Sitting in Mrs. Croom’s third grade classroom during recess, copiously copying text from a random text book as punishment for some nine year old transgression I cannot recall or name, a girl sitting next to me on one of those round white tables with a black plastic border looked up from her science book, regarded me seriously and full of unmitigated and undeserved hate, and told me I was going to hell. Here I was nine years old and condemned to hell wondering just what I did to deserve soul annihilation at the hands of an angry Satan and even angrier third grade girl.
It was quite an odd statement from a fellow classmate, and one that felt irrationally unjustified since my sin to innocence ratio at age nine, though I had smoked a cigarette, drank some beer, and had the beginnings of what would eventually become carnal thoughts (not hard to develop when you’re the son of a gynecologist and overly hormonal even for a nine year old), were nonetheless relatively new and certainly not worthy of eternal damnation in my estimation. Being a damnation virgn so to speak, I asked her what justified my condemnation to everlasting suffering, and I recall she pointed to my T-shirt.
You have to realize, I discovered rock music at an early age and developed what we might now call a man crush on Kiss at age six or seven. I had most of their records by third grade, even the shitty solo efforts each member released of which Ace’s was my favorite. In fact, I was a proud card carrying member of the Kiss Army, and my room was adorned with all sorts of Kissmobelia. Of course, in 1979, Kiss was widely known as Knights in Satan’s Service in certain circles in America especially those in the Bible Belt where I now found myself firmly planted. Even at nine I realized the proposition that four New York pop rockers who wore clown make up and sang incessantly about sex were not Pied Pipers to Hell’s gate; yet, my first taste of damnation stung and troubled me for longer than I wanted to admit. In fact, though I’m loathe and embarrassed to admit, they served as an introduction to fundamentalism to which I later succumbed as a result of relentless pressure and more eternal damnations.
Of course, this was not the first time I contemplated my immortal soul’s fate or experienced fundamental Christianity. It was, though, the first time I was damned to hell–and by a nine year old ne’er-do-well sitting in detention with me at that! My dad’s parents were about as fundamental as fundamental could be in the late 1970s, belonged to the Church of Christ, and were absolutely committed to their perceived duty to God. Fortunately or not, during my early years up until I was around 11, I, like many others of my generation I suppose, was shipped off to my grandparents’ house each summer for at least a two week tour of duty. Looking back on it now, it is odd how I relished going to visit my paternal Kentucky grandparents yet was oftentimes dismayed at the prospect of reciprocal time with my mom’s more progressive parents.
I believe my Kentucky preference was highly influenced by the fact I had other cousins who stayed at my grandparents’ home who were the same age as me, served the same sentence as me, and ultimately made the stay enjoyable. While we spent much of our time exploring the woods surrounding my grandparents’ house, a standing expectation was we attend any and all church function at the local Church of Christ. If there was a teeming casserole potluck, we were at church. If it was Wednesday afternoon, we were at church, and if it was Sunday—morning and night—we were at church.
Now a fundamentalist Church of Christ, for those uninitiated in their machinations was a fairly terrifying prospect for a young person, and I was there each summer from post toddler age up to prepubescence. They landed somewhere on the continuum of Cotton Mather/Jonathan Edwards on one hand and Pat Roberts/Jim Jones on the other: apocalyptic, hyper suffocating, and always damning us to hell for half thoughts, half deeds, and potential eventualities which never came to pass. In fact, if you recall, the late 70s and early 80s was a boon year for what became the moral majority and I was there to soak it up in all its majestic and twisted intimidation. My uncle was the church choir director which was an interesting proposition as music in our church was strictly verboten aside from the unadorned human voice. I guess a piano, organ (it referenced a sexual organ as everyone knows), or God forgive, a band was simply too indulgent for the fundamental faithful. Moreover, my grandfather was a guest sermonizer who could pound his fist and speak of the approaching fall of man with the best of them. As I grew up in this community each summer, not only did it become somewhat normal, but it exposed me to adults I found influential as well as cousins and peers in the community who were as want to list off mortal sins as the third grader who damned me to hell for a wardrobe choice. As a result of warm embrasure in this close knit and insular community, I continued to wonder what I was doing to contribute to my soul’s eternal torment in a hell of rendered human fat while simultaneously wanting to please those around me.
By the winter or spring of 1980, I took to wearing three piece suits, carrying a Bible with me everywhere I went, and essentially succumbed to numbing fundamentalism: one which is inclined toward judgment and condemnation as opposed to unconditional love and forgiveness. I also questioned my every action and motivation and wondered how they would contribute to my eventual residence in Satan’s abode. Coming home to deep southern Alabama certainly reinforced my newfound rebirth as Southern Baptists are kissing cousins of the Church of Christ, and I eventually tried to purge myself of sin by burning the symbol of my selfish and sinful indulgence, my Kiss record collection. Though it was one of my most shameful acts, the neighborhood Christjihadists urged me on to destroy the symbol of my eternal ruin. Once the offending records of my sin were burned in their own hellfire of my creation, I felt a sense of what I can only describe as orgasmic bliss though I had no referent for orgasm at 10 or 11. What I did have was an enduring fear that nothing I did would save my soul and even my pithy attempt at a burnt offering would fall on God’s deaf ear.
Oddly enough, in the summer of 1981 I returned to my paternal grandparents’ house for my yearly pilgrimage full of religious zeal and commitment. Where I had been a rock-n-roll hellion on the proverbial Highway to Hell to some, I now accompanied the church on an out of state missionary trip to Illinois where we were housed with strangers, impressed with the worthiness of our cause for the eight hour or so bus trip, and spent the next few days going door to door attempting to sell Bible sets for our lord and savior to the unsuspecting public in the non-descript Illinois town in which we found ourselves. I found the missionary trip stifling and intimidating, and, in retrospect, I wonder what the fuck the church was thinking when they sent tweens out unsupervised in a strange neighborhood to sell Bibles without the slightest concern of abduction, assault, or worse.
On the way back to Kentucky, as I thought over the experience, an older girl who accompanied us on the trip introduced me to what I can only affectionately call a dry hump but was probably closer to pedophilia. I was certainly taken by her interest in me—and mine in her—while also absolutely terrified that her Eveish actions were ruining the yearlong soul searching salvation I so desperately sought to save me from the Lord’s rage. As we pulled in to Benton, then separated into individual cars, and headed back to my grandparents, I was filled with awe and shame: awed that a teenager would find an 11 year old the least bit interesting and attractive but shamed I let down God by acquiescing to bodily sin. My misgivings were only reinforced when I heard my cousins talking about a girl they knew—or knew from a friend who knew—about a teenager who allegedly had sex. I was rapt as they described how she would certainly go to hell for her sexual misconduct, and I thought about my brief bus arousal and was confronted again with damnation even in the face of blind devotion.
Later that summer, before heading back to Brewton, Alabama from Benton, Kentucky, how was I to know that a somewhat trivial accident involving a broken lamp would shake my youthful faith to its foundation? You see, there were six of us staying at Mae and Pete’s that summer: my six year old sister Wendy, our six year old cousin Kristen, my 11 year old favorite cousin Hannah, and her 13 or 14 year old sister Courtney. Hannah, Courtney, and I were in my grandparents’ bedroom talking on the bed. They did not particularly like us in their room as kids were supposed to be outside, in church, or in bed; yet, there we were on the bed dicking around as close southern cousins are want to do—nothing incestuous; that came earlier and prior to my birth yet colored my entire existence. Unfortunately, our hefty cousin Kristen decided to run down the hall after my sister. As she came barreling toward the bed, she attained what I can only describe as a miraculous airborne height similar to how Douglas Adams describes flight, “falling but missing,” and landed full force on the bed knocking over an antique—and sentimental to my grandmother—lamp in the process. Of course, all parents and grandparents recognize the distinct sound of their shit breaking at the hands of their spawn, and swept in the room to lay final judgment on the potential damned. Though the oldest of us were sitting still and my sister was hiding as Kristen took porcine flight, crashed, and created the necessary reverberations resulting in broken lamp, Wendy and I were blamed for the incident.
As I listened to my elders’ harsh criticism and unfair sentencing, it occurred to me then that I was a vainglorious fool. If ones as purportedly wise and Christian as my grandparents could erroneously condemn innocents, how could an ineffable wise grandparent to all be expected to unerringly pass judgment on the masses? How foolish was I to believe salvation lie through denying flesh and indiscriminant art burning. I do not know that I was familiar with past censorious art massacres, but I could not believe a creator God would condone such abhorrent and wanton destruction. Though I was not philosophically acquainted with a free will defense, the problem of evil, and had certainly never heard anyone dare utter God is dead, he died for me that day just as my respect in my father’s parents suffered an irrevocable foundational shift. To me, that summer of contradictions whose trajectory started roughly two years earlier when an unnamed girl damned me to hell for a T-shirt, ended in an unrecoverable loss of faith. I realized, then, a loving, all knowing, and ever present god would not subject me to hell for my grandparents’ erroneous judgment, my choice of wardrobe, or my innocent almost dry hump in the church bus. Yet, here were the so called redeemed acting as “purblind doomsters” readily strowing “blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”
Though I subsequently discovered many contributing and primary causes for my sister’s and my unfair persecution, I never regained the youthful exuberant blind faith I cherished for perhaps a year and a half. Later that year, I almost joined my parents’ less radical (ie. Episcopal) church—they joined because it was expected that a doctor and his spouse in a small Bible Belt Alabama town conform to societal norms and join a congregation to fit in with the social elite–my many conversations with the priest prior to Christening or whatever could not shake my newfound conviction theism was a fraud and a tool used to manipulate and control. Though I now think of myself as possessing some sense or form of individual strength and slight intellectual capacity, I am utterly ashamed at how easily fundamentalism seduced me as a kid; moreover, it is blatantly obvious that its survival greatly depends on fearful indoctrination of children; otherwise, it would wither and die as hatred and fear require careful and consistent cultivation which explains, to a certain degree, white flight, Islamaphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and the never ending persecution of women.
Also, looking back on those formative individual philosophical and political moments–though I could not name it as such at the time—I cannot help but question whether or not dad’s decision to embrace and perform a newly legalized medical procedure, a procedure misunderstood and unpopular six to seven years after it started to slough out from the shadows into the mainstream, contributed to my initial damnation since there are no secrets in a small Alabama town. I know now, as I grew older and the 70s ceded to the 80s and Christjihadism and Reagan’s social conservatism spread, that dad’s profession darkly, if unjustly so, colored everything that came afterwards.
PS. Shameless plug time: Please check out the following link for information regarding this summer’s planned Abortion Rights Freedom Ride set to kick off in late July: