The Farm gave me the best environment to ponder the nature of Evil and how it came to exist. Yes, I had been taught that Man sinned in Eden because Eve was tempted and passed the temptation along to Adam. But this simple story did not answer the question of so great an evil as the Holocaust. I needed to understand the problem of Evil and its relation to God and Man.
The most sacred dogma of my childhood affirmed that the Bible was the Word of God! I intended to read the Bible more carefully than ever before, in a systematic and studious way. Surely the issue of Evil would be made clear.
I read the standard King James Version from start to finish. I noted considerable contradictions. But, in a standard way, I sought answers to these puzzles from the local theological community. Their answer: the Bible was not contradictory. I simply did not understand it properly.
I needed to gain a deeper understanding to resolve these conflicts. So I read books that explained the Bible, the history of the times, the customs, the people, the archaeology and so forth. I limited my reading to books by Christian authors. I reasoned that only Christians could write about Christianity, as only Christians could “understand” the Bible. After all, this was pretty much a doctrine of faith. But nothing was satisfactory. All the purported answers, when deeply considered, did not satisfy some deep essence that I could not quite articulate.
The way I understood it, from a notebook I kept later:
“Suppose your innocent five-year-old is given a special treat. A playroom is prepared, containing all the delights of childhood. Every imaginable toy and activity is there. A table spread with every delicacy to please the eye and bring pleasure the palate. But, for some sick reason, you decide to place a huge frosted cake in the center of the table and forbid the little one to even touch it, much less taste it. You point out that everything else is there for his pleasure and use. Now, also imagine you are a knowledgeable parent, one who understands that any child is likely to want the very thing he has been forbidden. But you issue your warnings and step out of the room.
“The child, wanting to be obedient, begins to play and eat as permitted. But wait! That nasty little kid from next door – the one who tortures cats and pulls wings off flies – comes over and you send him in with Little One. Immediately, Little Nasty tells Little One that the wonderful cake has got to be the ultimate yummy! And, furthermore, Nasty tells Little One that it doesn’t make sense for Mom and Dad to have forbidden eating the cake, since it is so obviously a wonderful treat! Little One thinks about this for a bit and acknowledges that Mom and Dad are good to him and he can see no rationale for not taking a little taste. So, not knowing that Little Nasty is Nasty, he accepts the reasoning that surely Mom and Dad would not put something truly Deadly within his reach. So, being curious, innocent and Tricked, he takes a bite!
“IS THIS THE BIG ONE? Do Mom and Dad now come in and toss Little One out on his ear and take all his goodies away? Do they further toss him out WITH Little Nasty to continue his education in Nastiness?
“Is that what you would do?
“Where and how did the “flaw,” the “evil,” the “Fly in the ointment,” originate – the influence under which Little Nasty operated – and why does the “Punishment” seem all out of proportion to the crime?
“If Little One is bad, will you punish all his little friends and his children as well? For millennia? And, if Little One was, in fact perfect -that is, having an adult appreciation of his error -would he have done it? And, if Little One was sorely tempted by a situation YOU created, wouldn’t you admit that there were mitigating circumstances, accept part of the blame, get rid of the cake and Little Nasty and take better care of Little One?”
In my pondering over the problem in this way, the Judeo-Christian concept of God and the nature of Evil came off looking pretty puerile. It boiled down to the fact that, firstly, we are taught that God is All Powerful, Omniscient, Perfect and Loving. Next we are told that Man was created “in the image and likeness of God”. But temptation arrives in the form of a “fallen” angel who, we must assume, was also created by this same “Perfect, Loving, All-Knowing God”. The “Perfect Man,” created “in the image of God,” succumbs to the trials of temptation offered by his fellow creation and “Falls”. Ever afterward, all of mankind suffers the repercussions of this event.
In my simple-minded way, I realized there was something seriously wrong with this concept. I tried to break it down to see if there might be some way I could excuse God. But the more I thought about it, the worse the problem became. First of all, if man is created in the image and likeness of God, he must, of necessity, possess the attributes of God. Well, we know what Man is and, if he is subject to temptation as this story clearly states, then we must assume that God is also subject to temptation.
At the same time, if the “Fallen Angel” was also a created being, as it must have been, what was the model for its creation? Further, if God is All Powerful and Perfect, how could any creation of His, be it angel or man, possess attributes of evil of any kind unless the creator Himself possessed those attributes? That was a terrifying thought. An all-powerful God with human whims or evil proclivities? Perish the thought!
Even the explanation that man was given “Free Will” to choose God, which was the answer I was given to this question, didn’t satisfy me because in the implied “image of God,” man’s free will would lead toward perfection and good in all cases!
If God were, in fact, an all-knowing creator, perfect in knowledge and foresight, He would have known the outcome of His act of Creation. If that is the case, and He did it anyway, then we are merely playing pieces in a great Cosmic game – a joke – with mankind as the punch line.
It amounts to this: if God is, in fact, the Loving Father of All, then many humans are better parents than He, for they would certainly know better than to place their children in a situation fraught with temptation, unprepared and unwarned. And, furthermore, had such a scenario unfolded, the loving parent would certainly not inflict punishment out of all proportion to the offense!
The Sunday school teachers tried to explain to me that “Man was warned!” Well, that’s all fine and good, but he was not warned against subterfuge and trickery. He was supposedly a perfect man, set down in a perfect creation, but it was not truly perfect because evil was allowed to exist in it. And that point really grabbed me. We never are informed why this Evil happened to be there; it is as though it was “part” of the creation from the beginning. Nevertheless, this evil was able to Trick the perfect man and woman, and, as a result, countless billions of human beings have suffered untold miseries -both rich and poor, strong and weak, old and young -year after miserable year for countless centuries.
Is that the best God can do in his role of Perfect loving Father?
Now, you have to realize that I was pretty distressed by the fact that I was even questioning God. In the faith of my family, the role was “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” It was a closed, comfortable system with no ambiguities. And I could see that, in principle, the system was a good one: it taught people to be kind, honest, sacrificing of personal comfort for others, loyal and so forth. Devotion to these values, even if actual practice of them was sometimes problematical, was a hallmark of the faith along with confidence in the “rightness” of our belief. But, as I struggled with this issue, it was becoming increasingly clear that nothing could be allowed to challenge the system.
This troubled me. Was it so fragile that it couldn’t withstand questions and challenges? What was being hidden from me? Why was everyone so evasive when I started asking my questions?
The next problem concerned different versions of this belief system. As it happened, my aunt – the one who married my mother’s brother – was Catholic. At some point in my early childhood, my other aunt, my mother’s sister, had converted to Catholicism. This was considered to be a great blow to the family, steeped for generations in Protestant theology.
My mother constantly remarked on my aunts’ Catholicism as though it were demon possession. I had been forbidden to play with Hetty, my circus friend, partly because she was Catholic. It was obvious that others in the family also held Catholicism to be some sort of major doctrinal error that could lead directly to damnation, though they were not as vocal about it as Mother was. At the same time, during all of my interactions with my cousins, I was repeatedly informed by them that Protestants were the damned ones because Catholicism was the one “true religion”.
This produced some confusion because, as I have said, my aunt was always very kind to me and even though I loved my mother and grandmother, I could see their treatment of my aunt, or, at the very least, their attitude toward her, was less than “Christian”. Her attitude toward them was far more “Christian,” even though she was the one who was supposed to be damned! All I could do was observe. And question.
I plunged into a frenzy of prayer intended to extirpate these questions from my mind. According to doctrine, the fact that one questions the Bible is evidence of satanic influence – a mind that questioned God was a curse – and doubt was the wide road to Hell.
I pleaded with God to show me the answer to this problem, but all was silence. I was left with my question. And it burned like a smoldering volcano.
I was carrying a pretty heavy burden. The conflict between my thinking and my faith led to some very serious cognitive and emotional difficulties.
Because of those questions raised in my mind at the age of eleven, I began systematically reading everything I could get my hands on that might provide a clue to the solution of the Great Mystery – mainly history. By now it has become literally thousands upon thousands of books. The closest conservative estimate I can make is somewhere around 10,000 volumes. And I pretty much remember everything I read, where I read it, and who wrote it. This has been a blessing because it has enabled me to make connections and draw inferences that would have otherwise been impossible.
If there were some historical evidence that man was to blame for all his own miseries, this would let God off the hook. And I was most definitely trying to find the way to do that! I realized pretty quickly that this was not going to be a simple path. One event depended on another; start at any point, go in any of hundreds of directions, and never run out of material. With the naiveté of the child, I thought I could just jump in and reinvent the wheel, solving problems that have occupied philosophers and theologians for millennia! What hubris!
I went through all the useful books in the school library rather quickly. We went to Tampa almost every other weekend to visit the grandparents so I managed to get to the big library there. The librarians finally got used to seeing me take 15 to 20 books out at a time, to return them promptly after two weeks and take another stack.
I went through the next few years of school in a constant daze. I can remember very little about junior high and high school because I constantly had my nose in a book. For me, the rest of the world basically didn’t exist, except in the picture I was trying to put together in my mind from the pieces in all the books I was reading.
While I was learning about the world of history, I was also learning about Mother. When I think back about Mother’s decision to move to the farm, I realize part of our excitement was the hope that we could now have our mother to ourselves. My brother and I had very little relationship with her, and she was, essentially, unknown to us. We’d spent our time in the care of others. When we had been with our mother, she had been either working or out dancing. She was emotionally absent even when she was at home. Naturally, we blamed this on the constant presence of the stepfathers. Now, with no one to distract or worry or hurt her, she could be her “natural” self and we would be happy and loving all the time.
Before we moved to The Farm, I remember being allowed to watch Mother get ready to go out. She had beautiful clothes, silks and satins and taffeta evening gowns, and shoes in every style and color. She enjoyed quite an elegant social life before we moved to The Farm. So what seemed to be a delightful situation to us seemed dreary and boring to her. And mother couldn’t stand boredom.
In her role as a mother she was materialistic and controlling. Emotions were to be suppressed, repressed or totally done away with. Emotion was weakness. Don’t cry, don’t feel, and don’t talk about things that cannot be dealt with in a practical way.
Mother almost never spoke to us except to direct us to do something or to criticize all we had done. No matter what I did to please her, she found a flaw. She could not say: “you did a good job”. Instead: “You did it wrong. Do it my way.”
My clearest memories of my mother: endless days of the “silent treatment”. When I tried to find out what I had done wrong: “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you!” And usually, I didn’t know. So, the only thing I could suppose was that my very existence was a burden and that my being was repellent to her.
For Mother, anyone who did not submit to her manipulations was a threat, not only to her, but to my brother and me. The answer to questions about my father: he had been a terrible alcoholic who refused to give up his drunken ways to keep his family. No mention of morphine addiction or the reasons behind it. His parents were evil because they condoned his behavior toward us and wanted to steal us from her, so they were also the enemy.
My aunt and uncle were enemies too. Well, actually, her brother was an enemy by default: he was married to my Catholic aunt, the chief enemy of the entire family. Yet Mother managed to avoid listing her Catholic sister as an enemy. That troubled me. The list of enemies to our safety and well-being grew with each passing year. The only real topic of conversation in our house, other than being told what to do, or how we had not done it “right,” was a recapitulation of all the wrongs that had been done to Mother and all the wrongs being planned against Mother. Of course, the way she presented it, all these wrongs that had been done to her were the cause of our suffering too. The reason we didn’t have anything, the reason we couldn’t go anywhere or do things like other kids, was because of all the wrongs done to Mother. Everyone was wrong, and Mother was just the most misunderstood, selfless and giving human being on the planet! The problem was, my observations did not support what was being told to me. This led to many conflicts with Mother because I had a mouth on me!
She told me how awful and manipulative all these other people were. They were all out to get her! My aunt, especially, had designs on my grandparent’s property, so we must all band together to prevent her wicked Catholic hands from taking what was rightfully ours. Never mind that our cousins were legitimate heirs to the grandparents. It seems that Mother’s goal, at this point, was to cut all of them out of any inheritance. And we were going to help her.
I can see now that she was simply doing all the things she accused others of doing, to justify her own negative actions against the family by “dehumanizing” and reviling them. But, of course, I could not see this then. For the most part, I truly believed that Mother was telling the truth. She would support her version of events with claims that our grandparents agreed. It never occurred to either of us to go and ask Grandpa or Grandma. We took it for granted they agreed, and that added weight to Mother’s arguments. To my great regret, I supported her for years in her campaigns against enemies that existed only in her own mind.
It was on the occasions when I did not agree that major conflict between us developed. Every once in awhile I would see through her in a small way. And when I did, I was compelled to say so, because I had the idea that if I could heal these family rifts, Mother would be able to be happy.
Nice idea, yes? Did it work? Nope.
In fact, it led her to move me toward the margins of the family. The slander against me began with my brother, extended to my grandparents, and only in later years did I discover what a thorough and complete job she did of blackening my name in the most subtle and insidious ways imaginable.
Questioning Mother’s views, decisions, and dictates was verboten!
My brother had a very quiet and methodical nature. Tom didn’t seem to want or need to seek out other people to talk and exchange ideas. He also didn’t seem to want or need affection and closeness as I did. As a result, he developed a different way of coping with Mother. He agreed with everything she said, performed as required of him, and then did as he pleased behind her back.
I wasn’t able to do this. I had a high need to be myself openly and honestly, to do away with secrets. I wanted to be loved and accepted in a desperate way. Mother was not able to give love or acceptance of anything or anybody that was not strictly under her control. To get along, it was necessary to agree with her completely, to do exactly as she said.
I couldn’t do exactly as she said in many instances because it contradicted my perception of what was right. I’m not talking about issues of parental authority, where a child needs rules to abide by because they have a valid basis in fact. I am talking about arbitrary rules that enforced isolation and restriction of a child based on a view of the world that was twisted and hurtful to others.
There was no discussing anything. She would simply exert her parental control to completely override anything I thought and said. The unfairness of it, the blind stupidity of it, would literally send me over the edge. The more upset I felt, the colder and calmer she became in the act of crushing the spirit of her own child. I was convinced that she hated me.
I was obviously the one with a problem because I was the one who was out of control! And, of course, I would get even more out of control, and end up screaming at her that she was cold, unloving mother and I hated her and I was going to do as I damn well wanted to whether she liked it or not.
And then the strop.
She had kept the razor strop that Ed had used on us. She raised the strop high, bringing it down again as I tried to deflect it with my hands or curl up to minimize the amount of exposed flesh. To this day I cannot remember a single clear instance of why I was being whipped, other than the fact that I disagreed with Mother. If being whipped was supposed to “teach” me something, it was singularly unsuccessful.
She complained to my brother. “There’s something wrong with your sister…” accompanied by praise that he at least remained her stalwart supporter.
Everything wasn’t dark, though. We had some very good times sitting around the fire on cold winter nights, reading and reciting poetry, singing in the dark before going to sleep. I can still hear my mother singing some of her favorites from the 30s and 40s. My favorite was “Old Man River” and she did a bang up job on it too! Mother was also a very good cook and she liked to be creative in the kitchen, so we had marvelous meals with exquisite desserts!
My job was the ironing for all of us, every week. And back then, everything had to be ironed! I had to use the old heavy irons that you heat on the fire and I can tell you that I got burned plenty of times! To this day, I hate ironing, but I’m darn good at it!
It was difficult to live in such a primitive old house and go to school with others who lived in modern dwellings with electric lights and flushing toilets. We had a two-mile bike ride to the bus stop and a fifteen-mile bus ride to school. I used the time to read and think.
After a few years had passed, the local electric company installed power lines within a mile and a half of the house My grandfather contacted them about running the lines all the way up to the house so we could have lights, and they agreed if he would pay for the poles. He did, and we soon had electricity.
I now had a new venue of experience: music. I could listen to the radio and play records. There were stacks of old 78 rpm records in the shed with the old Victrola that didn’t work. I hauled them out and Mother bought me a little record player at a thrift store. I became familiar with songs that most people my age have never heard. At night I stayed “in touch” with the real world by listening to WLS in Chicago on the radio until I fell asleep.
Mother stayed on her religious kick for a few years because, really, it was the only social life in town. But, as a divorcee, she was not quite acceptable in that small community, and she soon got tired of the sly looks and whispers and simply stopped going.
By this time, however, it didn’t matter, because God and I were at a stand-off.
I still kept my eye on windows. Aside from the war dreams, and the all-consuming loneliness, and conflict with my mother, no more weird stuff happened and I was left in peace with my books.
As I read, the problem of Evil seemed to grow larger. It was pretty evident that man was cut off from God. Yet the environment we lived in presented so much beauty that it was hard not to see God everywhere. How could I reconcile this beautiful, natural world, full of splendor and glory, with the presence of Evil?
Design and purpose was everywhere apparent. For me, the very fact that a single atom existed was a matter of such wonder that I would be swept away in amazement. The vastness of the sky and wonder of stars, the wind and storms; lightning was fabulous to me. I observed birds and small creatures and tried to understand what Will inhabited them that compelled them to live and breathe and have being.
On clear nights during cool weather, I went outside to sit and gaze at the sky. The rarefied atmosphere of the winter sub-tropics, still and cold, gave such dimension to the pulsing and throbbing of the stars that it seemed as though each possessed fingers of light, dancing and teasing the velvet blackness of the earth.
I tried to imagine what answer would dispel the cosmic void which enveloped the planet as it spun ponderously toward its rendezvous with dawn -yearning in all its parts for eternal union with the life-giving light.
What if someone, some thing, were watching everyone, waiting, knowing that at some precise moment, all the lights would go out?
I would shake loose from the icy mirror of such thoughts and focus my eyes and mind on that amazing black expanse of nothingness dotted with billions of worlds for which no rational explanation existed.
What could possibly be outside of the space in which we exist? Where was God? How could I find him? Was He aware of me, this pathetic suffering speck of matter that dared to try to imagine Him? To question Him?
On the occasions when we went out to the lonely jetties of limerock to fish, I’d stand on the shore and try to imagine the depths and vastness of the waters and all the life within.
But because of this question of Evil, the pleasure of life was denied to me, except as an observer. I could not enter into it if I did not understand it. I needed to find God in a personal and definite way. I needed to know in all my cells that this will and purpose of existence included me. I wanted God to acknowledge me, to notice me, to love me and to protect me from Faces at the Window.
And that always led me back to the problem of Evil.