A Boy Is Born with Horns. He Finds Marilyn Manson in the Synagogue, and Descends Through America in the Late Nineties.
I Wasn’t Born With Enough Middle Fingers
I’ve known about the two horns growing out of the top of my head since about middle school. The one on my right comes to a sharper point than the other. My pediatrician, as far as I can tell, didn’t seem worried or too repulsed. Just a misshapen skull. Nothing a good haircut couldn’t disguise. So long as you can hide your horns, you can blend right in with the gen pop.
I think it’s safe to say that any kid, even the ones to which popularity comes as if by Divine Right, will, no doubt, at some point, feel misunderstood and extraterrestrial. As a kid, my horns, despite their literal location, were the furthest things from my mind. There were plenty of other physical anxieties that made me feel like an outsider among other kids toward the end of middle school: buckteeth, braces, a unibrow, puberty, and a mess of freckles that refused to disappear no matter what the old wives tales promised about smearing lemon juice on the face. It wasn’t until a visit to the hair salon that I’d become acutely self-conscious of the horns.
Hairdressers discovering my horns has become such a frequent thing that it’s hard to distinguish that first memory of feeling like a grade school freak-show from all the other haircuts I got back then. Haircuts almost always go the same. The hairdressers run their hands through my hair, and inadvertently grope the horns. Some gasped. Some went wide-eyed at me in the mirror. And when I was still too young to drive myself to the salons, some would make sure my mother knew her son had the Mark of the Beast.
“Do they hurt?” they liked to ask.
There’s always been something somewhat sinister about two of me, the real me and my reflection, grinning and blushing in the chair at the salon, the black cape draped around my body, saying, yeah, I know about the horns, and, no, they don’t hurt.
You might be wondering why I didn’t just stick to one hairdresser as soon as I
found one who knew about my weird skull. Why did I have to go from salon to salon startling these poor women? Truth is I was on a quest to find the hairdresser who could duplicate a very specific haircut. I’d been having a tough go of it. And, I suppose, it probably didn’t help my case that I walked into these places showing them a photo of Casper the Friendly Ghost, asking them to please duplicate the haircut Casper had in the live action film starring Christina Ricci, Bill Pullman and Devin Sawa. Specifically, my haircut was inspired by the scene where Casper is temporarily transformed into a flesh and blood boy with, what I thought was, a most righteous haircut — the one sculpted with gel into the shape of an M that arched atop the forehead. This was probably a popular haircut that other kids wore in other movies and other towns, but I hadn’t seen it until I saw Casper.
1997 going into 1998, I was gearing up to honor the Jewish ritual of my passage into adulthood otherwise known as a Bar Mitzvah. Specifically, it means to reach the age to commit yourself to the law of God. For my Bar Mitzvah, I’d wear a suit, the yarmulke, and, for the first time, a tallit over my shoulders — a prayer shawl that’s essentially a sacred scarf only to be worn by those completing this initiation.
So my ghost haircut had to be impeccable. The immortality of photo albums was a real concern even in seventh grade — even well before the hashtag age. Photos back then, of a Bar Mitzvah, for sure, had a shelf life of at least a thousand years in the homes of Jewish grandparents.
Casper — this dead boy stuck with his family in an old house, cut off from the world of the living, was not so dissimilar to my own day-to-day. Never had I related to a character more than when that ghost became a temporary boy.
I wasn’t dead, per se, but during those early years, we didn’t have a computer or the Internet or Cable TV. So, at school, I might as well have been dead. This wasn’t so much my parents trying to cut my sisters and I off from the modern world — it was just our living situation on a farm in the middle of the woods. We didn’t even have an air conditioner until ten or so years ago.
The library of the temple where I was studying Hebrew was a dark room filled with relics like ancient scrolls, shofars, and candlesticks. Objects that had survived invasions, fires, death — passed in secret between believers, survivors, and preserved now in glass. I certainly recognized their significance. Stared at them for years in that synagogue. Held them in my hands at Sunday School to feel the weight of time, the word of God, a people destroyed and regenerated.
But there was something far more intriguing to me hiding in the corner of the library. Something I never even bothered to meddle with until I was twelve going on thirteen: A television with access to MTV.
MTV had been around for almost two decades already. And I’d caught clips here and there. I knew what I was missing. I knew there were videos to go along with these songs that I’d sit by the radio for hours at night trying to will the hosts to play so I could curate my DIY mixtapes.
Before I’d found that television, my only chance to hear new music was the radio — Hot 97, K104, and 92.3 K-ROCK. The disembodied voices of radio hosts offered me my only connection to artists I’d become obsessed with — from 2Pac to TLC to Ace of Base to The Beastie Boys.
I’d soon start sneaking out of Shabbat services to catch music videos. Biggie.
Third Eye Blind. Spice Girls. Bone Thugs. Aaliyah. The Cranberries. Seeing a music video would forever change the way I’d listen to a song. I studied the videos on an almost anthropological level. I, for sure, studied them closer than I was my Hebrew. The TV was my vessel to worlds I’d been so eager to explore. My friends who had MTV at home seemed rather blasé about it. They could survive without it. I guess, since I didn’t have it, two-miles out from all my friends, up on a hill in the woods, no neighbors within walking distance, the prospect of seeing the bright visuals that correlated with the songs I loved, seemed as necessary as air and water.
If a house of worship is supposed to be a kind of bridge to God, and the ancient Hebrew a holy connection to your ancestral lineage, the sanctuary in which I was supposed to discover myself as an adult in the eyes of the Lord — while balancing the nature of good and evil with a teenage brain — had instead become my place to experiment with new ways of interpreting the world.
I was studying MTV as if desperate to find something new to satisfy my hesitation to become a devoted member of a religion, a ritual that started to feel like once I stepped through the doorway, there’d be no return. There was a kid, just a few years older than me, born with a Biblical name, whose life I could clearly see mapped out from middle school to death. Law school, Volvo, khakis, etc… I needed otherwise. (At the time of writing that previous sentence, I did not know if this were really true or not. However, I have since found him on Facebook and can confirm that my hyperbole has, for the most part, materialized. I have yet to prove the Volvo though.)
Back at school, I was in no way immune to that particular solipsism that tends to manifest itself in the tender hearts of thirteen-year-olds. That feeling like the whole world is working to destroy you and only you. But, to be fair, most everyone embraced all the things that I believed made me a pariah––physically and spiritually. I had teachers that liked to gift my mother menorahs every Hanukkah (she now has a closetful). And the close friends I had by seventh grade joked that my Bar Mitzvah would really be a public circumcision hosted by a DJ. This was far better than hearing jokes about my Jewish ancestors killing Jesus.
It took only a handful of people though, authority types mostly, who openly disliked me specifically for being Jewish. Nowhere was my Judaism more controversial than among the puritanical lunch monitors. These women prowled the cafeteria like Gestapo in gaucho pants. As early as second grade, I was keen to their opinion of me. The wicked ones made me eat my lunch when I was supposed to be fasting for holidays like Yom Kippur. There was no arguing with them. I dreaded these women more than the God of the Old Testament who, in The Book of Job, could so swiftly murder Job’s entire family and cover his body in boils and kill all his livestock only to prove just how loyal Man can be to the Lord even in the face of absolute despair.
After my mom had a talk with the school about not punishing me for fasting
during certain holidays, I began to taunt the lunch monitors. I’d march into the cafeteria some days and make up random Jewish holidays, just to tell those women I was fasting, and there was nothing they could do about it. In a way, I welcomed their animosity. This was about the time I recognized in myself a fetish for rebellion. I was only eight when I sang, at the top of my lungs, on the lunch line, around Christmastime, Joy to the world — your God is dead. That one landed me in the principal’s office. I shudder to think what those women would’ve done if they ever found out about my horns.
It would’ve been easy for those peanut-butter-and-jelly-prison-guards to blame a phrase like that on someone like, say, Marilyn Manson, but that was elementary school, only a few years before I’d discover him.
In seventh grade, in the temple library, right around when I’d found my secret access to MTV, I got my first look at a Marilyn Manson music video. It was his cover of The Eurythmics’s Sweet Dreams. I’d heard the original before, but to hear his depraved, distorted version awoke something in me. Manson’s image alone was confirmation that there might be others out there that understood what it was like to feel isolated from the modern world. He seemed to rejoice in the fact that life was a mad and ridiculous series of events. Here was this ghoulish, skeletal man covered in mud and riding a pig and wearing a tattered wedding dress and smiling so wide and distant that it was almost intimidating. I was hooked.
MTV, through the grace of the temple, gave me a new icon.
Self-righteous politicians and talking heads in mainstream media would tell America to fear his music. Religious groups protested his concerts. Shit, even a young Katy Perry picketed Manson concerts with her parents. They said this man was an assault on the children of America — his music, they warned, was causing widespread moral panic. It’s hard to imagine now, but this was back when the name Marilyn Manson had the power to shock — how dare he sandwich the likeness of Marilyn Monroe with the savagery of Charles Manson?
At the time, Manson’s second and most recent full-length album, Antichrist Superstar, had already been out for a few years, but was still controversial. This was a man who performed bare-assed, in a black corset and thigh-highs at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Who screamed at the audience that he could see them out there, “trying your hardest not to be ugly… trying your hardest to earn your way into heaven.”
Antichrist Superstar is an album celebrating the discovery of the individual. It gave me a new courage to be myself — whatever that happened to be. The songs were furious, lyrical, filthy, sinister and tremendously cathartic.
What I got from his music and imagery wasn’t this supposed call to incite moral panic. I believed he was exposing listeners to the idea that you should question what you believe and live your life accordingly. To locate the hypocrisies and call them out. (Like, for instance, Manson’s song, Get Your Gunn, from his debut album, Portrait of an American Family, is about the abortionist David Gunn, who was murdered by a Christian fundamentalist. In 1999, Manson wrote in Rolling Stone that Gunn’s death “was the ultimate hypocrisy I witnessed growing up: that these people killed someone in the name of being ‘prolife.’”)
What I gathered was someone telling me to keep curious. Question everything. I appreciated someone drawing back the curtain. In a 1997 appearance on the TV show Politically Incorrect, Manson said, “I want people to think about what they believe. I want them to consider if everything they’ve been taught, if that’s what they want to believe or if that’s what they’ve been told that they have to believe.” (This episode, for those interested, also featured a wonderful interaction between Manson and Florence Henderson. Which, in itself, is the exact kind of balancing act of the American grotesque and beauty that gave birth to Manson’s persona.)
It wasn’t as if Manson offered me some big, life-changing epiphany when it came to faith and belief, but he did offer me the chance to feel confident about questioning what I’d already begun to suspect wasn’t entirely for me. At school, my Jewishness became an act of rebellion against the lunch monitors. However, at temple, my reluctance to worship in the way that was expected of me also became an act of rebellion. Outside the temple, I was the only Jew in school (aside from my little sisters)— inside the temple, I was the only metalhead, rap-loving Jew who’d found solace in music videos.
So when I finally stood before my friends and family for my Bar Mitzvah, May 31, 1998, my father’s birthday, I’d come to feel like an impostor. I wore the suit. I recited the lines. I learned a new language to the best of my ability, and yet I was becoming the exact opposite of what I was supposed to be promising to God and family. My Bar Mitzvah became more of a funeral for my faith than a promise to God. (Grandma, if you’re still reading, forgive me.)
It seems appropriate that on the last song of Antichrist Superstar, Manson sings: “The boy that you loved is the man that you fear.”
In the Bar Mitzvah photograph hanging in my parents’ hallway you can see everyone dressed up, smiling at the camera, proud, joyful, and I’ve got my ghost haircut, my jacket’s missing, tie’s gone, and I’m looking off camera, squinting at something in the distance, something that no one else seems troubled by; a wonderful, lurking darkness, perhaps, calling out to me, wondering what I’ll do now that I’ve shed this skin.
I’m Not Attached to Your World
And so became my morning routine: Wake up and spike hair. Paint fingernails black. Snap on faux-leather studded bracelets. Put on three to five fake-silver rings with skulls, anarchy signs, and pentagrams. Step into a pair of JNCO jeans so wide it looked like a denim dress. Throw on long-sleeved fishnet shirt. Throw on a black Marilyn Manson tee over the fishnet. Attach wallet to chain and clip to belt loop. Add two more chains that’d hang from waist to knee for no purpose other than aesthetics.
The first goth I ever met was an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator. This was fifth or sixth grade. We were filed into the auditorium and watched this man in all black pretend to be a crazed-drunk, death-obsessed, mad-poet, flailing about the stage. This was where we typically sang Christmas carols for winter recitals.
It’s possible the goth aesthetic appealed to me because I felt like a teenage monstrosity, and being goth gave me the ability to become the very monster I believed others saw me as. (Read: An embarrassing amount of teenage angst.) Being goth, if you ask me, doesn’t have to be about appearance or
music, really. I think goth is more the willingness to accept the macabre, the unknown, all the frights that come with being a human. It is a way of becoming your very own memento mori.
My parents were teenagers in 1969. Among a string of nightmares, assassinations, and war, the end of that decade also delivered the national-shock of the Manson Family Murders. And then, about three decades later, my parents would have a teenage son who looked up to a man who took on Manson as a stage name, who had followers who also adorned themselves with dark, occultist supplies. For their patience, my parents deserved a Nobel.
My father was disappointed, but also encouraging. This is a man who liked to
remind us of his time at Catholic school where the punishment was doled out by ruthless nuns — hold-your-arms-out-to-your-side––palms up––and-balance-a great-big-family-Bible-on-each-hand kind of nuns. Even though I was aware that he and my mom agreed to raise us in her faith, he’d share with me his own idea of a comprehensive, kind of multifaceted God — a powerful being, sure, but one that shifted shape from person to person depending on age, time, and background.
Regardless of what I looked like, I still went to temple. There was endless amounts of blessed wine to sneak in behind the rabbi’s back. Plus, I had a crush on his daughter. The temple, maybe because it was fairly empty, felt like a place where I was the most free of judgement. I also wasn’t going to give up on my dose of MTV. Marilyn Manson was speaking directly to me in the dark library in the heart of that temple.
Only three months after my Bar Mitzvah, the very first episode of Total Request Live (TRL), hosted by Carson Daly, would air on September 14th, 1998. The day before the release of Manson’s follow up to Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals. Manson would be live on air to debate youth pastors about the nature of his image, the meaning of his music and how he may or may not have been a bad influence on listeners.
I was anticipating hearing a Manson as angry as the character he became on Antichrist Superstar: a close-fisted, fire-breathing deviant with no filter, set to tell all these people off on live television. I prepared for the people with Pop Warner coach haircuts to denounce Manson. It’s rather pathetic, looking back now, how eager I was to dislike anybody who seemed anti-Manson. If they were anti-Manson, then, well, they must’ve been anti-me. There I was in the synagogue like a diehard sports fan on the edge of my seat awaiting the game.
The streets were mobbed with fans in black when Manson went live on TRL in Times Square. He had a new look. He’d mutated into this androgynous, Bowie-esque glam-alien. Meanwhile I’d become a vacuum of color, a metallic, sputnik-looking mall-goth as, I’m sure, older, truer goths might’ve called me behind my back if they ever caught me walking out of Hot Topic.
But something far greater took place on TRL than just a slugfest between Christian fundamentalists and an exhibitionist performance artist. (I guess I anticipated some kind of retaliation for Get Your Gunn.)
However, I witnessed an honest and open conversation among different types of people from various backgrounds and belief systems. Here were Christians sitting with the “antichrist,” holding a genuine and respectful dialogue about art. For someone who’d become so eager to lob insults on anyone who was going to hate on Manson, my rage was deflated at how respectful and eloquent everyone was. Total opposite of what the talking heads on the TV channels I had at home would lead you to believe.
Manson might’ve performed beneath the banner as the ultimate freak of nature, but, after this TRL episode, it seemed clear to me that anyone was welcome under that banner, no matter what your affiliations were, so long as you could keep an open mind for anyone that might be different than you. And, above all, show some respect.
Manson said himself that day on TRL, “As long as someone’s expressing themselves, I can’t hate them for it.”
So, in a way, Manson became my new androgynous rabbi.
This isn’t to say I wasn’t already learning some morality at temple. The Ten Commandments have some obvious and valid core principles — don’t murder, don’t cheat, love yourself and those around you in a way that will allow reciprocal love. I just think I needed my time at the temple first to truly appreciate this conversation between Manson and the pastors. I needed to know there was a choice and that if you chose to believe in one thing, it didn’t mean you had to obey in strict accordance. It was OK to hold alternating, if not conflicting, views of the world. It helped me better understand both the believers and the non-believers — I’d opened both doors. This also reminded me of my own parents. Both having grown up with different religions. Both having found common ground. Family members on either side were not happy with the faith of the other. But, thankfully, their love transcended, and, I believe, I was exposed to the idea early on that diversity of thought and faith is a good thing. Perhaps I forgot about all that through the fog of teenage bitterness. Perhaps it took Manson and TRL to remind me––though I can’t say this all happened overnight. But, if I had to pinpoint where it started, I’d have to say TRL.
1998, despite the Lewinsky Scandal, and the birth of Viagra, and the United States Embassy bombings in Kenya, and the popularity of the Furby, and El Niño, and the bomb that went off in an Alabama abortion clinic, and the murder of James Byrd, felt like an OK time to be thirteen, and, for the most part, cut off from the news. I had friends. Not all of whom were goth. But we were all, in some way, a bunch of outsiders and, as it tends to go, by virtue of becoming a cast of outsiders, formed a tight group of curious kids who spent nights jumping in and out of shadows through our small town. The kind of kids who’d hang out in the cemetery after school. French kissing beneath the Virgin Mary on some poor soul’s headstone.
We had CDs and CD players. I finally had TRL. DMX would do a song with Marilyn Manson. Ice Cube went on tour with Korn. It seemed like all the stuff we loved, that the powers that be feared — music that came packaged with parental advisory stickers — was beginning to coalesce.
But we didn’t know then what devastation awaited just around the corner. The Columbine High School Massacre was less than a year away. Among all the horrors that spilled out of that nightmare, we also did not yet know how the mass media would falsely accuse Marilyn Manson for inspiring the massacre.
Misinformation spread fast across the news that the attackers were fans of Manson’s. Almost immediately, the news spiraled out of control and it seemed like everyone who’d never listened to Manson, outside the short clips the news-anchors played to shock you, found it pretty easy to blame him. It was too late, however, once the truth eventually did come out that the kids responsible for the massacre were not, in fact, fans. It should also be noted that some of those who let themselves believe Manson could inspire such a nightmare, turned around and sent Manson death threats.
It was almost as if Manson predicted this type of smear campaign with the story he’d been telling in his songs about how the culture and the media exploit fame, TV, drugs and violence. And everyone who liked Manson, or looked like Manson, became a kind of pariah. A new Manson Family had emerged — if but a loose network of fans in black.
Two months after Columbine, Manson wrote for Rolling Stone: “It is no wonder that kids are growing up more cynical; they have a lot of information in front of them. They can see that they are living in a world that’s made of bullshit. In the past, there was always the idea that you could turn and run and start something better. But now America has become one big mall, and because the Internet and all of the technology we have, there’s nowhere to run.”
Some Children Died the Other Day… You Should Have Seen the Ratings That Day
The Garden of Earthly Delights is a seven foot by twelve foot oil painting divided into three panels that fold in on themselves — created sometime between 1490 and 1510 by Hieronymus Bosch. It is currently on display in the Museo de Prado in Madrid. Each section acts as a sort of window into Eden, Lust and Hell, respectively. It’s hard to believe that a piece of art created in the late 15th century, not even a hundred years into the existence of oil paints, can be more fantastical, sinister and comical than most art today. There are unicorns and strange pink architectures reaching into the sky. There are preposterously-sized birds and strawberries. There are people eating fruit out the mouths of birds. There are people crawling into eggs. Animals eating animals. Sex in lakes. Sex on horseback. Angels in a blue sky in the center panel are replaced in the right panel with a sky engulfed in flame. A pig dressed as a nun kissing a man. A man with trees for legs and rowboats for feet. A bird-headed figure seated like a prince with a pot for a crown stuffing naked humans in its mouth and shitting them into a hole in the ground. I can only imagine the way it must’ve shocked casual observers upon first viewing — da Vinci’s, The Last Supper, was painted around that same time.
Bosch’s triptych, to me, feels like an ancient companion to what would become Marilyn Manson’s trilogy of albums starting with Antichrist Superstar and ending with 2000’s Holy Wood — his response to the smearing of his character across mainstream media in a post-Columbine America.
In a webcast preceding the release of Holy Wood, Manson said the album is about revolution, evolution of man, and where violence comes from.
The same themes of the nature of innocence, indulgence and human destruction, consecutively, seem to play out in each of the three panels of Bosch’s Earthly Delights, as well as Manson’s three albums. Both sets of triptychs are each a study in the Fall of Man and who, or what, is to blame, if anything. They are each, also, as dark as they are satirical.
I understand that some Manson fans might say here, woah, the triptych of Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals, and Holy Wood is meant to be digested backwards, so Manson has claimed, but it’s hard for me to divorce my interpretation from anything other than how I experienced them, one after another, linearly.
I urge you to listen to The Beautiful People, from Antichrist Superstar, while staring at the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Find the image of the young God introducing Eve to Adam, or, as I sometimes see it, casting them out of Eden. Here, God makes direct eye contact with the viewer with a left hand lifted in prayer while Adam, naked, seated, looks up to God, and Eve looks to the ground. Now hear the lyrics from Manson’s Beautiful People, from Antichrist Superstar:
And I don’t want you and I don’t need you
don’t bother to resist, or I’ll beat you.
Press play on Mechanical Animals and move your eyes to the big, center panel of Bosch’s painting. The big orgy. Hear the bright shimmering guitar and screaming feedback that opens The Dope Show:
We’re all stars now in the dope show…
There’s lots of pretty, pretty ones
That want to get you high
Finally, study the dark, right panel and press play on Manson’s third installment of his own triptych — Holy Wood. Listen to The Nobodies, and stare at the musicians playing the composition written across the bare ass of what might be a human corpse.
Some children died the other day
We fed machines and then we prayed
Puked up and down in morbid faith
You should have seen the ratings that day
I suppose you could view my metamorphosis from middle school into high school as a triptych, too. The innocence leading up to my Bar Mitzvah, my teenage fall from God, and the depravities of high school that would eventually lead to me getting escorted out of the principal’s office by the police.
Sometime around the start of high school, I completely shaved off my eyebrows. This was an accident. I was trying to get rid of my unibrow with a razor. I did not yet know what tweezers could do. The razor slipped and took off half an eyebrow. I figured the best I could do to fix it was to just shave them both off. Without eyebrows, I looked like I was in constant shock. The look, however, made sense with the whole goth aesthetic. I was working at the local hardware store, so I’d also been cutting all the chain I needed to wrap around my waist and hang from my wallet. When I walked through school, I must’ve looked like Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol whose heavy chains were, “long, and wound about him like a tail.”
One day, in the great, big white hallway right outside the high school gym, I found a pane of shattered glass. To this day, I do not know who shattered that glass. It was the kind of pebbled glass with chicken wire inside, so that although it was shattered, the shards remained suspended in the air.
When I saw the glass, I was curious and decided to touch it. I think I wanted to see what would happen if I just pushed on it a little. Would it come falling down? It didn’t. But I must’ve cut my finger ever so slightly in the process. A very small bit of blood appeared. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to wipe it on the white walls. I wish I could say I stopped there, but I can’t. I decided to write words like FUCK and SHIT and the letter X and an inverted cross or two. And, thanks to a true lack of imagination, I combined the words die and evil to form dievil. Of this, I hate to say, in the moment, I was proud.
The bleeding stopped and I walked to Global Studies and forgot all about my ghastly painting.
The next morning when I got to school, the hallway was behind police tape. An officer took photographs of the wall.
How long would it be until they find me? Anytime the phone rang in a classroom, I jumped.
Well, if the police found my blood on a Tuesday morning, it took until Friday afternoon for the call to finally come. Some seventh graders came forward and pointed me out to the principal: freckles, spiked hair, chains. Easy to identify.
There was no use denying it. It’d only been a little over a year or so since Columbine. And I understand now how the proximity in time to the that massacre only added to the dread of the authorities. What they saw was a threat. What I saw, and knew to be true, was a really, absurdly, empty-headed, spontaneous act of stupidity.
But I wasn’t done.
Afraid of my parents, the police, and the principal, I went and blamed my actions on the music. They were so worried about dievil. What did it mean? I lied and said it was a Manson song. Of all the things, I blamed it on what I knew they expected me to blame it on. They already had a certain idea about me, and I just fed them exactly what they wanted to hear. I figured that the punishment would be swift, but lean, if I just caved.
The principal swore that I broke the glass to cut myself on purpose. As if I was performing some kind of satanic ritual outside the gymnasium after lunch. They believed I was in that hallway signing a death warrant in blood.
By that time it wasn’t rare for people to think that anyone who dressed like me could reap violence and there I was confirming the fear.
The principal handed me ten days of out of school suspension and the police walked me out of the school. But, not long after, I received word that the superintendent wanted me expelled.
I think she’d already written me off before she ever let me speak. I think her swift decision to rid the school of me was a knee-jerk reaction. My appearance coupled with my actions was alarming. And, I get it. What I did was not only embarrassing, but it scared a lot of people.
Violence is everywhere. It always has been, and, unfortunately, in one form or another, it always will be. I just didn’t know how to prove to the school, or my parents, that what I’d done was not a threat. Just a perverse stunt.
I often think about what violence awaits me, or those I love, or the world at large. It seems like you can’t even go outside anymore. How long have our flags been at half-mast?
Three years ago, the summer my son was born, a young man from my town was in the produce aisle at a nearby grocery store when a stranger came up from behind and, for no reason other than unhinged meanness, opened his throat with a box-cutter. I did not know the victim personally, but the proximity to senselessness shook me. I remember sitting up in bed late beside my sleeping and very pregnant wife, trying to make sense of such cruel violence. That next morning, June 12, we learned that 49 people were shot to death at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. I remember looking at my wife and wondering how the hell should children even be allowed outside on this maniac planet. I marveled at how my grandparents raised children in the aftermath of world wars and atom bombs and throughout the string of assassinations in the sixties.
I have no clue what the answers are. What I do know is that we can promote a better future by encouraging the next generations to really listen to each other, to encourage empathy, to speak the truth, to be open-minded, free-thinking people who cherish the planet and themselves.
We’re quick to blame Islam, or Christianity, or video games, or rap, or heavy metal, or sexual preferences, or immigration, or Twitter, or, well, you get the point. We’re quick to point the finger in the aftermath of violence.
Having grown up a fan of Marilyn Manson’s has taught me to always distrust the media, or politicians, when it comes to blaming anybody, or any thing, other than the perpetrators, for a violent act––unless, of course, it’s been explicitly incited by a specific person or group. I can’t tell you how many times, as a teen, I had to tell people much older than me that Manson had nothing to do with Columbine. This, you might remember, overshadowed the previous rumor Manson fans had to debunk often: that he had a rib surgically removed to give himself blowjobs.
I don’t remember what I wore when the Superintendent beckoned me to her office for one last chance to say my peace before expulsion, but I imagine it was something like what a vampire might wear to a wedding. She said I should stop wearing black. That just the sight of me promoted violence. Her apathetic tone struck something open in me. One last appeal. What would Marilyn do?
“Speaking of violence,” I said, doing my best Manson. I felt like I had to redeem myself in the eyes of my friends who’d all known that I blamed my actions on the music.
I reminded the Superintendent about, what we all called, The Mouth, in the cafeteria. A sort of Rolling Stones pair of big red lips that formed a window into the kitchen. This was where you could order slushies. There was one popular flavor that you had to order by a special name. Every available flavor combined. The cafeteria called it the Suicide.
The suicide wasn’t a unique flavor to our school, kids liked to buy “suicides” at 7/11s, too, but, I evoked it in the superintendent’s office to try and cancel out her argument that I was the only seemingly violent entity in the school. I reminded her that our school was selling suicides as much as she thought my appearance promoted it.
I was back in school in a week.
Four years after the incident outside of the gymnasium, I was hired by the same principal who suspended me to be a substitute teacher at my old high school. Now I wore slacks, boat shoes, and colorful sweaters. Outwardly, I looked like the inverse of my previous high school incarnation — but this was only a costume. A new impostor trying to blend in. I walked with a cane because I’d recently broken my knee while singing on stage in my metal band. I spent most weekends performing in dive bars and college towns, banging my head till it practically fell off and rolled into the crowd.
My first job at school was to “shadow” a kid the school deemed dangerous — a threat to himself and maybe to others as well. The student had been out of school for a few weeks due to the fact that he was caught trying to mutilate himself in class with a blade he’d picked up from the art supply room. Supposedly, he tried to castrate himself.
Perhaps this was the school’s way of dealing revenge. But I felt rather at home with that student. Some teachers and students were openly repulsed by him. He’d sit alone at lunch. The kid couldn’t sleep due to night terrors. He’d doze off during class. He didn’t talk much. And here I was following him around my old school, sitting in my old teacher’s classrooms. After a few weeks of silence, I learned he was a drummer. So, in a move to open some dialogue, I gave him a copy of Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams — the version from the Last Tour on Earth live album. That particular rendition ends with a drum solo that’s listed on the album as the Hell Outro. (I only see now how absurd I’d been giving a kid who couldn’t sleep at night a song called Sweet Dreams.) The kid dug it. He started speaking. He even kind of half-smiled. We sat together in the cafeteria for lunch — the Mouth smiling at us. I think he felt less alone. I wanted him to know it was OK to be himself — even if it felt impossible. Music has a way of helping us put into words whatever darkness has uniquely latched onto us. I watched that semester as the kid made friends with other musicians. A guitar player. A singer. They talked about jamming and playing the talent show.
My first band started in that school. It was, go figure, a Marilyn Manson cover band. I sang. When we played the talent show, we covered The Nobodies from Manson’s Holy Wood. I screamed and threw myself across the stage like that crazed Poe-impersonator.
Someone’s mother shot up from her seat in the audience and started yelling that I was the devil. I was flattered.
It’s kind of a family tradition — being called the devil. There’s a story that’s been in my family since the 1940s. When my poppop, my mother’s father, was a teen, this little kid, a neighbor, ran up to him on the street and asked to see his horns. The kid had been told that all Jewish people had horns.
Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher, wrote that Satan, derives from the Hebrew root “to turn away.” To deviate from God. To be honest, since I’d lost my faith at 13, I have attempted prayer, sure, the same way I’ve experimented with drugs. I can’t say that I know now what I believe, but it’d be disingenuous to tell you that in times of profound grief it’s not hard to want to revisit some of those passages I once studied, and speak those ancient words in an attempt to connect myself with the dead.
I wouldn’t discover the writing of Flannery O’Connor until college, but when I did, I’d find a kindred spirit in her as well. I think she and Marilyn Manson have more in common than you might first believe. Although she was a devout Catholic, and Manson has said he’s not atheist, but spiritual, and I, at the time of this writing, a meandering agnostic, I think we could all find common ground on the idea that you aren’t truly your best self, spiritual or not, unless you are relentlessly investigating your thoughts and beliefs and testing them within yourself and against the world, building a kind of immune system for everything you thought was true and good and just. Not unlike Marilyn Manson, O’Connor didn’t shy away from showing gruesome acts of violence in her art in an attempt, I think, to remind people we should be consistent in our pursuit for being better to ourselves and to others. Both Manson and O’Connor promote the ideas of curiosity and introspection. I believe these are paramount in how one might orient themselves against their world and, hopefully, find even a little meaning.
In her prayer journal, O’Connor wrote:
no one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer and he has his reasons.
My horns act as a reminder that I will never know all things. Why the Hell do I have horns? I do, however, find comfort in the not-knowing. Not-knowing is the engine for unending curiosity. My horns are also a reminder that we’re all capable of varying degrees of bad behavior. That we all live with some amount of secret shame and confusion. They remind me to embrace the strangest, most freakish parts of humanity. To never judge anyone by the way they look, or dress. It’s too easy to be manipulated by the ease with which generalities dictate one’s perception.
My mom thinks my poppop, after years of telling the story about how that kid asked to see his horns, willed these very real horns onto me. The horns, so she says, weren’t noticeable when I was just an infant. I’m told there was no sense of malevolence in the delivery room when I was born. The hospital staff did not freak as if they’d witnessed the birth of a human baby with, like, the head of a goat. If I arrived on Earth with horns, they went unnoticed for a few years. My guess is the small crests of bone rising up out of my skull — exactly where you’d expect devil horns to be — grew as I grew. They might still be growing.
(Due to “the current national conversation,” this story was pulled from a magazine’s forthcoming publication.)