Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Making of a bastard - 03.2012

I’ve been a bastard all my life.  This is going to sound pretty obvious to most people, but it isn’t, really.  A lot of children grow up in and out of wedlock, blissfully unaware of the fact and not giving a hoot either way.  That wasn’t the case with me.  I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of it.

I remember the time when I asked my mother what the word meant.  In Italy, where I grew up, family-related insults are extremely common.  “Son of a whore” is probably the most-used insult in the playground.  My standard reply, which tends to shut bullies up pretty quickly, has always been “if that was the case, we’d be starving.” But I digress.

I must have been six, just starting elementary school, when I first heard the word.  It meant nothing to me; it was just something thrown at me, clearly to insult me but which didn’t conjure up any pictures.  When I told my mother she blanched, stared at nothing, and then told me that it wasn’t a nice word, and it meant somebody that didn’t have a father.  I thought, “That’s me, that is”.  I didn’t have a father.  I didn’t know who my father was.  The only thing I knew was that we didn’t talk about him; we didn’t mention him at all.

I remember when I learnt that we had to lie about him.  At home people got used to our family being just the two of us, and I guess were too delicate to ask questions.  On holiday with my mother, however, children would show no such reserve, and routinely asked me where my dad was.  I didn’t know.  I asked my mother what I should say, and she did that staring into space thing again, and, without making eye contact, told me to tell them that he could not take the time off, that he’d stayed at home to work.  I could not understand the reason for the lie.  My family was (is) deeply Catholic, and lying is a sin.  So why are we making up stories about this unfathomable, absent figure? Still, this worked to deflect interest, until a kid asked me what he did for a living.  I didn’t know.  The kid would not believe me, so he went and asked my mother.  I can’t remember the lie she made up.  More and more lies, covering a vacuum.

The funniest bastard-related incident that ever happened to me was when I was studying the catechism for my first Communion.  We had a really scary rector, Father Francis.  I mean, he was terrifying.  He was at least 8’ tall, always scowling and prone to fits of red-faced shouting.  Thankfully, he did not run the catechism classes.  The pleasure of teaching us about how we were dirty, disgusting, sinful creatures was delegated to some lovely young ladies.  We would have been 7-8 years old at this point.  Father Francis came in one day as he needed to collect information on each child for the parish records.  He needed to know our mothers’ maiden names - in Italy, nobody uses them, so they tend to get lost from the records.  None of the kids could give an immediate straight answer.  There were probably about 40 kids in front of me, because the rector was working alphabetically.  For each child, he’d have to ask the same question, again and again.  Not a patient man at the best of times, he looked like he was about to explode.  I knew I couldn’t give him the answer he wanted, but being a clever clog I devised a strategy:
"Mother's maiden name?"
"NO, your mother's name before she married."
By this point, the rector was getting really stressed and red in the face.  The veins in his neck were standing out like cables about to pop.  So I went:
"My mother's parents..."
He went "YES!”
"They are also called Valdiserri."
A long moment of silence.  "What's your dad called, then??"
"I don't know, but I can ask my mum and bring it in next week"

The rector went white, blue, green.  He quickly moved on.

At the end of the lesson, my mum came to pick me up.  I got in the car and went: “Father Francis needs to know my dad's name for next week".  My mum slammed on the brakes and skidded.  I nearly went through the windscreen.  She went white, blue green.  By this point I was totally puzzled by the fact that all grownups were having some sort of colour-changing epidemic.  Still, I got to know my father’s name, which eventually led me to find him.

I don’t know what made my “condition” so important to me.  Maybe it was the fact that it needed to be kept secret.  Maybe it was because it appeared to never be far away from my family’s mind.  I knew it was important, somehow, but I didn’t know how to deal with it.

As I grew up, the mythology of the bastard drew me in.  The first book I read in which a bastard is the key character is “The Crystal Cave”, by Mary Stewart.  Part of an Arthurian trilogy, the book is the story of Merlin, described in his own words.  I lapped it up.  It gave me an identity and a new strength.  It told me that, by not belonging to any father, you somehow end up belonging more to yourself.  Being a bastard cuts a tie, and gives you a special freedom.  It denies you your father’s identity, and allows you to have more of your own.  I loved that.

I embraced the role of the bastard – it’s the truth, it’s what I am, and if you don’t like it, it’s your problem, not mine.  I met many people who objected to me using the word to describe myself.  To me it is a factual label, with no shame attached to it.  And anyway, what other term would you use? “Love child”? I do not know if love was present at my conception.  “Illegitimate” is factual, but clinical.  “Out of wedlock” always made me think of marriage as a sort of prison.  I had a thankfully short, regrettable phase where I described myself to myself as “the child of an unbridled passion”.  Honestly, give me a break.  I’m a bastard.  That’s what I am.

Aside from aspiring to simplicity in language, being illegitimate is something people can and will use against you – or, at least, they will try.  If people would hurl it at you as an insult, wrong-foot them.  Make it your own.  You can’t insult me with my own identity, unless I find it shaming.  I am a bastard, and I’m standing straight and proud, owning myself.  And no, I didn’t steal this from “Game of Thrones” – I thought of it all of my own, although Tyrion Lannister puts it perfectly and succinctly: "Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour. It can never be used to hurt you."

Tyrion and I are not alone in getting wrapped into the glory of illegitimacy.  We are in remarkable good company, actually.  Shakespeare’s monologue in King Lear (Act 1, Scene 2) is probably the most magnificent example of the glorification of the bastard:

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound.  Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,--legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate.  I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

But by and large, our society’s gods do not stand up for bastards.  There are darker aspects which can shadow your life.  My birth brought shame to my family.  This was a Catholic country in the 70’s, after all, and while I was unmoved by my condition, my family felt differently.  The best rant against bastards that I ever saw is in The Magdalene Sisters, a rather controversial film.  Regardless of the truth of the allegations it casts against the Catholic Church, there is a short scene in it that hit me like a brick.  A priest goes to a hospital to convince an unmarried mother to give up her newborn for adoption: “A child born outside of wedlock is a bastard.  You want him to live all his life as an outcast, refused and scorned by all honest members of society? You committed a horrible sin.  Do you want your child to pay for your sins?”

All I could think of, this is what my family thought of me.  An outcast, who should be refused and scorned.  The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.  Sins of the fathers, sins of the mothers, it all adds up to the same.  Rejection.

There is no better representation of the tortured aspect of the bastard than Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy.  The central character’s name is forgotten when he is a child, so he grows up known only as “Fitz”.  Being a rejected bastard entirely rules his life.  This can happen all too easily, I guess.  I’m thankful it didn’t happen to me.

I am not saying that I was left entirely unscathed by the situation.  It was made clear to me, in a roundabout way, that my father left because of me.  This revealed itself much later to be entirely a lie, but I grew up feeling like the culprit who deprived my mother of her partner.  I guess I tried to compensate by taking on my father’s role.  To a large extent, I was “man of the house”.  I was expected to look after my mother.  I had caused her to lose her partner, so I had to be there for her.  On reflection it was neither a healthy nor manageable situation.  Unsurprisingly, I left home at 14.

The other darkness cast upon me didn’t kick in until roundabout the same time.  My father’s absence cast a long, dark shadow upon my relationship with men.  If not even your father could stand to be near you, what chance do you have with other men? What man will ever love you? Of course, it makes no rational sense.  My father was never present in my life.  He never knew me, so he could not reject me.  Even if he had rejected me as a child, it should not tarnish my opinion of myself as a young adult.  Still, it was a major rejection, and I struggled to get past it.  My teenage years passed largely in a haze of anorexia and other forms of self-damage.  But this, too, passed.

I guess if you know the circumstances, or at least both parents, it might be different.  I only knew my father’s name.  I didn’t know who he was, or why he left.  As Mary Stewart wrote, “There is one thing about being a bastard and a no-man’s child.  You are free to imagine your father.  You can picture for yourself the worst and the best; you can make your father for yourself, in the image of the moment.”

Imagining can take you too far, and not far enough.  I looked for and met my father before I turned 30.  It seemed absurd to me to reach that age with such a hole in my knowledge of myself.  It was probably the scariest thing I ever did.  I remember sitting on the train on the way and thinking, “no way am I getting off.  I’m just going to go to the next station and get back home”.  But I did it, and we had a reasonably good time.  We discovered we had a lot more in common than we had a right to expect – same dry sense of humour, same pattern of speech.  We can have a good time together.  I also discovered I have no link to this man.  He is Bobo the Sperm Guy.  The only thing of him that shaped my life was his absence.  I don’t blame him for leaving, but at the same time I do not have room for him in my life.  I am still glad I went to the process, purely because I don’t like to leave unfinished business.  I now know who my father is.  I also know that he’s not really my father –he had no input in me as a person.  I don’t need him, and I guess I don’t want him.

What I realised is that my father did not influence my identity.  He didn’t help me grow up, but he also did not brand me.  My father did not make me a bastard.  My mother did.

You are not made a bastard by the parent who leaves.  You are made a bastard by the parent who stays; who by looks, hints or accusations casts the role upon you.  You can be made a bastard by the people around you, unless your remaining parent shelters you from their judgement.  My mother didn’t.  She threw me to my family’s mercy, and they granted me none.

My stepchild is, technically, a bastard.  Her parents never married and did not stay together, but there isn’t a trace of bastardy about her.  On the contrary, she has not one, not two, but four parents and quasi-parents, who all dote on her.  She has two loving homes.  It may be a lot to handle for a young child, but she is managing just fine, surrounded by love and acceptance.  She is a solid, joyful child.  It was watching her grow up, seeing her develop, that my rage towards my mother grew.  I know what I would do to anyone, anyone at all, who tried to make her feel like an outcast.  It would not be pretty, and it would not happen twice.  I would stand against anyone for her.  Nobody is going to mar her identity.  Nobody will hurt her in front of me and get away with it.

My mother never fought for me.  Maybe she was weak, maybe she was beaten, maybe she truly felt guilty and sinful.  However, she should have protected me.  I know you shouldn’t throw “shoulds” around, but this is one I can’t get away from.  Parents should fight for their young.

My mother’s shame in my bastardy, her inability to defend us both from it, was what created it.  It is a great and magnificent irony, that she made herself the mother of a bastard.  The identity in which I revel, in which I find a glory and a freedom, will forever be a millstone around her neck.  The sins of the fathers shall remain with the fathers, after all.

1 comment:

Jihef said...

Woaw. Very nice text.