Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Christianity For Dummies

[Reminder: Some of my posts, including this one, are memoirs of my abusive childhood. In this post I'm relating events that happened during from summer 1958 through winter 1959. The links to the right can be used to follow backward through the memoirs, or to restrict viewing to other kinds of posts.]

[Above: Some results of a "for dummies" image search. At least three of them are real books.]

After a couple of weeks my Grandmother returned to her house and my Mother and I went back to living in the garage. I turned 9. We lived there, just the two of us, from summer through fall and part of that winter, while my Father finished out his duty in Taiwan. There was a great deal of sexual abuse. It's difficult to estimate the number of rapes that I endured but there was at least one incident per week.

That fall I started 4th grade at the same Van Asselt Elementary school where I had started 3rd.

My social life was complicated by the fact that my two best friends were brothers living next door, one a year older and one a year younger, and the two of them didn't want to hang out with each other.

I tried to look for a girlfriend but ran smack into the "boys of that age don't like girls" mythology that is so entrenched in American culture. It's one of my biggest regrets in life that I caved into the peer pressure and not only stopped looking for a new girlfriend but pretended I didn't like girls to get by. The regret probably fueled a lot of my determination to not conform later.

The combination of sexual abuse and sporadic social isolation led to long bouts of day-dreaming. At that time most of the day-dreaming was the sort that everyone expects of a 9 year-old. I used the apricot tree in our back yard for a space ship, and flew it to Mars. The old decrepit tool shed, underneath which my Grandfather, when he was alive, raised chickens and rabbits, had a raised sheltered entrance big enough for two adults to stand on. It was my time machine.

Christmas was memorable because we had a plastic tree that stood about 14 inches tall on our coffee table. I loved it.

At school I tested high on math and was separated every day for an hour from my 4th grade class-mates so I could attend math period with a 5th grade class. I still complained of boredom, but was told flatly that I wouldn't be allowed to skip any further ahead, for now.

Throughout all this time I was attending weekly Sunday School classes. My Mother had been brought up Baptist but publicly converted to my Father's Episcopalianism. She kept up appearances by attending Trinity Episcopal on First Hill with my Father's other relations. The church had a Sunday School class that met in the basement at the same time as the service they all attended, so that us fidgety bored kids could be educated in the ways of God, and not disrupt mass.

Being an avid learner, I tried very hard to make what I was taught my own. I paid close attention to all the doctrine and tried to figure out how it could made sense to me.

I'm convinced converts never really believe what people born into a religion believe about it. This applied to my Mother, whose Baptist fatalism did not get replaced. It also applies to people we don't necessarily think of as converts. For instance, say some guy is raised as a Christian, then decides as an adult there is no God. We wouldn't say he was a convert, but he is willing a convert to atheism. It's been my observation of such people that no matter how confirmed they are in their atheism, they always bring to it most of the same metaphysical assumptions they had as Christians. They'll also bring a lot of the social mores and habits. If they come from a proselytizing tradition, they will still proselytize, for atheism now. If they were brought up Puritanical, they will still confuse serious with somber.

I began as a polytheist. I was prepared to drop that for Christian dogma, but I couldn't easily jettison the metaphysical underpinnings of polytheism. I tried anyway.

A turning point occurred soon after my Father came back from Taiwan. He came back some time around January of 1959. He still wasn't around all the time because he had to commute to and from Fort Lewis a lot.

One day while he was gone my Grandmother was sitting on her living room couch and talking to me, while my Mother was in the basement using Grandmother's washing machine. Grandma stopped talking in mid-sentence, in mid-word even. Her mouth was still open to pronounce the word she was saying, but the sound stopped. After a minute I panicked. I waved my hands in front of her face and shouted. She sat there like a statue. I was witnessing one of her strokes for the first time.

To be clear, I didn't know that this was another of a string of strokes. I hadn't witnessed the previous strokes, so I didn't know this was in any way the same.

I was afraid she was going to die. She already looked dead.

My Mother called an ambulance and Grandmother went back to the hospital.

That Sunday I insisted on attending Mass with my parents for the first time, because the mythology was that I needed to pray for my Grandmother to get well, and praying supposedly worked better in church.

I was aware of everybody around thinking I was cute, praying so hard for Grandma. The minister was told about it after the service and I overheard him remarking what a fine, pious, boy I was becoming.

A few days later Grandma had recovered and came back home, and I was sure my praying had helped bring that outcome about. I remarked to that effect to my parents. They just laughed, and said, "You know, it was the 6th or 7th stroke she's had. She lived through the others without your help."

It completely demolished the fragile hold I had on Christian mythology. I had to start all over trying to make sense of it with the new understanding that what I got told in the Sunday School classes was just the simplified Christianity for Dummies version.

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