'He Has Told Me Awful Things'
By Charles Rowan Beye
Courtesy Charles Rowan Beye
Any honest emotional bond between my mother and me died within a 24-hour period in late April, a month after my 16th birthday, when in fact my world came apart completely. One day, I was sunning myself on a blanket while reading a book when Mother returned home, came to the porch, and summoned me in. The tone of her voice was a premonition; the look on her face made me steady myself to keep from fainting.
“I have just been talking with Father Putnam,” she began in the coldest, most serious voice I think I had ever heard her use. “He has told me awful things--”
Waves of reaction crashed into my brain with howling sounds. I was desperately attempting to gain a purchase as the ground shifted, swayed, opened under me. Aristotle defined that moment in tragedy when the character realizes everything as anagnorisis. The moment, for instance, when Oedipus realizes that he is not the successful king of Thebes so much as the murderer of his father and the bed partner of his mother, the taboo figure created by a destiny that mocked his pathetic attempts to escape his fate. This was that moment for me. I think of the scene in the MGM film Marie Antoinette when Norma Shearer as the doomed queen is shown in close-up after the lackey has looked at the coin in his hand and realized that Robert Morley is Louis XVI in disguise. They are in their coach at Varennes trying to flee France, and at that moment reality shatters the delusion. I do not know how much I must credit to innocence and naïveté, how much to denial, but whereas I had been blind before, suddenly in a flash I saw it all. The jeers of the students, the cruel barbs I could somehow let pass me by. They did not describe for me my condition, my situation. But that cold, precise voice coming from those almost pursed lips: “That your name is written on lavatory walls. That you are doing terrible things. I don’t understand what he is talking about.” That hit home. She shivered, shook herself as though to dislodge the incubus: “Horrible, terrible.” I began to cry. Everything was being taken from me. I had no foundation any longer. I felt myself sinking into some limbo where I was alone and without shape or form. “You must go talk with Father Putnam. I will send you to a psychiatrist.” I sobbed harder. Now it turned out I was crazy!
There I sat in the living room, by the picture window, the sun cloaking me in warmth... but no, that was not it at all, no, it was the sun like a naked bulb over the culprit’s head as he is worked over by some detectives attached to the precinct. And there across from me, somewhat by contrast harder to see -- or was I blinded by my shame and guilt? -- stood Mother. And then she was gone. Without extending a hand toward me, without any further remarks, she left the room. We were never to speak of this again in the eight years that remained of her life. In fact, we never had another honest conversation.
How strange and sad it is that for the next 60 years I never questioned her response. That she did not sit by me, put her arm around me, tell me she loved me, cry with me over my sorrows, did not seem unusual to me then. Father Putnam, our Episcopal priest, changed for me into a monster of betrayal. Why did he not come to me first, talk with me, who was his acolyte at Holy Communion almost every Sunday, who was so often the crucifer at the later service, who was president of the St. Vincent’s Guild, the association of altar boys, at the church? How, I have often asked myself, could this brash young priest, new to the parish, have gone up to a woman on the street as indeed he had and delivered such information? How could he have been so blind to the limitations of understanding in a woman who was so obviously a product of a Victorian-Edwardian upbringing? One wonders at the fact that he went on to become the bishop of Oklahoma and was much praised by the people there at his death. At the risk of judging, which the Lord says is a dubious practice, I say that the swine had much to answer for when he met his Maker.
At Mother’s request -- “hysterical demand” perhaps is better -- I went to see him. He urged that we descend to our knees and recite the prayer of general confession together. When we got to the words, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” and I realized that he wanted us to have in mind the behavior that he had brought to my mother’s attention, I could not, would not submit to such self-condemnation. If nothing else, I knew in my heart and would go to the stake in my belief that I was without blame or sin for wanting sex with another male, of this I remained convinced, and I rose and walked out the door and I never entered a church again as a communicant.
I set off for the appointment with the psychiatrist the following day in complete terror. His office was in the psychiatric hospital, not too distant a walk from our home. It was not quite 24 hours since Mother had accosted me. Since then she had spoken to me in measured, somber tones of trivial matters upon the occasions that brought us together. I truly felt that I was going to go mad, such was the turmoil of emotions that I could no longer identify, sort out, or manage. Most of all I was trying to resist being suffused with guilt and shame. The absolute joy and excitement of sucking cocks, of taking cock up my ass, had suddenly become dirty, degraded. God, Church, priest, Mother -- all called me dirty. I kept hearing Mother’s “your name on lavatory walls.” In my mind I saw the words CHARLIE SUCKS COCK as I had never seen them before. The mechanism of denial that had protected me up to this point failed, when, as it were, my mother, our priest, and the institution of God’s Church stood beside me in the smelly men’s room looking at the grimy off-white tile wall with the pen marks on it: charlie sucks cock. I had never felt so depleted; I wanted to kill myself. Before meeting with Father Putnam I had gone to the library just across the street from the Episcopal church to look up something on mushrooms, on poisons, but I was so sunk into depression that I could not even read what I was looking at. Now I struggled to walk smartly down the sidewalk that took me to the office of Dr. Miller. He, as fate would have it, looked very much like my late father: gray at the temples, a mustache, steely eyes, a severe compression of his lips when in repose. I quailed.