I begin this entry with a metaphor that I recognize as clumsy but that seems to be the best I can muster: sometimes when I’m thinking about my 30-year-old son Jim, my mind does something that I could almost describe as throwing up two projection screens side-by-side before its own gaze. On one of those screens I view vignettes from the years that Jim and I have known each other and spent together. On the other I view snippets of my own childhood and the role my father played in it. Those two sets of vignettes always present themselves in such a way as to suggest complementarity and invite comparison. It’s invariably a cathartic experience, as deeply honest moments almost always are. I never fail to emerge from such experiences sobered by the resulting insights and wrung-out from the effort that the attaining of them cost me.
The relationship that Jim and I enjoy is thoroughly good. We have the deepest respect and admiration for each other. We understand each other on a level that I think might be far rarer among parents and their children than one might wish, and our conversations are accordingly deep and meaningful. Despite his having avoided some of my mistakes and charted a more reasonable and promising course in life than I ever did, we’re very much alike in many ways: we’re both possessed of a native curiosity that drives us to distraction and gives us no peace; we’re both musically talented and we both love language (these two traits are often bound up together); we both derive great joy from writing and from reading what others have written; we’re both pretty well aware of the way the big game is played and have equal (although not always openly-expressed) contempt for the “playas” and we both recognize how hopeless the human condition is; we both have a well-developed sense of irony, which is another name for a sense of humor; we’re both adept at sarcasm, but we tend to be restrained in its use by our humane instincts – which we also share. We both have a finely-calibrated ethical sense. We’re both atheists, but he wears his atheism much more lightly and comfortably than I do mine, probably because unlike me, he didn’t have to fight his way to it. And when I look at him I see the man I might have become had my relationship with my father been like Jim’s with me.
Unfortunately for yours truly, that’s not the way things turned out. My father was a chronically depressed, angry, vindictive, hateful, violent, willingly ignorant and somewhat dull-witted brute who bore with him to his grave the narrow opinions that he formed (or rather that were formed for him) during his childhood. He was overtly racist, xenophobic and misogynistic. I’m going to give you examples of all three and I’m going to quote him precisely as I do it; I want this narrative to have its intended impact:
- F.D. Goza Jr. once said to me, “David, never forget that no matter how good a nigger you meet, you can always find a white man that’s better than him; and no matter how sorry a white man you meet, you can always find a nigger that’s sorrier than he is.” (In the retelling I’ve retained not only his hateful noun usage but his pronoun choices as well: I want to be as authentic as possible. [I don’t recall his having used semicolons in his writing, however.])
- After relocating into town from the little shack on Redlick Mountain where I spent most of my childhood and becoming aware of the fact that the neighbor across the street who sported a mustache and drove an old Mercedes was the senior art professor at the small college next door and a Papist to boot, my father held forth for hours at the dinner table and well into the evening about the freaks by which he was surrounded (with said art professor as Exhibit A), while my mother sat cowering in a corner, probably hoping he’d just keep riffing on the prof and forget she even existed. (She never ate dinner with us – she always claimed she wasn’t hungry, yet remained on hand to re-fill my father’s plate when called upon to do so.)
- Which brings me to my third illustrative example: in addition to the constant verbal abuse he heaped on her, I once saw him throw my mother across a room while screaming WOMAN! at the top of his lungs. I have no idea what her offense might have been, but I can’t imagine that it merited that kind of treatment. (I was about six years old at the time, and when I tried to intervene he kicked me in the ribs so hard that they stayed bruised for a year. One or two of them might in fact have been broken, but I never found out because my parents didn’t take me to the doctor. Perhaps they were afraid that the authorities would be notified.)
Up until about age ten I received daily beatings with a leather belt. I think these were delivered on principle. (“Train up a child in the way he should go,” advises the Good Book, “and when he is old he will not depart from it.”) As vicious and maddening as those beatings were, they were nothing compared to the unrelenting psychological abuse that I endured for the first eighteen years of my life. My father drove my mother – and me and my two siblings with her – straight into the arms of First Landmark Missionary Baptist Church of Clarksville, Arkansas – the only refuge that she with her limited experience and truncated options could imagine – where the pastor taught me all about a God who loved me and would be willing to forgive me if I’d pray to his murdered son, for whose gruesome death I was in some way responsible; during some of the pastor’s sermons, that God also sounded quite a bit like my father, only he never went to sleep.
Don’t think I didn’t do some serious prayin’ for mercy. I begged God’s forgiveness for my sins every goddamn day from sunup to sundown. I gave the Lord Jesus Christ the tightest, most desperate embrace he’s ever endured (except perhaps for the one he got from my mother who, no doubt feeling our predicament much more deeply than even I did, clung to the Old Rugged Cross tighter than a tick on a hound’s nuts until the day she died). I believed in the God that church was peddlin’ as deeply as any of you Christians ever have. That God was my only refuge from my father (albeit troublingly familiar at times). I spent a lot of time thinking about God, but I almost never allowed myself to notice those ways in which he behaved just like the warped human monster of whose loins I was the unlucky fruit, to press into service the language of the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible. (Nowadays, when I imagine an anthropomorphic Yahweh, he has my father’s face.)
Don’t anybody try to tell me I was never really “saved.” I was as saved as you are, and you know it.
My life has in many respects been a kind of detour. I love music and have a real knack for it, but I don’t think it was the right career choice for me: I fell into it by default, because it was the only thing I halfway knew how to do. I should have been some kind of scientist, and I would like to think that had it been permitted, I would have discovered geology early enough on to have found a way to spend my life with it. But it turns out that at age 65, after spending a lifetime in a career for which I’m ill-suited and that has brought me very little happiness, I suffer an appalling and galling paucity of scientific background: I could probably be described as a reasonably well-informed layman, familiar with the big ideas at least in general outline and able to keep up my end of the conversation when in the company of geologists (usually by asking questions), but that’s not the same as having chops, like some of my fellow atheists. I’m pretty sure I’d have enjoyed a life in geology, and resent the fact that the opportunity was stolen from me.
But I was never allowed to discover that passion while I was still young enough to have followed through with it. I almost flunked out of high school, I was so depressed. I didn’t learn a goddamn thing, and that’s largely because a towering influence in my life hated book-learnin’ with a passion and denounced it as a tool of Satan: every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night of my life I was obliged to sit in church and listen to the pastor fulminate against “evilution.” That world-genius despised science. He loathed academics. He didn’t hesitate to say so, and when I was a child, he was the ultimate authority: he spoke for God – and so of course I believed him.
Don’t anybody try to tell me that this shit doesn’t harm children. It fucking ruined my life. It’s child abuse.
Here’s one more little tidbit, and then I’ll return briefly to the much brighter topic of my son and how it is that, despite the odds, I came to have the relationship with him that I enjoy. Carl Johns – the pastor of whom I was just speaking – despised Martin Luther King and wasted no opportunity to drag his name through the mud, both from his oaken pulpit and during his weekly program on KLYR radio. (I was just the right age to be hearing these doggie-nuggets during my formative years, at which time a great Civil Rights struggle was being waged all across this schizophrenic country. As a child and as a teenager I was on the wrong side of the issue, needless to say and to my undying shame.) Did I mention that our church was all-white? And that it still is? And that the membership would not allow it to be any other way? This is what the Reverend Carl Johns, Man O’God, said during one of his sermons in what was, one can only suppose, an attempt at humor: “We don’t have to call chiggers ‘Chegroes,’ so why should we have to call niggers ‘Negroes?’” (I’d already heard that one – at home, it goes without saying. I’m sorry to say that, young and intellectually malformed as I was, I probably chuckled as programmed.)
Carl Johns justified his racism with the Best Book Ever Written. Forget Noah’s accursed son Ham: as far as this smug, sanctimonious hack was concerned, “the black race” were descended from the fratricidal Cain, who (according to the divinely-inspired Book of Genesis) had gone out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the Land of Nod, where he took a wife – who, Brother Johns opined, happened to be an ape. Their offspring are thus not quite the same Biblical “kind” as we whites who are made in the image of God – maybe three-fifths of a person. That’s why they’re not listed among the human passengers of the Ark: two of them made the trip in one of the pens in the hold – “just like all the other animals,” quoth the good Reverend. It follows logically that “interracial” marriage is an abomination unto the Lord our God and worthy of the death penalty (which Pastor Johns endorsed).
Don’t try to tell me that religious belief makes people more high-minded, generous and decent than they would be without it. That’s bullshit. You Christians who happen to be high-minded and decent are so despite the teachings of your “holy book” not because of them.
Had enough of that? Me too. I’ve had a lifetime of it, and I’m fucking sick of it. But it’s never going to go away: a fundamentalist upbringing is the gift that never stops giving, and I will bear the scars of it to my grave: “The child is father to the man.”
Okay, so when I rehash all this in my mind (and so very much more that I haven’t even hinted at) as I regularly do, there’s a conclusion that I inevitably draw, and it gives me some comfort. Over the course of the next four paragraphs I’m going to tell you what that is, and then I’ll make what I think is an appropriate closing comment and sit down and shut the hell up.
During his childhood, after the manner of all children, my father adopted the beliefs and attitudes of his father, whose character and temperament I’ll try to capture in a few words. F.D. Goza Sr. (my grandfather, who died when I was 12) was Chancery Judge of Hot Spring County, Arkansas, clerk of the Saline Baptist Association, a Thirty-Second Degree Mason and Vice-Grand Dragon of the Arkansas Chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. (That, brothers and sisters, is my legacy.) He saw nothing paradoxical in that combination of distinctions, but then he always was rather humorless and unimaginative. He was a badass and made sure everyone knew it – especially his (extended) family, whom he bullied incessantly. He had a mean streak a mile wide, and he suffered a rather extreme form of alcoholism that would not let him put the stuff down: any time he took a drink, he ended up in a flophouse in the neighboring county, stone drunk for a week; then he’d gradually return to his senses and come slinking home with his tail between his legs, praising God (rather quietly; this wasn’t exactly public knowledge) for having delivered him at long last from his filthy habit and promising never to fall into it again (a pledge he broke exactly as often as he made it). His longsuffering and equally humorless wife, meanwhile, had covered for him with the voting public, manufacturing excuses and taking messages, promising that Judge Goza would get back with them as soon as he finished work on a very important case that had taken him out of town.
F.D. Sr. treated his eldest son in exactly the same way that said eldest son later treated his own: my father simply stuck with what he knew. I’m pretty sure my father hated his father on some deep level, probably because looking at him was like looking into a mirror; yet despite his misgivings, my father held tenaciously to his father’s religious beliefs, political and social opinions and misogynistic, racist, homophobic attitudes throughout his life, counting it a sort of fidelity or perhaps filial piety: he died about 25 years ago on that same dead center on which he had been planted at birth, having budged not an inch.
I never knew any of my more remote patrilineal forebears, but I’ve heard enough about some of them to make me suspect that I was the unlucky heir of a cycle of dysfunction and abuse that had run unchecked in the Goza family for many generations. And I’m the one who broke that cycle. Unlike my antecedents, and for reasons I cannot fully account for, I grew the hell up. I dumped the whole rotten, festering mess: the violence, the racism, the homophobia, the misogyny, the nationalism, the jingoism, the fear and loathing of the sciences and the academy, the religious fundamentalism . . . it’s all of a piece, you know. That was a far greater achievement than conducting a performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps from memory (which I have in fact done).
Whatever my failings as a father, at least I didn’t traumatize my son and murder his inquiring mind by indoctrinating him in supernatural absurdities and flag-waving hatreds. Jim’s mind has been allowed – no, it’s been encouraged – to grow and flourish. And grow and flourish, it has. My kid is amazing. He’s my one claim to having lived reasonably well, or at least as well as could have been expected under the circumstances. Ladies and gentlemen, meet James Davidson Goza: http://www.jimgoza.com/
I know that some of you Christians have not yet made the connection between the violence and dysfunction of my childhood home and the religious fundamentalism that fed it, and that I repudiate and so often rail against (or perhaps you deny that such a connection exists). I’m not going to try to draw that connection for you, but I am going to ask you a few questions and invite you to give them some thought: if my mother had not been taught ever since she was a little girl, by her pastor and Sunday school teachers at Second Missionary Baptist Church of Malvern, Arkansas, that women are to be at all times submissive to their husbands because it was Eve who, being deceived, was in the transgression (according to the true and authoritative account of our creation and fall found in the very Word of the God Who Poofed the Universe into Existence) – do you suppose she’d have stayed with a monster like my father long enough for him to throw her across a room? Do you suppose she’d have continued to live with him after he did that? Do you suppose she’d have remained in the same house with someone who was abusing her children on a daily basis? Do you have the courage and integrity to entertain those questions honestly and give them the consideration they deserve?
Christians, you think you’re on the right side of the big debate. You’re not. You’re in a trap, and that trap was laid for you long before you were born: at least three hundred generations of human beings endowed with big brains and amazing potential have languished and died in it, their lives thwarted, curtailed and unfulfilled. I hate seeing you in it: it’s an insult and an affront to your minds, your lives, your dignity and your self-respect; it sucks you dry even as you sing its praises, and I want to help spring you from it if I can. I know from experience that escaping it will not lead to unalloyed happiness: if you manage to claw your way out, you will nevertheless emerge damaged goods, and will spend the rest of your life licking wounds that will never heal; you’ll always be filled with regret for having wasted so much of your life, and with resentment at what was done to you. But it’s not you I have primarily in mind now, since the damage has already been done in your case as it was in mine, and nothing can change that fact; it’s your children I’m concerned about.
In every family, maturity happens by degrees, one generation at a time, sometimes making a giant leap forward reminiscent of Gould’s Punctuated Equilibrium. Why not be the one who makes that leap, who springs the trap, who breaks the cycle of ignorance and superstition that has plagued your family and held it back for generations? Until you have done it, you can’t imagine what an honor it is.