Image via WikipediaI had a close friend in high school named Tony with whom I lost touch shortly after graduation. The last time I saw him, which was over 15 years ago, he had returned to our hometown after a stint in the Marines. I'm not sure what just made me think of him, but it suddenly hit me that he was an important contributing factor to my growing acceptance of atheism at the time. This one's for you, Tony.
Tony wasn't smart in the academic sense. He never enjoyed school, and his grades were mostly Cs and Ds. He hid a negative self-concept behind a tough-guy facade. Tony was one of those guys who somehow managed to mention how much he could bench press into every conversation. He wrestled for his high school, and this was a source of pride in an otherwise dysfunctional life. His childhood was no picnic, and Tony's parents had long ago decided to focus their love and attention on his sister. His role in the family was to be that of a problem child, one to be fixed rather than celebrated. That both of Tony's parents were pastors in the most conservative evangelical church in town would explain some of the hardships he faced and would also have an influence on me.
I met Tony through a mutual friend. My friend's mother was an eager congregant in Tony's parents' church and dragged him with her a couple times each week. Tony and my friend bonded over their mutual displeasure over their church experience. I knew little about this church other than what I heard from them. I remember learning that speaking in tongues was a regular feature of their services. Anyway, my friend brought Tony into our group, and we hit it off immediately. I saw through his tough exterior almost immediately, and I think he was relieved to be accepted for who he really was rather than what he appeared to be.
We got in more than the usual share of trouble for teenagers at the time, united by a love of heavy metal, drugs, alcohol, fast cars, and girls. I introduced him to Slayer, and he turned me on to Overkill and King Diamond. We dabbled in the trappings of Satanism, not because we believed any of it but because we could relate to the rejection of Christianity it entailed. Of my friends at the time, Tony was the most openly hostile to Christianity. Given the experiences he'd had with it, this made sense. He helped me realize that one didn't always need to avoid talking openly about religion. We were there for each other when there simply wasn't anyone else either of us could talk to about much of this.
I vividly recall what happened to Tony when his parents realized what he'd been up to. Long before then, I was no longer allowed in his house when his parents were around. That I did not attend their church and looked rather unsavory was more than enough for them to prohibit him from hanging out with me. But now his parents found some of his metal records, and he wasn't allowed to have anything other than Christian music in their home. After they grounded him for a couple weeks and burned every record he owned in front of him, everything seemed to be resolved. He retreated to his room in seething anger, feeling that he had little choice but to wait out the grounding before seeing his friends again. What Tony didn't know was that his ordeal was just beginning.
Late one night after he'd been asleep for hours, Tony was suddenly awakened by dozens of hands grabbing him. His eyes opened to reveal at least 10 faces looming over him. He recognized them as his parents and many other adults from their church, mostly men. They held him down on his bed as he struggled, placing as many men as it took to immobilize each arm and leg, with others pinning his shoulders. He could not free himself - there were just too many of them. As his heart raced with terror, the assailants began praying over him. His parents, along with other pastors (ever notice how the crazier churches always seem to have an army of pastors?), began to perform an exorcism.
Tony was told that he was possessed by demons and that the group was going to exorcise them by any means necessary. Prayers, threats, and physical abuse would ensue for several hours. They continued until near dawn. Tony was exhausted to the point where he could no longer resist. He broke. He told them what they wanted to hear to escape the torture. He would later tell me that he even acted out what he thought it must look like for demons to leave one's body. There was nothing else he could do.
I didn't see Tony for awhile. The next time I saw him, I realized the true toll this experience had taken. He was not himself anymore. He was always looking over his shoulder, more uncertain of himself than ever, like a dog who had been beaten one too many times. His facade had crumbled, and he was no longer sure who he was. I had never seen him like this before, and I had no idea what to do.
Tony would recover, at least partially, in the months that followed. But the story does not end well. Shortly before his high school graduation, Tony's parents threw him out of their home. He was not permitted to take anything other than a small duffel bag of clothes, and he had no money. He lived with assorted friends for awhile, but that was not sustainable for more than a couple of months. Having nowhere else to go and no prospects before him, Tony enlisted in the Marines.
I moved away not long after he enlisted, heading off to college. I would see him one more time a year or two later while he was on leave and I was visiting family. Sadly, the Marines had taken the vulnerable shell of a man who had enlisted and filled him with hate. I barely recognized him. Everything I had appreciated about him over the years had been stripped away and replaced with racism, cruelty, and hate. HE couldn't seem to complete a sentence without dropping racist or homophobic slurs. At least now his parents were proud of him. They were happy to have him return to their home now.
I miss you Tony. I hope you find yourself some day and that the damage is not permanent. You influenced me in ways I'm only just beginning to understand, and although we traveled very different paths, mine was certainly richer for encountering you along the way.