The following was sent to me by a survivor who wanted to tell their story. I must warn you that it is upsetting and may trigger some unpleasant emotions.
I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
The line before the confessional shortens person by person and I feel my body grow heavy. I watch the door close behind them, watch it open when they emerge. Some radiate grace. Some sniffle or wipe their eyes. Some almost don’t touch the ground; they float over to the statue of Our Lady, eyes cast blissfully upward or reverently downward. Another penitent rises to enter the reconciliation room. My breath halts. My stomach seizes.
I can’t go in there.
This is not just the anxious reluctance to say my sins out loud. This is – primal. I am not an adult, not a middle-aged woman with a PhD and a named professorship, not a hard-working mother of two young children; I am a trapped animal. A cow fighting the yoke that pulls it to inexorable slaughter. My heart begins to hammer in my ribcage, my eyes well, my throat closes. I realize I am biting the insides of my cheeks to keep my teeth from chattering. I look at my hands; they tremble. My knees quake as I try to breathe deeply and still my whole body. I know this. I have done at least one lifetime’s worth of work to overcome this panic, this lizard-brain instinct. Run, my proto-brain is urging me. Get out go now go NOW.
I try to listen to the other voice, the voice of reason. The one that can calm a sobbing child, write a book, finish a grant application, shepherd students through their PhD exams. The voice that can talk a stressed husband down from the ledge of COVID-induced paranoia when it turns out we need to rip up the entire kitchen and have unknown workers maskless in our home and we have less than 24 hours to pack everything away.
You won’t see the priest; he’s behind his screen. It’s Father Andrew, or Father Ryan, or Father Paul. He would not hurt you. Not ever never not once. You know him; you know this. Evidence over emotion. Has any of them ever pushed you against the wall, slammed his forearm against your throat, bruised your clavicle/bicep/thigh? He has not. Evidence, ma fille. Because this isn’t him. And he is not everywhere. He is not every priest.
But when the last person before me exits the confessional I find my lizard-brain is more powerful than my logic. I can’t stand up. I gesture to the person behind me. “You can go on ahead,” I whisper-choke. “I’m not ready.” Sorry. Sorry sorry sorry.
The flip side of evidence is past evidence. I knew him, too. I knew he would never hurt me. I felt such kinship with him, such a soul-deep bond. And then in one afternoon he undid everything I knew – and when he left me, rushing off to Vespers, he left a lizard. I was on my knees on the cold stone floor. I was unable to think. To move. To fight. Unable to formulate any thought other than – move one hand forward. Crawl that way. Get out.
It takes twelve more minutes. I sit in my chair midway between the door to the sacrament and the earnest penitents who will never understand. One by one I gesture them forward. Between my chair and that door handle stretches a hallway at least fifteen years long, and I can’t walk it. When there is no one left in line to wave forward, I rise from my folding metal chair and back away from the nave, making the sign of the Cross and asking Jesus to forgive me. Forgive my weakness.
He wins again. He wins, almost every time.
Do the specifics matter? I was 35, a divorced convert living abroad. He was a Benedictine monk/priest, a fellow expat. We had been corresponding by letter for 2 years; I came to visit the foundation monastery where he had been sent. He was unhappy there, I knew from his letters. He felt so alone. Isolated from his community and from God.
He told me: “God spoke to me. I was 16, and fearing the consequences of sin, and I went out running at night and God came to me. He held me there, in the dark, in the fields. And I knew there was no mortal sin for me. I knew everything was forgiven.”
He says this and then flattens my hand with his against the table. Lifts my hand and traces scar after scar. “Promise me you won’t do this anymore,” he says. Eyes full of tears. “You can’t – don’t – harm yourself. You are not the voice of the people who have harmed you. Be better than them. Do it for me. Please.” A tear spills. He kisses my wrist. I shiver.
“That was too much I’m sorry,” he says and drops my wrist but not my hand, his face panicked and pathetic and flustered. I have to reassure him. No no I say. I was just startled.
I’m just so lonely he says and pulls my hand toward him again. Red alarm bells ring powerfully at the back of my mind but I don’t know what to do about them. I am still trying to work out what to do when he asks can I – can I give you a hug?
I say yes. It is my undoing.
I don’t know how long it takes. I stand and raise my arms to hug him; his hands grip my shoulders; he wants to kiss me (can’t we – can’t we just) but I lower my head to keep his mouth from mine. But he is strong and I am trapped. All I can do is head-butt his collarbone. I find I cannot say no. I can’t say anything at all, only hide. I am at his mercy and totally exposed.
And to counter my frozen refusal he has hands. Fingers like vise clamps. Biceps strong enough to manoeuvre my body backwards, crash me into a table piled neatly with books then a wall with a tall shelf. The base of my skull smashes into the shelf: stars. It doesn’t matter. His body presses mine into the wall into the shelf into – nothingness. I feel him all over me. I can’t fight. So I give up. Slide down the wall.
Just do it, I say in a gasp. Just please.
He is horrified. Aghast. Oh my god are you ok I didn’t hurt you are you hurt? I didn’t – please talk to me are you ok. What have I done I didn’t do anything are you hurt I didn’t hurt you
I can’t speak. I feel dulled and distant. The world is very far away. He stands across the room pleading with me. I am not capable of speech. I am a heap on the floor, arms wrapped around my knees. Head buzzing with pain a thousand miles wide but I can’t really feel it, I can’t focus, my eyes swim with the rich colors of southern France and I make a mantra of them: écarlate, aubergine, colza, sauge, lavende. I am no longer human. I am just this drone reciting exotic colors silently while he whisperbegs then shouts.
TALK. TO. ME.
I can’t. I can’t. My lips part but I have no sound. And this angers him. And he comes back.
I’ve lived it a hundred times. A thousand. A hundred thousand. How many hours are there in the days between then and now? I never blocked the memory. I never knew what to call it. It was a hug. It became something else. A hug with an erection (I am a weak, weak man please pray for me) and muscles and rage and resentment. Desperation too. And this bleak lostness that seeped in through my skin, pore by pore, in indigo-violet stains the shape of fingerprints.
I’ve felt sorry for him. I’ve wept. I’ve ranted. I’ve found the perfect rebuttal, rejection, comeback, karate chop … usually at 3 am. Five, ten, fourteen years too late. I’ve medicated. I’ve stared down the bottom of too many bottles. I’ve traced cartography across the surface of my skin, as if I could remap my life into countries where our paths never cross. But I trace with exacto knives, and turn my body into a never-ending hatch-cross of intersections. My veins sing his name, his need. Some days I know it wasn’t my fault.
Some days I still feel guilty. As if it is that August night all over again and I have driven away from a world I understood. Baffled by the nausea that overtakes me half an hour from his monastery, the vesperal chant still ringing in my memory. Panicky as I steer quickly off the road, throw myself out the car door in the middle of a deserted rural highway, and vomit over and over. As if I am still, always, arriving back in Lyon and parking my rental car and stumbling down a dark path to the door of my friends’ house, hearing them ask how my weekend was in the southwest, forcing a smile and lying: I’m tired – then inventing a family emergency so I can get out. I call the airline. I do not break down when the agent asks the reason for my ticket change. I do not sob through my halting words. I get the earlier ticket and rip the old one up. Then pack.
Back in Boston I stand before the mirror in my room, pull a T-shirt over my head and touch each bruise in turn. The shape of his hands, gripping my shoulders and arms, my ribcage, my hips. Steering me, smashing me against the wall over and over until I stop fighting.
Above the bruises, I don’t recognize the woman in the mirror. She is broken. Her eyes have darkened. A shroud hangs behind her smile. I hate her. I hate you, I whisper. And punch her down into nothing. I refuse to be that person.
It happened an ocean a continent a lifetime away. I fled and left it there. It has no place in my Cambridge apartment. I do not allow it in the tiny living room or the claw-footed bathtub with whimsically painted toenails. When I sit on the little deck above the garage downstairs, I do not clutch at my mysteriously aching throat, do not feel the rough fabric of his black habit against my neck or his forearm choking off my scream.
I join a church choir and sing with a group of middle-aged men who also love Gregorian chant. I think they are bemused by me, but they accept and welcome me, we get each other’s liturgy-nerd jokes about preface tonalities and the priest’s woeful Latin. Most of them carry wounds of one sort or another and half of them are gay. I fit right in. We cover our Sunday clothes with albs, white square-necked smocks; my hands disappear inside the belled sleeves. Richard (Uptight Richard, not Hippie Richard) begins each Latin Mass with the Gregorian Ave Maria and, from my spot at the back of the choir loft, invisible, I hum along.
One Sunday a woman from the congregation asks what I am doing there. This is my parish, I tell her. I’m here for Mass. She tsks. I feel the warning buzz in the back of my brain, his voice telling me this is not your place. The woman admonishes me – women do not belong in the chant choir – and stalks off. So maybe … maybe I am not a woman? I’m childless and divorced and likely to stay that way. I’m a tattooed traditionalist. I’m too afraid to date anyone longer than 5 minutes; eventually I stop trying. I don’t fit into any neat little Catholic boxes. Oh and I was sexually assaulted by a monk during confession … Quiet. That door slams closed and my whole skeleton shudders. I am not woman enough, or I am too much fallen woman. I don’t tell anyone anything. I can’t.
I develop anxiety I do not acknowledge. The palm of my right hand itches without etiology or explanation. Day, night, I have to wrench my left fingernails off my right palm; still they leave long red welts. Sometimes I run the pad of my thumb against my bottom teeth, when fingernails prove insufficient. Scratching the palm brings painful satisfaction that lifts and dissolves the moment I stop scratching.
And I stop going to confession. His hand flat against my lower back, the warm pressure. The furtive grasp before he offered to hear my confession. I was on my knees when he grabbed my hair. Alone in the empty wing where the monastery bookshop sat in burnished summer lull, lazy buzzing of golden bees and the small bells chiming non-liturgical hours. I confessed I had slipped backward and cut myself, back in Cambridge before I boarded the flight, and his fingers walked up and down the roadmap of my arm before he kissed it. Tears, tenderness. Then shock.
At 38 I rediscover an eating disorder I thought I had resolved two decades earlier. Weight falls off my body until the skirt I wore my first day of teaching is twice my width. I run 8-9 miles every day, around the lakes until the weather turns cold, then on a treadmill in the campus gym. In January I go back outside, running hard as I can, gasping, and when I trip on a root I fly across the sidewalk and hit a bench. Other runners stop and help me up. I straggle home and run the hottest shower I can, strip down and stare in the mirror. My body is unfamiliar, like an adolescent boy’s. The only familiar things are these bruises on my torso. When I step into the scalding shower I wash him away again, again, knowing I can never scrub him off. The bruise still hurts. Poke it to be sure. It still hurts.
I go to counselor after counselor and do not talk about him because – how?? A monk gave me a hug and now I am a mess. Yes I am eating (some; and forcing myself to throw it all up after). No I am not cutting. Instead I take up with a lover. It turns out he is married and lying, but by the time I discover this I am pregnant. I’m going to tell her about the baby, and it will probably end my marriage, he says, his voice grim and resentful. Instead his wife telephones me, white-hot livid, saying they will adopt the baby and I should go far away because he is not your man. You have no place in my home. At twelve weeks I feel a stabbing pain in my abdomen. The baby passes in the night, falls with a heavy plop into my toilet; I fish her out with a spoon and put her in the freezer. I bury her beneath the tree at the center of my backyard and bleed for three weeks.
Maybe I am not a woman. My body cannot do the one thing that sets women apart. I cannot keep a baby alive inside my womb. I am devastated. The lover … His wife is right. I have no place in her home. Or in my own. Or anywhere really. I will never be from here.
Years and travels and losses and blessings. My Dad, my cat, a dear friend. I stop running. I read Eat, Pray, Love and decide to do more of all of those. I board planes to Korea, Italy, Israel, Bali, Cambodia. Moscow, Singapore, Morocco, Portugal. I fall in love and give birth to two beautiful impossible miracle boys. They are my poems. The sorrow lifts from my eyes. One day I find I have gained eighty pounds. I still feel fifteen inside my skin, and don’t entirely understand when I got to be this old.
Out of the blue one morning I open my email and there he is. Like a bold slash across my inbox, stark and black, his name staining every message around it. I don’t even look at the other subject lines; I can’t see them. I cannot fathom that he has found my address. Written to me. On the computer. My mind stops processing information and suddenly I am convinced he has died and someone at the monastery is writing to tell me. Maybe they have found his stash of my letters. Maybe they know … they know.
He writes again and again. Eleven emails in eight days, each more peremptory than the last. TALK. TO. ME. The last is just a series of punctuation faces going from elated (:-D) to furious (>:-X). At the bottom he has attached a scan of one of my old letters. A card sent just after I flew back to Boston, in the summer of 2005.
I am back in the land of so much noise everywhere, everyone talking all the time. (Yelling. Walkie-talkies beeping loudly in the streets, their robot cues pinging off the concrete high-rises of Downtown Crossing.) I went back to Holy Trinity last Sunday but couldn’t talk about my time in France. (What a blessing, such a beautiful country, maybe one day we can set up a group and you can be our guide, I want to see the lavender fields…) There is just always so much going on here. So many events and activities and lectures and soirées and business meetings. And I want to say something – but I have no voice. (Forearm slams across my throat. Cut my tongue out so I can only weave my story into silk. Overtake me with blinding light and turn me into a bird.) I sometimes feel I could scream. But instead, I just go silent. Can you understand? (I know you have passions you cannot express. Ideas nobody else agrees with. A longing to be elsewhere, somebody else, in a life that slipped past you somehow. I get it and I am stony with grief and cannot condemn you, even now.) So I keep silence like a prayer. Like a gemstone. I cherish it. (Read: I will never tell.)
His last email arrives on Mother’s Day, a hammer hurled across the sky. It spurs me to action: call the Abbey, call a lawyer, send a cease and desist letter. I do, and even fly to France to meet with the Abbot and make an official – albeit late – report. I tell myself not to expect resolution, but I still want resolution. The silence afterward ticks onward, louder than a bomb.
My heart has not slowed since then. My right palm has a permanent raw patch where I scratch at it even in my sleep. I have seen psychologists and psychiatrists and priests and lawyers and massage therapists and trauma counselors and a shaman – I have taken thirteen anxiolytics and nine anti-depressants and medications for phantom aches and weight loss and panic attacks and mystery nausea and compulsions – and still, still, he lives behind my eyes, his fingerprints dark on my skin, as if his whorls could pull the blood up from my veins and match its tint. My throat is raw from vomiting his pain. My pain. It is the same pain. I look in the mirror and the woman he ravaged still sinks to the floor, dazed and dumb and numb with terror. It is impossible – he has denied it, will go to his deathbed denying it – and the only truth.
I sometimes think he will show up at my door. I sometimes think I have made the whole thing up. I sometimes think I forgive him. I sometimes think of ending my life. I think sometimes he will burn me to the bone, until all remains of me is a whisper of prayer. And when I try to pray it is a whisper, Father forgive me, and I sometimes think no one ever hears it at all.
– by rosemary, Baton Rouge, 19 Feb 2021