Secrets and Stigma

June 10, 1919.

Homosexuality was once in the closet and now gays can marry and celebrate openly in Pride Parades. I didn’t see that coming 60, 50, 40, 30, or even 20 years ago.

Odds are 10% of our ancestors were gay. I’m pretty sure that number is right for my family of origin and I’m pretty sure the same is true for the family of my childhood best friend, whose Uncle Jay never married, sang show tunes and spent summers on Fire Island. I’ll bet that 10% gay number is true for your family of origin, too.

Although not completely accepted by all of society, in time the stigma borne of secrecy will be erased as it becomes known that a beloved teacher, aunt, sibling, uncle, son, daughter, friend, rock star, minister, boss, and maybe even a president of the United States will bring humanity to what was once a deep dark secret that could destroy families and careers.

I’ll devote a future post to my dads’ sister, Ellen, who never married but I want to flush out what I can about her story. My middle name is Ellen and I am so damned proud to have her in my life this way forever. It’s much harder to find information about women in history but I’ll do my best to honor this extraordinary woman.

Today, there’s something that is also commonplace but still not shared openly. Mental illness, or as I prefer to think of it – an alternate reality, spiritual awakening, or even a born-again experience. Whatever you know it by – and ‘mental illness’ is as it is best known – it is one of the remaining stigmas that will hopefully become demystified as people tell their own stories. When meeting those who are likely to become friends for the first time you might share details about family, including divorce and remarriage, career highlights, but you won’t jump in and say, ‘Oh, I went crazy a few times. How about you?”

My grandfather, Rev. Arthur James Gammack, was an Episcopal priest. When I first read a news story from his local paper about him preaching publicly in the town square I was startled. Episcopal priests in my mind aren’t known for this kind of thing. And the fact that this was newsworthy back in the 1920s confirms the real oddity of his actions.

Then it hit me. What if he was bipolar? Too. What if those flashes of grandiosity with God speaking through him was the same spiritual glow I had during the three ‘breakdowns’ I had in my 20s and 30s? Bipolar is a part of my DNA so it’s likely passed down from others. My grandfather’s father was an Episcopal priest in Scotland. How far back do I have members of the clergy in my clan?

According to NAMI 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year. If you’re curious about other mental illness statistics in the U.S click on this NIMH site.

Come to think of it, what better profession for someone with bipolar episodes than the clergy? Odds of getting locked up and drugged into submission/normalcy were slim if you wore a collar and had a Bible in hand.

As I read the booklet prepared by my uncle to commemorate Rev. Gammack’s life, there came more clues to bolster my theory. He was described as having ‘unusual pulpit power’, he ignored opposition and the real kicker: Rev. Gammack could get so excited he couldn’t sleep.

Boom.

Sleeplessness can be the first sign of a an abrupt mood swing and I want the biological descendants from the marriage of Gordon Gammack and Kathryn Hagensick to know this could be in there DNA.

My experience is that it’s kind of cool to know God this way.

This is all speculation fortified by clues from past writings, but it’s all I have at this point in my belated search of family history.

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