Friday, September 4, 2009

Breaking Taboos

In 1969, when I was nineteen years old, I decided to leave the Roman Catholic Church, in which I had been raised. This was during the spring of my first year at Newcomb College of Tulane University. At this secular college, I was away, for the first time, from the homogeneous environment of the Academy of the Sacred Heart, which I had attended from Pre-Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade. At the Academy of the Sacred Heart, all my classmates had been upper-middle class, white (the dominant race), Catholic (the dominant religion in New Orleans), and Democrat (the dominant political party in the South at the time). That very homogeneous social context had presented me with the unified worldview of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican Council II, a worldview in which everything was white or black, right or wrong, good or bad.

But in college, I was exposed to ideas beyond this sheltered Catholic environment. I met atheists with strong moral convictions, like Linda, homosexuals who were delightful and compassionate people, like Fred, and women with ambitious goals for their lives, like Chachi, who planned to be an orchestral director (and who achieved that goal). Madeleine Murray O'Hare spoke on our campus. In my biology textbook, I read a compelling argument for evolution. This was all very exciting to me.

I became angry at the way I had been controlled by fear of God in the Catholic Church, and I decided to leave. My first conscious act of severance was to miss Mass on Sunday, an act of defiance that the Catholic Church classifies as a mortal sin, the penalty for which (if not confessed and forgiven) is an eternity in Hell. Accordingly, Sunday came and I did not attend Mass. I intended to spend my Sunday morning enjoying myself in my own way, instead.

But I was not prepared for the internal consequences of my act. I had defied the One True Righteous Omnipotent Omniscient Omnipresent GOD by defying the command of the Catholic Church, the voice of God on earth. Ugly internal voices assailed me and blocked out all other thoughts.

"What if it's true after all?" these voices hissed. "What if you've really committed a mortal sin? What if you die, and you find out it's all true, and you go to Hell for eternity?"

These thoughts were insistent, and they terrified me. The fear was indescribably intense and crushing. How had I dared to go against the All-Powerful God? How had I dared?

I endured this terror for several weeks before these voices began to subside.

Years later, in my thirties, I learned to name the experience I've described above. This happened as I was reading Sonia Johnson's memoir, From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman's Struggle for Equal Rights and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church. In this book, Sonia names my experience of leaving the Catholic Church and the resultant terror. Sonia herself had experienced a simlar inexplicable terror afrter deciding to disobey the elders of her Mormon Church by speaking publicly in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. She felt as though a deadly threat was approaching from behind, and she kept jerking around in panic to glance behind her. Like me, Sonia was uprepared for this internal reaction, and she didn't understand it.

Several months later, Sonia had a conversaton with Alison Cheek, a member of the very first group of women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. Sonia learned that Alison, too, had felt this strange terror while on her way to celebrate her first Eucharist. Alison was able to name the experience for Sonia (and for me): breaking a taboo.

Alison explained to Sonia that every culture has taboos, rules that govern life and death. In our culture, many taboos are unspoken, but they exist--very strongly--below the level of consciousness. The chief taboo in any patriarchal society is women's disobedience to men in authority. In breaking this taboo--by becoming an ordained Episcopal priest, by disregarding the Mormon elders, by leaving the Catholic Church--Alison Cheek, Sonia Johnson, and I had defied male authority, and we knew somewhere in the depths of our being that we had broken a major life-governing rule. Hence, the terror.

I have been amazed at how many women have had this experience of terror after breaking a taboo. When I have told other women my story of leaving the Catholic Church, along with the taboo-breaking explanation provided by Sonia Johnson through her conversation with Alison Cheek, I have often received responses like these: "I felt that same kind of terror the first time I had sex outside of marriage, after my divorce"; "I felt like that the first time I had lesbian sex"; "I felt terrified the first time I told a family secret, in therapy."

Women know, deep in their bones, that disobedience to powerful males means death. (Just a few hundred years ago, this was literally true, and in some places in our world, it still is.) The terror remains with us and surfaces when we break this taboo.

I would be interested to know if men have this experience. Are there taboos, which if broken by men, result in an intense internal terror? I wonder if engaging in homosexual sex might be one. Perhaps also cross-dressing. It would be interesting to know more about this as regards men.

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