Dad, in his white undershirt and gym shorts, asked to speak with me one night. I didn’t think much of this; he often wished me goodnight with an “I love you” and a “sweet dreams” sprinkled in for good measure. But when he entered the bedroom and closed the door behind him, my heart dropped—he never closed the door. I knew what this was about.
He knelt in the golden glow of the nightstand lamp, a pair of mournful eyes at my bedside. “I installed something on the computer,” he said gravely. “It shows me what sites people have been visiting. And you’ve been looking at pornography.”
I froze, a deer in the headlights of shame. Suddenly, I had an out-of-body experience and saw myself: a chubby thirteen-year-old dwarfed by his big brother’s colossal California king bed. I wished the comforter would grow a tongue and swallow me whole; stomach acid would burn less than the shame of my pastor father confronting me about my porn addiction. It couldn’t get any worse.
Dad continued. “Jesus doesn’t like that—those…” He wrinkled his brow and shook his head, detesting the words, “…gay bodybuilders and whatnot.”
Well, it had gotten worse.
Not only had Dad acknowledged the dick-on-dick nature of the porn I was watching but also the fact that it was of the embarrassingly niche fetish known as muscle worship–bodybuilders flexing their goods for handsy admirers and dominating them with their strength.
This is it, I thought. Take me now, God. It’s either that or I start packing my bags for straight-to-gay conversion camp. A wicked punishment was hurtling towards me—I just knew it.
But Dad surprised me. “I’m gonna pray,” he said, sighed and squeezed my hand. This anticlimax shook me. He’d already started praying when I finally bowed my head too. “Heavenly Father,” he said. “I thank you for Aaron.”
In the darkness of my eyelids, his earnest words became cranes which heaved up a gargantuan shame from the depths of my mind. “We ask that you wash out the Enemy’s temptations, for they are no match against your great power….” He sighed again. “Father God, we ask that you purify our hearts and minds through your matchless love….”
The Lord’s heavy disappointment settled on my shoulders, pushing me deeper into the covers. I had expected Dad’s revelation to be accompanied by, at the very least, a stern grounding or maybe even his worn leather belt. But this? A mere acknowledgement and a prayer seemed out of character for him, particularly for such egregious sin as viewing homosexual pornography.
But the shame I felt as he kissed me goodnight was worse than any punishment. It should’ve been easy to not look at porn. It should’ve been easy to crack open a good book to distract me when I started fantasizing about sex. It should’ve been easy to remember the sheer discomfort of that night with Dad and say, “Well shit, I never wanna deal with that again,” and, accordingly, avoid any behavior that might trigger a sequel to that horrific interaction.
But that’s the thing about addictions: getting your fix ranks higher than common sense.
Step One: plant yourself at the family desktop with your back and screen facing your siblings’ bedroom doors. Step Two: have a flimsy alibi and the slowest reflexes on the planet so any sudden entrance of a family member results in you frantically minimizing browser windows and mumbling, “I’m just uh—erm—writing. Y-yeah, I’m writing.” (Smooth.) Step Three: disregard time and masturbate to porn only until you notice pale blue bars of dawn poking through the closed blinds, signalling your father’s fast-approaching wake. Step Four: oversee a mediocre orgasm and then drag your feet to bed, nursing a crushing dose of post-cum shame. Lather, rinse, and repeat the following evening.
Repeat for the following year.
And the year after that.
* * *
It was a cool October day in my fifteenth year when Dad asked me to walk the dog with him. We went to the usual spot, a sidewalk on the edge of our suburban neighborhood that smelled of freshly cut grass The trail was surprisingly tranquil for being so manufactured—a pine-topped berm mostly concealed us from houses on the left, and a field of brambles, a short fence, and a ditch mediated us from a highway on the right. Our labrador-golden retriever mix, Allie, snuffled the brown brambles. As her snout pushed against their stems, a few shriveled black buds bobbed: the wasted surplus of a bountiful blackberry season.
Dad broke the silence. “So you’re still looking at gay pornography.”
I tensed beside him. Oh God, not this again, I thought. Just keep walking and stay silent–it’ll be over soon.
But then he asked, “Why do you look at that stuff?”
I couldn’t outright tell my Jesus Freak father that I got off on watching buff guys flex and boink each other. The sheer mortification alone would melt the skin off my face like the Nazis at the end of Indiana Jones. Dad had probably never even looked at porn. I had no doubt that he was virgin when he married Mom at eighteen, and though he sometimes chuckled at lewd jokes on SNL or The Office, he always changed the channel when they became too risqué. Footage of gay pride parades on Fox News only garnered his scowl and admonishments.“Such immorality,” he’d say, before, once again changing the channel.
Dad probably couldn’t even imagine the filthy things I’d seen online. He couldn’t understand how addiction can be so strong that it feels like it’s dragging you along, kicking and screaming. And there’s no way he could fathom how much yearning I infused into my daily prayers to God to please, just take the feelings away.
“Aaron?” he asked, bringing me back. “Why’d you look at that stuff?” he repeated.
I looked at the sidewalk lines passing under our feet. He could never understand how much I hate my stupid self for not being able to stop.
So I shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I thought it was funny.”
In the corner of my eye, he grimaced. “Well it’s not.”
And then we kept walking.
* * *
A few months later, I finally looked up something I’d never looked up before: the book that Dad had written. It was self-published, mind you, but anytime I espoused my dreams of becoming, one day, a New York Times-bestselling novelist, Mom flashed her winning smile and said in her sugar-sweet voice, “A writer, just like your dad.” I figured that Conquering Your Hidden Kingdoms was just some boring book on faith and hermeneutics. But when I read the synopsis on Amazon, I sat there, confused, staring at the line, “…about his struggles with pornography.”
My mind whirred. Dad’s book was about his overcoming a porn addiction.
This can’t be his book, I thought. Maybe there’s another Rocky Morris….But the author’s bio, sure enough, mentioned his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
The part of me that didn’t want to believe it reasoned, Well maybe there was a glitch in Amazon’s interface…. I mean, he would’ve told me about his struggle earlier. He would’ve tried to prevent me from making his mistakes…my mistakes.
But that excuse soon left my mind.
I stared at the screen for several minutes until my eyes unfocused and I found myself looking at nothing. Then, from years ago, a memory: a sweaty pastor spoke from the stage of a skinny sanctuary with ceiling tiles and thin carpeting.
“Sin can take a hold of bloodlines,” he said gravely. “Those are generational curses.”
Despite my always succumbing to lust, I thought I would defeat the Devil in the end, step out of the darkness and into the light of a righteous lifestyle.
But in some ways, I thought, he’s already won. The torch had been passed.
I was four years old, sitting alone on a bar stool in the kitchen one night, playing with my G.I. Joe, when I got the idea to undress him. The shiny, plastic body underneath that army uniform transfixed me. I ran my fingers over the rounded pecs and then down the defined ridges of his abs. When Mom’s slender form emerged from the shadows on her way to the laundry room, I hastily laid Joe on the counter and began re-dressing him. Mom floated by and didn’t remark upon my action figure’s nudity. I didn’t know why I loved ogling and feeling his muscles, but I did know that I should conceal it. And I knew, some years later, to conceal the world of internet pornography that a pop-up ad opened up to me, where I found the common name for my fascination with fit bodies: muscle worship.
It didn’t help that my football player brother had also become fascinated with exercise, so bodybuilding magazines fell to the floor like Manna from heaven. I was surrounded by fantasy material. One night I swiped an issue to leaf through, enthralled by the huge, sweaty hunks on every page. I pilfered my brother’s twenty pound dumbbells and pumped and pumped my small yet surprisingly blubbery arms.
Somewhere between seven and ten years old, my once-cute belly had ballooned and developed rolls just as Granddad Morris’s genes kicked in and my ribcage swelled to the circumference of a barrel. I was a bonafide butterball. I constantly dreamed of losing “The Weight.” But I didn’t just want to be thinner—no, I wanted to be fit. I wanted one of those huge, chiseled men making ridiculous grunting expressions in my brother’s magazines to love me forever and ever and fuck me until the sun turned black. All of the guys in the porn I watched boasted physiques like Greek statues so I figured my chances of fulfilling that dream were slim so long as Mom bought my clothes off the “husky boys” rack at Walmart.
Don’t get me wrong: I tried to diet. One time on a Boy Scouts camping trip, I even told my scoutmasters that I was fasting for religious reasons. They wrinkled their brows, confused. “Like, to get closer to God?” they asked.
I smiled. “Exactly.” (Apparently, twerking for laughs around the campfire discredits ploys of religious zealotry.)
But skipping a few Boy Scout-burned chili dogs wasn’t enough: the blubber was there to stay and my tan face was now so chubby that when I smiled, my eyes squinched up and almost disappeared. I tried eating healthier, occasionally joined my brother for a sweaty workout on the musky equipment in our garage as Christian rap blared from the iPod dock in the corner. But three days into that routine, and I always fell off the goddamned horse like a brain dead cowboy, lying in the dust of my own defeat. A few months later, the stars would align once again into a constellation of self-involvement and fortitude, and I would muster another doomed attempt for the Golden Throne of Thinness.
Around my sixteenth birthday, I finally came to terms with being a gay man, and roadblocks within me lifted and doorways opened. It became easier to resist looking at porn. Finishing that novel I’d been working on since I was eleven finally seemed doable. For years, I’d unwittingly been directing mental and emotional energy to repressing my sexuality, energy that was now free to use however I pleased. Nothing could be more pleasing than losing weight. So I started cooking chicken and brown rice, and carrying salty almonds to eat throughout the day to keep my metabolism working. Then I laced up my running shoes and I ran into the dark, balmy Floridian nights, chasing that goddamned fat away.
Food was never just food anymore—it was fats and proteins, and simple and complex carbs, and I needed as few simple carbs as possible. Bland lettuce wraps replaced salty, satisfying sandwiches, and fried chicken required dexterous surgery to remove its crispy, carbohydrate-rich skin. Mom, once witnessing this greasy-fingered procedure and fearing for my righteousness at the time, cried to no one in particular, “He cares so much about the body but his spirit is going to hell!”
Oh, Mom, I thought. If only you knew. She didn’t see the nights when I came back, sweaty from my jog, and tore through Oreos and sandwiches until my stomach stretched painfully and I waddled to the toilet to vomit. The first time I made myself purge, I thought, Okay. I just ate too much and am alleviating some pain. It’s not like I’m gonna be bulimic or something.
But then I was vomiting in the upstairs bathroom from eating too much BBQ at my great aunt’s wake. And then I was falling on my knees again and again before different toilets (which were beginning to feel like religious altars). You didn’t need both hands for this kind of prayer—just two fingers, straight down the gullet to summon your burning, acid-drenched offering. I would binge every couple of weeks and purge about once a month.
A heavy depression paralyzed me that winter, settling heavy on my chest so that leaving the bed seemed impossible. What was surprising was that my staunchly evangelical mother – untrusting of anyone less zealous than her—actually approved my request to see a secular therapist instead of just a pastor to address my depression.
It was a sweltering April day when we drove to my first appointment. The icy air conditioning blasted us in the front seat as we sped down an oak-lined road. I sifted through a stack of intake forms on my lap, reviewing what Mom had already filled out, ensuring that they were all in order. But something on one of the pages caught my attention: under her medical history, Mom had checked “Eating Disorder.” I wrinkled my brow. She must have misread that, I thought.
“Mom,” I spoke over the Christian radio. “You marked that you had an eating disorder.”
Half of her face was hidden by a pair of big, dark sunglasses that reflected back the road. Her mouth was a straight line. “Oh yeah,” she said nonchalantly, nodding. “That’s right.”
Everything quieted. The cars outside faded away and all sounds besides my thumping heart died. First Dad concealed his past demons from me, I thought, and now you….
I collected myself. “Y-you did?” I tried to sound casual.
“Yeah, just…” she waved her hand, brushing the memories away. “I was a little anorexic for a short while as a teenager.”
“Oh,” I said, letting the topic drop and my eyes return to the forms. I continued flipping through them but didn’t absorb any of the words on the pages. I was thinking. I was remembering all the times that Mom primped her hair in the morning. I remembered all the times my friends’ moms expressed “how beautiful” they thought Mom was; I remembered how her cardigan always complemented her top which complemented her necklace which complemented her complexion. I suddenly saw all the effort it took to sustain Mom’s seemingly effortless beauty, and I was angry with myself for never having noticed it before. I was also hurt, perhaps unjustly, that Mom never went out of her way to show me that the effort had once consumed her enough that her hair began to fall out.
You could’ve saved me, I thought resentfully as I stared at the forms. You could’ve saved me from your same mistakes.
I didn’t say anything more. In fact, nearly two long years passed before the pain of this revelation erupted, midway through a heated argument about something completely unrelated. Mom and I were in the same car, in the same seats except we were parked outside a McDonald’s so she could use the restroom. My voice broke and the first tears of this exchange began to fall. “W-why didn’t you tell me you had an eating disorder?”
The fire in Mom’s face vanished as surprise set in. “What…?” She knit her brow together as she looked into space, shaking her head, searching for a reply. “It…just…i-it didn’t seem important.”
More tears slipped down my cheeks. I managed a small nod.
Silence followed. Perhaps she was remembering how quickly I lost all that weight. Perhaps she was finally realizing why I was so hurt. But then she sighed. And then she met my eyes, face tense, and said, “I’ll be back in a minute,” and exited the car. And with that, I knew that the subject was dropped.
I bowed my head and let the tears flow, uncorked. I wasn’t even sure why I was crying. Maybe I was finally realizing—although I couldn’t quite articulate it—that we had spent years in shared silence. That I never told her about my struggles because she always made everything a religious issue. And she did that because she feared for my soul’s salvation, something that I always felt was mine to deal with. So this fundamental, ideological disparity kept both of us from engaging with each other on a deep level for fear of getting hurt or hurting the other. And the gulf between us widened as we each continued to expect the other to cross it.
I have a note on my phone titled “Baby Names.” (Actually, the Baby part is just a baby face emoji.) For as long as I can remember, I’ve made lists like this: languages I would learn, rooms I wanted in my dream home, fantastical worlds I would write about, things I wanted to do before I died. And though these lists have changed and evolved, and I have renamed and reformatted them with each new season, I’ve never abandoned them.
I am the youngest of six children. And though my temporal distance from my five older siblings produced in my late teens an experience similar to that of an only child, I have truly never been anything other than a player in a vast, Shakespearean cast of family members. I loved when the hurricanes knocked out the power and we laughed by candlelight as we took turns reenacting commercials on the other side of a cardboard box. I loved filling our wood-paneled station wagon to the brim with loud voices and squirming limbs, mugging Jim Carrey expressions at the drivers tailing us, with my brother, Austin, in the rear-facing way-back seat . I never felt alone, sometimes to my chagrin. So perhaps this explains why I so fervently yearned to have at least six kids of my own, so they might also know this joy of many conversations and many friends and many fights and laughs and loves.
When Mom was a child, she mothered her baby dolls, insisting that she wanted twelve children. At twenty-four years old, she had five sticky-fingered toddlers, all of them younger than five. Upon having me, her sixth, a few years later, she nursed a little disappointment at the realization that—for economic (and, surely, psychological) reasons—I would be the last. Where other mothers bore the symptoms of pregnancy as one might bear a cross, Terri Morris notoriously savored them. My fetal development prompted unique hot flashes during her pregnancy, and she recalls rushing from the car through the sweltering Florida mugginess, through the whoosh of the grocery store doors, straight to the frozen food aisle where she would stand with a frosted door open, her eyelids concealing Stouffer’s lasagnas from view as she relished the arctic blast upon her swollen belly and sweaty forehead. Yet neither the windstorm of numerous tykes nor these hot flashes dimmed her fire for child-rearing.
I’m saying that I’m blessed to have parents that absolutely love being parents.
A woman at a church conference approached Mom and, relating the supposed voice of God, said, “The six will marry and become twelve.” And that calmed Mom’s insatiable baby fever–at least a little.
They were going to name me Abigail. They believed that they were having another girl.
A curse—at least, that’s how I like to think of it—reveals itself in the Morris family tree: by accident, parents trap themselves in a pattern of naming their children by the same letter. You see clusters like Effie, Edward, and Edwin cropping up on several branches. My father is one of five Rs. Only when Mom and Dad decided on my third sibling’s name did they realize that they’d painted themselves into that familiar corner: this time, it was the letter A–Alisa, Adam, Ashley, Alex, and Austin. This sixth child, the fourth girl, would have a biblical name, Abigail. It’s Hebrew and means “my father’s joy.”
But then, in a fluorescently lit doctor’s office, as Mom savored the cool sensation of the sonographer’s gel on her belly, the physician surprised them by pointing to a little sprig protruding from their murky fetus on the screen and proclaiming with a smile, “It’s a boy.”
So Abigail was off the table.
Mom and Dad had both become more devout Christians in their thirteen years of marriage and were then serving as associate pastors at a large congregation. So the Bible still seemed like a good launching point for brainstorming.
“What about Andrew?” Mom asked Dad one day.
“I like Andrew,” he replied. What wasn’t to like about one of Jesus’s Twelve Apostles?
Another day: “How about Aaron?”
“Aaron’s good,” he responded. What wasn’t to like about Moses’s brother, whose very staff transformed into a snake in the pharaoh’s court and then later rose in Moses’s hand to part the Red Sea?
They were scheduled to teach a healthy marriage workshop to college-age congregants. Unable to decide between the two biblical appellations, they brought the dispute to this young forum. They argued all the way to a decision. “Aaron’s so nice,” a grinning young woman said. And so it was: such a name would ensure their son ownership of the prime real estate at the top of everyone’s contacts list.
I—once Aaron, forever Abigail—tenderly imagined until the age of twenty that I absolutely would rear a sprawling troop of bohemian children. Then I met for the first time an older couple who’d declined to breed. Fred is a potter who specializes in large, funky, earth-toned vessels and Carol a sculptor who fashions animals with papier-mȃché tattoos. One hot June day, Fred and I lunched together on his porch after a sweaty morning of dismantling an old wood kiln for its valuable firebrick. Soot blackened our faces. As we savored turkey sandwiches and tall glasses of iced water in the cool shade, I asked, “Why didn’t y’all have kids?”
“Well…,” Fred began matter-of-factly (he always speaks in this way). “We just never got around to it. Occasionally, we’d talk about it but then Carol would be like, ‘Let’s visit Italy,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well that sounds fucking great,’ and that’s not really the time to start having a baby. And we both had our careers and our pets, and kids just cost so much money, man….”
Until this point, all of the couples over forty in my life had parented a child. Fred and Carol were unprecedented role models whose novelty rattled the foundations of my previous intentions to parent. I reassessed this dream for another year or two before I felt comfortable relinquishing it—I love fantasizing about flipping pancakes with my husband and our kids late at night as we laugh and dance around the kitchen to oldies. I’d be a fun mom. But the prospect of dedicating thousands upon thousands of hours teaching them, punishing them, arguing with them, and listening to their woes daunts me—I’m still learning, at twenty-three, how to do these things for myself.
But I still compose lists of baby names. I can lose hours scrolling through articles on subgenres of monikers, from Hebrew to literary. I don’t see myself rearing kids, but having developed faith in the unpredictability of life, I am receptive to time changing my mind. And if it does, then their names wait on the shelf—perhaps Wanda, Wallace, and Walter. If not, then Maisie, Moishe, Misty, or Montgomery.
Photo Credit: Abby Jo Morris