We’ve been talking for about twenty minutes when Jack recalls a pastor’s statement to him that God has him here for a reason. But “God and I aren’t on speaking terms right now,” he says.
“Why would you think?”
With the quiet helplessness of a person whose faith has never been tested the way his has, I remember. I’m talking with someone who has been viciously wronged by a supposed holy man.
We hear stories about older mentors whose words stay with a kid his whole life, and make him strong. But Jack’s story shows the lasting damage that one person can do to another. A teacher and priest molested him, he says, when he was 12 years old at Catholic boarding school.
His natural mother, who was 14 at the time, gave him up for adoption to the “greatest family in the world.” They were upper middle class, Irish Catholic, and bought things for each other to show their love. Nobody believed him when, in the 1960s, he first tried to tell people about his abuse. The priest who did it, he said, is now a retired bishop.
“When I look back at it, that was the start. I started using alcohol and using drugs to suppress everything.” During early adulthood, Jack bounced from school to school, including Boston College, where he was thrown out for not keeping up his grades. He did prison time for armed robbery committed to support his drug habit. He got out, worked for his father’s construction and real estate companies, and married in his late 20s. That lasted three years.
Around 2011, Jack couldn’t suppress the pain anymore. He felt led one afternoon, by a force he can’t name, to a parish he attended as a child. There, he told the priest about his abuse at the school. The priest and others made appointments, tried to help him get out his story. But Jack wasn’t ready. He broke down and ended up hospitalized, having nearly jumped into traffic from a bridge over the Mass Pike.
“They wanted me to tell them what happened. I couldn’t. I still haven’t to this day. I can’t verbalize it. I can’t put it into words. It’s so private and it’s so embarrassing, but it’s not really. I didn’t do anything wrong, but you feel you did.”
Before he planned to jump, Jack began emptying his pockets, which strikes him now as an inexplicable action. He pulled out a photo of the little girl who called him “P,” the daughter of his girlfriend at the time. It made him stop.
Jack is now 57, and has quit drinking and drugs. His parents and sister are gone. In 2009, he had a “mini stroke” and was laid off from his construction job. He is unable to work, but “not broken enough” to qualify for Social Security. “I miss them,” he says of his family. “I’ve never really grieved. I’m one of those people who keeps everything inside.”
It aches to hear him speak with such calm self-awareness. His comments are astute, unadorned with pathos, easily blending into the sounds of the streets. I take in his kind brown eyes, his long, handsome profile and smooth skin. His ability to relate to others has gotten him a pack of solid friends, and a girlfriend, who is now one of the reasons that he wants to live.
As we’re talking, a slim young man, one earphone in, approaches and asks Jack if he knows what JBombs are. He comes back minutes later and gives him a few dollars.
“It’s a struggle, but you can get through it,” he tells Jack. “If you were a quitter, you wouldn’t be here.”