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Struck from Different Dimensions: A Profile of Scott Abbott

There’s a statue of Scott Abbott on the campus of Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem. It shows a tall, handsome guy, button-down shirt, belted and tucked into jeans falling to a sensible length above dark loafers. Like this representation, Scott Abbott’s demeanor is stoic and thoughtful. His speech is deeply resonant and careful. Except when it is not. Then it is surprising and disquieting, shocking even. He handles thesis and antithesis deftly in the same breath, but resolutely resists a definite synthesis. In other words, let’s move on now that we’ve figured that out, is not a maxim he seems to seek or with which he is comfortable.

As with the statue on campus, when you view Scott Abbott from behind, you see the break, albeit subtle, with the conservative ethos he was raised in — a long and gathered gray ponytail. He’s a scholar of German ideas and literature. He’s a fan of Rilke and Goethe. He recently translated Experiments with Plant Hybrids, the groundbreaking work of the famed German geneticist Gregor Mendel. Instead of reveling in such a feat, he stood before an auditorium of students and colleagues at UVU and expressed his regret at not having been more poetic in his translation.

How very German.

The statue on campus is not really of Scott Abbott, though it looks suspiciously similar: it is of a tall handsome white guy, in average clothes with an average expression. The statue does have the ponytail, which is the bit of personal grooming that is as far as many scholars and ex-communicants (and statues) in this region go to break through the forced silence of Christian conservatism.

There is no statue, however, of his gay brother. Or of the tens of thousands of other faceless young men with forgotten names who died from AIDS. At least, nowhere in Utah. People don’t build monuments to disgust. We don’t cast in bronze the memories of what we find repulsive. So we have to tell stories. But, as I write I am stopped by my own troubling oversight. I don’t know his brother’s name. I thumb through the pages of notes from the interview I had with Scott. Apparently, I didn’t write it down. Surely we spoke it. Surely I read it. But I can’t think of it or remember it. Knowing and remembering his name wasn’t the pressing matter at hand. This profile is about Scott Abbott, after all, not his brother. Scott is the one alive. He has the likeness to statuary. He is heterosexual, tenured and well-read. He, and men like him, get to tell the stories and publish the books and research the papers and produce the films and craft the legislation. All those other guys are gone. We’ll just have to trust Scott to tell us the truth.

Scott tells me he cannot write about his brother without writing about himself. And I cannot write about Scott writing about his brother without writing about how I see Scott writing about his brother. A third person profile is flat, like much of our society at the moment. We speak to each other more and more in two dimensions, fixated as we are on the blue screens of our digital age. You don’t need me to tell you Scott Abbott is a smart guy and that he’s successful and that he’s one hell of a writer. Google him. To understand Scott in three dimensions it helps to know that the writer of this article is gay.

The anonymity of third-person prose is a luxury with which I am no longer comfortable. That literary closet allows for too much editorial wiggle room, too many temptations to remain neutral concerning difficult topics. So, to give you just a profile of Scott Abbott without my specific kind of commentary is to flatten him and his work along with him. A profile that is only half of what is real. At best, a high relief. But to examine a life in the round is to discover how the subject appears to many different people. How else does one discover the ponytail but to walk around him? How else does one see the whole statue?

During the last few, tumultuous years of Scott’s tenure at Brigham Young University, the school administration (the LDS Church leadership) banished Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” to the basement of their 15 million dollar art museum, along with a naked John the Baptist and the clothed, but possibly masturbating, statue of Balzac. Scott knew then that to see a sculpture as a two-dimensional object, as simply appropriate or inappropriate, is to silence any act of thinking and speaking in complex ways and he said so publicly at the time, to his peril. In a world of moral absolutes, a thing is right or wrong. No maybe or it depends or it’s complicated. “The Kiss,” is pornography and nothing more. This simple disgust for human bodies is why Christianity makes so much sense to so many people. It’s the easiest idea in the world to understand. Bodies lie. Spirits tell the truth.

He learned about this disgust for human bodies at an early age. On a junior high playground in Farmington, New Mexico, an oil boom town settled by Mormon pioneers sent from Utah by Brigham Young, another seventh-grade lad informed Scott that there “are such things as homaphrodites” that roam the earth. They are repugnant and not to be trifled with. The kid gave no detailed explanations—whether they had communicable disease or were hideously deformed or spiritually corroded. Specifics were missing. The gut feelings were what were important to young boys learning about the world. Create and feel the disgust first, then don’t speak of it again. Let those dark, acidic emotions guide your judgments when confronted with kids not like you. Feelings are always more important than truth.

But disgust without conversation bubbles up under pressure and eventually boils over. Homaphrodites turn into gay brothers and gay brothers move to big cities and turn up dead from a horrible disease. Then those deaths from that disease force guilt-laden emotional eruptions up from the dark pools of social silences and those eruptions demand that those long-dead bodies, social and biological, be exhumed and autopsied. And that is a nasty, bloody business. But if you can’t talk about it you can’t deal with it. And because sex is still such a nasty business for so many, disgust created in childhood becomes metastatic and pernicious when one becomes an adult.

What disgusts us, scares us, and what scares us, shuts us up. And that silence makes enemies of our friends and family and of our own bodies. Fred Rogers knew this.

Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.

I was raised in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as was Scott Abbott and his brother. Though, as children, I doubt we ever heard that quote of his; the three of us came of age in what seemed like a gentler time. Scott says his hometown environment “didn’t feel homophobic, it just felt normal.” Cling to those normal feelings because talking about your disgust concerning “homaphrodites” comes into life already soiled. Mister Rogers’ hopeful ethos, at the time, was not built for such topics, though its sweet and comforting tone is still remarkably attractive to those of us who needed, and still need, such conversations.

Scott Abbott attempts to drag his brother’s story into unexplored dimensions but, as I see it, without easy conclusions. The obvious and simple lessons land first. It is wrong for religions to make others feel that they are disgusting. Christians shouldn’t judge harshly and isolate those who are different. But those easily drawn platitudes are still flat and, arguably, pies in imaginary skies. There are dimensions missing. The real life of Scott Abbott’s brother will always live in dark places. No one alive can truly tell a dead person’s story. But the real strength of Scott’s work is that he doesn’t want to tell the truth. He meditates on it instead.

This book is not about his brother. How could it be? This is a book about a man wanting to be made less uncomfortable about homosexuality. This is a book about a man being afraid. The fear of being gay, of being disgusting. “It could have happened to me, too,” Scott tells me. With the right circumstance, the right college roommate, the right moment of loneliness or the right shift in neurochemistry. As Scott and I spoke in his office, high in a brand-new building at UVU, overlooking the bright sunshine reflecting off Utah Lake, he said that he wanted to overcome the fear of homosexuality. This idea I find spectacularly strange, this fear of homosexuals—that, “it could happen to me.” What is the it? Sex with men? Better taste in clothing? Non-embarrassing dance moves?

“Why are straight men so afraid of homosexuals?” I ask him.

“Because we have so much to lose,” he says.

And there it is. Too much social privilege, too much economic access, too much political power and too high a religious standing. The more one has to lose, the more terrifying the threat of loss. The greater the threat of loss grows, the more violent the attack on the source of that threat. What if I am seen as being homosexual? By association, by acceptance, by participation—if I react to homosexuals with an emotion other than disgust, I am weak and open to ruin. The emotion is the truth. Vulnerability is the heart of fear. It is the driving force for things to be kept in two dimensions. “I had no idea what I was afraid of,” Scott says. Once he admitted this bit of real ignorance, I think I understood. I still don’t get it, but, like any other irrational fear, it helps to know its origin.

What Scott Abbott has done with this work is not to detail the life of a gay man. Only living gay men can do that. Some may think this book is an apology for the monstrous treatment gay men and women receive from the Mormon Church. Some may see an incomplete history of a life lost to disease and social isolation. What I see in this work comes from what I am made to feel: relief. Abbott’s “fraternal meditations” lifts a burden from my shoulders and the shoulders of many other gay people who constantly have to explain ourselves to religious folks who say they want to understand our lives. We are constantly called upon to help heterosexual people of faith feel better about being disgusted or uncomfortable or ignorant about the lives of others not like them. We are not responsible for their comfort or their fears. It’s time for these groups to educate themselves.

With Immortal for Quite Some Time, Scott takes full responsibility for his childhood disgust and his discomfort and his vulnerability. As a reader, I get to relax and observe him as a strange and mysterious creature, worrying about things in curious and inexplicable ways. Scott Abbott turns the heterosexual, privileged male into something queer. Strange and ruthlessly complex. Relentlessly seeking the origins of his fears and loathings, of the mechanisms of his silences, of the gorgeous mysteries of sex and human longing. And though he is a rather statuesque man, seemingly cast in bronze and comfortably secure in his social standing, easily imagined as a Renaissance painter or a John Ford character, his manners, his writing, and his being are all struck from many different dimensions. This makes his personhood and his work both vulnerable and fearless. He’s a man willing to lose the privilege he never really wanted in the first place.

 

Scott Abbott’s Immortal for Quite Some Time (2016, University of Utah Press) was awarded 15 Bytes’ 2017 award for creative nonfiction.

Eric Robertson is professor of humanities at Utah Valley University, a founding editor of saltfront; studies in human habit(at) and the author of The Salted Earth, winner of the 2015 Utah Arts and Museums Original Writing Competition.

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3 replies »

  1. So wonderfully written and timely. When toxic, white, male, nationalistic patriarchy is empowered and in full view, we need more voices like Abbot’s and Robertson’s and we all need to be a little more vulnerable and more comfortable with discomfort.

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