Thursday, May 29, 2008
Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir excerpt by Scott Pomfret
Since My Last Confession is a funny, irreverent-but-faithful account of my stalking Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston during the same-sex marriage debate in Massachusetts. As a federal prosecutor, I was attempting to use lawyerly persuasion to change the cardinal's tune. What I found along the way was a hardcore atheist boyfriend, a host of motorcycle lesbians, gay priests, flaming friars, pious prelates, would-be Opus Dei monks, three “Hale” Marys, Harry Potter’s Satanism, and ten surefire ways to detect a fellow gay Catholic. Think of it like a gay Catholic literary version of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, with the Cardinal playing the part of “Roger.”
Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir
Arcade Publishing (June 10, 2008)
The Tunnel Builders
Mrs. American Gothic
Gram was worried we were all going straight to hell. She didn’t say it aloud. She rarely mentioned the error of our ways. In fact, Gram was almost too gracious with her hospitality. Because our ultimate destiny was the fiery pits, Gram determined that we should have a few fond memories of earthly life to sustain us through eternity. Hence the steady supply of fresh-baked whoopee pies and generous servings of Grape Nut pudding.
The first time my boyfriend Scott invited me to Gram’s “camp” in rural Maine, we arrived after midnight. I slept through the whole three-hour ride. When I woke, it was as if Boston had returned to its pastoral beginnings: cows on the Common, towering maples, and a winding, unpaved road to her house.
Gram and her then-husband Dick built the camp themselves in 1963 on the shore of Thompson Lake. What Dick didn’t know about plumbing and carpentry, he taught himself. Gram had had a railing put on the back porch and replaced the outhouse with a leeching field, but forty years later, the roof had never leaked and the walls were holding strong, and God bless indestructible kitchen linoleum.
The camp was no more than eight hundred square feet, painted brick-red and shaded by a dozen evergreens that dropped needles and pitch relentlessly on the picnic tables below. Reed baskets hung from the roof beams and every shelf was teemed with bric-a-brac that Gram had collected over the years—pottery owls, granite inch worms, brass sailboats, and even a pewter mug that had belonged to Gram’s grandmother and might have been in the family for centuries. It was a world of Mary Kay cosmetics, plastic violets, and a kitchen window bird feeder designed for a hummingbird whose buzzing wings made me want to steal Gram’s badminton racquet and swat it like a mosquito.
That first night, I expected Mrs. American Gothic to answer the door. In fact, Gram was wearing a bathrobe and slippers, but her finger was tucked in a Bible, which she had nested in a book-cover knit from spare yarn. The bottle of Palmolive by the sink and the air freshener canister in the bathroom wore matching knit dresses.
Leviticus or Paul, I thought. No doubt about it. You’ve got to put on a good show when the Sodomites come to visit.
Gram folded away her Bible, kissed her grandson, and extended her hand toward me with the dignity of royalty.
“You are welcome. You are welcome.” She articulated the words with perfect elocution and appeared as sincere as the friars of Saint Anthony Shrine. She pointed the way to her queen-size bed. “Never mind me. I can sleep on the bunkbed.”
Scott was delighted, but I took a temporary vow of chastity. Aside from the innate wrongness of scoring between your grandmother’s sheets, the interior walls reached only two-thirds of the way to the ceiling and Gram’s bed squeaked. Weeks later, I learned she was stone-deaf. My attempt to have sex without actually moving a muscle had been a useless precaution.
My squeamishness proved otherwise silly. Saturday morning, I emerged from the bedroom in my swim trunks, shirtless, with a towel slung over my shoulder. Gram darted toward me with surprising alacrity for an octogenarian. I dodged, but she thrust her face against my chest and nuzzled my chest hair.
“Gram!” Scott scolded. “Men have been killed for less than that. Get away from my fur!”
Gram released me, chuckling uproariously, not the least bit embarrassed. She had the same taste in men as her grandson. She was an old-school Yankee with snow-white hair, but she had a swimmer’s body and big breasts, and her grandchildren traded rumors they’d heard about the wild days of the Swingin’ Sxities.
Gram and I got along for the most part. She never held it against me that I shave my head and have a four-inch scar on my left cheek, which makes me look like a serial killer. (As a joke, one of my law-firm colleagues once gave our interns snapshots of Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and me. He invited the interns to pick out the lawyer from the group. Ted Bundy was the near unanimous choice.)
Gram did suspect that a city boy like me would be unable to distinguish loons from ducks, and she watched me like a hawk out of fear that I’d use the undrinkable tap water for the morning coffee. But our main point of contention concerned strawberries. She favored refrigeration. I do not. I set newly purchased strawberries on the windowsill. She whisked them to the refrigerator while doing housework. I liberated them from the fridge before noon, but they were back in the crisper by cocktail hour. Even when I hid the strawberries in our Honda’s glove compartment, Gram somehow sniffed them out. We never directly engaged one another. Neither of us defended our positions; our differences were irreconcilable. In time, we put competing strawberry concoctions on the table and judged our righteousness solely by whose dessert had the smallest slice left after Scott’s family had eaten their fill.
Scott and his grandmother were startlingly alike in personality and looks. Both were unnaturally slim, with pale skin that tanned olive. Each had blue eyes and a hooked nose, and neither had patience for the presence of other cooks in their respective kitchens. They were fiercely competitive at cards, obsessed over Scrabble, and played marathon games of cribbage. They were too much alike for either to get away with the rampant cheating they both saw as just another part of the game. Both were vain about their age and their figures and would as soon be seen in public without hair product as appear naked on national television.
Though Gram clearly viewed my unwillingness to play cribbage ad nauseum as a character flaw, she never once suggested that our homosexuality was a problem. This had not always been the case. When Scott first moved to Boston and came home on summer weekends talking about his then-boyfriend, Gram cornered him one afternoon. She made Bible noises. Stern with moral righteousness, she said, “I’d be disappointed to have to tell people my grandson was like that.”
Scott had been Gram’s favorite until that time, but the exchange broke the bond between them and replaced it with suspicion and mistrust. Scott didn’t go back to camp for years.
“Leave it in Boston,” Scott’s father said approvingly.
No Skin Off Gram’s Ass
Sodomy was not the only—or even a primary—reason Gram believed that her grandchildren were going to hell. A confirmed Protestant, Gram viewed Catholicism with the lip-curling disgust many profess to have when they see two men kiss. To her, it was a spooky combination of paganism, mysticism, sexual deviancy, and funny costumes. Growing up, she firmly believed that a tunnel ran between priests’ rectory and the nuns’ quarters, through which the priests passed nightly for unlimited sexual orgies. She believed the priests reported their unholy machinations over a telephone hotline to Rome. Of course, it didn’t help that Gram’s ex-husband had been wooed away by a “French Canadian Catholic harlot” named Clare. Clare was a sweetheart. She always gave me lottery scratch cards for Christmas stocking stuffers that never failed to win.
Clare aside, Gram’s anti-Catholicism was purely theoretical, borne from observations on the idolatrous worship of Mary and the saints and the absurdity of putting a man between you and God when it came time to confess your sins. It was no skin off Gram’s ass what all those Mary-worshipping tunnel builders did in their spare time. With the exception of Clare, Gram could live and let live.
That is, until Scott’s brother Ryan became a crossover. ["Crossover" is a derogatory term for a gay man who had sex with women before coming out. A "purebred," on the other hand, has only had sexual experience with men. Purebreds typically feel superior to their brethren who have crossed over.] His crossing over was strictly religious, though. Raised, like Scott, to be a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism in order to marry his girlfriend. (Let’s call her Jezebel. Gram did.)
Having a gay grandson must have been a trial, but Ryan’s conversion made Scott and me seem positively saintly. With the ferocity of a purebred, the normally stoic Yankee retreated to her kitchen muttering about idolatry and Popes, wondering what she had done to have her grandson betray her and turn his back on God and family. Her habit of having an afternoon margarita in a mason jar really threw fuel on the fire.
Gram, Ryan, Jezebel, Scott, and I were sipping summer wine. The day was clear and blue, the lake calm. We discussed loon-sightings and supper plans and in-season fruits. Without warning, the conversation spiraled into condemnations and defenses of Catholic principle and practice.
Gram was my first up-close and personal experience of anti-Catholic sentiment. In Eastern Massachusetts, where the immigrant Irish, Italians, French Canadians, and Portuguese had long since overwhelmed and mongrelized the Mayflower Protestants, you couldn’t swing a cat without knocking down a parish priest. Everybody was Catholic. Those few who weren’t knew Catholics and no one talked about the tunnel.
Scott, who has no interest in religion, rolled his eyes and slipped away to discuss boob jobs with his cousin. Ryan, Jezebel, and I defended Catholic doctrine as best we could, but wished we had a simple primer to help Gram understand, if not get over, her prejudices. We imagined it would look something like this:
A Catholic Catechism
Q. Is there really a tunnel between rectory and nunnery?
A. Yes. But 60% of priests are gay, so the traffic is typically for tea parties or the next diocesan fashion show.
Q. Why do priests wear dresses when they say Mass?
A. See above. And it’s called a “cassock.”
Q. How do you know the Pope is infallible?
A. Because he said so in 1870.
Q. Was he infallible before that?
A. No. God flipped a switch and it was so. Amen.
Q. What’s up with the bread and wine?
A. We believe it becomes the body and blood of Christ during the Mass.
A. The Pope said so. And he’s infallible.
Q. But isn’t that cannibalism?
A. (Shrug) Tastes like chicken.
Q. What's up with Mary-worship?
A. We don’t worship Mary. We just think she’s extra special—“Blessed amongst women,” as we say—so we build monuments to her, see her image in drain pipes, and accept that she appears to small peasant girls centuries after she was whisked bodily into Heaven. And we ask her to pull strings on our behalf with the Almighty.
Q. Sounds a little corrupt. Can’t you get by on your own merits?
A. Hell, no. We’re guilty, serious sinners, bad people—the worst.
Q. How do you know that?
A. Our moms told us so.
Q. Are your moms infallible, too?
A. Dude, don’t talk about my mother.
Ryan made matters worse by embracing a very bold and rule-bound form of Catholicism. He became all-Catholic all the time. He presented his mother with an array of photos of statues of saints. He wore a crucifix and foisted unwanted graces on his family’s table. He and Jezebel mentored Catholic youth groups and chattered incessantly about their parish priest and how religious people in America were brutally oppressed.
Then they announced that they were abstaining from sex until their wedding day. Never mind that (A) they had been living together for six months and (B) they had already done the nasty.
Their vow led to particularly animated conversations over the firepit at Gram’s camp, as Scott tried to understand what precisely they could do during this period and what was verboten.
“Manual stimulation outside the clothing?”
“Direct manual stimulation?”
“Let me get this straight,” Scott finally said. “You’re not going to have sex for six months?”
“Worse,” I interjected. “Masturbation is out, too.” I turned to the happily engaged couple. “Right, guys?”
Ryan and Jezebel nodded wistfully.
“So no orgasms at all,” I said. “Zip. Zero.”
Scott and his cousins gasped, but Ryan offered a correction. “Um. On the manual stimulation over the clothing point? That could theoretically lead to orgasm.”
Then he blushed. He was obviously speaking from (messy) experience.