The Truth Shall Set You Free
A memoir by Sally Lowe Whitehead
Harper Collins * 1997 * $22
REVIEWED BY ED MADDEN
One day in July 1991, while vacationing on St. Simons Island off the Georgia Coast, Sally Lowe Whitehead faced a crushing revelation. After 21 years of marriage and the birth of six sons, after years of spiritual journeying into the heart of Southern fundamentalist Christianity, her husband admitted to her that he was gay. "With that confession," she writes, "the world as we knew it ceased to be."
Whitehead's memoir, The Truth Shall Set You Free, reveals the pain and the freedom that come with honesty. The title echoes both the words of Jesus in John 8:32 -- "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" -- and the words of South Carolina writer Sue Monk Kidd, whose spiritual memoir The Dance of the Dissident Daughter Whitehead cites: "The truth might set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet world you live in."
Soon after they married, Whitehead and her husband left their own churches (Catholic and Episcopal) for the energy and devotion they found in evangelical Christianity, and the world of security it seemed to offer.
When the Baptist church they attended "disfellowshipped" them for attending a charismatic service, they began a 20-year odyssey through the sects and schisms of Southern fundamentalism. Although they left the Baptists, "shaking our heads in disbelief at the idea that anyone could throw someone out of a church for interpreting the Bible differently," they themselves followed increasingly literalist and ahistorical interpretations of scripture.
Going deeper and deeper into the heart of this religious subculture, Whitehead's family became a model of religious devotion. After burning all their rock albums and all their high-school love letters, they entered a life of profound cultural isolation, spiritual devotion, and complete submission to their "shepherds."
For almost a decade they home-schooled their children, read no newspapers or "secular" books, and attended a nondenominational house church that stressed utter subservience of wife to husband and congregation to minister.
In this religious culture, homosexuality was attributed to demon possession. It was not, however, completely alien. Whitehead saw the lives of lesbians torn apart in her church -- exorcised and humiliated, compelled by the church to marry men and bear children to men they didn't love, forced to become something they were not.
For years Whitehead's husband lived a double life; aware of his homosexuality but devoted to a life that his church would accept. He even avoided close friendships, after being rejected by the one Christian friend he trusted.
My own heart aches with the many stories college students have told me, of families and friends who have rejected and renounced those who were honest about sexual orientation. The father who returned all his Christmas presents by mail, unopened. The boy whose religious parents destroyed every photo they had of him. The mother who forbade her other adult children from communicating with their gay brother. The college student whose brother, a fundamentalist minister, told him he hoped he got AIDS and died. The man whose brother told him that he would prefer he lied about his orientation until he died, rather than tell the truth.
Whitehead's book is a story of love, friendship, and understanding, the story of a fundamentalist wife whose world fell apart but who found that her love, and her God, were much bigger than she had imagined.
Other books on this topic have more often than not been the spiritual narratives of gay men and lesbians forced to grapple with the difference between a God that loves them and a church that doesn't. (Mel White's Stranger at the Gate comes to mind.) This book should have a larger audience, since it focuses on the family of the gay man and their spiritual growth as a result of the revelation, the "truth" which sets them all free from lives of guilt and lies.
Ed Madden teaches English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.