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
study.’
‘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
third.’
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
should.’
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
radio. 
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
any.
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
dropped?
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
too. 
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
renovations. 
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
passed.
‘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

War, sex and babies.

One of my daughters tells me I am too inward looking and that I do not engage with the world in any meaningful way. I do not know what is going on beyond a four kilometre radius of my home, she says.

She may be right. I am, as they say, out of touch.

It is hard to put things together.

This is the closest I can get to an image for this post: Mealtime and four cats – the tabby male, the others female, momentarily in harmony.

Today I listened to the radio as I drove around that four kilometre radius of my home, dropping off one daughter here, and shopping there. Food for the table.

When I reached home, I pulled my car into the driveway but did not stop the engine until the programme was over.

A certain Dr Christopher Ryan was talking about sex, but not in the way I’m used to hearing people talk about sex on the radio, not in that nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way, or that other, worse still censorious way, where the likes of artists like Bill Henson get hauled over the coals for indecency.

In a nutshell, Ryan talked about the way in which there is a connection between the aggression that gives rise to war and the repression of our sexuality. He cited research that demonstrates a correlation between the length of time babies are held and nurtured along with the amount of latitude offered to adolescents in exploring their sexuality and peaceful societies.

He contrasts certain other societies – which Ryan fears are on the rise – where children are not held for long as infants, nor fed maximally, nor nurtured in warm loving environments and where adolescents are discouraged from expressing their sexuality, with a warrior mentality that leads to war.

Earlier on the radio I had heard a snippet of live footage from a journalist who walked through the streets of Kabul with an Afghani woman to experience first hand what life is like for women there. Apparently the streets are typically filled with men and boys. The number of women outdoors is negligible. Women do not dare to venture out for fear of being harassed and sure enough it happened before the journalist’s very eyes.

The woman he travelled with was grabbed by a man who pulled at her breasts and groped her body.
‘They think a woman on the streets, any woman, is a prostitute,’ she said ‘ and deserves to be treated so.’

Which brings me to my third muddled point. I’ve mentioned before Jennifer Wilson’s blog No Place for Sheep, in which she argues against a political lobbyist, Melinda Tankard Reist who is opposed to pornography and the sexualization of young girls, a laudable concern you might think, but this concern travels hand in hand with Tankard Reist’s religious background which she is apparently reluctant to discuss in public.

Jennifer Wilson’s beef is two fold. She believes that any one who is active as a lobbyist for public behaviour and morality should at least declare their orientation, whether from a religious background, a political background, whatever.

Further and perhaps more importantly, the reason for the brouhaha, Tankard Reist’s lawyers have issued a defamation threat to Wilson if she does not retract her statements. Wilson refuses to be silenced.

Politics and emotions and sex and babies and war all come together and my poor brain cannot tease out the threads in this battle over sexual repression or expression. Can yours?