I cannot separate myself from my church, even now, fifty years after I swore it off.
I was in the fourth grade. A nun, my teacher, ignored my doctor’s orders for half-day attendance and endangered what had been a slow, tough recovery from pneumonia. On my first day back to school after a month spent fighting the virus, and despite the note and despite my grandmother sitting in the car in front of the school, the nun refused to let me move from my desk. At 6 p.m. I was finally rescued.
I’d had no lunch, of course, because I was supposed to leave at noon, and by then I was late for dinner. “You will never catch up unless you stay,” this nun said, typically tight-lipped, correcting my papers as I completed them. “You’re going to flunk out.” Why can’t I remember her name?
It was a face-off, just she and I alone in a large empty classroom. The papers rustled back and forth between us as the hours crawled by. I got weaker. I despaired as she shoved one history lesson after another at me to read, as if it were possible to make up more than a month of missed lessons in an afternoon. After each lesson she tested me. It was like being force-fed or made to run endless laps in the pitch black. I remember when the words stopped making sense.
This isn’t a metaphor for sexual abuse. It wasn’t sexual abuse. It was how the nuns at this school operated, with the full knowledge of the parish that supported the school’s operation.
In a way, I was lucky. That wintry afternoon in southern California, as bad as it was for me, ended my connection with the Catholics. I sat at my desk in a puddle of sweat, needing to pee and drink water. I worried, like only a child could do, that I would disappoint my mother and my grandmother for not following the doctor’s directions. He had been so firm. And I worried about my poor grandmother, sitting outside in her car wondering where the hell I was. She would never have presumed to come into the classroom and question the nun.
I knew I was locked into something dreadful with that sister. This wasn’t another fever dream like those I had during the pneumonia. This nightmare was real and I sat three feet from it. Most of her was hidden. Everything except her hands and her face were blacked out by the yards of cloth. She was hard to look at. Contrasting white cloth wrapped tight around her face, pushing and pinching. I never saw a pretty nun. Their faces were fleshy and contorted. They were soft, hairy-browed animations of disdain, rage, unmet expectations. Jowls quavered. Lips pursed.
She couldn’t care less whether I flunked out of fourth grade. This was punishment, not schooling and not make-up sessions. And I was too helpless to do anything but comply. Compliance was part of the training there, no matter the perversion befalling you. We took it all.
When my mother walked in, I was weak and sweaty and had a fever of 102. My grandmother, an Irish Catholic taught to fear God and the church, didn’t budge from her car till my mother found her and sent her home in disgust. When I tried, finally, to stand up, my knees buckled and I collapsed back into my seat. Thank god my mother was an atheist. Eventually that same church excommunicated her for divorcing my father, a man who beat her and held a gun to her head. He remarried in the church. When he died, recently, the priest at the funeral claimed my father was special, that a brilliant light shone from his eyes as his passing neared.
The church was my first and most influential culture, a magical place where eyes glowed from holy cards and the fires of hell raged in lunatic story hours. It was medieval and savage and sensually acute. This is where I steeped, absorbing a rich infusion that, as I look back on it, crafted a gorgeously ornate and rich world that transported me time and again to Jesus and Mary’s loving arms.
This is the world I inhabited six days a week. It reprogrammed me and made me who I am, highly attuned to the sensual and the perverse. That world was dark and echo-y. There was the suffocating fog of incense, pain from endless kneeling, graphic crucifixes in your face replete with streams of Jesus’ blood and the scarlet holes where thorns pierced his forehead and giant nails pinned him to the cross. There were the coloring books with pictures of hell we labored over with red crayons while a nun narrated what happens in hell — “your nerve endings burn,” “even your ashes burn.” We starved on Fridays till high Mass around noon. My classmates made little cooing sounds as they wilted from hunger and the choking incense.
The golden goblet sparkled through the incense fog as the priest lifted it up in the candlelight toward heaven.
Nuns slapped boys and girls and shoved the children under their desks. These little people, dressed in their uniforms, crouched under there, facing 50 or 60 classmates way too shamed to make eye contact. Shame was universal there, easy to learn and close to impossible to unlearn. I had a nun who made students wear a dunce cap. Sometimes she walked a small child into the paper storage room where that little 6- or 7-year-old stood till the day was over, dunce cap balanced on top of tiny head. There was my year of first grade that never seemed to end. We spent hours writing the asinine letter “a” till our hands ached and cramped up. Only the poor saps who didn’t understand how sadism worked allowed themselves to cry.
I read a column in the New York Times. Maureen Dowd says let there be a female pope. The men have done enough damage, she says. Yes, they have, all under the auspices of a complicit institution.
Let the church collapse. Free those workers, the nuns and priests who still have goodness and desire to help. We’ve been victims of its methods and its culture for far too long.
With all its pomp and ritual and ceremony, my church mesmerized me. There is something wrong with a posture that is prostate and compliant. I, like my grandmother, was intoxicated by the imagery, denial, punishment, sacrifice and hours of draining worship. Maybe it happened to many more than I realize. Maybe that’s why we still haven’t been able to put an end to the Catholic Church as we know it. We are still hypnotized.