My sister MW once told me that when we were teenagers she had walked in on me while I was masturbating in my bedroom. Her mention of the incident some twenty years after it had occurred shocked me twice: once because I felt, even twenty years later, exposed and ashamed, and twice because I had absolutely no memory of it having happened. One would think that such an emotionally charged moment would be burnt into one's memory, but no: in that place is only oblivion.
Much of our identity consists of the story we tell ourselves about our past. The story is built of two types of materials. One type of material is the memory of particular events, of our actions and reactions and the consequences thereof. The other type of material of comes to us from family lore and the memories of others: it is a collection of traits which we share with our forbearers and which we believe we have inherited from them.
To learn that I had no memory of an event that must have shaken me deeply -- I can imagine the combination of humiliating shame and painful surprise -- throws doubt on the things that I do remember. If I have forgotten that, what else happened that I do not remember? And given that uncertainty, how can I rely on the story that I have constructed about who I am? How can I possibly know myself?
I puzzle over this instance of forgetting. I can understand why one would forget having done something which one regrets, something foolish or cruel, but in this case I was innocent. (I do not think masturbation to be a moral failing or to be harmful in any other way.) If anyone's behavior could be judged wrong in this case it would be my sister's opening the door of my bedroom and entering without warning or any consideration for my privacy. Yet she remembers, and I do not.
I have in the years since her revelation come to think that I have a faint, shadowy memory of the event, but I cannot be sure whether I remember it or only remember having been told about it.
So how can I begin to tell the story of the past six or seven years of my life, the story of my involvement with MRM and the havoc he caused me, with any confidence?
MRM would not, I believe, feel any such compunction in telling the story of those years. He would gauge what kind of story would be most likely to get his audience to do what he wanted them to do, and he would construct his story with a few somewhat modified actual events and with a few completely fictional elements, i.e. lies, thrown in. He would avoid making things up out of whole cloth, since they could be easily found out and also because they would be harder for him to remember if he should find it necessary to repeat his story later. He would alter things only slightly to serve his purpose. And he would avoid using too many details, since doing so would be a sure sign of falsehood, the fear of not being believed leading the amateur liar most often into over-compensating by piling on details meant to convince. No, MRM would lie masterfully.
I know that he would operate in this way because he once bragged to me about his skill at lying and explained these principles -- and others -- with pride.
I hated P.E. class. It was the only part of the school day that filled me with dread. I felt -- I was -- hopelessly awkward and uncoordinated. I was always the last person picked for any team. I would stand in that line trying not to look at anyone, keeping my eyes down on the gray macadam of the basketball court or the struggling little blades of grass on the playing field. Then I would be out in right field, counting the seconds up to sixty and then the minutes that remained in the period. I prayed that the ball not come to me, please God don't let it come this way, and when it did I felt sick to my stomach as I tried to pretend to be trying to catch it. I ended up having to run after it as it rolled away on the grass and, once I had picked it up, throwing it ineptly in the general direction of the pitcher and the basemen, watching it never actually fly directly toward any one of them and seeing it always -- like so many of my efforts -- fall short.
There I am, standing in right field or shifting from foot to foot while I pretended to guard a basketball player or never looking at teammates who had the ball so that they would never choose to throw it to me. If some fool called my name, and the ball shot straight at me from his chest and arms, I always failed to catch it, or if I did, I could neither hold on to it or dribble it or pass it without seeing it fall into the hands of the opposing team.
It is 6:30 in the morning as I write, the end of a long night driving a cab, and I realize as I tell you these memories that I have not looked at them in detail ever before now. I have referred to them obliquely in conversation with other men who I know had similar childhood experiences, but I have never taken the time to get this close to that shy and embarrassed little boy until now.
His memory makes me very sad.
I played right field because the ball is seldom hit there. So despite my anxiety anticipatory to every swing, I did, on the whole, have little to do while standing out there. My imagination was free then, and I would daydream about having magic powers, like the ones my favorite hero, Superman, had. I devoured each issue of the Superman comic books when they appeared on the rack at Sam's Market. I recall the smell of those pages now, as I write these words. And as I lay in bed, waking from a dream or perhaps beginning to dream before having fully fallen asleep, I saw myself swooping upward, actually flying, as I caught a high fly ball to right field. With all the desperation of my clumsy, ball-fumbling shame, I wanted to fly. The ever-unsatisfied yearning hurt.
That right-fielder's aching heart may go a long way to explaining my lifelong interest in the occult, in mysteries both spiritual and scientific, and my insistence on rejecting simple, material, mechanical, measurable accounts of phenomena. I have a hard time accepting the obvious explanation of anything as a complete understanding of it. Ironically, my attitude is both skeptical and credulous: I always doubt "facts" and am always willing to believe conjectures and appearances.
I had a neighbor in the Tenderloin who used to complain about tiny bugs that were all around him and attacked him ceaselessly, jumping and crawling and biting him. Sometimes when we were talking, they would attack him, and though I never saw or felt them myself, I never doubted him. From what I could tell, everyone else with whom he interacted -- medical personnel, social workers, friends and acquaintances -- told him that there were no bugs and that he was crazy. Instead, I instinctively sympathized with his plight. I told him that the bugs sounded awful, and I asked him how he dealt with them. Though we don't see each other very often now, we have remained friends, and I have noticed in the past year that the bugs have deserted him entirely. What has not been lost is the easy and open conversation and friendship that we share.
Throughout my youth we spent summer vacations at Lake Tahoe. By "summer vacation" I mean the weeks that my father had off from work. I had the entire three month period that school was out of session as my summer vacation, but we had our summer vacation, when the whole family packed up and left home in Walnut Creek to reside temporarily in a different house. When I was very young, that house was a small trailer that hitched to the back of the station wagon and served as our home in one of the California State Parks along the western side of "the lake" as Tahoe was called by my parents and their circle of friends, just as Hawaii was called "the islands." I was still young -- maybe five or six -- when my father started renting a cabin on the shore of the lake from one of the secretaries in his office. By the time I was eleven or twelve, my parents had bought a house on the same street as the secretary's cabin, and we now had "a place at the lake". By then my father's vacation time had stretched to four weeks, and we spent the entire month of August there.
Lake Tahoe was as yet unpolluted. Indeed, our drinking water came directly from the lake through a pipe that stretched a hundred feet or more under the pristine water and pulled that water directly into our faucets. The lake was icy cold; the days burnt with the summer sun pouring through the thin air of a mile-high elevation. Later I would learn to appreciate lying in the hot sun until I was almost panting from the heat and then diving into the shock of frigid water, coming up gasping for air.
But when I was very young, say seven and eight and nine, I spent my days at the lake reading in my little attic room, the sunlight reflecting off the water and up through the tiny dormer window, its shifting in arcs flying around the ceiling. I remember the chill air, the heat of the sun, the ink and newsprint smell of the comic books and the endless yearning to be Superman. Think of it! What relief! What enormous burden of weakness and failure would be lifted! Even if I remained disguised as myself, and without any higher social standing or public pride, I would have the satisfaction, the confidence, of my secret powers. I would no longer feel ashamed in my self.
I remember a night in Yosemite Valley during a family vacation when we all stayed in tent cabins in Camp Curry. I was in my late twenties or my thirties. Specifically, I remember doing a Tarot reading for my sister, MW. I asked her to begin by thinking of a question that she should not tell me. I then began laying out the cards and describing the circumstances that gave rise to the question. This was the method by which I always began a reading: if what I said did not seem applicable to the querent, I would stop. I would know that I was not at that time able to give a valid reading.
I do not know what year it was. I feel fairly sure that my sister's second son was on the verge of adolescence. I do not remember whether her third son had as yet been born, but I believe so. She may have been holding him on her lap as I worked the cards. If so, the year was about 1987 or 1988. I do remember that when the reading ended, she told me that her question had been about her second son's health. He had been experiencing seizures and she wanted to know how serious they were and whether more difficult problems might develop from them.
My method with the Tarot begins with a ritualized shuffling of the cards. They are divided into four piles on the basis of which I describe the question as one of four different types. If the querent agrees, I proceed to lay out the cards in a way that selects a limited number of them and places then in a sequence. Sometimes there are lots of cards in the sequence; sometimes only two or three. I look at the sequence of cards and try to tell a story made up of the figures and actions portrayed in the cards. I like to compare what I do to reading a comic book in a foreign language. With no clue what the text says is going on, you try to discern the story by reading only the pictures.
Some of the cards seem to me to represent people; some to represent actions or events; and some to represent forces or spiritual and psychological attitudes. When some particularly negative or even threatening image appears, I usually try to ameliorate the sense of it by taking it as symbolic of spiritual or psychological processes. On this particular occasion, I remember turning up the card for Death. I dwelt on the symbolic sense of the card as indicating a process of change and renewal. I had no idea, of course, that my sister's question was one regarding the future for her son, specifically whether the seizures he was experiencing were the symptoms of a serious and perhaps life-threatening problem. I have still not mastered the truth of that card, of Death. I shy away from its meaning and fudge any reading in which it comes up.
As you can see, this memory is like a shard from a broken piece of pottery. I vividly remember the presence of that card and my difficulty in speaking forthrightly about it. The context -- what year it was, who was present, etc. -- is vague. So little of this memory is clear that I might not have remembered even the bit that I do, except that within another year or two my sister's son died -- not the second son who had been having the seizures, but the third son, who was or was not seated in my sister's lap at the time of the reading.
This is the same sister, MW, who remembered walking in on me. In the thirty years since her son died, I have never had the courage to ask her whether she remembers that Tarot reading.
During the fifteen years that I lived on the east coast, I made a point of telephoning my parents every Sunday afternoon. The regularity of the schedule meant that we could talk to each other without the annoyance of calling to find no one home, leaving messages, and playing "phone tag" over a number of days, pushing the weekly conversation into the following week. Although answering machines had come into use, the things we had to say to one another could not be reduced to a few words on a tape hissing with background noise, and even if they could, we would end up only talking at each other in little bursts, like armies firing at each another from trenches hidden in the blackness of a moonless night.
Conversation is not onanistic. One speaks, the other or others reply, the one responds to the reply, or one or the other corrects something said earlier, and the collaboration gives rise to living communication, the essence of our common humanity.
I remember being struck, in the early and mid-eighties, by the startling similarity of my parents' lives with my own. They were in their seventies, and I in my thirties. Yet we seemed almost to be contemporaries in that the events we talked about each week frequently and persistently included funerals. My parents' cohort, the friends and neighbors with whom they had grown up, survived the Great Depression and World War, raised children, and grown old, were dying off. And my cohort, the energetic and ambitious and creative homosexuals of the east and west coasts, were dying of AIDS.
I remember in particular one white-knuckled cab ride down the old West Side Highway from the Upper West Side to Chelsea during which I thought not only that all six of us (including the driver) crammed into this little tin can barreling down the length of Manhattan island, bouncing through potholes and sliding from lane to lane were about to die but also that, if we survived, the rest of my life would be the same thing anyway, over and over and over. The future I saw for myself was one of attending funerals, sometimes as many as three or four a weekend, as the years stretched into a lifetime.
Of all that I saw and felt through the two decades of the scourge, I now find myself most affected by the realization that I am the only one who remembers so many things: six good looking men drifting through the Delaware Water Gap in an inflated rubber boat, with a fully stocked bar in coolers and ravishing delicacies in baskets (with the requisite plates, flatware, and stemware) laughing uncontrollably at nothing because of the excellent LSD we had taken, being suddenly swamped and driven to frantic efforts to reach the river's banks as an unexpected rainstorm dumped its flood upon us, scrambling onto the bank and pulling the overturned boat up so that we could all huddle under it for protection from the deluge, and looking at one another only to see that the elegant David somehow still held his lighted cigarette in one hand and his unspilled vodka and tonic in the other. Our whoops and howls of laughter, the great pleasure of our camaraderie, persists now only in me, in my mortal flesh. We six are together here still, but within only one of us. All perish with me.
My first lover, TS, the medieval scholar, talked about the oldest piece of written English that we have. It is an account of a battle known as "The Survivor's Lament", and it appears in the middle of "Beowulf".
The hero has defeated the monster Grendel who had been attacking Anglo-Saxon settlements and devouring livestock. Everyone is enjoying the huge banquet served in honor of Beowulf. But among all the carousing warriors and civilians sits an elderly man who does not join in the revelry and instead speaks solemnly about a battle decades before in which he fought and which he and his people lost. So in the middle of an heroic epic, at the moment of victory and salvation, the voice of defeat and of suffering brings the celebration to a halt with the reminder of failure and of the inevitable loss of everything. The old warrior ends his recollection of lost youth and lost glory and beloved friendsalso lost -- heroes all -- with a line that has haunted me throughout my adult life:
"And I alone am escaped to tell thee."