My Charlie Manson

[img_assist|nid=833|title=Limes & Lemons by Todd Marrone © 2008|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=206]Our wedding was in a graveyard in November darkness. I had recently turned eighteen, old enough to make hash of my life and do it legally, and my fiancée, Kemp, was forty-two. I wore light makeup and under a raincoat, my best dress of striped wool. My hair was long and straight, and my Mary-Jane style shoes were better suited to a little girl. I felt numb and disconnected, as if I were about to sign up after stumbling into in a meeting of bomb-assembling anarchists. I was also a little disappointed. It would have been festive to show off my dress, but the night was too chilly to take the raincoat off.

A brick wall surrounded the graveyard of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia’s Old City; it was the nearest thing we had to a park, given where Kemp and I were living in the city. I was worried that someone who belonged to the church would boot us off the property, even though Kemp said they’d told him we could do anything on the premises, as long as it was legal and took place outside the church.

The absence of light at the wedding was due to a miscalculation. We’d scheduled the ceremony for five p.m. We didn’t realize—but how could my physics-trained fiancé not have realized?—that light fails early once autumn cold begins to shrivel the sycamore leaves.

I don’t remember what Kemp wore that night, but he was a man who considered his coiffure. He bleached his dark hair brassy blond on the optimistic—but faulty—premise that if his hair were similar in color to his scalp, he could pass himself off as not-balding. The stringy combover rarely stayed put, but he had an appealing, little-boy grin and nice, agate-colored eyes. He was endlessly authoritative when relating my own passion, visual art, to his interest in science. He encouraged me even as he dictated the kind of painting I did. You’re an artist now, he said. Why wait till you’re twenty-one to call yourself one? From him I learned terms like sexual revolution and Renaissance man. Years later, I found out from a former student of Kemp’s that in the early days of our relationship, he pinned my panties to the wall of his apartment.

Nobody gave me away at the wedding. My father stayed away, but my mother showed up with an elderly friend for moral support. The aisle I walked down was the worn brick path on which Kemp and I met the Ethical Culture minister. Mr. Smith was not exactly a believer, not Episcopalian, nor Quaker, as my family was, but the price he’d quoted to do the ceremony must have been right because Kemp hired him.

[img_assist|nid=834|title=Native by Suzanne Comer © 2008|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=191]As I stood in the darkness beside the tilted gravestones of long-dead Episcopalians, my mother’s mute presence felt like the still point of tradition from which my adolescence had fled. Perhaps her inscrutable sense of duty drew her; perhaps she felt compelled to witness the unthinkable. Introductions were made, hands shaken. My mother didn’t kiss me, and I looked away to the brick wall, thinking I had dragged her into something cheap. At the head of our tight circle, the minister held his book at an unnatural angle to catch the sallow illumination of a street lamp. He read from Genesis about a man leaving his parents and cleaving unto his wife. But I’m the one who’s leaving, I thought.

The June before our wedding, I had graduated from Germantown Friends, a private school where Kemp had been a science teacher. I was a ‘lifer’ there: K through 12. My great-grandmother, my grandfather, my father’s first cousin, and my mother had all gone there. It was a world in which the staid traditions of Philadelphia Quakerism—Meeting membership by ‘birthright’ or family succession and the quiet tending of old wealth—set the stage for their own eclipse, at least in part, by their liberal embrace of the social revolutions of the 60s and 70s. As a teenager, I was proud to be such a revolutionary, convinced that Kemp was proof of my emancipation. As my great-grandmother had, I attended mandatory weekly meeting for worship in a plain, high-ceilinged room with rows of wooden benches, where faintly rippled, tall glass windows revealed a pensive sky.

Quaker meeting for worship is simple. People steep themselves in relaxed silence, waiting until God’s spirit moves someone to speak. The first time I encountered Kemp was when he stood up in meeting. I don’t remember much of what he said—I believe it had to do with Guernica, Picasso’s tortured painting of the Spanish Civil War—but his mouth revealed the subtle overflow of his heart. Kemp was a predator on the lookout, and I had a vulnerable and sensitive ear. A few days afterward, I described on lined notebook paper how impressed I was by his brief talk. At thirteen, I was reluctant to speak my own name out loud, and I avoided writing it except on school papers. With my face latticed behind untrimmed hair, I gave him my unsigned note at a chance encounter on the stairs of the science building. The next week, one of his students handed me his reply. All I remember is one line: i don’t even know your name. His use of the lowercase “i” impressed me; it seemed poetic and humble; like e.e. cummings. I was in eighth grade. He got fired at the end of my ninth grade year for ‘inappropriate conduct,’ but I never found out whether the school knew our relationship was indeed a sexual one. From my point of view, little changed with his firing; I simply continued seeing him on the sly.

At the end of our wedding ceremony, the minister intoned the traditional warning: “If anyone…let him speak now, or forever hold his peace.” Silence crackled like a pause in a military assault. I glanced at the blue silk scarf tucked into the neck of my mother’s coat, wondering if she would yell or perhaps grab the vows from Mr. Smith and tear them up. My eyes slipped down to her no-longer-parallel feet.

No one stirred. No words were spoken. Because nothing appreciably changed, the minister’s words felt like an incantation, the power of which would only be revealed over time: I now pronounce you husband and wife

The night speeded up. My mother bid me goodbye, sort of, and staggered back to her respectably antiqued house on the arm of her friend. Kemp and I had arranged to meet a few friends in our city apartment. I proceeded to get drunk and fell asleep fully clothed in the bathtub. He woke me in the middle of the night. It was time to clean up.

At the time, I believed that my parents would count me as dead, but as if my heart were swathed in bandages, the conviction brought no feeling. My loyalty to my new husband could have fueled an insurgency. A few weeks after the wedding, I received a set of place mats from my parents. Other than this, we had very little contact.

I was married for years before my commitment disintegrated. Cut off from my family and my privileged life, and perhaps the only one in my graduating class not to go to college, I explored the realm of the spirit. Years of Quaker worship spent in listening silence had cultivated my instinct for the reality of the unseen. Lonely, I responded when televangelists told me that God, the spirit, was also a person whom I could know. I was used to doing outrageous things. Belief wasn’t a huge stretch. The conservative church teaching fueled my zeal to serve my husband, to smile when he cuffed me, and to organize his drawer of unmatched socks, although he claimed I’d interfered with his ‘system.’ Whatever the personal cost, my life had an aura of divine sanction. My church friends didn’t agree; they spoke of give and take, of mutual submission. If one of them criticized Kemp, I sharply defended an alcoholic man whose permission I had to seek to go out to dinner with my brother, now back in town after college. You don’t understand, I argued. You don’t know what he really is.

Consider the loyalty of the Manson Family. Or the seductive influence of those who believe it pleases God to strap a bomb to a mentally challenged man and send him into a marketplace when the whole town is shopping. When there’s enough of an emotional payoff, fanaticism can trump rational morality. The reality is that even if someone does something really, really nasty, there may be a girl who won’t stop loving him.

Kemp, in fact, had not been my first love. An English cousin of my mother’s had visited us when I was six years old. I adored Tony. With his open lap and his gentle teasing, he charmed me. He enticed. He was handsome as a wolf. Early one Saturday morning, I crept up to our third-floor guest room to surprise him; I remember the sensation of flight on the stairs. Tony was happy when I appeared in the bathroom, where he stood in his boxers and undershirt, having just shaved. He closed the door. He imprinted on my body and in my brain things that I was compelled to forget. Afterward, he said: Don’t tell anyone you came up here today. While my parents fussed over breakfast downstairs, I stood in the weird light of my bedroom. What should I do? Pray? No. God was about Now I lay me down to sleep and Be present at our table Lord…He wasn’t concerned with the fallout from events that couldn’t even be named. Tell my parents that Tony had done something bad? But they would believe him and not me. In terror I saw that my mind would snap like a china plate should they turn from me in this way, and I resolved never to think about Tony again.

Adolescence churned up more than the usual burden of confusions. In seventh grade, I considered myself preternaturally grown up, advanced beyond other girls who worried about boy crushes and parties, yet I felt envious to the point of nausea when no one passed me notes in class. Kemp was an escape from middle school drama. He also offered me a chance to revisit the moral and spiritual dilemmas instigated when Tony’s eyes changed from inviting to hard and glittering. In his mesmeric influence, Kemp was not unlike Charles Manson, minus the highly developed people skills.

When we were in high school, my brother challenged my father about the relationship: “Why don’t you put a stop to it?”

“Your mother and I don’t want your sister’s name in the papers,” was his response. The damage Kemp inflicted wasn’t spectacular enough to make the newspaper.

Fortunately, Kemp’s precocious interest in sex with schoolgirls translated into beer-fueled impotence in marriage. I wasn’t really interested in Eros, anyway. I was an alchemist who poured out devotion in an attempt to transmute sleaze into gold. Kemp needed a housekeeper, nursemaid, and receptacle for his rants. In our last few years together, I learned to manage him. When he dissected my flaws with his maddeningly persuasive condemnation, instead of defending myself I developed the instincts of survival in a cage. Nodding. Yes-ing. Pretending to swallow his wisdom. After four quarts of beer, he’d fall asleep, sometimes with his eyes half-open, and I would escape for a walk in the woods. Life was simultaneously boring and chaotic. But thanks to my long-suffering and, ultimately, supportive parents, I went to Tyler School of Art and obtained a degree.

Clarity came to me, over time, bit by bit. The major revolution occurred after nine years of marriage. Kemp’s mother, a serious churchgoer, had gotten me to visit a hand-clapping fundamentalist congregation. It was God on your taste buds as against the cerebral quiet of Quaker meeting. At my progressive school, I’d envied the Black kids for the easy, familial solidarity they shared. Now I met cheerfully zealous people who might not have recognized the names of most of the poets I’d studied in my senior English seminar at Germantown Friends, but they invited me to their houses, hugged expansively, and called me “sister.” And they meant it. One summer, my mother-in-law invited me to a church conference, and Kemp urged me to attend, since he transformed himself into an authority on any topic that caught my interest. He expected me to come home chastened for my sins, and he sent me off with certain verses underlined in my Bible as preparation.

Maybe I was sick of having glasses of beer tossed into bookshelves I had recently cleaned, or maybe my heart was exhausted. I didn’t expect anything from the conference beyond company for my loneliness and the possibility of becoming a better person. But that week, I began to tie the Christian notion of God as father around the fragmented pieces of my inner self. Throughout the last night there, I sat hyper-alert in my quiet dorm room, praying and touching the parts of my body I didn’t like. I repeated over and over, in shock and delight, that God loved me—my mouth that binged on junk food, my breasts, my pallid skin. Something was re-ordering my spiritual DNA. On the long train ride home, I knew things were going to change.

Kemp’s Mansonesque diatribes began to sound bombastic, even silly. He told me that what stood between me and God’s love was the fact that I had just rolled my eyes, revealing that my nature was as stiff-necked as the Israelites wandering in the desert, I didn’t argue or pretend to agree. I started sassing back.

I moved out after he described a dream he’d had, involving me and a knife. I went home to my parents. It was a relief to say, “You were right about him.” Our kisses were unpracticed and stiff, but genuine. I lived with them for a while, waiting for my divorce to finalize and figuring out what to do with my life.

Today, those shadow years lie at the periphery of my thoughts. I am happy and productive. I am married again—this time, to a gentle and loving man. I never saw Kemp or Tony again, but a mental breakdown while pregnant with my first child catapulted me into a war. I had dismissed my past as over and done. I’d been to hell and back, but here, reflected in my husband’s admiring face, were my years of Jubilee. But as I stared at the pattern on the Persian rug in my therapist’s office session after session, my past proved to be tenacious as vermin. As a young mother, while my heart sometimes threatened to explode under the pressure of change, I never lost my gratitude at having been granted a second, ordinary life. There was a time when I believed I’d spend the rest of my life in a grubby apartment, the target of Kemp’s theories that I was the genetic inferior of people who were outgoing and successful. Scary as each hour of my new life could be, I lived it in the light of day.

Today, my children know only that I was married before. That I was young and he was old. That I made a mistake. They know that I have returned to Quakerism from a more conservative place, but they are not aware that the thick walls of fundamentalism once offered refuge for my sanity. Some day, when they’re ready, I’ll tell them this story. But am I the one who hesitates, knowing that their vision of order in the world is colored, however subtly, by their view of me? Once they know, they will think no less of me. They’ll also realize that I used to be pretty strange, the kind of kid that they would choose to avoid. My straightforward parental authority has tangled roots. For now, I’m simply Mom, who volunteers at the school store, someone who would never do anything seriously outrageous or unsafe. I wish I could remain simple forever.

I’ll introduce my story casually, as if pain were not at its heart. “It was only love,” I’ll them. “Granted, that can be complicated.”

Helen Mallon received her MFA degree in Fiction Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2005. She is completing a novel, Quaker Playboy Leaves Legacy of Confusion (working title). Her poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press is titled Bone China. Her story, “Astral Projection” is in the Best of Philadelphia Stories Anthology 2007. “Biology” won the Editor’s Choice Award in issue #5 of Relief: A Christian Journal.

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