by Kathleen Hoy Foley
Social Worker Nancy and I go back ten years. Back to when she was savoring the heady rush of her twenties in a job that lorded power over secrets. And secret keepers. Catholic Charities hoards hundreds, probably thousands of secrets in their files. And burnt tears. They're supposed to be sealed, those files. Kept confidential. The girls hidden there were supposed to be protected. Those girls are now women, some of us old and so many terrified. Of Social Worker Nancy. And the secrets she knows. The secrets she tells.
So there she was, young Social Worker Nancy cutting her teeth on dismal caseloads when a bawling adoptee showed up demanding a look-see at a stranger's personal file. As Social Worker Nancy tells it, her heart broke for the forlorn waif unable to control her weeping, crumbling right before her. She wanted to make her feel better, make this person un-adopted, I guess. That's when Social Worker Nancy crafted perfumed roses from the misery lingering like stains on the yellowed forms buried in that particular manila folder and tossed my secret along with my identity into the wide open wind.
Social Worker Nancy sits across the conference table from Phil and me. I am here at Catholic Charities' superbly appointed main office because I want to stop hating her. Confronting her is the only way I could think of to halt this loathing that spins into visions of evil revenge. Though I can think of a million ways I'd rather be spending this early spring afternoon. Gouging my eyes out of their sockets, for one.
"Why?" I ask. "Why did you give away my confidential information? To a stranger? Why did you tell that adoptee what my mother said about me, for Godsakes? It's bad enough that my mother condemned me, you had to make it public? And why did you give her the note I wrote to that nun social worker a million years ago? It was none of your business. Or the adoptee's. None of it was yours to give away."
There's fear in Social Worker Nancy's eyes. And there should be. Because I'm half crazy and right now I'm loving the idea of striking a match and tossing it her way. Her fear comforts me. But she ruins it with a look of confusion. The doe-eyed gaze of the virtuous ignorant who will kill you just as dead as an assassin with a sited aim, only, gosh, they didn't mean to.
"Because," she answers with such innocent sincerity it sounds half true, "I just try to do my job. I just want to make everybody happy. That's why. That's why."
Ah yes, it's all becoming clear why Social Worker Nancy divulges long-guarded secrets. Makes up little romantic love stories about adoption. It's a feel good thing. There could never be filthy mattresses, never rapes in Social Worker Nancy's stories. In her spiels to adoptees, every birth is desired. It's just that...just that the girl was mixed up, sad. Surely, now that the girl who signed the adoption papers is an old crone, she will see the error of her young and selfish ways. And since Social Worker Nancy is the designated good fairy, all she has to do is wave her happy stick and all the bad stuff goes away.
I refrain from rolling my eyes, but somebody help me, because I'm about to croon a few verses of Koombahyah.
"I just want to bring everybody together," she continues with a straight face. "The triad...the adoptee...the adoptive parents and...and..."
I glare at her. Don't say it, Social Worker Nancy. Don't you dare say it.
Everybody sitting at this table, including her two superiors, have been asked and have agreed not to use inappropriate familial terms for the captives trapped in this orbit of tragedy. Becoming a mother is sacred, a gift. Becoming a breed mare for a rapist is an emotionally crippling horror. I refuse to let anyone, even these noble religious people sitting on comfortable chairs in this fine, sterile office, maternalize the violence that mutilated me.
So, keep it ugly, Social Worker Nancy. Call it what it is: the adoptee, the adoptive parents and the bitch. Or the slut. The whore, even. But woman, do not confuse the blessing of being a mother with the violence of being forced to breed. Yet...
"...and the, the...," Social Worker Nancy stutters, "...ah...the moms..."
The moms. I lean back in my chair and arch an eyebrow. How precious. I've never heard that expression used for girls forced to endure the despair of an unwanted pregnancy. The moms. Makes everything sound so cozy. Like tea is about to be served. Like after a hard day of criminal behaviors, the rapist and his stalker can crawl right up into the comfort and safety of my lap. Yes dear ones, mama is here.
The enormity of my bitterness surprises even me. Yes, it's a good thing that I don't really have matches stuffed in my purse. No matter, soon enough I'll wish I had a blow torch.
Social Worker Nancy keeps smiling and talking. About her obligations. Her committed pursuit of family and medical histories from "the moms." About establishing successful reunions.
Evidently, from the condescending nonsense she's babbling, Social Worker Nancy has never been raped. Oh but wait. Of course I could be wrong. Maybe Social Worker Nancy was raped in a good way. The Catholic way. Where rape isn't rape, but a spiritual opportunity. An occasion for a closer walk with God.
Divine rapes work especially well for Catholic girls. And holy women like Social Worker Nancy. As devout women are not to be concerned about the goings on down there anyway, given the fact that whatever happens inside female parts is Jesus' business.
Much to his credit, Jesus has quite a coalition of followers willing to force girls and women weakened by sin into mothering whatever the rapists implant inside their bodies. Good Catholics are required to believe that even a ripped vagina can generate a mini Jesus. Genitalia for Jesus. I'm thinking His trophy case must be quite a sight with all that blood and all.
I am so sick of listening to Social Worker Nancy spin gold out of anguish that I snarl,
"Reunion? Why can't you understand that there is no re because there was no union in the first place?"
Now I am the one being condescending, speaking in the measured cadence of an exasperated teacher who really wants to haul off and whack the kid.
"It was the rapist growing inside of me. The rapist took over every cell in my body. There was no escape from him. Rape is not making love."
Social Worker Nancy stops smiling and stares at me, mystified. I see now that she is descended from heaven and does not know what to do with someone risen from hell.
Maybe that's why she tells us about the old lady. To convince Phil and I that her efforts to hunt down fallen women are reasonable and honorable. That coercing them into giving up their secrets to strangers is not intimidation at all. It is simply a matter of persuading the moms that it is the moral thing to do. That even they, these aging and elderly, once-youthful whores who carried the punishment of their lustful ways in their bellies, can be redeemed. They just have to betray themselves. Come clean.
Yes, there she is, Social Worker Nancy, tapping her clipboard, pointing to the genuine, authorized interrogation forms stamped with the reverential logo of Catholic Charities. Jesus nailed to the cross does not wield as much power as Social Worker Nancy in the flesh standing on your doorstep.
So, that's where she showed up. On the old whore's doorstep. Announced or unannounced, Social Worker Nancy does not say. But she had the documents, evidence of the old lady's transgression, the long, long-held secret clutched right there in her official fist.
"Somewhere in her seventies," Social Worker Nancy says now.
I shake my head, picturing the old lady huddled on her couch next to Social Worker Nancy.
"She was crying," Social Worker Nancy says.
I blank stare at Social Worker Nancy. But all I see is that old lady trying to hold onto her dignity. And not knowing how. Up to that moment the old lady had to believe that she was going to get away with it, die with her secret secured down there in the darkness of her own private anguish. Given a few more years, maybe cancer or a heart attack would have taken her out. Before the adoptee went on the hunt. Before Social Worker Nancy rang that doorbell. But diseases have this tendency to take their damn sweet time in killing you.
What Social Worker Nancy won't admit is that she was there to strip search the old whore. To spread her wrinkly legs and probe into her shriveled vagina. That she was there to sniff out the secret the old lady had kept hidden between her thighs all these years.
"We cried together," Social Worker Nancy confesses.
I guess in social work circles crying with the client is code for empathy. Isn't it splendid that Social Worker Nancy felt the old lady's pain; understood what it was going to be like for her from now on. What more could a whore want than Social Worker Nancy's understanding of how it is to worry obsessively about the loyalty of your children, your grandchildren after they find out about you? Find out about the adoptee?
Social Worker Nancy's compassion is grace in action, isn't it? Obviously, she knows all about how Thanksgivings and birthday celebrations, in fact all family gatherings, are now forever changed for the old lady. Because mortifying, innocent comments always arise and, now that the old lady's sin is common knowledge, faking dignity, pretending she was not stung, is just part of her job description. It does not matter how, as a girl her legs came to be spread, there's nothing but disgrace in it for her.
Don't Social Worker Nancy's tears confirm her profound comprehension that no amount of reassurances from loved ones will ever mend the old lady's disabling wounds? Of shame. Of rage. Certainly Social Worker Nancy knows how the old whore feels about herself. About how it is for a girl so young to be permanently branded a whore. By the righteous. By the un-raped. Social Worker Nancy knows all this.
Well, I'm sorry to say, no. I'm afraid she does not.
And I should be livid. But suddenly I am only sleepy. Even though I desperately want to blow torch away the spiritual narcotics Social Worker Nancy is skunk-drunk on, all I can think about is pancakes. With butter. And real maple syrup. And sliding to the floor with my head in my hands.
It's time to go. I have nothing else to say. My face-off with Jesus, the Catholics, and the woman who betrayed me in the name of godliness is over.
I look at Social Worker Nancy and wish I saw malice in her eyes. But all I see is a confused kindness. And this makes me cry. Sob, in fact. I pull her into a hug. And it is sincere. But I don't know why. I pull back, look into those doe eyes, and hug her tighter. And sob harder.
And I don't know why I'm crying.
But I think it is because I am the old lady. I am the old whore.