In ‘Conversations With My Molester,’ confronting memories of abuse
In 1968, when he was 11 years old, Michael Mack was molested by his parish priest in North Carolina, he says, and his experience changed him in ways that took years to reveal themselves.
In 2002, when a series of Globe articles focused attention on the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic church, poet and performer Mack began to talk seriously with friends about finding the priest. And finally, in 2005, the Cambridge resident plugged the priest's name into Google.
"Amazingly, my abuser was not only still alive, but he was living very nearby,'' says Mack, 55. "Having all my life imagined one day having a conversation with him, I decided to make the contact. . . . It was almost providential: 'After all this time, all this distance, he's right here? I can't say no to this.' ''
In January, Mack began performing "Conversations With My Molester: A Journey of Faith,'' a lyric spoken-word piece about his experience with the priest, his struggles, and what happened after that Google search.
On Thursday, he will perform "Conversations'' at his current parish, St. Paul Catholic Church, near Harvard Square. He says the performance is an act of reconciliation that's appropriate at Lent.
As a boy, Mack wanted to be a priest. "Conversations'' offers his discomforting, though not graphic, account of what happened to him at the church in Brevard, N.C., which he says took away that dream and haunted him throughout his life. He says that he found the priest was living in Massachusetts and had been accused of similar abuse by at least two others. (The name of the priest, who has since died, and a few other identifying details have been changed in the play, Mack says.)
Some friends warned him to be careful of possible pitfalls in getting in touch with the priest. "What I try to recount in the play is both sides of it, the amazing possibilities that this opened up, and the dread,'' he says.
He drove to confront the priest, then turned away at the last minute, he says. It took him two years to simply mail a letter asking for a meeting. What happened next was hardly what he had hoped. But then with a trip back to Brevard and his old church last September, Mack says, he finally found a degree of healing. "It was there I really felt I was back in the church,'' he says.
As an adult, Mack joined the Air Force, got married and divorced, and eventually entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study management. He ended up focused on writing classes there, with teachers including the poet Maxine Kumin. "One of the first things you learn in writing class is write what you know, and that's kind of where I began,'' says Mack.
He began to write about his mother's schizophrenia and his memories of the priest, he recalls. "It was kind of a laying open of the soul. . . . I had a need to grapple with this in some way. It was something I kept pretty much to myself for decades. I couldn't articulate yet how profoundly it had shaped me, and now I had an opportunity to shape it through this creative process.''
After graduating from MIT in 1988, he worked as a freelance technical writer while publishing his poetry. Eventually he began going to poetry slams and open mikes. His writings about his mother's mental illness evolved into his first major theater piece, "Hearing Voices, Speaking in Tongues.''
"These experiences . . . profoundly shaped me, and what writing and then performing gave me was an opportunity to explore them in a different way, in a way that's not unlike therapy, which I've had a couple of yearlong sessions with,'' he says. "These were situations where I as a child really didn't have very much control. As an adult and an artist I have a lot more control and am able to work with the material in a much more proactive way.''
He has performed "Hearing Voices'' many times over more than a decade, often in front of groups of mental health professionals or families facing similar issues. After a number of readings, he debuted "Conversations With My Molester'' at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre in January, hoping to reach the same kind of audience.
Rev. Michael Drea, pastor of St. Paul, attended a performance, and soon after it was agreed Mack would bring it to the church.
"The thing that I hear most often and that made me really want to move forward is just how healing it is,'' Mack says. "Both in the depth it goes into about the difficulty and the trespass, and in how it ultimately resolves in redemption.''
"It pierces one's heart,'' says Rev. James Savage, parochial vicar at St. Paul and one of Mack's supporters at the church. "I think that what he tried to do was on the one hand show the darkness of what had happened with him, and at the same time it showed his journey to find a way to deal with it, which led eventually to his spiritual healing.''
Was there any trepidation about hosting this performance? Rev. Savage notes that the play is "not lurid'' and says, "You have to look at the truth. Granted, the problem of clergy sex abuse is a terrible indictment against the church and the perpetrators themselves, but as we found out, it serves no purpose running away from it or hiding it or denying it. . . . The best thing is to take that which happened in darkness and bring it into the light.''
Mack refers to the sections of the play as poems or "lyric works,'' but "Conversations'' is a theater piece with a few props. Daniel Gidron directs, as he did at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.
As a writer and performer, Mack says, "I can shape that material and, with the help of the muse, who works in her own way, create something hopefully cathartic, something beautiful and something that can serve others in some way.''