I did not have the perfect childhood. My folks were 40 years old when I was born and my sister and brother were seven and eight years older. The rule of thumb is: Siblings seven or more years older become parental figures in the unconscious minds of their little brothers and sisters. This made me a special case. Instead of two superego figures (parents) I had four of them raising me.
In the 1940s and 50s in my Irish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago there were innumerable rules and regulations, regarding every conceivable thought, word and deed. It was all but impossible to get through a day without committing numerous infractions, most falling into the category of venial sins. “Bad thoughts” were especially numerous and troublesome venial sins and each one carried time in Purgatory. Then there were mortal sins, which could send you to the everlasting fires of hell. Everyone in the neighborhood believed these doctrines, which were reinforced daily by the nuns and priests. Lots of guilt and fear were spawned in that environment. On Saturdays, at Saint Sabina, our parish church, the numerous lines of penitents waiting for Confession were long indeed.
This punitive God lived in my neighborhood but so, too, did the goddamned Devil. We were surrounded. Everyone was fearful of them, including our parents. The underlying emotional atmosphere was tense, due to the heavy blanket of religiosity — absolute Good versus absolute Evil. Living there without guilt was unimaginable. Those weekly Saturday Confessions were as much a part of our lives as the attendance at mass on Sunday. I knew no one who did not go to mass every Sunday because to skip it was one of those mortal sins. It was an environment, it seems to me now, that placed more emphasis on not being bad than on being good. I’m getting a headache. (My favorite book, which I read several times in grammar school, was The Good Bad Boy. It gave me hope that I was normal and I was appreciative of the guy who wrote it. He obviously was not from the neighborhood.)
This environment caused my friends and me to pick up another superego figure in the form of God. Now I had five. This left me little room to slip, slide and find my own niche. Along with these core superego figures in my childhood, others in my life qualified as superego figures albeit to a lesser extent. They were not so vigilant regarding my every thought, word and deed. Nor were they as uptight about God — because they weren’t from the neighborhood either. The first two were my maternal grandparents, “Bapa” and “Granny,” who lived on a farm 60 miles from my Chicago home. I spent much time alone with them and, in their eyes, I could do little wrong. I was well into my teens before I abandoned the dream of becoming a farmer, such was their influence on me. (Then again, I just thought of this, maybe I was in my 30s. I raised pigs and steers in Colorado. Then again, it may have been my forties — I raised chickens and turkeys in Illinois. They left an impact!) My grandmother continually told me I was a good boy and referred to me as “My Jim.” My grandfather, a non-practicing Lutheran, was laissez faire with me. We went to town and to the grain elevator together in his old Ford. We fed and watered the chickens, gathered the eggs, slopped the hogs, milked the cow and, at haying time, I rode with him on the tractor as he cut and bailed his alfalfa. In his eyes I never screwed up. (He also let me help slaughter the chickens, and pluck their feathers, but I don’t want to talk about that.)
At home the strongest words I ever heard from the four people superego figures was “shucks” and “doggone it.” Down on the farm my grandfather could turn the air blue with the words that came out of his mouth. He also chewed tobacco and smoked cigars. And, get this, my grandmother sometimes said, “shit,” which she pronounced, “shite.” God, how I loved those people and they loved me back with nary the raised eyebrow.
It does not make sense that these two non-judgmental people created my mother, who was quite judgmental, but that’s the way it was. And this seeming paradox is not unique to my family. We see it all the time; grandparents “saving” their grandchildren who are being constantly scrutinized by their parents — the parents who are the grandparent’s offspring. It defies logic and reason. A buddy of mine claims his father was the worst father who ever lived, yet became the best grandfather who ever lived. I knew the man and it was true. Grandparents often save butts.
I got even luckier with butt savers because I also had Aunt Margie and Uncle Bob who lived in Joliet, a small city 40 miles from Chicago. In my teens I used to take the train to Joliet and spend weekends with them. They let me stay up watching television until past midnight and fed me exotic dinners such as spaghetti, which my Irish father wouldn’t dream of eating. “Too foreign,” he’d say. When I got older Uncle Bob, a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism, let me drink a beer and smoke a cigarette, which would be approaching mortal sinfulness at my house. God, how I loved them, too. They accepted me for who I was as I lurched through adolescence. Often aunts and uncles save butts, too.
It is a belief in psychoanalytic circles that the healthiest environment in which to raise children is in the city, not the country. If a kid is stuck on a farm and his parents give him no slack there’s not much relief available. It’s a numbers game; the more people children are exposed to the better the chances of meeting “butt savers” who validate them as real people. The butcher, the baker, the haberdasher, the cobbler, and the kindly neighbor lady can all help save butts, if only because they know your name and always seem glad to see you. Exposure to people outside of the immediate family is broadening and ego enhancing. The more the merrier, emotionally speaking. Our next door neighbor, Mrs. Stack, had 11 kids. I became her twelfth. She was great. Another of my butt savers. She teasingly called me “Jimmy Jice.” I loved it.
You would think a person’s butt savers were always known to them. Not so. I always knew I deeply loved my grandparents, but until my analysis I was consciously unaware of how very important they were in my emotional development. I learned this about my grandmother, for instance, because of a psychological phenomenon known as a “screen memory.” These are memories from our distant past that we recall with clarity. We can bring them into our conscious mind without difficulty and describe them in detail, but they are not literally true. When my analyst asked me what my earliest memory was I had no trouble telling him. I was sitting in the kitchen sink on my grandparents’ farm and my grandmother was giving me a bath. I vividly remembered her bathing my back and neck with a wash clothe and how good that felt. I remembered reaching into the soapy water and feeling around for the rubber stopper to let the water out. It was a game we played, “Find the stopper.” He asked how old I was and I said, “About 3.”
It didn’t take us long to determine this was a screen memory. A 3-year-old could not possibly fit in my grandmother’s kitchen sink. A six-month-old would have been cramped. So the details of the memory were false but the essence was real. One of the most loving things a parent can do for a kid is give him a gentle bath. So it was my grandmother’s overall essence of love for me that the screen memory revealed. I became aware of how truly important she had been to me when I was growing up.
While on the topic of screen memories they are often useful in discovering the opposite of butt savers. They can point out the evil ones. I had a male patient who was certain his first memory was of drinking an entire bottle of lye at his grandmother’s house. When I asked him for details he said that when she discovered him writhing in pain on the floor she spanked him.
“How come you didn’t die?” I asked. He’d never thought of that and upon further inquiries it turned out his grandmother, who raised him, was the Devil’s first cousin. Of course he didn’t drink an entire bottle of lye and he may have only touched it. But the screen memory gave us a glimpse of his relationship with his Granny. Among her many faults was being a habitual “liar” (perhaps a clue to the screen memory) and she was also very heavy handed. “She was quick with the switch,” he said.
I had a female patient who said her first memory was sitting in her high chair as her mother fed her from her dirty diaper. She clearly remembered the little mound of shit on the spoon coming toward her mouth. That, too, was a screen memory (I think). As the analysis unfolded it became clear my patient’s mother was the Devil’s sister.
Dreams are similar to screen memories in that the true meaning is hidden behind symbols and they, too, may reveal butt savers. In analysis I dreamed the following: I was looking at a “Time” magazine cover. On it was Betty Ford, naked, with her legs spread wide apart with knees bent. I was ashamed of myself that I had just dreamed of a former First Lady posing like a centerfold. I was embarrassed to tell my analyst.
Of course I did tell him and we began to analyze it. It took the entire 50 minutes, but we thought we finally understood it. However, some research on my part was going to be necessary to be certain. The highlights were as follows: “Time” probably meant back in time. Betty Ford’s position could easily symbolize the birthing position. My first association to Betty Ford was that she’d recently had a well-publicized mastectomy. Betty Ford was the First Lady — First Mother? When Jean asked if anyone close to me had a mastectomy I instantly said, “Aunt Margie.”
There were two other ties, albeit weaker, between Margie and Betty Ford. Margie had been adopted and so, too, had Betty’s husband, President Ford. And Margie’s birth name was Kennedy — a presidential name.
I made a phone call and learned that when my mom gave birth to me Margie was living with us in Chicago while attending nursing school. She completed her training when I was about nine months old and moved to Joliet to begin her career. With this information we deduced that she was very much like a first mother to me. That explained why I had always felt so very close to her, although I saw her infrequently until my adolescence. It also explained her faith in me as a person even in my hellion days. I wrote her a thank-you letter. Her response discretely validated the meaning of the dream.
I was still living at home in the neighborhood when I graduated from high school. Secretly I now harbored doubts about my Catholic faith. The endless rules seemed trivial, even childish, and the belief that if someone dies in the state of mortal sin he will spend eternity being burned by fire was too cruel and gruesome to swallow. Even if God was mean, he couldn’t be that mean. So my faith was floundering. My parents insisted I attend a Catholic college (they would be paying for it) so I chose John Carroll University in Cleveland — 300 miles away. I figured that’s where I would slack off practicing my faith. But JCU is taught by Jesuits, an entirely different brand of priests than the ones I’d been exposed to. They are an intellectual order of Catholic priests specializing in teaching at the university level. Although devout men, they were also wise to the ways of the world, and there was nothing petty about them. They were adults.
In a freshman theology class I heard, for the first time, that to be a Catholic one must follow the dictates of his own conscience. That was good news and it made perfect, adult, sense. Another Jesuit theologian stated that for a person to commit a mortal sin he would really have to work at it. “You would have to consciously and soberly intend to be evil in your every act, word and thought. Few people can do that,” he said. Then added, “I never met one.” Can you imagine my relief? The Jesuits, too, were my butt savers — religiously speaking. To change religions from the one you were born into may be an intellectually solid decision — but it can play hell with your emotions.
It is important for us to discover our butt savers because they reveal truths about us. Knowing, and feeling, as much truth as possible about ourselves is an integral part of the psychotherapeutic process. Although frequently not part of our core psychological determinators, butt savers nonetheless positively contributed to who we are today by validating us as individuals. They are precious.
Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at rockpublishing.com/eagles.htm, and may be ordered through bookstores.