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Remembering Award-Winning Author Robb Forman Dew

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Robb Forman Dew, the award-winning author who wrote intimately about family relationships in both her fiction and nonfiction books, died two weeks ago of heart disease. She was 73 years old. Her debut novel, "Dale Loves Sophie To Death," won an American Book Award citation in 1982. Its subject was what she called the world's last happy family - although she challenged that happiness in a later novel by revisiting the family and having the youngest son die in a car crash.

In a later book, she focused on another son - her own - in a nonfiction memoir about how her life was changed when her son Stephen told her he was gay. The revelation first threw her into a state of grief, but that emotion soon was transformed into anger at a society which could discriminate against her son. She and her husband soon became members of PFLAG, an activist organization for people supportive of gay rights. Terry Gross spoke with Robb Forman Dew in 1994 when our autobiographical book, "The Family Heart: A Memoir Of When Our Son Came Out," was first published.

When her son broke the news, he was a sophomore at Yale home on a break. Terry asked her if the news made her change her image of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBB FORMAN DEW: No, it didn't change my image of him, but I think this is particular to each family. I did feel foolish on one level that I had not - this is a person, along with his brother, whom I thought I knew better than any other creature in the world. I thought I knew everything about him. I don't mean intimate details. I didn't - I knew what wasn't my business, but I thought I knew everything essential to his happiness. And here was this enormous burden of secrecy he had carried in order to make us happy as parents. And that broke my heart.

TERRY GROSS: You know, you had an image of him as being someone who was just beloved by everybody.

DEW: Golden.

GROSS: He did great in school. He, I think, was a good athlete as well. And you know, his teachers liked him. He had friends. And now you suspect that he might have been terribly lonely in one respect...

DEW: Yes.

GROSS: ...During his school years.

DEW: Oddly enough, it was the idea of his high school years that I have the most trouble with because he was so successful. And I think a lot of his energy was driven into being a summa cum laude graduate of his school and a class speaker and a peer counselor. Interestingly enough, his school will not welcome him back. That was very hard. I thought, will people now withdraw their friendship from him? And it's a testament to him. He's a very - well, he's a remarkable person, and his brother is, too. It's a testament to both of them that people did not withdraw their friendships from him.

GROSS: Your son told you after he came out that you could ask him any questions and he would answer them. Were there questions that you asked that, in looking back, you shouldn't have or questions that you wish you asked but you didn't?

DEW: I wish I had immediately asked him, explain to me what this means. Explain to me, is this different? Or do you know if this is different? How can I imagine your life? Because when finally I did ask that question, he said, I don't see - he clearly didn't know this was something that was baffling to me and my husband. So when I - so for a long time, we didn't quite understand what I was trying to ask. I didn't understand it, and he didn't understand it.

And finally, he said, you don't have to imagine my life any different than you always imagined it. I want what you want. I want to love somebody who loves me back. I want a committed relationship with someone. I have work I really want to do. I don't understand how people work when their emotional lives are in chaos. I want what you want. I want to love someone who loves me back. That's all I needed to know. But I had bought into the whole idea of - and I say this with some hesitation because I don't know that I really had bought into this idea about any other gay man, only when suddenly it was my own son - I suddenly - every stereotype I'd ever been faced with hit me - the idea of the insatiability of gay men, which is a ludicrous idea that I had never paid any credence to until it was my own child. I don't know what triggered all these fears.

GROSS: It sounds like the family you've created is a reasonably happy family, a reasonably close-knit family. But from what I've read about you, you didn't come from a happy family.

DEW: Well, that's true. The family - they were all so interesting, the people. My mother and father were fascinating and quite brilliant. They really weren't very happy married to each other. My father was an alcoholic, which is always a problem and an entire system of - well, it shapes a family in ways that have now become almost - everyone has been reading about them. But when I was growing up, no one did. This was considered a character flaw. And my father was dangerous when he drank. But I loved both of my parents, and both of my parents loved me. I wanted them to love each other. And I think they sort of did, but they also sort of didn't. It was difficult - it was a tiring - I was tired by the time I grew up. And I really thought I would get to rest. Now I don't think I want to rest.

GROSS: Did growing up in a fairly unhappy family make you more confident that you wanted a family of your own?

DEW: No.

GROSS: I mean, you seem so family-oriented now.

DEW: I know. I think that's probably - it's probably some sort of psychological term. I think it's compensatory family-making, I don't know. No. In fact, I was terrified when I was pregnant. I thought, what am I - I don't know what to do. I have no idea what parents do. But it really is a pretty natural thing. And, in fact, my parents were very good. They meant to be very good parents. And for the most part, they really were. They were hard on - they were really hard on each other. And I think it was really hard on my sister and me to see them so unhappy. But - and we felt like we constantly had to protect them.

But I think when I realized what was possible, that it was possible to have emotional stability and really to love people unconditionally, that's when I think my life became bearable. I had really thought often about - I had been in really great despair in part - during part of my life. And I had not thought actively about suicide but had wanted to sleep desperately and twice had stolen pills from my father, taken them, and luckily they didn't work. Or - I mean, I wasn't trying to die. I just want to go to sleep because I didn't want to think and have to be responsible or worry or be sad.

GROSS: You have a passage in your new memoir that I found both very moving and kind of funny, too. And you're talking about all the superstitions and rituals parents will go through when they feel that their child might be in jeopardy, to kind of do right by fate.

DEW: That's right.

GROSS: And your example is of a friend who, whenever her child is on a plane coming home from a visit with his father on the opposite coast, what does she do?

DEW: She scrubs her entire house. And I know just exactly - she's a wonderful...

GROSS: What's the point of scrubbing the house?

DEW: Well, if she has any fun while her children are in the air, I know she feels that she - that somehow they'll take her children away from - they will - the plane will crash because how dare she have fun while her children are in jeopardy. Now, her children are getting older, too. All of us do this. I'm sort of starting to grow out of it.

GROSS: What do you do?

DEW: Well, what I do is wear my opal earrings, which I have on right now, actually. One of my children is traveling right now. They're really not even pretty. But my children gave - I was born in October, so opals are lucky for October. I mean, of course they're not lucky. It's a superstition, but - and of course I'm not superstitious, but I'm wearing these opals. I wear these whenever - I've sort of extended it now. It's not just my children. Anybody I love or care about who's traveling, I put on this opal earrings which, when a friend of mine recently flew to Australia, was really painful because they're not comfortable to sleep in. But they work. The planes haven't crashed. So I should knock wood now, right?

GROSS: So you have to sleep in them, too, to make this work? (Laughter).

DEW: (Laughter). Yes. You can't let yourself off the hook. If you're going to be superstitious, you've got to sort of follow through with it. But, of course, I mean, we all know - all of the parents - my friends who is scrubbing her garbage cans with bleach knows that - on some level, because she's a brilliant woman, she knows that that is not going to keep this plane in the air. But on the other hand, she's not going to take any chances.

BIANCULLI: Robb Forman Dew speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. The author of novels and a personal memoir about the most intimate aspects of family lives died last month. She was 73 years old.

On Monday's show, as America wrestles with the issue of police brutality, journalist Doug Swanson tells the story of one of the most celebrated law enforcement agencies in the country, one that turns out to have a little known history of abuse and racial oppression. His book is "Cult Of Glory: The Bold And Brutal History Of The Texas Rangers." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Adam Staniszewski, Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN EUBANKS AND STANLEY JORDAN'S "MORNING SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.