ALAN v25n3 - Drowning in Dichotomy: Interpreting The Drowning of Stephan Jones

Drowning in Dichotomy:
Interpreting The Drowning of Stephan Jones

Patrick K. Finnessy

As a Chicago resident, I was greatly moved by the outpouring of affection the people of the Windy City bestowed on Cardinal Bernardin after his passing in the fall of 1996. His cortege weaved through city streets for miles. Newscasts, newspapers, and radio broadcasters offered boundless tributes and commentaries on this man. Chicago citizens, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike, were greatly affected by the experience. Attendance rates at church services started to double; people appeared to become more reflective; and warm fuzzies were offered around the water cooler as there was salute after salute in reverence to this respected official. Cardinal Bernardin was receiving distinction because of what he stood for: goodness, integrity, honesty, spirituality. Chicagoans were hungry for role models of this sort, and they attempted to saturate their appetite by honoring this man abundantly. Similarly, Eva Peron received comparable laurels at her funeral. Argentina, a country starving for socioeconomic and political balance, bestowed Evita with accolades because they were ravished, starving for help, and she provided them with leadership, vision, and hope.

Like the Chicago dwellers and people of Argentina, the gay and lesbian community - youth in particular - is starving for leadership, vision, and hope. They hope to attend a banquet that is rich in information across school curriculums: literature with non-stereotypical gay characters; history that accurately reflects the contributions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals; and science that reveals AIDS is a nondiscriminatory virus and not God's wrath against the gay community.

Because these morsels are lacking, the gay community is famished for visibility, honesty, and accuracy. Yet, just because gay literature is available now more than ever before does not mean that it is good or nourishing: a banquet can be plentiful, but that fact does not mean that the food is healthy or tasty. The simple presence of gay literature is no longer enough: it has to be good, healthy, meaningful literature.

The Drowning of Stephan Jones

Bette Greene wrote her novel The Drowning of Stephan Jones in 1991. Greene's novel, inspired by a true event in which a group of high school students subject a gay couple to verbal and physical harassment, appears frequently in bibliographies for recommended reading that deal with issues involving gay and lesbian youth. Greene addresses hate, persecution, and injustice, issues that students should be encountering and discerning in their studies. I have a copy of the book in my own classroom, where I use it as one optional text out of sixty choices for an independent reading unit. However, I have some real concerns with the book. While I applaud Greene's intentions, I am critical of the novel because she ends up presenting a dichotomous view of stereotyping and of gay characters.

In her book, Bette Greene does expose the reader to several nuances and images of the gay culture, images the gay community is starving to disseminate to mainstream society. For example, she introduces the reader to the pink triangle, a gay pride symbol that was once used to identify homosexuals during the Holocaust. She also points out that businesses and communities will accept "gay money" from shopping homosexuals, but still condemn them if they should happen to be shopping with their partners in a "heterosexual" store. Furthermore, while a bit dramatic and flowery, she highlights the similarities between a man loving a woman and a man loving another man:

At this point, the listening lady seemed to have forgotten all about her handsome salesman, for on her lips was just the barest trace of a smile. It was as though she had become wistful, almost girlish, as she was flooded with memories of a time past when she was young ... and in love." (p. 9)

It is only when the woman realizes that it is two men who are in love that she reacts violently.

Other Stereotypes

While Greene tries to break stereotypes of gays, unfortunately, she reinforces other societal stereotypes, thus drowning the novel's strengths. In the opening pages of her book, Greene describes one of the main characters by writing: "The words as well as the warm sound of the cultured accent and well-modulated voice suggested that he had come from someplace a long way from this place" (p. 4). Is she implying that this warm, educated, non-lisping individual could not possibly be from Arkansas, the setting of the novel? Throughout her book, the author consistently portrays the townspeople as ignorant, southern Christian activists. Her characters are flat, static individuals with no substance, rather than rounded, dynamic people who should be more real for the reader. Ironically, through her description and characterization, she ends up mirroring the images she is attempting to criticize. If one of the author's intentions was to try to exploit the stereotypes of the Christian Right toward the homosexual community, this goal is diminished by her reinforcement of stereotypes and generalizations regarding Christianity and Christians by making implicit and explicit sweeping statements in her writing. Her style of using hyperbole to emphasize the effects of organized religion ends up making her appear as the kind of malicious, fundamentalist bigot she is condemning. Greene's writing is woven with religious metaphor to accent the irony and hypocrisy of the Christian community. In the second chapter of the novel, she writes:

Sucking in great quantities of air, she seemed to grow boxier and more bosomy. As quickly and as deadly as a cobra, hissing reptilelike at the startled men, she spat out a lone, venomous word: "Sodomites!" (p. 9)

The contrast between the image of Satan from the Garden of Eden, "reptilelike," "venomous," "hissing" and the allegedly "Christian" woman is striking. The passage continues: "There didn't seem to be a single eye that wasn't now staring at the men who stood publicly condemned" (p. 10). Paradoxically, Stephan Jones, the innocent who is later persecuted in the novel and dies at the hands of an angry mob, appears much like Jesus Christ, who was publicly condemned. Greene's religious subtext is furthered when she has "religious" characters claiming, "Those filthy fags with their stupid faces sticking out had the nerve to march right into our church!" (p. 58).

Greene continues with her moralizing: "The Ten Commandments do not mention homosexuality. And most significant, in all of Jesus' more than three thousand different teachings, there is not a word -- not one single word -- about homosexuality" (p. 96). I appreciated that, throughout the text, Greene posits such rhetorical questions as "Why, oh why would the lady and Mr. Harris want to talk that ugly way to living, breathing human beings? Did they only feel big by making others feel small? Or were they blinded by their own self -righteousness?" (p. 15). Greene points out that our society equates homosexuality with the crime of murder. She uses hyperbole for effect: she tries to point out the absurdity of people who believe we should "treat queers the same way we treat murderers" by letting "them all fry to a frizzle in the electric chair" (p. 26). She also notes how some religious zealots inaccurately connect pornographers, child molesters, and homosexuals together all in the same breath. Finally, she attempts to show how relatively "normal" gay men's lives are by creating characters who own a home together, share a business, go shopping, and have a "festive Christmas tree [standing] in the corner of [their] frame house" (p. 33). It is these and similar examples that suggest this could be an important novel.

Nevertheless, I felt an inordinate amount of Christian/religious bashing in the novel. Greene's sardonic tone is evident throughout her book. At one point a character states, "Stop talking badly about the nuns! Don't you know they can't do wrong because they're married to Jesus?" (p. 19). This mocking tone is offensive. She excludes any positive images of nuns, or any other religious figures, in the book's entirety. She goes on to write:

Is this ridicule only because one single nun, Sister Statten, was bad to you thirty years ago? Is that what this is all about?
I wish I could deny it, but I can't. That experience certainly started my distaste for organized religion -- it started my questioning the entire process. And the nuns, not just Sister Staten but all nuns, insisted that we were not to reason, but we were to accept the Church and its teachings on faith. (p. 45)

All nuns? Another sweeping generalization? Personally, I have had numerous encounters with supportive nuns who taught me to question, reason, and reflect. Does Bette Greene dismiss the notion that organized religion is valid and can provide structure and discipline in society? We all have the need for guidelines and background before we have the ability to reason independently.

Later in the book, the female protagonist "wondered if maybe she was a bad person because she didn't hate homosexuals the way good and pious Christians were supposed to" (p. 27). Is such author commentary necessary? These and other author intrusions and parenthetical comments insult the reader. She threads her words with such descriptions as

He was gambling that the live wire of a preacher over at the First Baptist Church of Ratchetville would hold Frank's interest better than the monotone priest had over at Our Lady of the Mountain Chapel. (p. 35)

In a novel that tries to point out that society persecutes gay people because of stereotypes, the author reinforces many others. Lively Baptists and monotone priests? How are these generalizations about religion any different than generalizations about gays? When she writes, "He wore a dramatic black robe with vibrant maroon trim that had been custom-made by a Jewish designer of liturgical wear on New York City's Seventh Avenue," what is the purpose of identifying his Judaism as well as the location of the business? Is she pointing out the irony of a Jew making Christian clothing? Pointing out the wealthy Jew who works on Seventh Avenue? The Drowning of Stephan Jones is laden with barbs against organized religion, suggesting that there can be nothing positive in one's denomination. Her notion that "any religious fundamental group is a potential danger" (Alvine, p. 7) is consistently reinforced without offering an alternative view.

Stereotypes appear in other forms. I grimaced when I read, "Carla wondered if Donna began talking that way after she became a cheerleader or did they make her a cheerleader because she just naturally talked that way?" (p. 83). Is this needed to advance the plot? With descriptions like "you just hold your horses, honey, 'cause I'm not fixing to leave this spot until I show these handsome Yankees a little of our good ol' Southern hospitality," she again taps into stereotypes of southern hospitality and southern language.

Homophobic Language

Unfortunately, the author also unintentionally uses homophobic language. She writes that Frank was "convincing his blond-haired companion of something terribly important" (p. 7) and later states, "Frank threw his friend a look" (p. 91) (emphasis mine). Granted, the gay community cannot reach consensus on terms of endearment; however, words like "friend" or "companion" invalidate the depth of Frank and Stephan's committed, monogamous, loving relationship, and words such as "partner," "lover," or "boyfriend" need to be explicitly used to help feed the gay youth's mind with positive connotations of same-sex relationships.

In addition to these language blunders, midway through the novel, one of the characters, Andy Harris, sends a hate letter to Stephan Jones that reads, "You are going to fry like a french fried potato in the hot, humid, stinking, filthy bowels of hell and I'll be GLAD!!!" (p. 82). I found myself wondering, "Who is going to see themselves in this letter?" Rarely do people admit to being bigots, and anyone who shares similar sentiments is not likely to change as a result of seeing his/her reflection in this passage. If her audience involves the homophobes in society, few people would see themselves in the role of the hate-monger, Andy Harris, and Greene's intent is ineffective. Her position inadvertently antagonizes. She writes, "I really, really hate it when you're hating. I hate it even more when you try to force me into hating, too" (p. 81). The irony is that the author appears to be trying to get the reader to 'hate' the Religious Right. This dichotomy boxes people in and offers no hope for growth or dialogue.

Furthermore, I don't sense that the author makes an attempt to understand how people are brought up. Conditioning is crucial in constructing our world view. I do not attempt to excuse the behaviors of the antagonists in this book, but I believe the idea is to educate and not lash out further. Greene's novel seems to ignite more hatred. Certainly, there is an inordinate amount of greed, hypocrisy, and corruption within several of the world's organized religions. I agree with Greene's assertion that "there is no greater blasphemy in the world than those people who claim to be doing God's work" (Alvine, p. 7) only to instill hatred. Yet, in a debased world without discipline, ethics, values, and love, the idea should be to educate the educators (ministers, priests, rabbis, nuns, teachers) not to dismiss or denigrate them.

The Gay as Victim

My ultimate criticism of the novel, however, lies in Greene's reinforcement of negative gay stereotypes. While gay youth are ravenous for literature dealing with gay themes and characters, they should be reading literature that presents people like them in a positive light. Instead, Greene's work reinforces a victim mentality. While trying to abate gay stereotypes, Greene unintentionally perpetuates more stereotypes in her book by portraying gays, yet again, in a novel about the gay victim. When Greene describes Reverend Wheelwright as someone who "must come to the aid of the victims rather than the perpetrators" (p. 97), she implies that gay people are not capable of taking care of themselves. Stephan Jones is a gay man who is physically and emotionally weak, helpless, and incapable of courage. Certainly, there are gay individuals, as well as straight ones, who match Stephan's characteristics. Yet, this image gets consistently reinforced in literature, television, and film; today, stronger, more capable gay individuals need to be presented.

The author gives "macho" names to heterosexual characters like "Doug the Ironman Crawford" and contrasts this image of strength with passages like "Stephan's head drooped." Why does his head droop? Once again one is exposed to a novel that features a weak, helpless gay man. This image is reinforced when the author writes: "'Leave me alone,' Stephan begged with a voice that trembled" (p. 66).

After much thought, I cannot conclude who Greene's primary audience is intended to be. Is it the gay individual? If so, the drowning of Stephan Jones and the persecution he receives could instill fear in a younger person struggling with his or her sexuality and the decision to come out. If it is the homophobes in society, they are unlikely to see themselves in this work. I wonder, with lines like "Faggots aren't brave people" (p. 84), how much of this writing is done to help? For the literal or the figurative reader, does it not reinforce negative stereotypes? My concern is that lines such as this can be dangerous; statements such as these can tighten stereotypes. Certainly, stereotypes can tend to be rooted in some actual fact, but Greene's descriptions are typically oversimplified, superficial conceptions. By the novel's end, Greene has reinforced stereotypes about the rural South, religious followers, and homosexuals.

As the February 21,1994, issue of Publisher's Weekly reports, Greene's novel reinforces the notion that homosexuality is a viable topic only when portrayed as something to overcome. It does little to advance the provision of positive role models of gay and lesbian characters, and it potentially enforces other stereotypes by harmfully creating a box around organized religion and implying that it is "bad" to be Christian. Individuals, primarily gay and lesbian ones, are hungry for literature with gay and lesbian themes, characters, and situations. However, this literature must be presented in ways that avoid stereotypes. Literature should be written with three-dimensional characters who add substance to the story and thus will add to the horror of the situation. Instead, Greene's story polarizes the gay culture from any religious community. There are few references or suggestions that gay individuals can be "out," proud, and dignified (and certainly not religious). Instead, her characters suggest that gays are closeted, ashamed, and repressed. Certainly, religion has been used to condemn, persecute, and hurt people for hundreds of thousands of years. Organized religion has caused pain to the gay community and, at some level, encourages violence against gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the notion that the solution to this dilemma lies in namecalling, stereotyping and persecuting the Christian Right. Greater understanding will not take place this way. Dialogue is necessary, and polarization should not occur.

Ken Eaton. Roxanne Kay Ellis. Michelle Abdill. Each of these individuals received the death penalty at the hands of judges and cold-hearted killers. Their crime? Living as a lesbian or gay male. Individuals like Fred Phelps, a disbarred lawyer and Baptist pastor, have crusaded against the gay and lesbian community, claiming that "God hates fags" and quoting Romans 9:13 to support their claims. With such injustice surrounding not only gay and lesbian youth, but all persons who are impacted by a gay parent, gay sibling, gay friend, gay co-worker, gay roommate, or gay neighbor, it is logical that readers want to immerse themselves in a banquet of reading that nourishes, satisfies, and strengthens. The Drowning of Stephan Jones , while attempting to do these things, does not. While an important novel because it showcases blatant homophobia, The Drowning of Stephan Jones is not the best recommended reading for students in school. Instead, I would recommend Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner , Laura Hobson's Consenting Adult , and Bennett Singer's Growing Up Gay/Growing Up Lesbian as more affirming works that deal with gay youth, growing up, and homophobia. For now, as television's Ellen has done, it is time to inundate the reader with positive, supportive gay information that provides honesty, integrity, vision, and hope, and does not drown the student in dichotomy.

Works Cited

Alvine, Lynne. "Understanding Adolescent Homophobia: An Interview with Bette Greene." The ALAN Review. Winter 1994. Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 5-9.

Ford, Michael Thomas. "Gay Books for Young Readers: When Caution Calls the Shots." Publisher's Weekly. 21 February 1994. Vol. 241, No. 8, pp. 24-27.

Greene, Bette. The Drowning of Stephan Jones. Bantam Books, 1991.

Patrick Finnessy teaches Senior English at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. A frequent workshop presenter, he created and published a curriculum guide for the anthology Growing Up Gay/Growing Up Lesbian.