Caught In The Act

I don’t know how old I was. Probably around four. My mother had just finished giving me a bath. I climbed out of the tub and decided it would be great fun to run around the house naked. My mother did not agree with me. She told me to stop, but I was a boy possessed. She spoke more firmly and in a louder voice. I continued to ignore her so she came after me with the yardstick. In those days hardware stores passed out yardsticks for free. They were the ideal paddle, as the wood was weak and you could do no real harm with them. But did they ever sting! At this point she had easy access to my legs and butt. She did catch me and gave me a good beating – first for running through the house naked and second for disobeying her when she told me to stop.

I remember her saying, at one point, that I had a “good disposition.” I never argued or “talked back.” She gradually came to realize that this didn’t mean I was obedient. I would smile and agree to do whatever she wanted. But in fact I pretty much ignored her and continued doing whatever I was doing. She came to believe that this was a strategy I used, but I don’t think it was. I really believed that I was going to get around to doing whatever I agreed to, but “in a minute.” I was far more interested in whatever I was doing which was usually some form of fantasy play. And she would come back a little later and see that the task she had given me was still not complete.

I think for the first 11 or 12 years of my life I had almost no relationship with my mother. At least not a close emotional one. In addition to the bathtub incident, I recall her chasing me through our neighbors backyard with a switch from a tree of heaven that grew in our yard. She was after my bare legs. God only knows what I had done that time. Probably I had ignored her calling me to come home. I also recall another time when she was taking the yardstick to me in our living room, when I experienced a moment of triumph. I was squirming around trying to evade being hit, and she missed. She hit her own leg, and broke the yardstick. That was a double victory for me. Again I don’t recall the context for this incident – what I did to deserve the switching, etc.

The switchings did occur, but I think they were fairly rare. My mother was not essentially a brutal person. But she felt it was her maternal responsibility to make me obey – and I was a pretty squirmy kid. She just didn’t know any other way to get me to do what she expected of me.

On the plus side neither my parents made a lot of demands on me during the time I was not in school. I was free to come and go to a degree that almost no children experience these days.

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The struggle between giving my attention and time to my fantasy life and tending to the tasks expected of me by my mother was mirrored in my school experience. In school I seldom paid attention. The things they wanted me to think about were just not interesting. On rare occasions I may have listened to what the teacher was saying, but mostly I daydreamed. I am sure that had I gone to school a few decades later I would’ve been diagnosed as having “attention disorder.” But I don’t think that is true. I suffered from an “interest disorder.” I didn’t have any trouble at all giving my attention to things that were of interest to me. And

I still suffer from that “interest disorder.”

My lack of engagement with society during my early childhood, both at school and at home, was almost complete. I was thinking about the difference between myself and a friend of mine the other day. He had succeeded in school – did his homework etc. Consequently he is by usual standards a much better educated person than I was. He knows two or three languages and is a competent scholar. Why, then, I wondered, did he need me to tutor him on technical matters. I’m not especially interested in or knowledgeable about computer technology. But I have figured out what I need to know to accomplish tasks that are important to me. I think I was never domesticated. ”Socialized” they would call it in the “helping professions.” He was.

He is a dog and I am a wolf. We have different kinds of intelligence – different ways of doing things. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know. It’s a way of thinking about it.

When I failed to open myself to pedagogical experiences I did fail to learn some things that would have been helpful to me. I still think, however, that I would have done fine in school if they had tried to find out what would have been of interest to me.

When I reached the age of 12 or so, I could begin to think abstractly. Then I became interesting to my mother and I began to have a relationship with her.

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I think I must’ve been in the seventh grade when I asked my mother a strange question. I recall the event vividly. I was sitting on the stairs that went upstairs, talking with her. She was in the kitchen.

Is there anything I could do that would make you stop loving me?” I asked.

I don’t recall what we were talking about, but my sense is that there was no particular context for this question. It came, as they say, “out of the blue.”

My mother stared at me for a few moments, and then said, “what makes you ask that question?”

I answered her that I had done nothing dreadful. I was just curious. She thought a while, and then said “Well, I suppose that might happen if you hurt a person or creature that was helpless. I have a special feeling for the weak and helpless.”

Love then was conditional. Agape – unconditional love – was not something that actually existed. Our being loved was contingent on our being good. If this was true of a mother’s love, was it not also true of God’s love?” This was a very disturbing thought to me. God loves us only if we are good.

In answer to her question as to why I asked such a question, I said “I don’t know.” But I think I may have had in my mind a frog that I had electrocuted. (A description of that incident is in the section called Dobby.) If killing that frog was the worst I ever did perhaps I could repent and still be worthy of love. But I didn’t want to push my luck so I didn’t mention the frog incident to her.

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When I was in college I wrote a little piece that I called “Loose Willie and Others” that may be relevant to what I am exploring here. I include here only the passage about “Loose Willie.”

Last night I chased Loose Willie all through the house. We knocked over barrels, tore down rafters and ripped up the rug. Finally I had to admit he had more stamina than I, so I gave up the chase and went to bed leaving him sitting in my easy chair tearing the wings off of flies. I didn’t think he would come and hatchet me in the night. Not at least while there were flies in the house.”

Loose Willie seemed to be a dangerous sub-personality. But who was he and what was his meaning? Or to ask the question in another way, what sort of life experience would have produced such a psychic entity?

I was not a saint, but neither was I basically an evil person. I wanted to be helpful to other people, to live a useful life and to grow in my capacity for love and understanding. Also I wanted to be seen as an acceptable human being – a person who could be liked by others. This desire for an acceptable social identity may have been narcissistically motivated. It was not agape. But social acceptability was neither more nor less than what everybody wants. It could be considered a normal or “healthy” narcissism.

In another place in this book I give some more thought to the different forms of love and there I distinguish between the normal narcissistic desire for acceptable social identity and self-aggrandizement. But for now I want to stay with Loose Willie. What have I learned about him? I see that he has been around at least as far back as the seventh grade. I was in effect saying to my mother “If Loose Willie really caused me to do something dreadful – as Raskolnikov, or Leopold and Loeb did, would you still love me?”

It is important to notice that it is the positive social identity itself that is the target of Loose Willie’s destructive urges – not the person or the institution that would be attacked if Loose Willie had his way. Leopold and Lobe had nothing against their victim.

It might be noted in passing that the choice of the term “Loose Willie” might have a significance that I had not noticed until my spouse, Betsy, pointed it out to me. It was because my “Willie” was loose that my mother chased my naked self around the house after the bath. Fair enough. I doubt everything can be reduced to Freud, but he would seem to have a piece of the action.

Perhaps the worst experience I had with the “Loose Willie” phenomena transpired in the early years of my marriage. Here the fear of Loose Willie took the form of an obsession that I might do something dreadful to an infant. Specifically that I might injure it or even kill it. I also had the frequent fantasy that I might drive my car into oncoming traffic. These were abstract atrocities. I had nothing against babies – unless it was their extreme weakness, fragility and vulnerability. Certainly I had nothing against the unknown passengers in an oncoming vehicle. It was simply that these were acts that could be done suddenly – without premeditation. I knew that I was never going to commit an atrocity that required planning – or would take a significant amount of time. I would “come to my senses” before doing anything of that sort.

The only experience I had of losing control of myself in any significant way was losing my temper – which always happened quickly and generally caught me by surprise. On at least two occasions this caused me to hit someone – and on many occasions to break things. So if Loose Willie was to have his way, it had to be with regard to something that could happen quickly. That is mostly true – though, with the frog electrocution, it took a couple of minutes. So there were two things things that led me to fear a loss of control that would have devastating consequences: 1) my real experience of losing my temper, 2) my realization that within my psychic structure there were sub personalities. In other words, I was not always the same person.

The other important thing that came to me as I tried to sort this issue out was that the real target was always a somewhat inflated image of myself. Loose Willie fantasies happened only when I felt I was being granted an excessive social esteem. The fantasies were in effect saying “Yes you think I’m a very fine person, but if you only knew. . . .” I suppose that underneath it all, it reflected the wish that I could be truly loved unconditionally.

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As it turned out, many years after I asked my mother that question about what might cause her to cease loving me, the matter was put to a test. I was arrested for the sexual abuse of children. The children were a fourteen-year-old boy and a ten year old. The first set of crimes consisted of four incidents of mutually desired sex play between me and the fourteen-year-old boy. The second event consisted of a back scratch with a ten-year-old-boy that got out of hand and ended up with my fondling him on one occasion.

I did not want to convince my mother that these acts were a good idea. Only that they did not consist of my brutally forcing myself on two helpless victims. And I wanted her to understand something about the whole issue of love between men and boys, as I felt that would be necessary for her to understand what had happened. So I shared with my mother some of my writings in which I attempted to describe the kinds of things that happened in a man/boy love affair, as well as some materials by others that provided accurate descriptions of this phenomenon. Theo Sandfort’s book “Boys On their Contacts With Men – A Study of Sexually Expressed Friendships” is an example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Helping her understand this phenomena seemed important to me. Images of what kinds of things are typical of “child sexual abuse” provide the framework for our understanding of specific events. If the social narrative is that “child sexual abuse” is mainly about how monsters force themselves on non-willing victims, that shapes our understanding in a radically different way than a narrative that assumes that, in most cases, the relationship is sought out by both people. Consider this description, and compare it to the impression that one would get from any newspaper account of somebody being “caught in the act.”

Heinz Kohut, one of the most important psychological theorists of the 20th Century, wrote, "I had this private tutor, who was a very important person in my life. He would take me to museums and swimming and concerts and we had endless intellectual conversations and played complicated intellectual games and played chess together." They also did sexual things together, which they both enjoyed, but Kohut felt the sex was more or less incidental. The important thing for him was the relationship. He said "I was an only child. So it was in some way psychologically life-saving for me.” He describes his years with his tutor as being perhaps the happiest ones in his life. (Strozier, 2001. Heinz Kohut: The making of a Psychoanalyst. pp. 95, 96.)

She refused to read anything I sent her.

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As I think of my mother – not as she was or was not related to me, but just as herself – it seems to me that her life was framed by grief. That may have something to do with why she abandoned me. I’m not clear on that. But what do I mean that her life was framed by grief? When Mom was a baby her mother died – in childbirth as I understand it – or at least in a way related to childbirth. Then her father abandoned her. He wanted nothing to do with the person who had killed his wife. That may not be a fair way of putting it, but Mom was put up for adoption and her natural father did not pursue a relationship with her. Then, in the middle of her life there was the loss of Alice Ann. Alice Ann was her first girl child after three boys.  She wanted a daughter more than anything, and Alice Ann died at nine months  from a medical blunder committed by a friend of the family, who was a doctor. The excruciating pain of that event for so many people is too much for me to get my head around.

Finally, when she settled into a more or less comfortable life with my father – who I believe was the one true love of her life – he died. I wrote a poem about that.

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