Saturday, June 5, 2010

End-of-Week News Selection: Donna Freitas on Abuse Story, Joshua Alston on Facebook and the Closet

A handful of articles as this week ends, which have caught my eye in the past week and I want to recommend to readers.

First, Religion Dispatches recently interviewed Donna Freitas, author of a new novel entitled This Gorgeous Game, which tells the story of an adolescent girl stalked by a Catholic priest.  Freitas formerly taught religion at Boston University, and has just taken a position at Hofstra University.

Several points strike me in the interview—points that link to ones I’ve made on this blog:

1. First, Freitas notes that, in both the first-wave (2002) and the second-wave (2010) narratives about the clerical abuse crisis in the Catholic church, there has been a preponderance of emphasis on boys molested by priests.  In her view, the story of females abused by clerics has yet to be told.

2. Second, Freitas sharply analyzes what it is, precisely, about clerical abuse of minors that does such damage to those abused.  She focuses on clerical abuse as an abuse of power.  In her narrative, though the priest stalking a girl doesn’t ever have sexual contact with her, his stalking nonetheless has dire destructive effects on her life.  Because the abuse she is experiencing is all about someone with power over her seeking to draw her into his web of power, to make her his possession.  The abuse crisis is, at its heart, about the abuse of power first and foremost, and about sexual abuse secondarily.

3. Freitas’ interview contains a valuable reminder of the way in which Thomas Merton’s affair with a young nurse at the end of his life clouded Merton’s legacy.  I recently wrote several postings noting that Merton exemplifies a humane Catholicism of which we’ve lost sight in the restorationist phase of Catholicism.

Freitas’ assessment of Merton’s legacy offers a clear-eyed corrective to my own, one that I welcome even as I continue to cherish Merton.  As she notes, what is extremely problematic about Merton’s relationship with the young nurse is not precisely that it represented a violation of his vows, or that it was abuse of a minor (it was consensual, and the woman was an adult).

What’s problematic is the game-playing it comprised, the sense readers gain from his journals that the woman with whom he had an affair was in key respects a pawn in a game that was about massaging his own ego—and not enhancing her humanity.  The title of Freitas’ book is, in fact, taken from something Merton wrote about the affair:

I simply have no business being [in] love and playing around with a girl, however innocently... After all I am supposed to be a monk with a vow of chastity and though I have kept my vow—I wonder if I can keep it indefinitely and still play this gorgeous game!

This gorgeous game: it’s the objectification of other human beings, the sense of entitlement that underlies this objectification—the gorgeous game!—that so deeply offends, as we learn about clerical sexual abuse of minors.

And of women, of women who do not have power, autonomy, and privilege equal to that of their clerical pursuers—a narrative within the larger abuse narrative that, as Freitas rightly notes, still needs to be told.

I’m also fascinated by Joshua Alston’s comments in the latest issue of Newsweek about how Facebook and other social networking sites are problematizing the closet.  As we network online, it becomes harder and harder to draw the lines between private and public on which the closet depends.

As Alston also notes, sites like Facebook draw disparate groups of family members and friends together, in a way that would not have been possible prior to the emergence of these networking sites.  Gay and straight family members and friends . . . .

This is a point about which I’ve thought quite a bit as I use Facebook.  When I made the decision to blog and write frankly about my experiences as an openly gay Catholic theologian, I put my life out on Front Street for anyone in the world to read about it.  Anyone with access to a computer can google my ass and find the outline of my whole life story on this blog and at other sites, if he or she is inclined to delve into the trivial and the arcane.

But in another sense, when I link my gay friends to my straight ones through my Facebook site, I’m aware of bringing together in a more intimate space people who would not, in the normal course of events, usually rub shoulders.

As longtime readers of Bilgrimage may have divined, one of my fascinations is family history.  With the exception of the one Irish Catholic “immigrant” family line about which I spoke yesterday, my ancestors have all been in North America since the colonial period, and have lived exclusively in the American South, after the handful of family lines that didn’t arrive in Virginia, Maryland, or South Carolina trickled south from the middle colonies in the 18th century.

In short, begin to collect cousins connected to me through genealogical research, and you’ll quickly latch onto some humdingers of the religious and political right who couldn’t possibly be more at odds with me politically and religiously, no matter how we relate by blood.  And some of these are not distant cousins I’ve discovered doing family research.  Some are right in my close family circle—and right there on Facebook (though they have definitely not sought to connect to my Facebook page as friends), where I can visit their sites to see what right-wing cause du jour they’re now deciding to promote.

(I should hasten to add that some of the far-flung cousins I’ve found through family history are extraordinarily interesting, intelligent, politically engaged folks who are involved in many of the progressive movements in which I’m involved.  Others are soulful down-home folks who don’t have much interest in politics, but whose faith instincts incline them to love and affirmation—no matter what they hear their preachers say on Sunday. 

One of the lessons I’ve learned as a gay man who keeps coming out of the closet is that it’s unwise to stereotype: I can’t predict who will love and accept and who will push away, and I can’t premise my choice to keep coming out on predictions about how people will react.  People on whose tolerance I counted have shocked me by proving themselves more bigoted than I ever dreamed they could be.  People to whom I was afraid to come out because I assumed they’d push me away have been among my biggest advocates.)

And the point to which that long ramble leads: Facebook jumbles all these folks together.  At least, my Facebook page does so.

Because I knew that Facebook would have that effect when I signed on, I initially had qualms about whom I should connect to whom.  What will happen when gay friend X pops up on my page alongside Christian fundamentalist cousin Y?

Should I friend B, who has contacted me out of the blue, but whom I don’t know, now that I see his Facebook page lists Republican as his political preference?  How about gay activist C, who’s doing a book on the leather subculture of San Francisco, and who seems somehow to have gotten hold of my name?

And here’s where I’ve ended up: I just don’t really care.  I don’t care if X sees Y on my Facebook page, and if B and C bump heads there.  I don’t care because I don’t normally make friends in the calculating way that separates sheep from goats, Republicans from Democrats.

And if family is about the fact that we’re all in it together, it’s time that some members of the family discover to their shock that the “all” includes gay and lesbian cousins.  Time for them (and me) to grow up.   And perhaps time for some of my gay friends to grow up and realize that people we write off because they don’t happen to live in large, “progressive” urban centers are just as capable of understanding, loving, and accepting gay folks as liberals are, given the chance to get to know their gay co-workers and kin.

If folks can still find enclaves in which they can cherish the fantasy that they will never have to rub shoulders with the gay or the reactionary, I wish them well.  Facebook is not going to be that place, because the connectedness that Facebook fosters mirrors the astonishing interconnectedness of the world at large, in which gays are everywhere.

And if cousin Y doesn’t like encountering gay friend X on my Facebook page, then it really is his problem and not mine.  Isn’t it? 

The graphic is a photograph of the staff of the Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), apparently in the late 19th or early 20th century, from the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.