In the Name of the Father

IF GENDER WAS not so burdened with historical meaning, I might have enjoyed Lars von Trier's parable of faith and cinema, Breaking the Waves. As it is (stop here if you don't want the plot), the tale of a simple woman choosing to be terribly raped as a test of belief, as a prayer to save her paralyzed husband, made me feel nauseous. And when von Trier, as God the director, healed the husband and blessed Bess's surrender, I felt like a dog thrown a bone. I threw it back--because the myth of female sacrifice is so old and so strong and so damaging. Because the film read a woman's instinctive urge to fight, to save herself, as moral failure. Because I could not imagine von Trier making that movie with the players' sexes switched.

Obviously, he couldn't either. To instead picture a man deliberately setting himself up to be raped transforms the story. In our society's eyes, a man forcibly sodomized loses all claim to masculine strength and power. Whereas Bess, likewise used, absolutely proved her claims to feminine endurance and devotion. What Bess's creator, husband, and God asked of her was only an extreme form of what Western culture has long desired from women--sexual passivity and availability. Demanding the same of a man is equivalent to destroying his identity. Too terrible a request, I guess. Even for God.

In a society as dualistic as ours, we learn very early that the meaning of an action depends on who acts. Even preschool-age boys know that tears okay for girls will leave a boy looking like a "sissy." Take an action with a seemingly constant value--say, rape--and then change the gender of the players: man rapes woman; woman rapes man; man rapes man; woman rapes woman. Each scenario summons a different emotional response. Indeed, how could it not?

That's the question I'm pondering. What would have to happen to make us all, simply, human? Mary Doria Russell's science fiction novel The Sparrow was recently announced the winner of the 1997 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, given to speculative fiction that best examines or deconstructs gender roles (the novel shares the honor with Ursula LeGuin's story "Mountain Ways"). In Russell's book, a Jesuit priest is repeatedly, brutally raped by sentient creatures on another planet. Emilio Sandoz has travelled to Rakhat with seven others on a first-contact mission sponsored by the Jesuits (a mission not, of course, without earthly precedent). Emilio returns to earth alone, nearly mad: a broken, bitter, disfigured man.

So The Sparrow begins. The tale (and "God," as the sunny, pre-journey Emilio puts it) is in the why. The priest went to Rakhat thinking himself an instrument of God, seeing himself naked before God, and God fucked him. His torture was too much to ask, he feels; he cannot credit his experience and believe in a loving Creator. Russell conveys Emilio's horror with precision and weight. But she also surrounds him with history: Another crew member is a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors were hounded and worse by the Spanish Inquisition--Emilio's forefathers both by blood and profession. This same character, Sofia, was orphaned in a Kurdish war, and chose first physical and then intellectual prostitution to survive.

Emilio himself grew up on the streets of Puerto Rico with a drug runner for a father; he is no naif. But Sofia tells a truth deeper than she knows when she describes Emilio's "very sheltered life." As a man, his belief in his own mental and physical integrity has never been shaken. As a Catholic priest, he represents centuries of consolidated power and wealth--and a tradition of often violent spiritual colonization. Russell has one Jesuit official compare Emilio, without irony, to Jesuit martyrs killed by Indians in the 17th century while trying to save souls for Christ; the official does not question why the Indians murdered them, only why the priests persisted.

They persisted because they thought they were helping the "savages," not harming them. The Sparrow declares that distinction impossible. As much as the Rakhat people tore and bruised Emilio's body, so did the Jesuit contingent tear and bruise Rakhat society. All Emilio felt was what he had brought about, what has been heedlessly visited on "aliens" (like Sofia, like Bess) for a millennium. It broke him. And it broke his faith in an all-powerful, purposeful, and righteous (He's on our side) God. Is that, I want to ask, what must happen? Must such men be humiliated to comprehend what they, with the God they created in their own image, have wrought? "None of you will ever know what it was like," a chastened Emilio cries to his fellow Jesuits. By the disturbing end of this relentless novel, you know he's right.

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