Holy Days used to be titled Sexual Memories. Sometimes I wish it still were. It wouldn’t have a child on the cover, though I often talk about Gloria Wisher’s early sexuality in the novel, in such chapters as “Feeling the World,” for instance, because that’s how I remember life. “What a riot, what an orgy of living my little life was for me! I wondered at the peculiar mixture I was of Mama and Daddy, Nona, Grandma and Grandpa and all the things I saw and felt and ate and breathed. A part of me was perverted as though the good in Mama and all her generations had met the bad in Daddy and all his generations, had somehow twisted like a curious string of DNA creating this perversion, putting me beyond them both and everything.”
Early chapters are structured around strong male and female images, sensual eating, beautiful gardens, wine, powerful paternal and maternal figures, brothers, sisters, men in uniform, women in soft sweaters, cigarette smoking, laughing, lipsticked lips, and the barren city street alive only with people. From the chapter “Love Parties,” “The house banged and stomped and ran with people; it called out and answered in happy shouts. They didn’t talk to each other in normal voices, they bellowed from deep in their bellies, with joy, with rage, with a deep relish of their joy and rage; from room to room, up the stairs or down, from the refrigerator to the stove, from adjoining beds, they loved the sound of themselves.”
I describe the streets of East Boston in a chapter called “Sexual Law.” Gloria’s mother, Rosie, was forbidden by her father to ride a bike or skate in the street. Gloria’s response was this, “Grandpa knew how provocative these motions could be: her limbs rising and falling, her behind, a smooth, stiff outline, her red curls beckoning in the breeze. Mama on a bike! Mama on roller skates! I can feel Grandpa’s shudder going through me!
But, Grandpa’s law couldn’t stop sexual law and restraint made Mama even more innocent and desirable. Especially to the bad boys. Boys like Jake and Daddy. Mama was really good. She prayed and went to mass and confession. She received Holy Communion every Sunday. She obeyed her father and her mother. She had that good look: round and soft and unaware of her power, a labyrinth of red curls, chubby legs in ankle socks and thick high heels stepping up into the corner store. The bad ones, without jobs, without homes, dropped out of school, squinting through the haze of cigarettes, were pulled right to her, without knowing what on earth had happened to them.”
I remember life in the poor neighborhood as being shot through with sex: “When a young woman stepped out of the house, her sex went up like a shot and young men, standing around all day in the company of other men - like soldiers or sailors who’d been deprived of softness and a sweet smell - stood alert suddenly, even though they seemed not to have altered their slouches against the tenement wall or the store window. They squinted over their cigarettes and a hush, as though decided communally, instinctively, fell over them and inwardly, their feelings swelled as she walked by. Maybe one or two didn’t look at her: they watched her without looking. The others gave her the eye, up and down, through the haze of smoke. In the hush, the tension gathered, to be let out as soon as she passed, when they could still smell her, when she could still hear them, they’d let it all out, swoosh, as remarks she could just barely - or not - hear, but could feel, in a rush of heat through her veins.”
The poor neighborhood is especially vulnerable to sexual power: “The tenements were close, less than two feet of alley separated them. Sometimes one wall held two houses together. Clotheslines crisscrossed, colored flags flapped from them; women’s voluptuous arms tugged the ropes and pulleys. Windows slid open and women’s arms tossed buckets of water out the windows. The women sang out to each other all day, their voices calling Italian like a song. We lived window to window, door to door, radio to radio, telephone to telephone - how many times did Daddy answer another man’s phone, picking up our receiver, saying “Hello?” into the dial tone? How many times did he look across to see another man’s wife naked in the dark?”
Gloria is a victim of incest. For years, therapists have been telling victims of incest, “Incest is not about sex, it’s about power.” Rape – and incest is rape – may be about power for the rapist, but it is about sex for the victim. Incest is about sex.
Sex is about power. At it’s best, sex is about the mutual power of the beloved: being loved is empowering, being made love to by the one you love who also loves you is empowering. If either partner is unwilling or uncomfortable, then the power structure becomes unbalanced. Sex becomes seduction at the least, rape at the most extreme. My definition of rape – would it have happened if you were in charge?
Therapists mean well when they tell victims that incest is not about sex; it’s about power. But, victims know better. Therapists admit that sexual pleasure experienced during incest confuses victims. Victims ask themselves or their therapists, “Then how come I had an orgasm?” “How come I sexually fantasize about incest?” “How come incest has become the source of my desires?” “How come I cannot have a happy sex life?” “Why do I always feel guilty or dirty when I have sex?”
The answer to all of those questions is for the victim, incest is about sex. For most victims of incest, incest is their first sexual experience, one that can both mar and make their sexual identity. Their rapist is usually someone familiar, someone in authority, someone they trust: the very person who is teaching the child about the world, about reality. Incest becomes the child's view of reality. In Holy Days, Gloria envies what she calls "real people doing real things." She watches other kids, rich kids, going to a local baseball game dressed in real baseball uniforms and feels excluded from such wholesome activities.
In Holy Days, incest is but a symptom of the over-riding sexual power of the neighborhoods and the families. Gloria is incested by her father. She is also raped by the boy next door. Her brother, who “sells” her to her rapist, becomes a thief at 10 years old. All these crimes are symptoms of the larger, overwhelming Stockholm Syndrome going on in Gloria’s life. The way of the poor neighborhood is to overpower those who live there. Gloria’s father, though good at his job and able to solve monumental problems in the factory, is overlooked by the bosses for advancements that go to, according to Billy Wisher, “college men with their heads up their ass.” In the Chapter “A Child’s Christmas in Revere,” Billy tells a black man that he knows what it means to be black. Why? Because he perfected the shrink-wrap machine and didn’t get any credit or reward while his boss walked off with the patent and the profits. Class becomes another form of slavery.
In a very real sense, the neighborhood is raping the people every day through violence, poor conditions, neglect and disrespect, and the people, in turn, abuse each other and are proud of being abused as red badges of courage. “I come from Revere, I come from Southie, I come from East Boston,” become wounds worn with pride, a daily war that has been survived with an injury to show for it like a Purple Heart, a shining medal of honor.
Gloria’s father acted his power upon the one thing in his life that he could control – his daughter. But, for his daughter, incest became a sexual battle she had to fight in order to regain her self-respect. Gloria begins to sink down into sexual promiscuity. Only the love of another troubled girl can help bring her out, into the light of her own promise and recovery.
As Gloria says in the chapter, “An Ounce of Pride”: “Romantic and idiotic as I was, what gave me that ounce of pride to keep myself safe? So many kids before and after me went under, looking for love in an alley, oblivion in a bottle or bliss in a joint or a needle or a pill, hit by a Mack truck, rolled and left under an overpass, buried under layers of pigeon shit. So many kids ran away from home. I knew I was supposed to run away, but I was afraid.
I thought street kids must be very brave. I admired them that they were filthy and slept in doorways and drain pipes, that they ate out of trash barrels like refugees of war, a trash can lid for their plate, maybe scraping it with a spoon. I admired them that they coughed and bled and washed in the gutter, that they went crazy with disease and malnutrition and the street. They were brave! Brave!
I, on the other hand, ate and drank at my father’s table. I sat right next to him and sincerely laughed at his jokes. I snuggled under the cool, crisp sheets my mother washed for me and, on them I had sex of varying sneaky, cowardly sorts with her husband, her boyfriend, my own father. Under the illusion of a contract of innocence and obedience, I let my parents keep me safe - yes, safe - from murder and robbery, beatings and what I came to think of as violent rape.
But, there are so many subtle violences. And I was tormented by guilt. For having done bad things, for having enjoyed them much of the time, for having become these things out of doing, memory and time, and for not having the guts to run away. I was guilty. I didn’t want to leave my mother’s lap, soft and flowery in her cotton housedress. I used to sit at her feet and kiss them in their old slippers. I loved their smell, like warm, roasted nuts just out of the oven. I couldn’t leave her refrigerator that I could open anytime for fresh bread and butter, a half wheel of Romano cheese, pounds of sweet ham and hot salami, cakes, pies, ice cream, puddings, apples, peaches, grapes, strawberries, milk and cream. The warm, steaming windows dripping with cooking and tables warmly full of people as the winter howled or sizzling barbeques outside in summer. I was weak and as I tasted these things and wrapped myself in warmth, I nearly vomited with shame. And, among these things, I wouldn’t leave my books and my drawings. And, on Sunday nights, as though I deserved it, I wanted to watch “The Wonderful World of Color,” in black and white and imagined the colors. I reminded myself of the Jews who stayed in Berlin because they couldn’t bear to leave the piano and of the Jew who admired a weed blowing in the icy wind because he knew it was as alive as he was, while the bodies he buried were not alive.
Why didn’t I go under? What gave me the pride that swelled in me like the dirty grey storm waves at Revere Beach, the pride it took to not get pregnant and the gall instead to tease Boy Scouts and sailors? What gave me the madness to bat Rick Likus about with my paw? It was Mr. Lanza giving me a large gold star for my stories. It was Mrs. French and her long-taloned hand on my shoulder telling me I could write. It was Ma and Daddy - yes, Daddy - bragging that I might be a teacher, that I was going to college and that I would be the first in the family, telling their friends and neighbors with pride about the books I read, about my grades, asking me for information like I was an expert or an encyclopedia. Grown men and women, neighbors, calling on the phone to ask me how to spell a word. They let me know I was worth something: but, they didn’t know how to help me. The very people who confused me, hurt me and neglected me also exalted me. They gave me life, but it was a long struggle out the birth canal.
And, my angel was out there, looking for me. I had one more very important step to take before I could meet her.”
©Patricia Goodwin, 2015
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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When you call 800.656.HOPE (4673), you’ll be routed to a local RAINN affiliate organization based on the first six digits of your phone number. Cell phone callers have the option to enter the zip code of their current location to more accurately locate the nearest sexual assault service provider.