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James Michael Angelo

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Reimagining the American Dream

Posted: 09/18/2013 10:28 pm

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I've been chasing "the dream" my entire life. I was born into it. My parents were sponsored into the cultish Amway business shortly after I was born. My father was a struggling salesman with four kids and an obsession with success. By the time I could walk and talk, the transformation had already begun. Between their sponsors, Amway rallies and the motivational books and tapes, my parents had become Amway aristocrats focused on climbing to the upper levels of Emerald and Diamond. When most kids were reading Huckleberry Finn, I was reading Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

Image and a positive attitude was our religion. We had a home with two offices, a product facility, a meeting room and a 12-car driveway to accommodate Amway distributors coming to our home throughout the week. My father had found a subculture that he could thrive in and a star to hitch his wagon to. He was a dynamic personality with charm oozing from every pore. He had only one idol, and that was Elvis, and he had only one son, and that was me. I grew up in Amway rallies with motivational speakers and couples who paraded across the stage like celebrities at an awards show. Like a Frankenstein experiment, I was constructed to be a success-driven steam engine, groomed to become second-generation Amway.

Spoiled kids like me who were growing up in Amway were referred to as "Ama-brats." This narcissistic term of endearment shielded me from reality until I was kidnapped, like in an episode of Dateline, by my adolescence. The kids at school saw something in me that I had not yet seen or wanted to see: They sniffed out my homosexuality like blood hounds. Severe abuse followed me throughout junior high and high school and broke my trust in humanity. And because of the pressures at home to carry on the family business and name, I kept the bullying a secret from my parents. I never saw a gay couple parade across the stage at an Amway rally. It was clear that the Christian-based family-values system set forth by Amway co-founders Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel did not recognize homosexuality as part of the pursuit of free enterprise. To escape the tortuous feelings of pressure and self-hatred, I turned to alcohol and drugs. They numbed me but didn't kill me. I suppose it worked in the sense that I stayed alive.

At around 15 years old I began noticing a shift in my parents' relationship and witnessed more and more fighting. The subject was always either money or my father's unrelenting traveling. The money fight in particular always perplexed me because I saw fur coats in the closets and expensive cars in the driveway. But as the recession of the early '90s crept in, I also saw my father working harder than ever to sponsor more people into his pyramid. But despite his best efforts, over the next couple of years, the business was not producing as it once had. My father spent more time on the road. And one day he never came home.

That was when we learned that he was in big trouble with both the IRS and a loan shark in Atlanta. Running from Uncle Sam and the mafia was too much: My father had a breakdown and lost it all. He left my mother and me with nothing but anger and sadness.

It turned out that my father had built a second life with another woman in Atlanta in order to plan his escape from the crumbling life he had built with us in Boston. Then it was my mother's time to break down. At 17 I had to get out, so I moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. I seethed with resentment over my father pulling the rug out from underneath me after filling my head throughout my childhood with reassuring secrets of success. The only thing I had left was my art. I could act, and I could write, so I picked up my laptop and wrote a one-man show titled "Life After Amway." I moved to New York City and performed this show for five years, playing seven characters telling the rise and fall of an American Amway family. I've since turned this story into a screenplay that tells my father's story, and I've just finished a related memoir.

All these experiences forced me to explore the drive for success in men. Despite my father's downfall, I still had 17 years of brainwashing to unravel. I saw what an unhealthy desire for money and fame could do to a man and his family, but I still craved it myself, because witnessing one or two breakdowns does not relieve the obsession. I spent years battling my desire for success, sometimes achieving it and then losing it like my father. I always felt that I had to overcompensate for being gay and prove to the world that I am equal to any straight man and not just comic relief for a so-called normal society. This only turned me into an aggressive, competitive man, trying to grab a spotlight anywhere I could.

Eventually I cracked. I had achieved success in New York and had everything I thought I wanted: a thriving career, a corporate American Express card, a boyfriend, a dog and an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But I was still running from the feeling of never being good enough. I fell apart with frustration that I would always feel like this and that my childhood had done too much damage for me to ever recover from it. Essentially I threw in the towel. For three years I used every form of escape I could find: alcohol, drugs, sex, travel, humor, exercise and food. I reached for every outside pacifier I could identify, but I only felt worse with each one. I had to finally surrender to the notion that I had to break down every idea I had of what success should be and rebuild myself from the ground up.

This personal renaissance over the past few years has changed my life. The compassion and forgiveness I now have for my father are priceless. He must have felt so much pressure to be a "man" and measure up to what society expected of him. The responsibility of raising a family is the most profound one we have. I know he wanted only the best for himself and for us. Was there major dysfunction and delusion on his part? Absolutely. But his own difficult childhood coupled with the need for acceptance and applause from the world are what led to his demise. That makes sense to me now. Through my book, my film and my blog I explore new meanings of what it means to be successful in America. With the current financial and political crisis in this country, the need for a change in perspective is greater than ever. I have had to redefine what it means to be successful, gay, and a man in America. I am searching for the meaning of life after Amway.

 
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