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We need more kindness, more compassion, more joy, more laughter. I definitely want to contribute to that.
~ Ellen DeGeneres
I grew up with a Congregational church literally in my backyard. The summer view out the kitchen window began with my grandfather’s tall, bright-yellow sunflowers. The rusty-red brick of the church rose behind them, topped by a stereotypical New England white cupola and a thin, metallic steeple piercing the clear sky. The white-framed windows were opened wide on Sundays, and the music of the hymns floated across the grass to my home.
Our neighborhood cul-de-sac had been built on land owned by my great-grandparents, so we were surrounded by family. My grand- parents lived in the house on the left, my great-aunt and uncle on the right. The church parking lot bordered my backyard and was a great place to ride my bike. It was a self-contained, peaceful little world.
We never attended church when I was small, even though it would take less than a minute to get from one door to the other. I was in second grade when I pointed out the window at the steeple and asked my parents, “Why don’t we go to church?” My friend Katie went to church there, and I thought it would be fun to have more time with her.
The following Sunday, we walked out the back door, across the yard, and into the church building. Our family was immediately involved in the congregation, attending all of the suppers, fundraisers, picnics, and other events. My mother even held a key to open the church for special occasions and extra meetings.
I was content. I loved the camaraderie and fellowship that occurred on Sundays. My family easily made friends with other families, and I got to see Katie a lot as we attended the children’s Sunday School together. I learned about how kind Jesus was and how He wanted us to be kind to others. This was the basis of the good Christian values that would go on to form the bedrock of my life, though I didn’t necessarily know it at the time.
However, it seemed that we were only Christians on Sunday mornings during church services and when we had Sunday dinner with our extended family. On Monday morning, everything went back to the usual.
“The usual” was physical abuse from my mother. She suffered from postpartum depression after having me, but “the baby blues” were not properly diagnosed then. It was just something that happened and had to be dealt with by the sufferer alone. From my earliest memories, I associated my mother with pain. Since I didn’t know any- thing else, I thought it was normal, until my younger brother, Darin, was born shortly after I turned four. My mother never laid a hand on him. Much later during therapy, my mother revealed to our counselor and me that she did not want to mess up his life as she had mine.
One evening, my father came into my bedroom and took three teddy bears off my bed. “This is Papa Bear, this is Mama Bear, and this is Baby Bear. What does Mama Bear do when Papa Bear leaves the house?” I smashed the Mama Bear against the Baby Bear. He assured me that he was going to make everything right, but that never amounted to much. He was never home when incidents occurred, so there wasn’t much he could do.
About a year after we started attending church, I was playing in the back parking lot with Katie when my mother started screaming for me to return home. I knew what was about to happen and dreaded it, but I had no way to avoid it. I was going to be hit, slapped, and screamed at for no obvious reason. When I came in the door, she grabbed me around my neck and started to jerk me up and down, lift- ing my feet off the floor. Her hands squeezed together on my trachea, stopping me from breathing. I gasped for air, desperately trying to scream, but no sound could slip through her fingers. All I could do was scream in my head, Mommy, I can’t breathe. You’re choking me!
But I wasn’t as small as I used to be. I had grown enough that I was able to break away and run to my bedroom, still having difficulty breathing. It felt like her hands were still around my neck. I could still feel the squeezing and how scary it had been trying to get a breath but not being able to.
My mother was overcome with guilt and locked herself in her bed- room. I was still too terrified to leave my room, but I could hear her crying and moaning for forgiveness, and she called 911. My grandparents heard the sirens and immediately came to our rescue. My grand- father was able to convince my mother to come out and talk to the police. She was sequestered in the living room, and I overheard her telling the police that she had a problem—she couldn’t control her- self and stop abusing her son. My grandfather contacted my father at work, and within an hour he was home. That evening, my grand- parents kept my brother and me at their house, providing comfort in their safe haven as they often did when they could hear my mother screaming from next door.
The next Monday morning, my mother admitted herself into the psychiatric ward at the local hospital. She was there for three weeks and underwent electroshock therapy. Because of its debilitating side effects and arguable benefits, it is now used only as a last resort, but at that time it was a highly recommended treatment.
When I arrived at school that same day, I was called out of class by two social workers from the Department of Family Services. They asked me so many questions that it took me hours to answer them all. But after all of those hours, I never saw them again and nothing came of their endless questions or my honest answers. The early ’80s was a completely different time.
For those three weeks of our mom’s hospital stay, my brother and I stayed with our grandparents. I had always felt safe there with them, and our grandmother made sure that our school lunches were packed and we maintained our usual routine as much as possible. I’m Gramps’s firstborn grandson; I was always a “grandpa’s boy.” Memories of riding in his truck going on our way to his construction sites always provided a feeling of joy. He taught me a lot about being responsible through demonstrating his hard-work ethics through managing his contracting business. I always marveled at the fact that my grandfather could take a wooded field and turn it into a beautiful middle-class neighborhood. I loved going to the construction sites with my grandpa, and I will always cherish the memories from those weeks they took us in.
After my mother returned home, she approached our church’s pastor and shared our situation with him. She mentioned to him that she had lost her father when she was a toddler and that perhaps growing up in a single-parent home had affected her emotional state. He recommended that she join a support group held weekly called “Friends of Shanti.” It was not part of the church services, but the group had permission to conduct their meetings in the church building. It was founded by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a world-renowned psychiatrist best known for changing how the medical profession dealt with people who were dying and the support their families received. My mother became good friends with her and quickly became one of the facilitators for the local group.
The group had a new-age, metaphysical undertone. I recall my mother asking me to go to the backyard and find a rock so that one of her friends could read the energy from the rock and predict my future. At ten years old, I was young enough that this did not confuse or alter my views of Christianity. I thought it was all the same—people being nice to each other. The adults in this group became like family to me as it was the first truly peaceful time I experienced in my life.
We still attended the Congregational church behind our house, and life smoothed out considerably. My mother stopped physically abusing me. She had a great support group of friends who offered help and guidance. I was in therapy as well, with the same new-age group. When I was in the third grade, I was registered into Cub Scouts, and that further expanded our family’s social circle. My parents became friends with my Cub Scout leader, Lynn, and her husband, and our families spent a lot of time together. Lynn also ran a Bible study group that she invited my mother to.
Life was fine and dandy for a few years until I was in seventh grade and one of the women at the Bible study introduced my mother to a new religion. The flourishing faith called “born again” or Pentecostal was much like the Billy Graham Crusade or the 700 Club, which were huge televised evangelical church services. My mother slowly detached from the Congregational church and shifted her attendance to a different church.
She also tried to convert her new-age friends to become “born again” and accept Jesus Christ into their lives as their everlasting Savior. If they didn’t choose to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts and lives, she believed they were going to be condemned to hell for eternity. When they were not receptive to her witnessing zeal, she abruptly ended all contact with the Friends of Shanti, including all of the therapy I was accustomed to receiving through them. Even though this group had supported her through overcoming her abusive behaviors, Mom completely rejected them since her new faith deemed their beliefs the work of Satan. She got frustrated and abruptly stormed out of the room.
I had spent time with adult friends for years, many of whom intervened in my mother’s struggles to avoid abusing me, but now I was told it was inappropriate to visit them. Ever. After we got home, Mom rounded on me and for the first time in a long time, and I could see a flicker of the old, angry mom in her face (though this time she did it with a fake smile). In a low but stern voice, she said, “Those people are of the devil. Their beliefs are evil. And you are never to visit them again.”
I didn’t listen to her. For the first time in my life, I started to rebel. These were the same women who brought my mother refuge and provided me with a safe haven. I couldn’t just let go of that stability, and for the first time, I didn’t allow my mother to take it. I went behind her back, secretly meeting some of the women on a regular basis. There was a woman named Sandy whom I grew extremely fond of. Before her new change of heart, my mother would pawn me off on her when she needed alone time. Sandy was in school studying to be a child psychologist. She would take me to the movies, amusement parks, art fairs, and craft shows. She was truly one of the kindest, most caring individuals. Sadly, she was a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. This is what made her so compassionate about my own situation.
Many years later, when my mom found out that I was still stay- ing in contact with Sandy, she exploded in rage. She demanded that Sandy come over to the house. When she arrived, my mother had members of the church seated in the living room, and I was asked to come down from my room to join. I could feel the tension build- ing as six people started to gang up on Sandy, threatening her with a restraining order, accusing her of molesting me. Inside I was frozen. I could not believe what I was witnessing. My own mother was blatantly and falsely accusing an innocent woman of molesting her son. Sandy tried everything to maintain her composure until she couldn’t take it any longer. That’s when I jumped in: “Mom, this is beyond inaccurate. How low can you actually go knowing everything Sandy’s been through, sharing with you her deepest family nightmare, and now you have the audacity to use it against her?”
No response, no reaction, nothing. My mother stood firm as if she truly believed her own lies. That’s when I knew I had lost my own mother to what I felt was an occult society.
My father was not pleased about this new conversion, which he considered just a drain on the finances. He wasn’t happy primarily because my mother was writing checks to the new church. He pulled my brother and me aside and said that it was a phase our mom was going through and it would pass.
About a year later, I came home from hanging out with friends and walked into the house to see my father standing in a circle with a bunch of my mother’s friends from her new church. They were speak- ing in tongues and screaming, “Praise Jesus! Hallelujah Jesus! Accept Jesus Christ into the heart of Raymond!” It crushed me to know that I had just lost my father the same way I had lost my mother the year before. Instead of their religious conversion enhancing our home and lives, my relationship with them became more confrontational and tense. They were more combatants than parents.
Let the escalation begin. This was not exactly what I had in mind for my teenage years. With my father now thoroughly entrenched in this newfound religion, parental religious brainwashing became the new normal for Darin and I. For my part, I wasn’t buying it. So, I started spending more time away from home: going to the library, immersing myself in after-school activities—the one staple I still had left.
I continued to attend the same Congregational church as always, but now only with my grandmother. I was sad that the family photo for the church directory was eventually just me, a family of one. I felt a definite connection and camaraderie within that religious community that I wanted to continue, and I wanted to be a good Christian boy. I had an internal intuition that my parents’ newfound religion was superficial and showy. I felt it disrespected God to be hollering, “Jesus, save me!” while jumping around and waving arms. I figured my par- ents were trying to be good people of faith, but this particular church affiliation didn’t sit well with me.