Son Rise | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Son Rise 

The Unexpected Son paints an unconventional portrait of an unconventional Mormon family.

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When you've grown up with a closeted gay Mormon as your father, and that father subsequently was the first documented case of AIDS in the state of Utah, it might seem obvious what the hook would be for telling your life story. For Ryan Michael Painter, it took more than 20 years to fully appreciate that the story he wanted to tell was more complicated than that.

Painter—a Utah native, writer and currently assignment desk manager at KUTV-2 News—created a combination of family history and memoir in his new book The Unexpected Son. In it he chronicles the life stories of his parents, Patti and Michael, the odd circumstances of their eventual marriage as devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1970s, the almost immediate realization by Michael that he couldn't live within a traditional heterosexual marriage, and the decision by Michael to have a child as an almost last-ditch attempt to save his soul as he understood it. Painter's own childhood emerges through a combination of his mother's journal entries and his recollections, which he acknowledges are "kind of fantasy."

The idea for turning this family story into a book has evolved greatly since Painter's mother first suggested the possibility when he was still in high school. "She always felt there was a story there to be told," Painter says. "I thought, 'Maybe, but it's not really mine; it's yours. I don't really think I have anything interesting to add to that.' When you live your life, you don't realize what's different. It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I'd talk to people and realize how different their childhoods were from mine.

"With each draft, there was more and more of me in it," he adds. "I had to discover for the first time the truth behind my life. As a kid, you just assume your parents married because they were in love. The process of tearing all that down made it really hard for a while."

Still, the idea for the book continued to shift through the years. At times, Painter wasn't certain how much of his own life should be part of the story. At other times, he wondered if the national environment had changed enough that it was no longer necessary to share the challenging experience of a closeted gay Mormon, and the stigmas borne by family members.

One of the greatest challenges throughout the development of The Unexpected Son was understanding the reality of his father's life. Between the fact that Painter himself lived mostly with his mother as a child, the secretive nature of his father's personal life and the fact that some family members preferred not to talk about uncomfortable things, Michael Painter proved elusive. "I was afraid to talk to people about my father," Painter says. "I was afraid to talk to his family; it was something that really got swept under the carpet. He wasn't in it very much at all until this last draft. That was one of the hardest problems, how to fit him in.

"He was so many different things to different people, it was hard to track him down. I don't think my father wanted his life to be a secret. He just wanted to be accepted for who he was, but that wasn't really possible."

Painter did have to wrestle with learning the difficult details of his father's illness and death in 1983, when he was just 7 years old. "My father went through a lot where they were just trying to keep him alive, and they probably just should have let him go," he says. "I think they hid that from me, and I appreciate the fact that they hid that from me."

Yet as sensational as it might have been to focus on his father's life and death, Painter chooses in The Unexpected Son to focus on the everyday heroism of his mother—a medical professional and single-mom Mormon at a time when those around her, and she herself, wondered why she couldn't just find a man and have a family. Patti's memories and experiences anchor the story in the challenges of a woman to find her place when the image of a perfect domestic life favored by her church quickly disintegrates. "I always appreciated my mother and knew she had done amazing things," Painter says. "But I didn't know how heroic she actually was, and how deeply that impacted my life.

"The stuff I went through wasn't nearly as rough as learning what my parents went through. I'd had years and years to think a lot about those experiences, but you never really want to know how many times your parents had sex. But when you find out it's only once, and it wasn't on the honeymoon? There's a sadness in that story, and it's hard to be a product of that sadness. Your life takes on a different meaning."

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