Religion, sex and psychoanalysis

‘You gave
up the church for psychoanalysis,’ my mother says, during one of our many
arguments about my leaving the church. 
‘It’s just another form of religion but it has no moral core.’  She points her finger at me and waggles
it.  ‘And that fellow who started
it all.  Well, what can I say?’

My mother first
warned me against Freud when I was at university doing an Arts degree and
majoring in psychology. 

‘He had cancer
of the jaw.’
‘From smoking,’
I said. 
‘No’, she told
me, ‘much worse.’  Never once did
she spell out what worse was.  I
knew she was hinting at sexual peculiarities and perversion.  Little did my mother know, I gave up
the church long before I began my analysis.
I was nineteen
years old, home alone, cramming for my first year exams.  My philosophy lecturer had telephoned
to tell me I’d failed the previous examination because I didn’t answer the
question.  It was on the issue of
ethics.  One of those exams where
you’re told the question beforehand and sit for an hour under exam conditions
to write the answer.  I thought I
had it all worked out, even rote learned my response.  It was the first time I’d failed anything, apart from mental
arithmetic in grade six, and that didn’t count.
If I tried hard
in the next exam, my lecturer told me, I could still pass.
On the third day
of swat vac, a friend telephoned.
‘Come down to my
place,’ he said.  My friend was a
failed dietetics student who worked in a city bookshop where we met.  We worked together during the university
holidays.  He was downstairs in
general fiction while I worked upstairs with the other casuals flogging
second-hand textbooks.
‘It’s a glorious
day,’ he said.  ‘We can spend it
together here.’
‘But I’ve got to
‘One day off
can’t hurt.’
I walked to the
train station in the crisp spring light. 
The train rattled its way to Edithvale.  I could see the bay from my window, a strip of blue and
silver.  Guilt hung heavily but I
shrugged it off.
My friend lived
with his parents in a pale green weatherboard halfway down a street that ran
off the Nepean Highway.  All the
houses in the street looked the same. 
Long concrete driveways down one side, and in front, neat lawns of
cropped couch grass, bordered by hydrangeas and ti-tree.
Inside, three
porcelain ducks flew up one wall and a couple of round, stand-alone tables
served as ashtrays, beside two his and hers Jason recliners that were propped
in front of the television.  The
place reeked of stale cigarettes. 
His mother worked as a supervisor in the delicatessen at Safeway.  His father, a returned soldier who
drank too much beer and spent most of his time at the RSL, grew orchids in a
hot house attached to the back. 
My friend had taken the day
off work while his parents were away. 
He used to bet on the horses and by the time I arrived, the second race
at Sandown had already run.  I
could hear the drone of the race caller through the open window when I pressed
the doorbell.
Although it was
not a hot day, he answered the door in his shorts with no shirt.  He was stocky, with a round face and a
delicious cherubic smile.  His
boyishness belied the fact that he was several years older than me.  I melted at the sight of him.
‘I’ve won on two
races,’ he said, as he ushered me down the hallway, ‘and I’m looking for a
He led me to his
bedroom, pulled off his shorts and climbed into bed.  I’d never seen a man naked before; I had to look away.  I sat on the bed’s edge, my hands in my
lap and eyed my sandals.
‘Come on,’ he
said, ‘ get in.’
‘I don’t think I
He’d kissed me
before, once or twice.  He’d held
my hand when he took me to the Spring Racing Carnival at Caulfield.  I’d argued with my mother when he first
asked me out.  He’d wanted to take
me to Fellini’s Satyricon. 
‘You can’t see a
film like that,’ my mother said.
‘But he’s going
with a group of friends specifically to see that very film.  I can’t say no.’
‘If you can’t
say no now, when will you ever be able to?’
I went to the film. 
It was a clumsy
seduction in a tight single bed. 
More than once I hit my head on the bedstead above.  It served as a bookshelf and held
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a book
on chess.  My friend stopped
briefly to listen to the results of the third race and crowed when his horse
won again.  Then he turned off the
Although God
came into my mind, He didn’t stay for long.  I’d learned early not to touch myself or let anyone else
touch me for that matter.  I had
two holes below, or so I chose to believe, one for peeing, one for shitting, no
more, no less.  I was content with
that.  Then one day my sister told
me about the third hole and its function, the making of babies.  She didn’t mention pleasure. 
I hadn’t felt
There was a line
of blood on the sheet when it was over. 
My friend stripped the bed and threw the sheet into the washing machine
then offered me a cup of tea. 
The next Sunday, my mother
and I sat in the front pew of the Church of Mary Immaculate.  Head bowed, I considered the
possibility of taking communion.  I
was in a state of mortal sin, for the first time in my life.  Any guilt I felt was outweighed by the
pleasure of knowing I was now a woman. 
As much as I
feared committing a sacrilege, I feared my mother more.  I lined up alongside her as the priest
in white and gold tipped the host onto outstretched tongues.  I was convinced at the instant of
contact between my tongue and the host I would shrivel up in a burst of
flame.  When nothing happened, no
heavenly voice spoke and my mother failed to notice the telltale blush on my
cheeks, I decided it was all a hoax. 
Same as when I was ten years old and they abolished the ban on eating
meat on Fridays and stopped requiring three hours of fasting before communion.  How could it be, I pondered, that such
well-established rules, sanctified by the Pope in Rome, could be so readily
I had wrestled
with impure thoughts before.  It
was never enough simply to admit to them. 
In the dark of the confessional my cheeks burned whenever I tried.  The priest always wanted more detail
and I could never find the words. 
I gave up trying.
A month later my
friend took a job in the pub at Tocumwal and I never saw him again. 
Ten years after that seduction, I
entered analysis.  The consulting
room was full of the scent of aromatic oil and Christmas lilies.  There was always a bunch of fresh
flowers.  It reminded me of a
church.  My analyst sat still and
silent in her high-backed chair. 
When I was
little, I saw a nun eating spaghetti. 
I had knocked politely on the staff room door to leave a message for one
of the teachers.  Through the
corner of my eye I saw her, Sister Perpetua eating tinned spaghetti.  She forked the soft strands into her
mouth.  Until that very moment I
thought nuns did not eat nor did they use the toilet.  Under their habits I imagined clockwork bodies, fuelled by
love of God.
Although she had
a toilet in the back of her garden specifically for the benefit of her
patients, I refused to use it.  My
analyst lived some distance from my house and everyday I visited her, I allowed
enough time to stop at the shopping centre near her consulting room to relieve
myself.  I wanted to be nun-like
I visited my
analyst five times a week.  She
lived in a double storey weatherboard perched on top of a hill three houses
from the beach.  Her consulting
room stood beside the house, a separate apartment with high windows shielded by
trees.  Her sloping garden was
carefully tended, in some places even restrained with neat beds and
close-cropped bushes.  Freesias and
jonquils fought for space in wild clumps across her lawn.  Elsewhere, like her, my analyst’s
garden could surprise me.  It was
wild and spontaneous like the crooked arms of the ti-tree and geraniums that
entwined along her rocky front wall.
I spoke to my
analyst from the couch and rarely looked directly at her.  Whenever I arrived at her consulting
room, I kept my eyes to the ground as she ushered me in, to avoid her gaze, but
I took note of her shoes.  They
were brightly coloured to match her clothes. 
My analyst’s
couch was like a bed, a single bed with a teal blue cover.  Lying there flat on my back with my
eyes closed, I remembered the title of a book I’d read about an old woman’s
last years confined to bed in a nursing home, This Bed My Centre.  My
analyst’s couch became my centre. 
Unlike the priest in the confessional whose interest felt prurient, my
analyst’s interest was genuine.  I
spoke; she listened.  She spoke and
I listened and we learned from one another.
The last time I saw her,
she took my hand when we came to say goodbye.  Before then we had only exchanged words.  Her own hands were large and
tanned.  On her right fourth finger
she wore a silver ring.  It held an
oval stone, a lapis lazuli that matched the blue of the sea that rolled
unceasingly near her house. 
When I walked
away that final time, I took with me a sprig of geranium from her front
fence.  I planted it down the side
of my house.  It took root in that
effortless way geraniums do. 
Within a year it flowered. 
Within another it was gone. 
The builders ripped it out to make room for their equipment during
After it was
gone, nothing happened.  The sky
did not fall down.  The earth did
not crack.  There was nothing left
for me to take up now.  No noble
causes, no ideal ways of being, no firm system of beliefs.  No way of escape. 
‘I feel sorry for people like you,’ my mother says.  ‘It’s all me, me, me.  You just do as you please.’
I’ve learned to say nothing.  I sit and wait till the storm has
‘When you want to live without any
discipline at all, you’re not growing but heading for disaster.’  My mother is older now, grey haired and
shrunken.  The book she is reading
falls off her lap.  She struggles
to get to her feet and reaches for her walking stick.
My baby is asleep in her carry basket.  She’s bundled up ready to leave. 
‘And what about her?’ my mother says,
pointing down at the baby’s head.  ‘How
will you teach her to lead a good life?’ 
She jabs her walking stick at the floor as she staggers behind me to the
front door.
I click the carry basket into its
position on the back seat of the car and kiss my mother goodbye. 
‘Without some form of religion, there can
be no moral sense,’ my mother says.
I wind down the window.  ‘Don’t worry, Mum.  I’m sure we’ll all be okay in the end.’
‘How can you, without God?’
I release the hand brake, indicate and
pull out into the street.  In
the side rear view mirror I can see my mother, soon a dot on the horizon.  She’s still waving, still hoping I
suppose, if she prays hard enough, her daughter can be saved.

‘Religion, sex and
Psychoanalysis’, Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 14, No. 3, May 2008


Last night I watched the film, Doubt, wherein Meryl Streep plays the role of Sister Aloysius, the principle of an inner suburban Catholic primary school, maybe more a middle school because most of the students look to be around ten, twelve, thirteen years of age. The local priest, Father Flynn starts the film with a sermon on the nature of doubt and how it is linked to despair and how it binds us.

‘Set in 1964, Doubt centers on a nun who confronts a priest after suspecting him of abusing a black student. He denies the charges, and much of the play’s quick-fire dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality, and authority.’

I’ve transcribed some quotes from the film because I found them awe inspiring.

Reading them here on the page may not work so well, but it’s worth reading them in any case.

The film opens in a full church. The popular parish priest of Saint Nicholas Church and school, Father Flynn gives his sermon:

‘What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. Last year when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation, despair?

‘Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that. Your bond with your fellow being was your despair. It was a public experience. It was awful but we were in it together.

‘How much worse is it for the lone man, the lone woman stricken by a private calamity? No one knows I’m sick. No one knows I’ve lost my last friend. No one knows I’ve done something wrong. Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass, happy untroubled people, and on the other side, you.

‘I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. Only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail, and being of a nautical disposition, turned his eyes to the heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home and exhausted fell asleep. Clouds rolled in and for the next twenty nights he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain, and as the days rolled on, the sailor wasted away.

‘He began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? No one to know the message of the constellations. Had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once and now had to hold onto it without further reassurance?

‘There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe and I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainly. When you are lost, you are not alone.’

In the middle of the film, after he becomes aware of Sister Aloysius’s campaign to discredit and get rid of him Father Flynn preaches another sermon.

‘A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew. I know none of you have ever done this. That night she had a dream a great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke. She told him the whole thing.
“Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. “Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing his finger at me? Should I be asking for absolution, Father? Tell me, have I done something wrong?”
“Yes,” Father O’Rourke answered her. “Yes, you ignorant, badly brought up female, you’ve borne false witness against your neighbor. You’ve played fast and loose with his reputation and you should be heartily ashamed.”
So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness.
“Not so fast,” says O’Rourke. “I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife and return here to me.”
So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof and stabbed the pillow, then went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
“Did you gut the pillow with a knife?” he says.
“Yes, Father.”
“And what was the result?”
“Feathers,” she said.
“Feathers,” he repeated.
“Feathers everywhere, Father.”
“Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind.”
“Well,” she said. “It can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.”
“And that,” said Father O’Rourke, is gossip.

Then towards the end of the film we have a dialogue between the priest, Father Flynn and Sister James, the young nun.

Father Flynn is speaking about Sister Aloysius Beauvoir’s campaign against him.

Father Flynn: I’m not going to let her keep this parish in the dark ages and I’m not going to let her destroy my spirit of compassion.

Sister James: I’m sure that’s not her intent.

Father Flynn: That I care about this congregation.

Sister James: I know you do.

Father: You care about your class. You love them, don’t you?

Sister James: Yes.

Father Flynn: And that’s natural. How else would you relate to children? I can look at your face and know your philosophy, its kindness.

Sister James: I don’t know. I mean, of course.

Father: There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, to tell you that the light in your heart is weakness. Don’t believe it – it’s an old tactic of cruel people – to kill kindness in the name of virtue. There’s nothing wrong with love.
Have you forgotten the message of our Saviour, love of the people?

Sister James: I just feel as if everything is upside down.

Father: There are these times in our life when we feel lost. It happens and it’s a bond…

I’ll leave the film here. Needless to say it ends and we the audience are left in a state of doubt.