PRAYERS FOR BOBBY A Mother's Coming to Terms With the Suicide of Her Gay Son By Leroy Aarons HarperSanFrancisco. 271 pp. $22

"Prayers for Bobby," journalist Leroy Aarons's compelling account of the short, sad life of Bobby Griffith, has the straightforward narrative power of a Bible tale, which is fitting. The book's convincing contention is that Bobby's 1983 suicide at the age of 20 was due in large measure to the religious fervor of his mother, Mary, specifically her unrelenting harangues condemning him to Hell because of his homosexuality. After Bobby ended his life by jumping from a highway overpass, Mary Griffith set out on a path toward redemption that culminated in her career as a high-profile gay rights activist, complete with appearances on "20/20" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Her confession still touches a nerve: This public act of contrition for her role in Bobby's death is the most affecting educational tool imaginable. The story of tragedy, atonement and salvation should be told, read, discussed and told again.

Surprisingly, in some respects the Griffiths, who lived in suburban northern California, were a close and supportive family. As a teenager, Bobby trusted his athletic older brother, Ed, with the secret of his homosexuality and felt comfortable enough with his sister, Joy, to point out cute guys on the street; even Bob, Bobby's impassive, laconic father, made periodic -- though awkward -- attempts to bond with his troubled son.

But Mary Griffith was on a mission: At one point, writes Aarons, "she began pinning Bible verses targeted to Bobby's condition' around the house, even over the bathroom mirror." At times, the artistic youth revealed a resilient streak, stealing moments to joke about his "condition," but apparently he internalized his mother's disdain. Anguished and aimless, the teenager showed signs of clinical depression, went from job to nowhere job and experimented with petty theft and prostitution. But he laid bare the full extent of his misery only in his diaries, which expose a self-hatred all too common to gays, especially gay teens.

"Dear Lord," writes Bobby in one entry, "I wish making you happy was the only thing that I lived for. Unfortunately it's not, as you well know. Sometimes it seems like you've given up on me and all these rotten things that happen to me, and then I don't care what I do, because it doesn't matter." And later: "I don't want anyone to ever read this. They would hate me. I'm rotten inside, and then everyone would know. . . . I make myself sick. I'm a joke."

As Aarons tells it, Mary Griffith is an unlikely villain who emerges as an equally improbable heroine. Soft-spoken and unassuming, she became a tyrant through pure ignorance; she revered authority figures -- the church, her domineering mother -- to such a degree that she was blind to her son's emotional deterioration. Utterly devoid of skepticism, she simply knew of no other way to deal with Bobby, becoming, in her words, "an unwitting accomplice to an innocent person's death."

The book is a startling evocation of how parental emotional abuse is passed down through the generations: Aarons provides a scathing portrait of Griffith's Bible-thumping mother, Ophelia, an embittered shrew who was mean enough to chastise Mary for crying at her son's funeral. Mary's pastor was nearly as callous, suggesting during his eulogy that Bobby died of sinning rather than from rejection. Despite her own rebellious teen years, prior to Bobby's suicide Mary seemed constitutionally incapable of questioning such teachings; the book's forthright statement about acceptance is matched by its plea for critical thought and personal accountability.

Gathering insight by reading her dead son's diaries, Griffith found the strength to engineer her own catharsis. Her healing began when she contacted a gay church and continued through her active involvement with the local chapter of P-FLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Amazingly, this submissive woman metamorphosed into a formidable political force, waging campaigns for Gay Freedom Week and increased support services for gay students in public schools. In this age of calculated mea culpas and sound-bite redemption, her conversion seems as authentic as it is unexpected.

The value of the Griffith story as a cautionary tale is undeniable. Simply by acknowledging her own culpability, Mary Griffith may have led the way to saving thousands of children. As Aarons explains, "Other parents could speak of estrangement from their gay children, of the agony of denial, of the journey back to reconciliation. But only Mary could make the link between repudiation and death." "Prayers for Bobby" should be required reading for every parent, every schoolteacher and anyone who has ever doubted that words can kill. The reviewer is a Washington writer whose fiction has appeared in the magazines Christopher Street and Genre. CAPTION: Bobby Griffith and his mother, Mary. Warned by his mother constantly that he was destined for Hell, Bobby jumped from an overpass at age 20. Then Mary read her son's diaries and made an amazing transformation.