I think I was seven years old. I was standing in the main floor bathroom of our house. It was a Sunday morning and my mother was combing my hair, getting us ready to go to mass at St. Theresa's down the street. As I stood there, I stared wistfully off into space and said, "I wish I'd never been born." I probably would never have remembered saying this but for what immediately followed: my mother slapped me and said, “Don’t you ever say that again! That’s a mortal sin!”**
I hadn’t thought of this incident in quite a while, but it came up in the conversation with a friend the other day—one of those circuitous conversations that covers a lot of ground and ends up someplace one never anticipated. She had made a comment about Catholic guilt. Having been raised Catholic, I laughed and said, “Oh, I never suffered much from that, except when I was little.” That’s when the memory came back and I told her about it.
Funny, how saying something out loud to someone else about one’s past gives it a life it never had while ensconced within one’s mind, silent and brooding and … disguised as “normal.”
A look passed over my friend’s face. “Imagine,” I continued, feeling the rush of air whoosh into a long-sealed space, “a seven year old boy making a statement like that. Why would a seven year old boy make a statement like that?” (And, parenthetically, why would a parent respond the way mine did?) It was a rhetorical question, of course, one for which my friend didn’t have, and wasn’t expected to have, an answer.
I don't, either. Why, indeed? I don’t remember exactly why I said that—in other words, what had prompted that declaration on that Sunday morning—but I know in general terms. That statement stands like a verdict in a courtroom upon my childhood, a childhood that to this day remains veiled in obscurity, in forgotten-ness. But the verdict stands, brought forcefully home by my mother’s reaction. Again, but for that reaction, for that slap, I perhaps would not have remembered this incident. It was part of my normal, a normal I didn’t start examining until I was in my mid-30’s.
That was when another memory that had lain only partly submerged in forgotten-ness, like a ghostly shipwreck, had come to the surface. (There were many other incidents that were attested to by my older siblings, that happened to me, but which I cannot remember.) It was summer. It happened, I think, only a few months after the face-slapping incident. My mother was holding both sides of my head in her hands and banging the back of it, repeatedly, against the plaster wall of our dining room as she yelled at me. To this day, I cannot remember what I had done, what had prompted this attack. But I remember the power, the violence, the fear, the pain, and the total and complete lack of control—all of the elements that trigger dissociation. Like so many incidents, it was filed in my memory under “this is my normal”—until a counselor—Dr. Gabor Maté, whom I have mentioned in a previous post—raised it to the surface almost 30 years later and made me face it.
“Joe,” he had said, “you have a seven-year-old daughter. Could you imagine doing to her what your mother did to you?” I recoiled in horror and said, “No!”
“Well, your mother did it to you. Think about that.”
I did, and I have. I guess I thought about it again in light of my conversation with my friend. These things, like other things that have happened in my life, shed their disguise of “normality” when I tell others about them and see the reaction on their faces and something somewhere deep inside of me shifts, alerting me to a subterranean fault.
I don’t write these things to indict my mother. Rather, I simply stand—much as that seven-year-old boy (who was me, I have to remind myself) did, reflecting, looking wistfully off into the space of time, memory and meaning—and ask “Why?” ... Trying to understand the child that grew into the (suddenly gay) adolescent that grew into the (closeted, in so many ways) man.
** I knew my catechism, having just made my first confession and my first communion. (See photo—I’m standing in front of Sister Mary Josine, my second-grade teacher.) I knew what a mortal sin was. It meant I was going to hell.