Book Review: My Two Moms
by Zach Wahls (with Bruce Littlefield)
Gotham Books, 2012
On the last day of January in 2011, University of Iowa student Zach Wahls stood up in front of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in Des Moines and gave a three-minute speech about being the son of a lesbian couple. Wahls is clean-cut and good-looking; he was well-dressed and courteous; and his testimony was passionate and very well-delivered. It became a YouTube sensation, viewed millions of times and ranked as the most-watched political YouTube video of 2011. Wahls became that most peculiar of phenomena, the instant celebrity.
Hence, a book.
Wahls’ Des Moines testimony was that the sexual orientation of his parents has had “zero effect” on the content of his character – that, as he put it, his family really wasn’t that different from most other Iowa families. Anyone who’s ever met an Iowa family will smile at this for sociological reasons (the world, it need hardly be said, could benefit from more Iowans) – but they’ll whiten with horror at the thought of reading 234 pages about it, and with good reason.
Seasoned journalist Bruce Littlefield is on hand in the pages of My Two Moms to keep things from degenerating into one long afternoon nap of softball games and earnest dinner conversations, and whatever Gotham Books paid him, he earned every penny of it. The day-to-day tribulations of a normal Iowa family are here effectively played out against the ongoing difficulties posed by the fact that the family has two mothers instead of a mother and a father, and Wahls’ mother Terry’s struggle with worsening MS is movingly described. But 95 % of the book is a vast, benign wasteland of Scout meetings, school events, and, God help us all, Unitarian Universalist congregations. There are half-tone sidebar discussions of Obedience, Truth, Kindness, etc. – the Scout Handbook, only bombarded with gamma rays and given a book deal.
Sometimes, the observations are practiced and spot-on:
When a straight couple is married in Iowa, their marriage is recognized in all fifty states because the federal government requires them to do so. Married straight couples don’t lose any of their rights when they go to visit family in Florida – or any other state, for that matter. A pair of opposite-gender first cousins from Iowa could go down to Alabama and get married, where marriage between first cousins is legal. The Iowa government is then required to recognize that couple’s union, even though they would not qualify for marriage in our state. But if my moms go down to Alabama, even though they fulfill the marriage requirements and are married in Iowa, they are no longer recognized as such by Alabama’s government.
But such YouTube-ready bits are infrequent oases amidst the endless waving cornfields of rec-center bromides that are wonderful to believe and deadly to read:
I cannot bring myself to think of my moms’ sexualities – or anyone else’s sexuality for that matter – as the most important part of who they are. My own sexuality simply isn’t a large enough part of my life for me to believe it could, on its own, ever accurately summarize me as a person or fully convey the events of my life thus far. Labels like gay or straight, white or black, Muslim or Christian, may make our lives easier on a day-to-day, trying-to-make-sense-of-this-crazy-world basis, but they are a poor foundation upon which to make major policy decisions. More fundamentally, we have to remember that while it is certainly easier to sort people out in our minds along such lines, until you can take the time to actually get to know a person, you can never truly known him or her.
In the last year, Zach Wahls has become a sought-after speaker at schools, events, and even churches all over the country, and this is both happy and understandable: even in that one YouTube clip, the beginnings of a very good public speaker can easily be seen. In light of the gay rights backlash currently gaining strength in the United States, a spokesman like Wahls – normal, upstanding, and eloquent – is much-needed and entirely welcome; all plurality’s advocates should be so ready for their close-up. No sane person, finishing My Two Moms, could possibly cling to the idea that gay or lesbian couples are somehow more inherently degenerate than their straight counterparts, and in that sense the book serves some purpose.
But please: no more autobiographical volumes until they can be based on something more than three minutes of sweet talking and a whole lotta normal.