Every time I read about “ruined lives” in accounts of sex abuse I’m stopped in my tracks. Have all the survivors of clergy sex abuse and all other forms—including most recently and notoriously the Sandusky case—described their own lives as ‘ruined?’ In some cases, perhaps many, for sure, but the assumption that everyone who has endured abuse is burdened by a ‘ruined’ life is ill-founded and might well add more pain to the victim, or survivor, or, as I like to call myself in a very different context, the veteran.
I’m a veteran not of sex abuse but of Catholic family violence. By the time I was four years old my father was cracking me with great ardor on both sides of the head and face, and it was clear from the very beginning the punishment was in response to my failure to honor that ‘Christian moral order’ mandated if never explicitly articulated as judge—and jury–of the sole acceptable mode of behavior. This went on till I finally left home. Decades later I’d receive the all-too-obvious diagnosis of ADHD, but for as long as I lived in my father’s home I was possessed instead with satanic-inspired rotten kid syndrome (Yes I Am blessed with a sense of humor: the hi and lo-jinx kick in at around the 20 minute mark on here).
My father’s semi-exalted standing in the Roman Catholic Church was infinitely more important to him than the challenges faced by members of his family. My father appeared resplendent on the altar every weekend of my childhood in some capacity; his life blessed and lauded by parish priests and bishops alike. My mother talked even more profligately and even faster than I did, but her inability to self-advocate resulted eventually in electro-shock treatments and death by starvation. I chose to get knocked on my ass if that was the price of climbing back upright to witness to my own human experience and convictions. So be it.
Years later I made a decent living teaching and writing about the astonishing ways that an unseen invisible religious force could shape human consciousness and behavior. I wonder sometimes if I’m alone–working in a Catholic studies-related vocation—in knowing from this violent dimension of personal religious experience, for violence was in fact an integral component of the religion I was born with. Only since my father’s death last autumn have some relatives on my mother’s side come forward to opine: It’s a miracle you survived. I’m not yet certain how I feel about that.
But this was fifteen years after my autistic son was born. Following a brief period of self-pity shortly after Charlie’s diagnosis, it began to dawn on me that I’d been through an analogous experience as a kid—seeing the world blow up around me for no apparent reason or conscious intention of my own–that might prove of some value as we walk with Charlie toward his own achievement of self-advocacy. And so it has been; you just never know whence this journey together tends!
I do believe my life was profoundly altered not ruined by fifteen years of abusive religious violence. It’s true I have endured a lifetime of nightmares of a corpulent, pink-faced individual kneeling on my chest til I wake up silently screaming for breath. Far more troubling is the pain I caused myself, and others in subsequent years. For that I alone am responsible. So I’m a veteran, I’m responsible and my life was profoundly altered but not ruined via fifteen years of Catholic family violence, which differs from other forms of violence for being validated theologically. That’s why when I hear ‘natural law,’ I immediately lapse from the rhetorical style favored in refined, polite Catholic discourse.
Natural law is the official ideology of the Christian moral order the bishops would like to see enshrined as the foundation of U.S. public policy. It is also the ideology of cover-up and intellectual dishonesty: the bishops won’t even acknowledge natural law as uniquely their ideology, claiming instead it is the objective truth of the universe and woe unto those who do seek to evade its well-ordered logics. Since my life was altered not ruined, I’m here to witness to the collateral damage in human lives—and the ongoing violence committed against intellectual honesty—this Catholic-industrial complex wrought. We advocate a preferential option against its revival.