Bible Study in the Basement

Namara Smith

  • BuyPriestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood
    Allen Lane, 333 pp, £14.99, May, ISBN 978 1 84614 920 7

In 2012, Daniel Tosh, known for joking about dead babies and the Holocaust, was performing a stand-up routine about sexual assault when he was heckled by a woman in the audience. ‘Rape jokes are never funny,’ she called out. Tosh allegedly responded: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?’ The exchange went viral, and the question of whether rape could ever be comic material and who had the right to joke about such things was debated on the internet for months. Patricia Lockwood’s contribution to this debate, perhaps the only poem (so far) inspired by a social media controversy, was published in the online magazine the Awl in 2013. At the time, Lockwood, whose first poetry collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, had come out from an independent press the year before, was mostly known for the surreal and obscene messages she posted on her Twitter account. ‘Rape Joke’ was a characteristically sly mixture of personal confession and political confrontation. It began, like many of Lockwood’s poems, by personifying an abstraction, imagining a rape joke looking at itself in the mirror and grooming its goatee to look more like a rape joke. Within a few lines, it becomes clear that what you are reading is a description of the writer’s rape by her boyfriend when she was 19.

Part of what immediately attracted attention to ‘Rape Joke’ was that it was impossible to determine which side Lockwood was on: was it a rape joke or was it aimed at men who made misogynistic rape jokes? Although Lockwood largely avoided graphic detail, the poem, with its repetitive, incantatory form (‘The rape joke is … The rape joke is …’), was recognisably online confessional writing. Yet unlike most narratives of sexual assault, which stick closely to the scene of trauma, ‘Rape Joke’ moved outward. Her boyfriend had been a student in her father’s World Religion class in Cincinnati. He was seven years older than she was. On dates, they used to go to his best friend’s house and watch wrestling. He had a shelf of serial killer paperbacks, which she took as a sign of an interest in history. The day after he raped her she laughed about it as if nothing had happened but replayed the experience in her mind for years. When she told her parents, her father made the sign of the cross over her and absolved her of her sins. The poem’s humour and its pain both come from the gap between the rape itself and the attempts to respond to it. The last lines of the poem push it into the realm of the absurd:

The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that’s a little bit funny.

Admit it.

Within hours of its publication, ‘Rape Joke’ had been shared tens of thousands of times. Lockwood was praised for having ‘casually reawakened a generation’s interest in poetry’, and her next collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014), was reviewed in the New York Times. Her memoir returns to this autobiographical terrain. Its title is a reference to her father, a married Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and was ordained as a Catholic priest when she was a child. A series of loosely joined essays, the book begins in 2012 with a medical crisis – Lockwood’s husband develops cataracts, forcing them to move in with her parents in Missouri for nine months – and moves back and forth between her memories of growing up a priest’s daughter and an account of returning to her family home as an adult.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to write about your family without mythologising them. Rather than struggling against this impulse, Lockwood amplifies it. In Priestdaddy, her parents emerge as figures of cartoonish vitality and demented charm. Her mother is the type of Midwestern matriarch who stays up until four in the morning shredding credit card statements, ‘a human Lassie’ with an active imagination for disaster and a love for stories of human tragedy on the internet. Her father is a man of ‘enormous personal appetites’, an arguer, a talker-back, a defier of regulations who ‘has never willingly put on a seat belt in his life’. At home, he exists in a condition of permanent semi-nudity. He watches movies in ‘a state of alarming physical receptiveness’, his thighs spread trustingly towards the screen, cooks bacon by the pound and provides moral instruction to his children with his hand dangling in an immense bowl of homemade pickles (‘the only vegetables he ever ate willingly’). When the urge strikes, he shuts himself up in his study to make ‘violent and incomprehensible sounds’ on the electric guitar.

As a teenager, Lockwood’s father grew his hair long and played in a ten-piece band who wore ‘crushed red velveteen suits, skintight on the leg’. An atheist when he married Lockwood’s mother, a devout Irish Catholic, at 19, he swore he would never willingly enter a church. ‘Like all contrarians,’ though, ‘he felt a secret longing to live with the rules and to love them.’ His conversion experience came during his stint in the navy, watching The Exorcist late at night on a nuclear submarine in the North Atlantic. ‘The room was dark and that eerie, pea-soup light was pouring down, and all around him men in sailor suits were getting the bejesus scared out of them, and the bejesus flew into my father like a dart into a bull’s eye.’ When Lockwood, the second of five children, was born in 1982, he was in the process of becoming a Lutheran minister. But he soon drifted away from Protestantism towards the post-Vatican II Catholic Church: ‘He was tired of grape juice. He wanted wine.’ Along with the rest of her family, Lockwood watched as her father was ordained as a Catholic priest. ‘After it was all over, everyone had to call him Father, but I called him that anyway, so it made no difference to me.’

Father Lockwood was an unorthodox father. He taught his children to swim by throwing them into the water and made the ‘whole family go to the shooting range and compete with each other for accuracy’. When he disliked someone, he cleaned his guns in front of them. (‘Part of me found this habit appalling,’ Lockwood says, ‘but the other part of me respected his flair for high theatre.’) Showing his children The Exorcist to teach them about the nature of evil, he attempted to mute the line ‘your mother sucks cocks in hell’ but unintentionally played it at full volume instead, as Lockwood and her sister clung to each other in terror. The radio perpetually broadcast the ‘orotund, indignant sound’ of Rush Limbaugh and the television the ‘drunken leprechaun sound’ of Bill O’Reilly: ‘It was my father’s pleasure to listen to the two men simultaneously, while emitting the occasional “hoo-hoo” of agreement.’ The house seemed to be ‘made of screaming’. As a teenager, Lockwood wore a pair of ear defenders at all hours of the day; her younger sister developed a habit of sitting motionless in the bath with a cake of soap in her mouth. Lockwood’s husband confesses that he thought she was crazy when they met, but ‘the craziness was in the house. It was like a weather, or an endless guitar solo, or a radio broadcast that never stops playing.’

Lockwood was ‘raised in a closed circle’. Her father was transferred frequently, and she grew up shuttling between parishes in Cincinnati and the suburbs of St Louis, always surrounded by the ‘same dark geometry of buildings’: the ‘closed school, locked gymnasium, the squares and spires of a place of worship plummeting up into the night’. Adolescence was parochial school and Bible study in a shag-carpeted basement, where they spoke in tongues and wore long-sleeved plaid shirts over T-shirts ‘in order not to tempt each other with our bodies’. ‘Everyone who attended was a sibling or a cousin, so that our faces repeated each other with bland variation, like casseroles.’ Lockwood’s younger sister, a pharmacist, was the only member of the family to graduate from college. Lockwood herself briefly considered joining a cloistered order before meeting her husband, the son of Baptist missionaries, on an internet poetry forum. He proposed to her in a grocery store parking lot and the two were married by their early twenties.

Returning home as an adult, Lockwood lapsed easily into her family’s dialect. Priestdaddy reproduces, to great comic effect, their patterns of speech: her father’s interjections of ‘naw!’ and ‘gad’ and ‘bay-bee’; her sister’s ‘nuanced and meaningful growls’; the ‘meaningless vocal improvisation’ that erupts from her mother in the presence of small children. Much of the book’s humour comes from its descriptions of rituals cherished by the group and ridiculous to outsiders, byzantine nicknames and nonsense words, eccentric behaviour invested with meaning through long repetition, anecdotes polished so they have ‘the sheen of crazed pearls’. Lockwood subjects her religion to the same affectionate mockery as her family. There are jokes, some inspired, some less so, about a semen-stained hotel bedspread, about animal-suited fetishists going to confession, about the phallic properties of sacred chalices. There is her father sashaying in an embroidered crimson robe he bought from a ‘dying nonagenarian priest’. There is a scene where she attempts to corrupt the young seminarian staying with her parents by getting him drunk and showing him her stomach. ‘It’s like St Augustine always said,’ she tells him: ‘Oh God, don’t make me good, not ever.’

This kind of twinkling naughtiness can occasionally be hard work. (‘Betty Boop in a pas de deux with David Sedaris,’ Dwight Garner called Priestdaddy in the New York Times.) But it’s a mistake to take Lockwood’s cuteness at face value. The rites and symbols she holds up for ridicule – the solemn processions, the incense, the swords, feathers, tufts and robes – are not only ornamental; they are what transform her father from a man who eats pork rinds in his underwear and washes his legs with Palmolive washing-up liquid into an object of collective veneration. For all its dirty jokes and baby talk, Priestdaddy is an angry book, and Lockwood’s use of childhood idiom is a way of exposing the irrationality of institutional authority. ‘What else could I do but tease them?’ she asks of the priests she knew growing up. ‘I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life.’

Lockwood’s work often turns on the moment when the familiar becomes unsettling. In her poems, reassuring objects – pettable animals, comics, pencils, blackboards, chalk – are endowed with unnerving qualities: Bambi becomes a stag (‘Now look at the fawn and grow an antler’); dismembered cheerleader parts rain down on a hornet-suited high school mascot; nipples are compared to ‘perfect pink erasers’; an adolescent boy stares at Magic Eye pictures waiting for them to yield up ‘their innocent parts’. In Priestdaddy this moment arrives about a third of the way through the book. Lockwood is telling a funny story about a priest she knew, her sex-ed teacher in high school (‘He used to waggle his head back and forth and say, “No beejays, girls! No hand jobs!”’), when the tone shifts abruptly: ‘You see it coming a mile off, but I didn’t, none of us did: the priest was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy, and he went to jail soon after I was let out of high school for good.’ A few lines earlier, Lockwood had been describing the ‘enclosing quality’ of the shadows outside the cathedral in St Louis, ‘like the part of the blanket that’s tucked right underneath your chin’. Now she pictures a room decorated with a brass cross and potted palms, where ‘the ceiling was so low and the walls were so close that you felt more inside than you ever felt elsewhere. And a priest was in it, and a boy.’

‘When the first wave of scandals broke, in 2002, I felt briefly confused. Didn’t everyone know?’ Lockwood asks. Her childhood was full of stories like this; not exactly secret, but not talked about either, part of the unspoken knowledge that binds together members of any group. A respected member of the congregation, arrested for sexually abusing his daughter, was welcomed back on his release as if nothing had happened. A priest, a friend of Lockwood’s father, used to sit with her six-year-old brother on his lap, cooing his name and flicking ‘his eyes at my mother as if daring her to stop him’. (‘Already I had learned to recognise the ones who hated women, from the way they treated my mother.’) After Lockwood’s rape, her parents send her to a ‘pro-life gynaecologist’ who says t0 her, ‘“Well, now you’ve learned you can’t trust everyone, can you?” in a voice wiped entirely of human sympathy.’ It was then, Lockwood writes, ‘I began to suspect that something is not right with the way these people have arranged the world, no matter what their intentions.’

Early last year, Lockwood wrote a Hunter S. Thompson-like dispatch from the New Hampshire primaries for the New Republic, one of the pieces of election journalism that came closest to capturing the lunatic energy powering Trump’s campaign. (She then tweeted ‘fuck me, daddy’ at Trump using the magazine’s account.) The final third of Priestdaddy moves into similar territory, broadening its scope from the immediate circle of her family and the intermediate one of her church. Lockwood’s poems often play with the idea of the Midwest as the American heartland, but in her memoir she writes of the ‘polluted, hell-bender-coloured Ohio River’; the wasteland of petroleum drums; the toxic sunsets the colour of a ‘blood transfusion’; the local landfill used as a dumping ground for radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project; the creeks full of two-headed snakes and ‘crystalline crawfish snapping clear pincers’; the elevated rates of rare cancers and cysts and stillbirths; the babies born ‘missing eyes, missing ears, conjoined. No one knew why.’ By the book’s final chapters, the screaming has returned, but it’s no longer confined to Lockwood’s house. Instead it’s there in the sky that ‘roared in its loud blue suit like a preacher’; in the protest signs outside abortion clinics reading ‘do you hear the silent scream?’ in letters dripping blood. It is from this vantage point that Lockwood is able to sympathise with her parents, to see them not as gods or monsters but as frightened and desperate people who’re subject to forces beyond their control.

Two days after ‘Rape Joke’ went viral, while Lockwood was living with her parents, she received an email from the editor of the Penguin Poets Series, to whom she had submitted a manuscript six months earlier. He apologised for not responding sooner and told her he wanted to publish her book. Lockwood’s husband was thrilled; her father chuckled with delight, ‘the way he does when the rogue cop gets the better of the by-the-book police chief’. But Lockwood was uneasy. Elsewhere in the memoir, she describes feeling ‘transparent to God and everyone’ as a child. During her first confession, she ‘streamed tears’ over an innocent lie, as though the priest could see through her. After ‘Rape Joke’ was published, she felt something similar, ‘something even beyond bare, as if some interior room had been turned inside out and I found it was large enough to contain the whole world.’ ‘This was the price?’ she couldn’t help thinking. ‘This was the purchase of entry, into that closed and impregnable world?’

The confessional memoir is predicated on the idea that by relating your greatest sin you can free yourself of it. Even in the case of stories with no redemptive arc or obvious lesson to impart, the act of telling itself is supposed to be enough: confess, and you are absolved, forgiven, made new. But the self-exposure in Priestdaddy is a slippery kind. Lockwood’s attempted suicide at 16 is related in a few glancing paragraphs in the middle of a story about the voice lessons she took as a teenager. After she swallowed a bottle of Tylenol, her parents took her to hospital, where she had her stomach pumped and threw up ‘in a single swoop of black eloquence’. Later, her father came to sit by her bed and talk to her, ‘his voice quieter and more targeted at me than I had ever heard it. He said, “The last time I tried to do it …” and the rest floated away.’ It’s a moving scene, but like everything Lockwood writes it has its ironies: her most desperate bid to sever her relationship with her father ends up becoming the moment of closest identification. Your family, your country, the religion of your childhood: you can never entirely exorcise them, and the more you try, the deeper they take hold.