My father made me do it.
He was on an anti-porn crusade at the time.
It was the fall of 1967, and our local movie house, the Bronx's own Globe Theater, debuted its first X-rated feature: I Am Curious (Yellow). Enraged, my father began a campaign to shut the theater down. He organized local priests, rabbis, and concerned citizens to picket the theater with handmade signs, bang pots and pans under the marquee, and otherwise discourage potential perverts. This very quickly grew into a broader crusade against pornography, and before long he had established The Committee to Control Obscenity by Constitutional Means...which he operated from behind the counter of his pizzeria, Cappi's Pizza & Sangweech Shoppe, just a stone's throw away from the Globe.
Al the cop, a six-foot-four bruiser with a giant head and a hornlike voice, liked to play Devil's Advocate in between bites of his eggplant parmagian' sangweech.
"Oh yeah, genius? And what about the First Amendment? We got freedom of speech in this country!"
But my father knew his Constitution and could recite the Bill of Rights by heart. He was adept at ensnaring his opponent in a web of tortured logic and legalistic mumbo jumbo . . . with footnotes. He started subscribing to the Congressional Record, and regularly raced up to Albany in his broken-down lime green Cadillac (sold to him by Squeegee the bread man for under a hundred bucks) to lobby support among members of the state legislature for an anti-obscenity amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
I remember trailing behind him through the halls of the state capital as my father literally tugged on the sleeves of powerful passersby, introducing himself and the Committee to Control Obscenity by Constitutional Means, pressing his case and soliciting support. Mario Biaggi, our newly elected congressman, was impressed with the lowly pizza man's grassroots efforts and vowed to help. (My father overlooked the fact that Biaggi was a Democrat, akin to being a Satanist.)
The Committee picked up other supporters along the way, too, a random assortment of wild-eyed right-wingers and crucifix-clutching Christians--the same fire-breathing extremists who would soon form local chapters of fringe groups like the Moral Majority and the Right to Life Party.
A few years into this odyssey, in the early 1970s, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, Dad started insisting that I attend weekly meetings of a grassroots, right-wing Christian youth group called Just Evangelical Students United in Spirit, or J.E.S.U.S. This band of zealots, three in all, were led by a brother-and-sister team, Len and Linda, college-age children of some religious fanatics my father had befriended. (The third member, Ned, a soft-spoken young man with a degenerative muscular disease, moved with great difficulty on metal crutches and seemed to be in love with Linda.)
We met in the basement of Len and Linda's parents' house, where no refreshments were served. The group was dour and perversely square. They dressed like 1950s suburbanites, and spoke only in religious dogma. Once, when I prattled on excitedly about some expansive ideas I'd heard around the neighborhood--restatements of the sentiments summed up in "Imagine," the new hit single by John Lennon--Linda and Len became visibly agitated.
"That's communism," the sister hissed.
"Who said this to you?" her brother wanted to know, grabbing pen and paper. "What's his name? Where does he live?"
I knew exactly who'd said it to me--Andy Arliss, a gentle older teen who'd been my counselor at St. Lucy's Day Camp--but feigned amnesia.
"Oh, I don't know," I responded to my interrogators with burning face and ringing ears, picturing poor Andy being descended upon by a SWAT team in riot gear. "I just heard it around."
Our discussions consisted chiefly of ways to inspire "Christian renewal in America," especially among the nation's youth, and planning anti-abortion protests. These involved meeting at the crack of dawn on Sunday mornings, traveling to area churches, and accosting parishioners with grisly images of aborted fetuses and heated rhetoric about the "murder of unborn babies." Our theatrics occasionally attracted a few sympathetic ears, but most often we were vilified. I remember one spirited young lady yelling in Linda's face.
"It's my body! I am free to do what I want with my body!"
"Not to kill" was Linda's creepily disassociated, singsong response. "You are not free to kill."
Sometimes we were joined on our antiabortion outings by the rest of the club's membership, consisting solely of an Irish woman named Nellie, in her fifties, who clutched rosary beads in her fidgety hands at all times and was prone to loudly leading the group in prayer at the slightest provocation. She saw the Devil in everything, warning me that he could assume any form.
"That pavement could be the Devil. Or that building. Or that old woman. Or that little child. The Devil is everywhere!"
At one point, J.E.S.U.S. encouraged me to write an antiabortion essay for a borough-wide antiabortion essay-writing contest. I had by then discovered that writing came naturally to me, an easy source of approval and praise. I enjoyed tackling a good assignment and threw myself into the task like a pro, restating and dramatizing the talking points of the many pamphlets my mentors had supplied. A trained seal barking for fish, I waxed macabre about the barbaric nature of most methods of abortion--burning up the fetus from the inside out by injecting it with saline solution; dismembering the fetus inside the womb and drawing it out limb by limb; making a hole in the fetus's head, sucking its brains out with a vacuum hose, collapsing the skull, and then sucking the entire body out through an even larger hose--and cataloged the long-term physical, psychological, and spiritual effects of abortion on the mother, including infertility, insomnia, depression, and isolation from God.
I won second prize, which came with a cash award of fifty bucks. At a dinner honoring the winning essayists, I collected my booty and checked out the first-placer, a tall, wan girl of maybe fourteen, with long blond hair and bookish spectacles. What could she possibly have written that had surpassed my inflamed prose?
On the drive home, we saw a car broken down at the side of the road, overheated, steam pouring out of its open hood. Nellie raised her voice and her rosary beads:
"It's the Devil. Let us pray that he does not take our car as well. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee . . ."
Nellie noticed that I hadn't brought my rosary beads along. Not missing a beat, she slipped me one of several spares she carried.
I begged my father to stop pushing me into the arms of J.E.S.U.S., and he eventually relented. But Len, Linda, Ned, Nellie, and other mortified, martialized misfits like them continued to march on. Over the course of the next few decades, they and their ilk would migrate from the far fringes of the political spectrum to the very citadels of power. Their victory has been catastrophic for the country. We are living through the fallout even as I write.
But there is good news: The cycle is complete. The influence of this radical minority has waned dramatically. They are daily being chased back into the margins, where they belong. All that's left of their movement is a relative handful of confused, misguided know-nothings being manipulated and led by a cynical elite. Their leaders? Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the rest--a comical cast of vapid showmen; vaudevillians at the end of vaudeville.
Don't get me wrong: In some ways, they're more dangerous than ever. While their numbers have dwindled, their rhetoric and tactics have intensified. In a report released earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security warned of an increasing threat of domestic terrorism by rightwing extremists. They are well armed. We must be vigilant. But they are no longer at center stage. The shrill hysteria we hear from them now sounds like a death rattle. Teabaggers, birthers, proud members of the angry mob--the very labels they embrace identify them as fringe-dwellers. The Republican Party, once their home sweet home, has been eviscerated. Serious Republicans with so much as a shred of common sense (it's a short list) now realize that they need to grope their way back into the fold of the "reality-based community" if they're to have any hope of a legitimate future.
We have a long, long way to go. And President Obama needs to enact his agenda far more aggressively if we are ever to get there. But the pendulum is clearly swinging back. As we continue to awaken from our long national nightmare, let's remember to be encouraged. For legions of Lens and Lindas, the precipitous rise from total obscurity to unfettered power has come full circle. They're back in their dank basements now, preaching mainly to each other, using bits of crayon to draw Hitler mustaches on images of our first biracial President.
Lord deliver us from Evil, indeed.
My father made me do it.