NDJ:5 Marsha Pilz

Remembering Carl

So much is happening and I wish I could talk to you. I wonder if you would have a partner. I hope so. I know you would be an activist fighting for the rights of gay and lesbians, and all human rights. The years under George Bush have been a disaster for human rights. I know you would be so upset. Now we’re in the midst of a presidential campaign which is offering more hope than we’ve felt in years. I have moved away from the city and live in a small rural town on a dirt road with my husband and a lovely basset hound, Molly. I left the big city where I knew you and I lived for twenty five years. I am still a therapist, but think about retiring.

Carl, a tall lanky adolescent, passionate and angry was always on time for his appointments. I was a young social worker, only having a few years’ experience, working in a residential treatment program. We met when he was sixteen, Carl having been placed at the residential treatment center because his parents could not cope with his persistent oppositional, defiant behaviors at home and school. Carl spoke openly to me of being gay, flaunted his identity, and then sat back and waited for me to have a negative response, much as his parents had toward him. In the beginning he was so taken off guard that when I did not respond in a negative manner, he was almost speechless. I later learned this was very unusual behavior because Carl always had something to say. I tried to explain to Carl that I was not prejudiced nor was I going to try to change him. He did not believe me and finally I decided and hoped therapy would be the experience and the relationship that would change Carl’s feelings. I had no idea how Carl would test me and what a difficult path lay ahead for us.

Carl’s family was very angry with him and could not accept his sexual orientation; he expected the same response from me. His father, a career army officer, refused to have any contact with him, and his mother, a devout Catholic, pleaded with him to change, to be forgiven by God and by her. However, Carl was very clear about his sexual orientation. I felt he frequently challenged his family, me and the world to accept him. He often brought up his homosexuality, whether it was relevant to the conversation or not, and he always waited for a negative response.

Working in a residential treatment center with adolescents is a very intense experience for a young social worker. But with Carl I learned to be quite calm as he continually challenged me. Sessions were often like emotional wrestling matches. After awhile his anger was even a little humorous: I imagined him on the residential unit sitting in one of the large, blocky chairs in the lounge, thinking about what he could to provoke me. On one occasion he came into my office with a small aluminum foil package; he sat across from me and began to talk. All of a sudden he opened the package. Inside there was white powder which he began to sniff. His face became quite red and his eyes began to water and became teary. I became quite alarmed, and I remember feeling a little panicky, my heart starting to beat a little faster. I asked him in an excited manner what he was doing. He could not contain himself and started laughing, saying it was only talcum powder. Carl wanted to frighten me, making me think it was cocaine. I asked about why he needed to goad me. Carl sat limply in the chair, his thin and angular body slouched over, and shrugged his shoulders. He was trying to make certain I would accept him in spite of actions of which he knew I would disapprove.

I remember vividly how Carl would request, even demand, to see me late on Friday afternoons. This pale blonde adolescent would hover over the receptionist, insisting in a loud boisterous voice he needed to see me immediately. For awhile I always conceded to his histrionic behavior though I knew his crisis was fabricated. I ended up going home late, frustrated and exhausted. Several times in anger, he said, “I know you go home to your breeder.” And so he and I went on like that for months.

For the most part, no one objected to Carl’s homosexuality at the residential treatment center. In fact we all supported his desire to become involved in the gay community. By the time Carl arrived at the agency, he was already playing the piano on Sunday mornings at gay Catholic services. He became involved with the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. His hope was that they could convince his parents to accept him. He was devastated at his parents’ steadfast refusal to acknowledge and accept him. But he was very proud of himself when the organization invited him to participate on a panel about growing up gay. Since his mother once again disappointed him by refusing to attend the panel discussion, he invited me. Though feeling depressed and abandoned, he was determined to participate and do a good job. I helped Carl prepare what he was going to say to the group. Initially, I refused to attend because therapists usually did not participate in outside events with clients. He was very persistent, hanging around my office, saying, “I know you are a friend of gays and lesbians. Aren’t you?” Very impulsively, one day I said I would go.

The meeting of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays was on a Sunday afternoon, a time I usually liked to stay at home and read the New York Times. I really had not wanted to go to this meeting; I was very angry with Carl for manipulating me, and I wanted to remain at home. However, I did go since I said I would, knowing that when a therapist tells an adolescent something, it is important to keep her word. The meeting was not far from where I lived.

I arrived only five minutes before the panel presentations and discussion were to begin. There was Carl, waiting outside, looking sad. But when he saw me, he began to smile and said, “I knew you would come.” My anger and frustration began to abate at that moment. I could not help but respond warmly to the pleasure I witnessed in Carl. I also felt a little guilty about my initial reluctance to attend the meeting to hear him speak. During the panel discussion, I listened to him tell his story of always feeling different, being uncomfortable around peers who talked about girls and sex, expressing feelings of not belonging and knowing he was gay. He talked about his parents’ anger and how they would not allow him to have contact with his sister. I remember feeling very sad for a moment. My anger had completely subsided by then, and I was not sorry that I had attended. At the end of the meeting, I chatted with Carl, giving him kudos for his presentation. He introduced me to his friend and his friend’s mother and told them I was his therapist from the residential treatment center. The friend’s mother told me that at Carl’s request she had called his mother to encourage her to come, talking with her about the organization and how it could support her and help her in understanding what it is like for parents to have children who are gay. But the phone call was to no avail; Carl’s mother was not interested. I knew he wished he were introducing his mother instead of me, but at least I was someone who was at the meeting for him. I thought, then, that his mother would have been very proud of him, but now I realize that was my fantasy. She never accepted him.

I walked home slowly, thinking what was to become of this young man, soon to enter adulthood, having no support system to help him make the transition from a secure residential placement to the world at large. We continued therapy, Carl wanting acceptance from his parents and they refusing to give it.

During the two years that Carl was at the residential treatment center, I met his mother several times. She was a blonde, robust-looking woman and always somber. Rarely or ever do I remember her smiling. Because Carl was a minor, his mother was always invited to meetings concerning his treatment and the ongoing planning for him. It seemed that she only came to meetings when papers needed to be signed by a parent. When Carl knew his mother would be there, he was always excited, making sure his room was very neat and clean, his clothes laundered, his sandy colored hair slicked down with a greasy pomade, wanting to impress her, always hoping she might agree to take him home or at least have home visits, even if only for the holidays. At the end of every meeting, Carl watched his mother walk down the hall and out the door, and he was always disappointed because he never went home again.

Carl had been adopted as an infant by this family. Feeling he had been rejected by his biological family was exacerbated by being rejected now by his adoptive family. Carl told me that when he was a young child his adoptive mother had been affectionate and caring, but she never understood or responded to his feelings of being different. From what Carl told me about her and from my own observations, I felt she was a sad woman. Carl described his adoptive father, who was a career military man, as tall, slim and strong, with no body fat, a stern man who did not smile and was always serious. I had a fantasy that he looked like Robert Duvall from the film The Great Santini. Even now, after more than thirty years of being a therapist, it is so difficult for me to understand these parents’




rejection of their child. If Carl’s mother was conflicted about what was happening in his life, she did not show it much. She seemed to choose an easier way for herself by neither challenging what she saw as the tenets of her religion nor fighting the personality of “The Great Santini.” I never met Carl’s father, but I sense the anger and rejection of his child was unwavering.

I saw Carl twice a week for therapy, and he never missed appointments. I did not want to give up on this young man who, at times, was so combative. Eventually, Carl accepted how important our relationship was to him. He made many gains and graduated from high school, a major accomplishment for him because at the time of his admission to the residential treatment center, his behavior was so poor in school that he was failing. Of course, he asked his parents to attend his graduation, never giving up on working for their approval, but they would not attend. Once again, I stepped in, trying to meet Carl’s emotional needs.

Carl purchased two tickets for his graduation, one for his friend and one for me, giving it to me during one of our sessions. I thought about what my attendance would mean to him and what it would mean to me. In some ways we were both proud of ourselves. I was hoping my support of him allowed him to concentrate, calm down and perform in school. His friend was unable to go to the ceremony, so I was the only person there for Carl. At the graduation I looked around at the friends and relatives of the other graduates and realized again how alone Carl was. For most of the students, graduation was a happy, joyous occasion with people hugging and kissing and offering congratulations.

At the end of the ceremony, Carl came up to me in his cap and gown with his diploma in hand and hugged me gently, thanking me for coming. Carl and I walked together having ice cream cones until I went my way toward my home and he went his way toward the residential facility. It was a lovely, warm June evening, and I thought back to my own graduation, how I celebrated with my parents and at weekend parties with my friends. Carl went back alone. The staff had planned a party and bought presents for him, but the staff were not his family.

Shortly after graduation Carl turned eighteen and with some help left the residential setting and found a small apartment. We talked about Carl finding a therapist in the community, but he was quite insistent that he wanted to continue with me. Then, after six months he decided to move to San Francisco where there was a large openly gay population, and he wanted to be part of that community. We talked a lot about the move, the supports he required and the need for a therapist. Though he had been working up to leaving, the last session was difficult. We reviewed the almost three years Carl had been in therapy with me and the progress he had made. We were both a little teary eyed at the end of that session and hugged goodbye. The next day he flew off to San Francisco.

A few weeks after Carl moved, my phone rang; Carl told me I was not going to be rid him yet. He said he did not want a therapist in San Francisco and offered to call me, paying the phone bill and sending me a fee for my services. I felt very uncomfortable and spent a long time convincing him that my telephone help was not sufficient. This actually went on for about a month when, at last, Carl called and said he found another therapist. In the meantime he was enjoying living in San Francisco and found a job as a tour guide. When he telephoned me, he often went on and on about the history of the city, the fires and earthquakes. Carl’s calls became less frequent as he became more comfortable living in San Francisco and was making a life for himself.

Then one day, after Carl had been in San Francisco for months, he called and told me that he was HIV+. Carl needed, more than ever, to hold on to our relationship, and I wanted to be as supportive and helpful as possible. I hung up the phone and found myself sobbing. I felt very maternal toward this young man who had grown from a very oppositional, defiant young man to young adult. He was not the tall, lanky, uncomfortable adolescent who yelled at me in my office and thought of ways to make me angry and reject him. Here was a young man who had become very important to me, and he was facing the greatest crisis of his life. Carl called once a week chatting with me about how he was and the progress of his illness. He finally called his mother, but she was enraged about him having AIDS and told him not to call her anymore, that AIDS was God’s punishment and one that he deserved. I was appalled by her cruelty and felt my support and contact with Carl was even more important.

Carl’s illness progressed. He was growing weaker and was beginning to enter the terminal phase of this disease. By then Carl was participating in a day treatment center and had moved from his apartment to a residential facility where some help was available. In those days, few truly effective drugs were available.

I decided that I really wanted to visit him. When I arrived, he arranged for me to visit the center and introduced me as his old therapist. I know he wished he was really introducing his mother. I was surprised at the anger I felt toward his mother because I was usually more empathic and understanding, even towards parents who had failed their children. His moving to San Francisco turned out to be a good move; he had made friends and was in an environment where he felt comfortable and accepted. He gave me a tour of the city talking about the earthquakes and fires, and then we sat in Ghiardelli Square having ice cream and talking for hours, even laughing about the pranks in the residential treatment center.

I spent a couple of days with Carl. We talked about his past and our relationship. He apologized for yelling at me and for calling me a breeder. We both smiled and laughed as we recalled some of those experiences. But Carl knew he was dying, so we talked a great deal about his illness and plans for his approaching death. I met with the staff at the day treatment center and made certain that all the necessary support services were in place for him. I left San Francisco feeling very sad. I got on the plane, crying, and finally fell asleep.

I spoke frequently to Carl on the phone. He grew weaker and deteriorated more and more rapidly. Carl died a few weeks after I returned.

Eleanor, a woman I had spoken with at the meeting of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, phoned me to talk about Carl, about her memories and about how she had tried to reach out to his mother. She had spoken to Carl’s mother after he died, but said his mother seemed so cold. I knew Carl’s physical suffering and emotional agony were over. But I wondered about his mother and how she was coping with the death of her child. Was she really so cold as she appeared? However, I did not dwell long on the issues with which Carl’s mother and father would have to contend. I needed to care for myself and my own feelings about Carl’s death.

Carl would be a middle-aged man now and I wonder what our relationship would be. I am approaching retirement and have seen many patients throughout the years, but my relationship with Carl was extraordinary. The experience and opportunity of participating in his life will be with me forever.