If You’re Waiting for Permission to Love Someone, Ryan Michael Painter Says You Have It
2023 is a year of significant and poignant reminders for SLC author Ryan Michael Painter. In September of 1983, Painter’s father was the first diagnosed AIDS patient in Utah to pass away. This year, Painter says, “was probably one of the hardest years yet. 40 years is a monumental kind of landmark. My father only lived to be 34. I’ve always struggled with [the question], ‘Why do I get more of a life than he did?’”
The memories Ryan has of his father, Michael Painter, are detailed in his 2020 self-published memoir, The Unexpected Son. The book is composed in fragments of Ryan’s childhood memories, his adult reflections, snippets of his mother’s diaries and bits of email exchanges working together to illuminate the fractured experience of Ryan’s journey through grief and healing.
The goal that was a driving force behind the creation of the book, Ryan says, was to record and preserve Michael’s story, his mother Patti’s story and his own story as a form of remembrance for his family. In weaving the three narratives, The Unexpected Son discusses the normal experiences of Ryan’s childhood. His parents loved him, and he fondly remembers watching Dallas with dad and visiting the neighbors with mom. Alongside these moments, however, harrowing revelations about his father’s sometimes-abusive partners, his mother’s struggle for love and acceptance as a single mother in a conservative culture and iron-lung-laden hospital visits contrast the beautiful memories with the tender and traumatic.
“I’m the result of a relationship that was very unhealthy in the beginning,”
Piecing together these disparate narratives took Ryan some 15 years to complete. It was difficult for many reasons, one of which was the duality of Michael’s life while he was alive. Throughout his youth and young adulthood, Michael had been—at least, on the surface—a typical member of the Mormon faith. He had served a religious mission and was, while married to Patti, a high-ranking member of the church’s organization. Michael’s existence as a gay man remains fairly obscure to Ryan, and throughout various points in his life, conversations about his father with those who knew him have felt guarded and shrouded in secrecy.
Michael was not a good husband—this is something that becomes explicitly clear reading The Unexpected Son. “I’m the result of a relationship that was very unhealthy in the beginning,” Ryan says. Growing up, he had believed that his parents had, at some point, been in love. However, as he began researching and writing his memoir, he learned that this was not the case. He isn’t sure why his parents married each other, and he’s not sure they’d be able to explain it either, except in terms of social and familial pressure.
“I had to tear down all the old ideas I had about my parents, but I got to replace them with something that, while it’s got a few ugly parts, I think ultimately it was kind of a beautiful thing.”
With this revelation, Ryan found it difficult to continue writing the book at all, saying it’s a miracle he was able to finish it. About his father’s emotional mistreatment of his mother, Ryan says, “Had I been less dedicated to telling the truth, I would have left it out. Because there was a part of me that feared that people would see that section of his life and judge him based on just that.” As he came to accept his father’s story and see the value of the friendship that his parents had built in place of a romantic relationship, Ryan was able to come to terms with Michael’s lack of support and understanding for his mother. “I had to tear down all the old ideas I had about my parents, but I got to replace them with something that, while it’s got a few ugly parts, I think ultimately it was kind of a beautiful thing.”
Ryan notes that another reason the writing process was difficult is because his purpose wasn’t clear during the first 10 years of creating the book. “The AIDS crisis seemed to be in the rearview,” he says. “I didn’t really think it had the social relevance that it suddenly has. Working in the news, I’m kind of right there, on the front line. I’m seeing the world as it’s unfolding. There was a time where I didn’t think the book really mattered that much because we were all playing a lot nicer, but the last five years have been a kind of continual slide. It’s at a point where it feels like if they could, they’d erase my father’s story and any story like his. Now, it feels important to not let that happen.”
In tandem with the tough memories and reconciliations of the past year, 2023 has also brought Ryan some sweet reminders of his father. As concern about the potential for snowmelt flooding rose earlier this year, the historic 1983 flooding of SLC and surrounding areas was a frequent topic in the KUTV newsroom where Ryan works. News photos show a flooded, foot-bridged State Street from that spring, where you can spot theater marquees advertising showings of Return of the Jedi. The Star Wars franchise holds a special place in Ryan’s heart—the movies were something he enjoyed while his father was living, and after his death, the characters and themes took on greater significance.
“The book is about telling people, ‘If you’re waiting for permission to love someone: You have it!’”
“I think Luke Skywalker became important to me sooner than he really should have,” Ryan says. He explains that he felt a kinship with the character Luke, who sought his father and hoped to redeem him. Through the process of writing The Unexpected Son, Ryan has come to recognize that redeeming his father is not part of his own journey. “I don’t know that my father needed any sort of redemption, but I think there was a time where I felt like he did, and that somehow by telling the story, I could get that for him. But I don’t think that’s ultimately what the book is about. I don’t think my father needed to be redeemed; maybe as a husband, but not as a person, and certainly not as a gay man.” Ryan says, ultimately, “The book is about telling people, ‘If you’re waiting for permission to love someone: You have it!’”
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