The thought police

The clash between the notion that anything goes and the desire of those who seek to honour the reality principle and limit the unbounded desires of other people was never louder than at present throughout the western world. The psychotherapy world follows suit.

At least in my small corner of the world where some of my colleagues express their concern that in putting my writing out there in the public domain, writing that contains references to my childhood within an incestuous and unbounded family, I could be damaging those with whom I work.

And desecrating the good name of our association.

In this sense, I find myself falling into my father’s camp. He, the man who when drunk took off all his clothes in order to provoke a response from his wife and children. In order to discomfort us somehow, while my mother buttoned up her thick winter coat and traipsed off to Sunday Mass. 

This clash of parental cultures from my childhood finds a way of repeating itself in adulthood in the tension between my life as a writer and my life as a therapist.

Anyone who writes knows about the struggle to rid your mind of all pressures to limit what you write for fear of how others might judge it and you. 

You need to write into these fears.

Push the thought police and the naysayers of your own editor self and others out of your mind. But when the ethics committee of my professional association called me up to have a meeting to discuss my writing, and the dangers it might hold over those with whom I work, the thought police were activated big time in my brain. 

Not that there’s been any complaint, they tell me, only the potential perhaps.

Not that they say this, but it is implied. If you don’t pull yourself up, rein in those impulses to write, particularly writing of a personal nature and particularly writing that includes ‘sexually and violently explicit material’ then you might damage others. 

How? I ask myself.

Are the people with whom we work so fragile they cannot tolerate the notion that there is violence and sexual brutality out there in the world? In my world? 

I have similar trouble understanding the mind that says it’s wrong to kill a foetus because said foetus might grow into an unwanted child, and at the same time it is okay to humiliate the would-be-mother of said foetus and tell her she is bad for believing she cannot manage this as yet unborn child and wants to be free of it, before it comes into the world and has an actual identity and life of its own and requires love and nurturing such that this would-be-parent, or maybe if you’re lucky would-be-parents, cannot contemplate managing. 

These constrictions tend to come from those privileged enough to find themselves spared of any need to make such agonising decisions.

It is a hard thing to have an abortion. It is a hard thing to write, to write meaningfully such that anyone in a position of power within the publishing industry might want to set it into print or put it up online for others to read. 

Sometimes the thought police give the impression that it’s easy. That it’s simply a matter of picking up your pen or clicking over the letters on a key board and there you have it, all this wicked material that should not materialise in the world and scald the eyes and hearts of innocent others because it is too much to bear.

I recognise my own self-righteousness at times. My own moral superiority that tells me I’m right and you are so horribly wrong, so wrong as to be bad. You need reining in. You need to be stopped in your tracks and humiliated and held to account for all the dreadful things you say and do.

I call them and these thoughts the thought police. They exist everywhere. And they’re the ones that need reining in. 

I first met the thought police when I was nine years old and sat outside the confessional waiting for my turn in front of the priest. The seats were hard on my nine-year-old bum and they pressed against my bones as a reminder there was nothing safe and comfortable here.

Here in the dark confessional within inches of the priest, his profile broken into pixels by the metal grille that separated our heads from one another. He side on, his head slightly bent as he looked down towards the floor, evoked a state of listening and of reverence. Me, directly facing him through the grille ready to rattle off my sins, the usual sins, the sins I had rehearsed earlier as I sat outside waiting my turn. 

The sitting outside waiting my turn was worst of all. I could not tell the priest the full nature of my sins. Not the ones that went on in my head. It was okay to pinch my sister’s lollies from her secret stash. It was okay to lie to my mother about brushing my teeth when I had only pretended and left the tap running to drown out my inactivity, but it was not okay to think about my body the way I sometimes did; the way I played games with my body under the blankets at night imagining myself to be the possessor of breasts like my mother; imagining myself as Maid Marion waiting for rescue from the Sheriff of Nottingham, waiting for Robin Hood, the two men a contrast in attitudes. 

The Sheriff might pull me to the ground and do unspeakable things to me that made me sick and hot with a wicked energy I could not understand, while Robin Hood caressed and held me close in his arms. But he too, in time dug down and fondled my breasts. He too got hot and excited and these feelings, this rush of blood to my face and in the hidden parts of my body below I knew to be wrong. 

I did not know why they were wrong or how they were wrong only they were wrong. And as much as the idea was to wash my soul clean of such thoughts by telling them to the priest who could then absolve me of them, the very thought of telling the priest was unthinkable. 

How could I tell him? I knew the words, the short hand version, Bless me father… I accuse myself of impure thoughts. Impure thoughts, thoughts of a sinful nature that you would blush to hear. If it meant only that I needed to admit to my impure thoughts in that same way as I admitted to stealing and telling lies, it would be simple.

But from the time I told the priest about my encounter with a man in the park, a man who once offered me a silver coin if I held his pink penis and watched the cream come out. From the time of this experience and the day after the event when I told my mother about it because it left an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, one I could not work out, from that time when she then told me to take this to the priest in the confessional and I reasoned I must have done something wrong in accepting the offer of a silver coin in return for holding his pink penis and watching the cream come out, then I knew it was dangerous to tell the priest. 

When I finally told the priest about the man in the park, he did not glide over my words as though they required nothing but a quick absolution and a Hail Mary prayer for penance.

No, this time he became interested, his curiosity piqued. 

‘What thing are you talking about, my child?’

This after I had told him I had held onto a man’s thing and watched the cream come out.

‘The thing down there,’ I said, pointing to the ground in front of me, but the priest pushed further. He wanted to know full details. 

I did not want to tell the details, but the priest pressed on until I had described even the yellow paint tin into which the man’s cream fell like milk from a bottle, only slower.

I did not want to spell out the nature of my impure thoughts to the priest. I did not want him to know about such wickedness in me, a wickedness I could not then fathom.

And cannot fathom today.

To write about sexually or violently explicit material.

Does this story constitute such a story? Is this a story of sex and violence? Or just a short take on a child’s coming of age under the weight of patriarchy or the proclivity of some men to abuse small children for their own pleasures?

Is this writing unacceptable?

Must it remain hidden in the vaults of that locked drawer where writers leave their unpublished material, or can it see the light of day?

Not if the thought police have their say. Not if the thought police get inside my mind and try to wash it clean even before I have visited the priest in the confessional.

And so, it seems to me a trip to the ethics committee is like a trip to confession. Tell the priest your sins and your soul will be washed clean, that is until the next time. 

For this business of sinning and then seeking forgiveness is never ending. 

Throwing stones

I think I may have posted something to the wrong group. A mistake that will cause me great angst and now I feel sick in the pit of my stomach for my carelessness and I feel such shame and a need to skulk off and hide.

 It’s a familiar feeling. 

You’ve opened your mouth in the wrong place and people will be upset with you and they’ll tell you off and humiliate you and reckon that you’re the worst of the worst. 

Like farting in church as an old friend used to say. But his idea of farting in church was always as an act of defiance and yet he was one of the most bigoted people I remember, especially in relation to homosexuality.

I fear I may have sent an email about bigotry towards homosexuals to the wrong email group because I was careless when I sent the email out and did not check that there are two groups in my mailbox at present, one for whom this is relevant and the other one for whom it’s not.

And now I’m beginning to calm down because I may not have sent it to the wrong group after all.

So, my panic might well be unwarranted.

There’s a scene in the movie Notes on a Scandal where the central character played by Cate Blanchett, a young woman who after a sexual relationship with one of her young students is taken into custody and a crowd of people gather around her and yell at her for her obscenity. 

The look on her face, the angst in her eyes goes somewhere close to describing how I felt after I presented a paper on incest, among other things, to my colleagues and found some of them were enraged.

The same feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

‘Let they who are without sin, cast the first stone,’ but people are quick to cast stones, so fast to let it be known that the one who has transgressed is contemptible. 

It’s the worst feeling in the world and whenever it surges in me, I crumble. Blood thins, stomach drops, all those bodily changes that signify there’s adrenalin coursing through and I’m ready to flee. 

Not fight. Mostly I flee. I hide. I go underground until I can get my mind around the horror of what I’ve done. What badness I’ve brought on.

Ever since I was little and can remember drawing attention to myself by saying something I should not say, doing something I should not do, stealing lollies from the local milk bar when the man who served at the counter turned his back; looking at my father’s art books with their images of naked women and thick penises hidden under fig leaves but still visible in the testicles that curled underneath. The excitement I felt whenever I looked at the naked breasts of women on the front cover of The Truth newspaper, a tabloid my father brought home from work for reasons I never understood given he was an educated man, and someone told me The Truthwas just filth. The excitement I felt when I hid myself in the back of the house in the toilet at the top of the stairs near the laundry, the outside toilet in a house that already boasted an indoors toilet.

All these sins.

In this toilet I could read The Readers Digests my mother brought home from the old people’s home down the road, where she worked. And the Time magazines my father bought from the newsagency, a respectable international magazine that he folded over his Truth.

I went straight to the last two pages of Timewhere they reviewed films or other artistic ventures. 

The pieces on films I had not heard of and was unlikely ever to see, held the rudiments of stories, often salacious, stories of sexual innuendo, of men and women behaving badly, and I relished the frisson of excitement up and down my spine whenever anything sexual was mentioned even if I didn’t understand it. 

I was hunting for something.

In everything I read in those days I was hunting for more information about what happened between grown-ups behind closed doors.

I wanted to understand something that to me then seemed incomprehensible. This thing that men did with their penises and the way women responded. 

In my fourteenth year during the midday movie, I watched a man holding a woman in his arms, her back to the camera. The woman was wearing an evening gown, its back scooped down to the waist so the entire arc of her back was visible and the man who held her rubbed his hands up and down all over as she nestled in close to kiss. 

What if such a man were to stroke my back? 

Never. His hands would slide over the lumpy skin of a pimply adolescent back and he’d be repulsed. 

The actor of the low-cut dress had skin as smooth as the satin of her dress. Flawless. My skin was pockmarked and pitted. No man would ever want to comfort me in this way. 

And so began my foray into feeling bad inside both bodily for its imperfections and in my mind for other transgressions.  And the bad feelings stay. 

So much drama over the conviction of George Pell, the Cardinal who was found guilty of sexually abusing two men when they were altar boys and he the Archbishop of Melbourne.

Picture of disgraced Cardinal George Pell.
By Kerry Myers. CC BY 2.0.

The event has stirred up such a welter of feeling in our community, and throughout the world. Such rage at this man, this icon of the Catholic church this beacon of propriety now fallen from on high into the worst pit a person can imagine, inside with other paedophiles.

I watched a documentary last night wherein Louis Theroux visited an American penitentiary for convicted paedophiles who’d served their term but who would most likely never be able to go back into society because they’re still considered a threat. A place for paedophiles.

A disturbing film, not simply the witnessing of the troubled men who had sexually abused small children but also the treatment approach, which left me cold.

Among other things, they used a device, a type of lie detector to which the men attached their penis via a small elastic loop which was connected to the machine. The whole procedure was measured and filmed.

To determine his progress in treatment, each man sat alone and pulled the loop onto his penis then sat, with penis attached, under a desk onto which they rested both hands. Their hands needed to be visible because men could cheat at this test simply by attacking the loop to a finger.

Then they were required to watch a series of images, some ordinary, some sexually suggestive, some subtle, some not so, some with children, some without. And the degree to which their penis swelled in size was used as a measure of whether or not they had overcome their desires to interfere sexually with children.

It seems such a basic and primitive measure as if the men are merely a function of their brain and penis.

The whole time I watched I wanted to cry. But could not.

These men, most of whom had been sexually abused themselves as children in one way or another, and who then found themselves unable to resist the temptation to perform sexual acts on children.

They emerge out of our society. They are of our society and yet when we hear of them, we want nothing more than to expel them forevermore.

As if we can be rid of paedophilia forever, if only we can be rid of such monsters.

But are they monsters or do they represent something gone wrong in our society?

This is not for one minute to condone any of this behaviour.

But to lock them away forevermore is harsh punishment indeed.

Which brings me back to the beginning, the harsh punishments we mete out to those who’ve done wrong.

How tempting it is to throw stones and at the same time duck for cover.

For the question always follows, which one of us is without sin?