God is Electric, Jesus Electrochemical
The rifle rests on my lap, solidly bridging the gap between my knees as I listen to St. Mark (not his real name) pontificate about The Church. He goes on and on about solace, comfort and our Lord. I feign attentiveness, but really my focus is directed at jamming the striker back into the bolt. Oblivious, he prattles on about choices, decisions and faith. We are alone in the basement of our high school, sitting on the floor. It is a bright Sunday morning. There is not another soul in the building.
He is convinced that The Holy Spirit will be the panacea for my problems at home. Will quiet my cerebral rage. Will banish my teen angst forever if I will just open my heart. St. Mark’s expression is earnest and serene, and I am silent and respectful while he urges me “not to cultivate this anger, to let go,” but all I want to do is change the subject.
I have issues. I listen to speed metal constantly.
I have been pushed through the phases of Catholic family farming: baptism, Sunday school, first communion, and confession. I have come out on the other end mangled and dubious.
I grab another gun from the wall, stand, and push the heavy stocks against my hips. The Sabbath sunlight catches the corner of my eye and I squint, like Eastwood. Gingerly, I press the sights of both Enfields against St. Mark’s temples and implore him to “Shut the fuck up.” He complies.
St. Mark and I are cadets at a military academy in upstate New York and I am simply grateful to be out of my house for an extended period of time. But St. Mark, I know, has conversion on his mind as we drive out of the city and into suburbs I am not familiar with. He’s been lobbying for this moment for four years and he has simply worn me down. I’ve agreed to attend a single Charismatic Mass, and I hope to put an end to his missionary work, once and for all, this afternoon.
I do my best to be invisible once we arrive.
The church itself is modern, with angular, unadorned, yet highly-polished rows of pews. Unfinished crossbeams span the ceiling and lend a Fisher Price barn-like quality to the space. The altar looks like an outdated Danish conference room. The congregation is completely white, with a neo-hippie aesthetic.
I refuse to sing, despite the guitars and tambourines. My heart rate triples when I’m forced to hold hands with strangers and pretend to pray. I am not nearly this social by nature. I am not a joiner. Still, the overall tone of the mass is different from the fire and brimstone of the traditional Catholic programming that I am forced to endure weekly.
St. Mark smiles at me at the end of the service like a dental assistant after a root canal, and then he urges me out into the aisle. I try to indicate to him, discreetly, that I am going nowhere except back out to the car, but I am navigated by this alleged friend, wide eyed, into a line of devout Christians waiting to be “prayed over.”
After the members of Emmett Otter’s Jug Band have finally silenced their instruments, I end up in front of the altar standing before a person who tells me not to be afraid. He promises that the man behind me will catch my fall. I begin to explain that that won’t be necessary. But he places his hands on my head and starts to pray gently, insistently.
I fall to the floor.
I feel like I’ve been sucker punched, but without the actual blow. My body is flooded with a sensation similar to when your foot falls asleep, tingly and numb. As if my spine is Jell-O and the rest of me is liquefied. Until everything is suddenly reconstituted on the cold marble floor.
When I returned to the orphanage where I spent a great deal of my early childhood, I was warned about the possibility of “flashbacks,” but none occurred. I had no movie-of-the-week freak out, but I did become newly aware of certain memories.
I remembered how, as a child, I felt quiet and withdrawn whenever I passed the brick building, how I focused my attention on the statue of the Virgin Mary above the front entrance. I remembered that my school friends made fun of me for this, asked what my problem was, and that I had no idea.
But it was different when I returned to the place. I finally understood the fascination when I walked beneath her virtuous stone feet for the first time as an adult. This is where I spent the first years of my life, a fact that I learned over twenty-five years after the fact.
Nancy Drew (also not her real name) and I entered the building together, with twenty years of friendship between us, looking for anything that might lead me to my family. We were first struck by the silence, the absolutely oppressive silence of the interior of the building. Part of me was expecting packs of wild orphans running in the halls, but there were no voices, just two elderly volunteers staring at us from behind a desk.
Nancy Drew spoke to them privately for a moment and then they both grinned from ear-to-ear and watched as she took my hand and led me out of the foyer, in pursuit of records, files and some sort of vague accountability. But we were waylaid by photography and portraiture.
All along the hallways, bishops and cardinals watched us pass with suspicion and disapproval. They looked miserable, each and every one of them, but their vestments were rendered in expensive, supple oils, the most vibrant purples and reds. These men glowed.
And then we saw the children. Hundreds of them, mostly in black-and-white, in archival photos on the upper floors near the administrative offices. Many of the photographs showed white nuns and nurses holding black babies against the backdrop of rows and rows of pristine hospital beds. Some of them were taken the day that a child was adopted or placed with a foster family. Everyone was smiling, except for a few children who seemed to know that they were merchandise, from a sort of Salvation Army.
The color photographs almost stopped my heart when I realized that one of them might contain an image of me, of the former me, of me before my identity was completely erased. Nancy Drew held my hand tightly as we walked slowly past these pictures like we had done a hundred times, in museums and galleries all over the Northeast.
It took us a while to figure out why everyone that we passed in those creepy, fluorescent hallways smiled so sheepishly at us. It took us awhile to understand that we looked the part, like potential customers. All of the people we passed were simply acknowledging our Christian hearts, so full of love that we were ready to open our home to an unfortunate, unwanted child. Their sanctimonious stares made me furious.
After a session with a secular caseworker (sympathetic eyes, children of her own, net result: absolute zero), we found ourselves in front of a twenty-something blonde receptionist. I explained to her that I was looking for some information about my own adoption.
To which she replied, “You want to be adopted?”
After we helped her over this mental speed bump, by explaining that I was a former resident of this institution and not some sort of confused volunteer, she dialed an extension for Sister Mary SomethingOrOther and we sat down so I could regain my composure.
Sister Mary SomethingOrOther had been the head nun during my tenure at the orphanage, and I wondered if there would be an instantaneous recognition on her part, if she might embrace me and regale Nancy Drew with stories about my Little Rascals-esque behavior during those first few years.
I wondered if she might be the trigger for the aforementioned flashback and if I would soon be escorted out of the building by some sort of Catholic Rent-A-Cop who’d been hired, ultimately, because of his uncanny resemblance to Saint Paul.
All I really wanted was a picture of my father or my mother. All I wanted was my sister’s address or my brother’s phone number. Something. I wanted my fucking family back.
The receptionist held the receiver slightly away from her ear and her eyebrows were almost touching her hairline. She said, “Yes, Sister,” into the receiver before dropping the phone like a piece of rotten fruit. Then she said to us, by way of apology, “Sister Mary keeps her secrets well.”
We were refused an audience with Her Majesty because orphans aren’t supposed to come back. So we left.
The first time that my mother met Jesus Christ was in a Redwood forest near a pond of brilliant blue water. She was impressed by His stunning robes, but deeply disappointed with His lack of white wings. The first question that my mother thought to ask the Son of God was whether or not she could keep smoking. He said that He didn’t care.
The first time that I met my mother, at the age of thirty, I was able to shed the Irish Catholicism of my adolescence after learning about the Norwegian Lutheranism of my biological family. Until that day, I lived my entire life without any knowledge whatsoever of my background or heritage. My legal and “official” birth certificate is post-dated a full decade.
She asked me if I remembered being strapped to the bed in the orphanage, if I remembered the beatings, if I remembered the spinal taps.
My mother is a paranoid schizophrenic who rarely leaves the house due to acute agoraphobia. She listens to religious broadcasting 24/7 on an old AM radio and chain-smokes generic cigarettes at her lopsided kitchen table. Weeks before our reunion, she sent me 365 Read-Aloud Bedtime Bible Stories with this inscription, “What I would of read to you early in Life.” Statistically, I have roughly a 50% chance of developing schizophrenia at some point in my life.
I am so generically and incredibly Caucasian that my skin throbs a deep crimson soon after it is exposed to natural light, and this fact seems to have been the only criteria used to determine my placement in foster care. I am certain that Sister Mary SomethingOrOther signed my release papers fully convinced of the righteousness of the decisions she was somehow authorized to make on my behalf. But I also believe her hand was guided by the Devil Himself when she wrote my name across form after notarized form for various state agencies, because those forms, after receiving approval from blind administrators and stamps from zealous automatons, released me into the custody of abusive strangers.
My mother overdosed shortly after I was born and arrived, supine, at the gates of Heaven on a hospital stretcher. Jesus refused her entrance and told her to go back down into the world to spread the Good News.
When I went to visit my mother for the second time in my life, she gave me a list, a chronicle of all the visions she had experienced since the late 1960s. She also gave me a letter addressed to Oral Roberts. I stood in the snow outside of her apartment, around the corner from where I had once lived in college, and debated whether or not to put the envelope into the mailbox.
Her particular brand of paranoia manifests itself as a kind of ultra-religiousness. She talks about God constantly. Every card and every letter that I receive from her has a long closing salutation that, she hopes, will bring me into the light of God’s love. The strange and fascinating thing about certain symptoms of schizophrenia, particularly my mother’s devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ is that they are culturally specific. Paranoid schizophrenics in other parts of the world display different psychoses, but because of my mother’s own religious background, her entire adult life has been spent chasing angels and waiting for miracles.
Do I believe in God? No. Do I believe that God exists? Yes. God exists in the electrical storms and irregular dopamine levels of my mother’s frontal lobes, limbic pathway, and cerebral cortex.
Do I have faith, give thanks and praise, and worship the Lord Jesus Christ? No. The Church has given up on me and I have given up on The Church. St. Mark gave up on me as soon as I told him that I was gay. The disdain is now quite mutual.
Because of my mother’s condition, I know that her Christianity is simply the institutionalized misunderstanding of mental illness. Each time God appears to Abraham in Genesis, to Moses in Exodus, and when the apostle John has a vision of Christ in the Book of Revelation, I am convinced that what they all truly experienced were separate and distinct undiagnosed, psychotic episodes. These were self-reported, recorded by others, and then they made the transition from oral history to gospel truth. We all suffer to this day.
I did mail the check to Oral Roberts before catching my flight back to California. Not because I am a believer myself, but because I love an old woman who has faith, gives thanks and praise, and worships the Lord Jesus Christ. She is my own, personal savior.