I descended into the basement, not because it was cooler, but because I’d tried every other room in the house, and I still couldn’t stop thinking of women’s breasts. I walked through the rec room with its cement-block walls painted a sunny yellow and crossed into the utility room. The light was dim, but I caught the scent of salt and oil. The water softener was working, the furnace was stilled. My brain was anything but still, working overtime, sore from pressure, feeling as if clamped in a vise. My thoughts stung, like mosquitoes after dark. I hugged myself. I couldn’t stop thinking, so I tried to stop breathing.
I gulped a breath and held it, but not for long. Tried again. Squeezed my eyes shut and inhaled so deep I thought I might pass out. But the air still seeped away. Just as I couldn’t stop thinking, I couldn’t stop breathing.
It wasn’t that I got pleasure from looking at breasts, at least in that summer of 1965. But I was always on guard. An equation was etched in my mind.
Breasts = Pleasure = Sin = Hell.
I hadn’t learned that in Arithmetic class, but it felt as accurate as two times two. The only answer was four.
That summer morning, I had entered the confessional at the back of our church in the Milwaukee suburb where we lived. I was 13 then, a little over five feet tall, and skinny as a matchstick. But I was big enough to feel the kneeler sink a few inches when my weight pressed down on it. I knew my weight would trigger a light outside, just above the confessional door. Do not enter; sinner inside.
I knelt in stillness and waited for the priest to slide open the window that separated us. When he opened it, with a sharp snap, all I could see was a darkness where a priest should be. When my eyes acclimated, I focused on the assistant pastor’s shadowy face and stammered out a scrambled summary of impure thoughts. Women, breasts, skin, sin. He told me to say three Our Fathers, three Hail Mary’s and make a good Act of Contrition. But even as he murmured the opaque Latin words of absolution, I panicked. I knew I couldn’t say a good Act of Contrition without dwelling on what brought me to the church in the first place.
Breasts = Pleasure = Sin = Hell.
Outside the confessional, I tried. “O My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee.” But I was heartily more afraid than sorry. I knew I needed to go back inside that box. But I’d already done that once, and I was afraid the priest might lose patience.
The next day, our family headed for a small town in far Northwestern Wisconsin. We left on the third Saturday of every July, a vacation trip as regular a part of our lives as Sunday Mass. Solon Springs was a trek, all right, 400 miles away. We went there because that’s where my father was born and raised. My grandmother still lived there.
I helped Dad tie a heavy plastic tarp over the vacation trappings to the roof of the Country Squire station wagon. Even in my fevered state, I was glad to be going. I had tried all the blocks in our neighborhood, biking here and walking there, searching for a place where I might feel sin-free. I would try Solon Springs.
It seemed a good bet. For the whole family, this annual ritual was more than a vacation in a pine-scented town, with a house on a lake and a beach in a park. It also was a brush with fame: the park was named after my grandfather. He had been postmaster in Solon Springs for 51 years. He’d acquired land and deeded much of it to the state just before he died. It was the greatest story our family told. We, as ordinary as they come, had a state park bearing our last name. When I was there, I felt extraordinary.
“Anyone want to go to the beach?” asked my father after Mass the next day.
My six-year-old sister and nine-year-old brother squealed and shouted their assent. My 11-year-old sister smiled hers. There was running and jumping for swimsuits and towels. I moved more slowly. I was a teenager now and concealed my excitement.
Which was just as well.
I never realized how many women there were on a beach until I tried to stop looking at them. What I did next, well, maybe it was my attempt at flagellation. I hurled my brain and body into the cold water, relishing the slaps and shocks to my skin and bones. I dove and swam, a bit recklessly I thought, beyond the ropes, out to the faraway float that had seemed too far away a year earlier. When I looked back at the beach, even my parents looked tiny.
Sooner or later, though, every swimmer must return to the beach. Sitting on a towel in the sand, all I saw were bikinis and breasts. So I tried a new strategy. I looked down at the ground, even when I walked. No swimsuits down there. Only sand, grey pebbles, and muddy concrete on the path back to my grandmother’s house.
Later that afternoon, I returned to the park alone. I walked along a dirt path that curved away from the beach and through the pines, alongside a rippling, calming creek. It was dark, quiet. No one passed me. I turned on my transistor radio and listened to my favorite wildlife: Byrds, Animals, Beatles. John Lennon summed it up for me. “Help!” Music was such a pleasure in those doleful days. I didn’t have to look, only listen. (It made sense at the time.) But I’d forgotten where the path led, to the village uptown, where I ran smack into daylight. And everyday life: the post office, train depot, IGA. No matter which path I took, there was always a woman at the end.
“Mom, can I talk to you?” I asked finally, as I saw the vacation ebbing away. It was late, after dark, and she nodded, though I had interrupted her rocking my year-old sister to sleep. After all the other kids had gone to bed, we sat together on a couch.
How did I even get into the conversation? “Mom, I can’t stop thinking about breasts.” Maybe that’s how I started. I told her I was afraid of Hell. She held my hand. At some point, I crouched forward, almost falling off the couch, and looked back at Mom. Her dark hair was beginning to turn Irish grey. Her blue eyes were filled with tears. She told me I wasn’t committing sins.
“You’re basically such a good person.” I know now what she meant: “You’re a good guy!” But the only thing I heard then was a qualifier. Basically.
The next day, Mom arranged for me to talk to my father.
Dad had taught me how to play baseball, build a model airplane, tie a sheepshank, and pitch a tent. But we had never talked about how we felt. About anything.
My understanding of my inner life was limited to thoughts I believed I had to control. Dad’s inner life had been sorely tested. When he was four years old, he saw his twin brother drown in the lake in front of the family home during a scuffle with an older boy. The next year, Dad’s infant sister died of influenza. When he got older, his brother drank too much, and Dad often came to his rescue. Then, one of Dad’s older sisters took her life. These last two chapters of family history remained a secret until I was much older. My father never talked about them.
To this day, I wonder what Dad was feeling that night as he sat in front of his homestead, in a squat chair made of birch logs, and looked out on the lake where his brother had died. What did he think as his oldest son started to pace behind him?
The more I talked, the faster I walked. I wrung my hands and waved my arms. If there were any demons around, I chased them away. I told Dad: “I don’t want to see what I’m seeing, and I don’t want to think what I’m thinking.”
He tented his hands in front of his mouth. I know he heard me. And I know he cared about me. But he couldn’t help me. Were there words he thought but did not say? I just don’t know. The evening air cooled, the mosquitoes got busy, and we walked back inside together in the gathering dark.
The swimmers had swum, the fish were caught, and the breasts were still bouncing. We left Solon, we went home. One day, Mom told me there was a name for what I had. Scruples meant taking sin too seriously. She did the only thing she knew to do. She called the assistant pastor. I went to see him that night, not in the confessional but in the sacristy.
As an altar boy, I’d watched the assistant pastor prepare to say Mass in that space hundreds of times. But now the colorful vestments were hidden behind a closet door. The golden chalices and white linens were tucked away. The sacristy lights, brighter than I was used to, at first hurt my eyes.
The assistant pastor wasn’t old, maybe in his late 30s, but his face looked rubbery and tired.
“Your Mom told me a little about what’s bothering you,” he said. I took comfort in his calm tone of voice. He didn’t sound like a priest.
We sat at a table and hadn’t talked long before he took something out of an envelope. It looked like a clipping from a magazine. When he placed that clipping on the table, I was surprised to see a small black-and-white picture of a naked woman.
“I thought it might help to talk about what women look like,” he said.
I’d seen pictures of naked women. A year earlier, I’d found an abandoned Playboy magazine in an alfalfa field near our house. But the priest’s photo was different. Though it looked like the woman had a head, someone had cut off the picture at her neck.
The assistant pastor talked about what happens to women when they mature. About men and women sharing love through sex. About the responsibility of raising children. I can’t remember if I said anything at all. But when I looked at the breasts of this unknown woman, I didn’t look away.
I’ve relayed this story to a few people. Most have said that what the assistant pastor showed me was bizarre. Inappropriate, even. Maybe it was. But now I think of that night as a turning point, a time when I began to feel less afraid. I left the sacristy with no better understanding of how sex fit into my moral universe. But I left knowing I had sat next to a priest, we had together looked at most of a naked woman, and he had not judged me.
Other moments, both odd and ordinary, lifted me late that summer. I visited a cousin, and we stayed out too long in the sun. My sunburn hurt so badly I could think of nothing else. My cousin’s mother—Mom’s relative and dear friend—poured vinegar down my back. Immediately, the vinegar took the sting out of the burn. It surprised me that something so painful could be soothed in an instant.
I went to see a friend who’d returned from a summer vacation. We listened to Bob Dylan and other songs of the summer. Did Dylan ever envision “Like a Rolling Stone” as background music for two kids playing Parcheesi and drinking Nesbitt’s orange soda? Maybe not, but to me it felt good just to feel okay.
I rented a snare drum and learned the opening shots of the Dave Clark Five’s “Catch Us If You Can.” It was a club-handed feat, but one I carried out with newfound authority.
At least for a while, the vise on my brain went back into the toolbox. I started looking at women and girls again.
Breasts = breasts = ?
In my young life, I had experienced other times when my brain turned hard on me. But I’d never endured anything like the duration and severity of my alienation that summer. Even when my unnatural fixation subsided, I still grappled with how to integrate sex and sin.
If you look up “sex and sin” now, you’ll get about 6.5 million references. I conclude I was not alone in working through this predicament.
The stereotypical notion of how teenage boys navigate the fear of sex is via bravado. “The only thing my dad told me,” said a fellow Boy Scout at one of our weekend campouts, “was to marry a woman with big knockers.” I belonged more in the camp of a friend I met in college, who grew up under the watchful eye of Martin Luther and the religion and moral code he spawned. My friend told me that when he was in high school, he and another guy started the “Anti-Lust-League” (A.L.L.), which, he confided, had a short shelf life.
As I moved toward adulthood, sex became less daunting than sin. Maybe it was because sex was tangible and palpable, but sin was harder to gauge. For a Catholic, sin always raised the stakes. What kind of person would I become? If there were an afterlife, where would I end up? These questions became more complex during my college years, when depression and anxiety intruded. Eventually, I learned I needed to talk less with priests and more with therapists. The fact that I can write this essay may indicate I made some progress on that front. If I learned anything, it was that I had to develop my own moral code. That may sound simple. For me, it was not. But at least I wasn’t “working overtime” in a basement, gasping for breath.
And what of that summer of 1965, my prolonged and forbidding Act of Contrition? It left me with something of value: a definition of hope. I remembered, often enough, that even when I felt lost in all the places I knew, I might not be lost forever.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Jim McIntosh/Flickr Creative Commons