Suitcases of Evil

Editor’s note: the following post touches on disturbing topics such as child abuse and should be read with discretion. It is a follow-up to Richard’s recent piece, “Praying Twice.”

Richard Mammana / 11.16.17

Editor’s note: the following post touches on disturbing topics such as child abuse and should be read with discretion. It is a follow-up to Richard’s recent piece, “Praying Twice.”

There were many suitcases in the choir, and this much is of open public record. Some of them held Prayer Books and hymnals, and some of them had sheet music and organ shoes and surplices, and two of them were black and had pictures of naked children in them. There were 24 of us at a time from 1970 to 2012, four thousands of us until our voices cracked and the sun began to shine for some of us.

This was an open secret at Christ Church, Stroudsburg by Christmas of 1992, when “the wrong suitcases” turned up at our concert rehearsal in the Egner Memorial Chapel at Muhlenberg College. This was hushed over as a whoopsy-daisy, and we continued singing Palestrina and Willan for twenty more years. There were loaner hymnals on hand, and the suitcases went into hiding for a time. “The music man is funny!” the priest said of his organist in my home parish. Lessons and Carols that year were the best in anyone’s memory, and I was the sacrificial soprano-lamb who found out five minutes before (by ancient tradition) that he was singing the first verse of Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed.

The suitcases lived upstairs at the choir hall in Stockertown in the closet just to the left on the landing. The building has since been demolished, and the soil beneath it is permanently fallow.

Then the suitcases moved to Marshalls Creek, in the woods filled with tick-infested deer and chipmunks and secret sins.

When he was arrested, he looked small and ugly: short, powerless, defiant. At the arraignment, he said he was cold, and asked for a blanket. Then he chanted “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” as he left the court room. Then from jail, he called his neighbor—the director of the local Lutheran nursery school—and asked her to go to his house and find the suitcases, which she hid for him in a shed. This call was of course recorded, and the police visited the yard to retrieve them. There were more than 1200 photographs of boys, but the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania permitted him to plead guilty to just two counts: one for each suitcase-full. My heart is rent at the awareness that any person had to look at each of them and count them.

The arresting officer told me that there were several photographs of me, and the district attorney told me there were not. The darkest mystery of my life is that I do not know whether there is pornography of me when I was twelve or fourteen years old. The recording angels know the answer, and I pity them even as I hear their featherwings whisper me to sleep each night. The seraphim have eyes under their wings, you know. Yet I have never used the word victim to think of myself, and my permanence in the Church is the intentional standing in a place where there is truth to be spoken and there are children to be guided into better paths of peace. The extremes of mirth and sorrow I inhabit because of how I was tormented are generally overlapping and tempered by duty or friendship or work.

As the appeal process has gone forward, an attorney has argued that “some people may find the pictures sexual, but the appellant does not.”  At this point, a half-dozen judges have now done the decency that clergy would not, and declined this hollow argument like a candle with no wick. Why has the secular been the restraining power here, rather than the family where God reigns and each of us is as dear as a sparrow?

There is an ocean of grief for everyone inside the suitcases, and it cannot be diluted. It is the pure chemical of evil, and it was “funny” at Christmas. It was demonic, and I do not find it very interesting. The possibility of repair is an illusion and will never be realized, but I only think about this when I am awake.

I suppose my primary anger about this is geographical and genealogical: my mother’s family have been in Pennsylvania since 1730, and we founded the German Reformed Church in this country as constantly-pregnant pioneers whose faith is my own inspiration—as rooted as the dirt in which they sleep until the day “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” The land is mine by right, and its place-names are all as cursed as they are sacred because of what happened in them: Easton, Bethlehem, Allentown, Stroudsburg, Bangor, Lancaster, Lititz, Lebanon, Stouchsburg, Nazareth, Egypt, Womelsdorf and Breinigsville and Hecktown. It is no mistake that half of the towns in Pennsylvania are named from the Bible in a vain attempt to create Heaven and Earth in little space. The winter is the only time I am happy there-where-I-belong, because it is when the stable was filled with warmth and Light and the song distracted us from what we knew.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

But you know, it was really only ten and fifteen and twenty years ago, and maybe five, and who knows what is now?