Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Writing the Legacy

It took me several years to reach the point where I could write the post of last night. When I had finished it, I went to bed, but I could not sleep. I got up, came back to the computer, and read it through again. When I had done so, I found myself shouting at the top of my voice, "I want my life back! I want my life back!"

That is the legacy of priest sexual abuse; indeed, I suppose of any sexual abuse of a child. When a child is molested, he or she is stripped of the life he or she might have had, or, as I suppose romantics would say, ought to have had. For when your innocence is torn from you as a child, you are deprived of the foundation upon which a normal, healthy adult life must rest. Without that foundation of innocence, trust becomes impossible, the exquisite risk which is intimacy becomes impossible, the attainment of balance, insight, self-awareness becomes impossible, happiness becomes impossible. When innocence is ripped from a child's life, life itself, in any natural or authentic sense, becomes impossible.

What you are then compelled to do, assuming that you have the will to make any sort of life for yourself, is to engage in a continual struggle to build something approaching a life from out of the ruins of your psyche. T.S. Eliot said, "Consequently we rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice." This is what the victim does: He builds an artifice resembling an authentic life out of his fear, shame, and imminent despair, and if he is clever and if he is strong, that life may fool himself and others. And so as a victim, your life becomes a fabrication, an artificial synthesis of hope and suspicion, of fear and desire, of anger and need, of truth and denial. Your life becomes a tortured contradiction. It becomes a lie.

That was what I realized, beginning five years ago when I first suspected the truth - that my life, all of the life I had been forced to live, had been a lie. For the entire foundation of my existence from the molestation to that point, had been a sustained, debilitating effort of denial. Denial of the pivotal truth of my life. Denial bred by shame and fear. Denial wattled together from disgust, mistrust, self-loathing, and a desperate need to escape the realization of what had been done to me. During decades when I should have been discovering myself, I was, in effect, hiding from myself. When I should have been gathering the rays of illumination and focusing them on my identity, I was, instead, slipping among shadows, trying to avoid any sudden, chance confrontation with a mirror image of my past. All of my energies, or nearly all of them, were devoted to avoiding the truth even as I carefully cultivated the writer's ethic that truth was the highest, the purest, the most beautiful of realities. But my reality was that I was terrified of the truth - the truth about what had happened in that summer of 1962.

And so my life became an elaborate, seething, festering contradiction, in the throes of which I struggled to do good and be good, while at the same time believing I was evil and corrupt and deformed, and, because of this, inflicting great harm on others. I have had dozens of relationships with women, and not one has endured. Rather, in those relationships I caused much needless pain and heartache to those women to whom I tried to become close. But because of the molestation, proximity was threatening to me. Would she find out? Would I have to admit to her? Would I have to admit to myself? And what if she, taking advantage of the nearness and the confidence between us, turned on me and abused and defiled me as the molester had done? And so, every woman I hoped to love and tried to love inevitably took on the dark, threatening form of the priest in his black cassock, and out of fear of a repetition of the molestation, I shoved them all away.

Only in that way, I instinctively felt, could I protect myself from a second molestation. This, too, is a legacy of sexual abuse of children: The child develops, in later life, a manic need for control, which translates inevitably into a need to inflict pain on anyone who threatens to come close. And so the abused child lives a life of isolation bred by fear, and of loneliness inspired by betrayal.

With the perverse logic of suppressed violation, the victim wants to be betrayed, wants to be abused, since they are the formative facts of his consciousness. Consequently, he seeks out, and even demands, that he be betrayed, abandoned, reduced to bitter isolation, forced over and over into regret, remorse and shame, for such are the emotional and spiritual conditions under which he has built his life, in the absence of innocence and trust. To put it simply: Since his life is based on the abuse, he seeks out abuse in every relationship, finding it if he can, manufacturing it if he cannot. And this is one of the cruelest residues of abuse: Survivors struggle most violently against those who most wish to love them. We recoil at the risk of intimacy; we feel threatened by the revelatory power of love.

Much of my behavior as an adult was driven by a profound sense of betrayal, though until five years ago I could not have said why. But somewhere deep inside me, I felt that the world had failed me, and, worse, had tried to destroy me. That all that I most valued and believed in and trusted had recoiled on me like some hideous snake and sunk its poisonous fangs into my flesh. That for some reason which I could not begin to fathom, good had suddenly become evil, and singled me out for punishment. The world was turned upside down and inside-out, and I was utterly helpless either to understand it or to protest it. I don't deserve this, I kept telling myself; I'm a good boy. Why is this being done to me? I haven't done anything wrong. I don't deserve it.

The result of this was anger, a deep, unquenchable fury at the world that grew over time, and which I channeled into political radicalism, anti-social attitudes and demeanor, habitual egoism, haughty intellectualism, philosophical abstraction and detachment, and into my writing. I think that my writing talent has always been driven by a sense of betrayal, of disequilibrium, of a profound need to put things right, or, failing that, to denounce them as incurably wrong.

Someone once said to me, "You have always been drawn to misery." That is true. I sought out misery in the world in a vain effort to sooth the pain with which I was living twenty-four hours a day. I became fascinated by war, by prisoners of war, by the sufferings and sacrifices of World War I pilots; I went to the Congo to work among the desperately poor, and did, in fact, work with lepers and the dying. And I became obsessed with death. I remember one of my college professors remarking to me that it was odd for someone so young to be so focused on death. But it is not odd for a survivor of sexual abuse - it makes perfect sense. Once stripped of innocence - and stripped by a man whom one has been taught to trust and revere, almost to worship - death begins to seem an attractive alternative to living with guilt and shame and the fear of exposure.

The survivor longs for death, both because he feels in his shame that he has deserved it, and because it is the ultimate antidote to the achievement of insight. Shakespeare said, "And death once dead, there's no more dying then." The threat of the revelation of the truth of molestation looms within the victim's subconscious as a kind of death - to encounter the truth is, in some way, to die. To die to the life which one has been forced to construct, to die to the lie which one's life has become. And so I longed for death, courted it, occasionally sought it, as an escape from the truth about myself.

All my life since the molestation, I have wanted to die. I still do. But all my life, I have found reasons, sometimes enduring, sometimes ephemeral, to remain alive. With the example of my own mother's suicide before me, I kept telling myself that by dying I accomplished nothing, whereas, in living I might yet find some form of peace. And so, staggering from rationale to rationale, I remained alive. Only my children provided me, finally, a solid footing for continuing to live. Only they brought happiness into my life. Yet even they, at times, were nearly not enough. Death became my only hope for salvation, and I studied it and worshiped it and made love to it over and over. In fact, every intimacy I experienced with an adult wore a mask of death, and the prospect of losing myself in another person, which is what love is, was fraught with the possibility that I might have to loosen my grip upon the lie I was living. And so, out of fear of discovery, I chose the lie over love.

The victim of childhood abuse, above all, is angry. Angry at what happened, angry at the failure of those close to him to protect him (his parents and guardians), angry at the failure of the world to exact justice - and this is the subtlest and most difficult form of anger to grasp - angry at himself for having absorbed the molestation and yet continuing to live. The very fact of his existence becomes a source of rage for the survivor: I ought not be alive and yet I still am. I do not have the courage to die, yet I ought to be dead. I am betraying myself just as I was betrayed. Life itself becomes a kind of continuation of the molestation. And so you begin to think of yourself as a coward, simply for continuing to live. Life becomes an indictment - every day that you go on living is more and more proof that you have failed in your principal duty in life - to die. And so you long for the death you cannot have, just as you mourn the innocence you have lost and will never recover.

You mourn that loss every day, every hour, with every breath, with every lost love and pointless hope. And so you come to hate yourself, not for anything you have done, but for what you have become - a liar and a coward, betraying himself simply by being alive. And the whole time, of course, you are tortured by the fear that what you suspect may be true, but have not the strength to face. The survivor shrouds himself in a self-imposed exile and a self-sustaining ignorance. And why? Just to be able to go on living. But the irony, of course, is that that living is a form of self-molestation. In this way, your whole adult life becomes a continual re-enactment of the crime committed against you as a child. You never stop living the rape.

Fear, death, shame, loneliness, betrayal, self-hatred, isolation... these are some of the legacies of childhood sexual abuse. And guilt. My God, your whole life, or whatever you manage to construct as your life, is shot through with guilt like a corpse before a firing squad. As a child, when some tragedy occurs, your natural instinct is to blame yourself. I must have done something wrong to be punished in this way, you tell yourself. It must have been my fault. I must have deserved it. And in the case of priest sexual abuse, this guilt is compounded a thousand times by the indoctrination of Catholic education which drums into your head the belief that you are a sinner, filthy and corrupt with sin, who deserves no happiness in this life, and, most likely, will face damnation in the next.

This represents yet another form of the Church's abuse directed at children. It is what I call spiritual terrorism. From my earliest childhood, I was taught, day in and day out in Catholic school, that I was evil, corrupt, a sinner unworthy of salvation and the sacrifice that Christ made for my sake, a hapless soul destined for an eternity of torment in hell... unless I submitted to the authority of the Church. Only through the Church, and its dogmas and its rites and its clergy, could I ever hope to avoid the endless suffering which awaited me as surely as my death awaited me. But I was a child - a tender, sensitive, imaginative child - and in my imagination, these threats became realities. Realities that shaped my thinking, my character, my whole attitude toward life. I absorbed the teachings utterly; I became their product. I was, in some sense, the ideal Catholic school child - a perfectly achieved artifact of the Church's monstrous, uncaring arrogance.

I was taught to hate and distrust life, to scorn happiness, to long for the afterlife, for which only the Church could prepare me. And so I surrendered my soul to the Church, and, in that surrender, my body also became vulnerable. Vulnerable at a time when all children are deeply vulnerable - at puberty. And at that moment, there came the priest to take advantage of the fact (having been transferred yet again in the wake of his pedophilia), and the bishop to cover up for him, and the Vatican to protect them both. The entire, massive structure of the Church, with all its dogmas and its wealth and its solemn rites and its red-robed hierarchy, was in that summer of 1962, ranged against me in a conspiracy to strip me of my innocence.

Was it done consciously? Of course not. But was that the effect on me and on tens of thousands of victim-children like me? Yes. As Solzhenitsyn says, in comparing communism to fascism: It doesn't matter who's holding the gun or why, the effect is the same: a nine millimeter bullet in the back of your head. I will not say that the Catholic Church was intended as a conspiracy against childhood; of course it was not. But it became that through the culpability of its clergy and hierarchy, who used its dogmatic demand that Catholics submit absolutely to its authority or face eternal damnation, in order to place children in a position in which there was no risk of exposure to the criminals. As a child, I never felt for an instant that I had the right to resist or to protest my molestation, and neither would my parents had they known of it.

Denouncing the Church, accusing it of evil, was simply out of the question, at least among that generation of Catholics. Was not the Church founded by Christ himself? Was not the pope infallible? The Church was incapable of error, and the clergy were Godlike creatures who were seen as being above all moral culpability. And so children were made to submit and suffer in silence, and their parents, if they knew or suspected, would rather have sacrificed the innocence of their own children than challenge the sanctity of the Church. In this way, the criminals got away with it - priests and bishops and popes - for decades, for generations, for centuries. Now, at last, that brickface of silent submission is being broached.

Such is the truly pernicious nature of the sexual abuse scandal: In their bestial acts, the priests were, in effect, confirming the worst fears of Church dogma imposed brutally on the minds and hearts of Catholic children. That is why the priest molester tells the victim (as I was told) that you must submit to this, that it is God's will, that it is for your own good. All my life I have detested and fought against that concept - of someone doing something for my own good. All my life I have rejected that suggestion - rejected it with revulsion and contempt. Not until five years ago did I understand the reason why. It is the phony rationale of those who would usurp and strip you of your life, your integrity, your free will; whether mouthed by politicians or priests, it is the mantra of the molester. That was the rationale the priest used in molesting me, and, being a good Catholic child and an exemplary altar boy, I believed him and submitted, and then buried the experience in my psyche, when any normal, right-raised and right-thinking child would have resisted, rebelled, fought back. Or, having been forced to submit, would have at once informed his family and started the process of reprisal. I did none of these things, so conditioned was I by Church teaching to submit unquestioningly to the dictates of the clergy, even to the violation of my body and my soul.

This is what I mean when I say I have concluded that the Catholic Church is a vast conspiracy directed against the innocence of children. Catholic education indoctrinates children to submit absolutely to the authority of the Church and its clergy using the most vile threats. And then that same Church exposes those children to the hideous appetites of pedophile priests - many, many priests, and not just a tiny minority as the Church is now trying to claim. I say again that it is my belief that fully a third of the Roman Catholic clergy have either molested children or have actively covered up the molestation. The abuse of children, not only sexual, but psychological, emotional, and spiritual, is an integral part of the institutional fabric of the Catholic Church. It is an evil institution, which should never have had, and should not now be allowed to have, the care of little children. The scandal is much wider than we know (perhaps than we will ever know), and now, finally, we are seeing proof that it goes much higher than we ever suspected. The current pope was, I am quite certain, himself involved in protecting pedophile priests, and for that he and his minions ought by any civilized norms to be made to suffer the consequences.

Yet he is not, the bishops are not, even many of the priests (like the one in my case) are not. They were, and continue to be, allowed to evade the law and justice. Only the victims are made to live with the consequences of the molestation. And we live with them every day, and often dream about them at night. And when at last we permit ourselves (or simply lose the strength to forbid ourselves) to recollect them, our lives are suddenly stripped naked in the light of truth, much as we were stripped naked by our molesters. And that is another aspect of the horror of molestation: After years of destructive, debilitating efforts to deny the truth, the inevitable recollection of it becomes, in effect, a second molestation. We are raped anew. The truth is every bit as crushing as we suspected it would be - every ounce as devastating.

When I first realized consciously what had happened to me, my immediate uncontrollable reaction was to vomit. Then, like a tsunami of realization, all the meaning of the molestation began crashing over me in wave after wave of revelation - why I had felt so isolated all my life, why I could not form bonds of intimacy, why I felt so alone and lonely and alienated, why I had never found happiness, why I had lived with thoughts of suicide. Even little things about me began to make sense. Why, for example, I obsessively buy flashlights: I am afraid of finding myself suddenly in the dark, without the ability to enlighten my surroundings. Yet I had lived in the dark for forty years, fearing precisely the prospect of enlightenment, all the while cluttering my surroundings with symbols of the means to attain it.

So much, so very much about the way I had lived and felt and thought suddenly began to make sense. It was as if I had been groping in some vast unlighted natural history museum for most of my life, when suddenly the lights snapped on. All at once I could see dioramas framed upon the walls, each lighted in its own lurid glow, depictions in miniature of scenes from my life; in the center, the carefully assembled skeletons of my relationships, grotesque, gaping fossils of failure; and not only that, but other people in that light, and even the floorboards and ceiling tiles and exits and extinguishers hanging on the walls. The revelation was blinding in its scope and intensity and detail. I am still reeling from it, still trying to take it all in.

That is why I am writing these posts - perhaps they will help me to make sense of all this new insight; perhaps they will help others as well. I have only just begun. As a survivor and as a writer I feel that I have a moral duty to do this - to give a voice and a face and viscera to this terrible truth for the sake of everyone who has suffered it. I have been blessed with the ability to put truths into words - that is what a writer does, it is what he is. And that is what I will try to do, for my sake, and for the sake of all those others - my brothers and sisters in spirit - who understand in their flesh and in their souls what I am now striving to put into words.