The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 30 The Exorcist

When the state fair came to town, Mom even forbade me to go to the freak show, and in this context, I mean “freaks” as people with unusual physical abnormalities. The freak show was also viewing “error.” So, of course, checking out the freaks was the one thing I really wanted to do. I liked to look at people who were less fortunate than I was; it put my life in perspective, helped me to appreciate things more. But again, Mom still wanted me to be a good boy, to get back on her bus. It was just that freaky things and bad boys seemed so much more interesting than a normal, civil life did. Even today, when I lie awake at night, I don’t take my mother’s advice and “think pure thoughts.” No, I ruminate, at least until I again remind myself to be mindful. Today, I give her full credit for trying her best to vet what entered my mind, but yeah, at the time, of course, I sneaked off to see the freak show; what did you expect me to do? Sneaking made the show way better than it actually was. It was lame, unless an obese woman fanning flies away with a Ponchos Mexican Buffet menu yanked your crank.

      By then, Mom had been hired on at the rival high school, Manzano High, so she knew what limits to put on a newly ambitious but still impudent teenage boy. She reinforced intellectual behavior in me every chance she got. “You still don’t know your times tables,” she scolded. That was supposed to motivate me, but instead I just gave her my bored, here-we-go-again look. Did I sigh and roll my eyes? You bet! I probably thought, “Ah, no, Mom. I reckon I really don’t know my times tables yet. And I still don’t know my phone number, either. But I can run like a mofo; just ask that PE teacher!” I wisely kept those kinds of thoughts buried, which was probably a rare incidence of showing a slice of good judgment as a young teen. You really don’t have to say aloud everything that pops into your mind; that saves tons of hard feelings and avoids attacks with a flyswatter, fingernails, or a wooden spoon. But I learned that lesson incompletely as a boy, and today I still struggle at times to hold in the snakes. At least I’m doing way better. Even though I prefer people who are open and honest, I also respect people who don’t tear down others, so there’s a built-in conflict that I’ve struggled with lifelong. When to tell my truth and when to remain silent? Now I see it as a character and judgment issue. Now I know that it’s not always about other people and how they disappoint me, but sometimes about the pain that I carry inside.

      Eventually, I wore Mom down until she accepted my academic mediocrity as easily as I did. She was a worthy competitor, though; I’ll give her that. She put up a good fight. Her boundaries only blurred when I spun the desired activity as somehow educational. Because reading came as easily to me as running did, I asked if I could read William Peter Blatty’s book, as she wouldn’t let me see the movie.

      I was purposefully manipulative. See, Mom was fiscally conservative but socially liberal. She voted for Nixon but spent her days teaching art and defending self-expression. Anything with a whiff of censorship was anathema to her, except, of course, when it came to her own children. She was beloved at school and church, open-minded, creative, and loving. Intermittently throughout my life, girls who’d grown into women pulled me aside, locked onto my eyes to impress me with the import of their words, and told me how Mom either saved their lives or changed them for the better. So, as a boy, I did my best to leverage Mom’s public image against her private life.

      I asked her if I could read The Exorcist, as I was the only onewho didn’t get to see the film version. That meant she either had to acquiesce to my intellectual freedom or take the side of censors and book burners and those who’d silence and imprison artists and freethinkers. Even the best parents can wear down. See, that was also my tactic, to wear her down, play the long game. I avoided her when I could, and when I couldn’t, I made every interaction so heinous, so cold that it would convince her to leave me alone, to allow me off her bus. I hoped that my bad attitude highlighted for her the price she paid when she told me I couldn’t do something. Or, on the rare occasions on which I showed some initiative, she’d be so delighted that she’d bend her rules to reinforce my behavior. I’m telling you what I did then, but please keep in mind that I’m only able to understand it and articulate it now.

      I also hoped to punish her for the incongruence between the way she treated her students and the oppression I felt at home. Of course, I knew I should be a better student and son, but I felt misunderstood, and nobody took the time to understand me, so I generally simmered and frequently rebelled. What I didn’t know at the time was that what I really wanted was for her to accept me the way she accepted her students—unconditionally—and to wrap me in her arms and love me for who I was, instead of glaring at me because I wasn’t already the person I was supposed to become. Similar to many children, I was supposed to be a positive narcissistic reflection for my mother. And I wanted to be; I truly did. I even tried, at times. Remember, I stood and gave testimony of healing via prayer in church on at least two occasions. There was nature, and there was nurture, but there was also something inside me that felt uniquely meand was interested in fitting in and standing out in a materialistic and secular world; and in that secular world, people stood in line to see The Exorcist.

      After the umpteenth plea, followed by the umpteenth huffing away angrily to my room, Mom reluctantly agreed to let me read the book.

      Big mistake. For me, I mean.

      A levitating bed, a spinning head, and vomit on priests weren’t scary to me. They were concrete things that I’d never seen and never expected to see. But the things unseen, the unexplained noises described in The Exorcist, were too close to my real Apache Street poltergeist experience, so my fear was turbocharged.

      I never told anyone how badly that book frightened me. For one, I didn’t want Mom to have the satisfaction of being right again. And for two, it just made me a bigger pussy. Remember, the males I knew showed few emotions. I wished someone had placed an arm around my shoulders and told me that the book had made many muscle-bound men crap bones. So had the movie. It would’ve been nice if someone had said, “You know, we stand atop the genetic shoulders of our ancestors. They were wise to huddle together around the fire as ominous noises occurred just outside the ring of light. They survived to pass on their DNA. They had each other, right? At least they had that.” That’s what I wanted, but I never said it until now.

      So now, I wonder about my fear. Even when an external threat wasn’t present, did I project my fear onto the environment? After all my worrying, do I conclude that the threats were only in my mind, that I was just torturing myself for most of my life, too often making my fear as tangible to me as a saber-toothed tiger padding about in the darkness?

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