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The Conversation Pt. 2

Always love Jean's posts but "not sure even we understand why we're like we are" brought me back up here but don't blame Jean. I KNOW I don't understand why we're like we are and that must be editorial 'we' since no persons of Irishness have authorized me to speak for them while a number have urged me over the years to zip it (OK it's true an "Irish nun"--that was like official title-- in first grade SS. Simon and Jude School Pittsburgh did tape mouth shut but please hear this: I LOVED Catholic school; it was Catholic home I struggled--that's home-home not Catholic Home--and yestdy's post actually cited guy that thanked nun for smacking him; that was all). I promise a clear hypothesis will be introduced in the body of this post.

         Now decades after having 'made peace' with Catholic home various circumstances mostly grounded in autism school placement issues plus some concerns for care of elders brought us (Catholic home) back together only this time Chinese-American wife (professional blogger Kristina Chew see www.autismvox.com) is in mix in addition to 10 y.o. Chinese/Irishman squarely located on autism spectrum. I'm still hoping my wonderful cousin and friend Bobby Fisher (of Wedding Crashers screenwrite fame) will play this for comedy someday: take a third generation Ivy League-educated Bay Area Chinese American woman...let's just say heavy steady diet of Brian Friel plays have maybe helped just a tad beyond that K. can tell her story; as for me, my mind is like that proverbial bad nabe; it should not be entered alone perhaps that's why God invented the blogosphere.

        I worked on a project for 8 yrs it was not til yr 7 I understood it was about violence on the Irish-Catholic waterfront; it was under this portable dispensation I was born and raised. Enough about me, let's turn to my good friend Jim G. who prefers I use his melodious surname but I've demurred. Jim G. is world's leading if unpublished 'On the Waterfront' expert; years after we met from common interest we were driving down the Jackie Robinson (formerly Interboro Pkwy; we were definitely inter-boro) when religion issue suddenly arose and just as quickly I knew the Conversation was near. It's a conversation I've been party to at regular intervals since the late 70s--no tears folks, then or now--that in Jim G's case begins and ends in late 60s at large RC high school in one of the boroughs where students that were sent to detention could barter there way out of two hours standing within a narrow square by playing game called 'Tea-Time" (I still wonder if it was Tee-Time) in which detainee was free to go once having run a gauntlet of male/lay teachers wielding those long pointer sticks as clubs. Whack whack whack and on your way son. (Now this was what we might call an 'industrial' model of RC school: your finer religious orders would rarely subject charges to such treatment both from principle and in the interest surely of future donor-relations.) 

        All this is just so much boo-hoo stuff, of course, were it not for fact that for next, say, 3-5 hundred years historians and others will be mulling events in US Catholic life to discern just what went awry (beginning with question: why was sex abuse--so widely reported by early 90s--largely treated as so much boo-hoo stuff by lots of us for full decade let's face it: if not things would be different no?). But Jim G. wasn't sex-abused though a good friend was by the bros. that ran his school. Decades later Jim G. read newspaper account of sex abuse charges against a bro. from that same community at school in a different state and discovered M.O. was totally identical: the bros. would bring guys in one at time for queries that might begin 'how do you get along with girls' etc...Jim G. is one street-smart guy knew just what to say to get out; friend not so lucky.

      Jim G. has thesis about detention: those most likely to be sent up were guys that showed inordinate interest in outside-culture (Jimi Hendrix; Citizen Kane) at time when inside-culture was really straining to hold itself together. He also believes violence/sex abuse was of a systemic piece. I have but a mere hypothesis: to really understand sex abuse issue we must start with something over which no one will be sued, no dioceses bankrupted if only in part because it was so pervasive: not an 'event' or 'action' but an ethos in which a kind of routinized low-intensity dull brutality was sustained by a code of silence whose inviolability worked as a given.

     I am continually amazed at how much ink is spilled over what somebody else might think about Catholicism while we still rarely ponder, well, what does Brando/Terry Malloy scream down to Johnny Friendly on the plank leading to the 'Hoboken Yacht Club'..."and you did it to Charlie, one of your own!" And as Father Pete Barry reminded Terry the previous evening: done it to a hundred guys better than Charlie. And the thesis--amazing I'm making a straight assertion!--of this waterfront book I did is that the real-life social-justice-crusading 'waterfront priest' John Corridan, S.J. was almost wholly rejected by 'his own' on the Irish waterfront; it was only thanks to Budd Schulberg and other non-Catholics (and I know Budd will not concur in this judgment) with whom Corridan worked that his powerful message covered the waterfront even as the dockworkers to whom he devoted his apostolate voted not once but twice to re-certify their mobbed-up union; a crew that enforced a code of silence like no other and was militantly backed by powerful West Side monsignor/Port Chaplain.

   Now, there are also plenty complicated historical reasons for Corridan's travail. I always figured that's what historians do: complicate issues. These issues above are complicated issues. When I was in grad. school I liked to poke fun at theorists of gender/sexuality that talked about things like power relations, violence, codes of silence etc. I'm making very very modest amends here: I acted like an idiot. I'd be most grateful to learn of discussions/treatments of Catholic/clerical/hierarchical sex abuse issue (only one of course among many institutions facing such issue) that takes seriously questions of violence, brutality, codes of silence as factors in prolonging terrible ordeal. 

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The code of silence is an essential part of our Irish family. Here's how this works:First, you create a drama in your head or make up a conspiracy theory after reading something in the newspaper or on the radio (like Father Coughlin). Then you go around telling ONLY SOME people the story so that it becomes a secret that some people know and others don't.It doesn't matter what the secret is. It's a McGuffin, like in a Hitchcock movie. What's important is that there IS a secret and this defines the power structure in the family; those who know the most secrets are the power brokers.I have always been in on the family secrets, but some years ago, I got so sick of hearing that my grandfather's sister drowned herself because she was in love with a boy her parents wouldn't let her marry that I sent away for her death certificate.I wrote to the state for her death record. She died in the flu epidemic in 1918. It's on paper, and I showed it around at the family reunion a few years ago.It says on there she died of the flue in the epidemic of 1918. But some relatives INSIST that Aunt Hope DID TOO drown herself, but that the doctor agreed to put "flu" on the death certificate so talk wouldn't get around.Did that make sense, I asked innocently. I mean, how people see a see a death certificate? Especially compared to the fact that the death occurred in a rural area without any EMS, and the neighbors would have had to drag the pond for her body? So how come nobody outside the family has ever circulated this story?Needless to say, nobody's telling ME secrets anymore.For anybody still reading, where I'm going with this is here: Secret-keeping becomes a habit, it becomes a source of power and authority. It defines the ins from the outs. The historical record (and the gaps therein) show us that there were true horrors in the Irish past, things that were probably kept secret from some family members, out of tenderness for their age or feelings. But in some cases, mightn't this have devolved into a power trip? And, if secrets define authority, what might not happen behind closed doors that will be kept secrets to maintain authority?

I'm sorry for the poor proofing job above. My kid has on a Tom Waits record, and it's really hard to concentrate when a thing like that is playing.

OK, and while I'm hogging this thread, that tee/tea time thing illustrates my point.Was there really a tee/tea time? Can you really hit a kid so hard your false teeth fly out?I don't know, but this is exactly the kind of thing that gets whispered in kitchen corners in my family. The truth of the secret isn't any more important than the matter of the secret itself. It's that the secret allows there to be secret keepers who wield power. I think if we're going to point to "On the Waterfront," which is about secrets and violence, we could also point to "The Crying Game" as an equally apt example of Irish secret-keeping and violence.

James, before I get into your post, will you explain why your genre has become a stream of consciousness rather than your clear autism self? Well you know what I mean?I believe it is unfair to blame the sex abuse cover up on the Irish which you seem to be doing. Correct me if I am wrong. Typing ethnic groups can be odious, even if is one's own. If that is the case I have a few Italian American religious to tell you about. Yes there are secrets in family and the problem is more shame than reason. But it is a human problem. Not an ethnic one. And forgiveness, humility and rehabilitation is the answer not shame and coverup.Sacralization of the clergy is why it took so long to pay attention to this problem.http://www.icasa.org/uploads/Summer_2002_lead_Article.pdfAndrew Greeley stood virtually alone insisting that the bishops face the problem. And it is most significan that Greeley notes that sacralization of the clergy is a most serious problem. Tom Doyle gave the bishops the report they commissioned from him and they condemned the messenger.The laity as usual were like sheep in the coverup, fearing darts from heaven if they confronted the holy hierarchy. I don't condone this but I can understand it. What is the reason for our still acting like sheep?

Though I have the Irish and Catholic elementary/high school pedigree, I thankfully seem to have missed out on the violence James Fisher talks about. We moved to suburbia from the coal mining area of northeastern Pennsylvania when I was quite young. Maybe some ancestors were part of the Molly Maguires, I don't know. Though there was a Catholic elementary school in the lily-white suburb where we lived, my parents drove us every day to an inner city Catholic school much further away--kind of a voluntary busing effort, or, more accurately, a voluntary Chevy station wagoning effort--because they correctly knew that we'd be better people for experiencing diversity. Though the school was something of an oasis in a blighted area, it was a great place to be educated. The Dominican nuns could certainly be strict, but I can't remember any instances of corporal punishment. Life at a Jesuit high school was much the same. The worst that could happen was to get "jug" (the Jesuit name for detention and short for "Justice under God" (really)) on a Monday after a Saturday football game. Plenty of trash to clean up in the bleachers. No corporal punishment there, either, and none in our home. My Dad was the easy touch, my Mom the disciplinarian. Perhaps my experience is the Irish Catholic exception, but I like to think not.

Thanks Jean: kid has good taste in music; remember way back you cited some Zappa lyrics: first time I saw TW in concert was opening for FZ back around 72; just great.Bill I've been typing footnotes for a book for so long it's just total ADHD overload I guess; sometime it's nice to get loose since it's really really hard mentally to perform 'neurotypical' technical academic work. Love the line on 'clear autism self' which is more apropos Charlie though he is unable to write as of yet. I don't blame the Irish: Jean does better work than me; there is cultural strain involving language, silence and misdirection. But it'll take better than me to sort it out; I surely practice my own poor version. The "hibernarchy" that ran church for so long is extraordinary phenomenon as you know: amazing there were no Italian-American bishops until when, either 1950s or 60s (other than early ones like Rosati of St. Louis that was kind of missionary bishop with precious few Italians in diocese). Don't you think the hibernarchy bequeathed a certain kind of leadership style for good and ill some of whose features may have carried over to broader array of men made bishops under JPII? (not that we face shortage of Irish-Am bishops and many have been great ones my favorite was Peter Gerety in Newark)? Still so few Latino, African-American, Asian-American bishops. As to acting like sheep does that not confirm the code of silence motif? Is it an internalized code that works on its own? Could Catholic life use a bit looser stream o' consiousness for a spell?

William I imagine and hope your peaceful/easy experience is more widely shared than what I've described. For the likes of others of us it comes down to tough yet simple question: if we're to be true to experience does that mean we must write only novels, or can we understand experience in part through ways others have experienced/understood their own travail? I know too it's really useful to write on those with wholly different experiences and that's where I'll turn but I felt something left to pursue along this Irish waterfront.

"Hibernarchy": I love it! Bill, not trying to say the Irish raised secrecy to a power structure all on their own or that there is even anything genetically or even culturally secretive about the Irish per se. But it's woven into the fabric of the immigration deal--how was it that some Irish were forced onto boats to come Over Here and others made it through the famine? To what extent was there collusion with the English power structure that was hushed up? To what extent did the immigrants not want their children and grandchildren to know what they'd sunk to?I'm not sure that other immigrants didn't have similar experiences. But whether they cast a veil of secrecy over the whole thing that turned into a sticky web for other generations, I don't know.Anyway, I like James' snarled up free-association riffs, which may have something to do with the Irish penchant for words. You don't need a beginning, end or single, identifiable thesis. You just pick an end and pull it and see if you can't make your own snarl out of it. I think I did pretty good.Tom Waits is the god of music here. My son is taking the trombone, as in Swordfishtrombone. I told him Waits built his own percussion instruments from hardware store items, and that's how he's blowing his summer allowance.

Bill, if you haven't thrown in the towel here, I heard a story about Italian/Irish immigrants maybe you can speak to.The Irish were here first, established Catholic churches, the Italians attended Mass there when they first came over. They were bewildered by the Irish priests, whom they saw as aloof and dictatorial. Where were the priests they'd known in the Old Country, who mixed in easily, were friends of the family, tended to offer advice more than issue orders? But that story doesn't square with the Irish-American priests I know, most of whom are great people. Maybe they had dads who were soft touches like William Collier's. I can't speak from experience about Irish fathers. Mine was Welsh. Whole different gestalt there.

Jean--and Tom Waits is more creative than ever despite relinquishing practice of washing down meals with a keg o' Janitor in the Drum; gives us all hope.

I don't object to the stream of consciousness. I just expressed surprise that James used it which was a decided change from his usual. As far as secrecy I always fiercely reacted against it because it was a way to make us, especially children, feel bad about something we should not feel bad about. That is why I like the words of Jesus: "What you whisper in the hideaways will be preached from the housetops."What we are as God's creation immersed with Jesus is so wonderful that one shouts for joy. That is the freedom of the children of God.