My parents found religion when I was five years old. I had no reason not to believe this was a good thing.
The brand of church my parents joined was a cult. I know this because, at the age of 11, my parents sent me to a boarding school in Quito, Ecuador. They themselves moved to Chile. Sacrificing their children was a requirement of the denomination. I had a brother, a year older than me, when we checked in. But because we were all “Children of God” siblings were separated as a matter of policy: they were not allowed to share the same room. For all intents and purposes, I was alone. Months went by without my brother exchanging with me a word or a glance. People not in cults don’t give their children away. It’s a pretty simple equation when you boil it right down.
Because they called it a dorm, that’s what I’ll call it. But it was a prison. Three storeys. Wings segregated by sex. Two boys to a room, ten rooms a wing. Two adults per floor. Corporal punishment. Communal shower room at the end of the hall. A big, prison-like, cafeteria in the basement with bells ringing for mealtimes. Locked at night. Located inside a gated compound, guarded by hired Ecuadoreans with weapons. No access to a phone (the internet not yet a thing). Outgoing mail was not private: we were not allowed to express despair or suggest discontent. I was thousands of miles away from anyone I knew. I did not have possession of my own passport. I was as trapped as anyone at Alcatraz ever was. With less access to the outside world.
What have I done, I thought? And also: what have I done? I had been a perfectly average, exceedingly content Canadian kid growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan, never been in trouble or anything remotely resembling it. And now you want to tell me I am sinful and hell-bound for feeling unhappy about the shockingly cruel turn in circumstances of my life?
Original sin, as an unquestionable tenet of belief, made the dorms possible. It also made the authorities incapable of correctly interpreting the five decades of gang-like behaviour they enabled. In a Borgesian way, failure to correctly establish scientific taxonomy, skews all sensory data and its subsequent intellectual processing utterly, rendering essentially the entire analysing human apparatus useless. Original sin ensured that fifty years of unhappy children were diagnosed as being themselves the unique and exclusive problem for all that ailed them. They called it spiritual disobedience. Whatever happened to us, whatever we did: shame on us for unresolved sin.
It doesn’t matter who you are. You are born guilty. Guilt is your inheritance. Even before you commit sin, you are sin. That you exist is the first thing for which you must ask forgiveness.
I often think that I am not, and never was, cut out to be a writer. I started to write because it was the one creative thing that I could do discretely. It beat doing nothing. And I started to write to try to preserve some unique sense of self, a necessary buttress against a constant barrage of incoming original sin.
I dreamt of becoming a writer, later a professor, and when, against enormous odds, both of those came to pass I found myself, implausibly, far unhappier than I’d ever been before. I regard my writing career as an example of Answered Prayers, a case study in being careful what you wish for. I published a novella, several short stories, a book chapter some essays and academic articles, all of it managing the rare and difficult feat of exceeding my wildest high school dreams yet falling embarrassingly and crushingly short of my potential.
I’m afraid that the drinking that started within days of my return to Calgary at the age of 17, continued, relatively unabated for twenty-five or so years. It dragged me down in all aspects of my life in ways and to degrees of which I was fully and recklessly oblivious at the time. I don’t think that Bukowski knew anything: you can’t develop yourself as a writer when you’re living every day of your life that level of drunk. It’s delusion to think you can. Fortunately, it’s a delusion drinking can sustain for an impressively long time.
I’m not under any of those delusions anymore.
My prose will only ever be so-so—sentences gunna run. Just because you love writing novels does not mean writing novels has to love you back…to paraphrase Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity.
But why stop there.
To paraphrase the Neil Coward of Design for Living (1933), I am a specialist in unpublished novels. I don’t mind writing another novel, not even going into knowing it is fully unpublishable. Some people like to jam. Picking out “Wish You Were Here” on acoustic guitar for hours on end is its own pleasure: when you’re in the mood for it, nothing else comes close. I’m like that writing bad novels. Flawed as fuck, but at least they’re mine.
The truth is, my life has been stranger than any fiction I’ve managed.
I was expelled from the dorm at the age of 17. My parents refused to let me come live with them in Chile. Instead, as punishment, they sent me to Calgary, Canada (where I’d never lived before, had no family, and knew no one) to finish high school as a foster child with a family within the cult. For the first year or so every adult I met was certain they knew more about me than I knew about myself. I was possessed. I was not in pain, and my distress was not real. I was a deeply sinful, spiritually rebellious teenager who they were resolute and determined to crack wide-ass open for Jesus.
Naturally, within a year I was couch-surfing downtown Calgary, well on my way to deeply destructive alcoholism, actively bisexual, and possessed of a kind of self-hatred whose churn and fathoms make descriptions of the Lovecraftian abyss read rather factually, a good eye for detail our Howard P. The problem with telling kids that they are born into sin—and this too was Borges’ insight—is that categories create reality, the latter coming into being through the former. Kids socialized to internalize the self-belief that, left unchecked, their prospects for eternity are a flame-broiled one, will call such a world into being.
The roots of constructivism lie in Foucault’s reading of Borges, and Stuart Hall’s reading of Foucault: there is no natural way to be, modes of being are created, or constructed, through language, the basest roots of which form the taxonomization of everything we know and claim to be. My own experience is that there is truth to this theory, (though, as scholars of constructivism will be keen to observe, the theory itself, unhelpfully, rules out any absolute, extra-linguistic, meaning to the concept ‘truth’ creating a merry go-round which becomes rather less merry each and every time you try it.) I hated my body. I hated my thought life. I hated my eyes. I hated it all. I believed I was sinning all the time even when I was trying hardest not to. At a certain point, you figure if you’re going to be consumed by self-hatred 24/7 no matter what, you may as well go ahead and do more than just sinful thinking.
Anyway, I’m writing not because I’m a great writer who feels unjustly neglected. Nothing I’ve written, whether taken on its own, compiled comprehensively and chronologically, or closely curated to the one short story I’ve written that everyone mostly agrees was top drawer in a provincial way, has amounted to anything. I’m certainly not writing on Substack because I want to have a literary career. I don’t know why anyone would choose to live outside obscurity if they didn’t have to. I have never been on Instagram.
I’m writing because I find myself in a world in which a secular religion has emerged that holds certain classes of people are born guilty—always already before the formation of the self. Guilty of things you can’t see but for which you can be found guilty without defense. I’m writing because a new clerisy has emerged to police micro-aggressions, sin by another name. I was a part of that clerisy, the social sciences and humanities of academia. For nine years I was a continuing professor in communications studies at Okanagan College. Over that time, my many misgivings about the emerging, new religion solidified into outright objections, my disbelief turned into anger which activated a conscience I scarcely remembered I had. When I went to activate it, it cost me my career.
That’s the topic for my next post. Readers of Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi may have seen me discuss this in the comment sections of a few posts as “cs100”. In some sense, I feel it’s unfair and perhaps even unhelpful to discuss such a complex series of events in a subscribers’ only online forum. I’m not sure that it will prove more helpful to give it a prolonged analysis, but my thinking is—to the extent that my singular experience serves as a useful example of what I believe to be broader, fundamentally anti-progressive trends now prevalent in all sectors of contemporary, North American society I have an obligation to discuss it, in specifics.
Which I will do next time.
Bullying & Harassment: the full story up next.
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