Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Parting Reflections on Norbert Krapf's Catholic Boy Blues: Letting It Rip (for the Good of the Whole Church)

Now that I've finished reading Norbert Krapf's Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet's Journal of Healing (Nashville: Greystone, 2014), I thought I'd share some parting thoughts about the book with you. I've blogged about it previously here and here.

As my previous postings about Catholic Boy Blues have noted, Krapf grew up in a close-knit German Catholic farm community in rural Indiana. It was in the context of that community, a beloved community, that he experienced repeated sexual abuse at the hands of his parish priest. He was not alone in the experience: as he knew at the time and then as he also learned down the road when he sought to come to terms with the childhood abuse, the priest was molesting other boys, too. In fact, he apparently abused boys for a number of years during which he pastored the parish in which Krapf grew up.

Catholic Boy Blues is Krapf's attempt as an adult to come to terms with what happened to him as a child. It's an attempt to exorcise the memory and effects of his abuse at the hands of a religious leader his parents and the rest of his community implicitly trusted. To banish the harm done to him — to remember it in a way that opens the painful memories to healing — he employs the poetic device of inviting a Greek chorus of voices, as it were, to mull over what happened to the devout young altar boy treated as an object by a grown man, the same trusted religious figure whose hands moved from grasping his child's penis to putting holy oil on the head of a dying parishioner, blessing and baptizing the new-born babe, and consecrating the union of a man and a woman in marriage, as Krapf tells us in a poem entitled "The Hand" (49).

This book of painful self-exorcism aimed at soul-healing is, then, an ongoing dialogue between Krapf the boy, Krapf the man, a figure Krapf calls Mr. Blues, his mother and father, the priest who abused him, and the nun-counselor who set him on the path of confronting what had been done to him by his parish priest when he was a child. The dramatic tension of the book, which is an outpouring of these various voices speaking to one another in poetry, derives both from its attempt to find healing by confronting painful memories of soul-wrenching childhood abuse, and from the interplay of the various voices.

This is a book that tries to describe a particular kind of soul-wounding that may not be self-evident to all readers, since not all of us have lived in skin similar to Krapf's. It is, of course, the wounding of a child, and the laceration of the soul of a boy by a priest whom his family venerated is a wound that obviously strikes to the core of the child's being (and of the being of the man whom the child becomes):

How hard and painful to have known
at such a tender age what lurked inside that man ("Kid, Kid,"118).

Even a boy — a boy whose soul is being murdered by his parish priest — can know the blues:

Even a boy can know the blues,
Even a boy can feel the blues ("Mr. Blues Counsels the Priest," 202).

The shattering of innocence, trust, love that happens to a boy confronted with such unsustainable betrayal and abuse at an early age, in the context of his beloved German Catholic farming community, his beloved parish community, has reverberations throughout the life of the adult, as Krapf tells us in the powerful poem that frames the entire collection of poems, a poem speaking of his experience of encountering a stone angel on a bridge into Vatican City: "Angel of Power and Protection, Statue on the Bridge to Vatican City, Rome" declares:

What happens when the Angel
falls asleep after the mother
and father who held the baby
have to walk back into their lives 
and the boy walks out into
the world and a servant
of God molests him when
the parents aren't looking? 
By the time he is ready to
cross the bridge to Vatican City
his feet will not move forward
but turn in the opposite direction 
and it is decades before he
can approach the old God
by finding his own sacred places
and a new language for praying (xxix).

As this poem implies, the lifelong struggle with which Krapf's boyhood abuse at the hands of his trusted parish priest left him is the struggle of finding religious meaning, of finding God, anywhere at all in his life, in the world in which he lives: as "Where Was God?" puts the question,

God walked away
and God was praised
and received a promotion
to the rank of Monsignor
and God was good
and God was respected
and God rewarded
those who were faithful
and blessed them all (52).

The soul-wounding Norbert Krapf experienced as a Catholic boy growing up in a tightly connected world of German Catholic farm families was, then, not merely his personal wounding: it was a wounding that extended to his social and religious context. It was a shattering that involved not only his own psyche, but the entire social and religious world in which he came of age.

In that world, in the world of German Catholic farm families throughout the Midwest, priests were adulated. They played an unquestioned role in the rites of passage that inducted boys like Krapf into manhood. They took "their" boys on camping trips, taught them to hunt and fish, to clean and dress the game they killed.

In the years in which Krapf was coming of age, no one in these communities could have dreamed that a parish priest playing this kind of role in the lives of the sons of the community might have taken gross advantage of his role as a father figure and mentor by sexually abusing his charges. Hence the deepness of the wounds with which Krapf contends as an adult: the betrayal extended to his entire social and religious world, to his entire beloved community.

It extended to his family. The priest who sexually molested him sat at his parents' table and repeatedly partook of the home-cooked meals Krapf's mother was proud to cook for him, since his presence at the Catholic family's table was considered a high honor.  When Krapf's father went through bouts of nervous anxiety and required shock therapy, the priest was there to counsel him.

The priest's interest in the young Krapf boy was flattering to his parents.

To understand the depths of Norbert Krapf's pain, one must put oneself, via the medium of his poems, inside this little world, the world of a German Catholic farming community in the rural American Midwest at mid-twentieth century. It is a world with its own unique way of seeing things, of constructing itself socially and religiously. It is a world in which the shattering of religious authority represented by a parish priest's sexual abuse of minors is almost impossible for anyone to imagine, let alone seek to understand.

And then, as Krapf begins to come to terms with all of this as an adult, he confronts a double victimization at the hands of his childhood church, when, as adults, he and other survivors of such abuse approach the church at whose hands they have had their souls shattered, plead for healing and justice, and this is the response they receive from church officials:

This courtroom morality messes up my head.
This bottom-line business bitches up my brains.
Cheesy theology disturbs the sainted dead ("Statute of Limitation Blues," 148).

How to deal with such multi-layered abuse? As I've noted, Krapf does so by constructing a kind of dramatic progression of poems in which the interplay of various voices (his young self and his adult self, Mr. Blues, etc.) has therapeutic effect. In the dramatic interplay of voice building on voice, Krapf confronts the molester himself —  the "ghost corpse / I must talk back to, / in any voice I can / find, to exorcise" ("My Father's Wake," 47).

Learning to speak the words that burn his lips like coals of fire (because they sear his memory) is a struggle akin to the prophetic struggles experienced by Krapf's biblical heroes Isaiah and Jeremiah:

Not even the great
visionary wordsmiths
Isaiah and Jeremiah 
had to find words
to tell their people
how it feels 
for a boy
to be so defiled
by a priest 
that for fifty years
he keeps his mouth shut
even to those he loves ("Not Even Isaiah and Jeremiah," 50).

How, in fact, does one find words to describe what happens to the soul of a Catholic altar boy whose crotch is groped by that same hand that blesses (again, "The Hand," 49)? What seminary class or what book of the holy Bible taught the priest this kind of behavior ("Mystery," 88)?

Krapf invokes Isaiah directly to ask for his assistance in finding words to express such deep pain:

I awaken over and over to ask your help 
to make me strong and keep me telling
this bitter truth that hurts so bad ("To Isaiah," 61).

In confronting this kind of betrayal, this sort of pain, this deep destruction of the child's soul, it helps to engage in a ritual re-telling of what happened. Telling the story over and over in as many voices as possible: this is, in fact, the only therapeutic way out of the maze of pain that endures into adulthood, causing Krapf to struggle with bouts of depression and alcohol abuse. In poetry, Krapf the accomplished adult poet must spool and re-spool the reel of his memories as they return unbidden to his head and heart:

Write one poem
and another comes
and another waits 
beyond that for
the survivor to
discover it ("When Do the Memories?" 126).

This ritual re-telling, this therapeutic process of paying attention to each childhood memory as it comes to his mind, this exorcism of insupportable pain through the medium of dramatic dialogue, leads Krapf the adult poet to a turning point at which eventually he has strength to declare, as he looks at a figurine of the baby Jesus in his manger-crib:

This time I'm ready.
I look like a little boy
Or maybe even a baby. 
I've pulled the blanket
up to my chin
and I'm smiling 
but my finger
is on the trigger
of a cocked gun. 
Step up to my manger,
priest, and I will blow
you to Kingdom Come ("Tables Turned,"154).


My pen is my rifle and my scope
pulls in the blue of your irises.
My aim is good for all eternity ("Double Confession,"158).

The outcome of his process of therapeutic re-telling of his story of childhood abuse is that he transcends the abuse, insofar as he becomes an adult who can look back on the abuse and gain a voice to challenge his abuser — something the boy could not do:

I been reborn
in the waters
of the word
and I talk back ("I Ain't a Kid No More,"166).

The turning point experienced by Krapf the adult poet includes a turning of the consciousness of the abuser-priest himself, in the consciousness of the remembered boy — as the priest looks at the photo he has taken of the boy which Krapf chooses for the cover of his book, he remarks:

I cannot remove
myself from
the darkness
in your eyes 
It's as if
I am trapped
inside the image
I made of you ("Photo Postscript from the Priest,"186).

Finding a voice, learning to tell his blues, also leads Krapf to solidarity with every other survivor of similar childhood abuse: as he writes in a poem entitled "Catholic Boy Blues VII":

I hope I may have helped you see 
that there’s great strength in a song,
that there’s mighty mojo in a song, 
when we all learn to sing along (71).

And so the abuse itself, the way in which it captures his soul through memory, is not the end: as Krapf's poem "This Is Not the End" asserts:

One voice singing by itself can
sound awfully small, but several 
voices lifting as one can make
a chorus that makes a mighty song (132).

And then there's this fine and powerful stanza:

If you are familiar with this story,
if this is also your very own story,
declare it as part of church history ("Let It Rip," 82).

"Declare it as part of church history": this is what survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic clerics have been doing for some time now. In the process, the whole church is being healed of a hidden wound that has radically affected all Catholics. Catholic Boy Blues is an outstanding contribution to a new genre of writing church history that rips up the rotten fabric of many previous self-justifying and self-glorifying histories of the Catholic church. 

All Catholics should applaud the efforts of people like Norbert Krapf to rip the fabric of our illusions about the kind of people we have been and are. There's ultimately no path, after all, to becoming better people, better Catholics, apart from this painful process of telling truth, is there?

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