Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hide and Seek

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

William Blake

More than a week ago, while having my busted shoulder examined by a medical intern, the man asked me the usual questions - age, occupation, marital status. The intern was what is known here in the Philippines as a "bakla," a quite exaggeratedly effeminate type of homosexual that is virtually in a class by itself. You can see them in Filipino movies and television, usually providing comic relief, and in every hair salon and barbershop in the country. They are accepted by Philippine society, but only to a limited extent. Their sexuality sets them apart as unequals among equals, occupying a demi-monde of their own.

When the intern asked me if I had any children, and I said I hadn't, he looked up from his paperwork and started what quickly became an annoying harangue over my lack of offspring. Since the Philippines is by now inundated with children (1), a man who chooses not to have children is something of a curiosity. But the intern's commiseration was so unwelcome that it made me want to ask him why he had no children, even if his reasons were imposed on him.

I have commented before on this blog about my reasons for remaining childless. Something to do with my own memories of childhood has made me somewhat fearful of inflicting it on another innocent child. Being a contributing factor to another human being's existence is a matter that too few people, in my estimation, treat with the gravity that it deserves.

On returning home from the clinic, I mentioned the odd experience with the bakla to my girlfriend. Since she is Filipina, she also has difficulty understanding why I don't wish to have children, even now that I'm getting too old to even consider it. For the rest of the day I pondered the issue, and my thinking kept returning to an incident from my boyhood, a strange and disturbing incident that always seems to surface at the oddest of times. It sticks out from all of my other boyhood memories at an odd angle, and stubbornly refuses to let me off the hook.

The incident took place during what is surely the most inexplicable period of my life, when my mother sent my brother and me for a year to a Catholic orphanage in Washington, Georgia.(2) Reading George Orwell's essay "Such, Such Were the Joys," an account of his experience at St. Cyprian's, an exclusive English boarding school (Cyril Connolly was one of Orwell's schoolmates) gave me the impression that what I experienced at the orphanage, far from home, wasn't much different from Orwell's boarding school.

Orwell wrote of one of his own painful memories of his time at St. Cyprian's, when he was disciplined for wetting his bed. One of the masters at the school, whom Orwell called simply "Sambo," gave him such a beating with a riding crop that the crop broke, which only further angered Sambo:

"‘Look what you've made me do!’ he said furiously, holding the broken crop.

I had fallen into a chair, weakly snivelling. I remember that this was the only time throughout my boyhood when a beating actually reduced me to tears, and curiously enough I was not even now crying because of the pain. The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame seemed to have anaesthetized me. I was crying partly because I felt that this was expected of me, partly from genuine repentance, but partly also because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them."

Orwell felt that he learned from this event one of the abiding lessons of his childhood:

"I knew the bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you. I do not want to claim that this idea flashed into my mind as a complete novelty at this very moment, under the blows of Sambo's cane: I must have had glimpses of it even before I left home, for my early childhood had not been altogether happy. But at any rate this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good. And the double beating was a turning-point, for it brought home to me for the first time the harshness of the environment into which I had been flung. Life was more terrible, and I was more wicked, than I had imagined. At any rate, as I sat snivelling on the edge of a chair in Sambo's study, with not even the self-possession to stand up while he stormed at me, I had a conviction of sin and folly and weakness, such as I do not remember to have felt before.

In general, one's memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them. At twenty I could have written the history of my schooldays with an accuracy which would be quite impossible now. But it can also happen that one's memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others. Here are two things which in a sense I remembered, but which did not strike me as strange or interesting until quite recently. One is that the second beating seemed to me a just and reasonable punishment. To get one beating, and then to get another and far fiercer one on top of it, for being so unwise as to show that the first had not hurt — that was quite natural. The gods are jealous, and when you have good fortune you should conceal it. The other is that I accepted the broken riding-crop as my own crime. I can still recall my feeling as I saw the handle lying on the carpet — the feeling of having done an ill-bred clumsy thing, and ruined an expensive object. I had broken it: so Sambo told me, and so I believed. This acceptance of guilt lay unnoticed in my memory for twenty or thirty years.

So much for the episode of the bed-wetting. But there is one more thing to be remarked. This is that I did not wet my bed again — at least, I did wet it once again, and received another beating, after which the trouble stopped. So perhaps this barbarous remedy does work, though at a heavy price, I have no doubt." (3)

What happened to me was no less troubling and ridiculously unnecessary. Looking back on it, I certainly should've acted differently, if only I knew how. I was 8 years old, spending a year a "boy's home" run by Catholic nuns. I always found nuns to be wonderfully gentle at times, but also unnecessarily cruel at others. The home was in an enormous old manor house in Washington, Georgia, probably from the ante-bellum days of slavery.(4) It was self-contained, with a small chapel, classes for the boys and for other children living in the nearby town, a dining hall, and dormitories upstairs. The boys at the home were segregated according to age. My brother was three years older than I, so he lived in a wing on the opposite side of the home. One of the rules that were drilled into us small boys incessantly was that we mustn't play around the "Big Boy's Fire Escape." This was, of course, on the outside of the dorm. The height of the old-fashioned metal fire escape, which presented two flights of stairs, seemed towering to me when I first saw it.

Regardless of all the warnings, however, I was playing hide-and-seek with a friend one Saturday near the fire escape. This is really a rather odd game when you think about it: the object for a child who is hiding is not to be found, to find a hiding place so remote or inaccessible that the child looking for him must inevitably give up. On this occasion, I was the one who closed my eyes and did the counting to ten, while my friend went off to hide. When I came out and said, "come out, come out, wherever you are!" I saw the boy lying on the ground at the foot of the fire escape. When I approached and saw that the boy was bloodied, I immediately reasoned what had happened. He had climbed up the fire escape, probably knowing full well that I wouldn't dare go up there looking for him, and had somehow fallen to the ground, where he laid, unconscious.

I was terrified - not that the boy was badly injured, but that my playing near the Big Boy's fire escape would be found out, and some terrible punishment would be meted out to me. And so, instead of running to get help at the nearest door, which was at the kitchen, I ran in the opposite direction, all the way around the home, to the other side of the huge building. I must have been a hundred and fifty yards, or so it seemed to me then, from where my friend had fallen. I could actually see him crawling toward the kitchen, and I remember I even waved at him from where I stood.

I learned later that the boy, who had sustained several fractured bones, crawled to the kitchen door, where, they told me, someone inside heard him scratching. He was taken straight to a hospital. Of course, as soon as he was able to speak to someone, he explained to them what had happened, and that I was a witness to his fall. The nuns were, needless to say, disturbed by my behavior, but rather than punish me for breaking one of their cardinal rules, they told me to re-create the event, to retrace my steps. I showed them where I was hiding while I counted to ten, and where I found my friend lying on the ground, and where I had run when I realized what trouble I would be in if anyone discovered I had been there. I remember standing with a nun on the opposite side of the home, showing her where I had stopped running, believing I was far enough from the fire escape to be safe.

I wasn't punished. The nuns must've realized that their emphasis on us boys not playing near the fire escape had, in this unique instance, backfired on them. I heard later that my friend, who wasn't permanently injured by his fall, had been removed from the home by a family member. I never saw or heard of him again. My brother and I went back to live with our parents just after my 9th birthday.

(1) As of last year, one-third (33.4%) of the population of the Philippines is under the age of 15.
(2) For the first time in my life, I was made aware of the strangeness this period of my life - of having two living parents (my father was a career soldier) and also being sent to an orphanage - a few years ago when a friend, who was astonished when he heard of it, offered me his sympathy.
(3) George Orwell, "Such, Such Were the Joys," first published in Partisan Review, September-October, 1952.
(4) Update: Information about the history of the home can be found here.

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