You Let Me Violate You
It is I, you women—I make my way,
I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable—but I love you,
I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for These States—I press with slow
I brace myself effectually—I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.
Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself,
In you I wrap a thousand onward years,
On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and America,
The drops I distil upon you shall grow fierce and athletic girls, new artists, musicians,
The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn,
I shall demand perfect men and women out of my love-spendings,
I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and you interpenetrate now,
I shall count on the fruits of the gushing showers of them, as I count on the fruits of
the gushing showers I give now,
I shall look for loving crops from the birth, life, death, immortality, I plant so
lovingly now. – Walk Whitman, from “A Woman Waits For Me”
It is with a bit of irony that I first heard the most profound definition of what are known as The Cardinal or Deadly Sins from a Catholic priest well-known for writing steamy popular bodice-rippers. Andrew Greeley once wrote of the Cardinal Sins that they are not in and of themselves sins. They are, in fact, distortions or perversions of what are, in fact, healthy human propensities. Acted upon with moderation (in good Aristotelean fashion), pride is little more than healthy self-regard; gluttony satisfying the physical need to eat in order to survive; lust is the healthy, human desire for physical love that is both pleasurable and helps builds bonds of love and long-term relationships in an animal genetically predisposed toward either serial monogamy or even polygamy. A healthy, monogamous sex life is a good thing. Lust, however, is the shadow side of good thing. It is the selfish desire to possess another human being’s body for one’s own pleasure. It ignores the emotional complexities that follow from healthy sexuality, desiring only repeated couplings not only for their own sake, but to satisfy one’s own physical desires. A healthy physical passion builds up relationships, and by doing so helps keep those so bonded healthier together and in and of themselves. Lust is a demon that can never be satiated; it desires not only to push the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior, but destroys the souls and perhaps the bodies of those under its sway.
I was 23 and on my own, working as a youth leader, trying to figure out this whole “ministry” thing. There was a divorced mother of two I’ll call “Patti” who, under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have given much thought to. She was ten years older than I am (and thus continues several years of being attracted to women much older than I), and I was in the midst of trying to be such a good person. Yet, I was alone in a strange place. There came a point, a single moment in time, when I realized she wanted me. I say this with no sense of satisfaction or pride. It is just what it is: as Stephen King wrote in The Stand, I could feel the wanting coming off her in waves. So, on a Saturday morning, I awoke and within just a few minutes came up with a way I could not only invite myself to her house for the evening, but wind up in her bed. At the time, I was gobsmacked by the fact that everything happened exactly as I had imagined, and more.
This was in late October. By the time Christmas came around, I was terrified. I wanted it to stop. I couldn’t make it stop. No matter how much “Patti” and I tried, we wound up in bed together. Each time, we pushed boundaries within ourselves and with each other. It was like a drug, I was addicted, and even knowing all that I couldn’t stop. By the time February rolled around, I knew the only way I could save myself was to remove myself from the situation. That was why, by early Lent, 1990, I was practically hiding in my parents’ house, not telling them why I had left, ashamed, afraid, guilt-ridden, filled with memories I would prefer not to have. By the time I moved, first, to Gaithersburg, MD to spend the summer with my brother then Washington, DC and my first semester of Seminary, I was only starting to feel somewhat like those days and weeks and nights were behind me. It actually took me a very long time to trust myself enough to allow myself to express how I felt toward another woman.
And, of course, I could never speak of this to anyone. On top of the guilt and fear was this shame that is difficult to describe. To have acted as I did, felt as I did, to be the person I had been during those weeks and months with “Patti” was a burden I knew I’d carry with me the rest of my life. Even now, over a quarter-century later, I blush as I sit here typing this confession of one of the worst periods in my life, of some of the most awful things I have ever done, knowing all the while it was wrong, yet unable to stop in part precisely because it was wrong. Oh, I’ve told my wife about it. There are people, however, who’ve known me in the years since who do not and would never know the horrible burden I have carried because of the depths of my own depravity I discovered, my capacity to hurt another person (not physically; I’ll be clear about that) and not care. I know I am not that 23-year-old, alone, responding to a signal from another lonely person for some physical affection that I and I alone allowed to become something terrible, something monstrous. It took me a very long time to look myself in the mirror without accusation and remonstrance. It took me even longer to trust myself, even a little bit, around women. I was always questioning my motives, not wanting ever to hurt another person the way I had done. I had no desire ever to be the person I had been, someone horrible, someone reveling in physical desire to the exclusion of any human feeling whatsoever.
I have no idea if “Patti” has ever forgiven me. A part of me would like to think enough time has passed that something like forgiveness has occurred. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever really forgiven myself. I know I should. All the same, of all the things in my life for which I carry more than a little guilt, this above all carries the extra weight of shame, a weight that I continue to believe is due penance for what I’ve done.
Of all the posts in this Lenten Reflection series I’ve written, none has been more difficult than this. Nothing in my life has brought me more understanding of what the word “demonic” means, than thinking back on this time in my life. Demons aren’t horrid creatures from some place outside that lodge themselves in our bodies or minds, driving us to do that which we wouldn’t do under other circumstances. No, demons are our worst selves, freed from any restraint, acting out our darkest dreams with a grin of glee and a laughter of joy in the flouting of all that should be.
The other lesson I learned from this experience is what grace is. First in Seminary, always feeling that the sin I bore hung around my neck like a gigantic sign, I became friends with some of the most wonderful human beings it has been my privilege to know. Then, falling in love not once but twice, I learned what healthy love and physical passion can be. I truly believe I couldn’t recognize the difference if it weren’t for those experiences both of the horrors of lust unburdened and the gentle, mutual physical desire I’ve experienced since. I may be a better person than had I not had the experience. Still, there’s a large part of me that would prefer to have been a better person without having to have gone through the experience in the first place.