I’m a Recovering Catholic
I am a recovering Catholic. I cannot recall when I first became aware of God’s gentle side. For me “God the Father” was an unpredictably angry, frightening, vengeful God. He may have given us our daily bread, but the price he exacted in sacrifice even to the point of filiocide was disturbingly high. All in all I heard far more about the snares and temptations devised by Satan than I did of God’s love. I recall learning about the various kinds of sin– original, venial and mortal sin; so, consequently I grew up with an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt. Holy Mass and the sacraments meant nothing to me–except for the sacrament of confession, which I used compulsively as often as I could to relieve my guilt-feelings. By the time I was five, I was forced to attend Mass with my mother every Sunday morning as well as on feast days and on the first Friday of the month. I was so bored at mass especially during the sermons that I often read the funnies or religious comic books, when I was lucky enough to find them at the church entrance. Although mother and I were Catholics; my father was a Wagnerian. He stayed home and listened to the metropolitan opera broadcasts on the radio instead.
When I was seven years old I was packed off to St. John’s Military Academy, where I was indoctrinated with traditional Catholic doctrine and developed guilt feelings particularly regarding my sexuality which manifested itself in compulsive masturbation. The nuns tormented me with their images of Hell and Satan who I feared would punish me if I continued to play with myself and was not a “good boy.” I tried to control myself, but I just couldn’t, and this struggle became the centerpiece of my religious experience. It was almost as if my cock became my cross; it caused me so much guilt and grief.
St. John’s was conveniently located a stone’s throw away from my grandparent’s house in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. I was sent there, I was told, because I was so “impossible.” Didn’t anybody realize that I was so “impossible” because I was angry about not getting enough love and attention? I called my mother “Madole,” because I was not able to pronounce her mother’s nick-name for her, “ma jolie.” She seemed to be more interested in her art than in me. Sometimes she encouraged me to draw pictures myself, but then she would draw or paint over them to improve them and show them off pretending they still were my work. I felt so embarassed and inadequate! Usually, though, she would just dump me in her studio with a lump of clay and tell me to amuse myself with it until she she had finished her own art work. I was so bored and felt so lost and lonely there I didn’t know what to do. I had a hard time finding ways to amuse myself; so my theme song became a plaintive “What can I do now, Madole?”
It seemed as if I was always getting into trouble with my teachers and classmates. I was filled with hostility and had difficulty learning to obey rules. I recall once at St. John’s being ordered to write the pre-meal grace a thousand times because I had whispered to my neighbour during the silence which we were supposed to observe before our mealtime prayers. Having misunderstood the assignment, I wrote the word “Grace,” a thousand times instead of writing out the whole prayer, thereby getting into deeper trouble by the minute. I seemed to attract calamity wherever I went.
I am eight years old, in the third grade at St.John’s. It is the end of a long Parent’s Day, and the whole student body is parading in dress uniforms. We are ordered to present our arms, holding heavy rifles vertically in front of us for what seems like an eternity. My white gloves have gotten dirty. My shoes are dusty. My weapon is too heavy. I can’t hold the rifle up any more. I panic and start to tremble. I’m sure I’m going to drop my gun. Then I’ll get punished with more demerits and more penances.
“Mary, Mother of God, get me out of this horrible place, please!”
A few moments later I am in deep shit again. This time I have turned left instead of right and marched off in the wrong direction, away from my platoon. “Stupid jerk!” someone hollers. They think I’m stupid because I don’t know my left hand from my right, but it’s hard to think when you’re terrified. My mind goes blank and my stomache rolls up into my throat. To punish me the student officers hit me on the head with heavy books or, better yet, jab a rifle butt into my groin. “Jesus, have mercy upon me. Mary, Mother of God, get me out of this hell hole, please!”
Now Sgt. French, a fat student non-commissioned officer, a real pig, orders me to run laps around the football field. My side is aching and I feel as if I’m about to die of exhaustion.
“Are you tired?” French calls out tauntingly
“Yes,” I splutter, naively thinking the ordeal Is about to end. “Then run some more, you little bastard; you’re obviously out of shape.”
I don’t believe this. My God! Doesn’t the fucker realize I’m about to expire?
“Are you tired now?” he taunts, as I come around again.
This is a trap, I know. I am exhausted but I must not admit it so I say. “I’m OK.”
“Then you can run a few more laps. It’s good for you. We’ll get you into shape yet” he said laughing sadistically.
I could have killed him right then, and might have tried given the opportunity, but I was powerless and totally at his mercy. I’ll never forget my experiences of sadism and injustice at that Catholic military school. Like God and the Devil, the sabre and the cowl combined to impress us with the power and capriciousness of their authority.
Years later I saw the film “Sleepers,” which depicts extreme cruelty and sexual abuse in a reform school. Although it was hard to sromach, it reminded me so much of my painful childhood that I returned to see it several times.
As a love child I feel ashamed. The nuns tell me that I was born in sin. I am a little bastard.
“But I was adopted,” I say. “Is it my fault that my mother did not marry my father before I was born? Or after?”
“Silence! Don’t be impertinent,” Sister says to me angrily.
She explains that I’m not unique. We are all stained with original sin. Like a dirty milk bottle. You can see the picture in the Baltimore Catechism. But I find this hard to accept and tell her I think it is simply not true.
“Why must you go on and on about sin, if God is love?” I ask. “If He is a truly loving and just God, why would He be so unloving and unjust to innocent children?”
Sister is shocked, she says. “You’d better repent soon or else God will punish you for your sinful pride, and you will burn in hell, or in purgatory if you don’t change your tune. I promise you that. God is not mocked.”
I recall being particularly terrified by frightening stories of hellfire and damnation told to me by an old nun at the convent near my grandmother’s house where my mother parked me after school. Her name was Mother St. Valerian. She seemed ancient to me. She pierced right through my defences with her penetrating dark little eyes. I had offended her because I was unwilling to take the Bible at face value and insisted that the whole story of the original sin of Adam seemed unbelievable and unjust. It seemed unfair to me that God, who was said to know everything, should tempt Adam, especially if in his omniscience he knew the eventual result already. I found it impossible to accept the injustice of a God who blamed not only Adam but also his children, and most particularly me, for this original sin of disobedience perpetrated by Adam, our distant ancestor.
Finally, warning me that God would certainly punish me for my blasphemy, old Mother Valerian accompanied me home one day in disgrace to confront my family about my insolence. I recall standing in terror before my grandmother and her two sisters, all draped in black, their faces hidden in dark veils. With their noses in the air, they sat on a stone bench glaring at me like stony-faced furies. They judged me, found me wanting, and banished me to the netherworld of the pantry where I was to help the cooks and learn unquestioning obedience. Despite the pressure brought to bear on me by the old women, I got moral support from Annie, our fat Scottish cook, and stood my ground on this metaphysical and ethical issue, refusing to accept my share of the guilt for Adam’s sin.
I soon found that I could also count on my grandfather’s support in this struggle, for he admired my defiant strong spirit and enjoyed watching the old girls squirm. The fine points of theology were of no great concern to him. After all, he had converted to Catholicism to win the hand of my then recently widowed grandmother, a Creole aristocrat who, as a Catholic, would never have spoken to him, much less married him, if she had known he was a Jew.
On his marriage license when he married her he changed his father’s first name from “Daniel” to “Charles” to avoid any association with his Jewish ancestors, and his mother’s name became “de la Haut,” after a famous French general. Actually she was a Jew named Lazard. In fact my grandmother, Marguerite Wogan Brunswig, was married for many years before she discovered that Lucien, her second husband, was a Jew. At that point, she vowed she would never forgive him for his deception. She moved to a separate bedroom and refused to sleep with him ever again. Given her puritanical attitude to sex, I suspect that she was grateful to find an excuse to avoid le devoir, her conjugal duties.
Unrepentant and untroubled, Grandpere, who was a womanizer from the word go, simply carried on a long-term affair with his attractive secretary, as well as openly flirting with other women at the office and elsewhere. He had a lively sexual- fantasy life which he stimulated at home. I recall once wandering into his large dressing room and finding, to my delight and amazement, photographs of nude women on the wall. I was so fascinated that I just stood there stupified, gazing at these forbidden wonders, until nurse Madeline found me and, in disgust, dragged me out of the closet by my ear.
I was told that “curiosity killed the cat.”
“And satisfaction brought it back,” I replied defiantly, too smart for my own good.
It seemed I was always getting into trouble. I was too nosey. My eyes, my nose, and my ears were just too long. I was advised to stop poking into adult affairs that were none of my business.
But Grandpere found me delightfully amusing–in small doses– and welcomed me as a respite from his boring routine. For him I was always le petit bonhomme, and he usually greeted me with a gentle smile and a good word, and sometimes even with a story based on his adventures either in the Old World or in the Wild West. I can still recall his descriptions of the marvels of the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and of how he had been nearly caught as a stowaway when he arrived there from France.
When I enrolled in St.John’s Military Academy he told me how he, too, had gone to a military school in France.
“It was in Evian, on the Lake of Geneva,” he said with pride. I listened, bug-eyed, to his wild tales, and only learned years later that they were mostly based on his lively imagination with the facts embroidered heavily to make them more entertaining. These tall tales were wonderfully entertaining to a young boy. Grandpere was a great storyteller and he delighted in regaling me with various accounts of his travels and adventures. It was he who first introduced me to the art of the improvised short story and set me on the path to becoming a storyteller in my own right.
Grandpere died when I was six, in 1943. His stature commanded two funerals, one in Los Angeles, and a few days later, when the body arrived by train, another service took place in New Orleans, where he was buried in a splendid pyramid like an Egyptian pharaoh.
To me, Grandpere, with his grand white beard and prominent Jewish nose, resembled the image I had of God himself, and it seemed as if he had the power of God in our family. Though he ruled everyone with an iron hand and controlled us with “the golden leash” of money, he was always kind and generous to me. He inspired not only my curiosity and love of cooking but a keen eye for the ladies and a cruel enjoyment of practical jokes at the expense of others. He egged me on, though I didn’t need much encouragement in my penchant for mischief which included the joy buzzer, exploding cigarettes, and collapsing soup spoons.
I had too much youthful exuberance for that sombre house, filled with starchy old ladies who maintained that children should be seen but not heard. Often when the silence enforced on me by Grandmere became unbearable I would burst into a babbling monologue, and my mother would command me to run a few laps around the table, or to “hop around a little bit” to wear off some of my excess energy.
I am ten years old. Fifth grade. I have been transferred from St. John’s to Black Foxe Military Academy. Even though I don’t have to tolerate the nuns any more, I don’t like Black Foxe. We march a lot and I hate marching; so I join the band. I play the clarinet. Beat, beat, beat. Major Lockheart beats my leg with a ruler to teach me to keep time. I read a lot to escape from my feelings. I feel sad most of the time. I don’t like school because the boys pick on me.
One day I was doing a stylized military procedure we called “the monkey manual.” When I kicked my rifle behind me, I hit a student officer on the chin and knocked him out cold. Nobody would believe it was an accident, and it looked as though I might be expelled. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and thought I might be liberated from this house of torture at last. But when the wounded young officer woke up in the hospital, he insisted it was an accident, so I had to stay in that school another two years before I escaped.
I will never forget a scene I witnessed in the gym one day. A white boy, an officer, had a fight with a black boy, a corporal. The white kid took off his shirt so he would not be protected by his rank, and challenged the black private to a fist fight.
“Come on, what’s the matter? Are you Chicken?” he taunted, gesturing towards himself with his open hands. But the black boy didn’t move. He just stood there and let the white boy hit him and hit him until he fell to the ground clutching his belly and crying. I felt so sorry for that boy, and identified with him as the scape-goat. I, too, knw what it meant to be a victim.
I was a little coward, they said, because when they provoked me I was afraid to fight back. I would just lay down and let boys attack me. This infuriated them. But who likes having a bloody nose or a black eye?
“Why don’t you fight? Coward!” they screamed at me. Boys can as cruel as animals, with an instinctive taste for the jugular. They do not stop even when you’re down and bare your neck. That just seems to whet their appetite for blood.
I still feel angry when I think of those boys. I used to wonder how they could they be so cruel. But then I saw how I can be cruel towards people weaker than myself, too, just as the boys were to me. No wonder. My tormentors were frighteningly good role models. Perhaps that is why I became fascinated with Hitler and the Nazi atrocities I later saw in films. I had been persecuted by my own “little Hitlers.” Years later, when I married, my wife called me Hitler when I abused her. “Slaves were freed in 1865,” she would remind me. Perhaps, but I had been a slave to those boys in school; so I later mimicked their cruelty with my wife and children. It’s the old bicycle game. Pass on the pain. Step on the weaker ones under you as you have been trounced upon by those over you who are more powerful.
I am an adult child of an alcoholic. When I was growing up in Hollywood my stepfather, Tony, drank a lot. He often came home from the office with alcohol on his breath, and hit the liquor cabinet as soon as he walked in the door. It was two or three martinis or scotch and sodas before dinner every night. He frightened me when he got drunk, and I used to have to please him, to keep him happy.
One way of obliging him after breakfast each morning was to sit naked on the toilet, which he required me to do while he masturbated. I remember the sense of awe, powerlessness, and fear I felt as he performed his ejaculations and ablutions. He would get all red in the face, breathe faster and harder ‘till his dark eyes glared like fiery coals. Then, all at once, his eyes would roll up into his head and seconds later he would ejaculate triumphantly into the sink. Then with a sheepish grimace of shame he would carefully wipe off his prick with his handkerchief. I felt fascinated, disgusted, terrified. He was sick, I knew, a real monster. At that tender age I decided that if this was what manhood was all about, I never wanted to join those sordid ranks.
Even though I gagged, Tony would force me to put my mouth on his penis and suck him off. I resisted as best I could, but I wanted to be obliging, for I was so afraid of his anger. Sometimes he’d put his penis between my legs sodomizing me from the rear. He’d spit on his dick and then move back and forth slowly at first then moving faster and faster, huffing and puffing like a steam engine ‘till he’d climax. I hated it when he’d ejaculate all over me. It was gooey and sticky, warm and wet. It was so distasteful to me that I decided that I would never loose control and have orgasms as he did. Sex turned one into a beast. The nuns were right after all. No wonder Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden after they tasted the fruits of sexual pleasure outside the bonds of holy matrimony!
My childhood ended at the age of ten when Tony initiated me into manhood. At that time I was in the fifth grade at Black Foxe, boarding there while my mother was away in Europe. I looked forward to coming home on weekends, because the student officers were still tormenting me with their sadistic pranks. The attention Tony lavished on me was a welcome relief. I soon discovered that when he wanted me sexually I had a strange power over him, and that was gratifying and exciting.
While my mother was away I now replaced her in his arms. We took showers together and he’d fondle me and suck on my penis in the shower. In fact, he sucked on my penis whenever he could and would often reward me after our lovemaking with a treat such as ice cream or money.
Tony also taught me how to masturbate and how to extend my pleasure for a long time. It felt good, but I also felt that what we were doing, especially in my mother’s bedroom, was wrong. And when he made me swear on pain of death to keep our lovemaking a secret and never tell anyone about it, I knew it was wrong. It was probably at this time that my compulsivity, guilt and anxiety about sex blossomed into obsession.
I attended a Catholic parochial school for a few months when I entered adolescence in order to prepare for confirmation. I recall that I was fascinated by the emerging beauty of some of the young girls in the class, but I’d been taught that it was sinful to have “lustful” thoughts about women. One should not notice their ripe young bodies, I was told, but rather one should concentrate on their spiritual qualities. With blushing shame I confessed my guilt about masturbating and was told by the priest to hold a rosary in my hand. The pain was meant to prevent me from continuing my apalling habit. It didn’t. of course, and I struggled against my sexual obsessions for many years.
Partly to escape my sordid home and school life in my early teens I became a bookworm and gradually awakened to a sense of the spiritual through poetry and the first stirrings of romantic love. Despite my early sexual orientation, for me God has always been most approachable through the body of a woman. It is She who evoked wonder in me and led me to turn to Him, our creator in gratitude.
In high school I was required to take classes in religion and to read the Bible as literature. The Old Testament bored me, except for some of the more exciting stories and the erotic poetry in the Song of Songs. I could jack off while reading that! My favorite class was comparative religions taught by Mr. Wilson. It was with him that I first developed a real interest in the meaning of myths and symbols. He had painted pictures of figures from Greek mythology on the walls of his classroom. I was fascinated with the stories I read in Bullfinch’s Mythology, particularly the stories of adventurous heroic journeys. I tried to read everything in the school library dealing with philosophy, religion and mythology, and I just about worked my way through their small collection.
After graduating from Webb in 1954. I choose to attend Duke, a Southern university, because I wanted to become a writer, and I was inspired by Southern writers such as Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Thomas Wolfe. I planned to major in English, but I found my English teacher, George Wicks, too pedantic and pickey. His red pencil marks covered my essays. He did not seem to realize what a great writer I was going to be. At Duke I submitted some poems and stories to the Archive a literary magazine, edited at that time by Reynolds Price, who later became a distinguished Southern writer, but to my chagrin he rejected my work. I soon discovered that I was better at editing and re-working material rather than creating it from scratch; so I wrote copy for the theatre Playbill.
Even as a freshman I was impressed with the poetry of the English romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth and Shelly. I think this set the tone for my religious ideas and feelings. There is a strong continuity between my early romanticism and my later idealism. I have never felt willing to accept mundane “reality” as it is, as the only world we can know and experience. Long ago I accepted the idea that we live in multiple realities and embraced the Buddhist view of the world as an illusion, though I often get caught up in identifying with my own personal suffering and am unable to practice this view consistently in my daily life.
When I was 18 I discovered that I had a calling to undertake a personal spiritual quest and to develop a personal relationship with God. During my second year at Duke I met Sali Wali an Egyptian mystical thinker who worked on ESP at the parapsychology lab with Dr. Rhine. Through guided reading and Socratic conversations conducted over many months Sali instructed me in the rudiments of Vedanta, Buddhism, and the perennial philosophy. To my surprise I found myself becoming seriously interested in mysticism and began devouring books on the subject. I decided I wanted to become a saint.
There was one English professor I liked very much, Russell Fraser, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar. He organized a literary discussion group for his students which met at his home once a month. It was called Areopagus, after the original Supreme Court of the Athenians, as described in the Oresteia. I was thrilled to be invited to participate. I had never been chosen to be a member of any group before. I was disappointed when he moved to Princeton the next year.
Professor Harold Parker, a brilliant military historian who specialized in Napoleonic battles, influenced me greatly. From him I first discovered that history was not so much a collection of facts or chronologies but the interpretation of the relationships among these facts. Another important mentor at this time was Prof. Ernest Nelson, a Renaissance man, who taught me to appreciate the Greek and Latin classics in translation. Partly as a result of the influence of these fine teachers, I later became a professional historian myself.
The summer between Duke and Georgetown I drove a traveling bookshop around Cape Cod. While on the Cape I met the literary critic Edmund Wilson, and a Russian emigré writer Paul Chavchavadze, who encouraged me as an aspiring young writer. I’ve always had a fascination with Russians, Poles and Eastern Europeans and later in my life I lived in Prague.
In the fall of 1956 I transferred to Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where I majored in politics and international relations. I found the scholastic philosophy and theology taught at Georgetown dry and boring. Instead I turned to the French Existentialists and began exploring philosophy through literature. I found great inspiration in a literature class taught by Fr. William Lynch, who had recently come from several years of editing, Thought, a lively Jesuit journal.
To this day literature is my favorite way to access philosophical and religious or spiritual ideas. I enjoy encountering ideas in the context of personal drama. The evocative images speak to my heart. On the other hand, to evoke my own spiritual feelings I prefer sacred music and art. I was fortunate to study philosophy of religion with the brilliant urbane English Jesuit and Father Martin D’Arcy, the former Master of Campion Hall at Oxford, but unfortunately much of the time I found his discourse to be over my head.
The one philosophical work I remember reading with great interest while in college, a book that really opened up new religious vistas for me, was William James’ Varieties of Religions Experience. Even today I can hardly recall a work of greater personal significance, for James introduced me to both the phenomenology of consciousness and the psychology of religious experience. At this time I also became interested in the psychology of Freud and Jung, as I was looking for a therapeutic alternative to Thomistic psychology.
Despite all my courses in philosophy and theology, I was still troubled by intense sexual guilt, and it took years of psychotherapy to enable me to move beyond that quagmire of sexual and religious abuse. I also lost my first fiancé, Joanie Knowles, during my senior year because of my obsessive guilt about sex. We had been sleeping together regularly at my apartment but I felt so guilty that I usually rushed out to confession the next morning. Before long a less scrupulous guy replaced me in her arms. It took me years to discover that I was a sex-addict as a result of my childhood sexual abuse and still more years to overcome it.
One person and place that had a profound influence on my spiritual development was Father Damasus Winzen, at Mt. Saviour, a Benedictine community in Elmira, New York. I made several retreats there during my senior year before going to Europe. “Incline the inner ear of the heart and listen to the world of God” Benedict said in the prologue to his rule. Through Father Damasus, Brother Gregory and Brother David Steindl-Rast, I discovered the Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome and Origin, and came to appreciate the beauty of the Bible and the Liturgy. At Mt. Savior I had the sense of being in the presence of God, of experiencing wonder and gratitude at his majesty and glory. With the Jesuits this had been only an intellectual concept. Among the Benedictines I experienced it in my heart.
In my senior year I also became interested in modern French Catholic literature and philosophy, particularly after reading Wallace Fowlie’s book, A Guide to Contemporary French Literature. Before I graduated I had read some Sartre, Camus, and Claudel in French, and had even written a one-act play based on one of Claudel’s plays. This led me to Paris to embark for a year of study of French literature at the Institut Catholique and the Sorbonne. Even though I had spoken French at home, I was not proficient enough to read everything I wanted to in the original, so I made this my goal.
When I graduated from Georgetown I went off to Europe intending to learn French and, of course, to write the great American novel. I was delighted to be in Paris and was determined to learn French properly. I began by attending a summer course at the Sorbonne, but found it was too difficult for me, so I took the train South to Grenoble to enroll in the summer program there. However, I did not have the self-discipline to study as intensely as the program required so on hearing about a pilgrimage in Brittany I decided to join up. It was run by Pax Christi, a group that sprang up after World War Two to help young persons heal their wounds and overcome the stereotypescreated by both war propaganda and harsh experience.
I visited Germany for the first time later that summer. While I was studying French in Grenoble, my parents were traveling through Europe. They had invited me join them in Düsseldorf, after the Pax Christi pilgrimage. We traveled down the Rhine by train and got off in Stuttgart, where my father picked up a Mercedes he had ordered in America. It was quite a ritual picking up the grand car. I resolved that someday I would purchase a Mercedes of my own, which I did, years later. We drove to Munich where we visited my “brother,” Pierre. Then we moved on to Salzburg and Vienna, where my mother underwent a dietary cure in a local hospital. She and her doctor decided that it would be good for me too, so I followed suit.
I returned to Paris in the fall, determined to study hard this time. But there were just too many distractions! Inspired by memories of Mt. Saviour, I tried to stay in a Benedictine monastery in the outskirts of Paris, but the monks soon threw me out when I was caught climbing the wall after curfew.
I then stayed in a Catholic boys college on the Rue de Vaugerard. Again, after a short time, I was given the heave-ho, because I refused to adhere to the early curfew and I did not mix well with the other boys. That college reminded me too much of the restrictions on my personal life which had oppressed me at Georgetown, until my mother agreed to set up an apartment for me in Washington so I could escape dormitory life.
At the left-bank parish of St. Severin I encountered my first “worker priests.” Pere Villart, one of the priests there, demonstrated that it was possible to take the fruits of the mystery of the mass out into the world of everyday life. Through him I learned to think of my writing desk as my altar.
When I was not attending lectures or seminars, I spent most of my time reading in my room or walking the streets of Paris, exploring the different Quartier. Eventually, I met an attractive young French girl, Denise, and tried to develop an intimate relationship with her. We never got beyond holding hands, however. As a good Catholic boy I felt ambivalence about sex, and she had similar hang-ups..
I was lonely in Paris and felt forlorn as winter set in. It was really then that I first began to suffer the loneliness and anxiety that has plagued me most of my life. One time an old friend of my mother’s, Mildred Brock, invited me to visit her in her room at the Crillion Hotel. She greeted me in a diaphanous negligee and draped herself seductively before me on a chaise longe. I felt confused and uncomfortable, rather like Dustin Hofman in “the Graduate” confronted by the lusty Mrs. Robinson. I couldn’t respond to Mildred at all. Though she was very beautiful, she turned me off, particularly because she was old enough to be my mother and had a son older than me. Pierre (my “brother” ) later told me he’d had a glorious affair with her, and that she “had taught him a lot.” When I told my mother this, she remarked calmly, “I’m not surprised. She’s a nymphomaniac, you know. Like a spider, she pins men to the wall so they can’t escape her lust.”
In time, I got to know a group of German students in Paris, outsiders like me. On the whole, I found them much more open and friendly than Parisians. One of them, named Hanni, invited me to spend Christmas with her in Heidleberg. Another German girl, Maria, whom I had met during the Pax Christi pilgrimage invited me to visit her in Westphalia. So I decided to spend my Christmas holidays in Germany. This was to be a white Christmas and the beginning of my love affair with that awesome country..
While I was there, another German girl moved into my hotel and took a room on the same floor. We soon became friends and developed a Platonic relationship, which was all I felt capable of in my guilt-wallowing state. However, when I learned that she was doing “it” with other guys, I decided to try my luck as well. I wanted to prove my manhood and my hormones conspired by ignoring my conscience. She was agreeable to doing “it” after I got her turned on in a long petting session, but when it came to the vital moment, I was not able to enter her because I ejaculated before I could even get my penis out of my pants. I felt so guilty about the whole thing that I rushed to confession the next morning. Being Jewish, Pierre had a more casual and sanguine attitude. “Wash it and its as good as new,” he would say. But, like Lady Macbeth, though I washed and scrubbed, I could not wash away the stain of sin from my guilt-ridden brain. For this it took the magic of priestly absolution.
One time when I was making love with my next-door neighbor I felt so guilty that I actually told the girl while I was still inside her that what we were doing was sinful and that we had to stop. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:
“Yes, yes!” she cried excitedly, moving in towards me.
“Yes. That’s it. You’ve found my spot. Yes Yes. Oh! Yes.”
Her face contorted with passion, and she began to run her tongue around her lips as if she were licking off the remains of a delicious meal. I became alarmed when I saw this and began to withdraw.
“No. No,” she cried. “Don’t stop now. Fuck me.”
“I can’t” I said, sheepishly, beginning to withdraw my wilting member.
She stuck her tongue deep into my mouth reigniting my desire. I plunged back into her, and felt the pleasure flow like blood between my legs.
“Yes, yes, yes!” she moaned. “You’re so good. Do it again.”
I looked at her. She was sweating like a pig and her moist hair had become entangled across her face. Suddenly I felt revolted. Feelings mingled with anxiety were engorging my brain robbing the blood from my erection and it began to wilt again.
“What’s happening, Sweetheart?” she asked pulling me back towards her and embracing me tenderly.
“I can’t go on with this.” I blurted out, feeling ashamed for letting her down. “I feel too guilty.”
“Yeah, right.” she said playfully. “And your grandfather was Abraham Lincoln, right? Come on. That’s not funny. Are you crazy or what?”
“No, really. We have to stop this. Don’t you realize we would go to hell if we died now? What we’re doin is wrong. Fornication is a sin”
“Says who?” she asked, wondering if perhaps I really meant what I said after all.
“God, the Bible, the Church. You know.”
“Uh Huh. Funny you never thought of that before. What’s the deal now. You got another woman? Huh?”
Up to now she thought I might be joking. Now she realized I was dead serious. She responded by lockinging her sphincter muscles around my member then pushed me out in a fit of rage.
“What’d you push me out for?” I asked, puzzled and perplexed. “I haven’t come yet.”
At this piont she must have gone crazy because she started screaming and scratching my chest as she ejected the rest of me from her apartment.
Breathlessly I pulled on my pants and ran to the church rectory to get an emergency absolution. The priest, who recognized me, was kind hearted and gave me a short penenace consisting of only ten our fathers and ten Hail Marys.
On the way home I bought some flowers. I’d already finished saying my penance by the time I got home. Seeing my neighbor’s door I couldn’t resist knocking and offering my apologies.
“Who is it?”
“What do you want?” she asked, opening the door. “Did you forget something?”
“No, sweetheart. I wanted to tell yuou I’m sorry,” I said handing her the bunch of flowers.
“Forget it,” she said.”You’re just wacko that’s all. I don’t think we should continue dating. I don’t want to see you any more. You’re too freeky.”
“Aw come on, Honey, let me in. I want to make love with you just one more time. Please?”
“You turn me on, Sweetie.”
“You’ re crazy! Get out of my face” she screamed, slamming the door at me.
“What’s the matter with her?” I thought to myself. “Doesn’t she understand that I can’t help it. I am caught in a real moral dilemma. I have to have sex as often as I can, but then I have to get absolution afterwards to ease my conscience. That done, I can do it again. In fact I can’t stop myself. I have to.”
I returned to California in the spring after my winter in Paris. I did one term at Stanford University studying drama and playwriting and then transferred to Claremont Graduate School in Southern Calif where I studied ancient and modern history. I got on the defensive about my religion and wrote papers for my grad seminar in Renaissance Studies in which I tried to show the truth of the Catholic faith as embodied in Dante’s Divine Comedy. This was not well received by my professors at CGS who demanded more scholarly objectivity from me. For my master’s degree in history I wrote a thesis on Jacob Burckhardt’s Philosophy of History.
The next year I enrolled in a history Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley where I tried to confront modern relativism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis head on. I had a hard time maintaining my faith in Catholic moral absolutism in the process. I was fascinated with Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and by the Marxist sociology of knowledge. Their debunking of idealism appealed to my suppressed rage and my overt iconoclasm.
As I was also interested in philosophical anthropology I finally decided to write a dissertation on Max Scheler, a German Catholic philosopher and sociologist. He was a Catholic philosopher who had lost his job twice for having sexual relations with his students. When called to account by the Archbishop of Cologne, Scheler replied: “I am only a signpost. A sign does not have to go where it points.” His widow told me that he seduced boys as well as girls and that he had his teeth sharpened so he could bite better when making love. It seemed that along with my interest in the phenomenology of religious experience, I could not avoid dealing with startling aspects of sexual experience even in the subject of my dissertation.
However, work on Scheler, particularly his philosophy of religion helped me find a better intellectual foundation for my faith. Gradually, however, my commitment to Christianity got lost in other concerns. Formally, I remained a Catholic, but Buddhism and Jungian and transpersonal psychology gradually replaced Christianity as my principal frame of reference, and I began to define myself as a “recovering Catholic.”