PRAYERS FOR BOBBY: A Mother's Coming to Terms With the Suicide of Her Gay Son by Leroy Aarons (Harper San Francisco: $20; 274 pp.). On Aug. 27, 1983, Bobby Griffith jumped off a freeway overpass in Portland, Ore., into the path of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer. Was the suicide of this 20-year-old California resident the result of guilt and shame and despondency over homosexuality? No, despite the initial assumptions of his God-fearing, Bible-thumping family in Walnut Creek: He killed himself because most of his loved ones, his mother Mary in particular, refused to accept his sexual orientation, his maternal grandmother even saying the authorities "should line homosexuals up against a wall and shoot 'em." "Prayers for Bobby" is a heart-rending story of two journeys: Bobby's spiral toward death, and Mary's toward personal responsibility. Bobby's secret leaked out after his 16th birthday, and once Mary Griffith recovered from her shock and horror she set out, with God's help, to effect a "cure." Bobby was tortured by his inadequacy, his inability to be "normal." "Why did you do this to me, God? Am I going to Hell?" he wrote as a teen-ager: "I'm rotten inside . . . I make myself sick." Mary's daily sermonizing only served to keep his wounds raw and septic. After years of agonizing over Bobby's death, though, Mary came to understand that the Bible's abomination of homosexuality was fallible, man-made--that the Bible was an all-too-human interpretation of the divine word, that God wouldn't condemn people to endless perdition for circumstances beyond their control. Mary, reading of Bobby's constant suffering in his diaries, recognized the role she and her church had played in his suicide . . . and ultimately, that she could atone for his death by sharing her hard-won knowledge with other young homosexuals and their families. Mary is now a nationally known advocate of gay tolerance and education, and an effective one: Even her own up- against-the-wall, red-neck mother has come around, now admitting that Mary is "really doing a good thing for people." In writing this book Leroy Aarons, former executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, has performed a major public service, as has the entire Griffith family--especially Bobby, whose death will surely save many others.

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