Presentations: Charles Knott

Charles Knott

Home: An Unsafe Place

I believe "home" is the most disturbing thought I can have, except maybe for "school," or "church," or "business world." The four pillars upon which to build a life were, for me, sources of personal alienation. For some reason, I felt as if I never belonged, that these four formative institutions had been constructed for someone else. I met that someone else in every face I saw, and I saw that someone else achieving, and being rewarded for achieving, in realms that did not interest me. I felt guilty for not understanding, not honoring and not wanting that which others were willing to build their lives on.

Part of my estrangement from ordinary life was related to my parents' alienation. In the world, my parents were timid, retreating figures, but at home? Oh my God! At home they were outrageous and combative (my father), and smothering and possessive (my mother). There was no room for me in their house; the psychological accommodation they offered me was barely sufficient to sustain life.

My salvation from the suffocating atmosphere of home came in the form of a motor scooter. I climbed onto the saddle and scooted down many a long and lonely dirt road away from everybody. I credit the Vespa Motor Scooter company with saving my sanity.

At school, other kids were functioning at a much higher level than I was because they had access to their talents. My talents were unavailable to me because my thoughts were profoundly conflictual; my psyche was in a state of toxicity, of inflammation.

As for church--well that's where I learned about humanity being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. There you have it, I thought. God has rejected us. I could feel even at a young age that my church represented a religion of expulsion. My thoughts went something like this: God’s purpose is to withhold from us, to torment us; first he shows us the paradisal Garden of Eden, but he does so only to take it away from us. We can never get back to the Garden because of original sin. So I’m guilty for what Adam and Eve did? That doesn’t seem fair. How can I be guilty of what was done eons before I was even born? How can I love a God who will not even forgive me for what I didn’t do? And how can such a stingy and vengeful God claim to love me? And why aren’t other people upset about this? They don’t seem to know or care about the injustice.

But surely God loved somebody! Then I found out who it was that God loved: he loved Abraham for putting his son Isaac on the altar; Abraham was loved because he was willing to murder his son because God told him to. Would I have to murder someone to receive God’s love? Or at least prove that I was willing to commit murder? But murder violates the Ten Commandments!

So that’s what God’s altar is for, I thought—it’s for murdering sons. And animals. I loved animals, but now I understood that God wanted them burned on his altar as sacrifices. I knew I couldn’t burn an animal anymore than I could commit murder, so there was no help for me in either the murder department or the animal sacrifice department, and these were apparently the only two ladders one could climb toward God’s love.

But no, there was another ladder to God’s love. It had something to do with Holy Communion. But, I asked myself, was Abraham’s altar the same altar we went to on Sundays for Communion? That seemed to me like an Aztec altar, with the stone steps removed and a tablecloth added. This is where we drank the blood of Christ and ate the body of Christ. Even the Aztecs would not go that far! Just as I was not a murderer of people or animals, I was also not a cannibal. This left me with no path toward atonement with the Father.

Church was also where I learned that the unforgivable sin could catch you and never let you go. If you committed the unforgivable sin, you were automatically damned to Hell forever. The worst of this was that I couldn't get anyone to tell me what the unforgivable sin actually was. I felt surely I must have committed it and that now it was too late to get forgiveness because, by definition, there was no forgiveness to be had. I was definitely guilty—my suffering was proof enough of that. But guilty of what? Church had trapped me in a Kafkaesque nightmare puzzle. That dark, vengeful unknown followed me everywhere I went, as did all my other conflicts. I could not put them aside; instead, they put me aside and made themselves "at home" inside my skin. There was no room left for me.

Needless to say, my invasion by these conflicting forces had to do with my own peculiar vulnerability—but I didn’t know that. These ideas and emotions had an immediacy and an absoluteness that I could not question.

And the marketplace, the business world around our little town square, was where people behaved as if there were no such places as home, school, or church. These were the same people one met in these same four places, only they were completely different, completely dissociated as they moved from one place to another. In the marketplace, if you talked about any of the values of home, school, or church you were looked upon as embarrassingly simple, as if people might say,"You take that stuff seriously, don't you?" Actually, of course, they wouldn’t say anything at all: they would just look at one another and then back at me in disbelief—and then change the subject, as if there were no shared category of knowledge or experience wherein they and I could meet and understand each other. Apparently they cared no more about the unforgivable sin than they did about history or literature or algebra. Church, home and school seemed not to exist for them when they were in the marketplace; they were all products of the same unintegrated four-part system, where each part was unknown to the other.

The only subject that carried over from high school to the marketplace was football; the only subject that carried over from church to the marketplace was building funds; and the only subject, besides football, that could be discussed in all four places—home, school, church or business community—was golf.

I left my home town in 1956. Recently, I attended my 50th high school reunion, an event that was to last for two days. I didn’t meet a single person there I wanted to talk to and, even though I had already checked into a hotel and paid for my night’s stay, I got back into my car and came back to Atlanta after “enjoying” only four hours of the reunion. I deeply regret that the child I once was had not had the adult’s option of leaving; in fact, the child was stuck in that alien place for eight extremely long years.

As I walk out of my house into my backyard this Sunday morning I can literally see and smell the smoke rising off the fires that have been burning in South Georgia for weeks: fires that are burning the landscape of my childhood.

Oddly enough, I first felt at home when I went for basic training in the army at Fort Jackson, S.C. As I stood in formation with the other recruits, a sergeant in front of us said, “There are two things in this world I dearly hate: that’s a wet toilet seat and a new recruit!” This statement brought me a strange sense of relief—was it because the comment put us all on equal terms?

About the third week of basic training, unmercifully bossed and harassed, I suddenly started to feel a new, ironic confidence in my ability to be the boss of myself. Undoubtedly, this was because I knew exactly what was expected of me, and I was able to produce it, after which I was sometimes praised, and I was always left the hell alone at least until some new task was assigned. I learned that I could run, march, and shoot a gun. I could polish my boots, work in the kitchen, wear a starched uniform, obey an order, give an order, and command the respect of my fellow soldiers.

Of course, I was not a real soldier, nor was meant to be. But the army took me back to the common denominators of existence and let me start my psychological life over again. Unexpectedly, it seems, the army set me on a secure path to my major work of a lifetime: the construction of the Self.

The army did not know my parents, my teachers, nor (apparently) did it know the civilian marketplace, nor did it know or care about the God of Abraham. The private life one brings to the army is of no use. The sergeant went on to say, "Some of you may be here because you're hiding out from the law. That's all right, as long as you don't tell me about it." The sergeant’s message seemed to be this: your slate is now clean and army rules are clear and simple; if there is anything else to worry about, the army will do it for you. So the army was a place where even criminals could start over—perhaps, I thought, those who had committed the unforgivable sin could at least be forgiven by the sergeant!

In the army, one functions by performing the basic necessities, and one man does this as well as another, so everybody is equal. As the sergeant says in Full Metal Jacket, "You're all equally worthless to me!" This attitude was all right; in fact, it gave me the first equality I had ever felt. Always before, I had vacillated between inflated feelings of superiority and inflated feelings of inferiority. Now I was worthless, but so was everybody else!

For me, the army was a chance to wipe the slate clean and start life over. I was hiding out from laws I didn't understand, not from criminal law, but from the bewildering clash of the laws of home, school, church and marketplace. Now that I had my new home in the army, I could let the other laws clash all they wanted to—they were part of another place and another life. They were now other people’s problems.

The army was good for me ... for a few months. Then I was ready to go back to my old life and again attempt to live as if as if I belonged there—and belonging there is a state of mind that still did not come to me quickly or easily by any means. The construction of my Self was far from finished, but at least I knew what I was trying to do and at least I had found forgiveness from one person—Sgt. Newsome, a man proud of being the oldest soldier in the United States Army whose primary job description was still “rifleman.”

For Sgt. Newsome and his kind, this is all my way of saying,


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