When asked what prompted his new book, "The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family," Dan Savage is clear: "I started writing the...
When asked what prompted his new book, “The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family,” Dan Savage is clear: “I started writing the book to grieve what I didn’t have in my life.” Touchingly honest words — perhaps especially coming from a man known for dishing out frank, funny, no-holds-(or positions)-barred advice in his nationally syndicated sex column, “Savage Love.”
Savage, who is also the editor of local alternative weekly The Stranger, explains that when he started writing he had a different trajectory in mind for “The Commitment” (Dutton, $24.95, 335 pp.; to be published Sept. 22). He and his boyfriend of more than a decade, Terry Miller, a potter, were busy raising their adopted son, D.J., on Vashon Island. (Savage chronicled his gay-adoption adventures in his book “The Kid.”) But as his own family was taking shape, he says, “I felt a sense of loss and dislocation.”
Accordingly, Savage wanted to reconnect with his roots.
“This was originally going to be a book about my great-grandparents,” he says. He planned to write about the Chicago “two-flat” (a brick building with two apartments stacked on top of each other) his great-grandparents purchased in 1918, which has housed generations of his family ever since.
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Dan Savage will read from “The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family” at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E., Seattle; free (206-323-8842).
Though by his family-history standards the number of relatives Savage grew up with was paltry (at one time the two-flat, with six bedrooms and two bathrooms, housed 12 children and four adults), his own childhood was spent surrounded by extended family and decades of history.
“I grew up in this huge Catholic family, with a cast of thousands,” he says. “I thought it was normal to have your whole family around you.” In “The Commitment,” Savage remarks upon the vast difference between the family photos taken at the Chicago house (“the number of people crowded into every photograph amazes me”) and the photos of his own small family at their house on Vashon, which, by comparison, “seem so empty.”
“I felt sad for D.J.,” Savage says. “He doesn’t feel sad because to him this is normal — but I think he’s missing out.” Hence, the idea for a book tracing family history. “But as I was working on it,” he says, “It evolved into a book about marriage.”
And when you’re half of a gay couple raising an adopted son, a book about marriage is a whole ‘nother story.
In 2004, the gay marriage debate seemed suddenly omnipresent. Savage reports he and Terry weren’t interested in getting married, and they had mixed feelings about the gay weddings they had attended. (Mostly, having such a ceremony seemed to mean the kiss of death for a gay relationship.) Nonetheless, he writes in “The Commitment,” he couldn’t help being affected by the incessant media coverage of anti-gay marriage legislation:
“There’s only so much you can take, only so long you can laugh off the insults,” he says in the book. “You reach your limit more quickly when your kid is sitting at the kitchen table in his Incredible Hulk pj’s, eating his breakfast, pausing now and again to wiggle one of his loose baby teeth, all the while listening to his parents’ relationship described as a threat to all things decent and good.”
Not only were the legal battles over gay marriage eating at Savage, so were the conflicting opinions of two of his closest relatives: his mother and his son. You can guess which person was on which side of the debate, but you’d probably be wrong. While Savage’s mother made repeated pleas that he and Terry “do the right thing” and get married, it was his son who announced that if his dads got married he would refuse to attend the ceremony. (Because, as D.J. put it, “boys don’t marry boys and girls don’t marry girls.”)
Such is the central, and compelling conflict of “The Commitment”: Savage’s struggle to decide whether to marry or not, in a society — and a family — at odds over gay marriage. He writes:
“It’s odd to reflect that my sixty-four-year-old Catholic mom — raised to view marriage as a sacrament — believes marriage is about love and commitment, not about genitals, but my six-year-old son — raised by a gay couple, and not having seen the inside of a church since the day he was baptized — somehow came to believe that marriage is about matched sets of boys and girls.”
Savage attributes D.J.’s political stance to schoolyard rhetoric and kid logic, but when asked if he and Terry worry about their son growing up to be a conservative Republican he says, “We lose sleep over that. But I think Michael J. Fox [who played ultra-conservative kid Alex Keaton in ‘Family Ties’] was aberrant.”
In “The Commitment,” Savage walks readers through his decision with both humor and due seriousness, including: summaries of recent gay marriage legislation; a digression on the history of wedding cake toppers (those little bride and groom figurines); references ranging from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to Plato’s “Symposium”; a long-running debate on whether Terry and his getting tattoos of each other’s names would be a more or less risky way to publicly declare their love; query letters sent to other nationally syndicated advice columnists; an epiphany about the correlation between rising divorce rates and the history of automobile ownership; the horrors of the Seattle Wedding Expo; plus acres of input from his mother and his three siblings, all of whom are straight, but none of whom are in traditional first marriages.
Throughout, despite his lingering ambivalence about the institution, Savage sprinkles real-world examples of the basic legal benefits married couples share.
In one simultaneously harrowing and hilarious chapter, Savage recounts the time the family dog, Stinker (a chocolate toy poodle that D.J. selected in the face of Savage’s secret fears that the breed was too “gay”) fell from the window of Terry’s moving car. The dog was horribly maimed, and Terry rushed him to an animal hospital. When Savage called the vet to see if poor Stinker was alive or dead, he was told the information could only be released to a spouse or family member. (Stinker survived.)
“This is what’s crazy about the anti-gay marriage posture and movement,” he says. “Medical consent, inheritance rights, health insurance — these are the tangible benefits of marriage — and when you lay them out like that, most people don’t want to deny them to gay couples.”
Savage speaks of another example, which he did not include in the book, in which he became suddenly and violently ill away from home. The hospital where he ended up receiving emergency services needed legal consent to provide medical care, and in order to do so, they decided to acknowledge Terry as his spouse. “But that was their choice,” Savage says, emphasizing the murkiness of the current situation. “They’re improvising.”
Regarding this unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach some institutions take on the rights of gay couples, he adds, “Pretending we don’t exist won’t work. A lot of us are lawyers, and we’ll keep suing.”
While Savage peppers the book with political observations both well researched and witty, “The Commitment” in no way reads like a diatribe. “It’s too much about [me and Terry] to be a political book,” he says, “But as gay parents our private life is so politicized. It’s an object lesson.”
Most of all, it’s a book about creating and appreciating family. Such a traditional view might seem unusual coming from a sex columnist — one who doesn’t shy from advising people to indulge their fantasies and fetishes (provided everyone involved is a consenting adult). But Savage doesn’t feel “The Commitment” and “Savage Love” are philosophically at odds. “If people are reading my column closely, I think they can see I’m conservatively pro-family,” he says. “Most people have sex with their spouses, and being pro-sexual-pleasure is the way to keep that love alive.”
As for which way Savage came down on his own marriage decision, you’ll have to read the book. But here’s a hint: The tattoos are firmly in place.
Brangien Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org