Sunday, February 20, 2011

Brothers keepers

I attended a Catholic high school in Philadelphia run by the Christian Brothers. Known best, I suppose, for their undrinkable swill of wine, the Brothers are a very old teaching order of men who conduct a network of schools, colleges and reformatories around the world.

When I was a student at West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys in the 1960s, the Brothers still wore black cassocks and a peculiar little white celluloid collar in the shape of a pair of tombstones. They affected religious names like Pius and Fidelis of Mary, lived communally in a rectory adjacent to the school, and observed a vow of celibacy.

Most of us boys were in awe of them, as we had been conditioned to regard all members of the clergy, male and female, as a special species apart from humanity. In fact, when I was very young and in a Catholic elementary school, I thought there were four types of human beings: men, women, priests and nuns. The Brothers were no exception. As Catholic clergy, they seemed to us, and to our parents, to exist in a world apart; celibate, sequestered, indeed, secretive in their daily routine and communal activities.

We boys also feared the Christian Brothers, and with good reason. In those days (though I understand that this has changed) they enforced discipline with intimidation, bullying and brutality. That some people still look back on such behavior with a kind of grim fondness is a curious and, in my view, pitiable practice. Often I witnessed the brow-beatings and physical beatings which misbehavior or lack of respect provoked. I watched a Brother slap a friend of mine so hard that the boy was propelled out of his chair, hitting his head on the chalkboard, nearly knocking him out. I witnessed another Brother hit a boy across the buttocks with a two-by-four plank (which he called the Board of Education), and when the boy, at the last instant, put his hand behind him to shield himself, the blow crushed his graduation ring on his finger, so that he had to be taken to the hospital to have it cut off.

Insults, mockeries, slappings and beatings were part of the routine of the school. In fairness, however, I must add that we received a good quality of education, and many of us were fond of the Brothers who taught us, considered them friends and advisers, and remain grateful to them for the sense of discipline and self-control which their treatment of us engendered. It was not all fear and trembling; the Brothers seemed genuinely to enjoy teaching us, could be great fun, and made deep and lasting impressions on most of us.

But there was one aspect of the Brothers' lives that, while apparent to a few of us at the time, did not become clear until much later. Many of the Brothers -- I would say, most of them -- were gay. Some were so flamboyantly so that their homosexuality, in some cases their femininity, was evident to even the most thick-headed and naive among us. Others were more adept at concealing it. But in the decades since my graduation, it has become clear to me that most of them had entered the order either to deny their sexuality, or to gain access to boys.

Looking back on my years at the Brothers' school, I can recall that there were one or two incidents which must have involved sexual scandal between Brothers and boys. I remember that one Brother simply disappeared from the school, which was then flooded with rumors that he had seduced a boy. If that was so, it was quickly and thoroughly covered up. That others did so I have no doubt, and either got away with it or had their crimes concealed, as is the long established practice of the Church. There can be little doubt, as well, that Brothers engaged in homosexual activity within the confines of the communal residence. Personally, I know of at least one such incident. When we add to this the fact, of which I am aware, that alcohol was widely and lavishly used by the Brothers, sexual activity would seem to have been inevitable.

Some years after I left the school, in the Eighties I think it was, the Christian Brothers imploded. The order dissolved in a whirlpool of self-examination and self-scrutiny; most of the Brothers left, and many of the others dispersed into communities of laymen outside the strict control of the archdiocese. They changed their names, abandoned their clerical garb, and the order itself seemed paralyzed by self-doubt and a desperate search for identity.

Why this was so I never learned. Even the former Brothers with whom I remained in touch would not discuss it. It was as if what had happened was some shameful secret, some mutual admission of concupiscence, that none of them wanted to disclose; indeed, it was almost as if they had sworn an oath of secrecy.

In looking back on my experience with them, however, I think that what probably happened was that increasing instances of sexual molestation of boys caused the Brothers (who may have been more honest among themselves than were the priests) to examine as an order their behavior and the reasons for the members assuming their vocations. I suspect that in the course of that self-examination they were forced to admit that the motives for their having joined the brotherhood were grounded more in their sexuality than in their spirituality. In short: They had to confront the fact that they had become Brothers for the wrong reason.

And so a large number of them quit the order and returned to lay life. There, I expect, they either married in order to continue their self-deception (I know of one or two instances of this), or admitted finally to their homosexuality and entered that lifestyle. But this is only what I surmise; I do not claim to know it for a fact, and would appreciate hearing from former Brothers or people close to the order who can throw light upon the subject.

However the larger issue does seem clear: Like the priests and nuns with whom they served, the Brothers' vocations were motivated in large part by a conflict over their sexual identities which they strove either to legitimize (indeed, to sanctify) by their religious service; or, more diabolically, their joining was nothing less than a calculated attempt on their part to gain easy access to adolescent boys in order to satisfy their own bestial appetites. In concert with this, the Church of course displayed its habitual crass and cruel cynicism by concealing, abetting and even spreading the disease of child abuse, while holding up the Brothers as pure examples of the celibate service of God.

Let me state again that I do not say that all of the Brothers were either gay or pedophiles, but in my experience, a large number were gay and a few, I suspect, were pedophiles. Of some I have nothing but fond and grateful memories, since those men, whose vocation to educate boys was true and noble, expressed a genuine desire to teach and guide us. I could name them here (some undoubtedly were gay), since they remain in my memory and in my esteem. But it seems to me that they were in the minority, and that the sense of guilt suffered and crimes committed by their fellows, together with the heinous efforts of the hierarchy to aid and protect them, unfortunately must outweigh the selfless service of the remainder.

Once again, I do not claim to know these things; only that I have reason to believe that they are so. Therefore, I invite anyone who knew the Brothers in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties to write and inform me. Is my recollection that most of the Brothers were gay correct? And why, in fact, did the Brothers undergo such seismic shaking as I was aware of in the years following my experience with them? I would very much like to know.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hardly Biutiful

Last night I saw Inarritu's new film, "Biutiful," starring Javier Bardem. I won't say much about it except that my greatest regret is that I did not walk out after the first excruciating hour (of two-and-a-half). I don't know who thinks this sort of film edifying, enlightening or beautiful, I but am not one of them. I found it self-indulgent, plangent, over-wrought and utterly lacking in either insight or revelation.

Leaving aside the fact that fully forty minutes of this hyper-depressing tale could have been cut without loss, I find myself still wondering what it was all meant to be about. There was absolutely no logic to the structure, which meandered from doldrum to doldrum apparently without concern for either the characters or the audience, leading me to observe to my companion that the film might never actually end. There was no reason for it to do so, since there was neither plan nor point in its interminable concatenation of scenes. "We could be here until next year," I whispered, and, indeed, by the time the film finally panted to a conclusion, it felt as if we had been.

I don't want to devote much more time to it. Bardem, who has shown himself to be a very good actor, was inexorably blue (literally and figuratively), maintained an unchanging dreary expression, unshaved, unrelieved, and uninspired. His wife, as a character, is not to be mentioned: so utterly worthless and hapless as to be comical in her more plaintive moments. A whining bipolar whore who alternately dotes on, beats and abandons her children, she claims resurrection by virtue of staring into a light box. This would have been funny if there were not children involved.

As for the two-score Chinese peasants washed up on the shores of Barcelona (one of whom ends up stuck to the ceiling in the main character's apartment); the main character's claim to be able to speak to the dead (for money), a subplot that goes nowhere; the homosexual subplot of the Chinese sweatshop managers that goes nowhere; the politically correct subplot of the Senegalese drug traffickers, that goes nowhere (the wife of one is last seen taking a train from Barcelona to Senegal - a train!); and the repeated scenes of domestic eating, bloody urination, counting and recounting Euros, the less said the better.

To those of you who may have seen the film I offer this warning: Forget opening the fridge in your bare feet -- watch out for the damn space heaters.

Decline and Fall

Somehow I had managed to get through my entire education and the decades since without having read Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Such gaps in my learning sometimes assault me, and remind me that I am not nearly as smart as I allow myself, at the best of times, to think. But when my son mentioned that he was reading it, I realized my deficit and resolved to redress it.

Unfortunately, the very large volume of reading I have to do for work leaves me little time to read for pleasure. Then, on a visit to a record store (Remember those?) to buy my little one some Beatles and Stones to feed his growing appetite for what he thinks of as classics, I wandered over to the spoken word section, and found there a six-CD recording of Gibbon's masterwork. This was my chance, I realized: "Decline and Fall" in the car during my commutes, with scarcely an effort on my part. I bought it, and put it into the CD player.

That was six-CD's ago, and I am much the better for it. The book is, in fact, a monument; itself a kind of Coliseum of history and literature. How I missed it for so long I cannot say, but I wish that someone in my endless years of education had forced me, or at least encouraged me, to read it.

The prose, alone, is worth the time, and the reading, by a Welsh actor named Philip Madoc, makes it even more so. The book was written between 1770 and 1790, and the sad fact is that no one writes like this anymore. It is quite simply the most elegant, lyrical and lucid prose I have read in a very long time. In American literature, only William James's "Varieties of Religious Experience" and Grant's "Memoirs" come close for clarity and beauty of expression. Gibbons' prose reminds us of the vast riches of the English language, and Madoc's reading, of the lustrous beauty of it. If God had a voice and could speak, this is what he would sound like.

As for its historicity, I have some reservations. Gibbon engages at times in such sweeping generalizations of so breathtaking a scope as no modern historian would permit himself. Nonetheless, his portraits and insights, his judgments and conclusions evince a wisdom and depth of reflection that set the work apart. It is beautiful literature and compelling history.

That said, I find, regretfully, that I must agree with those who cite "Decline and Fall" as a cautionary tale to our own civilization. Gibbon, of course, did not have America in mind when he wrote his history, but some of his more insightful observations seem to have been written as if he had. When Gibbon reflects that Rome had lost its spirit of vigor, that its citizens had chosen the common level over the pursuit of excellence, and that their focus on pleasures and material comfort had sapped the empire of its strength, he may as well have been talking about us. Continual involvement in foreign wars, together with a complacent and comfortable life at home contributed to the empire's fall. Not to mention the accumulation of debt which made Rome weak internally, and vulnerable to its barbarian neighbors; the systematic destruction of the best in society together with the punishing of excellence and initiative, and the increasing laxity and ignorance of its citizens marked the empire for inevitable doom.

Foreign wars, domestic laxity, debt, popular ignorance, and the pursuit of the common and comfortable instead of the fostering of excellence... it sounds all too familiar. I think that Gibbon would recognize the symptoms today, and that he would offer his opinion that the decline of our civilization is as unmistakable as the fall is inevitable.