Spotlight on Myself

This is not a movie review.

With time for a matinee, the choice was between Spotlight and Room.

Spotlight: “The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.”

Room: “Both highly suspenseful and deeply emotional, Room is a unique and touching exploration of the boundless love between a mother and her child.”

Choosing Spotlight was easy. A movie about “boundless love between a mother and her child” might sound heartwarming to someone whose mother’s expressions of love didn’t include hairbrush spankings and enemas (as punishment) that would reasonably be called assault and anal rape if they were done to an adult. Boundless love presumably also would suggest that a mother might have actually, you know, loved their child.

I’ve never felt that what my mother did to me was a betrayal because that implies that there was some kind of bond or attachment to break. My mother has always been a stranger to me. Not like the stranger who is distant or unknown but like the kind you wouldn’t want your kid to get into a car with. I’ll go see the movie about institutional pedophilia because it’s less likely to traumatize me.

I arrive at the theatre a few minutes early and am eating a sandwich in my car in view of the ticket box. I see a single older man buy a ticket and enter. Then another. Then a third. Are they like me? I’m a single man, 56 years old, still not fully recovered, about to use a movie to reconnect with feelings I still have difficulty accepting or expressing. I’m not single in fact, given that I am wonderfully married, just in moments like these, alone. As in, nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen. Sorry but sometimes clichés sum things up efficiently. I know others have seen my troubles and worse. It’s a survivor thing, try to understand.

Having a job with a non-traditional schedule, I am often able to see weekday matinées. I never mind being the older guy seeing a movie by himself because I’ve got a lot of experience pretending I’m invisible. But seeing the three men enter the theatre before me changes the formula. Four lone men sitting apart from each other in a darkened theatre watching a movie about pedophilia priests is a sad tableau even if nobody else is there to witness it. I’m saved by the arrival of a couple and a group of four women.

I know what this movie is about. I know it takes place in Boston. I know the timeline. Nonetheless, my first revelatory shock comes immediately as the first scene is identified with the superimposed title, “Boston, 1976.” My parents are both from Boston and I was born in 1959 just outside of it, in Franklin. My mother was Catholic and I attended St. Mary’s Church as a child. In 1976 I was in high school in Falmouth and occasionally spent time in Boston. Spotlight is not literally my story in that I was not molested by a priest. At least not that I know of. But it’s my story because it was within this same place and culture that I grew up.

To a citizen, meaning someone who hasn’t lived the life of a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, my statement about not being molested by a priest “that I know of” might sound implausible. I know the existence of repressed memories is still not widely accepted. But having been silent about my abuse, from the time it occurred as a young child to well into my forties, my experience is that memories, particularly those from early childhood, are not much different from dreams (nightmares) in substance, clarity and reliability.

I have memories of a specific priest, whose name and face have always stayed with me. He was close to my family, and me, to the point that my middle name is taken after him. I presume I was baptized by him. My most vivid memory of him is of him touching me but it was in public in front of a lot of people after mass, with him tousling my hair. The emotion associated with the memory is warm so I’ve never considered him a serious suspect when trying to piece together my story. I’ve learned that emotional memory is generally more reliable than image memory.

I’ve also learned to doubt and question everything so, given what I already know about the topic of this movie, given the proximity of place and time, I’ve often wondered if there might have been more going on in that church than I’ve been willing to remember. If not by my name-sake priest, maybe another because, in spite of the differing particulars of what I know of my story, the Spotlight story feels like my story.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.” — Stanley Tucci speaking as Mitchell Garabedian in Spotlight

Whatever my experience and relationship was with the church, Spotlight is my story because the stories of all victims of childhood sexual abuse would not exist without a certain amount of acceptance, complicity and cover-up by the communities in which they occur. “Communities” means people. As accusing as that sounds I also know that it takes a village to heal an abused child and most of the people depicted in Spotlight, however resistant and however late some of them may be, act heroically. The acting here is exceptional.

I was particularly moved by the portrayal of the survivors. I want to be careful here and not speak too broadly but it seems to me that adult male survivors share some common characteristics, including a certain kind of vulnerability and social unease. We are primordial outsiders and if there’s a simmering anger detectable beneath the surface of our awkwardness it’s often sourced more in feelings of having been exiled before we ever had a chance to grow up or find our place in our families than simply at the violence that was thrust upon us.

Thrust upon us. Let that sink in. I wrote those three words without intending the vile pun that they are. I had to stop and collect myself when the reality of the words hit me. My impulse was to delete them and find another phrase. Fuck that.

If the survivor, whose beyond reasonable persistence in pushing against an immense systematic denial, Phil Salavino, seems a little paranoid, well, wouldn’t you be if you were in his shoes? I’ve always been paranoid. Paranoia acknowledges that there’s a sinister alternate reality that lies just beneath the surface of everyday life. That there are powerful people and institutions that are systematically manipulating us to look the other way while they commit unspeakable and inhuman acts. There are a lot of heroes in Spotlight but none braver, and with more at stake, than Salavino and the other survivors who were willing to tell their stories in the face of such massive cultural resistance.

The images from the movie that stay with me the most are the faces of the actors who portrayed the survivors with such sensitivity and compassion that I found myself wondering if the actors might be survivors themselves. There’s a recognition that occurs when I hear another male survivor share his story that’s like looking in a mirror. Had I not been in a public space, and had I not many years experience in constraining noticeable expressions of emotion, I would have audibly gasped at several scenes when I saw myself on that screen.

There are many shocking moments and revelations in Spotlight but for me, the most impactful one, the one that enabled me to drop my stoicism and let the tears flow, is at the end when they list the staggering number of other localities where priests were allowed and enabled by the highest offices of the Catholic hierarchy to molest children. It wasn’t the number that got to me. It wasn’t the fact that there was finally some accountability and justice for this particular depravity. It was the knowledge that most childhood sexual abuse occurs within the immediate family. It was the knowledge that the scope and scale of such abuse is far greater than this one epic institutional tragedy.

The cumulative effect of the movie primed my emotional pump to the point that it took some effort not to break down sobbing as the credits rolled. I even considered letting myself do so. I wanted to validate the movie, as watching it validated me, and let the other people in the theatre bear witness to the power and accuracy of the movie. Knowing how important it is that these stories be told I wanted to acknowledge mine by demonstrating publicly the grief that results from such abuses. But I couldn’t.

Thankfully, it wasn’t shame this time that kept me silent. It was simply that I was afraid someone would try to console me. It was that, thanks to my mother, I’m not ready for the comfort of strangers.

Links:

Spotlight at IMDB

Boston Globe: Church allowed abuse by priest for years

Male Survivor