When thinking back to our Catholic school upbringing in the 1970s, it’s amazing we weren’t all eternally traumatized by it.
I went to Our Lady of Victory junior high in West Haven, Connecticut from 6th through 8th. I recall one Friday afternoon in 6th grade when they took all the girls out of class and left the boys to play some games. We were like, “What’s going on? They couldn’t have all made out with JT.” JT was the most popular boy in our class and all the girls loved him—most would do anything he asked. The rest of us wouldn’t have even known to ask for a kiss, but JT did.
It wasn't until 8th grade, when the boys were given our own 'session' that we figured out the girls had been dragged off by the nuns to learn about the ‘curse of a woman’—the impending menstrual cycle. Some may have had it already in 6th grade, but most probably hadn’t. After the girls came back to class, we couldn’t get any of them—not even the blabbermouths—to tell us why they had all left. They just kept to themselves with drab looks on their faces. I can only imagine how it was pitched to them. I’m sure it was guilt-laden with, "The reason you have this is because Eve gave Adam the apple, thus God said, 'I'm going to curse you all with the menstrual cycle,' so don't even think about having sex," and “You’ll face eternal damnation if you offer to EVER touch JT’s weenie before you’re married. Even AFTER your married, you’ll be on the hellbound express if you have it put anywhere but your vagina.” I’m sure that's why most of them didn't go near boys for at least a couple of years.
Father Gunnoud was anointed the ‘science’ teacher to deliver the ‘message’ to the boys. I’m not sure why he got this daunting responsibility. Probably because the only other choice, Father McMahon, was about 102 years old. He’d forgotten what this ‘science’ was years before.
I liked Father Gunnoud. He was fairly nice to me. I was an altar boy and whenever he said mass, it was a breeze and he actually seemed to appreciate that we were helping out. He never complained about us occasionally having wine breath from taking hits from the cold vino in the fridge. Or that we quaffed down a slew of the big unblessed Eucharists because they tasted really good. We may have done a few blessed ones, too. Oh well, add ’em to the confession list. We’d sneak down after school to have our ‘snacks’—big round unleavened bread with a wine chaser. Better than milk and Oreos.
I will say Father Gunnoud used to have ‘pets’ that he was especially nice to. He’d look at them funny. I did not recognize the look of desire and I can’t say for sure he ever acted upon it. My therapist says he did and I just have hidden it from conscious view. Years later, it’s still a dark shadow in the back of my mind. Very dark. Scary, too. I think it may be why I walk bow legged into a Catholic Church for a wedding.
So one day in 8th grade, they get all the boys together. Father Gunnoud had just come off one of his 33 times a day cig breaks and he looked like Spot from The Munsters—fire and smoke billowing from his mouth and ears. Our lesson starts with a film about puberty. But they never really say puberty and they certainly never get into anything but Picasso-type anatomy drawings of male genitalia—never mind the female. There must have been some allusion to sexual curiosity and it being a normal part of growing up, but it flew right over my head. The fact that we were getting a quasi sex talk from a priest was enough to cause a state of shock anyway.
I remember Father Gunnoud asked me to go to the board and define urine. I spelled it y-e-a-r-n. I remember him laughing and making some joke about my spelling problem (it started early and has never been fully treated)—but I’d never seen the word in print. At least I got the definition right.
He then went into masturbation.
I swear to God I’d never heard that term before. And, however he described it, it was so aloof I went to a Webster’s Dictionary afterward to find out what it meant. As I read the definition—something like ‘self gratification of the genitalia’—I felt like I was going to hell. I’ve never included that at confession. Holy Act of Contrition! Forget the seven sins—I’m now into the billions if you add all the times I left that one out. I know at times I was paring down my list just because I knew every sin I confessed was worth either an ‘Our Father’ or a ‘Hail Mary’ and if I wanted to get home in time to play on one of our street hockey teams, I’d better drop a few of the tiny ones.
So Father Gunnoud asks JT—put him on the spot more than anyone I’d ever seen in my life—“So, JT, is masturbation OK?”
JT sat there with a bewildered look on his face—like he’d just come from the boys’ room having done it himself.
Stammering, he replies, “Uh—yeah—I— g-g-guess so.”
“NO IT’S NOT!” bellows Gunnoud.
Gunnoud then launches into this diatribe that includes ‘ultimate sin’ and he tells how it falls under the commandment about adultery—back to some guy in the Old Testament that spilled his ‘seed’ on the ground. In 8th grade, a number of us had no ‘seed’ to spill. So was it a smaller sin to masturbate but not have anything to clean off the ground? I’m still not sure. I think my mom would say yes because it saved having to clean a ton of dirty towels.
What I do know is I was feeling totally guilty. What the heck is he talking about and why do I feel this way? As an adult, I still feel like that sitting at mass, on those rare occasions when I attend. Some things never change.
I do not believe there is any male—including the Pope—who can say he’s never masturbated. Maybe there are some women, but not many. When 12- to 14-year-old boys ‘come of age’ there is no amount of Penthouse that can satisfy their need to ‘warm up’ for the ‘big leagues.’ Telling them to suppress those natural urges can, in some cases lead to—well—pedophile priests.
So we drive down to one of the root causes of guilt in the Catholic Church—suppression of natural expression. I do not need to be an investigative reporter to know this is one of the MANY reasons 60% of Catholics never go to church, and of the remaining 40%, only 10% go regularly.
Yikes, I think I’m going to miss the rest of the street hockey games for life. I got a boatload of Acts of Contrition coming my way.
Editor’s note- It is highly recommended that you listen to Frank Zappa’s Catholic Girls on the 1995 re-release of his Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III album. It pretty much sums up a typical Catholic school upbringing. The song was written in response to the uproar he caused by issuing the song Jewish Princess on his Sheik Yerbouti album. Zappa was always good about equal time or, in his case, scrutiny.
Frank Zappa was a genius. Died far too young.