Jump-Starting a Brain Frozen in the Cold War

Constance Hoffman

With this article, Free Inquiry launches a new department. Based on our recent, well-received four-part series, “The Faith I Left Behind” invites readers to submit personal deconversion stories. How did you let go of your previous perspective, religious or otherwise, and become a secular humanist? Please note, essays for this department must be sent in accord with FI’s normal submission policies; submitting a manuscript by e-mail only is not permitted. For submission guidelines, visit http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/submission-guidelines. —Eds.

Armageddon’s so close. You probably won’t have children. You might never get the chance to grow up and get married.”

“South Dakotans are in great danger. If the Russians decide to take out our power supply, they’ll bomb the dams on the Missouri River. Hide under your desk.”

“God’s people go to Sunday School. Jesus loves me, this I know.”

“Use your brain. Hypocrites fill churches.”

“Christians live by faith. You must believe. You are a sinner. Everyone sins. Hell is forever.”

“In this house, what I say goes, goddamn it. Don’t question me. When you get out in the real world, you’ll damn well learn to follow the rules.”

I believed all of it. The country, whose flag I stood before and swore allegiance to, would not tell me lies, would it? The Methodist Church, whose ministers taught me “Kumbaya,” wouldn’t lie, would it? My grandparents, immersed in a free home Bible Study conducted by a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses, weren’t lying, were they? Mama and Daddy wouldn’t lie to me. Would they?

Years later, when my oldest granddaughter was in high school, she told me about a class in which the students learned critical thinking. “Critical thinking?” I said. “What’s that?” I’d never been taught to think. For me, school had been work, an unpleasantness that had to be endured. The rest of my life was pretty much the same. Why have dreams? The community was bound to knock them down. (“Who do you think you are, anyway? An artist? What makes you better than anyone else? And who needs art? Get a real job. There’ll always be a need for someone to empty bedpans.”)

I tried to listen to and please everyone. By squelching my dreams, I just about fit into my family and then my husband’s family. By not speaking up in defense of the necessity of beauty, I fit into the community that reportedly spent twenty-six thousand dollars for a digital sign outside the civic center. It may have been utilitarian, but it was ugly.

Occasionally, someone would provide a spark that enlivened my languishing mind. Averell, who was married to a South Dakotan she had met in Arizona, volunteered in the library where I worked. She pronounced foreign as fahren. Her everyday speech, featuring words such as obstreperous and matriculate, hinted at her educated Connecticut background. “Can you tell me,” she asked once, “why you people out here say, ‘it looks like rain’”?

Huh? Giving her my most puzzled look, I said, “Well, because when we look outside, we see that it looks like it’ll rain, so we say, ‘It looks like rain.’”

“But like should never be used as a conjunction,” she said.

“Huh?”

“You should say, ‘It looks as if it could rain.”

I was so flabbergasted that I barely heard her explanation. “But I was good in English,” I said.

She smiled and gave me a hug. Later, when she wasn’t looking, I took down Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and looked it up. It confirmed what Averell had said, adding: “Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate. . . .” So in spite of my having graduated from Burke High School, I was illiterate. Philip, my boyfriend, reinforced that truth.

“The horse drug him,” I had said. “His foot got caught in the stirrup, and . . . .”

“Dragged.”

“Huh?”

“The past tense of drag is dragged. The horse dragged him.”

I stared at him. “You’re kidding.” “No.”

“But everyone I know says that.” (It’s true. Some of our state representatives spoke in the same illiterate manner.)

“I know.”

“How’d you get so smart?” I asked. (I adored him back then.)

“Nuns. They beat it into me.”

I didn’t believe that Philip was smart because of nuns, whether they beat him or not. Intelligence, to me, had a magical quality. Either you had it or you didn’t. My father had it. After he died, my mother was fond of bragging about his high IQ. I didn’t have it. When I was five and about to go to school in a few weeks, I exasperated my father—causing him to swear—because I hadn’t yet learned to write my name and tie my shoes. I was just smart enough to figure out I was stupid. I didn’t have intelligence. So why should I try?

Outside of my town, my county, my state, things were different. Philip told me that his home state of New York required everyone to pass the state Regents examinations in order to graduate from high school. Students actually studied.

Given my stupidity, it’s a wonder that I’d gotten a boyfriend like Philip. (It’s also a wonder that later I would end an unhappy relationship and get divorced. Or that I’d leave my religion and, following the example of my mother and sisters, become a Jehovah’s Witness.)

“But,” I’d said to him, “you do believe in God, don’t you?” Having not yet recovered from the effects of religious dogma, I had a terrible need to persuade my soul mate about the existence of God and his original plan of filling a perfect Earth with perfect mankind, but the devil is out there . . . blah, blah, blah.

Philip let me blather. Then he set an example by explaining some of what he knew, most of which came from reading. He read everything. Signs at rest stops along the highway. Maps. Labels. Free brochures in the library or courthouse. The fine print on anything.

 

We planned a trip to Italy. Philip’s brain, accustomed to studying, was limber enough to soak up some Italian before we got there. I retained very little. Thinking was a chore. Studying was unthinkable. It was as if I were trying to get water using a broken pump handle. Once when were were playing cards, Philip dealt them out while counting in Italian for practice. While I was deciding what to discard, he’d read from the dictionary. “Zanzara. Know what that is?”

“A clothing designer?”

“It’s a mosquito.”

“Mosquito. Why waste time learning such obscure things?”

The eight-hour flight to our destination, during which a cousin of Rod Serling taught me to play Hearts, overwhelmed me. Italy overwhelmed me. I was lost in the babble of a foreign language, the smells, the meat markets, the ancient stone buildings, and the pigeon-filled piazzas. When a group of Americans invited us to join them for dinner, I was sort of relieved. They were much younger than we were and too boisterous and loud, but I thought they knew the ropes.

When we arrived at the restaurant, we found the door shut, pulled down in the manner of a garage door. “What?” one young man said, angrily gesturing at the door. “It was here. Just last night. And it was open.” They uttered profanities, most of which I’m uncomfortable repeating.

Philip bent down to see a small handprinted sign taped to the door. Squinting in the dim light, he slowly read, “Chiuso venerdi.” Turning to the rest of us, he said, “It’s closed on Fridays.”

We found another restaurant. Our companions seemed to think that all Italians were slow, but they read the menu so atrociously that I was e
mbarrassed. One young man kept trying to mix and match. “I want some of this,” he said, pointing to one item on the menu and then another, “and some of this. But could you leave out the onions?” I couldn’t follow him even in English. When the waiter didn’t understand, the kid repeated, using the same words only more loudly. I hoped none of the Italians thought we were friends or, God forbid, related.

There was a train strike as we were about to go back to Rome from Naples. We sat for hours on a bus. One man sitting across from us slapped his own arm. “Zanzara,” he explained to his companion.

A man across from me reached into his paper bag, drew out a fat root, white with a frilly green top, held it up, and said, “Finnochio,” which rhymes with “Pinnochio.” Using a pocketknife, he began slicing the vegetable. A smell that I recognized as fennel filled the bus. Though I’d used the seeds in bread, I’d never seen fennel root. The man held a white slice out to me. “Mangia, mangia.”

“Eat, eat.” The Italian word was so unfamiliar, and I lacked the sense to associate mangia with manger. But what is a manger but a place where animals eat? Why hadn’t any parent, grandparent, preacher, or teacher ever connected me to the root of a key word in “Away in the Manger”?

“He wants you to eat it,” Philip whispered.

I did. “Grazia,” I said.

 

I didn’t believe Philip when he told me I was smart. I told him he was a genius. He said that wasn’t true. He studied. He worked hard to learn and retain. He was always reading and thinking. He rode his bike, jogged, and ate fish, giving his brain oxygen and nutrients. He was a teacher when I met him, and he told me that he hated hearing two phrases: “Do we have to know this?”and “Will it be on the test?”

“What difference does it make?” he’d say. “Knowledge won’t hurt you. It might even help you.”

I was past the age of fifty when I began to stretch my lazy brain. I read. I listened to the news, even on politics! I ordered some college courses on tape and DVD. Most of them were way over my head. Yet I took notes, and some of it stuck.

After my divorce, I got a second boyfriend, a West Coast man and a true soul mate who’d known me when I was religious. “You’re different,” he said. “You seem smarter.”

I laughed. “I am.”

Well, it turns out that because I’d learned from my first boyfriend, the second one and I could have deeper discussions. I’d found out that “theory,” as in “Theory of Evolution,” can mean “an unproved assumption.” But it can—according to Philip and my Merriam Webster’s—also mean “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena, such as ‘wave theory of light.’”

It also turned out that, because of prevailing attitudes and the residual effect of my former religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was unable to remain with my second boyfriend. I could not get over thinking of him as my brother-in-law, which he’d been for fifteen years. Though they were divorced, in my mind that smart man still belonged to my smart little sister.

For a while, I wandered from boyfriend to boyfriend, like Eve sampling fruit in the orchard and thinking all kinds of formerly forbidden thoughts. While enduring menopause, I wondered why God had invented hot flashes. Why did I still have a sex drive? Why did God put such a drive in adolescents, who are not at all ready for parenthood? Those hormones—especially in fine physical specimens—can render one quite stupid. Choosing a good mate is pretty much a crap shoot. What’s up with that? Where in the world do we get the idea that marriage is sacred?

Finally, after years of being estranged from my religion and turning down offers from well-meaning neighbors to fill that void with another faith, I studied the Bible. By that I mean that I studied the book without assuming it was sacred, inherently right, or divinely inspired. I had no need to prove it right. And I didn’t. More of it turned out to be wrong than right.

Why was there so much fighting over what was included and what was left out? Why would a loving god allow that? Why create more confusion with conflicting stories and principles? Why were there two accounts of the creation? Why was Mark’s Gospel, the oldest, put after Matthew? Why not begin with Paul’s writings, the oldest of the Greek writings?

Hey! I’ve been thinking! I can now think anything. Although no one has verified it, I can believe that an all-knowing all-seeing Santa lives at the North Pole. Or I can choose not to. It’s up to me. Wow.

I have stopped believing most of the stories from my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life. Lies—even those told sincerely, by someone you trust, someone as gullible as you are—are still lies.

Philip is back in New York. He and I talk nearly every day. He’s working on learning the Polish language. I’m learning Russian. Why? Because I can. Because, after he jump-started my brain, I found out how much fun learning is. Had we not been subjected to the Cold War propaganda, who knows what we might have learned?

Just consider this: Krem’l is the walled fortress of an old city. Gahzyetyah is newspaper. Zhoornahl is magazine. Our language is tied to that of the Russians. Amazing, huh?

 


Constance Hoffman playes guitar, composes poetry, and paints murals and trompe d’oeil in Burke, South Dakota.

Constance Hoffman

Constance Hoffman playes guitar, composes poetry, and paints murals and trompe d’oeil in Burke, South Dakota.


Society tried to bully me out of thinking for myself. Eventually it failed.

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