BY AARON STELLA About a year and a half ago, I began chronicling my stranger-than-fiction life story here on Phawker. Admittedly, much of it is hard to believe, but let me assure you that everything I have shared thus far really did happen. Since almost all of these events occurred during the presidency of G.W. Bush, I am calling this MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH, a play on the David Byrne/Brian Eno album MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS. This is the 12th chapter, and for the benefit of newcomers, here’s a quick recap of the preceding 11 chapters: chapter one, life in a fanatic Christian cult; chapter two, post-cult life and coming to grips with my homosexuality; chapter three, the misadventures of a megalomaniac (and closeted homosexual) father; chapter four, my families exodus to Alabama to weather the expected Y2K apocalypse; chapter five, openly gay life in the Bible Belt and getting expelled from school because of it; chapter six, my 9/11; chapter seven, unwittingly moving in with a family of child abductors; chapter eight, forcibly committed by my family to a psych ward; chapter nine, life in an Alabama psych ward; chapter ten, how I got out of the psych ward; and chapter eleven, yet another disastrous experience with yet another foster family. You can read the first 11 chapters from beginning to end after the jump. For those of you who have caught up or been reading all along, let’s pick up where we last left off: in rural Alabama, at the home of the family that DHR (Department of Human Resources) sent me to live with after I won my freedom from a psych ward.
During the summer following my junior year in High School, I took a trip to visit my cousin here in Philadelphia. She’s homosexual, like myself. She had a girlfriend at the time, which I thought was so novel, being that I was patently ignorant of most all modes of homosexual lifestyles. From the moment I arrived in Philly, my cousin and her girlfriend commenced a tour de force of gay life in the big city. They transformed me from bumpkin to metro prince, snuck me into clubs, took me to practice with a gay soccer league and introduced me to their gay friends. The openness and acceptance that everyone exhibited surpassed my fantasies about gay life in the big city. The day before I went back home to Alabama, I donned my finest frock (so to speak) and walked the full stretch of South Street—from the Schuylkill to the Delaware and back again—which brought me to reflect on my life. Albeit deranged and confounding, its inherent tumult did not obscure the choice before me: move to some place accepting of my kind, like Philadelphia, or continue to suffer the merciless strap of the Bible belt.
The mother of the family I had been living with was supposed to pick me up from the airport when I got back, but instead, a friend of my family’s was there, waiting for me by his car and looking quite uncomfortable. His eyes avoided mine as I loaded my bags into his truck. I finally broke the silence when we started driving and asked why he had picked me up—to which he reluctantly responded, “[The mother of the family you were living with] found gay porn on your computer and doesn’t want you in her house anymore. You’re staying with us until your mom comes to get you.” I went silent. That fucking bitch. Many laborious hours were spent downloading that porn at a 56 kps connection, not to mention constructing a labyrinth of folders to conceal its hiding place. The mother must have camped out at my computer so she could really take her sweet time rummaging though its contents. I wasn’t ashamed of having it, but I think she was wary of me from the beginning, and this was the perfect excuse to give me the boot.
Two days later, my mother picked me up. She didn’t say a word to me: her vacant eyes and unyielding reticence told me that she was at her wit’s end. She was involved in a messy divorce, which she sublimated into man loathing. Though I really couldn’t blame her. When the divorce happened, my mother got a job to keep her and my sisters afloat, while my father, purportedly devastated by the divorce, got his quisling psychiatrist to sign a form that stated that he was psychologically incompetent so that my father could receive disbursements from his private disability insurance and social security, paying him nearly six figures a year for basically sitting on his ass. This also enabled him to avoid paying even the minimum child support and alimony, something he does to this day.
So as you can imagine, my mother wanted nothing to do with my father and, by genetic proxy, me. After a week or two at home my mother informed me that I was not welcome back at my old Catholic High school. She said the parents had learned of my “abnormal behavior”, and had made requests to the headmaster — a personal friend of my family —that I’d not be permitted to return. Not a problem, really. I didn’t really want to go back in the first place. I had no stock there. Though, at the same time, what was I to do? Cullman High was out of the question: my parents didn’t believe in public schools, especially considering that Alabama was ranked 49th in the nation for education. So I had nowhere to go. Absolutely nowhere. But as fate would have it, my mother had a proposition.
It was late at night, I remember. She paced back and forth over the Persian rug in the living room, listing her reasons for treating as she was presently. What was she to do with me? She was going to have me attend Magdalene College in Warner, New Hampshire — an archly-conservative Catholic college, so secluded up in the White Mountains that half the town of Warner doesn’t even know that the college exists. I’d endured the college’s summer camp programs in the past, which is like Jesus Camp and boot camp all rolled into one: no TV, telephone, Internet, or music, and any newspapers we had access to were heavily censored by the staff — nearly every page with a gaping hole where an objectionable story once resided. My mother’s ultimatum was that if I attended this college for one year, she would leave me alone for the rest of my life. Without any other option, I reluctantly agreed; and less than three weeks later, I was on a plane to Manchester, NH. Upon my arrival, one of the faculty members met me at the airport and shuttled me to my new home at Magdalene College near the summit of Mount Kearsarge. It was there, upon this cloistered perch up in the clouds, that I would look down on the world and try and make sense of all the things that had happened to me.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 1
My name is Aaron. I was born August 5th in 1985 in Augusta, GA. I’m the oldest of three. My father is from Chicago, was raised Catholic, ended up in Georgia during his stay at the medical college of Oxford-Emery. My Mother is from the Bronx, was raised Jewish. After her father died, she lived a very “shower with a friend” existence until Jesus revealed himself to her while she was studying art in Italy. She worked at the Savannah River plant in Georgia; later some friends of hers introduced her to my father.
Together they joined a Christian cult that calls itself the Alleluia Community. There are thousands of these Post-Vatican II Neo-Evangelist cults scattered throughout the states disguised as innocent suburbanite communes, where plastic smiles hide the sorrows: theocracies such as these are magnets for the codependent, the socially outcast, and the zealous bible-thumper , or as I like to call them, “Taliban Christians.” Usually, the more sensationalized breeds hog most of the attention (people just eat up stories about moonlight orgies a thousand polygamists strong and fruit punch suicides), however, the Alleluia community is relatively tame in comparison.
Still, it was hardly the real world. It is a closed society. Only community members could attend community meetings, and only kids of community members could attend the community school. Those looking to join took the pledge of loyalty at an induction GCG –community meetings, basically–where they were bestowed cult garments to symbolize membership. The women were given white veils, and the men, cream-colored tallits– a shawl traditionally worn by Jewish men at prayer. Children of community members could join when they were four. It was customary for the the youngsters to say something or do a song and dance at their induction GCC. I recited a fire and brimstone chapter from the bible, which was a real crowd pleaser, and made my father beam with pride.
How did my family wind up joining a cult, you ask? Well, my mom joined first because she wanted to live a more Christian life and felt she need to surround herself by other Christians. But my father (ugh), he was befriended by one of the church Elders — basically the founders elected themselves Church Elders For Life and oversaw all aspects of the cult. Everyone paid a tithe–about 10 percent of your income–to help fund community programs and upkeep the school and retreat households and other things. They must have licked their chops when they heard that my dad was an obscenely over-paid ER physician. A little cajoling was all it took, and a feigned interest in my father’s incessant pontifications on religion — one of his favorite past-times. My father’s the kind of Christian who extols God for his wrath rather than his mercy, and he found like-minded company in the ranks of the community. Long story short, he joined, married my mom, had us kids, blah blah blah we lived in a cult. Until one day my mom noticed something fishy. You know that tithe everyone has to pay? The money was supposed to be for community collective funds, to improve the school, fund programs, and all that? My mom didn’t realize it until one day when she was walking past anelder’s house. He was out in his front lawn, watering his plants. At that moment, she wondered to herself how he managed to pay his water bill without working. My mom became a stay-at-home mom when she had us kids, so she knew who was around during the work day and who wasn’t. Well, this guy was never away, nor was his wife or 13-something kids, some of them, far past due to the workforce. Well, she put two and two together and it became apparent where the tithe dough was really going: landing right into the the elders bank account. Just your typical cash scam folks. Of course, none of her friends believed her.
And then there was the sex thing. Between October 3rd to the 8th, the parents would go away on retreats. In their absence, the teenagers were left in charge to take care of the younger kids, which at the time included me and my sisters. The funny thing is is that after a while the parents started taking the whole family on these retreats. Hmm , I wonder why? Let’s see: what happens when you leave, say, a little over a 300 raging hormonal teenagers who’ve been told to “sit still or else god will smite you” their whole lives? They smoke, fuck, drink, fuck some more, and in a matter of hours, transform quietol ‘ Faith Village—the neighborhood in which most the members lived—into iniquitous Sodom and Gomorrah. During this time, I survived on burnt banana pancakes and fought for possession of my Nintendo Entertainment System. Jerome, who took care of and my sister (a.k.a the burnt banana pancake extraordinaire), used let all the kids who bullied me at school into our house to play with my things. Not to mention, people having sex all over the place, all over our house, which was the biggest house in the community. So much shit happened. I remember waking up one day finding two complete strangers pulling each other’s hair and licking each other’s faces. Obviously, my protests went unhonored; most of those days, I stayed outside, wandering to parts of the village I wasn’t allowed to go, and into the forests surrounding. Faith Village used to be a pecan orchard. Later, the land was tilled and low-income suburban housing spurng up, but not in blocks, in circles , with the house situated along the perimeter. And in the center, no fences were erected, just wide open communal space open to anyone who wised to graze, or, when the parents are gone, island-hop for booze and drugs. They traveled in groups–rogue bands of adolescents gallivanting through Christendom guided by the wind of their whimsy. At night, the only light one could find other than from the houses was from cigarettes, joints, and the distant sounds of squelching noises.
Oh yeah, I still don’t really know what all went on at those parent retreats; however, I do know that the elders taught our parents the “holier than thou” way to have sex (something tells me God probably frowns on double-sided dildos and cock-rings). On a final note (cause I could on forever), something I learned about organized religion and cult life while in the mix was of the terrifying power humans have to say “no: to ignore blatantly obvious realities; to reject facts of science; to assume a pejorative, natural hierarchy among humankind; to oppress out of fear rather than accept with love; to blame rather than admit error.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 2
In the December of my 12th year on this earth, my family and I left The Community, aka The Cult. It had become undeniable to us that we were being exploited, and despite my parents’ desperate desire for a wholesome Christian life, they couldn’t ignore the rampant corruption and shameless profiteering. My last day in the cult school was the day before Christmas break. After my teacher announced that I would no longer be part of the class and that my family was leaving the cult, my fellow 5th graders gathered around me and laid their hands on my head as the teacher led the class in prayer. “God, protect Aaron wherever he may go, and may he live his life in the knowledge of your presence, your love and mighty power—Amen.”
And then the shunning began. The elders had done a bang-up job of convincing everyone what it meant when somebody left the happy flock: You’re a sinner and have written yourself a one-way ticket to hell, and the godly should cut off any and all interaction with you. Thank God my mom had retained friendships outside of the cult. Mind you, that didn’t help to alleviate some of the serious emotional withdrawal we went through as a family who had lived and invested many, many years of our life into friendships that we would never recover. But we shrugged it off — whatever. We wanted out.
Our house, which cost us $300,000-plus to build, sold for a meager $175,000. The palatial nature of our far-from-humble abode was a by-product of my father’s insufferable grandiosity. We had built a veritable mansion, thanks to my dad’s doctor’s income, while everyone else settled for weathered brick one-story dwellings a quarter the size and a less than a quarter the cost of our place. And therefore, a quarter of the value. So when it came time to sell, not only did the presence of the cult minimize our base of potential buyers, the type of house we had built frankly didn’t belong in that neighborhood. So we got the shit end of the stick. Whatever, we were glad to finally be gone. The big, wide world was waiting.
In the cult, we referred to the secular America outside our gates as “vacation world.” Now we were going to begin our lives anew in that “vacation world.” My parents rarely revealed their true feelings to me about anything, and to this day, I still don’t know how they really felt about pioneering into the world in spite of the reasons they’d given. We moved into a stucco-sided hacienda with a terracotta roof in the historical district of Augusta, Georgia, called Summerville. Instead of easing our way into the reality of “vacation world” via the public school system, we did home-schooling. My parents did not trust public schools — the education offered and the company we kids would keep were all viewed with deep suspicion. The upside was that being at home all day provided me plenty of time to learn to jack off. My self-taught typing lessons provided prodigious opportunities to surf the web for gay porn, especially after my folks had gone to bed — or so I thought. I remember one time my mother caught me late at night with my cock in hand. She gasped, putting her hands over her mouth and lowering her head as she walked out of the room. She didn’t see what was on the screen; she fled before she could noticed anything, giving me time to walk silently back to my bedroom and avoid further shame. (Thanks, Mom!) The next day, when she asked me what I was looking at, I told her it was “naked women.”
As for my father, well, his story requires a whole separate chapter, but for now understand that his spectacularly poor judgment and dubious decision-making skills were the root cause of so much of the madness my family endured. For example, when a hellacious storm came by one night and literally tore the terracotta roof off our hacienda, what did we do? Did we go live with friends or family or rent a modest house until we got back on our feet? No, we took out another exorbitant home loan and purchased a $500,000 house with 25-ft ceilings, Roman-styled pillars, and bathrooms that could rivals baths of Nish. My father thought any investment was a wise investment if it enabled him to flaunt his wealth, and so our house was shamelessly luxurious with expensive furniture and extravagantly priced knickknacks and just all types of shit we didn’t need. He never could resist a good sales pitch, and as long as he was buying, why not buy two, or twenty, or 2,200. Little did I know how much money was being wasted. I’ll speak about the debt my family fell into later.
At this point in time, I had been accepted into Davidson Fine Arts School in Augusta. There, I not only had an excuse to prance around in tight black pants (I loaded up my course schedule with tap and jazz classes), but I was able to pursue the objective of my deepest, most hidden desires. My eyes had begun to wander across the melon asses and protruding crotches of men in around my 7th and 8th grade years. Although I can’t completely recall how a certain promiscuous habit got started, I remember vividly cutting my lunch periods short on a daily basis so I could go blow two of my friends from school in the bathroom. Curiously, none of us thought of ourselves as gay. I didn’t even really know that there was a whole culture out there of men like me. I just did what felt good.
One day after school, I followed this boy into the bathroom. I wasn’t really his friend, but I made it clear I had a fond interest in him. He was nervous, understandably. He unzipped his fly and let his cock fall out of his jeans, standing dead still as he pretended to pee in the urinal. I pulled up to the urinal next to him and brandished my cock as well. A moment later, after both of us realized that we had reckoned with what we were about to do, the boy grabbed me by the small of my back, and in a single swift movement, stuck his tongue down my throat. In a fervor of sensual release, our hands feverishly searched each others’ bodies as our pelvises ground together, our cocks baton-ing one another as our kiss brought our tongues to indiscriminately explore each others’ mouths. It couldn’t had been more than a minute when I heard him let out a muffled groan. He pulled away from me, staring at my shirt, and I, at his limp cock. My shirt was spattered with a sizable load in his cum. Before I could say anything, he quickly moved for the sink. As he washed his hands, making sure not to make eye contact, he said, “I’m never doing that again!” and he dashed out of the bathroom.
In that instant, my raw lust was immediately replaced by a profound sense of shame and fear of discovery. What had I done? What if somebody came in and saw me standing there with another boy’s semen on my shirt? As I anxiously scrubbed my shirt in the sink, I began to whimper softly. I thought someone would walk in and I would be caught and that would be it. Mercifully, no one did. I got away with it! So like all adolescents, when given an inch, I took a mile. Throughout my final years in Georgia, I spent most of my time coaxing my friends into compromising sexual acts above and beyond just young boys exploring themselves. I mean, everyone goes through that stage where you’re just plain horny, and these kids were no different. Some were more timid than others; one boy, however, I remember I jerked off in my room as a consequence of not completing a dare. When he left my house that day, carrying his shoes, one of which one concealed some cum-soak underpants, he said to me, “I need to go home and pray.” In time, pretty much the entire pubescent boy population of our neighborhood fell prey to the Stella’s incubus offspring.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 3
My father is what I like to call a “Rolls Royce Catholic.” You know the type: likes to test drive fancy cars; proudly defends the infallibility of the Pope; believes the Church should incite another crusade; detests Vatican II and all that peace, love, and modern-world ecumenical bullshit. Being that he’s a powerful orator and a brilliant rhetorician, as well as having an encyclopedic knowledge of the catechism, he would jump at the opportunity to demonstrate his religious erudition with impromptu sermons whenever our family would entertain company. And he would regale people with stories of his beloved children, how our vast intelligence and academic aptitude is all thanks to his genes. Still, he could be very charming when he wanted to and people warmed to him.
My father was both driven and destroyed by a compulsion to create ornate worlds for himself that are completely devoid of reality. He relied on the patience and forgiveness of his family, as well as the kindness of strangers and the naivete of youth, to sustain these illusions; and made excuses when they fell apart. Curiously, he had no friends his own age; most of them were in their late teens and early 20’s (more on that later). Despite all his bluster, he feared the company of men his own age because he was afraid they would see through his bullshit. Even his own children posed a threat, especially me. I was insufferably inquisitive throughout my childhood and adolescence, particularly about religion. The weekly sojourn to celebrate Mass seemed to me a waste of time, and served no purpose but to exacerbate the already burgeoning imperiousness of the faithful, where instead they could be providing for the less fortunate; acting in the will of Christ. This of course, among many other inquisitions, my father took as a slight, and it angered him — and sometimes triggered histrionic displays, with him imploring the mercy of the Lord to deliver me from the fires of hell, and me rolling my eyes. This is why I could never have a heart-to-heart with him: it was either his way or the highway.
My father met my mother at a dinner party thrown by mutual friends. They started talking and my mom was quickly smitten by his charm and empathy. They wound up dating for six years, and then one breezy, moonlit evening on the glistening shores of Myrtle Beach, my father proposed and my mother readily accepted. A week later, they went to a Christian convention in Atlanta. After the first day of the convention had concluded, my father went out to get some fresh air, leaving my mom behind in the hotel room. He headed straight to a nearby park, where he met a man, and they had sex. My father confessed this transgression to my mother the next day and then and there she broke the engagement — and it would stay broken, she said, until he received psychiatric therapy.
They continued to see each other despite what had happened, and a year later, my father proposed again, claiming that he had gone to therapy as requested and no longer desired the company of men. In truth, he never went. This would not be the first time he deceived her. Years later, when my mother asked my father to see a psychiatrist because we were having family problems, he would arrived home from his appointment announcing that the psychiatrist told him that he was justified with the way he was acting in the family. In disbelief, my mother would eventually call up the psychiatrist to corroborate my father’s story and find out that very little my father had told him about his family life matched our reality.
Nevertheless, when my father proposed, my mother accepted, being the trusting woman that she is.
It was a fairytale wedding. My mother looked stunning, as did my father. My mother remembers that when it came time for them to kiss, my father swept her towards him in a single dramatic movement, creating quite a spectacle. She now looks back on that moment as something that didn’t symbolize their love but my father’s love of showmanship. My mother became a stay-at-home mom. My father worked as a physician in the ER. He made plenty of dough to support us, take us on lavish vacations three or four times a year, buy each of us a horde of gifts at our birthdays and on Christmases and eat out pretty much wherever we wanted, when we wanted. He did always provide for us, I’ll give him that much. I was never in want of anything — anything, that is, except the love of a father.
That midnight tryst he had with the man in Atlanta, Ga. was probably not the first and certainly not the last. As I said before, my father never had any friends his own age. Instead, he befriended the youth of the neighborhood — clean-limbed, athletic, bounding young men. I remember walking home from a friend’s house one night when we still lived in The Cult, only to find my father sitting atop a wooden picnic table surrounded by an audience of boys. He was recounting experiences from his work in the ER while interweaving teachings of Catholic doctrine. Starry-eyed, they listened intently. I also remember when he would have the older boys over for wine and revelry. He loosened up at those times, when he had his arm slung around the shoulders of another man. He became more human, if that makes any sense. And then there’s me: all of a sudden, I’m his pride and joy, and the testament to his virility and superior genes. On my fourth birthday, the only present I received was the first of many piano lessons. So on these festive evenings, I was tasked with entertaining the crowd with minuets and ballads, bulking my father’s boundless narcissism, as he boasted about how much I resemble him.
Then there were the father-son outings. Whenever we went camping, my father would sleep with his “special friend” in one tent, and I would sleep in another. I remember this one skiing trip, when my father took about eight or nine sinewy young men and me with him from The Cult up to a remote spot in the mountains of West Virginia (everything was paid for out of his pocket, of course). At one point along the trip, we parked at a mall so the boys could play in the arcades. I waited in the car. After a while, a few of them stepped out from the arcade, which was positioned in the front of the mall. They approached the car, opened the side door, then grabbed me by the shoulders and pinned me on my back. As I lay there immobilized, pleading them to stop, one of them began licking my face while the others snickered behind.
The first thing my father and the boys did when we got to the cabin was move out the furniture from the large living room on the first floor and replace them with mattresses from the bedrooms, so to make one giant mattress covering the floor. Then they stripped down to their underwear and started wrestling with each other in duos. All the while, I stood by and watched as their bodies became sweaty as they grunted from the exhilarating sport. I didn’t really think anything of the handsome sexpots writhing beneath one another and being tossed about in the their tussles. It was what it was. And that’s all there was to it.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 4
We were pilgrims, in the loosest sense of the word, in that we desired a new start, and a place where we could worship freely with fellow Catholics. Plus, we were on the run from the impending doom of then-imminent Y2K. It’s hard to remember now, especially post 9/11, but there was a time when nobody was quite sure just what would happen to the global computer grid when the counter flipped over to 2000. Many Evangelicals saw it as a sign that The Rapture was soon upon us.
Have you ever watched EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network)? It’s the Catholic channel, basically, starring a relatively famous nun by the name of Mother Angelica. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. In any event, right before Y2K rolled around, Angelica had just put the finishing touches on her 15th century-style Franciscan monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, a sparsely populated hamlet of chicken farmers. The Monastery was fantastical spectacle, outfitted with a huge piazza, rose marble floors in a chapel with everything gilded—oh yeah, and a gift shop that looked like a miniature castle, with turrets and flags and all that theme-park rubbish. Setting aside for the moment the fact that Franciscans all take vows of poverty, on the grand continuum of the Catholic Church’s history of costly financial misadventures, this was but a modest blip: 10 million dollars, conservatively. This is where we would weather the coming of the New Millenium, come Hell or highwater.
My father’s roommate from Oxford-Emery went on to become an ordained priest and the headmaster of a Catholic prep school in Cullman, Alabama, which closely neighbors Hanceville. Cullman county is in the Guinness World Book of records for two counts: for being the largest chicken-farming county, and for having the most churches on a single block than any other in the world. From time to time, my father would visit his ol’ college buddy to catch up. During one such visit, my father’s buddy drove him out to observe the progress of Angelica’s Monastery; and it just so happened that my father’s buddy knew of a family who were building houses on the outskirts of the soon-to-be-completed monastery to accommodate the influx of settlers sure to be attracted by the presence of Angelica’s Monastery. The thought of owning property that bordered so holy a place was too tempting for my father to resist.
Before the decision to move was final, my father took the family on vacation to Alabama in hopes of wowing us into agreement that moving would benefit both our social and spiritual lives: our property would border sacred ground, and reverent Catholics would comprise our network of friends. The house itself was modest, both in size and appearance, which was strange considering my father’s appetite for extravagance. On the other hand, the house was equipped with some lovely amenities, all of a bucolic nature, of course: a well-water pump exposed above ground, a spacious front and backyard, a trail leading into a dense forest, and, of course, a charming veranda that overlooked verdant pastures of grazing cows. As for the family that we bought the house from, their collective personality mirrored the house’s: the women were demure and soft-spoken, and were clothed in long dresses, hiding their iniquitous ankles. The men, too, were reserved and stoic. Don’t get me wrong: they were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met—but think about how many times you’ve said that about somebody. Were they really the nicest people ever? Maybe. At the time, I hadn’t yet picked up on the duality of the South: People are both sweet as pie and fiercely judgmental. I mention this, because later, after I would come out, these same people would shun me.
Nonetheless, once my father found work in one of the local hospitals, and I got accepted in the Alabama School of Fine Arts, there was no turning back.We began our rigorous preparations for the terrible dawn of Y2K. My father charged my mother with the task of acquiring a long list of supplies: Candy, dried milk, 50 pound-bags of Morton’s salt, 47 bottles of pickled relish, and many other bulk items that constituted our end-of-the-world diet; we purchased huge quantities of liquor with which my father said he could use to concoct tinctures and potions to cure various mild illnesses in case modern medicine becomes scarce; 10,000 plus dollars worth in solid gold, unmarked coins secretly stowed in tube stocks would be used for bartering; and a generator would be used to power the entire house, if necessary, for up to 500 hours.
We weren’t alone in these End Time preparations. One guy who lived on the outskirts of the neighborhood dug out the side of a hill and parked a white school bus packed from top to bottom with every kind of provision you would need for the end of the world. Likewise, many of the residences in the area had storm shelters that had been transformed into makeshift dwellings, furnished to the nines.
On New Year’s Eve 2000, my family attended midnight Mass at Mother Angelica’s Shrine. All of the small town’s Christian elite were present, looking severe and austere, their faces a mask of dread and anxiety. The pervasive fear of Y2K had taken its toll. In any event, my father, now a somewhat respected figure of the elect, stood with his hands folded, muttering prayers along with the celebrant priest. He didn’t even look concerned. We had prepared; everything was going to be fine. In actuality, I was a little excited for the Y2K wasteland to manifest—but then I looked at my watch. It read 12:05 a.m. I must have lost track of time. Nothing happened. What?!? Absolutely nothing happened: no power outages, no social unrest, no calamities haling from stormy skies, no Muslim invasion. I tugged at my father’s sleeve to get his attention; and when I had it, I threw up my hands to express my confusion and building exasperation. And you know what?—all that bastard did was shrug his shoulders. That is how the world ends, folks: not with a bang nor a whimper, but a shrug of your old man’s shoulders.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 5
In 2000, I was accepted Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA, which suspiciously sounds like “ass fuck” — appropriately so, as you shall soon see). I applied as a vocalist and a pianist, but because I lack adequate sight-reading skills, they accepted me for voice. Later I discovered that there was only one other male voice student—so it could have been the fact that I had a pair that gave me the edge–but no matter. By the way, Birmingham is about a 45-minute drive from my family’s house in Hanceville. ASFA offered lodging in their dormitories as an alternative for students who had long commutes. Who would have ever guessed that what occurred there would dramatically change the course of my life.
Every homosexual has their apprehensive and sometimes traumatic coming out period. For me, it was closer to the former. I was just happy to put a name to my thorough sexual indifference for the female sex. Well, you know, I remember Frenching a couple of girls in middle school, but that was only when I was dared. You could say I technically had a girlfriend at one point. Her name was Seora (see-or-ra). We coupled on a completely verbal agreement, and obviously nothing ever came of it. Just for the record, I’ve only gotten as far as kissing a woman. I’ve had chances to do more but it just never struck my interests. And while this all this might seem redundant, you should know that plenty of now full-fledged homosexuals dabbled in all the unique pleasures a woman has to offer and it just was never my cup of tea thank you very much. Just thought I should touch on that.
In any event, before I get into the dirty details about my proverbial coming out party, let me tell ya’ll a little bit about ASFA. From what I can remember, the student population was around 300-400, each allocated to a department, be it music, theater, visual arts, creative writing or math and science, depending on their forte. Intermixed in the student’s standard class schedule were classes specific to their forte. The school, during my time there at least, was ranked 10th best in the nation on account of the student body’s superior SAT scores, despite Alabama’s education system being ranked 49th in the nation. Mississippi’s is 50th. By the way, there’s a saying in Alabama: “Thank God for Mississippi!”
OK, now for the scandal and chaos. As I said, I took residence in the dorms, which were on the third floor of the main school building. Boys had one dorm, and girls had another, both of which were separated by a pair of locked doors. Anyone caught on the premises of the dorm opposite to their gender would face punishment by the Dorm Directors.
Towards the end of my first semester, I started having nightmares. I would dream that I was bound to a wooden table with cast iron chains. Two dark figures loomed over me, tightening and loosening another iron chain between their hands, creating an ominous chink to a morbid rhythm. Obviously, it is almost impossible to pin down what exactly occurs in the course of a dream, being that the is the nature of a dream. But the nightmare’s kept coming back, and their relentless repetition soon forced me to seek counsel, bringing me to confide in one of the resident assistants in the dorms.
Emerging alongside these nightmares was my sexual curiosity, which was goaded all the more by the abundance of homosexual men (boys, whatever) populating the dorms. I had been spending a great deal of my free time with two openly gay boys in the dorms. In our conversations, I learned of the world above the Mason Dixon and across the pond; and of course, about the community of homosexuals that was gaining more and more recognition as time went on. And so be it, my great epiphany happened late at night: after many hours of gabbing, these two boys began feeling me up—somewhat innocently, at first. Then once their hands wandered beneath the southern border, I spoke aloud with great resolve, “You know what ? I think I might be gay.” At that, they smiled at each other. I Immediately set a course for the practice rooms (tiny rooms with pianos in them) where one guy who I had my eye on for quite some time was practicing Chopin concertos. I barged into the room unannounced, and without warning, clasped my hands to his face and laid one right on him. He struggled a bit to break away at first, but eventually he succumbed. And that was my first gay experience that I recognized as gay–and it felt so right. So being that this epiphany and the nightmares were both unexpected phenomena, I confided both with the same resident assistant. What I didn’t count on is that he would snitch to the Dorm Directors, or that they would hold no concern for my nightly torments, but rather for what they perceived to be a unbridled, licentious romp–as if I was nocturnally prowling the dorm halls–sodomizing everything with a pulse.
Needless to say I was expelled from the dorms. The resident director along with the quisling resident assistant called me out of class one day to deliver the news. I was mortified. I wept profusely–more than I ever had in my life– being that I was not able to comprehend what exactly I had done wrong. They told me that it didn’t matter that I was gay, but that they couldn’t have sex going on in the dorms. In my sobbing, I bordered on reviling the resident assistant, in whom I had placed my trust; and lamenting, I let flew a vengeful valediction, “You betrayed me, you bastard! How could you, you fucking piece of shit!” I was a mess. Once my sobbing subsided, the Dorm Director told me that my parents had been phoned and that my mother was currently in the process of cleaning out my dorm room. So I went to see her. I entered the dorm room–and there she was. Before I could say anything, she walked up to me and gave me a big hug and told me that she loved me and that everything was going to be fine. During the car ride home, my father interrogated me. At one point, he asked me, with that patronizing tenor of his, “Well, you don’t think you’re homosexual, do you?” And to that I said, “Uh, yeah, I think I do.” Which didn’t go over well.
The school settled on allowing me to attend so long that I never went into the dorms again and that I left school promptly when classes had concluded. So I started commuting with the husband of a friend of my mom’s who worked in Birmingham. Slowly but surely, I got more and more comfortable in my skin. I learned more about homosexuality and the gay movement from fellow gays at ASFA. At night, I would get on the Internet and go into gay chat rooms (so original, right?) and would purchase gay literature. I remember I once called someone out here in PA—I think it was Altoona. Regardless, since my family showed no interest in discussing the matter—my father, being the bigoted, closet case that he was and still is, and my mother, locked under his despotic yoke—I began to explore, however clandestinely, the world of same-sex attraction.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 6
September 11th, 2001 will forever live in infamy as the day I was expelled from the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA). Freshman year at ASFA, I boarded in the high school dormitories, until the dorm directors permanently banned me for illicit acts of sodomy. By the time my sophomore year rolled around, I had accepted the mantle of ‘delinquent in the making.’ And so, one afternoon, September 10th, 2001 to be exact, I snuck back into the dorm to have one last romp in the sack with the flavor of the month (ya’ll know how it is). The next day, the principal took me out of class personally and brought me into his office. Apparently, my clandestine rendezvous had been found out by one of the new resident assistants who saw me sneaking in. Blast! Hence, my insolence was grounds enough for my immediate expulsion.
Sitting with my mom at Cracker Barrel afterwards for an increasingly all too common ritual: the post-bust lunch of shame. I felt strangely resolute about the actions that led to my expulsion. Proud, almost. Mom was exasperated, but she refrained from scolding me. She did, however, make it plain and clear that I would attend the catholic high school in Cullman–and that was that. My mom loves me, what can I say? Of course she remarked she didn’t know what she was going to do with me. Hell, I didn’t know what I was going to do with me. I used to be such a goodie-two shoes. Now I’m Sir Sodomite the Insatiable. All of a sudden, mom’s cell phone rings. It’s Dad. He tells her that two planes have hit the World Trade Center towers and that Muslims are attacking the country and that the world’s ending that she has to go buy all the toilet paper, eggs and milks from the grocery store that she can buy. He hangs up abruptly.
In all honesty, since my parents sheltered us kids so thoroughly from the goings on of the world, I couldn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation; that the security of the country had been compromised, and that one of the symbols of America’s economic superiority has been leveled in a matter of minutes. By time mom and I had returned home, Giovanni, the German exchange student that was living with my family at the time, had called his parents. They had already purchased a ticket to come home; but he put their worries at ease: he assured them that Cullman, Alabama, wasn’t next on the terrorist’s “to-bomb” list. He had only been in the US for about two weeks, so he was having quite the experience as you can imagine. My father’s apocalyptic spidey -sense, on the other hand, was going absolutely haywire. Sure, Y2K was a letdown—but 9/11 was incontrovertible evidence that the end of the world was near. He starts parading around the house making all sorts of outlandish predictions about what lies ahead in the world’s fate. By this time, my family had learned to ignore my father’s prophecies of ill-portent. Whenever daddy dearest got excited, we knew to listen and feign appropriate reactions to his insane pronouncements and then promptly forget he ever said them. Sad to say, we also ignored what were clear warning signals that my father needed professional help. So that was my 9/11.
But getting back to Giovanni: He was about a year older than I, and quite the dish. We bonded relatively fast upon his arrival. Still, Giovanni was almost too perfect: he was handsome, intelligent, charming, a total babe magnet (not that I cared, but he got attention for it), and practitioner of lofty pursuits that gained him respect among the faculty and his other superiors. But what tormented me most was the way my father compared me unfavorably to Giovanni. I already knew I was a disappointment to him. And it wasn’t like comparing me to other boys was a new habit for him. He did that through most of my childhood. He would say things like, “Aaron, why can’t you be more like Nick?” a teenager eight years my senior. And now it was ‘why can’t you be more like Giovanni?’ As a young boy, these unfavorable comparisons were merely hurtful, but as an adolescent struggling with identity and self-esteem issues, it was positively devastating. I felt worthless, like a failed science project or an obsolete model they no longer bothered to make spare parts for.
He always spent more time with his “boys” than he did with me anyway. But you know, he’s getting what he deserves: he’s now a miserable old man witnessing the fantasyland he’s lived in for so long being systematically dismantled by pure unadulterated karma. He does the best that he can to sustain it: he continues to spend obscene amounts of money (courtesy of private disability and your tax dollars) on fancy cars and fine Italian leather furniture and statues of the saints and angels and all sorts of other frivolities, trying to keep reality at bay. But reality slouches towards him; and it will eventually devour him.
As I mentioned previously, Cullman, Alabama was settled by Germans. Every year, the community theater would put on a play retelling the history of Cullman. Giovanni, my sisters and I auditioned for this play and got parts; however, since I sported a giant afro at the time (looking unmistakably Jewish) I very well couldn’t play any major parts—so I was given the part as the narrator (meh ). Over the course of the rehearsals, Giovanni and I befriended one of the cast members. Andrew was his name: he was the son of the family with whom I would eventually come to live. By time Giovanni left back home for Germany, I was going over to Andrew’s house almost every day, growing closer and closer with him and his family. Aside from his sisters, a friend of Andrew’s lived there with them. It’s not that his friend didn’t have a family, he just didn’t get along with his father. It never bothered me that Andrew’s family was so willing to open up their home to others. They all seemed to exude a natural sense for hospitality. Little did I know that the family whom I thought to be my saviors would turn out to be child abductors. Oh how little I knew.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 7
The year is 2001. I’m a sophomore at the Catholic high school in Cullman, AL, practically friendless, and in thrall to a feeling of powerlessness among my peers and family members. Giovanni, the German exchange student that had been living with my family, and with whom I had become fast friends, went back home. To make things worse, rumors of my sexual deviance had begun to spread among the Catholic families in the area, which pretty much posited me as an ‘undesirable.’
So to combat the ostracism, I doubled down on my various clandestine activities: gay chat rooms, midnight phone trysts, and pornography became the order of my nocturnal diversions. Previously, I mentioned the befriending of one named Andrew and his ostensibly well-intentioned family. Aside from satisfying my raging teenage libido, I took a lot of joy in my visits to see Andrew and his family. In my eyes they seemed healthy, loving, orderly, and respectful of each other. Sure, they were a bit eccentric—but so is everybody, right? Frankly, I was so jazzed by being welcomed that I didn’t really pay any mind to their quirks. Anything seemed normal compared to my family.
At the end of my sophomore year, my mom approached me with a starling proposition: that she thought it best that I move out of the house. Now, being all of 16, practically 17, gay, anti-establishment, and horny as hell, I was beset by a blizzard of emotions in response to this request. On the one hand, I had felt so estranged from my family for so long that doing completely without them wouldn’t be much different from the usual. On the other hand, hearing your mother say that she was basically throwing you out was crushing. Now, it wasn’t as if I’d be left out in the cold. My mother knew that, judging from the liking Andrew’s family’s had taken to me, it wouldn’t be much to ask them to take me in. And so, she did. Andrew’s family happily accepted. And thus concluded my residency with my blood family.
Life with Andrew’s family was a dream come true. For the first time in my life, I had a family who listened to me and took my thoughts and opinions into consideration. We did everything together; talked together, joked together; and when the occasion called, sorrowed together. Andrew’s father was the first person I ever really consciously respected in my life, not to mention my first real father figure. Out of everything, I was totally convinced that Andrew’s family loved me unconditionally — and I don’t have to expound on what that does for somebody’s self-esteem. However, I received a few unexpected perks, so to speak, from the love that took me by complete surprise. I’d only recently grown out of bedwetting: it’d been about a year or so since I had an accident. But all throughout my childhood and most of my adolescence, I would soil my bed sheets nightly. Obviously, this made sleepovers very awkward. And on top of that, I often went without an allowance since my parents argued that they had to use it to cover the extra water bill accumulated from washing my sheets everyday. Yeah, because, you know, daddy’s gross income, which was $200,000+, definitely couldn’t afford a bigger water bill. I think they did this to punish me for what they perceived to be feigned incontinence.
But I digress. Outside of waking up in damp sheets every night, I experienced chronic bouts of hotness in my ears and other extremities, particularly on the palms of my hands and soles of my feet. My hands and feet I could handle, but the hotness in my ears drove me crazy, which eventually got me into the habit of strapping blue ice packs (you know, the kind you used to put in your lunch box) to my ears. Lastly, ever since I was five, I was on a cocktail of anti-depressants and ADD medications, which wreaked havoc on my appetite and pretty much turned me into a zombie. Well, after about two months of living with Andrew’s family, my bedwetting began to subside along with my hot flashes (hehe), and I was able to completely wean myself off my medication. Very, very interesting.
A quick note: it wasn’t until recently that my mother divulged her true feelings about why she felt it was best for me to move out. For one, she saw that I wasn’t happy, and that dad was, in so many words, abusing me. So, at that time, the best answer to her was to separate us, and since she couldn’t very well kick the bread winner out, she was left with no choice but to remove me from the premises. Now that I have some distance from time, I understand her dilemma, but I’d be lying if I said I was without reservations. I may have mentioned this before, but I was the scapegoat in the family. I had my faults — absolutely — but for the most part, the I was blamed for more than I should have been held accountable for. But fate has an interesting way of working things out (and sometimes, exacting justice) as you shall soon see. After four very happy months of living with Andrew’s family, I received a letter from my mother explaining that she had delivered divorce papers to my father. “Well, well, well,” I thought, “What a coincidence. Ha! Now that the family scapegoat is gone, my father has no one to hide behind.”
Needless to say, I was somewhat elated and empowered with the feeling that justice had been serve and that all ill perceptions of my character had been eradicated. In my excitement, I divulged the particulars of my family’s dysfunction to Andrew’s family — in great detail. Ah, I was so young and foolish. Now I see it as clear as day, the way Andrew’s family’s eyes lit up as I expounded on my years of anguish and estrangement. I failed to take note of the almost kneejerk response they gave me, as they increased their efforts to goad my anger. As time went on, Andrew’s family brought up my family more and more for the very reason of exacerbating my already festering fury. It wasn’t too long before they started to suggest that I had been a victim of abuse, such that I could seek legal action against my family if I so wanted. I did feel abused at that point in my life…and for the first time in my life, I was convinced people cared about me, for real. Once Andrew’s family noticed that I was buying into their game, they began to actively encourage me to take action so that they could gain legal custody of me. And thus began the long walk down one of the darkest halls of my life.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 8
It’s 2003, I no longer live with my family. My homosexuality being one of the many reasons. My friend Andrew’s family has taken me in, and I’ve just heard word that my parents have divorced. Being that I was the scapegoat in the family, hearing that my father was finally incurring the blame that he deserved, I was imbued with a satisfying sense of justice served, and took no qualms severing any remaining sentimental ties with my biological family. Heretofore, I believed my family, particularly my parents, to be the most detrimental factor in my life. Conversely, Andrew’s family was heaven-sent. And as time went on, I began to treat them as my new family, my permanent family, the family that was everything I believed a good family should be. At last, I believed I was loved unconditionally. Coming from a family where I was nothing but a problem, my fantasies of a happy life had finally become a reality.
Or so I thought.
As I mentioned before, the person I grew closest with in Andrew’s family was Andrew’s father. More than likely, this extra intimacy, or, subconscious desire for intimacy, resulted from my extant lack of fatherly love. We spent many evenings talking well into the night, conversing about whatever the wind blew in. Of course, I dominated most of our exchanges with accounts of life with my family, to which Andrew’s father would readily commiserate. Although I didn’t notice it at the time, he always went out of his way to volley his perception of my past circumstances back to me with extra hyperbole so as to goad my already fervent anger towards my family. He was hatching a plan: to win my trust, and ultimately, guardianship of me. I had no idea why he wanted this. Even in retrospect, I can only speculate. All I know is that this is what he, and purportedly, what the rest of his family wanted.
I touched on the issue of my incontinence in the last post. Although it was waning, I still had nighttime “accidents”. One day, Andrew’s father told me he was going to take me to see a friend of his in Atlanta who was an urologist. He thought that he might be able to determine the source of my incontinence, and perhaps be able to assuage it. During the drive to Atlanta, Andrew’s father divulged his knowledge of my other nocturnal habits: perusing gay porn on the Internet. Obviously, I was startled and scared by his discovery, remembering how my family had reacted to the same discovery. Instead of a harsh haranguing, which I expected, Andrew’s father smiled, and began to disclose to me a secret of his past. He told me that he had been a victim of molestation, from a priest actually. He told me that this experience made him feel confused about his sexuality; confusion that has lasted to this very day. At that admittance, he put his arm around my shoulder and started to massage it tenderly. He asked me, “Is this alright?” I nodded. I admit, I was both curious as to what more he had to say, as well as happy that I had found someone with whom I could talk openly about my homosexuality. I was impressed that the staunchness of his Catholicism didn’t discourage him from volunteering his past experience and currents feelings, which, if exposed, could devastate his whole life. Of course, he told me not to breathe a word of it to anyone, especially to his wife.
Coincidentally, Andrew’s father’s urologist friend was also homosexual. After his assistants made a culture of my urine, which was done on the spot since he was such close friends with Andrew’s father, the urologist discovered that I had a staff infection in my urinary track. He said, however, that it was not the source of my incontinence. Staff, does not cause incontinence. On the trip back, I disclosed more intimate information about my past to Andrew’s father. Again, it felt good to have somebody listen and not judge me.
March 3rd, 2003. The day that my life took an unexpected turn for the worse. It was annual picture day at the Catholic high school I attended. It’s when the school gathers together for pictures to be put in the yearbook. I was never a big fan. Last year, I skipped picture day, and since the school didn’t seem to mind last year, I figured I could follow suit this year. Once the half-day of classes had concluded, Andrew picked me up and I went home with him. About an hour later I received a call from the school disciplinarian. He said that I had forgotten to sign out before I left, and that I had broken a school rule by leaving campus. I explained to him what I had done the year prior, and apologized for not signing out and for worrying them, emphasizing the fact that I had no idea that I had breached protocol. My record spoke for itself. I had never received a single detention, and I was known as a courteous student. I expected a few detentions at worst. Boy, was I wrong. The disciplinarian told me that because of my blatant disregard for the rules that I had incurred 45 detentions!
I was furious. Notwithstanding my already simmering resentment of authority of any kind, I had done nothing to deserve the level of punishment I had received. There was no way in hell I was going to serve those detentions. Not only were there 45 of them, but detentions at the catholic high school I attended were utterly fascist. You served detention during lunch period, which lasted an hour. You eat lunch alone, and had to maintain perfect posture without allowing your elbows to touch the table while you ate. If you were to slouch, fall asleep, let your elbows inadvertently touch the table, or did anything that registered as illicit to the disciplinarian, you incurred another detention. Some students spent most of the school year in detention.
As I lamented my loss of freedom, Andrew’s father, who more than comprehended the gravity of my ire, approached me with an intriguing proposition: “What say you withdraw from high school, get your GED, and apply for early admission at Wallace Community College.” (named after George Wallace, the notorious segregationist, which was code in Alabama for racist) Andrew’s father went onto explain that since my parents still held legal guardianship of me, I would have to legally emancipate myself, since my parents would certainly oppose the truncation of my private education. The next day I went back to school and notified the headmaster of my plans to withdraw, and despite his protestations, I remained firm in my resolve.
I returned to Andrew’s house with newfound sense of power and self-confidence. I knew I was headed into uncharted waters, but at least they were my steps, my own courageous strides into a future that I had decided myself. The next step was to pursue emancipation. Andrew’s father told me that if I could obtain a signature from my erstwhile psychiatrist on the proper legal document I could approach a judge with an appeal for my emancipation. I called my old psychiatrist and explained my situation to him. He told me that he would be happy to help, and that I should come to his office in Birmingham immediately so we could expedite the process forthwith. At that, Andrew’s whole family piled in the car.
We parked in the parking lot outside the psychiatrist’s office. We walked in; Andrew’s family took a seat in the waiting room while the receptionist escorted me upstairs. Once inside the psychiatrist’s office, I shook his hand and thanked him for meeting me on such short notice. He said it was fine. We then proceeded to another room in the two-story building reserved for more private meetings. As we made our way to the room, I heard the shuffling thuds of footsteps behind me. I glanced back, only to find two policemen and my parents in tow. Before I could react, we had all congregated in the back room, whereupon the psychiatrist said, “This is for your own good.” The policemen then followed with, “Now we don’t want any trouble Mr. Stella.” My parents stood expressionless with their arms folded across their chests. Then I heard the squeal of tires as Andrew’s family peeled out of the parking lot. The police spooked them, and for good reason. Later I would learn that Andrew’s family was wanted in three states for child abduction. So it wasn’t they who called the police on me; it was my parents. Inside the back room, my parents delivered me their ultimatum: either I go home with them, or be put in a psych ward. Obviously, I chose to go home with them. My parents looked at each other and shook their heads. My mother then said that they actually preferred that I be put in a psych ward, and that I had no choice in the matter. Then they said that if I chose to flee, that the police would handcuff me, and I would be committed to the ward anyway.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 9
I uttered the most malicious invective to my mother as she drove me to the psych ward, tears blurred my vision, and my sobbing muffled all external sounds. But even through the hullabaloo, I remember my mother’s demeanor: incessantly blithe, with fake smile plastered on her face, responding to my every venomous remark with a spoonful of sugar or a thoughtless bromide. Perhaps she was trying to cushion my verbal blows, or lightened the mood. I don’t know. When we arrived at the psych ward, my mother and I were told that it was at full capacity, and that I had been relocated to another ward — one with a protocol that dictates that all new patients be transported by ambulance, and then wheeled into the ward on a stretcher. For safety’s sake, of course. When the ambulance rolled up to collect me, my mother happily chirped, “Your chariot has arrived, sir.” I cannot think of another point in my life when I felt lonelier: having my own mother jest at my incarceration, with no regard for my anguish.
I sobbed uncontrollably in the ambulance ride over, and continued sobbing as I was wheeled through what seemed to be the entirety of the hospital, until reaching the 13th or 14th floor where the psych ward was contained. Through the heavy metal doors of the ward, I was wheeled past its denizens: adolescents my own age, who at first glance seemed mentally untroubled, despite having weathered long stretches of existence in this dismal, prison-like setting. In my hysteric state, I seemed the most troubled out of anyone. The EMTs finally unbound me and I was locked in a room with a single couch on which I sat crying until one of the ward’s doctors came to talk to me. Sitting with his arm on my back, the soft-eyed doctor attempted to console me with his clinical questionnaire, which, by the way, included an inquiry as to my orientation. Pretty progressive for Alabama—or so I thought: I asked him why my orientation was important. His response was to scribble on his legal pad, saying nothing.
I slept alone the first night, so as “to be monitored,” the in-house therapist told me. The next night I would bunk with a roommate. The next morning, I’m forbidden from shaving, given laceless shoes to wear, and quickly escorted through the common area into a vacant, unadorned sitting room–this time, with two couches posited on opposite walls. It wasn’t long before a doctor came through one of the doors, followed by my parents, who sat on the opposite couch from the doctor and me. I started snarling; my nostrils flared and my lips trembled. My hair was disheveled. I hadn’t shaven . My fists were clenched. Not a coherent thought entered my mind. Only a mantra: “You can’t trust anybody. You can’t trust anybody. You can’t trust anybody. I’ll show them.” I screamed at the top of my lungs. I threatened to kill them. I said I would destroy their lives and everything they cherished, because I certainly wasn’t on that list. I wanted them to feel my Hell. Unwittingly, I had given them everything they needed to keep me stranded in the ward for as long as they pleased. With my fearsome display in full force, my parents got up from their couch and left the room without a word. I wept uncontrollably.
Samples of my blood were taken. I was put on a strict diet of psychiatric drugs and ward grub (delish, NOT), and had to participate in the therapy program required for all residents of the ward. After I gamely swallowed the prescribed pills, I walked into the common area. It was littered with commercial furniture, the stuff you’d find in your dentists waiting room; stark white walls, the really depressing kind, minus the Thomas Kinkade paintings (yick); then a simple card table, a few couches and wooden chairs and a television with a Nintendo 64 hooked up to it. Nothing of uplift whatsoever. I was in a daze. I sat down at the card table across from a girl with black hair dyed auburn at the tips. We exchanged names, then she dealt me in for a game of gin rummy—just the two of us. We talked intermittently. I assumed nothing about her, but it wasn’t too long until our forced small talk warranted a conversation to the nature of our captivity. She paused, staring pensively at her fan of cards. Then, as she placed a few on the table , she said, nonchalantly, “Oh, I tried to murder my uncle and my father. They molested me for years, so I wanted to get back at them. It seemed like the logical thing to do at the time. Oh, would you look at that. Gin! Now it’s your turn to deal!”
Apparently, this particular psych ward functioned primarily as a de facto holding cell for homicidal and suicidal teenagers. I can’t imagine what wild story my parents must have told the hospital to get me into this place. With whatever they told them, combined with my hysteric state, it was no surprise I was perceived as a threat. So, this was it. For how long? I knew not. At night, the therapists shacked me up with my new roomie —a sedate fellow who claimed to suffer from hallucinations of clowns riding yellow construction vehicles. Relatively innocuous compared to attempting to murder one’s relatives. (Although I probably would have done the same). After I had fallen asleep, I was awoken by raspy yelps coming from my roomie’s bed. Some of the ward bouncers rushed into the room. They flicked on the light, and I saw what was afflicting my roomie : now naked as the day he was born, he was bleeding from his pubic area, and his bewildered, bug-eyed face was covered in tight, black, curly hairs, which he was furiously rubbing all over his face to the point of asphyxiation . The bouncers manhandled him onto a stretcher, and wheeled out of the room as he continued to cry out in delirium. They locked the door before leaving.
I laid awake most that night, contemplating my life, what I would do with it when I got out—if I ever got out. Then a moment of clarity came. Like an epiphany, but more a resolution: there are a lot of hypocrites in the world masquerading as paragons of goodwill and virtue–this I knew all too well. Therefore, you cannot trust anyone to be who they claim. You can only trust yourself. You cannot count on anyone for comfort or consolation—only yourself. Only you can make your reality a place worth living. Peace. I stared up at the blank ceiling. The world was now my home, the whole of it. I could do whatever I wanted, because I didn’t care about what other people thought, because the only person proven to be worth trusting then was myself. Peace. And I would try to instill in others this same devotion to self. Peace be upon us all. And with that, I fell asleep.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 10
It’s my third day in the ward. After the nurse took my vitals and administered a heavy dose of psychiatric drugs, I met with one of the ward psychiatrists. She told me that I would be seen once a day, usually in the morning, by one of the resident psychiatrists so that they could monitor my progress and I could voice any concerns. Naturally, I use these meetings as an opportunity to plead my case—to prove my sanity and the lack thereof in my parents—but to no avail. Eventually, I would give up and settle for criticizing the ward therapists for being so abysmally indifferent about thedécor , which pretty much consisted of stark, off-white walls, purged completely of cheer. After the psychiatrist, I was shuffled off to participate in the elaborate yet ineffectual therapy campaign, which hospital policy decreed that all ward residents were required to attend. You’ll have to excuse my sardonic description of therapy hereunder: as I said before, this ward was more a hospice for presumed lost causes than a place of recovery.
Therapy went as follows: First, there was group therapy, where the residents were asked to talk about our feelings. Of the residents who could form coherent thoughts (some were so far gone mentally that they simply couldn’t), most gave lachrymose accounts of unrequited parental love, various forms of abuse, and unchecked cruelty at school. Each testimony was as tragic and dejected as the next. But no matter how woeful the stories, they were only met with contemptuous platitudes from the surly group therapy mediator, who relentlessly reminded everyone that she was a realist and that she wasn’t going to feel sorry for anybody just because they claim to be in psychological anguish. It was all too obvious that this woman had been working in the ward for too long. She possessed almost zero compassion for any of these kids, and I really didn’t understand how: each of them looked dreadful, obviously beleaguered by circumstances outside of their control. I told the mediator that she disgusted me. She threatened me with solitary and I clammed up.
Next was arts and crafts. Remember macaroni and glue projects you got in preschool? Hot damn you do! We got to choose any type of pasta with which we could make ourselves a little emotional pick-me-up to be display in the common area for a day or two, and then to be permanently consigned to the trash bin. Then there was lunch—hospital food, yick . Then midday siesta. Then sports, which pretty much consisted of us running around in a circle until we exhausted ourselves. Then, finally, after our evening vitals had been taken, we ate dinner, and had free time (cards, Nintendo 64, checkers, etc…) until curfew, which was around 10 pm. Despite the monotony of therapy, some of the veteran residents found ways to occasionally liven the mood. During lunch one day, one of the female residents pulled off her pants and underwear in front of everyone, hurriedly took a shit on the floor and then, using her own feces, smeared the word “poop” on the wall. And all before the ward bouncers could haul her off to solitary. As the girl kicked and screamed in protest, the remaining residents and I voiced our appreciation with a thunderous farewell applause. Another day, one of the male residents streaked through the common area, happily yelling, “You can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man!” until the ward bouncers tackled him to the ground. Then off to solitary he went. As for me, I tried to remain as docile as possible, in hopes of proving my innate sanity. Although I admit a part of me always wanted to wreak havoc. But I remained focused. I had to get out, and good behavior was the only way.
Around the middle of my internment, I receive a giant poster along with a bundle of homework from the Catholic high school I withdrew from just a few weeks prior. I took from the homework that my parents had re-enrolled me in school; but the poster was a different story. In the middle of he poster were two gaudily sketched kidneys around which floated various signatures from classmates and wishes for me to, “Get them kidneys better!” I sat there staring blankly at the poster, marveling at the sheer absurdity of it: apparently my parents had asked the faculty—for the purposes of explaining my absence, of course—to tell the students that I was in the hospital sick with a kidney infection, so I wasn’t jeered at when I returned to school. What else could have been the explanation? At first I was furious and then somewhat invigorated. I realized that I could debunk this sham kidney story once I returned to school (if I returned at all, that is) and make my parents out to be the sociopaths they really were. In theory, this sounded great, but (and for the first time in my life I recognized this) the sheer farfetchedness of the whole thing, no matter the earnestness of my retelling, would probably only confirm people’s lingering suspicions about me, whatever those were. I was “out of the closet “ in Alabama, after all.
A saving grace came in the form of an excruciating test, nationally known in the mental health community as the MMPI-A (The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – Adolescents). To summarize, the MMPI-A is a test containing 478 multiple-choice questions used to measure the test-taker’s personality structure and psychopathology. Unbeknownst to test-takers, however, is the method by which their mental state is revealed: namely, the measure of inconsistency to their answers given. For example, question 37 might ask, “Are you a hotheaded person?” while question 121 might ask, “Are you slow to anger?” Question 309 might ask, “Do you sometimes hear voices?” while question 400 might ask, “Do you believe in ghosts?” So as you can see, it’s very easy for unsuspecting test-takers to unwittingly extend their stay in a mental institution. Luckily, I had perused enough Internet personality tests that I was able to answer the questions with relative consistency—which the test results later bore out.
So in conjunction with my good behavior and the MMPI-A feather in my cap, the ward therapists finally received my recounts of personal tumult and parental betrayal with open ears. Several therapists sat in on my final retelling. Then they convened privately afterward. After all was said and done, they told me that, so long that my parents approved, I could go home. Two days later, I was out, in the car with my mother and sisters on the way back to Cullman, Alabama. While on the highway during the car ride back, I got into a fight with my mother, which quickly escalated into me swinging open the car doors and leaping onto the grass roadside, collapsing into a heap of tearful hysteria and howling into the neighboring wood. I wasn’t out of this shit show yet. I didn’t know what I was going to do, nor if I had the courage to do it. All I knew then, weeping on the side of the highway, was maddening sorrow clawing away at my insides. I realized that the epiphany I had earlier only revealed the nature of the beast: while I took some joy and a sense of freedom in the realization that the people around me could not be trusted, I would still either have to learn to live with them or become a recluse. However painfully, I chose the world and despite it’s flaws, deep down, I loved it. And perhaps someday I would learn to love the people in it. My wailing eventually exhausted me. I got back into the car, and we drove off—my mother and sisters, chatting happily to lift the gloom, and me, plaintively silent.
MY LIFE IN THE GHOST OF BUSH: Chapter 11
After returning home from the hosptial, DHR (Department of Human Resources) met with my mother and me separately and concluded it was best for me not to continue to live with my family. DHR found a family that was willing to take me into their care. And so I transferred what little belongings I had within a few days. It just so happened that my new family was the family of the most popular boy in my high school. Hitherto I had led a fairly friendless existence at school, and so when I heard it was this particular family, I had to contain my excitement: their son was a sinewy southern charmer with a drawl that could turn you to butter and widely rumored to be well-endowed. Straight as an arrow, of course, but my proximity to him was satisfying enough.
The family itself was even poorer then the last I lived with: I note this fact because I came from a family with a yearly household income hovering around two hundred grand (courtesy of my father’s doctor salary); the one after, around $45K (blind mobility specialist); and now, about $26K (a welder). The mother acted as the school nurse at the Catholic high school where her children and I attended, in exchange for free tuition for her offspring. The family lived in a humble home in the Cullman, Alabama, countryside. Their backyard was a 10-acre pasture that held their 10 cows (aka life-savings), and about 250 yards past their front doorstep was a small lake where they often fished for carp. On my first day, I washed dishes with the mother of the house. She told me that she believed homosexuality to be a disease, which evidenced with having an effeminate, freeloading artist for a brother who was openly gay—the “condition” from which all his vices came. I told her I thought differently. She said her word is law; and that if I ever made a pass at one of her boys (she had two, both remarkably beautiful), she would beat me to a bloody pulp. I assured her that wouldn’t happen, so long of course that they didn’t make the first move. Whoops, wrong answer. Open mouth. Insert foot.
I spent the first months with my new family during the last half of spring semester of my junior year. My memory of that time is sort of a wash. Via my new residence with the popular boy, to whom I disclosed all the harrowing exploits that had preceded, the kids from my high school accepted me into their clique. I didn’t particularly care for any of them, but I was in thrall to their newfound acceptance of me from the get-go. I wasn’t about to spoil this chance of “being loved” amongst my peers; it was what any insecure high-school kid wants. Deep down, however, I found high school life to be a farce: education—the point of our daily tenure gets cast to the wayside to accommodate the hierarchies that will carry over into the vacuous, hostile world we will enter after. And the parents—all they care about is whether their kid is a football star or the sexiest cheerleader or prom king or prom queen or class president or whatever other meaningless titles they’ve aspired to since their own high school days. All parents concern themselves with their kids’ grades, sure, but if that were the extent of their concerns, then why does the social hell of high school exist?
So I made friends, but I became especially close with the popular boy. He was as sincere as he was kind, not to mention sharp as tack. Once summer came, we got jobs. He did dishwashing for a small, family-owned Italian restaurant, and I worked as the groundskeeper at the palatial Benedictine convent situated up the road from our high school. It was my first real job. I was terrible at it. The popular boy gave me a crash course (no pun intended) on how to drive a tractor the morning of my first day. Needless to say, in the course of my employment there, I destroyed a family of hibiscuses, crashed the Buick into an tree, got a poison oak rash all over my arms, and managed somehow to tear up the wrong floor in the wrong wing of the convent that the nuns were planning to convert into a hospital. And, wouldn’t you know, they still paid me? Fancy that.
Come the middle of the summer, I began visiting the foster family who first took me in after I stopped living with my biological family. The family I was living with currently was not too keen about these visits. They felt this other family would try to brainwash me—and, as it turned out, that was in fact their intent. They told me that I couldn’t trust my parents, which I already knew, nor the family I stayed with now, that nobody except them cared about me. Then they propositioned me to go live on a tobacco farm in Tennessee, where neither the state nor my parents would ever be able to find me. I jumped at the chance. Sure I had made some friends; sure, I was becoming closer with the popular boy, and working, somewhat happily; but there I could live a life that was my own. On my return home that evening, the parents of my current family forbade me from seeing the other family again. I threw a fit, telling them that they couldn’t stop me. At that, the father of the family walked me outside to the barn where he kept his rusty old tractor and told me to get on and ride the thing till I calmed down. Tearful and despondent, I began aimlessly rolling around the tall grass of the field. Be it by pure physical exhaustion from crying or the din of the motor, a doorway opened for meditative thought: I observed the cows grazing placidly, and the majestic bull nudging his harem to different corners of the field so as to not obstruct my path. I held my head toward the sun as it set while my mind drifted into a place absent memory and meaning. Then, at the tail of twilight, I hopped off the sputtering beast, and met the family back inside as they were saying their prayers. The father and mother nodded to me, and we ate our meal in silence to the song of chattering cicadas.
A week later, I was informed that the other family who offered to whisk me away to Tennessee had kidnapped another adolescent and fled the state, and soon after came to learn that they were wanted felons in three states for abducting children. What was I to think? They had shown me such love, the first of its kind within the bounds of family. And now, I find out that they’re child abductors? The teenager they had kidnapped became the subject of an Amber Alert (reserved alert for missing persons typically younger than 18-years-old). He was found later, in a drugged daze; yet he remembers that his abductors forced him to marry their daughter. That could have been me, I thought, forced to marry her. You would think that a discovery of this magnitude would scare people my age—make them paranoid—not to mention all the events preceding, but it didn’t. And that scared me.