In 2005, a “trick” movie called Self Medicated was released. “Trick” not meaning prostitute, so much as deception. Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s Yes, Daddy, in some sense, feels like that movie. It’s marketed as being “raw” and “unbridled,” when, in fact, it’s all ultimately a bid to get people to see the “good” in Christianity (or at least Christian principles)—no matter how many times it (and life) fucks you over. That’s the whole point of “having faith,” right? To keep returning to the same hooey for comfort repeatedly—yet because it’s religion, no one calls it insanity for repeating the same rituals over and over again and expecting different results. Any results at all, for that matter.
In any case, there’s nothing worse than being reeled in by a story only to have it turn out to be a “religious message” duping. Yes, Daddy might be filled with plenty of gay sex and “big city intrigue,” but, like pre-Hays Code movies, the entire purpose of all this “filth” seems to be just a means to tack on a schmaltzy, “faith-based” coda to the final act.
Centering on a garden variety “aspirant” who moves to New York City to “find himself” and hopefully some renown in his chosen artistic medium of playwriting, Jonah Keller (a “the whitest boy you know” name, if ever there was one) is, for all the trauma incurred back in the Midwest, still not very savvy with regard to knowing when someone is trying to take advantage of him. But then, that’s one of the key themes of the novel: to emphasize just how willing a person is to buy into the flattery of someone being interested in them when the only comparison they’ve had throughout their entire life is being treated like shit.
For Jonah, famed playwright Richard Shriver (but come on, Tennessee Williams he is not) manages to be the only person who has ever made him feel “special” (no Ryan O’Connell—Parks-Ramage’s boyfriend—reference intended). Like he might actually be worth something. That he’s not just some “ex-vangelical” (a play on “evangelical,” if you couldn’t surmise) hick from “Kabumfuck,” Illinois. Because, even after spending a mound of cash (to the point where he can’t pay his rent) on the designer clothes meant to make him appear “on Richard’s level” for their first encounter, Jonah still radiates the insecurity of someone easily preyed upon. Perhaps precisely because he is so concerned about pleasing. And Richard is all for pouncing when Jonah willingly presents himself as bait.
To that point, it bears noting that the summary for the book touts, “Yes, Daddy is an exploration of class, power dynamics and the nuances of victimhood and complicity. It burns with weight and clarity—and offers hope that stories may hold the key to our healing.” Yes, okay… pretty sure Joan Didion already established that when she said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But back to the notion of how victims can be complicit in their own abuse—as though some part of them “asks for it” because it’s the only treatment they’ve ever known. Jonah certainly fits the bill. His abuse, however, was less straightforward while growing up as the son of a “megachurch” pastor. Rather than being, say, physically or verbally abused, Jonah, instead, was psychologically toyed with by being sent to “conversion therapy” upon his father (and equally as God-fearing mother) discovering his “same-sex attraction” predilection. Here, the title of the book reveals its layers, as there is the “first Father” (God), Jonah’s biological father and then, Richard, the sugar “daddy.”
Richard, from the start, is painted as one of those average New York “intellectuals” who manages to impress fresh-off-the-boaters with “esoteric knowledge” of things like Entertaining Mr. Sloane. This, indeed, is the movie Richard selects to screen for his Q&A at Anthology Film Archives (oy, the cliches of this book’s settings), for which Jonah deliberately manufactures a meeting. Hence, the careful cultivation of all the designer pieces he’ll need to don in order to stand out. Naturally, he does, as, despite what the novels, films and TV shows set in NYC might indicate, no one actually “gets dressed up” anymore. Especially not since Bill Cunningham died.
The strategicness of setting their initial meeting on May 16, 2009 is orchestrated to convey one of the main arcs of the narrative, intended to reveal how perspectives on abuse have changed over the course of less than a decade. That is to say, with the advent of the #MeToo “reckoning” in 2017 that many men favored calling “witch hunts” instead. Funny how that term is something they’ve grafted from women who were literally accused of being witches back in the 1600s. The fact that the culture of being a gay man itself has a propensity toward the misogynistic (just ask Scott Rudin) plays into this grafting from women as well. For it seems Parks-Ramage wants to make sure audiences are aware that predatory behavior happens just as much to men (even if not straight ones). Let us not give the mic over completely to women—the most subjugated and abused “species” even to this day. For, at the bare minimum, a gay man is still a man… and that counts for far more than a vag when it comes to societal clout.
As Jonah proceeds to tell Richard all about his sad, tragic past over dinner at Odeon (yes, the suggestion of this restaurant on Jonah’s part is older gay gentleman kryptonite), Richard appears genuinely interested. Moved, even. All along, Jonah seems to have no idea that he’s being “vetted.” That Richard and those other affluent gay men who run in his “artistic circle” specifically seek out easily dazzled, “damaged goods” gay boys with severed family ties and few to no friendship connections is lost on poor, daft Jonah. Because, like him, we all want to assume that someone genuinely believes we’re “unique,” worthy of love—as expressed through lavish gifts.
While we’re supposed to, in the end, view this novel as something of an epistolary format (even if stream of consciousness intermixed with intermittent long emails doesn’t really fit that bill), Parks-Ramage still does his best to keep it literary by rendering his protagonist a writer, therefore someone we can be convinced might actually talk this way. What’s more, all authors seem to have their “words and phrases of choice.” But when an editor of a major publishing house (ahem, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is being paid to detect those words and phrases that repeat too often, they shouldn’t be quite so pervasive. Case in point, Parks-Ramage constantly using “roiled” (as in “roiled my body,” etc.) and “standing sentry.”
These overused keywords, however, can be used to distill what the story boils down to: Boy meets older man. Boy thinks older man is smitten with him and so, in turn, becomes smitten by the idea of being truly loved. Boy finds out older man has been luring others just like him to his Southampton compound to render them servants/sex slaves that can never escape because they have no money and they don’t know the gate code. Plus, they’ve all been conditioned with the learned helplessness mentality that makes them buy into the notion that even if they miraculously escaped, where else could they go—what else could they really do? Apart from take to streets and risk homelessness solely for the “pleasure” of being “free” in New York as opposed to imprisoned and raped almost daily in the Hamptons.
The most “heart-rending” aspect of all is that Jonah is as betrayed as we are by the divide between his expectations of how the story will unfold versus what actually ends up happening. Nowhere in the marketing/promo of the book is anything about God/Jesus and the whole Christianity gambit alluded to. We’re made to believe it’s going to be some “edgy” (Bushwick is mentioned, so obviously) take on the pratfalls of the sugar baby/daddy dynamic in gay culture, when, in truth, the novel finds a way to ooze “redemption” only through the very means that ended up fucking Jonah over in the first place: Christian-centric tenets.
But Parks-Ramage can’t help but give in to the cheeseball “full-circle” conclusion, with Jonah admitting, “…my father asked me to go to church to hear him preach. I never thought I’d step foot in another church as long as I lived, let alone to hear my father preach. I told him I couldn’t handle it. I’m afraid that going back to church will break me. I’m afraid that not going back to church will break me.” Quelle surprise, he surrenders by telling his original daddy, “Okay… I’ll do it for you.” In short, capitulating once more to what a father—an ultimate patriarchal “authority”—wants rather than looking into his own heart and deciding for himself. Is this what I want, or what I’m supposed to want?
Possibly because he had never been able to decide for himself, shoved full of rhetoric from day one, it’s almost unfathomable that he could ever find his own voice. And this is where we get back to the theme of what creates a victim. Being unable to make decisions without being easily swayed by some outside force is part of what can. Maybe that’s why there’s no shortage of victims in this world, and why NYC in particular is such a mecca for abusers. After all, it’s where everyone without the courage to stray from the mold of what constitutes “liberation” flocks to.
Already slated to be turned into a series for Amazon, one hopes that, with the right cutting and pasting, nipping and tucking, the show will be a more “cerebral” foray into the world of abuse as told from a homosexual perspective than the book itself turned out to be. Ryan Murphy could probably do something with it, if given the material. Yet, he can’t have everything gay-related.
The completion to Didion’s aforementioned quote is: “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” This alone would have been a more edifying read than the entirety of Yes, Daddy.