Tuesday, August 21, 2018

“Southern Baptist Sissies” - Not Just A Powerful Drama, But An Insight Into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Published in HuffPost
July 6, 2017 - 12:59 am ET
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)

I recently attended a live performance of Del Shores’ drama “Southern Baptist Sissies” in Palm Springs, California. The play was performed at The Desert Rose Playhouse, directed by Steve Fisher.  The show was exquisite. The young men who played the principal roles were stellar, and their performances can best be described as gut-wrenching. The others added depth to their roles, and the entire cast, including the wonderful organ player, should be congratulated for the overall experience of “Southern Baptist Sissies”.

The play focuses on four boys in a Texas Southern Baptist church who come to realize that they are gay, and the challenges they have in coming to terms with their sexual identities in this highly repressive, homophobic Christian church environment. Although each boy has the same underlying issue of an inability to reconcile his religious foundation (and often family as well) with his sexuality, each one deals with his inner struggle in a different way. Together, each of the ways each boy attempts to overcome his struggle touches on the different manifestations of the same condition: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

While watching the play, I was struck with the sense that I wasn’t simply listening to the stories of these four boys and the intolerance they face in Texas. Rather, I was listening to survivors of gruesome trauma, akin to the stories of survivors of the Holocaust, physically and emotionally wounded soldiers of war, victims of rape and brutality, and people who have been subject to the most horrific experiences of ruthless cruelty. These boys were exhibiting the same symptoms of the most abused, and their reactions to the abuse were psychiatric textbook classic. I was expecting to see a drama about the lives of these boys and the intolerance they face in their very Southern Baptist world; I was not expecting to see a case-study enactment of psychiatric journals, dealing with the very real issues of the most horrendous abuse that children can experience and the classic ways in which they deal with those experiences through traumatic disorder behaviors. The story was from Del Shores’ own childhood events, and not from the study of psychiatric paradigms (which was the focus on my thesis in my Ph.D. program at NYU, focused on statistical analytics).  Nonetheless, Shores was able to transcend those personal experiences and uncover the underlying theme of psychological abuse and trauma endured through the Southern Baptist narrative. Although the characters and writing are superb, it is the ability to move beyond the characters and writing, and to uncover the core issue of fundamentalist religion as a form of child abuse as a psychiatric condition, that makes this play brilliant.

I left the play not only saddened, but as a social scientist, determined to better understand the link between the play’s writing and PTSD. As part of my graduate training, I worked as an intern with adolescents in a psychiatric facility for teenagers diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoia and other serious conditions. These kids had a host of issues, including those that were experiential and for others chemical/biological. We worked with drug therapies, group therapies, and a variety of other treatment modalities. It was not a happy place, as these youngsters were so terribly damaged and the path to recovery was an extraordinarily difficult one. Although it was a long time ago, while I was watching “Southern Baptist Sissies” it brought back memories of the psychiatric facility in which I worked. I sensed that I was once again confronted by young people with deep-seated disorders that came about through monstrous childhood experiences. Not all psychiatric issues are experiential as many conditions are written in the DNA. But many are not and are based on trauma and ways in which human beings attempt to deal with that trauma, albeit often in self-defeating ways, as presented by the boys in “Southern Baptist Sissies”.

The character TJ engages in a common form of PTSD: denial and repression. He pushes his emotions away, claiming they are false, and denies his homosexuality and previous sexual activities. He allows himself to fall victim to an emotional state not dissimilar to flat affect. He becomes overly-masculinized, marries a woman to prove his heterosexuality, and in his own mind is no longer able to access his sexual attraction to men. Benny, on the other hand, engages in another common form of PSTD: rage and desire for retribution. He engages in the opposite behaviors of TJ, and becomes fully feminized as a venomous drag queen, angry at the world. He becomes a choleric stereotype to keep his pain in check. Andrew, the character whose story ends most tragically, comes to a place that is too often the result of PTSD: hopelessness and suicide. He is so filled with shame, viewing himself as unworthy of life, and seeing his situation as untenable. Mark, the narrator, tries hardest to reconcile his trauma and is more generalize in his behaviors, but remains in another state of PTSD: confusion and depression. His self-loathing and sense of having been betrayed and forsaken – a feeling typical among PTSD victims – does not allow him to truly accept himself and “move-on”. He remains, as with so many victims of PTSD, in a continued state of uncertainty. All four characters find different ways of dealing with the trauma they endured, but none of them emerge able to genuinely move beyond the abuse. All of this is classic PTSD. Of course, throughout the play the characters of Peanut and Odette are sitting on the sideline watching the story unfold, drowning in their alcohol, so typical of those fighting the demons of PTSD.

But who were the abusers, and in what manner were these boys being abused? We readily understand abuse from survivors of the Holocaust, wars, rape and other abusive situations. But these four boys? All that happened to them was that they lived in devoutly Christian (and seemingly loving) homes and went to church. How can that be seen as abusive?

There is an emerging body of psychological literature on a new topic entitled “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS).  “RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community.” It occurs when the religious belief claims that the individual is in physical danger for both engaging in a behavior that is essentially at the core of the individual’s identity and leaving the religion because of it. Concepts like the rapture, hell, and other devices provide the foundation for the belief that one is in danger and there is no escape. RTS is seen as a part of the newly emerging diagnosis of “Complex PTSD”, which is not single event-driven, but the result of repetitive and prolonged trauma, occurring over long periods of time, often from caregivers – those whom the victim loves and trusts. Feelings of terror are common, and these kinds of feelings were aptly described in “Southern Baptist Sissies”.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), which is the core differential diagnostic tool of the America Psychiatric Association, does not yet recognize RTS, although all of the etiology and symptoms are clear in the Trauma and Related Disorders section of the manual. The newer version (version 5) does for the first time recognize PTSD as belonging in its own category of trauma and stress disorders, which is a step that recognizes trauma in a more comprehensive way. The concept of RTS is new, but works like “Southern Baptist Sissies” clearly enlighten relative to the need to label the experience for what it is: abuse. It is nothing short of abuse when children are told that their very being is at risk and that they will be disowned by their loved ones, community and even God himself, banished and forced to spend eternity in the fire of hell, simply for being LGBT.

The play essentially asks a simple question… At what point does religion cross the line and at what point are parents harming their children through their religious doctrine? When do family and religion no longer uplift and no longer provide meaning to the human experience, but become demeaning and treacherous? And in the U.S. today, what should a “Christian” upbringing look like so that it is enlightening and enriching, not abusive? This question is the essence of “Southern Baptist Sissies” and an incredibly important one in today’s religious (and political) environment. Kudos to Del Shores for having the foresight to understand that the experiences of young Southern Baptists is traumatic and abusive, and it needs to be called out as such.

If the play comes to your city, be sure to see it. Of course, it was also produced as a movie.