Merton: To End for Now

[This is the seventeenth and final installment of my memoir, The Long Walk HomeClick here for a complete table of contents.]

I was received into the Catholic Church on March 23, 2008. My father, present at that Easter vigil, died six months later to the day. His last months were a valiant but hopeless fight with metastasized melanoma. His loss was the greatest I have ever known. In our last years of travel and golf together, Dad had become my best male friend after thirty years of having few or none.

On a weeknight in the spring following Dad’s burial in the churchyard where I once had dreamed of being an Episcopal minister, I suddenly and unaccountably thought of Merton. You remember Merton, the Whambam College freshman who led me to Gulliver in the first place, the white rabbit who led me down the hole. Idly, as if by accident, I Googled Merton. Someone had told me he was teaching philosophy at a state university in the west. I entered the last name, the state, and the word philosophy, and there he was, my dear old friend. It was a time in my life of great nostalgia for old friends, any friends at all.

Merton replied immediately. We e-mailed back and forth during the next day. Then, after several rounds of predictable catching-up—his family, mine, his work, mine, and what the hell ever happened to Gulliver?—Merton wrote me two things. The first thing he wrote was that on his, Merton’s, first night at Lilliput in 1970, Gulliver had tried to get into bed with him. Merton had been nineteen and a virgin. That information in Merton’s e-mail should have raised a warning flag when I read it, because it was so contrary to my experience. Gulliver had spent seven months setting me up before hopping into the sack. But Merton had arrived at Lilliput fairly panting, with a residue of cannabis and hallucinogenic chemicals still in his system. He must have looked like an easy play, and Gulliver tried to play him.

But Merton couldn’t be played. He took what he needed from Gulliver, returned to college, then terminated contact. After graduation Merton discerned a possible monastic vocation, decided that he was called to academic and family life instead, got a Ph.D, married, earned tenure. Along the way, he converted to the Catholic Church, found serenity in Buddhist-style meditation, and fathered two children. We had some things in common.

Then I read the second thing Merton wrote. I knew, didn’t I, Merton asked, that Gulliver was a sexual predator? That was the phrase. Simple as that. When I read it, I didn’t even flinch. In nearly thirty-five years, I had thought scarcely at all about my sexual relationship with Gulliver, and yet when I read that horrifying phrase, I didn’t doubt it for an instant. I didn’t need proof. Merton substantiated his claim by listing eight young men whom Gulliver had lured into bed at Lilliput. Gulliver’s famous growth center in upstate New York had been open less than two years before going bankrupt, but in that time he had scored in other ways. And these, Merton stated, were “only the guys I know about and have talked with.”

I did not—still don’t to this day—actively remember sex with Gulliver, not even in a scratchy, grayed-out silent-movie sort of way, except for one quite violent incident that you really don’t want to know about. In fact, before Merton’s e-mail, I seldom even recalled that sex with Gulliver ever had happened in my young life, between the ages of 19 and 23. When I did remember, it was like thinking that the Civil War had happened. It doesn’t affect you because you . . . weren’t . . . there. I have since learned that victims of sex abuse very often don’t remember enough to even talk about the fact it happened.

Maybe it was Merton’s list of eight that forced the door an inch. A finite list invites additions, and in the hours and days that followed Merton’s shattering e-mail, I began to add to the list myself. You see, during those four years when I had what I thought was a committed, “monogamous” relationship with Gulliver, my trusted teacher had surrounded himself with other young men: students at the college where he taught, employees and volunteers at Dulcinea. That kid in the back room! I suddenly remembered barging in on Gulliver and a young man in the back room at Dulcinea! Now, around that one incident, other faces and names began to collect like molecules circling a catalyst.

Sexual predator really was not the kind of thing you want to hear about your former trusted spiritual teacher. You really didn’t want to read an e-mail saying that Gulliver was a sexual predator when you had always told yourself that your sexual relationship with him was spiritually based and, when you thought about sex at all, monogamous. But no, I suddenly understood that Gulliver was a predator, not a pal. Gulliver was Svengali, not Socrates.

The realization seeped into my soul like corrosive acid. That summer, Merton came to visit, staying with my wife and me. He and I walked and talked, and the revelations we made to each other were open sesames to locked caverns of memory. It all became too much to keep to myself, so I did the thing I’ve often done in my marriage when I’m bursting and just need to share. I told my wife about Gulliver, about his sexual identity, about his predation, and then about me.

It is one thing, I imagine, to be open-minded about homosexuality and even, in these times, gay marriage as general propositions. It is quite another thing to find out that the man you have been living with for many years, with whom you have parented two children, once had a sexual relationship—not a one-time dalliance but a four-year starring role—with a trusted spiritual guide. Why didn’t you tell me was only the first question my wife asked. It was all but impossible to explain to her that I hadn’t told her for the same reason I hadn’t told myself: I did not remember, not until now, not until—alone and feeling a bit sorry for myself—I had e-mailed an old friend and these revelations had begun coming back to me like bottled messages crowding in on your lonely island in your worst nightmare. 

Those were not the easiest months in my marriage. They came at the twenty-fifth-anniversary mark, and there were times when the next twenty-five were called into question by the most loyal person in the world, my wife. Eventually, love and faith and a large helping of couples therapy restored our trust in one another. But there were some things I still had to take care of.

The first of these things—or so I believed—was to find out the truth about Gulliver. This finding-out involved interviews with three or four dozen people who had known him in the 1960s and 1970s, the period when he appeared on my horizon, sailed across my bow, and broadsided me before sailing off in search of other conquests. Those interviews helped me build a list of at least twenty-five young men half Gulliver’s age who had been his willing or unwilling sexual partners between the 1960s and the 1980s. Although Gulliver was apparently quite careful about bedding only boys who were legally men, i.e. at least eighteen years old, I experienced a horrifying sense of triumph the day I learned of an exception: a student who had been seventeen when Gulliver seduced him. The exultation I felt at the moment I read “Zack’s” Facebook message about that seduction was hardly Christian, but it was bloody great all the same.

Eventually I wrote a 150,000-word first draft of a memoir about life with Gulliver. That was way more than anyone needs to read about either him or me, and I wrote it way angrier than I ever want to be again. I told my wife that I would not publish anything about any of this until I came to forgiveness, and I was far from forgiveness.

After another eighteen months’ work—and religious experiences that have included a Cursillo and regular spiritual direction—that memoir has been boiled down and fictionalized into a series of blog posts. You are reading the second to last of these posts here and now. The last post, “Pilgrimage,” is still being written. It may never be finished.

I am not sure whether I am at forgiveness yet, although the heavy smoke has lifted, my marriage is on a sunny, breezy course, and I am happier than I have been in a very long time.

If and when you finally read that post, the final chapter on “Pilgrimage,” it will include the story of how—two years into my recovery from Gulliver and all that coincided with it—my adult daughter asked me to walk the Camino de Santiago with her. It may also include another pilgrimage that I haven’t made yet, to the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal in May 2015.

That last post may conclude, as Christians have concluded for many centuries, that life itself is a pilgrimage—that we are all pilgrims and not heroes, either in the Joseph Campbell sense or in the crudest American action-movie sense. It may conclude that as pilgrims it really doesn’t matter how many times we take the wrong detour, or how many sins we commit, or how much evil we encounter.

What matters is that we keep the end in sight and that we remain on the lookout for the help that is always right here.

—Beverly, Massachusetts, January 10, 2015

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved. 

1 comment:

  1. Heart-wrenching recollections. I agree that abused young people rarely remember. As I read through your blog, I had one thought. This Gulliver guy was a sex maniac - sex addict. After all, married couples don't bed down as often as he did with these young men. It is a disgrace. Well, he got everything he wanted: star of a stage show; young men in his bed; and being taken care of by those around him. You sure lived a tumultuous few years there. No fear, because God is at your side, and you will never be alone or feel alone.

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