In the thirty-third chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Mary, Lyra, and Will all swap stories about their journeys to this very place in order to better understand what is ahead of them. In the process, Mary finally reveals why she stopped being a nun. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE: MARZIPAN
I stopped believing in God on September 18th, 2002.
I know that trigger warnings operate under a pretty specific purpose and that they generally are brief notifications of content that is likely to upset people in ways beyond being uncomfortable. Obviously, not everyone is triggered by the same things, but I enjoy using them, as there are days when I can’t handle reading about something that affects me personally. I was going to include a basic trigger warning on this before I shared this story, but I felt that it was not enough. Just warning about talk of homophobia, abuse, rejection and other such things that I’m going to address wouldn’t cover the effect this might have.
So allow me to bend the accepted rules on trigger warnings just this once: This story is one of the last things I have held on to as a writer because it is possibly the most painful experience of my life, and one that, even after thinking about it for days, has been enormously difficult to think about in detail. This will upset you. It still upsets me in a guttural way, and it’s been over nine years since it happened. I am hoping that when this is published, it will provide the same sense of relief and freedom that writing about my experience of being bullied did during Mark Reads Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. But it’s hard to imagine this memory not being full of pain for me.
This is the story of how I came to stop believing in God, and there will be talk of violent, disgusting homophobia, rejection, bullying, suicidal thoughts, and the quest for personal acceptance. If you are particularly sensitive to these things, or if you really don’t want to read something like this, I would probably save this review for another day. I know it seems a bit strange to say, “HEY Y’ALL, MY LIFE IS CRAP, WALLOW IN MY SAD.” But this story will help explain why I’m drawn to this trilogy and why I am the way I am today. And it is immensely disturbing. This will upset you, and I know that because of how terribly upsetting it is to me. And I lived it. I just wanted you to know that so that this review did not take you by surprise.
Thanks for reading.
It seemed like an illusion every time I stepped onto the grounds of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The white and stone-gray building, all angles and straight lines, reminded me of a doctor’s office, or that strip mall further down Central Ave that we would pass if my mother needed to go to the Riverside Plaza. It was unassuming, if there was any such building that deserved that word, because it seemed so plain for a Catholic church, especially one in this town. A few palm trees were scattered haphazardly around the perimeter, and roses separated the actual church from the school on the same grounds. I was supposed to head into the classroom today, but I was early, so I walked over to the large double doors on the south end of the building and popped inside.
The ceiling of the church was impossibly high, and I remembered then the first time I ever step foot in this building. I recalled walking right back outside because it seemed that the place was violating the laws of physics. Again, what was inside was a trick, too. It was nothing like an office building. An arched ceiling, rows and rows of mahogany pews stretching obediently across the floor in straight lines, empty save for a few parishioners praying silently in the vacant space. The alter was wider than what I expected and it was still hard to get used to, though I came to love how the various priests or Fathers would utilize the space during Mass. The musicians always played out of a large alcove on stage right, and I dreamed of being able to perform at Mass one morning.
I stayed to the back, as I did any time I came to Mass, because I had been taught that I was not quite worthy yet to proceed to the front. I was near the end of my schooling to become a member of the Catholic church as an adult, and this particular church offered a year-and-a-half long class that allowed a believer to be baptized, receive their First Communion, and then get their Confirmation all at the same time, on the night before Easter. As I stood in the back of the church, admiring the crimson rug on the alter, I imagined myself there, the building full of my new family members, my godfather at my side, and I imagined how complete I would feel. It would only be a few more days until this happened. “It’s like no other feeling in the world,” my teacher would tell me when I asked, like an excited child who is going to their first day of school. I’ve since forgotten her name, but not her face. I don’t forget the face of people who lie to me like that.
But I had no idea what was to come, and in those final moments before Easter arrived and my new life in God was about to start, I was hopeful. Nervous, too, but I was hopeful that I’d found a way to have a family again, and hopeful that I’d found a way to eliminate the burning sensation of sin and shame that I’d been living with.
It didn’t last very long.
I came back to the church that Saturday evening, the parking lot overflowing with cars, a line down Streeter, and the din of believers rolling out of the double doors. I still had hope in that moment, but I felt a nervous dread creeping through me. What if I wasn’t pure enough? What if I said the wrong thing or my faith was not secure? I reached up to wiggle my tie, freeing my throat, and I could feel my heart pulsing below the collar. I’d never worn anything this nice before; my godfather’s father said I must be presentable before God that night. So no Dickies shorts, no band tees, no slip-on Vans. It was the first of many things that made me feel as if I was betraying myself, but I knew that I’d have to change myself if I was going to be a good Christian.
As I walked from the van towards the church, my godfather’s dad slipped his arm around me and smiled that goofy grin of his, quickly saying, “I’m very proud of you, Mark. You’re joining the family of God today. And that means you’re part of our family, too.”
I smiled, appreciative of his words, and wondered what my own family would think of this. My parents didn’t know anything about my conversion to Catholicism, and I was sure my mother would have pitched a fit had she known. She always called Catholics traitors, and had told me since a young age that they had clearly never read the Bible before. They were betraying God’s words by having false idols. But I didn’t take much stock in her opinion of other religions, and she wasn’t in my life anymore.
Was I replacing my family? Had I found one that would accept me? Would I feel better when I looked in the mirror and saw my bronze skin and knew that there was a part of my life that might give me a culture to belong to? I thought about how disconnected I felt from the lives my adoptive mother and father came from. I was a Mexican kid with a Japanese-Hawaiian father, and a mother who was a mixture of Irish, Welsh, and a ton of other things I wasn’t sure of. She was white, and she made a point of saying that. And here I was, a latino kid who wasn’t dark enough for the other latino kids at school, who didn’t speak the right language, who had no traditions that they could relate to, and I wondered if I’d find a new kinship in these people because we shared a religion.
But this paled to the other thoughts that began to stream through my head as I separated from my companions and headed to the front of the giant hall, just to the left of the altar, where I met my teacher. She was a large woman with rosy cheeks, a bowl cut of auburn hair that seemed to magically press to her head without any gel, and she was always ready to give you a hug. I always let her give me one, and in those days, I craved that sort of physical affection, even from strangers. She greeted me with the biggest hug yet, holding me longer than she probably should have, and I held her right back.
“I’m proud of you, Mark,” she said.
“I know this has been a hard journey for you,” she said, pulling away, looking up at me, her eyes sparkling with a mixture of joy and excitement, “and I know it’s been rough doing this on your own. But you did it. You made it here.”
I smiled down at her. I’m nervous, I admitted.
“Oh, don’t be!” She gently slapped my arm. “I know this is a huge moment for you, but there’s nothing to be worried about.” She leaned in closer, as if she was telling me a secret. “You’re receiving the Lord’s grace and love today. There is no more important moment in your life.”
I smiled back at her and I meant it.
Standing on the altar was overwhelming, but not in a way I expected. The lights that I’d never noticed before were coming from all sides; for some reason, I’d always assumed the place was lit by natural lighting, but this was also the first time I’d attended a service after the sun when down.
There were twelve of us that night, and our godparents sat in the front row to our right. I could see mine, but he wasn’t looking at me. He seemed distant, both in a personal sense and literally. He was so far away from where I was on the altar, but I wanted him by my side. I felt a pang and rush of excitement as I realized he was wearing that charcoal shirt I liked him in so much, but I panicked. I wasn’t supposed to be thinking these things right now. I couldn’t ruin this moment, and I knew that if I kept my mind pure, I would feel the Holy Spirit enter me when I was baptized and I would feel the sin rush out of me, and I’d be a blank slate, and I’d get to start over and all these thoughts that plagued me would disappear as the water ran down my head. I would get to start over, and I would have God in my heart, and I would feel whole and normal. God would be in my very heart and stomach when I consumed the bread and drank the wine, and he would become a part of me. And I would become a part of a family when I confirmed my faith to the entire church, and I would finally belong to something.
The music swelled to my right, and a hymn was sung to open the ceremony, and I was so terrified and overjoyed by the prospect of my future that I could feel my stomach turning in knots. Parishioners were still pouring in the back of the hall through those double doors I loved so much, and there was no room to sit anymore. Everyone who wasn’t in the front room seemed like a shadow, beings with a shape but no solid form, and I saw them dance down the aisles and against the back wall, trying to find a place to witness this holy act and affirm their own faith in God. There were no faces out there in the sea of faith and even those close to me seemed to lose their details.
I was the youngest of the entire group; most of those who made it through the class were twice my age, so my teacher found it necessary to give me extra attention. Sometimes, she made me feel like a child, but I didn’t really mind. She cared, and I was desperate for that sort of attention those days. “When it’s your time to be baptized, to accept the Jesus as your Lord and Savior, I want to save the best for last,” she told me the week before this. She was talking about me, and she meant that I would be the last one for each round. And so I watched as each classmate as mine was brought before the head priest in his silly frock and hat, and they were blessed by god, their heads across the receptacle of holy water, the water dribbled over their heads, prayers said for their eternal salvation. There were a lot of tears, and I was shocked by the sobs of an older Korean man who was becoming Catholic in order to be the same religion as his wife. His name was Rick and he was quiet in class, rarely speaking up to say anything at all, but now he was crying out with joy and the crowd responded, almost like this was much more than a baptism, and his wife stood next to him, tears welling in her eyes, happiness crossing her face.
I had no friends at the ceremony, and I had no real family there. My godfather stood at my side, motionless and stoic. As it came to my turn, I walked to the priest, who I had only met a few times, but he greeted me with warmth and anticipation. I couldn’t ignore the contrast. A man who was essentially a stranger in my life was more welcoming than my godfather. This was not a new revelation to me; the past few months had become more and more tense around him, and I had felt I was losing my friend. While I lived with him. Yet it was nothing like the sensation on that alter, an abyss stretching between us he mechanically gave me my blessing, refusing to touch me for more than a second, merely placing his face alongside mine to mimic the act of giving me a kiss on the cheek. He knows, I thought, and the fire rushed to my face, and the shame returned. He knows I’m lying to God, he knows I’m lying to these people, and he knows what I am.
I turned to the priest, to that sparkling bowl of blessed water, and I had tears in my eyes, too, but they were not the same as Rick’s, nor his wife’s. I was mortified by what was about to happen. By breaking my concentration and allowing thoughts of another man into my mind, had I sabotaged my own baptism before it began? No, I told myself, this is the moment you have been waiting for. Remember what your teacher told you: this is the most important act of your life, and you will feel the Holy Spirit enter you as soon as the water is poured on you.
So I bent my head down, not listening to anything the priest was saying, his voice booming through the hall and echoing in such a manner that it was impossible to hear what he was speaking about even if I tried. I waited. I was seconds away from salvation.
I felt a chill run down my spine as the holy water dripped over my head and then it rushed over my hair, down past my ears, and it was cold, frigid, and I waited. I felt it drip from my nose and I opened my eyes. I could see the water slosh as it poured from my head and I waited. I heard the priest say something and then my godfather’s hand was on my shoulder, gently directing me to stand upright. “You are now washed free of your sins,” I heard the priest say, but his voice rang as hollow and as vacant as the spacious room. My godfather gave me a mediocre hug, saying, “Congratulations, Mark,” in a monotonous voice, and then he turned to walk off the alter.
I felt nothing. I felt no spirit entering in me, and as I watched my godfather sit in the front row and stare off into nothingness, I thought about how handsome he was, and the very thought seemed to choke me.
I felt nothing. There was no Holy Spirit, and it didn’t work. I felt the church before spread out, and it was as if I stood on a large plain, almost like a desert, and my family and friends stood in a circle miles and miles away from me, and all of them were having conversations with one another, and as I tried to run to one side to hear what they were saying, it was as if the sides of this circle continued to stretch away from me.
I felt nothing. There was no Holy Spirit in me.
No, no, I’m doing that.
Father O had a face crowned with gray hair that you wanted to trust more than anything. He was my favorite of the priests at this specific church, but in this moment, his mouth and eyes scrunched together in disapproval and fury. “Mark, it’s the only option left to you.”
I am not wasting the summer before I go to college on a retreat. Not one like that.
He sighed heavily, placing his forehead in his right hand, thumb and middle fingers touching his temples, and when he looked up, the fury was gone. In its place was sadness, the kind when a pet dies or when a friend betrays you and leaves you behind, or when you are reminded that the world is full of disappointments.
“Do you realize how powerful that sin is inside of you? Do you realize what will happen if you continue to let it grow?”
It can’t possibly get any worse, Father.
“And you are certain you felt nothing? I have been a member of the Catholic church a long time, and I have been in the position to witness more baptisms than I can ever recall, have given the bread and the wine to so many people, many I will never see again. I have never heard of someone feeling a vacancy of God during His most holiest blessing.”
Why would I make this up? Why would I choose to feel this?
He reached out his left hand as a concession, and he placed it on my right leg. “Mark, this retreat…” he started. Forlorn again. “It’s only three weeks, but it’s a powerful three weeks. There is something broken in your soul if the cleansing water of God does nothing for you. If you do not eradicate this sin, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I started to cry. It was sudden, unlike any I’d had before, and the idea of an eternity in hell hurt me so badly. Father, I sobbed, I did not choose this. I didn’t choose these thoughts and I cannot control them. I paused, choosing my next words carefully. God made me this way, I declared, straightening my posture, defying his words.
His look was one of fear and sympathy. “My son, this is not a path you want to take.”
No, it is. I have been trying too long to make this go away.
“You will divorce yourself from God,” he warned.
I stood up. Then that’s what I have to do.
As I started to walk away, he followed closely, chirping at the back of my head. “But this retreat–this retreat, Mark–we can pray it away! We can give you the spiritual cleanliness you want, we can reach into you and pull out those thoughts and rip them from your soul, and it will be like you are born anew again–”
I whipped around, the fury inside of me growing. You mean like what I was promised when I was baptized? When I took the body of Christ inside me and drank his blood and confirmed my faith? Is that the cleanliness you’re speaking of?
“Mark,” he said, much quieter than before, his face a wrinkled mess of emotions, “you are letting him get to you. You are giving in to your rage and allowing the devil to control you. I know what it is like, to struggle with sin. We all do. Let me help you. I know what it’s like to go through what you are going through.”
I looked him in the eyes; they glistened. He cared, but he wasn’t listening. You don’t know the slightest thing about what I’m going through, I stated plainly. And then I turned and walked through those double doors for the last time.
There were garages, and there were sweeps of the hair.
The calls started a few days later. I hadn’t found a place to live just yet, so I was still in the dejected laundry room. My CDs were in a box on the floor, and I had a duffle bag packed. It wouldn’t be long before I knew I would have to leave, so I wanted to make it easier. I was trying to nap that afternoon, but I’d never been good at falling asleep while it was still light out.
My godfather’s dad tapped on the window that looked into the kitchen. They had refused to put blinds or drapes on that thing, and it annoyed me now more than ever. Sometimes, they’d have people over late and would socialize in the kitchen, and the light would glare into that little laundry room, and it would just make me feel more alone. I looked up now at the man who was kicking me out of the house, and he held up the phone to me.
A wave of fear crept through me. I wasn’t supposed to receive phone calls at the house. It was one of the weird house rules that I had. You’re part of the family, they would tell me, but you can’t use the phone or eat with us at the table. I walked through the house to the kitchen and saw him standing there, exasperated, and he spoke when I took the phone from him.
“You brought this on yourself.”
Confused, I put the phone to my ear.
“Is this that faggot Mark?”
Oh, fuck, how does he know?
What? Excuse me?
“Hey faggot, I heard you love sucking dick. Do you have AIDS yet?”
What are you talking about? How did you get this number?
“Your days are limited, fag. You better remember that at school tomorrow.” Click.
I slowly placed the phone on the counter, and I felt my heart beating so quickly that it was only a matter of time until it burst. What had I done? How did someone find out?
The phone rang again, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see my godfather’s father staring at me. He knew, too.
I answered. Hello?
It was a girl this time. “Do you not want me, Mark, because I don’t have a dick? Is that it? What kind of faggot doesn’t like fucking girls?”
Please, stop calling. This isn’t my house. Please stop this.
“You fucking homo. I hope you die of every STD ever. Which won’t be hard to get, you faggot.”
I hung up before it could continue. The phone started ringing again immediately, so I reached over and pulled the telephone cord out of the wall. I turned to the man of the house, my eyes red with tears, and simply said, I’ll be gone today. I shuffled towards my room, walking as if I was in a dream where my feet were made of concrete, a dream I had often those days, and I stared at my possessions. A box. A duffel bag. The last two years of my life had been a constant stream of movement from one place to another, of living out of a bag and a box and making sure never to buy anything that couldn’t fit in one or the other. It was a period of nomadic certainty: I would only last a few months before things were awkward, before I was asked to move on, before friends explained that it wasn’t their fault, it’s just how things were, before families told me that they couldn’t help it, but I couldn’t stay.
This was simply the same cycle, repeating over again. The dull weight of sadness that I was also used to had returned, but I’d learned how to cope with it by then. It was constant as well, with ebbs and flows and this was what I’d come to expect of my life. So I bent down, picked up the duffel bag and slung it over my shoulder, and then knelt to grab the box, too. I walked out of that laundry room without that cursory, romantic glance you see on television or in movies all the time. There was nothing I wanted to remember about that place, about a room that never belonged to me, that had no inch that would remember I was ever there, about a house that was completely foreign to me.
I passed one of my godfather’s little brothers on my way out, and discovered just how right his father was: the kids were getting attached to me. “Where are you going, Mark?” he said, his eyes barely straying from the Tony Hawk game on the TV.
He paused the game. (In those days, it took something akin to a nuclear apocalypse to get him to stop gaming.) “What? Why? You’re coming back, right?”
No, it’s time for me to go.
He was like me when I was a kid. Quick to tears. He started crying quietly and got up off the floor and clung to my leg. This felt poetic, and the fact did not escape me. It made me hate what was happening even more. I felt like I was being teased, that God wasn’t answering my prayers so much as mocking them. You want to be gay? Fine. Here’s what your life is going to be like.
I had to peel the kid off of my leg. I ran my hand through his jet black hair and told him I would be back, just not to live there anymore. He stomped off in the direction of his parents’s bedroom, and I knew he’d be complaining, so this was my chance. I walked through the kitchen to the back door, and slipped out before anyone else could see me. I briskly made it across the street, and I was hoping this last idea would work, or else I’d be doing a lot of walking to find somewhere to live.
The driveway of the apartment complex across the street was gravel, and as I slowly made it up towards the top, you could hear a car grinding its tires against the rocks. The sound was really satisfying to me, and it reminded me of how grating it was to my mother. Maybe I liked it so much specifically because she did not like it. But this was one of my mother’s friends. Well, more like a friend of a friend, but I’d known Sergio for many years, and despite having not spoken with him for at least a couple years, it was my last chance.
I had sweat forming on my brow, and a drop slid down my right temple, so I put the box between me and the side of the apartment to wipe it, and then ring the door bell. It was only a few seconds later that the door opened and I stood there with everything I ever owned in a box and duffel bag, my eyes still raw from moments ago, and asked the man before me if I could live with him.
Because I had been supporting myself for two years and because my lack of any money, and because I’d lost nearly every friend I had after someone outed me, I wanted to go to the school that was the farthest away from Riverside, and would offer me the most money. I ended up settling on Cal State Long Beach, who offered me a full ride because I was valedictorian. (TAKE THAT, HATERS.) It was near the beach, only three or four other graduates of my high school were going there and they were still friendly with me, and I could start over.
The idea that no one knew me there was the most intriguing and exciting concept of the whole thing. I would get to come out on my own terms. I never figured out who was the first one to out me. I thought it was the priest for a while, but that seemed too absurd for a while, and I’ve since spoken to my godfather since this all happened, and he claims it wasn’t him either. But I suppose that is the nature of that sort of rumor in a small town full of violent homophobes: once the information is out, it spreads like a virus and there is no way of tracking down the source.
But my past didn’t carry over to college, and those first couple weeks at school were transformational for me. No one knew I was gay, but when I told people, no one cared. That’s all I really wanted. I wanted normalization. It’s a concept I’ve spoken of many times before, but by all means, I did not have a “normal” childhood or teenage experience, and I just wanted something in my life to not be a spectacle.
I started feeling a bit lonely, though, separated from any familiar faces or places, and it was just halfway through September that I sought out the campus’s LGBT Resource Center. I needed to find someone like me, to talk to others who might be able to help me with what I was going through.
In hindsight, I think it’s odd how far the LGBT group meeting space was from the main part of the campus. Was that done intentionally years ago before Long Beach became a queer haven of sorts? Either way, I walked way out past the art buildings, into an area with portable classrooms and unfamiliar walls and walkways, until I saw the door with the rainbow triangle on it. It was closed, but there was a meeting for queer youth in two days: September 18th at 1pm. I didn’t have classes at that time on Wednesday, so I made it a point to build up the courage to come.
When I did show up, it’s easy to recall the sensation of stepping into a room of people who know you’re okay and not only care deeply for you, but they intrinsically know that you’ve probably struggled just to get to this point. We did introductions that afternoon, as I wasn’t the only new face in the crowd, and I met folks who were gay, bisexual, queer, asexual, and transgender, people who were never a part of my life until just a month before my 19th birthday, and none of them looked at me with scorn or hatred or fear or with violence in their eyes.
It became my turn to introduce myself, so I gave them my name. I’m Mark. I’m from Riverside. I’m…gay. And it feels good to say that. And I used to be a Catholic and now I’m here.
One man to my right laughed. We would later make out and it would be wonderful. “I know how that is, man. Ex-Catholic here, too.” He smiled at me and I felt a rush of joy pierce my heart. “Do you still believe in God?”
It felt like I took an hour to answer the question, but the thoughts that raced through my mind in the next couple seconds were overwhelming. God had not brought me to this group, and I hadn’t prayed in months. I felt no divine will within me, and when I tried to be closer to God, it almost felt as if he was pushing away, as if he didn’t want me. But I knew that was just perspective, and I knew that it clashed with the abyss in my chest. I never once felt like I belonged when I tried to believe in God, and in just ten minutes in this room, I felt more alive than ever. This was not God directing me. It was my own heart.
No, I replied. No, I don’t.
I stopped believing in God on September 18th, 2002.
Unlike Dr. Mary Malone, I do not miss God terribly, though her admitting that was both heartbreaking and absolutely understandable. I miss the idea of what I was promised, that I would become part of a family, that I would have stable rituals and beliefs that provided a rigid backbone to my life, that I would have people and a God to turn to when I needed it. But in all my years of Christianity, I never had any of these things.
I’m not a fan of speaking in hyperbolic extremes when it comes to religion, both because it’s so uniquely personal to a lot of people and because it’s rarely correct. But in my life, I have not once felt that God was looking out for me, that I was part of a greater sum, or that somewhere in the universe, any sort of being had created me or loved me at any point in my existence. I went through a period after realizing this that day at the beginning of my freshman year of college where I was convinced that other people were lying about their experiences, and I think it was because I thought it was unfair. I thought it was unjust that other people in this world got to know God and know His love and his grace, and my life was devoid of that. But I grew out of that bitter, vindictive phase, and I claim only to be an atheist for myself now. It’s just nonsensical for me to think otherwise.
I don’t tell people this story because being outed, being rejected by your church and your family and people you thought you were your friends, is both terrifying and ridiculous. I guess that through Mark Reads, I’m coming to realize just how absurd my whole life is, and when putting it down in words, I know that a lot of awful shit has happened to me, maybe even to a point where it doesn’t seem real. And I get that, more than you probably know. But I think there’s also a part of me that is beginning to believe that my life is in reverse, that I did all the truly fucked up shit early on, and now all I have ahead of me is wonder and beauty and joy. Maybe I’ll find God someday when I’m older, though I doubt that. For now, my life is vacant of divine love and eternal faith.
And I just want to say that I would not have spoken about this for a long time, or come to terms with being treated this way, had it not been for Dr. Mary Malone, for her story of her loss of faith, of her discovery that something as simple as marzipan could inject so much life into her, for Philip Pullman’s trilogy, for this entire story. Maybe it’s not the case with everyone, but God and Christianity held my life back. I was miserable as a Christian, and it wasn’t until I discovered there was an entire world outside of God that I became happy with who I was.
Thank you, Philip Pullman. I could have used this trilogy back when I was a confused sixteen-year-old kid who ran away from his parents and needed a shoulder to lean on and a friend to tell me that what I was feeling was perfectly all right. But you know what? I’ll take it right now, too.
There’s a spiffy new banner this week (HOW COLORFUL), and here’s the link to the full image it is cropped from. Additionally, this week’s spoiler thread on BridgeToTheStars is up!