Saturday, April 3, 2010

More on Chosen

A 23-year-old woman who said she was hearing voices stripped her three small children naked Wednesday and threw them off a San Francisco fishing pier into the bay, authorities said.  - San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 2005
I grew up in a religious family and, in my youth, longed for the kind of religious experience that would give me the certainty of faith that held my parents. They told me stories: once, when my sister was very ill and a blizzard raged outside, and they were sitting late at night in the living room, not knowing whether to brave the dangerous storm to drive to a doctor and risk all their lives in the process, the room was suffused with a warm and reassuring light, a presence that informed them clearly that all would be well, that they didn't have to worry. They both saw it, they both felt it, they both were sure that their daughter was safe and, as the morning came, my sister's fever broke and all was well. My mother, otherwise a very learned woman who knew Hebrew and Greek, who wrote books and plays, and who would talk to me of philosophy and her passion for feminism, also spoke in tongues, a charismatic babbling of nonsense syllables, an ecstatic experience, one of the gifts given to the apostles in Acts. As a young boy interested in mathematics, a world which I was beginning to look for certitude and intellectual comfort, I also knew of the work of Pascal who, even though a proponent of the Age of Reason, had sewn into his coat a detailed, irrational description of a moment in his life when he was absolutely certain of the truth of the Christian Faith. I couldn't shake the idea that this might be something necessary to survive in this world, an otherwise frightening place of chaos, illness, genocide, war, death, hunger and pain. But at the same time that I lusted after such an episode, I began also to fear it, seeing it as madness, a profound loss of my rational mind which was becoming more and more important to me. My friends in high school, who all sought their own quasi-religious experiences in hallucinogens and the attendant loss of identity, offered them to me, but by then, I could not let go. I felt I was already on the razor's edge between the bright light of sanity and the dark night of lunacy. Neither the faith of my parents or the home-grown sacred rites of my friends were able to convince me to take such a risk and I remained on the side of lucidity and reason, of sound and careful thinking. 

In 2005, a young woman in San Francisco was told by God to throw her three children into the Bay, which she did, undressing them and killing them all in a brief ritual after a day spent in San Francisco, sightseeing and eating hot dogs. I had seen the story in the paper, but had forgotten it among all the other news equally shocking. A few days after, I was riding my bicycle on the Embarcadero and came across an enormous pile of flowers and stuffed animals and notes and candles, damp from a soft evening mist off the water. I stopped and looked at it, not remembering why it was there until I looked up and saw the lamplights of pier 7 receding from where I stood into the dusk over the bay, a corridor of light to another world, and I remembered that this is where she sent her children through that corridor to the other world. I remembered that she had told the police that the children were with their Father, meaning not her boyfriend, their earthly father, but with their Father in Heaven. Later, as I read more about the case, I discovered her clear and childlike faith, e.g, her poignant request to the police psychologist that he take a letter up in a plane to her children in Heaven. Of course she was schizophrenic, with all the clinical signs of the disease appearing in her young adulthood, a typical time of onset. But, when someone reminded me of the story just last year during a discussion of Medea, the images of the pier and the lights and the unspeakable terror of the three young boys being killed by the mother came back to me and I began to wonder. How could she be so certain of God's voice? I had wanted that certainty of faith, I had been afraid of the consequences, like these. I knew of the Abraham and Isaac story too of course, which Christians happily accept as a instructive tale, how we should blindly accept the commandments of God, following His voice without question. We all know that we now live in a world where we focus daily on the terrible actions inspired by religious certitude. 

In writing the libretto, I have mixed her story and mine, accepting that she was in communication with God, that he told her to kill her children, that there is something compelling about her certainty. The piece is an opera, but not in any way a traditional one. The main characters are played by two dancers who dominate the action on stage. A singer is present who mostly takes her place in the orchestra, an ensemble centered around two pianos, who thunder out a music that ranges from dark and dense to the beautiful and serene. There is one actor as well, who moves through the dancers and presents much of the story plainly to the audience. There is no technology in this piece unlike many of my others. It is presented starkly and without adornment, a series of choices made and their consequences, great faith surrounded by our doubt.
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