Dallasite’s memoir of growing up gay as a minister’s daughter is a powerful and harrowing tale of abuse, rejection … and, ultimately, forgiveness

TAMMYE NASH  | Managing Editor

The First Stone: A Gay Daughter’s Survival in a Religious World, by Samiel Kalin (Canyonwalker Press 2014) $19.95, 193 pp.

If you grew up in the American South — especially the rural South during the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s — it was practically impossible for you to escape the influence of “the church.” Different denominations held sway in different areas, different communities. But “the church” was always a presence.

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SURVIVOR | Dallas author Samiel Kalin’s life story isn’t easy to read, but it will strike familiar chords to many raised in the church.

When I was a child, my mother, sister and most of my extended family on my mother’s side attended Peachtree Baptist. We were there on Sundays for Sunday School and the morning sermon, and we were back that night for Training Union and the evening service. And we were there every Wednesday when the adults gathered for prayer service and Bible study, while the girls met for Girls In Action (G.A.s), and the boys met for … well, I can’t remember what that group was called.

Every summer, we spent a week in Vacation Bible School, and at least once or twice a year, we attended weeklong revivals that featured guest preachers and special musical performances.
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By the time I reached my early teens, I had begin to grow away from the organized religion of my childhood, disillusioned by what I saw as a very narrow, judgmental world view. And by the time I graduated from high school, I was no longer attending services. Still, I never turned my back on the people of Peachtree Baptist, and they never turned their back on me. I never felt persecuted by the church members, and especially not by my family. Maybe I didn’t agree with them on much, and maybe they sometimes didn’t really understand me. But we always loved each other.

I was lucky. Many LGBT people who “grew up in the church” were not. Samiel Kalin was on the far, far end of “not lucky at all.”

I met Sam years ago when she was working at the AIDS Resource Center’s resale shop. We had mutual friends, so we would occasionally see each other at parties, too, through the years. But I just found out I never really knew Sam Kalin at all.

A few months ago, Sam sent me a message: She had written a book, wanted to give me a copy to review for Dallas Voice. I was hesitant; I always dread being asked to review a friend’s work. What if I didn’t like it? How could I give an honest review then without hurting someone’s feelings?

But once I finally sat myself down and started reading The First Stone: A Gay Daughter’s Survival in a Religious World, I was glad I took the time. And I am not worried about hurting anyone’s feelings with an honest review.

The First Stone is not without its flaws. A strong editor could have tightened up the language in some places, could have helped maintain the brutal poetry of Kalin’s blunt words as she recounts the story of her life. There are typos here and there, occasional errors in grammar and slips in continuity. But none of that can detract from the power of Kalin’s story and the visceral response it stirs.

The oldest child (and only daughter) of a Seventh Day Baptist preacher named Ralph Hays and his wife Mary, Sally Ann Hays grew up in and around New Orleans, surrounded by her father’s extended family, all of whom were active in the church. While her earliest memories are of a happy childhood, the memories soon grow sour.

Sally Ann recounts the first time she saw her father beat her mother and how later turned his fury on her and her younger brother. She tells how her once-beloved Uncle Jack began to molest her, while the rest of the family turned a blind eye.
Desperate to escape, Sally Ann graduated early and began attending college in NOLA. That’s where she got her first introduction to the gay and lesbian community, and found the women who would confound her and the women who would love and protect her.

The First Stone doesn’t whitewash anything or anyone. Kalin tells of the drinking and the drug use — her own and others’. She tells of the sexual experimentation, and the women who preyed on her in her naïveté, including the women who would eventually adopt her and give her a new name.

But this isn’t a book of salacious gossip or lesbian soft porn. If that’s what you’re looking for, look somewhere else.

This is a story about keeping traditions and keeping secrets, and the damage that can do. It’s a story about good people with horrible flaws. It’s a story of redemption and forgiveness, and Sam Kalin’s long and often torturous journey to get there.

The First Stone doesn’t end with happily ever after. Kalin offers no easy answers; in fact, she makes it plain there aren’t any easy answers. But there is hope.

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A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernández (Beacon Press 2014). $24.95; 200 pp.

Until she was in kindergarten, Daisy Hernández’s entire world sat in Union City, N.J . Her parents, her Cuban father and Colombian mother, spoke only Spanish at home, although Daisy learned a smattering of English here and there; more, once she was sent to Catholic school.

English always held a fascination for her, but Hernández’s three tías insisted she keep up with her Spanish, which she resented. There were words that didn’t translate easily from English to her parents’ language, so there were things she couldn’t share with her elders.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when she told her father that she wanted to be a writer, he told her she’d “gone crazy.” Still, Hernández pursued her dream, maybe because storytelling was in her blood: Her mami loved sharing tales of her own immigration from Colombia, how she’d heard that money grew on trees but, instead of finding cash on the ground like leaves, she’d had to find a factory job.

Such stories of strength in her mostly-female household gave Hernández a map of life and relationships. She learned about men and whom to marry, disappointing her mami and tías with her first Colombian boyfriend. American boys, they told her, were better because “Anything made in America works,” but — at 17 —  Hernández was sure she was in love.

That Colombian boy taught her a lot about sex. So did a feminist body-awareness class she took early in her college career, which was where she suddenly understood a long-held feeling that, once articulated, would hurt her mother and cause a rift with her favorite auntie. “I love kissing boys,” Hernández says, “but a girl. I could kiss a girl.”

With wit and respectful grace, Hernández shares stories of love for family, of strong (despite herself) roots, and of assimilation and claiming who you are without losing who you were. These tales are sprinkled, essay style, with powerful anecdotes of self-discovery that I couldn’t get enough of. I also enjoyed the unwavering tone that Hernández takes, speaking her truth, firmly, no arguments.

That no-nonsense attitude mixes nicely with quiet humor and familial devotion to make this a don’t-miss for memoir fans. And if that’s you, then have A Cup of Water Under My Bed. You’ll like what’s inside.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 16, 2015.