Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/05/2010

Eugene O’Neill, Judge Vaughn Walker, prayer, and Epileptic Electrical Displays

God at any price—a heap of stones, a mud image, a drawing on a wall

God at any price—a heap of stones, a mud image, a drawing on a wall

Any theater buff in New York in 1928 most likely knew Nina Leeds’ line near the end of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude (Act Nine; yes, Nine!). The line was one of those throw-away lines sophisticates (mis)quoted. It’s still misquoted. There’s a Strange Interlude group on Facebook, and it’s the only line of the play quoted there. Accidentally running into that group jogged my fevered brain into the thinking that follows.

Nina says, Our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!

The line makes sense only related to Nina’s musings throughout the play. In Act Two Nina says,

I was trying to pray. I tried hard to pray to the modern science God. I thought of a million light years to a spiral nebula—one other universe among innumerable others. But how could that God care about our trifling misery of death-born-of-birth? I couldn’t believe in Him, and I wouldn’t if I could! I’d rather imitate His indifference and prove I had that one trait at least in common. . . . I wanted to believe in any God at any price—a heap of stones, a mud image, a drawing on a wall, a bird, a fish, a snake, a baboon—or even a good man preaching the simple platitudes of truth, those Gospel words we love the sound of but whose meaning we pass on to spooks to live by!

Fascinated by TV shows like “How the Earth Was Born,” and “The Universe,” science-for- dummies repeated ad nauseum on the Discovery Channel, I am, of course, fascinated by Nina’s theo-science. I’m fascinated by O’Neill’s use of the astronomical images “spiral nebula” and “one universe among innumerable others” in 1928.

With Nina, since childhood, “I wanted to believe in any God at any price—a heap of stones, a mud image, a drawing on a wall, a bird, a fish, a snake, a baboon—or even a good man preaching the simple platitudes of truth, those Gospel words we love the sound of. . .” Nina tries to pray to the “modern science God.” I tell my classes I believe god is the “big bang.” Twenty years ago students objected. Today students shrug their shoulders as if to say, “And?” The Modern Science God seems completely ensconced—at the very least as one plausible idea among many. Of course.

Which one is the young gay boy?

Which one is the young gay boy?

My experience of wanting to believe in any God at any price (here comes my usual connection-without-logic) is not, I’m pretty certain, appreciably different from any other gay boy in the 1950s. Look at the attached family picture. I am in about fifth or sixth grade. I knew I was gay. I didn’t have a name for it, but I knew it. If any adult around me had been paying attention – how could they not have known?

But I had a secret no adult could have known. I was crazy. It had nothing to do with being gay. It was too weird: the world had a habit of fading in and out of reality. Just as I had no word for “gay,” I had no word for “Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.”

The word “queer” was part of the vocabulary in my school when the picture was taken. I had a vague sense of what “queer” was. Eventually I found books and dictionaries footnoting “queer” as slang for homosexual. By the time I was in high school, I knew absolutely I was “queer.” God and I were on speaking terms in those days, and my constant request was that either I would find another boy who was a queer or that “a mud image, a drawing on a wall, a bird, a fish, a snake, a baboon—or even a good man preaching the simple platitudes of truth” would somehow appear in my life and make me not a queer. I knew my friends were not queers and that, of course, being queer was not a good thing.

Fast forward twenty years. I found the name for my crazy fading in and out. Turns out it wasn’t the world at all, but my brain. Epileptics understand, “Our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display.” Of what electrical display we can never be sure. Perhaps it’s God the Father. Even more fervently than trying to pray to God to send me another queer boy, I prayed for the end of my craziness, the feeling that everything had happened before, that my mind had floated off into a place disconnected from my body where it could not control my body. And then there was the white noise.

A queer boy with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. STOP! I’m not whining or feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t as a kid (I was mystified), then for many years I did whine, and now I don’t. So stop thinking that.

Furthermore, I am not equating being queer with the physical disorder of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I’m telling a tale of the two cities in my mind. I am saying only that both realities had me stumped. And it took many years for me to come to terms with either one.

California isn’t bothered by my TLE. I’ve got meds. When I was diagnosed, my life changed in an instant. I remember the first time I took Tegretol. My mind came out of a fog as it never had before—my own private fog that only a couple of doctors ever knew about until, quite by accident, I landed at the Neurology Department at Harvard Medical School, and a protégé of the great Dr. Norman Geschwind said, “Of course.”

Once I understood what it meant to be queer (it happened my first year in college), accepting it was simple. I was who I was, and there were lots of other boys (and girls) who were like me. Being gay was not a mysterious disorder like TLE. It simply was. And nothing was wrong with being gay (I’ll write some day about the great fortunate event that taught me that). I could not (had I wanted to) change. There was no need to change. Being gay was not frightening; it was not a mystery; I didn’t care who knew.

And a great disconnect grew up in my life. I always felt God would somehow fix my TLE (and she gave neurologists the brains to figure it out). But the God most people I knew believed in hasn’t seemed able to get those people to figure out that my being gay was neither any of their business nor a problem for me—or for them. Their God is only the God of “Gospel words we love the sound of but whose meaning we pass on to spooks to live by.”

With Nina Leeds, “I couldn’t believe in Him, and I wouldn’t if I could! I’d rather imitate His indifference and prove I had that one trait at least in common.” How I have managed to imitate God’s indifference is no one’s business but my own.

Enter Judge Vaughn Walker. “Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians. . . .” Of course.

If California has no interest in discriminating against my epilepsy, which is an abnormality that can cause trouble for me and for others, but is controllable with chemicals, what interest can California possibly have in discriminating against who I am? Oh, I know, many people who believe in that God of “Gospel words we love the sound of” believe I am not who I am. Reality fades in and out, of course. Judge Vaughn Walker, however, understands that Nina Leeds

God at any price—a heap of stones, a mud image, a drawing on a wall

God at any price—a heap of stones, a mud image, a drawing on a wall

speaks for all of us. We are all the same. All of “our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!”

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Responses

  1. This is the most honest, beautiful and real that I have ever (and I mean my 60 years of life) that you have expressed. I look back at that same time in my life as confusing and frightening as well as having the knowledge that you were my big brother. If I wanted to be comforted I would go to you. If I wanted simply to play or be noticed, I would go to the older brother. My thoughts about the picture also take me to a dark place where I knew nothing of real merry go rounds like the one on my dress. When I look at the picture, I feel the dusty sandstone on my skin and wonder how the three of us made it to adulthood.
    I love you

    Like


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