Portrait of the Artist as a Virgin
My mother was so zealous a Catholic she nearly committed murder in an attempt to assure a place in heaven for her and me. She had somewhere gotten the idea that I would make a fine priest. She began subtly pressing the case just after my fourteenth birthday, often saying things to me like, “Shy, intelligent boys like you make wonderful priests,” and “We don’t have a priest in the family, Joseph.”
At first I didn’t see the quiet determination in my mother’s intent. I was too busy trying to figure out if there really was such a thing as consensual sex for teenagers. I was consenting in every way possible. Not so for the girls I knew.
One day, during mass at our church, which I was forced to attend if I expected to eat and be sheltered, my mother let slip her little secret: “Joseph, I have been praying every Sunday to the Virgin for you to accept your ‘holy calling.’”
“What holy calling?”
“Our blessed Lady,” My mother explained, “believes you will make a beautiful agent of the Lord! And your grandfather would be so proud! You know you were always his favorite. That’s why he drew that beautiful portrait of you.”
“Ma, I don’t have a holy calling unless you think playing third base is a holy calling.”
“You’re too young to understand these things. Believe me, God is calling you.”
“Ma, I haven’t heard a word about this from anybody! If God’s calling me, He needs to be a lot clearer! Send me a sign, like a date with Loretta Leone. She’s hot. If He knew anything at all about me, he’d know I’d listen to Loretta Leone.”
“Joseph Barillo! You stop talking like that.”
“Ma, God’s got a lot on His mind. Maybe He’s got me mixed up with somebody else! There are a lot of guys I know who’d make great priests, guys who never hit over two hundred all season.”
After stomping out of the church vestibule, it occurred to me that my mother was actually selling me out to feather her own spiritual cap by having a son who had the Lord’s ear. This was serious business, because my mother apparently had considerable clout with the Almighty. She had just received news that her insurance company agreed to cover the antique bedspread she burned when a lighted prayer candle overturned; plus, only a month earlier, her blood sugar count had come down miraculously after hitting a pathological high. She’d been praying for both these results for weeks, and apparently had been heard, despite the fact that her insurance policy had lapsed, and she had been eating cheap two-packages-for-one-price cookies every night. By all the evidence, it appeared that God couldn’t refuse this woman anything.
And I was her next mission. Me and what appeared to be her resolute sentence of sexual abstinence for me for the rest of my miserable life. That became clear when she found my condom (I only had one in those days, expectations being what they were). Jesus, whom my mother sheltered in a two-feet-tall bell jar in the dining room, was now under her constant assault, day and night, its glass permanently fogged with votive heavy breathing. With a convulsive finger, she warned me that God didn’t look favorably on young men who broke His laws. I was forced to wear a second and larger gold miraculous medal on top of the first one, along with my gold crucifix and the gold Italian horn that would protect me from the evil eye. If I’d put on a loincloth, I’d have looked vaguely like a Mayan prince.
Well, I fought fire with fire: I went and also prayed with passion and persistence. “God,” I said, “Don’t protect my, you know… celibacy. I’m not worth the trouble! Remember that you already gave my mother the insurance money and the low blood sugar count. How much are you going to do for this woman!” I prayed hard. I searched for sex even harder.
I even tried upping the stakes. Reminding God how He said “Children, love one another,” I asked Him to allow me to show some young woman, any young woman (actually any woman of any age), how deeply and intimately I could love another human being. But it didn’t work. God saw it for what it was, a cheap, sordid trick. I remained virginal.
Then one night she caught Drucker, a good friend of mine, sneaking into the house with a bag of Playboy magazines. A broiling cauldron of maternal militancy, she flew at the young man from the kitchen with a frying pan, and while I could still hear supplications hissing through her lips, she walloped Drucker at the side of the head. He fell like an imploding smelter tower. An ambulance arrived in five minutes and Drucker was still unconscious when they hauled him out.
Aha! I thought as I watched the woman sink into a spell of tears over what she’d done. This could be the turning point in my battle. Surely, my mother would see how disastrous this whole campaign had become, and how essential it was for everyone’s safety, that it be totally abandoned.
All evening, Mother knelt at her statue of Jesus in his bell jar and prayed for Drucker’s recovery. I too was praying. In the hope of changing my mother’s mind about this, I’m ashamed to admit that I was pleading for a Drucker concussion -- a small one with just enough medical significance to raise my mother’s sense of guilt -- or at least a small pin-prick of a brain injury, rationalizing that it might even raise Drucker’s IQ. The next morning, Drucker’s family called. They screamed my mother’s head off through the phone, then politely informed us that Henry Drucker was going to live, and had no concussion or brain injuries of any kind. I’d lost again. Drucker’s skull was obviously just as thick as I’d imagined. The mother/God conspiracy seemed to have no end.
It all seemed hopeless for me. My mother was pleading for nothing less than my indefinite celibacy to preserve me for greater things -- in some ways just like the Castrati, I noted to my therapist years later. So there I was, a 130-pound, 14-year-old innocent facing off against the creator of the universe for the right to make a lascivious pig of myself.
But then, after a long despairing week had passed, something happened. The Drucker incident had roiled Mom’s conscience. She apparently realized that attempted murder was never mentioned among God’s Cardinal Virtues, an idea, which, I’m sure, was implanted by our pastor the day I sobbed at him over Drucker’s near demise. What I noticed in Mom was simple but clear: the hints, the prayers, the intimidation and the coaxing all began to fade. Even the Jesus in the bell jar vanished from our living room and passed on to my aunt Rose, who was obsessing over my cousin Louis’s dating of a black woman. In short, I never heard another word from my mother about my “holy calling.”
But, oddly, by that time, the war had changed me too. I’d given up most of my youthful activities, except baseball. I stopped going out with friends. I stopped fantasizing about doing something reckless, like skateboarding down the brass library handrail, to get female attention. I’d lost that tormented sexual aggressiveness teens careen through adolescence with and I turned inward. I found that I was spending those early teenage years in brooding introspective bondage over my romantic failures. At the same time, I found myself unexpectedly lost in books of art, a stash my grandfather, an accomplished illustrator for several local magazines, left to my mother when he died. It lay hidden away in our attic for years. I used to watch him draw for hours when I was a child, and I’d run to buy his cigars for him every day, probably the reason I was considered his favorite.
Now, I never became a priest. But the struggle to avoid the “calling” and the related anguish over my delays in sexual initiation had turned to a kind of aggressive sexual sublimation in the form of artistic expression. I found drawing a superb distraction and I locked myself into a singlemindedness that bordered on personality disorder. I have actually been earning a living through my art to this day. You might even say I owe it all to my mother that, at thirty-five, I’m not still trying to break into A league baseball.
Oh and God himself finally did give up on me and my “holy calling” at age seventeen in a small motel within walking distance of my neighborhood. Room 14 B as I recall. On that day, I flared into a rare, jubilant mood over my libidinous brilliance, something my mother, once I returned home, interpreted to be the result of a portrait I was doing of her. And so, even the Almighty had finally realized I would never become the wonderful spiritual agent he was looking for. More importantly, I have done everything ever since to make sure He doesn’t ever get such a notion again.