Sorry about that

I grew up in a family where secrecy
held pride of place on the mantel piece between the crucifix and the statue of
the blessed virgin Mary.  The
statue was not your typical blue and white plaster cast nor was it simply a
statue of Mary on her own.  It
was cast in a glazed terracotta brown and it included Mary’s baby Jesus and their crowns. 
It seemed apt therefore that the
statue stood on the mantelpiece directly above my mother’s head as she sat in
her usual chair alongside the fireplace. My mother was queen of the babies. 
My father sat on the other side of
the mantelpiece closer to the crucifix, which fitted him given that the
initials of his first two names matched the JC of Jesus Christ.  Our father
often gave the appearance of a man who was tortured. 
My father did not hang spread
eagled on a cross but he exuded suffering, though I did not see it like that
then.  Then in my childhood my
father was not Christ like at all, not the Christ I had learned about at school, the one who was meant to be loving and kind.
My father was a brute.  And in my imagination in those days I
considered it the role of fathers everywhere to dominate and to control.  It was necessary therefore to keep all things
from my father.  It was necessary
to stay safe by staying away. 
My father I think now must have
been lonely in his large family with so many children.  
So what were the secrets you
ask?  Or was it more an attitude of
secrecy, as if we all had things to hide from one another and so we went about our
daily lives hiding things from each other, especially from our father. 
I put some of this compulsion
towards secrecy down to the fact of confession and sin.  I learned early that many things were
sinful.  Thoughts alone were enough
to get you into serious trouble within the heavenly sphere above. 
It did not
stop me from having such thoughts but it led me into a pattern of doing and
undoing – commit the sin and then seek forgiveness, the sin of theft being
highest on my list of real sins. 
The other sins I made up.  I
admitted to disobedience when I was never so, at least not in my memory. 
I admitted to telling lies
once.  Every week the same list of
sins, disobedience once, telling lies once and stealing once.  I did not elaborate on any of these
things.  I had them down pat and
they worked well enough. They fooled the priest.  Once a week off to confession to wash away my sins. 
It did not work so well with my
impure thoughts though – thoughts of bodies, desirous thoughts that now in my
imagination I can scarcely remember. 
The impure involved games with my
younger sister where we cavorted together on the bed; where we touched each
others bodies the way we saw the grown ups on television touch; where we felt hot with excitement, an
excitement I did not then understand, only I knew it was wrong. 
I could not admit to such sins of
impurity to the priest.  I could
not even utter the words and so I resolved these by novenas.  To make a novena you needed to go to
Mass every Friday for nine Fridays in a row and the all sins, mortal and venial, were washed away. 
The point of all this talk of sin
is that the sinful nature of my childhood evoked a spirit of secrecy. This
might account for my all too ready tendency these days to say, ‘I’m
To say ‘I’m sorry’ has become a joke in my
household.  It has morphed into the
words, ‘I’m sorry about that’. 
A certain tone of voice, a certain
emphasis on some of the words in this short sentence can give the impression,
as my husband says, not of contrition but of an exasperated ‘sorry about that’,
as if I couldn’t care less. 
I’ve had enough now.  ‘Sorry about that’, but you’ll just have
to lump it. Sorry about that and now fuck off. 
And so ends this morning’s reading
from the bible of my childhood, of which I have written and read many chapters
and now I get to the point as I do in life generally, I’m sorry about
Enough for now. 
I shall skulk off to the privacy of
my room and hide my secrets behind closed doors.  

32 Comments on Sorry about that

  1. Lo
    September 15, 2012 at 12:50 pm (6 years ago)

    What a lovely, totally charming and sweet post.

  2. River
    September 15, 2012 at 1:21 pm (6 years ago)

    My childhood was so very different from yours. I had absolutely no concept of sin or confession. We weren't brought up with any religion at all.
    We had no need to lie or keep secrets, although we often did keep a secret or two, such as the hidden location of my favourite coloured pencils that I didn't want anyone using except me, my Mum would hide the "good" biscuits and not let us know where they were. Simple stuff like that.
    Although it does no good to say this, I wish your childhood could have been easier.

  3. Rubye Jack
    September 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm (6 years ago)

    My childhood was quite similar to yours Elizabeth except that I was Baptist rather than Catholic. The sins were the same. My father was mean and controlling and my mother was always depressed. However, we didn't "get" to confess our sins. We were stuck with them for eternity. Ha.

  4. jabblog
    September 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm (6 years ago)

    It's remarkable that you can find compassion for your father, even to begin to understand that he might have been lonely.
    I now understand a novena – what a very convenient exercise:-)

  5. ellen abbott
    September 15, 2012 at 3:56 pm (6 years ago)

    sinfulness for being human, one of the many reasons I think religion is evil.

  6. Elizabeth
    September 15, 2012 at 4:48 pm (6 years ago)

    I hope you come out of your room soon.

  7. Ms Sparrow
    September 15, 2012 at 6:23 pm (6 years ago)

    I think there must have been many generations of lonely men who never inherited any concept of how to be a father other than by bullying. How very sad for the millions of us, my own kids included, who jumped up and went to another room when dad came home from work. Those macho ideas of manhood stole so much from from all of us and continue to do so.

  8. The Weaver of Grass
    September 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm (6 years ago)

    I find this absolutely fascinating Elizabeth – one never know what goes on in the childhood mind – but it is good that in later life you can unburden a lot of it.

  9. Andrew
    September 15, 2012 at 8:52 pm (6 years ago)

    It is so easy to say sorry, meant or not. I don't know why people don't do it more often.

  10. Susan Rowland
    September 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm (6 years ago)

    Fantastic post. Especially powerful. The way apologies morphed into "sorry about that" was piercing.

  11. Jim Murdoch
    September 16, 2012 at 10:02 am (6 years ago)

    What’s the difference between privacy and secrecy? To this day I struggle to answer that question. I’m not sure there’s any. I suppose, if you want to nitpick, intent might be the decider but that’s assuming the keeping of secrets is something wrong which it can be but that all depends on the nature of the secret; secrets aren’t automatically wrong anymore than the desire to seclude oneself is wrong even though there are those who’d suggest that it is because why would anyone want to be on their own unless they were intent on doing something that they didn’t want others to see? I have always been a private person and I have always kept secrets. I don’t like people to go rooting around my office and, to be honest, I’m not even that crazy about people being in my office. I don’t have double standards though; I rarely go in Carrie’s office.

    I don’t like people to see works in progress. You’ll notice I virtually never talk about what I’m working on and I never post drafts seeking critiques. The process of writing is private. I share a bit online these days because I think it’s helpful for younger writers and I remember being one but there’s no way I’d want people looking over my shoulder when I was working, not even Carrie. She’s very good that way and give me my space; she never pries. I—eventually—hand he finished pieces which she comments on and that’s that. Very rarely she’ll offer a suggestion which I’ll take on advisement—she doesn’t value structure as much as I do—but I’m not beyond reworking something. So you could say I work in secret but secrets don’t need to stay secret; that’s the nice thing about them.

    The issue is one of entitlement: what right do people have to know things about me? Parents—most parents certainly—have no problems invading their kids privacy, especially when they’re wee; they barge into rooms as if they own the place (which they often do) but do they own us simply because us gave you life? I’ve been listening to my dad’s old reel to reel recordings as you know. There are two mains chunks, one when I would have been about four and another when I was six and there’s one bit from when I was four where my mum says to my dad something along the lines of, “He’s been upstairs for a while. You better go and see what he’s up to.” I was, apparently, an extremely destructive child so I can perhaps forgive them.

    I had lots of hidey-holes when was a kid. I never had anything to hide of any consequence until I reached puberty but from a very early age I relished the fact that certain things were mine and mine alone. I was the same with knowledge. There were things I shared—ever the show-off—but there was stuff I preferred to keep to myself too. I really was quite duplicitous. There was the me I knew people expected me to be and the real me, not that the difference was necessarily clear-cut. Somewhere along the line I started to see that I wasn’t alone in this regard. My parents were also capable of keeping secrets and being hypocrites and that’s when I became aware of a special class of secret, the family secret.

    I didn’t go and sit in a wooden box to confess my sins but that doesn’t mean that the concept was alien to me. There are things I would own up (because I knew they’d find out eventually) and things I would try to get away with. I was fully aware God saw everything—I could quote chapter and verse from a young age—but for some reason that bothered me less than it should have which is where my earliest niggling doubts evidenced themselves; I really should have been cut up that I was sinning against my heavenly father and yet I wasn’t because I was following my own conscience and it didn’t see right and wrong so black-and-white-ly.

    Saying you’re sorry is easy. Being truly sorry is something else. My father was never wrong even when he was so he never apologised for anything. I can only remember him ever saying he was sorry when I phoned him after being in a car accident and the first thing he went on about was the cost. A day or two later he said he was sorry. Just that once.

  12. Elisabeth
    September 17, 2012 at 9:46 am (6 years ago)

    Thanks, Lo, for your generous comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  13. Elisabeth
    September 17, 2012 at 9:50 am (6 years ago)

    As you imply, River, a sense of sinfulness seems to me an unhelpful thing for small, children, although it helps to learn the difference between right and wrong, and little people usually learn the difference very early on.

    Thanks for your good wishes, River.

  14. Elisabeth
    September 17, 2012 at 9:55 am (6 years ago)

    Poor you, Rubye Jack, stuck with your sins for eternity. As you say, it matters little whether catholic or baptist the notion of sin is the same old repressive cudgel parents wield against their children in the name of discipline and those old authoritarian fathers were the worst offenders, alongside their oppressed and depressed wives, but they learned it from their parents.

    It takes quite an effort to unlearn the harsh mistakes our parents visited on us and not entirely repeat them with our own children,n

    Thanks, Rubye Jack.

  15. Mary LA
    September 17, 2012 at 9:56 am (6 years ago)

    I keep reading this and wondering about the House of Incest and what cannot be said, what is covered over by religiosity and the spurious.

    Because in confession there is no space for the child of the transgressor to say: 'I was more sinned against than sinning.'

    And I imagine too that the Catholic Church in Australia then was like the Catholic Church in southern Africa in those years, preoccupied with covering up, concealing and protecting its own; so that adult confession of any deep or truthful kind was fairly thin on the ground. A great brown sanctimonious facade like a stain.

    Lacan's Realm of the Father, lonely tortured and suffering — but also buffered from the reality of his brutal nature and the suffering he caused perhaps?

  16. Elisabeth
    September 17, 2012 at 9:56 am (6 years ago)

    Those novenas were very convenient, Janice, and I'm glad you detect an inkling of compassion here for my father who was after all a creature of his experience.

    Thanks, Janice.

  17. Elisabeth
    September 17, 2012 at 9:59 am (6 years ago)

    I'm inclined to agree with you, Ellen: the fact that religion is so against sin leads it to become sinful/evil in its turn. the dangers of the high moral ground. I think of works like The crucible.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  18. Elisabeth
    September 17, 2012 at 10:01 am (6 years ago)

    I come out of my room from time to time, Elizabeth, you'll be pleased to know, depending on my state of mind.

    Thanks, Elizabeth

  19. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 5:39 am (6 years ago)

    I agree Ms Sparrow, it's so sad that so many generations of men have been unable to deal with their children except through authoritarian means. I remember well the business of jumping up and leaving the lounge room whenever we kids heard my father's footfall in the hallway. We'd scatter for dear life. So sad for us all, my father included.

    Thanks, Ms Sparrow.

  20. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 5:40 am (6 years ago)

    It is good to make sense of childhood experience through writing, at least it is for me, Pat.


  21. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 5:42 am (6 years ago)

    It's easy to say you're sorry, Andrew, as you suggest, but perhaps sometimes it's harder to really mean it. For me it can become a bit of a defensive habit I fear.

    Thanks, Andrew.

  22. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 5:44 am (6 years ago)

    I enjoy linking the past and the present, Susan. It's amazing to me how much one year can morph into another through writing.

    Thanks, Susan.

  23. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 6:59 am (6 years ago)

    Saying sorry is easy, Jim, but true contrition is another matter, as you so rightly suggest, Jim. And the links of confession to privacy are complex, especially when you start to think about things like privacy. All of us need it, including children, privacy, like solitude a place and space to be alone from time to time uninterrupted by the needs and prying eyes of others.

    It must be fascinating to listen to these old tapes. to her your father's vice again. to hear him speak about you when you were only four. I have a few of my childhood tapes and I can also cringe when I hear my father's voice. He can't even pronounce my name right, at least not to my ears.

    You are so fortunate to have Carrie as your best reader. I wish I had such a reader. We talked about this in last night's writing class, about the need to find someone who can read your work critically with enough honesty and positivity in approach to help move you along, neither to crush you nor to offer false praise.

    I fear I have few such readers and those I have I don't like to impose upon too often.

    There is of course a time when it's ideal to show your work and a time when it's too soon. Stephen King apparently has an open and closed door policy for his drafts. Closed door in the early stages, very private before any one can read what he's written and an open door further down the track when he's ready to share his writing and to get feedback.

    I experience this too but maybe my doors are not quite as firmly open or shut, a little more kept ajar. And for you maybe your door is open only to Carrie in the first instance after some time for you alone with your writing until your book is ready for its flight into the world.

    Thanks, Jim.

  24. R.H.
    September 19, 2012 at 7:31 am (6 years ago)

    Hi, I am Robert: Deletion Bob, accustomed to it and loving it.

    I don't wish to understnd my childhood, I write about it to face it, that's all.

  25. lisa hutchison
    September 19, 2012 at 9:39 am (6 years ago)

    What wonderful writing. Your page was recommended to me by someone who reads mine and I'm so glad I looked you up.
    I have been trying to think, psychologically why there is such a need for silence and to protect abusers. The best I can come up with is some crap to do with social status/standing. It still doesn't make real sense to me.
    You might like to read one of my posts of forgiveness:

    Anyway, I love your blog.

  26. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 11:30 am (6 years ago)

    I suspect you're right, Mary, the catholic church in Australia ad the Catholic church in South Africa had similar policies of covering up abuses and protecting its own. The house of incest as you call it is indeed a house predicated on secrecy and it's hard to break free from that.

    Thanks, Mary LA.

  27. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 11:43 am (6 years ago)

    I write about my childhood not only to face it, Robert but also to try to understand it better. Still I can understand your wish to face yours in writing about it without the understanding .

    Thanks, Robert.

  28. Elisabeth
    September 19, 2012 at 11:48 am (6 years ago)

    I've been over to your blog, Lisa, and from the little I've had time to read thus far it sounds fascinating. I'll be back again.

    In the meantime thanks for your kind comments here. It is hard to understand the process of silencing and the ways in which abusers get protected. Something to do with the feelings that get stirred up in those who might otherwise bear witness, the guilt of those who standby but do nothing to protect the vulnerable. After all it's easier to identify with the aggressor than to identify with the vulnerable ones.

    Thanks, Lisa.

  29. R.H.
    September 19, 2012 at 8:58 pm (6 years ago)

    I understand it already for goodness sake.

    Why are Jim's comments so wordy?
    Golly me, bigger than War and Peace!

  30. Elisabeth
    September 20, 2012 at 11:25 pm (6 years ago)

    Thanks again, Robert. Perhaps Jim writes as he does here for the same reason I write – to communicate and to explore.

    There's no need to write into something you understand fully or don't want to share.

  31. R.H.
    September 22, 2012 at 5:45 am (6 years ago)

    I've got an advantage, I write for everyone, the moth-eaten and the magnificent, people with the arse out of their pants. You pair have a narrow audience: egghead and jumped-up housewife.

  32. Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte
    October 11, 2012 at 7:33 pm (6 years ago)

    Thank God there were no statues of any sort in our home or that of relatives. When I saw them at church I cringed. And when passages were read that her should be no idol worship I got more upset.
    And I have a lot yet to share about many things. Timing just seems to get in my way.
    I think of secrets as a means chosen to either hurt or try to interfere with a process of someone's understanding.
    Privacy is not the same thing.


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