There was once a boy in a German-Catholic town in southern Indiana who was sexually abused by his pastor. So were many other boys in this parish, but they could not tell their parents.
Why not? Because their parents revered the priest who founded their new parish. The boys knew no language in which they could tell the horrible story of what this respected priest was doing.
The boy kept this ugly story to himself through high school, college, grad school, and beyond. When the boy married a Cajun girl who had been a member of a religious order in Louisiana, he told her a priest had abused him, but no more. He wanted to move beyond the trauma, bury it, move into the light.
He kept his secret through the decades he taught at an East Coast university, a college of further education in England, and two German universities at which he taught American poetry on Fulbright grants. He wrote narrative poems telling the story of his family’s history, their roots in Germany, and his childhood and adolescence. But never the filthy story of what the priest did to him. His poems were published in magazines and anthologies, chapbooks, full-length collections, and won some prizes.
“For fifty years I stayed in my safety zone before crawling down into the darkness, to let the gutsy blues rise up into my mouth to begin to heal myself and others.”
Every time this boy-man read in newspapers about boys abused by priests, however, he became upset. These stories reminded him of his secret past. Something changed when he retired from teaching at sixty and moved back to Indiana.
When he returned closer to the scene of his abuser’s crimes, memories came rushing. When a newspaper told about a priest who abused boys in three parishes in Indianapolis and was transferred to a parish in southern Indiana, it became clear. The man had to speak the boy’s truth.
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Yes, this is my story, told as a folk tale. Why was I wrong to remain silent? Since the 1960s, some of my greatest heroes have been the Old Testament prophets and the great blues masters, because they told stories of pain, hurt, and injustice, to help others heal and live better lives. I had to find a way to tell my story.
I worried about the invasion of privacy that might victimize my wife and children if I exposed the abuse, but soon the decision made itself and poems started erupting. Like a volcano, 325 in one year. The poems came as a dark gift from the subconscious, but it took seven years to get the poems, myself, and my family ready for publication.
When Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing appeared, many people wrote or told me their stories of surviving child abuse. Other readers, I knew, kept silent. Some were angry because I poked into old wounds they felt should be left untouched.
One reader told my publisher the book was “just pornography,” because I several times used the “p” word (not pedophile, pedarist, or predator) that names the male member. If only she could get this book banned, I thought, everybody would read it and many children would be saved. After holding the beautiful baby boy my adopted Colombian daughter gave birth to after the book appeared, I sobbed to think my grandchild could be as vulnerable as I once was.
But I understand why anyone would find it hard to tell a story that makes readers uncomfortable. For fifty years I stayed in my safety zone before crawling down into the darkness, to let the gutsy blues rise up into my mouth to begin to heal myself and others.
Norbert Krapf, a Jasper, IN native, is a former Indiana Poet Laureate and a 2014 winner of a Glick Indiana Author Award (regional). Emeritus prof. of English at Long Island University, he directed its CW Post Poetry Center. His 26 books include eleven poetry collections, such as the recent Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing, Bloodroot: Indiana Poems, Songs in Sepia and Black and White , and a childhood memoir, The Ripest Moments. He has a jazz and poetry CD with Monika Herzig, Imagine, and collaborates with bluesman Gordon Bonham. With poet-therapist Liza Hyatt, he has created a new workshop based on Catholic Boy Blues and her recent The Mother Poems, Mining the Dark for Healing Gold: Writing About Difficult Relationships.