January 13, 2013
Private Pain, Played Out on Public Stage
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
BOSTON — When he was a boy in North Carolina in the 1960s, Michael Mack wanted to be a priest, until his priest sexually molested him. He prayed he would forget the experience, but, he said, “the memory tingled like a phantom limb.”
As he grew up, he revisited the moment over and over in his mind. He told no one about it, this secret that was obsessing him, “binding me to someone I never talked to, never saw, but who lived and breathed in my memory.”
In 2002, The Boston Globe began documenting the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. The articles, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, prompted Mr. Mack, who was by then living in Cambridge, to consider finding the priest who had abused him.
In 2005, he plugged the name into Google and discovered that the priest was living less than an hour away. Eventually, he arrived on the priest’s doorstep.
The result is “Conversations With My Molester: A Journey of Faith,” which had its debut last year at the Boston Playwrights’ Theater at Boston University to mark the 10th anniversary of the Globe series. Now, Mr. Mack, 56, is reviving the nonfiction drama at the Paulist Center, a Catholic community center in downtown Boston that is dedicated to social justice.
On Friday night, about 50 people attended the opening, which was followed by a question-and-answer session with Mr. Mack and the Rev. Rick Walsh of the Paulist Center. The play and subsequent discussion showed how the priest scandal, stemming from events that took place decades ago, continues to haunt the lives of the victims and reverberate throughout the church.
The opening happened to coincide with an announcement by the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the pedophile priest scandal, that it was further consolidating its parishes in the face of continued low attendance at Mass, a priest shortage and lackluster fund-raising. The announcement was just the latest sign of the toll that the scandal, along with various demographic changes, has taken on the archdiocese. It has been forced to sell valuable property and close parishes and has paid out tens of millions of dollars in settlements to victims of sexual abuse.
Then there is the toll on the victims. And that is the focus of Mr. Mack’s lyrical drama, in which he is the sole performer on a relatively spare stage for 90 minutes.
One of the most unsettling moments of the performance was when Mr. Mack revealed that as a camp counselor when he was in high school, he had come close to seducing a vulnerable, 8-year-old in whom he recognized himself.
“You lean closer, his hair a drift of baby shampoo,” Mr. Mack said as he acted out the scene. “Your face so close to the heat of his cheek you smell his breath, like apples.” At that point, the images of his own molesting came rushing back, and he stopped himself before anything happened.
That admission — that he had almost re-enacted the very crime perpetrated against him — drew particular praise from the audience. And it led to a general discussion of one of the little-acknowledged effects of molesting, that some victims become perpetrators.
Another effect of sexual abuse shown in the play was the simultaneous feelings of attraction and revulsion that persist in memory. When Mr. Mack was 11 and abused by his priest, he felt half giddy and half terrified. He also felt special, but the complexity of feelings was too much to make sense of.
He found himself “powerfully attracted, and powerfully repelled, finding self-loathing its own dismal ecstasy,” as he said in the play. This only added to his sense of guilt. Just remembering the scene so often, he said, proved that he was responsible for the crime, that he had “wanted it to happen, invited it to happen, made it happen, deserved it.”
After the performance, Mr. Mack was asked why he had not been vengeful toward the priest who had abused him.
“It was not true to my experience,” Mr. Mack replied, in part because victims blame themselves. Besides, he said, the play was his revenge.
“By telling my story, I am making this my truth,” he said. “I’m claiming it and getting it back.”
The play is Mr. Mack’s second theatrical work, the first having been a narrative about his mother’s schizophrenia, called “Hearing Voices, Speaking in Tongues.” He has performed it for numerous mental health groups and is preparing a third work on the broad theme of recovery.
Mr. Mack was a student at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s when he took an elective course in poetry. He loved it and transferred into M.I.T.’s writing program, where he studied with the poet Maxine Kumin.
After he graduated in 1988, he supported himself by doing technical writing for M.I.T. as he developed as a poet, and now his art is supporting him. He no longer wants to be a priest. But he has returned to the church and hopes his “journey of faith” as described in the play will help other victims heal and find reconciliation.
“I do feel like this is a kind of calling,” he said. “This is where I feel like I’m serving the most and growing the most. This is a very healing thing for me to do.”
Father Walsh, on stage with Mr. Mack for the post-play discussion, told him that he nonetheless was doing something “very priestly.”
“You are offering a sense of forgiveness. You’re helping people to see,” Father Walsh said. “You can reach people through this medium that I can’t reach.”
That seemed evident after the discussion and after most people had left. It was close to midnight, and workers were setting up tables for the next day’s event. Mr. Mack found himself sitting in the back of the room with a 43-year-old man who said his parents had sexually abused him. They were discussing Mr. Mack’s admission of pleasure in the abuse.
“One of the things that’s difficult is to know how to forgive yourself for taking pleasure in an experience that’s an awful experience,” Mr. Mack told him.
“It’s pleasurable, and it’s repulsive,” said the man, who wanted to remain anonymous. “It just does something to the brain, and that’s why so many survivors re-enact it — people unconsciously recreate the dynamic of how they were abused.”
The man said he was grateful to have seen the play because of its complexity. “It’s an incredible gift,” he said, “to be able to watch another survivor walk through the arc of this and get to a safe place.”
© 2012 The New York Times Company
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs