She Bets Her Life

A writer and former compulsive gambler reflects on women and addiction.

Well! It seems I need to give a little credit to the pope, a little

Dr. Chi Chi LaChatte is big enough to give credit.

My scribe, Mary Sojourner, M.A. and I, expert and PhD in Feline Psychology and lots of other stuff, are thrilled that the pope read my inaugural column for Psychology Today and learned something.  According to an A.P. article we just read, the Vatican says that not killing other people is more important than making babies. 

... the Vatican said Tuesday that condoms are the lesser of two evils when used to curb the spread of AIDS, even if their use prevents a pregnancy.

The position was an acknowledgment that the church's long-held anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn't justify putting lives at risk.

"This is a game-changer," declared the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit writer and editor.

The new stance was staked out as the Vatican explained Pope Benedict XVI's comments on condoms and HIV in a book that came out Tuesday based on his interview with a German journalist.

The Vatican still holds that condom use is immoral and that church doctrine forbidding artificial birth controlremains unchanged.  ---Victor L. Simpson and Nicole Winfield, Associate Press

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Mary says she loves the almost Zen koan-like riddle of the Vatican pronouncement.  She showed me a part of her book, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, where she tells about a priest teaching her and other teen-agers about the Seventh Commandment - Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.  (I think covet is like when I see a realllllly gorgeous collar on another cat and rip it from their neck.  But I digress.)  Here is what Mary lived through to write about:

I think of Catholic girls of my generation.

I was fifteen.  I was luscious.  I sat paralyzed with shame in the Monday Religious Instruction class of a Catholic Church in Irondequoit, N.Y.

It was late Spring of 1955 and that weekend I had allowed a boy to “go further.”  Which meant he had rested his hand uneasily on roughly three inches of the pleated tulle and strapless bra covering my young chest.  His breath caught.  “I love you,” he said.  I waited to feel something even better than his words---there, in my armored breasts.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “I shouldn’t have rushed you,” and took his hand away.  I was silent.  Not from what he might have thought, but from disappointment.

The boy was tall and lanky, with a blonde brush-cut and tender eyes.  His first kiss  had unsettled me for weeks.  I wondered why girls were told that boys wanted something girls shouldn’t give them till marriage.  I had no idea what I wanted, but I knew that what moved in my body, what took away my appetite and made my nights wonderfully sleepless, was not the boy’s, and would never be.  It was fully mine.  It lived in the same place as story.  What bad boys wanted didn’t matter.

I was not alone.  My girlfriends and I invited boys to Joyce’s basement rec room.  We drank her Mom’s apricot brandy, smoked her brother’s cigarettes, slow-danced to the Righteous Brothers and were baffled---and delighted---by how boys managed to walk with that long hard thing in their pants.

  The priest walked up to the blackboard and began to write. Commandment Seven. The boys in the class poked each other and grinned.  We girls sat mesmerized, still as sacrificial maidens before the slaughter.  The priest continued to write:  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  The boldest boy scribbled something on a piece of paper and passed it to the guy behind him.

“I will explain this commandment,” the priest said nervously.  “You all know the soul is like a blackboard.  A venial sin is like a chalkmark that can be removed with prayer and penance.  A mortal sin is a mark that can only be removed by time in Purgatory.”

I waited.  Aeons of gray Purgatory Time seemed to stretch ahead.  

“Now,” the young priest said, “if a woman rides horseback and gets, shall we say, pleasure from it, she commits a venial sin.”

The room was silent.  Everybody, sniggling boys and wordless girls alike, looked dumbfounded.

“And,” our teacher went on, “if the woman gets back on the horse for more pleasure, it is a mortal sin.”

Dead silence from a dozen normally rowdy teen-age kids.

The priest sighed in relief and rubbed chalkdust from his hands.  “I hope that clears the Seventh Commandment up for you.  Next week, we will discuss the Eighth.”

He dismissed us early.  We did not burst from the building as we usually did.  The boys walked slowly in silent groups.  The girls held their books to their young bosoms and looked away from each other, and from the boys.

My friend’s Mom offered me a ride, but I walked home alone.  I felt shattered.  It was hard to breathe. The light seemed even duller than our normal lakeshore gray.  I knew exactly what the priest had been talking about---impossible choices.  Be good and give up the only physical warmth I’d been given in years.  Be bad and give up my soul.  Good.  Bad.  Good.  Bad.  I put one foot in front of each other.  Good.  Bad.  By the time I came to Titus Avenue, I was trapped between good and bad.  Between tenderness and sin. 

It was just past five o’clock and traffic was heavy.  I looked to my left and thought, “It would be easier to die.”  I lifted my foot to step in front of an oncoming car.  Before my foot touched down, I felt an unsought and most welcome clarity move in me like a good strong breath.  I jumped back.  “No,” I whispered.  “No.”

In that instant, I left my father’s church.     

I could hardly wait for my next date with my boyfriend.  This time, I guided him.  This time, when he apologized, I put my hand gently over his mouth and whispered, “Guess what comes next?” 

Can you believe that?  Exploitation of an innocent horse.  I am so grateful to be a cat.  So, pope, thanks for letting a mere mortal cat teach you something.  In return, I'll try not to make any more snotty remarks (though fashion useful) about your hats.

There.  Due to the effort to be magnanimous, I'm exhausted.  Time for a nap. 


Mary Sojourner, M.A., is the author of She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (Seal Press/ April 2010) and Going Through Ghosts (U.Nevada Press, 2010).

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