Tom Lewis. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 1. 2004.
Sexual abuse, from being an event in fearful silence, is now seen as a civil wrong or crime. Participants are stereotyped as perpetrators, victims, and enablers. These are the simplifications of an adversarial legal and insurance system. I suggest a more complex view. I was abused as a boy by the senior acolyte who was training me. The abuse taught me to lie and lose trust in adults and myself. For survival, I learned to invent provisional selves without understanding that these would become profound confusions of identity, sexuality, and purpose, lifelong sources of anxiety and depression. Through a recovery of my abandoned spiritual life and an intense psychoanalysis that together amounted to a metanoia, “a change of heart,” I was able to move past mere forgiveness to a reconciliation with myself and my history, and with my elderly father, who I saw as having failed to protect me years before.
Memory is the most complex element of one’s inner life. I began to write “inner structure,” but I hesitated because “structure” implies an imposed order. Behavior, which we generally think of as quite complex, is relatively consistent over time if closely observed, if we pay attention to it. Behavior is, in fact, observable and observably less complex than memory. Memory seems disorderly and unpredictable. The various forms of fiction-novels, films, plays-are mostly about memory and nearly always convert memory to behavior in order to observe and record. Intuitively and experientially, one’s own memories are cryptic and unreliable. Memory seems to define human complexity.
How does memory work? We know how, sort of. It simply occurs, almost as an autonomie function of the body-mind, obviously a brain function in which sensory input is recorded and somehow retained and ordered. It is associational. It is how we know a door is a door and a color is a color; memory enables us to remember how to stir the sugar into our coffee. It is how we remember the scene in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan describes to Alyosha a dray horse being beaten to death in the street (Dostoevsky, 1880), how we know others, and how we know ourselves. Embedded in memory is the life-informing narrative we all search for, if only we could remember it.
A vast gallery of writers and artists and scientists has given us a sweeping body of work on memory with differing ideas about how memory might work. In Light In August William Faulkner, (1932) wrote this: “Memory believes before knowing remembers” (p. 119).
For myself, I have constructed an image of memory as molecular, each item of memory colliding with, potentially, all others in a kind of Brownian motion inside the boundary that encloses us as individuals, that tough but porous membrane that is formed by the skin, the nervous system, and the brain. New perceptions pass into memory at every moment of one’s existence. Perceptions formed into memories are archived and recalled, sometimes by a seeming accident, sometimes at will. Sometimes they cannot be recalled, or they return in a new version.
Perhaps memories are not items but strings or skeins. It’s all very complicated. I imagine the elements of memory as organic in form rather than as, say, the mathematical ones and zeros of computer machine language. This is mere preference, however; computing can achieve an astounding versatility of description. Perhaps I should substitute linguistic for organic.
Do memories escape the body-mind boundary on their own? Do they simply decay? Do memories have volition or are they subject to volition in the unconscious or in conscious will? We don’t really know; I certainly don’t.
I know this much: at the age of 62, I can’t remember with any certainty of accuracy what has happened in the time I have existed. Nor can I differentiate my own, original memories from those conflated with memories I have taken in from others in the form of stories or those skin-to-skin experiences I have had with my own close family and intimates-mother, father, siblings, children, lovers. Strangers, sometimes. Chance encounters on the sidewalk. It’s all in there, the stuff of my life, what makes day-to-day life depressing, frightening, overwhelming, exciting, delightful-the accretion of new memories, and the editing or selection process that seems to take place as one grows older.
It is neither my profession nor my purpose here to understand memory. It is my experience, though, that we, collectively, know very little about what happens in our psychic lives as we age into our older decades. That may be partly because, in our materialistic culture, we have not cared much about aging and the elderly. They (we) are expensive and unproductive. We are economically useful only as a source of revenue for the health care and financial industries. For myself, the probability, if not the unknowable likelihood, is that I will live another two decades. Given that probability, I find I have a great need to know myself better. Accumulated, aggregated self-knowledge may be the greatest contribution we can make as we get older and grow toward dying. If we wished, we could change our communities and our world with our memories and knowledge. Probably we should try. Then we would not be retired and useless. We would be powerful.
Aging into knowledge and power is, for me, what has come to constitute my idea of spiritual life. It is anything but materialistic. It is anything but organized in the way the world religions are presently organized. It is, if we must look back for models, Confucian, Socratic, Platonic.
When I was 10 and 11, I had my first sexual experiences. They were at the hands, as it were, of another boy. He was, I think, seven years older than I, a high school senior, then a freshman in college. He was the senior acolyte or altar boy at the small Episcopal church I attended with my mother and father. He was also the baby sitter most trusted by my parents. I won’t name him because he may still be alive, and, in any event, I have no wish for judgment or revenge, let alone legal action. I’ll call him N. A sample of one.
Does naming matter? Does accuracy matter? I am not taking N to court, where some standard of accuracy (truth) is defining. I cannot now know accurately what happened. I probably cannot find out. N and I were the only witnesses. There seems to me no such thing as forensic psychology or psychoanalysis; it would be inherently untruthful to say we know the truth about such distant events or even, as the reconstituted-memory cases of recent years have shown, recent events. Any cop or insurance adjuster can testify to the differing stories of witnesses. Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
But accuracy does matter because there is an ethics to memory or, more precisely, what we do with our memories, how we act on them. We are, none of us, isolates. Our memories and actions always involve others; if they are intimates in some fashion, our memories collide with, mix with, theirs. My memories of what happened in the basement men’s room of St. Suburban’s Church in Pittsburgh in 1951 and 1952 are, no doubt, similar to and different from N’s memories.
Now what? I don’t have access to his recollection, if he recalls it at all. I will have to take the responsibility for telling this story all by myself. I have to start by recognizing that I don’t know exactly what happened, not exactly, because I don’t remember exactly.
I needn’t try to define sexual abuse. There is a substantial body of literature on the topic-psychoanalytic, legal, journalistic, autobiographical. I have no wish to join the fraternity of abused boys. I do want to understand the effects of my experience with N. For me, it was a catalyst, perhaps the catalyst, for the origins of my spiritual life. So, I want to describe what I understand by the phrase spiritual formation. I can describe it only in terms of my autobiography.
N trained me as an acolyte, to serve at the altar and assist the priest in other ways in the conduct of religious ceremonies. It is important to relate how that came about. Let me begin with unelaborated memories, or the images memory forms for me.
The first of these is a Sunday morning service in a Presbyterian church on the main street of the borough where I grew up. I was with the family of a girl in my elementary school. It must have been my third-grade year. I was, I think, eight. The girl had invited me. Her mother called my mother, I’m sure, and permission was given. I would say that was a different era, but there is a large part of the United States in which 2002 resembles in some respects 1949. There are differences, but it is certainly not a different planet.
I remember the place clearly. The exterior was red brick and white wood. It had a modest steeple; a grassy lawn surrounded by boxwood hedge. The interior was plain, as Presbyterian churches are; large, it seemed to me, with white walls and generous side windows with a minimum of stained glass. The day was clear, sunny, and cold outside the church; bright and warm inside. It was crowded. As I write this, I seem to remember more details but I don’t trust them, so I won’t embroider.
I believe that was the morning when, in the living room of our apartment, at the moment I arrived back home, I told my parents I wanted to go to church with them. Still wearing my corduroy jacket, I stood just inside the doorway from the hall. My father stood in front of me, bent forward a bit, listening closely. My mother stood slightly behind, toward the center of the room. There was furniture standing around, which I don’t remember clearly. Some of this recall is commingled with a memory of my father’s, “when you told us you wanted to go to church.” This was a significant memory for him, but I believe the memories I just described are mostly mine. It may be that the reason I remember this at all is that it had real significance for my father. In the experience that followed, he discovered his own spiritual life, deep and enduring until his death in 2002. He recalled this moment and related it to me a number of times. But the images of memory are mine, I believe. He was never in that church,
My parents discussed my request. It was apparently a moment ripe for change, The discussion was out of earshot for me, as so many similar discussions were, The upshot was their decision to experiment with attending a small Episcopal church in the same community, a mission church, meaning a parish in formation, The choice was probably my mother’s. She had been baptized and confirmed in an Episcopal church in Milwaukee. My father’s mother was active in a Congregational church in a German neighborhood in Milwaukee, but he had not been a churchgoer for many years,
Another memory arises here, one of a communion service in the evening, probably a Sunday evening, in about that same period of my life but perhaps before the Presbyterian service. It took place in a United Church of Christ, on the same main street as the other church, both within what was then considered walking distance from my home. It was a service with pieces of bread on a round tray with little cups of grape juice around the side, The tray was passed from hand to hand along the pews. I was mystified but not in the sense of the awesome mystery of the orthodox Christian Eucharist, the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ represented in the transformation of bread and wine into body and blood, literal or figurative, depending on one’s belief, Instead, I didn’t understand what these people, including my school friend, whom I don’t remember, were doing or why in the world they were doing it.
The experience was strange to me, cryptic and nonsensical. This church had a smaller, darker interior than the other one, and my recollection now is that I was uncomfortable. I was being proselytized-I wouldn’t have known the word then-but I could recognize an intrusion when I felt it. It was an experience, not of welcome but of alienation, but not from the people who invited me, As I now construct it, it was an effort by those people to alienate me from my mother and father’s ways and to induct me into another way, The experience was a passing glance at a part of what we persist in calling Christianity, the organization of which is exclusive, cultic, whose rites and doings of self-selected tribes are better described by sociology than by scripture. My daughter had a similar experience of attempted alienation at about the same age with a youth group at a Dutch Reformed Church in a village in upstate New York where we lived for a few years.
This recollection is not a digression. These experiences are part of what I learned, at the ages of eight and nine and ten and thereafter, as the ability and need to make my own choices in the process of my own spiritual formation. They were part of what I later came to understand as the action of free will and human determination and choice that I had found in another form just a few years later in Paradise Lost and Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and in Dante, and Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and The Odyssey, and in many other writings and works of art and music encountered in the years since.
More immediately, in those early years and the high school years that followed, I was taught and learned and absorbed an entire congeries of language, stories, terms of thought and argument, and models for behavior-all that which we call interchangeably values or culture-from listening to the readings at services, from school assignments, and from my own reading. Here I am thinking particularly of the four Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, Revelation, and the biblical books that I later learned were called Torah but were not taught to me as Torah is taught.
One could, I learned, make choices about all sorts of things. Choices were required, could not be avoided. There were an amazing variety and number of choices available. The more one recognized, the more followed. I began, at the ages of eight and nine and ten and eleven to make some of those choices. If spiritual formation is a matter of choice as much as of inspiration, I was beginning to find a spiritual path.
I am, I find as I look back, an autodidact. I had a decent formal education at boarding school and university-Kent and Columbia-but I picked and chose my way, reading and writing and listening and looking, not conforming much to institutional standards. I did what interested me and avoided or discarded what did not. The institutions that had the most impact on me were the Episcopal Church in my late childhood and early adolescence and the United States Army in my early 20s. The Red and the Black. I struggled with Kent and Columbia, but I embraced, for a while, Church and Army.
They were not secular institutions. They were insular and self-contained. You could make an entire life in either that had little reference to the larger society outside, or so I thought at first. I was not a priest or a brother, but, in nearly all the Western literature and art and architecture I studied, the life of the believing and practicing Christian was recognizable to me from what I had been taught; you cannot intelligently read Western literature or look at Western art without knowing the traditional Western canon, including and especially the religious texts. I was never in combat, but I recognized the soldier’s life in much of what I had read, from The Iliad onward, and I understood the primacy of the soldier’s role in every age of Western history. What appealed to me in both the Army and the Church was the austerity of disciplined belief and single-minded action, and historical connectedness.
The soldier’s life and the idealized Christian’s life were very nearly one and the same, as I understood them, for the 1400 years from, say, Constantine to the Enlightenment, and the 1200 years from Benedict to Ignatius and his little book, The Spiritual Exercises.
For me, a small boy in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s and early 1950s, my autodidactic formation began in an Episcopal baptism at eight-I had not been previously baptized; then catechism and confirmation at nine, and concurrent training by N as an acolyte or altar boy. N was not ordained but was the senior acolyte at St. Suburban’s. He acted as a de facto deacon close to and trusted by the priest, who himself rapidly became a close friend to my father and who was responsible for my father’s discovery of a life of faith and devotion. He quickly brought my father into the administration of the parish as a member of the vestry. My father was a member of the vestries and often the treasurer of Episcopal parishes for the next 50 years.
N was a close friend of another boy who, along with the boy’s older sister, baby sat for me during those years; their parents, active members of that parish, were close friends of my parents. I remember N and the other boy watching me one night when my parents were out and taking me to see King Solomon’s Mines, which was to me a marvelous movie. The other boy gave me a hand-me-down leather jacket that I wore for years. It was made of deerskin, was a pale, smooth tan, and had the same efficacy for me as an Iroquois hunter’s shirt made of the skin of a deer he had killed. We learn to wear the behavior of others, as well as their clothes; we inhabit their lives as their memories and behaviors inhabit us.
There was an atmosphere of total trust and, in the middle of it, N seduced me, if that is the right word-it’s the only word that seems appropriate-one Saturday in the men’s room in the basement of the church when we were preparing to serve at a service the following morning. I remember standing next to him, clothed, both of us facing the waist-high-chest-high for me-white urinals. I held his erect penis in my left hand-it seemed huge to me-while he held my little penis in his right hand and masturbated me. He came in a spasm that surprised me. I did not. That happened for the first time some time later when I masturbated myself, sitting at my desk in my room upstairs in the house where I lived with my mother and father.
I remember one other sexual encounter with N, although I know there were several. It was in a Ford coupe that belonged to his father. We were parked at the end of a dead-end road down a hollow not far from where I lived. Fully clothed, zippers open, small hand on big penis, big hand on small. There was no oral sex, none of the backrubbing reported in the contemporary stories of priestly seduction, none of the tense threats to keep silent, that sort of thing. There was trust, talk. He talked about the college he attended, his ambition to be a priest, about girls, not in the images of twisted fantasies, just about sex in the most disembodied way, about the ankle bracelets worn by high school girls and what they signaled in code.
This is what I remember. The encounters, over a period of maybe a year or somewhat less, were never discovered by my parents or anyone else. How it ended, I don’t remember.
My sexual future? I remember a circle jerk with four or five other boys in someone’s bedroom after school. There was no mutual touching. I was about 12. There was a lot of talk about masturbation then and in high school and in boarding school, very little talk of it in college, none in the Army. I acquired a girlfriend in public high school, in ninth grade or the summer after, and discovered the rituals and pleasures of making out. This was the 50s. Teen sex was a covert activity but, at the same time, an open secret, as it probably always had been, at least among blue-collar people and the white-collar classes into which they rose, the people I grew up among.
At 15, one summer night, I was taken to a whorehouse by the older brothers of two pals of mine, five of us in a souped-up 1950 Mercury; the place was up a back alley in one of the steel towns down the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. The women were African American. The price was two dollars. I was nervous but managed somehow to perform with the help of a woman who, I must say, was kind and patient and bored all at once. That was all I knew of her life, which was certainly far harder than I knew. I was taken back there several times that summer and took myself, after I learned to drive, a few more times in the next year or two.
I grew up lying about sex and, therefore, lying about myself. I learned to lie, I now believe, about N and my girlfriend and the whorehouse in what was called Brick Alley, because the truth was unacceptable to my mother and father. So, in a manner of speaking, I was taught to lie by my parents. They were until then, all-powerful figures in my life and embodied the culture in which I was raised. To maintain their trust, I had to lie. To remain trusted and loved, I had to become someone other than who I was.
That was the damage done by N and by the culture in which I grew up. I learned a malignant, enduring lesson: emotional survival required the creation of false selves.
“False” is what I called them when I first discovered the notion at the age of 60 during a period of intense psychoanalysis. I soon learned to call them provisional, out of simple self-respect and with the help of my analyst. He never suggested one adjective or another. Instead, he helped me learn to honor and respect-and to begin sometimes-to like myself for who I am, not who the voices of those provisional selves told me I should be or could have been; not the person suggested by all the shoulda-woulda-couldas directed at me by so many people over the years; and, finally, not the person who heard so many shoulda-woulda-couldas when they weren’t intended.
Telling lies to my parents about where I’d been, what I’d done and with whom, metamorphosed into lies to myself about who I was. Not knowing who I was rapidly became the determining problem of my life, though I was unable for many years to give voice or a name to the problem. The ability to create a provisional self for survival in any situation in which I found myself-abandoned by my parents at boarding school, a university in which I could not find a congenial direction for my life, various jobs over the years for which I was not suited or did not find satisfying-was a talent that plagued me. A psychiatrist once told me I was better at landing on my feet than anyone he’d known. “But don’t get cocky,” he said. If only he or I had understood the pun.
My repertoire of shifting identities was confusing to me in the most fundamental ways and, often, to the people for or with whom I worked. The old selves were parasitic and sometimes reappeared on their own when they were not needed or wanted, not unlike inconvenient memories.
A social worker I was seeing for counseling when I found myself seriously depressed after a divorce commented that I was suffering from arrested development at the age of, he said, about 15. That was the age at which I was sent to boarding school. I had asked him for a diagnosis. He said something like, Well, this won’t help you but here is what I think. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but he was partially right without knowing the reasons. At the moment, his comment only confused me. It added nothing to the narrative I did not yet know I needed to construct.
Was I abused? I guess so, but I didn’t know it at the time and it didn’t feel like abuse; nor did it years later. Was I taken advantage of? Yes, in the sense that N obtained a pleasure or satisfied a need at my expense and without my consent. The age of consensual sex is different for different people. My girlfriend and I were old enough to consent mutually to have intercourse when we were 15. Different states legislate sexual consent at different ages. Experts and ordinary citizens can argue the differences, but we believe generally that it is important to set reasonable standards and make reasonable rules for living up to them. In no way did I consent to have sex with N.
By contemporary standards, I might have told my parents what happened, what N “did to me,” and my parents might have pursued a remedy of some sort. The preferred methods now seem to be exposure, humiliation, litigation, and monetary reparation. In 1950, the preference was silence.
Was I harmed? Yes, in the sense that my life was altered against my will or with no deliberate choice on my part. I did not know I had a choice. I lost my trust in my mother and father because, although they did not know what had happened, they were unable to protect me against it or the consequences of it. I lost my trust in N and in the adult world in general. I entered adolescence with little trust in anyone.
But life causes wounds and scars. If not one, then another. Had I not been injured by N, I would have been injured some other way by someone else, sooner or later, and the consequences of that different injury are impossible to know. I have learned to live with the consequences of my encounter with N. People I know with different sorts of wounds have been very nearly crippled by them. I have scars given me by N but the wounds that caused them were not life-threatening or crippling. Damaging? Somewhat. But not fatal. A gift? No, because gifts are meant to cause pleasure and there was no particular pleasure in my sex with N or in the aftermath. He set me on a path of many years on which I found a great deal of confusion, pain, and loss.
What has been complicated, and what took me a long time and a lot of work to sort out, was the way the experience with N constellated with other experiences; the ways that one experience mapped onto other experiences; and how those experiences concatenated to form yet other experiences and, for me, new provisional selves that laminated over old selves, and obscured and disguised the true self beneath.
Sexual pleasure came later and proved to be a complex thing. Complex with others and with myself alone. For example, I realized with a start, many years later, that I often masturbated over a white enamel sink in a bathroom.
During and after the sexual experience with N, my religious faith and practice continued to grow and mature. N continued to play an important role in my life or that part of it that had to do with St. Suburban’s. My time as an acolyte was one of the most influential experiences of my life. In that role, I was useful, trusted, and relied on. A few years later, when I was 13 or 14, in a ceremony during a Sunday morning service at the cathedral, I, along with a few other boys from the diocese, was given the Bishop’s Medal for service. I still have the medal, a stamped, aluminum, oval shield on a red ribbon, along with the small ebony and silver pectoral cross I wore when I served at the altar.
At about that same time, with the permission of my parents, N took me for a weekend visit to a chapter house of the Order of St. Barnabas, a celibate, monastic order of the Episcopal Church that I am unsure still exists. Clearly, I was not afraid of N. For self-sufficiency, the brothers ran a small farm in a rural county not far north of Pittsburgh. The brothers worked on the farm and prayed and sang together in a small chapel. I went there once more with N. The visits formed in my mind an image of a religious community that remains vivid to this day. For me as a boy, it defined the very idea of community.
I was sent to Kent School at 15, a decision in which I played no part and a place as socially unfamiliar to me as Mexico. There were many reasons: I was in serious trouble with the local police for vandalism and being “bad”; teachers had told my parents to find another school because I was “too bright” for the local high school; my parents suspected or knew I was having sex, and they didn’t know what to do about it. My parents felt that they were doing the right thing, but, for me, it was an abandonment. I had no guidance or emotional support from them while I was at Kent. I told my father later that they might as well have sent me to sea as a midshipman in Nelson’s navy.
The school was founded by a celibate Episcopal priest, a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, on the principles of simplicity and self-reliance, following a vaguely monastic rule modeled in some ways on English public schools, with the Sixth Form, or seniors, responsible for the day-to-day running and discipline of the student body. When I arrived, the headmaster was a married priest mostly concerned with fundraising-he had been hired for that-and the place had become more like the other so-called Grottlesex boarding schools in New England-Andover, Exeter, Choate, hotchkiss, and the like-prep schools for the sons of the wealthy or upper middle class, feeder schools for the men’s colleges of the Ivy League. Kent was different only in that there were a smaller endowment, more scholarship students, and an emphasis on the forms of worship. The founder’s system of self-reliance had been corrupted into a petty system of power, control, and punishment.
Almost immediately on arrival, I lost not my religious faith but the practice of it. I had imagined and expected a community like St. Suburban’s with elements of the St. Barnabas chapter house. What I found was an institution with a lot of unwritten behavioral and social rules that seemed familiar to most of the students but were invisible to me. I could not find a way to insinuate myself into the small group of boys who assisted in the chapel. They had somehow been chosen by someone. Without knowing why, I was not chosen. For my three years at Kent, I sat in my assigned seat in the pews as a rote participant in the required daily and Sunday services. I continued as an acolyte at St. Suburban’s when I was home for Christmas, spring, and summer breaks, but a thread had been broken and the attachment was gone. My spiritual life became silent and disappeared under the surface of the rest of my daily life. It did not reappear for 25 years and then in a new guise.
In some respects, a familiar guise. In my early 40s, I became a Catholic, answering to an impulse I’d had since the summer I was 17 and began dating a very devout Catholic girl who did her best to convert me. She was a student at a day school run by an order of Franciscan nuns, and she introduced me to a Franciscan priest who was her confessor. I was interested and talked with him a few times but quickly found that here also were a lot of rules, not much discussion of them, and a powerful effort to enforce behavior. The Catholicism I encountered in 1957 seemed more authoritarian than Kent’s social orthodoxy and encompassed far more than life on the campus of a small institution. I lost interest.
My sexuality had gone underground, too. Kent was a boys’ school, an insular, all-male society. One of the unwritten rules or sets of rules was about sex. There was none. There was a muted homophobia. It was nowhere written and never said by the headmaster, but it was assumed by all that homosexual activity or any other sexual activity was grounds for expulsion. There were the jokes that boys make and there were several masters who were said to be queer, but I wasn’t aware of any sex among students or between masters and students. There was masturbation and a lot of talk and joking about it. It was mostly private, but I remember a contest once with a roommate to see who could shoot the farthest across the room from our bunks. I don’t remember who won. I do feel a twinge of nostalgic self-envy.
I made out with my girlfriend when I was home, but I was competing with Franciscan rules. There was a fuzzy notion of how far we could go: we never went too far; we both understood that the burden of the penalty was on her; and we talked about it. We talked about nearly everything. I could be more myself with a girlfriend or my male friends at school than with my parents and the St. Suburban world that had filled my life before Kent. A nearly permanent estrangement from my parents had set in without my realizing what it was; they seemed unaware of it.
Nor were they aware of what was happening to me. I was a changed person. To survive at Kent, in the thicket of 50s social and institutional conformity, and in a social environment constructed from or aspiring to upper class mores, I had imagined and constructed a new seit. From the evasive self that had emerged during the experience with N, I had learned how.
The survival self I evolved at Kent was a more complete, more complex thing. I learned how to mimic my social surroundings, like the moth mimicking the bark of the tree on which it spends its time. This was more than the momentary camouflage one throws on and off in fleeting social situations. It was a partial self residing, not on me, but within. It was the self that mimicked adaptation to the rules, written and unwritten, at Kent. It was at war with the lying self I invented after N and perfected in public high school, the self that mocked rules and rebelled. It was the good boy opposed to the bad boy. I didn’t understand that the good boy was bad for me.
I had lost my trust in adults. So I had few relationships with the adults at Kent. I did very well on the standardized tests that determined much of the college admission process. I did well in some courses, not so well in others. I did well with some coaches, not well with others. I had begun picking and choosing. In my second year, the Fifth Form, or junior year, I began to rebel. Kent was no place for rebellion. In the fall term, I typed out a kind of newsletter or broadside on the topic of hypocrisy and school spirit and pinned it to the bulletin board on the administration building. It was taken down, and I was chastised, rather than encouraged to find a useful outlet for my impulse to write.
Rather than trying out on my own for the school newspaper or the literary magazine, I stifled the impulse completely. I knew that the candidates were chosen somehow by someone. Here again, I was not chosen. The wound was greater than the desire. It was a syndrome that affected me for many years and, a few times in later years, did me great damage.
I know now, or think I know, that the origin of this problem was in the encounter with N. It was a triple whammy. I lost my trust in someone I trusted; I lost my trust in my parents for not protecting me; and I lost my trust in myself for not being someone else. Who else was there to model myself after? Other adults were facsimiles of my mother and father. I think now that I feared that other, older adolescents at Kent would be facsimiles of N. As it happened, the few older men I found helpful as a freshman at Columbia were gay. I backed away, not in panic but in confused mistrust. In those years, the only way there could be another person to trust was for me to invent one, another provisional self, and so I did, several times over then and in the years to come.
The loss of trust in my mother and father constituted an abandonment. It notched into an experience I had when I was two, a complex moment when my parents were about to move from New York City to Pittsburgh, where my father was beginning a new job, no small thing in the early war years immediately after the Depression, which had particularly scarred my father. My mother was stricken with what was diagnosed as a burst appendix and taken to a hospital for surgery. One of my grandmothers came from Milwaukee and took me there. My father went to Pittsburgh, found an apartment at a time when housing was nearly impossible to find, and reported for his job.
My mother’s appendix was removed, but the pain remained. It turned out to be a burst ovary. She immediately endured a second emergency surgery and nearly died. Two of my mother’s sisters were in New York, one married and one a student at Barnard. They took care of my mother. I remained in Milwaukee for more than a month-my earliest memory is of my second birthday at my maternal grandmother’s house. I was taken by my other grandmother to my new home in Pittsburgh. When I walked into the new apartment and saw my mother there, I did not know her. I recognized her from a large oil portrait, which my uncle had painted and hung on the wall of the living room. I know now that she must have been horrified; and that she must have been every bit as traumatized by her own experience as I by mine.
An experience of abandonment at two; a perceived abandonment at 10 or 11; an actual abandonment at 15 when I was sent to Kent-no wonder I became adept at inventing provisional selves.
I can see this sequence now, and I have words for it. This is part of the narrative I have constructed for myself with the help of several years of difficult but very useful analysis with a caring, competent analyst. I can relate these events without falling into the intense feelings of depression and anxiety that I have experienced during most of my adult life. But, until recently, I was unable to put these experiences into words. I was able only to write and rewrite, tell and retell a superficial chronology, erasing and filling in an elaborate palimpsest, forgetting and remembering in the effort to locate myself. Mine was a restless, determined effort to remember, but it was superficial and served only to increase my agitation and self-doubt. I was trapped in a circle of the provisional selves that, like little Frankenstein monsters, refused to lie down and die.
Falsity, loss of self, a fear of self, not wanting to know who I was, a rejection of the little boy I had been-these were consequences of the experience with N. He was not solely responsible, for he was not the sole cause of all this. He was not, I don’t believe, responsible at all, not the way a 40-year-old priest might be considered responsible. But the experience was a catalyst. There was a before and an after. Down Saul and up Paul, as I was taught. Down Tommy and up Tom.
For years, I experienced a kind of low-grade homophobia. It was as pervasive as racism, although more subtle, in the places and cultures in which I grew up and matured-the simple homophobias of a steel town and public schools, then the complex homophobias of the all-male institutions I inhabited for a decade, Kent, Columbia College, the Army. It manifested itself in me as sexual self-doubt. I did not recognize it until I was about 20. My father bought me a new suit at a men’s store in downtown Pittsburgh he liked. Standing in front of the three-way mirrors, I was having the suit fitted. My father was somewhere else in the store. Kneeling behind me, the tailor was measuring and pinning the cuffs of the pants and marking the seat. He said quietly, “You have a nice ass. You have the hips of a woman.” I froze. I couldn’t respond. I felt as though he had touched me. It was certainly his intention. I felt marked, as if with the white chalk he used, and pinned for alteration. I have obviously not forgotten it. Such stuff the unconscious feeds on and feeds back to us in dreams and daily life.
I had, without knowing it, learned to mistrust men. Nor did I trust women, because I did not trust my mother not to abandon me. I trusted no one. I could not trust myself because, as I began to learn while I was at Kent and, again, at Columbia, I was unable to control my behavior. I was acting out, although this was another phrase and idea that I did not know until many years later. I was nearly expelled from Kent for mischief. I was suspended and then expelled from Columbia for academic failure. It was my embrace of the Army and its embrace of me-its recognition of my abilities and its willingness to train me and use my abilities, and the simple rewards of acceptance and promotion, the paradoxical autonomy I achieved by taking and being given responsibilities-that gave me the self-discipline to control, at least for a few years, my acting out. My experience of acceptance and usefulness in the Army was similar to my experience as an acolyte a decade earlier.
Some years later, in the middle years of my marriage, I began acting out again; now it was sexual. I had several affairs that deeply hurt my wife and damaged our marriage. It was not until I spent two years rediscovering my spiritual life with the help of the best teacher I ever had, a retired Jesuit priest serving as the chaplain at a retreat house run by the Catholic Order of the Holy Cross-these circularities are enough to make one a Jungian-that I found the self-knowledge, moral discipline, and moral compass I needed to help stop the acting out.
One night, during those two years, I dreamed that I was lying on my bed in the apartment I lived in when I was in my early elementary school years. In the dream, it was afternoon or early evening. I was the age I was at the time of the dream, my early 40s. A young boy came into the room and lay down on the bed beside me. It was a single bed, a child’s bed. The figure of the boy merged in a ghostly way into the body of the man. The boy was me. I woke up weeping, sobbing, unable to describe the dream to my wife, unable to speak at all. It was the greatest catharsis of my life. In the dream, the man was made whole. In life, the man began the long process of healing that has only now, 20 years later, seemed complete enough for description as a metamorphosis.
Is there such a thing as a reverse metamorphosis? Probably not. We move only forward. Ovid knew this. The Jesuit priest-his name was Gregory Roy-who “witnessed,” as he put it, at my becoming a Catholic, taught me the idea of metanoia: a New Testament Greek word for change so complete that one is made new.2 Conventionally, as a Christian, one is made new through baptism. Baptism is one of the original Christian sacraments, the most singular mark of a Christian. I suppose the conversion of Paul is the paradigm for metanoia, though I have learned to mistrust religious conversion. It is a violent idea and violent in practice, as millions of people have found who are not the same religion as the people who are conquering and killing them.
A contemporary experience of metanoia, it seems to me, can be achieved only by individuals. It is a process that, in my own experience, has not been violent but painful, uncertain, and long. You can set out to achieve it but you may not succeed. It may occur in a moment or take many years. For me, what I think of as my experience of metanoia began with Father Gregory Roy in 1982 and ended with Dr. Louis Lauro in 2003, two men whom I learned to trust and who cared for me, as I came to know, and who helped me locate and identify and give voice and expression to my inner life. Spiritual life and daily life-why do we think there is a difference? True self and the provisional selves created by the true self-why did I think there were differences?
There is more to this story. Is a narrative a story? In analysis, the word story is avoided, perhaps because it suggests fiction. Fiction and nonfiction-did I ever think there were differences?
In my years at St. Surburban’s, I was taught that forgiveness was a cardinal virtue for a Christian and a habit to be cultivated. Turn the other cheek, I was told, although, in the competitive, sometimes violent-nearly always potentially violent-world of a boy growing up in a tough town in the 1950s, it was hard to understand how nonviolence could be practical. I was born in December and was therefore always the youngest pupil in my elementary school classes, usually the smallest boy, always picked on, always the loser, always humiliated or physically hurt, until, late in my third-grade year. Then I bloodied the nose of one of my tormentors and made him cry in the schoolyard after lunch and run to the teacher, who told him he had gotten what he deserved. I had succeeded in learning to fight my way out of the schoolyard when I had to, which was fairly often.
At eight, I did not have the practice of turning the other cheek, which was when that lesson was first preached to me; nor did I later develop the practice. I understood the theory. Forgiveness was a necessity; one must forgive. It took 30 years for me to forgive N, 30 years to find the impulse, which is to say, it took 30 years to recognize there had been an injury.
The impulse was triggered by accident. My wife and children and I were visiting my parents at their retirement home in New Hampshire. It was, I think, 1984. On their coffee table, as we were starting the happy hour, I found an Episcopal Church newsletter, picked it up, and found a black and white photograph of Father N standing in front of a rural mission school. In the article, I read that he was staying for a while at a place not far from where I lived. I wrote to him, received an answer, and went to visit him. It was a warm reunion, with the intensity of familiarity evoked by the associations of childhood. I did not say, “I forgive you.” We did not talk about what had passed between us. We talked about what he’d done and where he’d been, about the 30 years of my life that had passed. I told him of my having become a Catholic. He taught me a little meditative prayer from his investigation of the liturgy and practices of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was enough to spend a few hours with him, to share a meal. We parted amiably. There were two or three letters back and forth, then silence.
For me, there is no question that the act of forgiving N was a catharsis, a recognition of self. It uplifted my spirit. I had not understood what a burden N had been for me, for so long.
There was another burden-the mild, self-doubting homophobia. This simply went away over time. The recognition of self that occurred at the time of my visit with N included a recognition that my homophobia was lodged within me, selfgenerated; it was no longer a function of the homophobia of the larger culture. There was not much I could do about the larger culture, but I could feel and think about the anxieties within me. It was one of the few sources of anxiety I was able to name without the help of analysis. The visit with N turned out to be a kind of naming ceremony. The anxiety atrophied. It was now something else, no longer homophobia. It was an anxiety about identity, about selfhood, an uncertainty about who I was. The primary, determining problem had been exposed.
Metanoia, I now believe, is caused by injury, but more than a simple injury. It is the extreme change that heals the wound that does not heal. It is pain, healing, and change all together, sometimes quick, sometimes agonizingly slow. It is possible to want it but not possible to choose it. One is, instead, chosen, not by a deity but at a crossroads. It is Sophoclean, Oedipal, as it were.
There was another forgiveness for me to accomplish, of a very different kind, far more comprehensive and difficult.
My father died at 92 in August 2002. I would not have been able to write this before he died. Perhaps I was protecting him. Perhaps I was still lying to protect myself, not from N but from the recognition that my father was not the perfect father, that he had abandoned me at critical moments, that I had been deeply hurt by his absences and weaknesses, that I had been angry at him for many years, that I had been forced at an early age to take care of myself. I had, in effect, been forced to become an adult and live as an adult without recognizing myself as an adult. For years, I would jokingly say, “My real age is 12”—when I would take my dog and a sandwich my mother made and my single-shot .22 rifle and ride my bike way down a couple of dirt roads to an abandoned coal tipple in a hollow where I would spend the afternoon plinking at glass bottles and rusty cans I found there. This story caused the social worker to say, “Freedom and autonomy are major issues for you.” No kidding! I thought but did not say.
How right I was. I was not fully an adult because I did not fully know myself as one. I was still lying to myself about who I was, the thing that began with N, when I lied to my mother and father when I was 10 about where I’d been, whom I was with, what I was doing. Not to protect N, but to protect myself and, later, to protect the little boy in drag as an adult.
It was not until my mother and father were in their late 80s, when my mother became very ill, an invalid in a wheel chair, progressively and finally incompetent, and my father was her caretaker and began to become quite frail himself, that I was able to forgive him for abandoning me when I needed protection at age 10 and other times, later, when I needed help or guidance at Kent and Columbia. If there was a moment, it was when he had been admitted to the hospital for internal bleeding and was being moved from intensive care to a medical room. My mother was in a rehab ward in the same hospital recovering from the removal of her lower left leg because of the vascular effects of severe diabetes. He gestured toward me and said to his doctor, “The child is father to the man.” From the Greeks to Wordsworth.
Only when he recognized that I had taken responsibility for taking care of him, and that I would show up whenever he needed help, no matter what, did I fully recognize the adult in myself, and forgive him. I never forgave my mother because, when I was able to, her illness and decline into mute senility had so completely absented her that I could not. With her, I needed to talk. With my father, talk of forgiveness was not necessary. But it was my mother who taught me speech, and speech was the only way with her. Probably better than the silences between men, but I did not get a chance to test that theory.
With N, I should add, talk of forgiveness was not needed by me. I forgave him in the silence of my heart only so I could forgive myself. I still did not want to, could not, did not wish to turn the other cheek.
Prayer speaks to silence. My spiritual life has been reduced to a matter of the mute rumblings of the heart, a phrase I remember (perhaps incorrectly) from one of Paul’s letters read long ago but that I have not been able to locate since. Father Roy made it possible for me to be comfortable with my mute spirituality, which is all I seem to need or want. I no longer find comfort in the images or practices or community life of organized religion. I find no comfort in the notion of a deity or an afterlife or the idea that I might possess an immortal soul. My spiritual life is evidently as autodidactic as the rest of my life.
Starting with N, or as a psychic aftershock, 1 began to seek a kind of oblivion in the acted-out self-destructions available to men: alcohol, sex, work, depression, anxiety, severally, or all simultaneously. I mostly avoided violence and drugs and avoided entirely adult crime, war, and suicide. It would be fair to say that N taught me to act out. He showed me that I could. What I learned later only added to what I had learned from N.
Being an only child, I was comfortable in solitude, but I was also often lonely. N, I suppose, answered that twinned need. He saw it as a vulnerability and took advantage of it. He taught me not to trust. From not trusting adults, I went to not trusting their institutions, not trusting others in general, and, far worse, not trusting myself. I find now that I trust myself, my children, and a few others. I have trusted two male teachers, who were a priest and an analyst. I trust the voice that appears on the page when I write it. What the voice now tells is the story of the transformation of an episode of what we are pleased to call abuse into a lifelong spiritual journey. It is the road N set me on. After all this time, I am content to be who I am and where I am, most of the time, although I do not know for how long. It feels to me that I have one more long pilgrimage ahead.