop from her perennial perch atop her bed.

She wasn’t feeling well, but that was nothing new. For a variety of reasons, big and small, she’d long been forced to use her not incon­siderable strength to fight off this illness or that. We’d done this ailment dance many times. We simply took advantage of her sleep­less nights to share stories, watch NCIS, check out the Home Shop­ping Network’s jewelry specials and buy a few pairs of earrings she couldn’t afford on a military retirement check, sneak far too many Oreo cookies, and witness a sunrise. Her spirits were lifted by the company. So were mine.

Just before I left, my stepdad arrived home from work to take her to the doctor for a checkup, and get her some antibiotics for what she felt sure was a bladder infection. Love hungry and London bound, I ordered a cab to the airport.

It was a markedly quiet ride. I don’t remember music ever even being turned on. But then my cell phone rang. The caller ID said “Mom.” Nothing unusual. This was her regular call to say she missed me already, and I would say the same, because it was true. Instead, when I said hello, my stepdad’s trembling voice rang in my ears: “Your mother collapsed. In the garage. Her heart stopped. The med­ics got here. They did CPR and revived her, but she isn’t conscious. It’s bad, Lance. It’s really bad.”

I couldn’t process it. This was the same brave mom who had suc­cessfully slayed the City of Angels years earlier with three little boys and no use of her legs. It was impossible to imagine her having to be revived by anyone. My mom was the one who kept everyone else safe and strong. Her tough, stubborn heart didn’t need a stranger’s help to keep going.

Choking out the words, I told the cabdriver what I’d just heard, and bless his heart, he plowed right over the grassy center median and turned back the way we’d come. Soon we heard the siren. Then we saw an ambulance take a left turn off of my mom’s road, rac­ing away from us toward the local Manassas hospital. That’s when I noticed that, like they did in Los Angeles, the drivers in this small, polite, Southern town mostly didn’t bother to pull over for ambulances either. Maybe a brief pause to let it pass, then a chase to make up their lost time in its wake. As we raced to catch up, I grew more and more distressed by this surprising similarity. My mom, my best friend, my rock was inside of that ambulance fighting for her life, and even here in her treasured South, no one seemed to give a damn. Our terror was their inconvenience.

Just like my mom, when things get bad, I get quiet. The worse they get, the more silent I become. The cabdriver looked back. I hadn’t taken more than half a breath since I told him to turn around. I must have looked like a ghost. And with far too much peace in his voice for my comfort, he said, “What is meant to be now, will be.”

I started to shake. Until then, I hadn’t considered that she might die. Everything I’d ever built was thanks to that stubborn heart of hers, and there it was, racing away from me in the back of an ambu­lance. Suddenly, I didn’t know if I’d ever again feel the warmth of her hand, know the might of her will, or stand atop the foundation she’d built for our family with the strength of her steel-clad spine.

My mom had grown up in the South. Louisiana and Georgia. She had been deeply religious. Baptist, then Mormon. She had worked for the U.S. military. She had voted for Ronald Reagan and Bush Senior. I now had spent decades living in that wicked city she’d refused to let us set foot in when I was thirteen. I had gone into the arts. Heck, I’d outright fought for progressive causes like marriage equality. 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, coasts 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. The tools I learned to wield growing up in her conser­vative, Christian, Southern, military home were the same ones I’d used to wage battles that had taken me from a broken-down welfare apartment where gunfire sang me to sleep to the biggest stages in the world, and to the front row of the United States Supreme Court to fight for LGBTQ equality.

Although my mom and I had often disagreed politically and per­sonally, she’d led our family by example, instilling in us a can-do atti­tude that often defied reason—an optimism many would call foolish, ignorant, and naïve, but an optimism that occasionally shocked our neighbors and our world with its brazen veracity. She was my reason.

It’s not something I’ve shared until now, and I know it may sound silly to some, but I had often hoped our relationship was like a pebble thrown into a pond, breaking the surface and sending ripples to the water’s edge. If my mom and I could set foot on the bridges between us, then perhaps our neighbors and those closest to us could too. Perhaps our diverging Americas wouldn’t be doomed to destroy each other the way our news shows and politicians would have us believe. And perhaps more could find a higher plane than politics.

So I let the cabdriver know that I’d pay for any ticket he got, but that if he didn’t push his pedal to the floor, he was asking for a big old can of whoop-ass from yours truly. He didn’t need much convincing. My red eyes had already made the stakes abundantly clear. My mom had to live. Because deep in my gut, I feared a storm was coming. Beyond the headlines of the day, I could just make out the sparks of division catching fire in the disparate places we called home, and I knew that my mom and I had much more to discover and build if we were going to help our neighbors and family weather the terrible schisms this storm would bring.

So I held my zen-like cabdriver’s gaze until he looked back out toward the ambulance that was now racing away from us, and he hit the gas.

Praise

ONE OF BOOK RIOT'S BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Mama’s Boy is a beautifully written, utterly compelling account of growing up poor and gay with a thrice married, physically disabled, deeply religious Mormon mother, and the imprint this irrepressible woman made on the character of Dustin Lance Black. Their extraordinary bond left me exhilarated—it actually gave me hope for the future of the republic, which is no mean feat, given the dark mood of our current moment.”
—Jon Krakauer, author of Missoula and Under the Banner of Heaven
 
“A fast read with witty observations, and all the emotions to go along. . . . [A] testament to the powerful impact a good parent has on children. . . . Black and Mama’s Boy show just how far the unlikeliest of children can go with pure, unabashed grit.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“A fascinating and poignant combination of memoir and family history. . . . Both personal and universal. . . . The most emotional moments come as Black finds himself in personal encounters with those who might be considered obviously antagonistic to his world, including leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and more conservative members of his own family. . . . Finding common ground is indeed the powerful throughline in Mama’s Boy.”
Salt Lake City Weekly


“Reverence is at [this memoir’s] heart. . . . There would be ample room for Lance to boast in this memoir, but you wait for it in vain. He’s done what he’s done and, here, told us how, with film-industry luminaries and gay activist colleagues, but even more compellingly through his deep, unbroken involvement with his family of origin and the transfer of that experience to what is now his own family.”
The Bay Area Reporter


“A memoir of an enduring mother-son bond that transcends even the deepest ideological divides. . . . [A] heartfelt tribute.”
USA Today, “5 Books Not to Miss”

“A loving portrait of [the author’s mother], a tiny, fierce woman who didn’t let any of her challenges—including poverty, the polio that cost her the use of her legs, and two bad marriages—stop her from living a full life, setting an example for her three sons.”
San Antonio Express-News


“The story of how a mother and son came to reconcile their differences and realize the importance of family.”
—NPR

“Dustin Lance Black’s memoir comes at exactly the right time; his complicated, surprising, and ultimately touching journey with his mom is a great example in our ideologically divided times.”
—Andy Cohen, author of Superficial and The Andy Cohen Diaries


“[A] sharp, affecting memoir.”
Town & Country

“Black’s tender and heartfelt love letter to his remarkable mother is an act of courage and reclamation. It’s a well-deserved tribute.”
New York Journal of Books


“At the center of this thought-provoking memoir, Black, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay for Milk, offers a heartfelt tribute to Anne, his courageously inspiring yet deeply religious and politically conservative mother. . . . Black provides a wholly engrossing account of how a mother and son evolved beyond their potentially divisive religious and political beliefs to uncover a source of strength and unity through their enduring bond. A terrifically moving memoir of the myriad complexities of family dynamics.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


“Black grew up in the South, surrounded by stories—the telling sometimes fueled by Jack Daniels—that made people stronger. As a result, he fell in love with the magic of storytelling and has himself become a consummate storyteller, as he demonstrates in this beautifully written, vastly entertaining, and moving memoir. The most powerful stories are the most personal, Black believes, and, in that context, the most important figure in his story is his indomitable mother, who, a victim of childhood polio, had no use of her legs but refused to let that stop her. From her tough, stubborn heart, he inherited his own strong will and optimism. . . . Black seems incapable of writing a dull word as he evokes his stirring life and times, ultimately inspiring comity by word and example. His book belongs in every library.”
Booklist (starred review)


“Hang on to your apron strings, there hasn’t been a more memorable Southern mother memoir since Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. In Mama’s Boy, Dustin Lance Black redefines Steel Magnolia. From page one, readers will root for this matriarch, who demurely ruled every room since she was a child.”
—Helen Ellis, author of Southern Lady Code and American Housewife


“A magnificent achievement. I cannot remember a book where I cried so often. Brave, insightful, unflinching, funny, sad, triumphant . . . everything. And both a warning and a hope for the times to come.”
—Stephen Fry, author of Heroes and More Fool Me

Media

Dustin Lance Black, author of MAMA'S BOY and Oscar-winning screenwriter of MILK | BOOKS CONNECT US

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