Skip to main content

Killing Ourselves Softly

Complicity in Modern America

ISSUE:  Winter 2018

<i>I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé</i>. By Michael Arceneaux. Atria, 2018. 256p. PB, 7.<i>Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements</i>. By Charlene A. Carruthers. Beacon, 2018. 192p. HB, $22.95.<i>The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness</i>. By Graham Caveney. Simon &amp; Schuster, 2018. 272p. HB, $26.At a writing conference several years ago, I had gone straight from the airport to a reception held by an organization that had given me a prize the previous year. The event was in the side room of a restaurant and there was cake. I love cake, so I grabbed one of the slices that everyone seemed to be enjoying so much. I was perhaps two bites in when a man approached me as if he knew me. The writing world is a small one, and it is possible to run into someone you met briefly at an earlier conference but who failed to make an impression. This was not the case. I knew I didn’t know him, and he didn’t ask any questions. He did, however, make a statement, which I’ll paraphrase: I’m sorry. You can finish that, but then you’ll have to leave because this is a private event.

There are moments when so many questions pile onto us that we lose our ability to speak or act. This was one such moment for me. If I could have spoken, I would have asked this man who he was. Did he work for the venue or the organization? Why did he think I didn’t belong? What gave him the right to question my presence? If I could have acted, I would have given him a pie in the face. Well, a cake in the face. 

I wasn’t kicked out that night, but I didn’t stay long. Whatever anticipation I felt at getting to meet people who thought highly of my writing had dissipated. As I rode in the back of a cab, speculating about all the events and people I might encounter over the next few days of the conference, I had one thought: I deserved what just happened to me. It was not a logical thought, that mixture of shame, self-loathing, and anger, but it also was not a new one. In fact, I have experienced enough similar incidents in the interim that I must have stuffed the cake insult into the junk drawer of memory. A friend recently reminded me of it, and it came to mind again when I read the following: “Our emotional responses conflict more than we think about more things than we think and books can help us to hold these conflicts in some kind of balance.”

That line appears in Graham Caveney’s new memoir, The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness, a book that masterfully weaves together the author’s many complex responses to trauma. Unfortunately, the true story of an altar boy who was molested by a priest the Church subsequently protected is not a new story. Yet Caveney does not exploit the salacious details of his experience. To the contrary, he relays his story with the control of someone who has thought deeply about his pain but maintains enough distance to make the telling palatable rather than melodramatic. 

Indeed, it feels strange to discuss the pleasure of reading a memoir with such a dark betrayal at its core. But it’s clear that Caveney himself takes pleasure—even catharsis—in the act of reconstructing the ordinary details of his life as a boy in an unremarkable, working-class English town. Early in the telling, he describes the entrées, side dishes, and condiments of a Tuesday-night meal in his house, a meal swamped in Daddies Brown Sauce, which “glugs from the bottle, smothering the dense gray blandness of the stew… No little light supper this: this is food that can still remember the workhouse.” Caveney’s hardworking, underpaid parents seem like the parents in Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” Only it’s hard to imagine them rocking and rolling on the couch playing Kiss records. They’re such creatures of habit that eating out is an anxiety-inducing prospect. “My parents would fret about coordinating their appetites, having to reset their internal rhythms to the idea of food at seven thirty (even eight o’clock!).”

I imagine that these are the types of mundane facts that pile up in the lives of most molestation victims. The kind of details that suddenly seem irrelevant once the predator enters. Caveney’s monster is a priest his classmates dub “Rev. Kev” due to his slicked-back hair and Buddy Holly glasses. He lures Caveney in by identifying his traits: his love of books, his desire to see himself as mature, his need for male attention. 

Caveney gives the incident no more page time than is necessary. Instead, he focuses on his mental state and his faltering attempts to connect with anyone, parent or friend, who might help him escape the “relationship” Rev. Kev traps him inside. “I become adept at reading the signs, anticipating his moods and what their repercussions will be,” the author writes with a growing sense of complicity. Later, “Molest a boy once, twice, three times, and it may have the power to instill self-recrimination. Molest him a dozen times and it stops being molestation. It becomes what you do, both of you.” Caveney undergoes a psychic fracturing in the wake of the attack, which is indicated by his attempts to understand what he experienced from the detached viewpoint of a movie camera. “Flashback, the kid is being buggered by this same priest not two hours before. It is the kind of scene that critics will call ‘violent and uncompromising.’”

Particularly insidious is the way the priest uses Caveney’s parents to get closer to him. They are good Catholics and see the priest as minister, teacher, and role model. Between Caveney’s paralysis and his parents’ misconception of the man’s true nature, it seems natural when Caveney is selected by the priest for a trip to Greece with three other boys. In his anger, he develops spite toward his parents, going so far as to defend the priest for encouraging the boys to trespass on private property while away. “I defend [Rev. Kev] against her, partly because she didn’t defend me from him. It’s her punishment.” 

Caveney focuses on more than just the narrative of his own plight; he searches for metanarratives to give him context. A lover of music, even popular music becomes a lens for analysis, such as when he devotes a chapter to songs about grown men lusting after children. He points out the obvious—the Police’s massive hit “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” But he also illuminates early twentieth-century songs on the topic, such as Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning, School Girl,” which has been covered by artists like the Grateful Dead and Van Morrison. Caveney suggests that mainstream society simply looks away from the abuse embedded within. “It also shows that when I was looking for a refuge from regular sexual assault, rock wasn’t just a haven, it was also a reminder.” Caveney understands that the effects of personal abuse and societal injustice compound against the individual. “There’s the damage done to us, and then there’s the damage we inflict on ourselves because of the damage that’s been done to us.”

In Michael Arceneaux’s memoir, I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, the author recollects the memory of his uncle’s funeral and his parents’ reaction to the uncle’s death from AIDS in 1990. The young Arceneaux needed answers, but his inebriated father merely dismissed the uncle with a slur against his sexuality. Meanwhile, Arceneaux’s religious mother denied the possibility of the uncle’s homosexuality. Arceneaux’s parents’ hang-ups set the paradigm for much of his early life: rejection and denial. So much so that Arceneaux was initially unable to conceive of his own sexual identity. After all, society is on his parents’ side. “So all I knew was the death of Uncle Daniel, the death of Pedro Zamora from The Real World, and the death of Andrew Beckett from the film Philadelphia,” Arceneaux writes. 

This is not a depressive narrative. Arceneaux is far too funny for that. Lamenting his failure to embrace his identity sooner, Arceneaux states, “I hate thinking that what happened to me at six stopped me from being the best ho I could be in my teens and twenties.” On dating attractive men and what he believes his dead grandmother would have said about it: “Well, if you’re gonna be a homo, this is the way to do it.” On blaming himself for being dumped and realizing the effects of this belief: “The pattern that required my real attention was turning to sexually confused men for sexual exploration. It was like turning to someone who couldn’t figure out there, they’re, and their to edit your essay.” 

Arceneaux’s lightness of touch is a welcome perspective. Indeed, Arceneaux seems to suggest that joy and love of self is the proper mindset for the oppressed. This likely explains his devotion to a certain pop queen named in the subtitle. “In hindsight, my known devotion to Beyoncé might have been why I wasn’t having much luck with girls,” recalling his failed attempts to fit in with his high school peers. Like most teens, he sought a sense of identity through community. But successive communities rejected him. He considered becoming a priest after being told he had a gift with words. Yet his mother’s denial, in part, made him question that path. After all, the church he knew was not accepting. It was “a form of religion that would tolerate me,” he writes, “but only the parts of me that weren’t an affront to their misguided beliefs.” He found no more comfort in traditionally masculine venues: “There are plenty of straight Black men who have said to me that the barbershop is partially where they learned how to be a Black man in this world.” But as in other aspects of his life, the danger of his identity forces him to obscure his true self. 

Arceneaux frequently touches on the idea of hiding his true self from society. One example is his love of dance, a pastime he felt compelled to enjoy only in private. He choreographed entire routines in his dorm but was aware of what he lost by not sharing his talent. “It was a shame I didn’t do it in public where it counted,” he writes. That line is an example of places in the telling where Arceneaux taps a vein of experience that could be fruitful for deeper exploration. Instead, he moves on to the next incident. Arceneaux’s style is a reflection of the strategies he developed to defend and strengthen his spirit. If there’s anything this book confirms it’s that the personal is still political. 

Charlene A. Carruthers’s Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements is, as the title suggests, more political than personal. Although the book contains some autobiographical moments, it is mostly a no-nonsense playbook designed to teach other community organizers how to do the work. The founding national director of the Black Youth Project and a Chicago-based community activist, Carruthers knows of which she speaks. She begins by acknowledging that the Black, queer, feminist lens through which she views the world is an exceptional point of view. “It might be surprising to read that I believe it is normal to be prejudiced, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, and ableist in this country,” she writes. The status quo is a tool some use to maintain power and a survival method for others. Our perspectives are a matter of choice and anyone can choose to have a deeper understanding of the forces at work in America. “My beliefs today have evolved because I made a conscious choice,” she writes, “often as a result of direct agitation, to see through different lenses.”

Carruthers wrote what she calls the mandate so that future activists would not have “to look to historians and political scientists to explain our thinking. We need to make it clear ourselves.” And what is the movement’s thinking? That criminalization, mass incarceration, and anti-Blackness are killing the Black community. She places much of the blame on the politics of neoliberalism, including former President Barack Obama. “Transformation is what we need, but reform is what was offered time and time again by the Obama administration,” Carruthers writes. Yet, in fairness to the president, she notes that one of the failures of earlier movements was an overreliance on charismatic leaders instead of a decentralized approach. “Malcolm X is not coming back to save us. There is no Dr. King, and there is no Ella Baker… But it is collectively possible to liberate ourselves and continue the permanent project toward enabling human dignity.”

When Carruthers speaks of the collective, she specifically notes the exclusion of LGBTQ persons from the past and present civil rights narrative. “If Black people experience any type of systemic oppression and have taken up the duty to resist it,” she writes, “then we organizers have the duty to centralize radical Black queer and feminist work in our political education.” That education includes a fuller understanding of the effects of crime within—and liberal policies on—the Black community. “The culture of liberalism in US social justice movements allows initiatives labeled ‘progressive’ to do harm without consequence,” she writes. It “allows so-called progressive elected officials to fund wars but vote no on immigrant rights. In short, liberalism gives room to bullshit.” Carruthers is not afraid to also call out what she refers to as a “culture of purity” within her movement that encourages petty—but highly public—disputes between fellow activists. “There are days when I wonder why anyone would want to join our movement after seeing how we treat each other online.”

Ultimately, what Carruthers determines is at stake is both personal and expansive. Calling to mind the memory of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her jail cell after being arrested during a routine traffic stop, she “lost her life that way. I am afraid that I could too.” Carruthers continues, “I am not a Black man, boy, or trans woman, but we share a common heritage through our shared oppressors. We all inherited a world where our bodies are marked for exploitation and violent death, and we are connected through our struggles and the genius of our people.” 

Unapologetic provides an ideology, method, and means for Black, queer, and feminist activists to confront injustice in America. Vitally, Carruthers never fails to interrogate the complexities that come with pushing change in an entrenched patriarchal, capitalist society. By encouraging readers to ask, “what kind of change do we wish to see?” she provides a forum for those who envision a liberated society. 

To be clear, the book is a work of radical politics. Carruthers scoffs at the idea that radicalism is wrong: “We are called ‘radical,’ with the connotation of irrationality, something to be feared, because we demand a world without police and prisons.” But Unapologetic is also a valuable read for anyone who wishes to understand the core of a movement that has inspired legions and changed present-day America.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading