—Sister Mary Ignatius, in Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You
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A bad joke such as this title expresses a great deal of nervousness. Ever since I was first asked to offer reflections on the study of religion and the Catholic sex abuse crisis, it has not been apparent to me that one could treat these events in a scholarly manner without cheapening them. How could one give a paper on this issue and not commit another violent act, by depersonalizing an act of abuse and transforming it into an abstract concept? One of the participants in the conference at Yale from which these posts to The Immanent Frame arise began by claiming “a scholarly response does not preclude a human one.” The force of this sentence comes from the scholarly audience’s wry knowledge that all too frequently a humanist scholar can be inhuman, as a result of giving a frame to complexity and flattening it so that life fits neatly into a conceptual scheme. In one of my favorite texts in the Jewish philosophical tradition, Moses Mendelssohn’s 1783 Jerusalem, Mendelssohn complained about the university professor who simply declaims “dead letter” from a podium. I am nervous that I am—that I cannot but be—that professor.
Nevertheless, there are words on this page following the period at the close of this sentence. Part of the reason is being a scholar of religion contains its own imperatives. Those of us who regularly profit from and teach the work of Jonathan Z. Smith know the persuasive power of that paragraph in the opening pages of his famous article about the 1978 Jonestown massacre, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” in which Smith summarizes the study of religion as an Enlightenment discourse by stating, “as students of religion, we must accept the burden of the long, hard road of understanding. To do less is to forfeit our license to practice in the academy, to leave the study of religion open to the charge of incivility and intolerance.” Smith went on to compare the Jonestown massacre to Dionysiac cults and cargo cults in order to “reduce” Jonestown to something familiar. Nothing that humans do or have done can be foreign to any humanist inquiry.
Yet why should acts of abuse be transformed into papers that inevitably are about scholars’ own intellectual identity? How can I retain a commitment to the abused when my scholarship is the expression of a commitment to my tribe that takes it as a categorical imperative to analyze them? In adding my voice, the flesh is made word; people—suffering people—become dead letter.
Both as a way of defending this worry and coping with it, I want to turn to some documents from the Catholic sex abuse crisis; these are the ones that I am least able to understand. They pertain to one case from the extensive abuse of Midwestern boys by Fr. James Janssen and others in the 1950s and 1960s. (At the Bishop Accountability website, these documents can be found in the extensive archive of documents pertaining to sex abuse in the diocese of Davenport, Iowa.) In 1957, Janssen had left the diocese of Davenport, Iowa, for a brief period of time, and was ministering in a church in Hinsdale, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. In 1958, Janssen returned to the Davenport diocese, serving at a church in Holbrook, an exurb of Iowa City. There is sexually explicit correspondence with a fourteen-year-old boy he had been abusing in Hinsdale. On one occasion, the boy’s mother found both a letter from Janssen to her son, as well as a sexually explicit reply. The boy’s parents gave them to the pastor of her parish, who forwarded them to the bishop of Davenport.
As best as I can make out—I am grateful to Kathryn Lofton for clearing up some of my difficulties transcribing the letter—Fr. Janssen’s letter to the boy reads as follows:
Hello J.O. King:
Hi ya man. Getting much? I am sure you are. It was nice visiting you at Proco that day.
Glad you like high school. I sure hope to be there next year this time.
You were giving old Ogan a hard time that noon hour.
We are having a hay ride this Wed. Too bad you can’t be here for the big event.
Going to Dav[enport] tomorrow. Fr Bass [Francis E. Bass, made the director of vocations in Davenport the day after the Davenport bishop received a copy of this letter; Bass was also an accused priest] got a new car with air conditioning. We should drive up + see you soon hot dog man.
You are still the champ. You got the most. Keep up the good work.
Be sure + type up one of your good letters. Take it easy. Say hello to Jon [?]. Are [?] you Shell [?] informed on the facts of life.
Solong L.S. P.L. J.O.
Tear up == F.J.
The boy’s response was typed, as promised. It therefore does not need transcribing. But even though the hyperlink appears above, it might be more convenient for the reader to see the text of the letter here.
HI BIG DICK HOWS YOUR PRICK MINES GRATE
I HAVE JACKED OFF 3 TIMES SOFAR.
THAY SPLIT THE TRROP THERE IS 30 GUYS
IN MY DAD’S TROOP AND 20 IN BELCHERS
TROOP.I CAN’T WATE UNTIL WE JACK OFF
AGUN IT’S SO MUCH FUNN .REMBER KEEP IT
SLIDING YOUR DICK THAT IS. IF YOU
GET MOVED BE SURE AND TELL ME YOUR NEW
ADRESS. [Name redacted] DIED ALL THE SCOUTS
WERE AT THE WACK.KEEP A JO RAGE ON Y OU
A T ALL TIMES YOU MAY NEAD IT.
DON’T SHOUT TO MUCH YOU MIT RUN OUT.
O.K. NOW WUUS LOST IT
DON’T GET TO MUCH
SAVE SOME FORE ME
I have one thing, and perhaps only one thing, to say about the boy’s letter. Its meaning, and its motivating forces, are opaque. The letter requires commentary; such commentary only became publicly available almost fifty years later, in 2004, when this man filed an affidavit detailing his abuse by Janssen, including being passed around by Janssen to other priests on trips to Davenport as a boy. He stated: “When he [Janssen] left Hinsdale, I would write him sexually explicit letters and he would write them back. One of the letters I wrote him was not addressed well and my mother, who was sending him a letter, decided to put my letter in with hers and she opened my letter.”
Perhaps one’s instinct, when looking at this letter, is to invoke a certain kind of language of altered consciousness to describe this dynamic between Janssen and this boy in the late 1950s; “Stockholm syndrome” comes to mind. (Indeed, this is the language that a graduate student in my department, John Crow, used when I showed him the letter.) Another boy abused by Janssen almost a decade later uses the language of being “emotionally dependent” upon Janssen in his affidavit. I certainly know what these words mean. The affidavit of the boy who authored the typed letter perhaps allows the scholar to spin out a brief narrative articulating how those words might be appropriate in this case, starting from the statement that Janssen “was popular with the kids in school and my association with him made me feel accepted.” Yet this only occludes a void from my understanding; it does not provide any understanding to fill that void. The affidavit implies, from its “I would write…he would write back” syntax, that the boy initiated the correspondence. It never says that Janssen demanded sexually explicit letters after he left Hinsdale. (Janssen’s request to the boy to “be sure to type up one of your good letters” may have been understood as a demand. But why was it taken as such?) And it never says that Janssen demanded correspondence that, at least from the basis of these two letters, may have been far more sexually explicit on the boy’s side than on Janssen’s.
There is something occurring, signaled by these documents, that the documents themselves do not and cannot show. There is no boundary-crossing to be made, from our world to this boy’s world in 1958, unless we go outside the text to “culture,” to theory, to dead letter, which authorizes one to generate some hypothesis as to why the boy wrote numerous letters of this nature, why the boy felt such a need to keep Janssen in his life after Janssen’s return to Iowa, for why Janssen continued to hold authority over the boy after Janssen left Hinsdale.
This hermeneutical poverty is at the core of why these letters are so disturbing. They are extraordinary documents, and yet I worry that they are not extraordinarily teachable. The language of “Stockholm syndrome” (including the one scholarly article I found that hypothesizes that Stockholm syndrome can explain why victims of child sexual abuse do not report abuse to authorities) is something that identifies a pattern of behavior of empathy with a captor or an abuser. It does not identify a cause of that behavior. The words are nothing more than signals to the reader that what is on the table is radically foreign.
Yet one cannot remain in this position that would assert, in effect, that the desires and acts that are signaled by the words in this letter cannot be conceptualized. If those acts cannot be conceptualized, then it becomes impossible to develop an account of those acts as deserving of blame. Moral language—language of praise or blame—requires a full understanding of the nature and mechanism of an act, in order to give reasons why the act deserves the normative vocabulary associated with it. Our judgments, if they are to be just, should be justified. However, they can only be justified with recourse to the data at hand. When we use the language of “Stockholm syndrome” or “emotional dependence” to describe the lack of autonomy in the authorship of a letter (in other words, as a signal of abuse), and in so doing depart from any claim found in that letter or in the letter to which it responds, we are no longer talking about an act of abuse. We scholars are talking about us. And the dead letter returns. One may want to blame Janssen himself, but as long as the subject of discourse remains mired in discoursers’ desires, the “Janssen” being blamed is a Janssen who exists only in the mind.
Smith may show a way past the two unsatisfactory options of silence or narcissism. In “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” Smith “reduced” Jonestown to something familiar through acts of comparison of that massacre to Euripides’s The Bacchae and cargo cults. This reduction served to open up a normative language about the massacre that did not rest on hysterical judgment about Jones and his community; the comparison to The Bacchae grounds Smith’s judgment that “the most proximate responsibility” for the Jonestown massacre was borne by Congressman Leo Ryan, who violated Jonestown’s utopia when he arrived in Guyana to investigate charges of fraud and abuse against Jones. If comparison was a path to normative evaluation in that case—to being able to blame someone and give a reason as to why that person acted in a blameworthy manner—perhaps it can be of help here also.
And so I would like to turn to another example of same-sex eroticism for comparison to the correspondence between Janssen and the unnamed boy. In the early months of 1982, Michel Foucault gave a course at the Collège de France that has been published under the title Hermeneutics of the Subject. There, as in other works written in this time period, Foucault attended to the Alcibiades (improperly credited to Plato) and its language of “care of the self” or self-cultivation. In the dialogue, Socrates persuades Alcibiades that such care for the self is necessary for him to be able eventually to govern himself and govern over others. Self-care is part of becoming a subject, of expressing oneself. Socrates teaches Alcibiades this because he is in love with him. However, readers know from the very first lines of the dialogue that Socrates’ love for Alcibiades is a love that, so Socrates says, differs from that of other men: “I was not the first man to fall in love with you, son of Clinias, and now that the others have stopped pursuing you I suppose you’re wondering why I’m the only one who hasn’t given up.” I find Foucault’s gloss on this—and I regret that I do not have the time to reconstruct Foucault’s analysis of the dialogue at greater length—to be incredibly helpful.
Can we say that Alcibiades’ suitors take care of Alcibiades himself [as the directive of Socrates at 127e would require]? Actually, their behavior and conduct proves that they do not care for Alcibiades but merely for his body and its beauty, since they abandon him as soon as he is no longer absolutely desirable. To take care of Alcibiades himself, in the strict sense, would mean therefore attending to his soul rather than his body, to his soul inasmuch as it is a subject of action and makes more or less good use of his body and its aptitudes and capabilities, etc. You see, then, that the fact that Socrates waits until Alcibiades has come of age and has lost his most dazzling youth before speaking to him shows that, unlike Alcibiades’ other suitors and lovers, Socrates cares for Alcibiades himself. More precisely, Socrates cares about the way in which Alcibiades will be concerned about himself.
From this passage, I only want to make the simple point that it is this kind of attending to someone whom one desires—to care for the other’s self-care—that is absent in the correspondence between Janssen and the boy from Hinsdale. It is not there in Janssen’s horrible pun on “joking” with which he opens his letter to the boy. It is not there in the request to type a sexually explicit letter. It is not there in the promise to come up and see the boy soon in Fr. Bass’s new air-conditioned car. Indeed, a desire for such care might be justifiably inferred from the boy’s curious decision to intersperse news of someone’s death (and the scouts’ presence at the wake) among the various sentences in his letter about masturbation.
Now this act of comparison between Foucault’s account of Alcibiades and Janssen does not make it possible to understand what is actually occurring underneath these documents; it does not make them as familiar as The Bacchae might make Jonestown. Nevertheless, it does become possible to move past the inability to blame Janssen for some action that the documents cannot narrate. An act of comparison can make it possible to blame Janssen for not performing an action that is missing from this correspondence, for not caring for the boy who, decades later, testifies that this correspondence is abusive correspondence. Through this comparison we are able to say it is abuse because Janssen does not show the boy how to govern himself. (The affidavit closes [par. 10] with the man describing a photo taken two years after the abuse had begun, when he was in the eighth grade, in which he is giving the finger, “something Janssen encouraged me to do,” to the photographer.)
Indeed, one could take the Foucauldian analysis further and analyze abusers’ language and adult survivors’ language about abusers to show how the way in which abusers rule over their victims might have elements in common with Foucault’s analysis of the confessor in sixteenth-century practical manuals in the 1975 Collège de France course published in English as Abnormal, in which governing always properly belongs to the confessor, because a penitent’s subjectivity is always mediated through him. This is not to say that confession is a form of abuse. But it is to say that when selfhood only has meaning when it passes through what Foucault described as the “domain of confession,” in which “the priest’s empirical powers of the eye, the gaze, the ear, and hearing are developed in support of his sacramental power of the keys,” there is an alienation produced that makes self-government impossible because all the power of governing the penitent’s soul belongs to the priest. (Analogously, the power of governing the priest’s soul belongs to his spiritual director.) These manuals about confession are manuals about the production of “emotional dependence,” to use the phrase that the boy abused by Janssen in the 1960s used in his affidavit. They may be helpful in producing a narrative of causation that makes these affidavits clearer, and from which one might blame a priest for those practices that may have produced what is attested as “emotional dependence” because one has shown how such practices could have produced it. But I use the optative and the conditional purposively. Documents such as these will forever retain secrets that no scholar can force into the open.
In conclusion, when looking at documents relating to the sex abuse crisis, there is a temptation to want to reconstruct the mental states of the abuser or the victim. That can only lead to dead ends, and to dead letter spoken about those dead ends. The language of an affidavit to sexual abuse, or of a letter that might signify such abuse, is eternally in flight from the acts it narrates or signals. The enterprise of the historian is therefore exceptionally fragile when the documents in play are those found at the Bishop Accountability website. Yet scholars can point to what this language is like and unlike in the history of religious and philosophical thought. In that process, we can perhaps unveil how sex abuse ends a victim’s sense that his or her life could ever become self-directed and thereby falsify Sister Mary Ignatius’s claim that the passage into adulthood is not a worthwhile one. Comparison is therefore the most formidable technique of those who practice an ethical art of speaking with the victim of abuse, and not about him or her.