Dan Mathews talks being bullied as a gay teenager, his schizophrenic mom

Dan Mathews PETA Animal Rights

Dan Mathews, right, and his mom, Perry Lawrence, are picture perfect in this 2010 photo. Photo: Dan Mathews.

A short time after his mother died, Dan Mathews had her ashes scattered in an unorthodox memorial that she would have adored — A small amount of her powdery remains were sprinkled among the artificial snowflakes dropped during “Waltz of the Snowflakes” in a theatrical production of “The Nutcracker.”

Mathews, PETA’s senior vice president, includes the story in his new memoir, “Like Crazy: Life with My Mother and Her Invisible Friends.” In the book, Mathews explains how he goes from being a globe-trotting animal rights activist to caring for his 79-year-old mother, who is schizophrenic.

‘The Nutcracker’

Mathews’ mother, Perry Lawrence, was a ballet aficionado and attended many productions of “The Nutcracker” during her life. While raising Mathews in Costa Mesa, Lawrence encouraged her 12-year-old son to audition for the play. Mathews won the role of a dancing rat.

“Learning poise and performing my divertissement before a thousand people each night was a big confidence builder during my chubby, closeted adolescence,” Mathews, who identifies as gay, writes in “Like Crazy.” “Perry never missed a show — but I could tell she’d have rather been onstage than in the  audience.”

After Lawrence died in December 2013 at her son’s home in Portsmouth, Virginia, Mathews, his husband, and a couple of friends devised Lawrence’s memorial.

A choreographer friend, who has remained anonymous, also played a vital role in bringing the ashes into the theater and preparing them for Lawrence’s grand finale.

PETA’s Dan Mathews remembers his drama mama in memoir ‘Like Crazy’

‘Big gay conspiracy’

In his book, Mathews writes that the scheme came together “like a big gay conspiracy” because all the players, including Tchaikovsky, was queer.

“Mom would have beamed. After decades of disastrous marriages and romances, she would make her farewell as a grand dame among gays,” Mathews writes.

Mathews sat in the audience at “The Nutcracker.” Toward the end of act one, the music signaled the beginning of the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.”

Mathews watched the twinkling flurries, and his mom’s cremains, descend. He expressed tears of joy.

“My mother would have been thrilled to drift onto the stage during the snow scene. That was her favorite part of the ballet,” Mathews tells Q Voice News. “Whenever she took me to ‘The Nutcracker,’ we’d prowl in the dark from our cheap seats in the back to any vacant spots up front to see the ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ up close.”

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‘Like Crazy’

In “Like Crazy,” Mathews writes that he knew his eccentric mother was outspoken, foul-mouthed, and unable to maintain her fiercely independent life.

Mathews flew with her from Long Beach to live with him and his then boyfriend and now husband, Jack Ryan, in a dilapidated Victorian townhouse in Portsmouth in 2007.

But Mathews didn’t know his mother had schizophrenia.

Dan Mathews Like Crazy

Dan Mathews, left, and his mother, Perry Lawence, pictured in 2010 inside their home in Old Towne Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Jack Ryan.

Though the mental illness topic is a heavy one, Mathews’ writing is touching, moving, and filled with humor as he chronicles the five years he spends in the role of caregiver for his mom. Mathews and his mother have an unshakeable sense of humor as they face her illness and steady decline.

Eventually, Mathews takes his mother kicking and screaming to the emergency room, where she is finally diagnosed with schizophrenia. At first, Mathews tells her they are going to Krispy Kreme.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Mathews, 56, talks about taking that trip to Krispy Kreme, having a wicked sense of humor to survive, being bullied in high school, and teaching civil disobedience to activists who would heckle President Barack Obama.

Here are some excerpts.

Taking care of mom

“When I made the decision to move her in, it wasn’t based on her being schizophrenic,” Mathews says. “I just knew that she was going downhill in a variety of ways like old people always do. I thought the book might be more about our adventures and misadventures of moving in somebody who’s old and often will say things that are outrageous and have outrageous views.

“Then the story took a bit of a darker turn when she lost her mind. Then it took a brighter turn again when she was given minimal meds that went a long way to making the voices retreat,” Mathews says. “That was the point where I realized the arc of the book.”

Weary survivor

“Once she was diagnosed as schizophrenic, as bad as it is, she was able to muddle her way through life,” Mathews says. “She had a lot of setbacks along the way. Many mental health stories, and especially schizophrenia, end dismally, but I thought this is one story that has a happy ending.

“It shows somebody who had just enough wits and intelligence to get through life and bluff a lot of the way,” he says. “I started to see her as more of a weary survivor than a tragic victim. That’s the story I wanted to tell,” Mathews says. “It’s not a story you hear very often.”

Krispy Kreme

“My mom was not leaving the house. She started refusing to even go see her own doctor. She became so suspicious of everybody,” Mathews says. “She needed to get treated, and I was trying to do anything to not have to call in somebody with a gurney and have her put into a straight jacket. I couldn’t do that. I don’t think I could ever survive a scene like that myself, nor could she.

“I convinced her, You know what? Let’s go to Krispy Kreme. We need to get out of the house, and the red light is on. Let’s just go there, get a donut, and chill out for a little bit.

“That struck her as a good idea. She was still a little unsure, but she agreed to do it,” Mathews says. “She was so out of her mind at that point. She got in the car, and we went straight there.

“Along the way, she was screaming and hitting me and yelling, I want to go home. There was no discussion,” Mathews says. “She even tried to get out of the car a few times.

“Of course, we didn’t go to Krispy Kreme. We went to the ER. The red letters were flashing, but they didn’t say, ‘Hot now,’ they said, ‘Emergency Room.’

Humor is a coping mechanism

“Humor is like a kind of armor. I learned it from my mom,” Mathews says. “When we were growing up, and we were penniless, we always made jokes about not having any money. That certainly beats crying about it all the time. We were pretty destitute a lot of times in my childhood.

“Whatever adversity you’re facing, when I would get gay-bashed or get mocked for being an animal rights person, you just learn to laugh at these misfortunes because,” Mathews says, “it certainly beats just crying about them.”

‘Black Christmas’

“When I moved my mom in, it was just a few weeks before Christmas in 2007. Every Christmas Eve, I have a ‘Black Christmas’ party, and friends come over,” Mathews says. “We often will have a friend model for the invitation by putting them in a plastic bag because the first victim (in the 1974 film) dies with a plastic bag put over their head.

“My mom took two really bad tumbles in the week leading up to Christmas, and she was scarred and bloodied. She looked awful. I said, ‘Mom, we can just postpone and have this be like a New Year’s Eve party. She said, ‘Don’t be a party pooper. I’ll just put the bag over my head this year like in ‘Black Christmas.’ All your friends will think it’s murder makeup.”

Plastic bag over her head

“My friends were pretty shocked. They had heard stories about my mom, and she did not disappoint,” Mathews says. “She was in the foyer, sitting in a chair, just awaiting guests, with the plastic bag over her head. I punched in breathing holes, of course. It looked much more like a Halloween party than a Christmas party.”

Growing up in Orange County, Calif.

“This was in the late ‘70s, right around the time the Briggs Initiative was happening,” Mathews says. “The Briggs Initiative, which was sponsored by Orange County representatives, would’ve made it illegal for gays to teach in school. It would have even made it illegal for people that were pro-gay to work in schools or teach in schools. That was the background that I was growing up in.”

Bullied, attacked in high school

“It happened quite a lot. It happened enough that I skipped 7th grade,” Mathews says. “I used to get beat up so often that I thought, I can’t survive three years of junior high school. The school didn’t really do anything to support me. My grades were great, so I took exams to skip a grade.”

Mom steps in

“My mom had a big meeting in 6th grade with the vice principal, and a few kids were suspended once,” Mathews says. “I remember the vice principal saying, We just all have to learn to get along. After all, we are all brothers. It was kind of a pseudo religious talk that really meant nothing whatsoever.

“I remember my mom hollered, I hate to pop the Sunday school bubble. These kids are little bastards, and they need to be put on detention.”

Punk and gay

“By the time I was in high school, I identified as gay. I was going to ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and all that stuff,” Mathews says. “But more than gay, I was punk. Punk was considered gay at the same time back then. That’s when I was beat up for being both punk and gay.”

PETA campaigns for animal rights

“A lot of it’s based on how we get the undercover footage and what kind of footage we have,” Mathews says. “With Ringling Bros., we were able to bring them down only after we had obtained the footage of how they beat the elephants and how they used the bull hooks and stun guns.

“Similarly, in laboratories, once we showed how animals, for instance, were mangled for cosmetics, once those images came out,” Mathews says, “the clock was ticking.”

Teaching civil disobedience

“I’m friends with Paul Yandura, who’s involved in a lot of gay rights groups, and Jonathan Lewis, who was one of the big donors to President Barack Obama since he promised to repeal ‘Don’t ask, Don’t Tell’,” Mathews says.

“Obama didn’t make good on his promise during his first term, so Jonathan decided to convene activists outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. I was one of the people brought in to train people on how to do civil disobedience, how to deal with the cops, how to not offend the cops, but how to stand your ground,” Mathews says.

“Jonathan and Paul decided that they would heckle and disrupt Obama’s fundraising events in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York,” Mathews says. “It was exciting to be a part of that. Obama eventually, very quickly, actually, after only a few months of that, repealed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

“It kind of paved the way for him to turn around his position on gay marriage,” Mathews says. “It was all a wonderful evolution.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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