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The Power of Language

Posted: 07/12/2012 8:01 pm

When I entered St. Joe's, puberty had not begun, but it started soon after. At 13 I was still a virgin and exceptionally naïve. I had yet to kiss anyone. In spite of a sex-education talk in the eighth grade, in which I learned the word "homosexual" (and now had a label for what I'd known about myself since kindergarten), I did not know how babies were made; I learned publicly that fall, to the amusement of my first-year Latin class.

I made a translation mistake. Standing in the aisle next to my seat, I said "her baby" at the end of the sentence. Silver-haired, barrel-chested, hare-lipped Brother Gerry, on whom I had developed an immediate crush, informed me that the third-person singular and plural in this declension shared the same ending, so the sentence made more sense with "their baby." Thinking I was being witty, I announced, "I didn't know having a baby was a community affair."

The class erupted, and even Brother Gerry couldn't hide his grin. Over the sounds of knuckled drum rolls and snorts of ridicule, he said, "Uh, Mr. Turtell, if you will stay after class, I will explain a few things to you." To the desk-slapping amazement of boys who'd grown up on those dairy farms, I stood next to my seat and understood, visibly (I even put my hand to my mouth in astonishment), all the jokes about "my plug and your socket," and all about the eggs and sperm and wombs that had probably been explained in the sex-ed talk while I was distracted by my discovery of "homosexual," struck so dumb by the knowledge that I wasn't, as I'd thought till then, the only one in the world that I could hear nothing else.

A few months after arriving at St. Joe's, I learned how to jerk off. I accidently creamed in my pants when one of the juniors "scrounged" me -- reached under my legs from behind and squeezed my balls hard (St. Joe's more hands-on version of a wedgie). I ran into the toilet and locked myself in one of the stalls, disturbed by the warm, churning sensation in my crotch and the sticky mess that resulted, but thrilled that I had found the source of the intense pleasure I'd only had in dreams. Within a few days I was producing that sensation at every possible free moment, once enraging Brother Hugo, who'd gone looking for me during scullery duty because I'd been away from the dishwasher too long and trays were getting backed up. He banged hard on the door of the small kitchen toilet, and I hurriedly pulled up my pants and emerged, so red-faced and disheveled that the other boys who saw me covered their mouths to muffle their laughter.

These were expected changes that everyone around me also went through, or already had, and so were amused to observe them in us, sometimes viciously. One of my classmates, James "Seamus" Kenney, was that kind of pain in the ass. Seamus liked to strut naked in the hallway after showers, showing off his large, black pubic bush. "It's already grown back once. They shaved me when I had my appendix out," he bragged, adding that it proved "I'm more mature than you are."

Seamus began taunting me in the spring of our sophomore year. I still wonder what set him off. Something must have, because it came on very suddenly. He was just his usual obnoxious self to me and everyone else when from out of nowhere he began saying, at every opportunity, "Turtle's queer," or, "Everybody knows that Turtle's queer." I'd walk into a conversation in the rec room or join a group walking back from softball in the afternoon, and he'd turn to me and say, "We were just saying how queer you are." No one picked up the thread, but Seamus kept on. It got to the point that I was tempted to take him aside and have a private talk with him; I was thinking of saying, "Why are you picking on me? Yeah, I'm queer, but I can't help it. I didn't decide to be queer, and I wish I weren't." Something stopped me. Thank God. It would have made it so much worse. Instead, I decided to tell Brother Gerry during our annual conference, a yearly ritual performed near the end of the spring semester, designed to examine an aspirant's suitability for continuing another year before entering the novitiate immediately after high school. The only important issue in my freshman conference had been my tendency to mouth off to upperclassmen. Even as an adult, I have to admit that most of the trouble in my life has come right out of my own mouth. I was about to open a mother lode of trouble for myself. I had no way of knowing that, but unconsciously, at least, I was ready for change.

I had a brief dream around that time, which I can remember in detail 45 years later. I stood at the door of an empty classroom at Ryken High School and saw myself inside, at the front of the room, standing behind the desk, like a teacher. Me-as-teacher walked toward me-in-the-doorway. I could neither enter the room nor look my teacher-self in the eye. I stood frozen outside and stared at the slightly raised threshold my feet rested on but wouldn't cross. "You still can't face yourself, can you?" teacher-me asked student-me.

Our conferences went in alphabetical order, so mine was one of the last, near the end of May, just a few weeks before final exams and the beginning of summer vacation. Brother Gerry began by saying how disappointed he was in my schoolwork, that I should be getting all As. "Do you know you have the highest IQ in the entire school?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"Here, look for yourself and see." He showed me a file with the results of various tests we'd all had to take before being admitted to St. Joe's. I stared at the sheet that showed my Stanford-Binet IQ: 143. "Do you know what that score means?"

"No," I lied; I did know.

"Genius. Your score is in the genius range. So why are you getting Bs and having trouble in algebra?"

I knew that it was the very bottom of the "genius" range, and that there were other people a lot smarter than me. We'd all managed to find out the results two years earlier and had been ragging on each other ever since. That wasn't what I needed to talk about, and so I promised I would work harder from now on. Then he asked if there was anything I wanted to discuss.

"There is." I told him that I was being harassed by one of the other students.


I hesitated. Squealing was despised. I'd even managed not to squeal when Tony accidentally dropped a knife in my knee earlier in the year, during recreation. But I hated Seamus for tormenting me, and my unexpressed rage pushed me past any hesitation about being a snitch. "Seamus," I told him.

Brother Gerry didn't seem at all surprised. "Ever hear the expression Misery loves company?" he asked.

"Yeah. But I don't understand."

Why would Seamus want me to be miserable just because he was? And he didn't seem miserable. He was always bragging about how much more mature he was than the rest of us. He was a little older and taller, but for the entire two years I'd known him, he'd been bragging obsessively. I didn't really care why. I had my own obsession, one that had been brewing for years now, but which Seamus had brought to a head. And I dropped my bombshell with what now seems like laughable, adolescent melodrama, but it took every ounce of courage I had then to say, "I'm afraid of what I have to tell you. It's very private."

"We're alone here," he assured me. "No one can hear us. Can you tell me now?"

I didn't think so, or said I couldn't, anyway. "I don't think it's even safe for these four walls," I told him.

He was silent for a moment. Then he suggested that I come back after the last chapel before bed and continue. I went back to study hall and tried to do my homework while waiting to resume our conversation. How was I going to tell him? I didn't know.

After chapel, instead of going to the lavatory to brush my teeth and prepare for bed with everyone else, I returned to his office. I waited quietly for a few minutes while he put his laundry in the little bedroom to the side of the office -- the site of many of my masturbatory fantasies. I'd always wondered what that little room was like. I couldn't see in when he opened the door, because he didn't turn on the light; he just put the large cloth sack on a chair next to the single bed, closed it again, and sat down. I sat in one of the two chairs facing his desk, swiveling back and forth, running my fingers over the crease in the leather upholstery. The chair was pale orange, and the three creases in the seat, long indentations in the leather, got wider as the seat fanned out between my thighs. There were no arms; I had to do something with my hands, so I gripped the space between my knees.

I had hoped Brother Gerry would be wearing only a T-shirt, like he was earlier in the evening during our first conference, but we'd just come from chapel, and he had his cassock back on. As soon as he sat down, I blurted out, "I'm homosexual."

He was silent and looked at the top of his desk. I stared at him and waited. I was completely unprepared for his next question: "How do you know?"

I couldn't believe he was asking me this. It was the last reaction I anticipated. It was the one thing I knew for certain about myself. I had known it for almost a decade already, even if the word for it was still relatively new to me. "Well, you can know," I offered.

His next questions were very specific and began to zero in on things that were, I suspected, more convincing than my simple declaration: "Have you had any sexual experiences?"

I could honestly answer "no." All I'd ever done till then was masturbate.

"Do you fantasize when you masturbate?"

Why would he ask that, I wondered. Wasn't that the whole point? "Yes," I told him.

"And are your fantasies all of men?"

"Yes." I hated this. Why couldn't he just tell me what he thought?

"In a sexual fantasy, do you imagine dominating or being dominated?"

"Being dominated." I often fantasized about being dominated by him, but I didn't say this.

He was silent for a while and seemed to be trying to figure something out. "Is there any sexual activity in the juniorate that I should know about?" he asked.

He wasn't pulling any punches. I'd already been a rat once that night. I didn't want to continue. Fortunately, I didn't know of any, not really. The only thing I'd ever heard was a two-year-old rumor. The year before I arrived, two guys were found under a table in the dining hall. They were thrown out the next day. One of the seniors liked to tell that story, the same senior who got letters from his older brother listing the number of times he'd had sex. I hadn't heard anything similar since I'd been there, and again was able to answer "no."

I was to find out years later that, of course, sex was rampant, but I was too naïve and frightened of exposure to allow myself to see it. One of my classmates was having sex with nearly the entire junior and senior class. And there were propositions made to me that I was afraid to act on because they seemed more like threats than offers of pleasure. Naturally -- and comically, in retrospect -- most of the activity took place in the small weightlifting room, in the basement next to the laundry.

One of the seniors who occasionally propositioned me, Frankie, was one of the two muscular Italians from the Bronx; his cohort Tony was the one who cut me. Frankie was less aggressive but more insidious. He liked to have me hang around while he worked out, and he let me look at his muscle magazines. Sometimes he would grab one from me, flip to the back pages, and mockingly read an ad for other magazines you could buy, featuring "hairy chests! Rugged masculinity!" Looking at me and smirking, he'd add, "You like that, Tortoise, don't you?" He knew I did. Sometimes he had me hang on his back while he did pull-ups, which I also liked. It was a struggle to keep my hands on his shoulders and not let them wander down to his chest. But I couldn't allow myself to believe that following up on his hints was safe. I felt it was a trap, an instinct that had been sharpened at the Christmas party during my first year. In front of all the other boarders and the faculty, the seniors gave a subscription to The Ladies Home Journal to the classmate I later learned was being shared by all of them.

Brother Gerry seemed satisfied with my answer, and I was relieved. He dropped the subject and asked, "Have you ever spoken about this in confession?"

This was as surprising as all the other questions. Why would I? I only confessed to masturbation because it was a mortal sin -- really the only mortal sin any of us thought we were capable of committing -- and I needed absolution so I could take communion. We attended daily Mass in the novitiate chapel. Staying in your seat during communion was the equivalent of admitting that, yet again, you'd jerked off the night before or even, as I'd been caught doing once, in the shower. I'd been doing it more and more frequently. Finally, out of shame, I gave up going to confession. By the time of my talk with Brother Gerry, I'd made so many bad communions that I knew I was going to Hell. I just couldn't stand skipping chapel early in the morning and going over to the novitiate, where the priest heard confession every day before Mass. Otherwise I'd have to wait till Wednesday night and either skip communion or commit yet another mortal sin, this one much more serious, and receive the body and blood of Christ while I was not in a state of grace. Going to confession in the morning before Mass was like a public admission that you masturbated again. I doubt I was the only one who faced this daily dilemma, but I never discussed it with anyone other than the priest in confession. And I didn't mention it to Brother Gerry that night.

He'd reached the last of his questions for me. I was frustrated that he hadn't said anything reassuring. Without realizing it, I was hoping for some comfort, some indication that what I'd said was not as horrible, as terrible, as I feared. But I got nothing like that. Instead, Brother Gerry insisted that I must say everything I'd told him in my next week's confession. He admonished me not to repeat anything I'd discussed with him and scheduled another conference the following week, after I'd had a chance to speak to the priest. Then he sent me back to my room. I got into bed after the lights were already out. I knew I'd face questions the next morning about why I'd needed the additional conference. I wasn't ready for any of it. Sure enough, the next morning, several boys asked about it. I said nothing to anyone else, not even my best friend Joe. I was anxious all week.

To my relief, the priest was comforting. He assured me that there were lots of brothers and even priests who were also homosexual, and they were still able to keep their vows and remain in the order. I didn't want to leave St. Joseph's. I wanted to finish out the juniorate and enter the novitiate with the rest of my class. I couldn't imagine leaving then, after only two years. I didn't know what I'd do if I had to live at home again. I didn't want to go back. Arriving home for Easter vacation, my sister met me at the door with the announcement, "We've had our first fight!" She meant that the apartment, which they'd moved into while I was away, had now been christened, had been the scene of another of my father's admissions of a new gambling debt and yet another theatrical threat to leave us, because we'd be better off without him. I left home partly to avoid those scenes. I was eager to tell Brother Gerry what the priest had told me.

Brother Gerry didn't agree with the priest. He said the priest was wrong. "You shouldn't be a brother if you have these feelings," he said. "You shouldn't be a teacher. You must never have any job that puts you in contact with young people, like a camp counselor."


His tone changed. He folded his hands on the desk in front of him and looked down as he continued, "Why? Do I really have to explain that to you? Why you shouldn't put yourself in the way of temptation like that? Why you should have nothing to do with young boys?"

It was as if he'd stopped talking to me; we were no longer having a conversation; he was speaking on behalf of something, a principle, or an institution. The weight of the One Holy Roman and Apostolic Church was now in the room. In just a few sentences he wiped out the only plausible plan I had for my future. I'd begun telling people I intended to teach in the fourth grade, a year before I thought about entering the Xaverian Brothers. It was one of the things I simply knew about myself, like being a redhead, or short, or queer. I knew I would be a teacher.

I was trying to take all this in when he told me I had to tell my parents what I'd told him. I was horrified.

"No. I can't," I protested.

"I can understand that it might be difficult for you to do, but you have to."

"I don't know how," I insisted.

"You were able to tell me."

"That's different," I said, but I didn't know in what way.

"Maybe they'll be able to help you. You'll find a way."

I could not imagine that. They would only be hurt and disappointed at best, disgusted and outraged at worst.

It was close to 11 p.m. Lights had been out in the dormitory for an hour, and he ended the conference. I went back upstairs and slipped into bed as quietly as I could.

My admission wasn't, as I'd imagined it would be, the end of something -- the end of Seamus' bullying, or the end of my unwillingness to face myself. It was the beginning of the rest of my life. I left Leonardtown in June, like everyone else, and assumed I would return in the fall. After a month's hesitation, in late July I worked up the courage to tell my father what I'd told Brother Gerry, and he astonished me by being gentle and accepting -- and also confused me by also saying he didn't believe me, either, that if I were queer, I would have done something about it already.

"I know where you can go," he told me. "There's always someone at the 51st Street subway station on the 7th Avenue line," the station nearest his job.

My mother was told, and she made an appointment with a Catholic psychiatrist at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights. After several days of tests, including my first Rorschach (I was determined not to see a penis), he also concluded that I wasn't homosexual, but that I might become one in the wrong circumstances. All that was needed was for me to attend a "normal" high school, and the rest would follow: I would date girls, go steady, start making out, etc. Where they imagined I would get the desire to do this I could never figure out. But two weeks before school began in the fall, Brother Gerry informed me that I was not welcome back. It should not have come as a surprise to me, but it did.

What I also didn't figure out for many years was that my confession was really a failed seduction attempt. I like to joke that in a church rife with sexual abuse of teenagers, I picked the one who wasn't having it. I told this to one of my favorite college professors, Barbara Sproul, who runs the Religion Department at Hunter College, where I finally finished my B.A. in comparative religion at 44.

"Steve, 14-year-olds are not subtle," she said, explaining that Brother Gerry was probably keenly aware of my desire for him. She also said that I'd been kicked out not for being gay but for talking. "You were dangerous. You were willing to talk."

I knew immediately that she was right. If I could say something so forbidden -- and in 1966 confessing to being gay, or "homosexual," as we said then, was as forbidden as it got short of murder -- as openly as I had to Brother Gerry, I could not be trusted. If he had been interested in me sexually (not unthinkable, especially given some of the stories I can now tell, because the participants are dead and can't be harmed by my revelations, but which I wont tell here), what would have prevented me from telling someone even higher in authority than he what we might have done together? I had to be gotten rid of. The ease with which he did it was painful; the fact that I had changed my life with a single word took years to become clear. But it has.

Update: I've been moved and fascinated by the many responses to my post about being expelled from St. Joseph's Juniorate in 1966. I had no idea that AOL also posted a link to it with a title I would not have used: "What Really Happens at Catholic School," which perhaps explains the many pages of responses. I want to make clear a few things: this is my own story; I'm not making any claims about all Catholic schools, or all Catholic boarding schools, or all religious orders. I wrote only of my own experience and didn't extrapolate -- I think the only claim that can be said to have broader implications is that my real crime was talking, not being gay. If I'd kept my mouth shut I would probably have stayed through senior year and entered the novitiate. Whether I would have remained there is an open question, on the same speculative level as wondering what my life would have been like if I'd accepted the place at Regis and not left home to attend high school 250 miles away. At this point it's probably nothing more than having a different story to tell. But it's my story and so I'm telling it. The rampant sexuality I know of from the participants who told me of it later. Some of commentators don't seem to realize that this took place in a boarding school. The dormitory housed forty boys aged thirteen through eighteen. You do the math.

As for Catholic education, although I can't think of anything better designed to prevent my developing a genuine spiritual life than the education I received, I am grateful to it for other reasons. I learned just how superb it was when I began teaching English Composition at Brooklyn College and read my first batch of student essays. They clearly had not had to diagram sentences of Churchillian complexity on the blackboard under the supervision of pointer and fiberglass ruler-wielding nuns and brothers. I'm grateful for the grammar lessons, but I'm certain I would have learned just as well without the stinging ass and fingers.

Finally: about sex education in Catholic schools. I can only say that one June afternoon in 1964 at St. Teresa of Avila Boys School in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, the principal, Brother Aiden, had the eighth grade stay after class. To our surprise we were told the facts of life. As I pointed out above, the only thing I remember is Brother Aiden's comment, which he delivered as casually as if he were discussing the weather, "And of course, there will always be those who are attracted to members of their own sex and these are called homosexuals." Well fuck me dead! This was news. This was NEWS. Within minutes of getting out of school that afternoon, I was at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library looking for whatever I could find about homosexuals. Not much, and most of that very scary. But that's another story. So is what happened after getting sent back to Brooklyn from St. Joe's. Among other things, I took a job at that library, and came across some interesting characters.


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