The One Who Walked Away From Elkins

How an Appalachian disowned by his family reckons with loss and belonging

When I was a teenager, I longed for an escape route. As a queer nonbinary kid who didn’t have the language for what my body was telling me, I felt trapped by the expectations of others, especially my mother. I took weekends away from my life, signed up for conferences and leadership camps that gave scholarships to poor kids who tried hard,  like me.

In one of those leadership camps, I was assigned  a short story I mistook for nonfiction. I never knew the name of the story, its author, nor that it wasn’t fact.  But I believed in the story it told. It was about a child in a closet.  

I thought of the story often, but never looked for its name. It was more than a decade later when, as I studied for my master’s in creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College, I learned it was “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin. Jonathan Corcoran, a West Virginia-born writer, assigned the story for his lecture as a guest faculty member in my program. He too had been compelled by the story of a utopia built on the suffering of a child and the question it asked of the reader: would you stay in a perfect place if you knew its perfection depended on the suffering of a child? Or would you turn and walk away from Omelas? I loved that in my last residency, a story that had lived so large inside me made its return, that a mystery was solved, and that its answer came down to me from a queer elder I admired. When we drank lilac-scented gin at my graduation that weekend, I mentioned Omelas in my thank yous. 

It’s been more than five years since that last residency, and I no longer see Jonathan as my queer elder, but as my friend and peer. I’ve watched as he’s traveled the world with his husband, Sam, from their home in Brooklyn.  This past fall, Jonathan announced the arrival of his debut memoir, No Son of Mine, and I was eager to get my hands on advance copy. I thought of Jonathan as my friend, and I knew his memoir was about his mother, but I was not in any way prepared for the devastation he shares. 

Patty often called Jonathan her greatest gift, but still disowned him when he came out to her on his twentieth birthday.

Torn between two worlds, that of the academic Northeast and his rural upbringing in Elkins, West Virginia, Jonathan’s memoir is a seven-layer cake of stories. It turns on the axis of his relationship with Patty, his mother, a Christian working-class woman from rural Appalachia who invested her entire life into her children. This is the same woman who often called Jonathan her greatest gift, but still disowned him when he came out to her on his twentieth birthday. Patty, as Jonathan deftly portrays, was never just one person.

In the book’s preface, we see the last few weeks of Patty’s life, as she begins to hallucinate, seeing little boys in the closet of her home.. While we don’t yet know the horrors of how Patty abused her son, Jonathan writes, “And after everything we’ve gone through, all the screaming and crying and cursing, the years-long silences—apology after apology for the devil inside her—where does she go, what does she see? Little boys hiding in closets.”

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When Jonathan and I meet to talk about the book, he’s sitting in what looks like a closet. It’s the foyer of his apartment, which also functions as his shared office with his husband, Sam. He tells me that most, if not all, of the book was written in this little cubicle.

“I think that writing this book has always been about understanding what happened to me and also trying to understand my mother,” Jonathan says. “COVID was an inflection point that helped me understand her loss. When COVID happened, I was forced to confront grief and grieving and life and death in ways that I hadn’t before.” He wrote the book about a year after his mother’s passing, waking up one morning feeling that he finally had the space to process her death. He already felt he had lost her nearly twenty years before, when she disowned him on his birthday. Jonathan feels No Son of Mine, which took him only three months to write,  reflects his healing process.

“I have been writing a version of this story since this first happened to me, and because I loved her, I did not want all aspects of this story to come out publicly,” he says. “Her death gave me space to talk about her.” 

The narrative of the memoir starts in the recent past, right before the onset of the pandemic and the international shutdown it provoked, when Jonathan receives a call from his sister that their mother has been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease. Patty does not suffer long with her illness, passing away while Jonathan and his husband, Sam, quiver through their first bout with COVID in March of 2020. Jonathan then sews together a non-linear narrative revealing Patty’s grave betrayals throughout his life and the circumstances of her harms and the comfort and love that has been his life with Sam.

“The version of my mother that my sisters knew and understood is not the same version that I knew and understood, and I have to accept that those two versions of her can exist side by side.”

Growing up as the youngest of three and the only son, Jonathan was often made to feel like a miracle.  He writes, “For the first twenty years, I was her golden child, and she was my mother….” When Jonathan left her behind in his hometown upon starting college in Rhode Island at Brown University, it was only a matter of time before the gulf between them grew. 

In the first semester of his second year of college, while celebrating his first birthday with his first serious boyfriend, Jonathan turned twenty while drinking wine and facing his mother’s rejection. When he told her he was gay, Patty declared he was no longer her son, functionally disowning him. 

“My mother was many things to many people,” Jonathan says. “She was a really good friend, a great neighbor, and was deeply loved by many, many people. The version of my mother that my sisters knew and understood is not the same version that I knew and understood, and I have to accept that those two versions of her can exist side by side.” These many versions of his mother reflect the spaces she was comfortable in, those of her family and her small town, Elkins, West Virginia. 

Rural West Virginia becomes not just a home and place where Patty lives and Jonathan comes from, but the frame in which all of the story is seen and the closet from which Jonathan must escape. 

“In terms of secrets and Elkins, and West Virginia, I realize that for so much of my life, I had been silencing myself out of some notion of respect,” he says. “I’ve been silencing myself out of some false notion that by telling my truth or speaking my truth, I would hurt those around me. And that by telling these secrets, it feels like I’m letting the weight lift off my shoulders and I get to be my true and authentic self. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, who are these secrets protecting? And why are these things secret in the first place?”

And the many secrets No Son of Mine reveals about the emotional abuse and neglect Jonathan survived are heart-shattering. Whether it was the public beating he was made to endure as a pacifist child or the threats of violence and damnation his parents spoke as adults, the reality Jonathan faced as a result of his parents’ beliefs is hard to believe happened in the late 20th century. The risks and consequences of Jonathan being his authentic self seems a relic of a past we believe we left behind, but we know is just overlooked. The book centers on the ways that Jonathan’s parents abandoned him because of his queerness, but there is a damning interrogation of the community in which he was raised.

“They have to ask themselves,” Jonathan says, “how they contribute to stories like mine…to continuing to marginalize people, to allowing things to happen in the dark…. I think stories like this are really trying to bring to light real lives, real people, real pain…” 

Which is not to suggest that Jonathan doesn’t love and appreciate the place that he comes from, rather that “the version of West Virginia that sometimes exists in my head is twenty years old. And so I think my relationship to West Virginia and Appalachia and queer communities within there is often one of surprise.” He goes on to explain that as he healed from the harms perpetuated by his parents and his community, he began to look back and be able to see that folks like himself had always been in Elkins and West Virginia, but his relationship to his mother had prevented him from seeing them.

“What would my life have been like if I had stayed home?” Jonathan says. “I now can see clearly that it is now possible to have a meaningful, honest, open and wonderful existence in Appalachia. There are still boundaries and borders and there’s still regressive politics in some places. I have to make space for all those things, but at the same time, I went back to Pride at the Park in Elkins and there were four hundred people there in a town of seven thousand, which is more than I ever could have imagined when I was a kid. And in some ways, I think that’s what happened: when I was a child, I was incapable of imagining a world like that, and now that I’ve had enough space, time, and healing, I’m able to look back and not only imagine those worlds, but see them existing on the ground.”


The stories of No Son of Mine could not be told, though, without Jonathan’s escape, his walking away from his home, thus rendering him an Appalachian writer in diaspora. No matter where he goes, he will always be from West Virginia, which is so reflected through his work, including his previous release, The Rope Swing, a collection of short fiction where every character is tied in some ways to a small unnamed town in West Virginia. Writing about Appalachia as an Appalachian removed made Jonathan question whether Appalachian readers would trust his work and if readers outside Appalachia would even care. 

“I have started to make peace with the anxiety,” he says, “because I’ve received so much support from people who still live back home, and I’ve seen wonderful writers who navigate this space like Neema Avashia [author of Another Appalachia], the way that she handles writing in diaspora is something I aspire to. She has such a clear love for home, but she’s also able to turn a critical eye toward home, which is something I am always trying to understand how to do.… I’m learning again from my fellow queer Appalachians who are handling these questions beautifully.”

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The number of stories being told by queer Appalachians about our homes grows every year. I think of the poetry of Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. and his Gay Poems for Red States, or his own reflections on a complicated mother figure featured in “Requiem for a Dollar Store Christmas Bear,” published in December here in Salvation South. Or the ways Mesha Maren’s forthcoming novel, Shae, is already being referred to as part the new queer canon. Or the autobiographical image-making of Julie Rae Powers in Deep Ruts. What once felt like a tiny population has blossomed into a community that cares for its own. Like Jonathan does in mentoring writers at programs like West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA, the program where we met, and helping writers recognize their stories deserve to be told, even when it feels like we aren’t getting published. 

“I think that, just a little bit, the publishing industry is finally catching up, little by little, to the idea that people want to hear these stories about rural places, about blue-collar lives, and about queer lives,” he says. “There have been some very successful books about these stories. Over and over again we see gatekeepers deciding which stories get told, and when certain gatekeepers let through stories that they don’t think anyone wants to hear, these stories end up being wildly successful. I have to remind myself that if we can get our stories out there, people will read them.” Working without an agent, Jonathan was able to place his books with Appalachian publishers, West Virginia University Press for his collection of short stories and the University Press of Kentucky for No Son of Mine.

“Both of these places accepted my books because they said these stories needed to be told and shared widely, when a mainstream publisher wasn’t necessarily willing to risk a gamble on this,” Jonathan says. “Who is willing to publish our stories? That’s a question I grapple with all the time, that a lot of marginalized communities grapple with. Take someone like Deesha Philyaw, who published The Secret Lives of Church Ladies [nominated for the National Book Award] with WVU Press. Again, if our stories are given platforms, people will read them. If we’re prevented from ever getting in print, no one will know our stories. I have to thank the places that take risks and say that these matter and they’re willing to put them into the world.” 

“The best thing in my life that happened to me is having this relationship with Sam. It’s so funny—I had no expectations of what love even was supposed to look like. The only expectations I had were from my parents.”

Perhaps the greatest risk taken in telling this story, though, is the risk Jonathan takes revealing his sweetest story, the love of his life, Sam. On the fateful day of his twentieth birthday, when Jonathan’s mother laid down her punishment and rejected her son as no longer being her own, Sam was the boyfriend waiting inside. It was Sam who helped Jonathan pick up the pieces of his life. Now, almost twenty years later, Jonathan and Sam have been married for over a decade and live together still in Brooklyn. 

“We don’t often hear about queer love,” he reflects. “The best thing in my life that happened to me is having this relationship with Sam. It’s so funny—I had no expectations of what love even was supposed to look like. The only expectations I had were from my parents. I think queer people are often reinventing the wheel every time they get together, so sharing this love story is kind of like a mentorship. Sharing this love story is sharing one way in which queer bodies can be together, one way in which queer bodies and humans can learn to grow up together and to exist in the same space.” 

Jonathan shares these things, these kernels of hope, even though it’s been more than five years since we  last crossed paths. But he looks younger now to me than he did when we met. To use his words, like a weight has been lifted off of him. 

In the beginning of No Son of Mine, when her brain begins to falter, Patty believes there is a little boy locked in the closet of her house, refusing to come out. It’s a perfect image, but when I first read it, I couldn’t help but think of the child in the room in Omelas, the utopia of the story I never knew the name of until Jonathan helped me remember. And if Jonathan is one who was able to walk away from a community that would witness a child in harm’s way, he was also the child in the room, suffering. His mother, I think, must have known this in some way, that the hiding she hoped he would go into would only have hurt him. By his own efforts, by his own growth, by the steps he took with his own two feet, Jonathan Corcoran has made a life that is its own utopia—or at least a reasonable facsimile. 

“When you’re writing about something tough, it’s important to find a source of light to keep you going,” he tells me. “Sam has always been my source of light. Using our relationship to punctuate this book felt like a reminder to both myself and my readers that I can move toward something better. He has always been there to show me there’s something better, that it’s waiting for me.”

Author Profile

Dr. Delaney McLemore, or Doc, is a writer and gentlethem scholar in New Orleans. Their research interests include Appalachia, sex workers stories, and gender studies. They’re currently working on a true crime memoir and serving cocktails in nice restaurants.

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