Jay Kawarsky on ’Prayers for Bobby’
In Portland Oregon, on August 27, 1983, a 20-year-old gay man named Bobby Griffith jumped to his death from a freeway bridge. Bobby hailed from a town near San Francisco. His mother, Mary Griffith, had sought to "cure" him of his homosexuality.
As an account posted at the PFLAG website tells it, "The Griffiths attended Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church in Walnut Creek, California. There, Mary said, the ministers and the congregation were clear that homosexuals were sick, perverted, and condemned to eternal damnation. 'And when they said that,' Mary recalls, 'I said, "Amen." ' "
The PFLAG text adds, "The Christian counselor recommended prayer and suggested that Bobby spend more time with his father. But Bobby's diary revealed that nothing was changing. 'Why did you do this to me, God?' he wrote. 'Am I going to hell? I need your seal of approval. If I had that, I would be happy. Life is so cruel and unfair.' "
Bobby's diaries became an ongoing account of his torment, the PFLAG site's text indicates: " 'Gays are bad,' he wrote, 'and God sends bad people to Hell.... I guess I'm no good to anyone, not even God. Sometimes I feel like disappearing from the face of this earth.' "
Too late, Mary realized that Bobby was not suffering from an illness or any sort of pathology; his sexuality fell within the natural range of human sexual orientation.
Mary Griffith became an advocate for GLBT acceptance and equality. Her story was chronicled in the 1995 book Prayers for Bobby: A Mother's Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son by Leroy F. Aarons. The story of Mary and Bobby Griffith was destined to become both a cautionary tale and a moving, and uplifting, story about seeing beyond prejudice.
Composer Jay Kawarsky established the Delaware Valley Men's Chorus in 1991. The group was a gay men's chorus, but it wasn't until five years later that it came out, so to speak, and became the New Jersey Gay Men's Chorus.
At the time, being gay--or being associated with a gay group--was still something that people were often shy about. As Kawarsky explained in an interview, "It took some years, and I was actually one for putting the g-word in. OK, we'll lose some people, but we'll gain some people."
Kawarsky, who went on to found the Allentown, Pennsylvania-based Lehigh Valley Gay Men's Chorus in 1998, happened upon Aarons' account of Bobby's suicide and his mother's transformation. Together with lyricist Kendel Killpack, Kawarsky composed the musical score for a 40-minute choral work in four movements, also titled Prayers for Bobby. Kilpatrick's words come from Bobby's journals, and speak of his yearning for a lost childhood, a time when issues of sexuality did not torment him. The piece was premiered that same year by The Delaware Valley Men's Chorus. In 2009, Aarons' book became a TV movie on the Lifetime channel. The film starred Sigourney Weaver, whose role as Mary Griffith marked the first time Weaver had taken a part in a made-for-television film.
The Boston Gay Men's Chorus has responded to recent media attention to gay youth suicides by dedicating its Spring Concert to issues of struggle, alienation, and acceptance of young GLBT people. The concert includes a number of fun selections, but it is the heartfelt and ultimately uplifting Prayers for Bobby that serves as the program's core.
Jay Kawarsky is now a professor at Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey. He spoke with EDGE recently about the composition of Prayers for Bobby.
"It was the summer of 1995 when the book came out," as Kawarsky recalled it. "I happened to be in San Francisco, and I was just walking through the bookstore," Kawarsky continued. "I looked at the cover and saw the title, Prayers for Bobby. I thought, okay, something religious. I had hidden behind being Orthodox Jewish in college, without coming out. Just the name itself sounded interesting."
It was on the strength of the book's title that Kawarsky picked it up. "I did not know" the story of Mary and Bobby Griffith, Kawarsky told EDGE. "I am not one of the people who watches TV who would have seen Mary Griffith on morning talk shows. I just picked it up and literally read it overnight.
"I found the narrative, how Roy had done it, to be quite engaging," Kawarsky added. "I think the parallels that had happened in my life [drew me to the story]. It was just not something we spoke about, growing up, in the '60s and '70s... it wasn't like that in my family. We just didn't discuss these things, and myself and my other friends now, who had come out to each other in high school... or those who I knew from my high school graduating class who took their own lives..." Kawarsky's voice trailed off. "There were a lot of things that I hadn't learned at that age."
Kawarsky added, "As someone who deals with depression daily, I have been to the end of his rope. I did feel a connection with Bobby. Had he lived, how old would he be today?" Bobby would be 48. Noted Kawarsky, "He'd be three years younger than me; there's a connection there with age. Ken--[lyricist] Kendall Killpack--was his age."
Another connection: "It turns out the guy who wrote the book, Roy Aarons, is Jewish. He's now deceased. And his partner, who is much younger, grew up in a city in Israel where I used to teach."
The text used for the musical piece does not talk about Bobby and Mary's relationship as much as Bobby's ruminations on a secret identity as a gay man that he's unable to publicly embrace, and the pain that this causes him.
"The [Griffiths] gave Ken and myself the journals and the diaries to read," Kawarsky told EDGE. "The guy who wrote the libretto, Ken Killpack, he was someone from a strict Mormon family, and so he had [empathy for] the story also."
Kawarsky's musical rendition brought him into close contact with Bobby's family, especially his mother. "Having met her, getting permission was very weird," the composer recalled. "What happened was I was out there, I'd read the book--Mary came up from Walnut Creek, and I had flown back to meet them, and Ken had flown in from Denver. We met the two of them and told them what we wanted to do. Ken said that he would pass the material by Roy.
"I gathered that there were several stories that Ken had not filled me in on. Roy did not like certain things, but Roy had never written anything like this. He had been a newspaper editor. But it got done."