Telling My Grandmother, and The Unexpected Cost
The one person at FBC whom I trusted most was my grandmother, who had been a member since long before Jerry became the pastor there, and who had taken me there as a child for vacation Bible school. This woman — really my adoptive grandmother — had been my paternal grandmother’s life partner since well before I was born, and had probably been a FBC member about as long. Anyone who has been active in the church for long has experienced her radiant kindness, and seemingly inexhaustible energy.
When the semester ended, I went home to Milledgeville for Christmas break, and during one visit with her, as we sat in what she always called the “television room” of her yellow brick house on Clark street, I nervously recounted what happened, just as I told my professor, and just as I’ve told it here.
While she has always been unquestionably loving toward me, she is also a strict pragmatist and a peacemaker. She has a toughness, even a hardness, that was formed during a Great Depression, and solidified during her career as an Army colonel and a professor, at a time when women rarely lived as she did. So, perhaps I should have expected her reaction.
For a moment, she seemed genuinely troubled, silently chewing over the details. Finally though, she came to a decision in her head, and when she makes a decision, the matter is settled: “Well,” she said, “Jerry can be kind of a strange guy sometimes. I don’t think he meant anything by it.”
I was floored. I tried to push, telling her that it wasn’t just strange, that he seemed to have intended to have me naked, and that my main concern wasn’t really what he’d done to me, but the fact that anyone who did this sort of thing in their role as a pastor was probably doing similar things with others. Nevertheless, she demurred and changed the subject — her way of letting one know that the conversation was over — and that was the end of it.
Somewhere inside me, a bottom had dropped out, and I was in free fall. I had opened up about a matter of intense emotional concern to a person I trusted, perhaps most of anyone in my life at the time, and she had just wanted to dismiss the matter and avoid its uncomfortable implications. For a moment I hated her.
I think, now, about how my grandmother would have grown up as a girl, and then as a woman, in a time when the desires and actions of respected men weren’t open for scrutiny, in a culture that had not yet developed a standard response to the sexual manipulation of young people by their religious leaders. So, perhaps she just didn’t know how to go about taking this story seriously.
Now though, I think she had other, more personal incentives to dismiss what I’d told her.
I think that taking my story seriously and doing something about it would have just been far too socially costly for my grandmother, for it would have jeopardized, or at least intensely strained, her most important relationships and social identity at a time when she needed them most — as she approached the end of her life. She was retired, and her partner, my paternal grandmother, whom she had loved intensely for half a lifetime, had died a few years before, and left her living alone. I and her biological family all lived out of state, if they lived at all. So now, as far as I could tell, First Baptist Church was her only social community, and, in it, she was well known, and well loved. It was her life outside that empty house. Tt gave her things to do. It was her entire community of friends. And Jerry was the central pillar of it all. Treating my experience as something significant could only destabilize the thing that she singularly relied on for the sense of belonging and companionship, without which she would have to spend her last years all alone.
But, surely, you’ll say, even if I told the church about my experience and they all somehow believed I was just a making it all up, surely, even then, no one would intentionally shun her as punishment for my wrongdoing.
That’s true, I think. But it’s easy to imagine a softer, less intentional sort of shunning taking place: friends becoming a bit more scarce over time; friendly, casual conversations gradually becoming briefer and more seldom, with friends and acquaintances eager to seer clear of any awkwardness; gossip flourishing , sensed, but out of earshot. That’s how I think it would have gone, with no one meaning the slightest harm.
Who could ask a person to risk so much? To risk spending the last years of life without the benefit of friends or company?
I realize now that our conversation that day dealt a lasting blow to our relationship, for it created a rift between us — one that perhaps opened from my side, but that nevertheless continually widened as my resentment at her response made me cynical toward the idea that she loved and cared for me at all. I sometimes wondered — stupidly, shamefully — whether perhaps her decades of obvious love had just been feigned out of duty to her partner. Even when I missed her enough, or selfishly needed something from her badly enough to overcome my cynicism and call, I would sometimes consciously think to myself, “She won’t really give a damn about anything you have to say — about who you’re dating or what conference you’re going to — not if she didn’t even care about The Jerry Thing.”
And so it was I, rather than the community of First Baptist, who became more scarce in her life.
I know now that I should have been more conscientious in fighting against these resentful and cynical thoughts, and that giving in to the instinct to shut myself off from her was as much an expression of my bad character as it was a legitimate reaction to feeling like she had casually dismissed me in a moment where I needed help. The failure in our relationship was mostly due to my own inability to understand and accept why it felt like she didn’t care, even though I knew she did. That’s my fault.
But the conversation that day about The Jerry Thing was the catalyst for those feelings and their subsequent harm to our relationship, for they acted as the wedge that forced a little new distance between us, without which I might never have grown apart from her as I did.
In the time it took me to accept and understand how she could have hurt me the way she did, that rift between us grew immensely. And, as it grew, so did the shadows and fissures in her aging mind.
Today, her body is probably healthier than mine, and she’s still a regular fixture at First Baptist, as far as I know. But if you strike up a conversation with her, she can only hold the thread of it for about fifteen seconds before it slips her grasp, and she has to start again from the beginning. The last time I saw her, I had brought my then-girlfriend to Milledgeville to meet my family for the first time. The three of us sat in her living room and my girlfriend watched with pity as my grandmother and I cycled through round after round of the same thirty-second conversation, which began each time with my grandmother loudly exclaiming that I had gotten too fat. After a dozen or so rounds I threw in the towel and we said our goodbyes, and I understood that the person I had known all my life had become permanently inaccessible to me. I’ve dreaded the next visit ever since — wondering if she will even know who I am — and, because I have been a coward, that next visit has never come.
That was probably six years ago. I include all this here, in an account of my experience with Jerry Bradley, because my encounter with him that day contributed, in some non-trivial way, to steering the course of my relationship with a person who is very important to me, whom I’ve known and loved my whole life. As I’ve said, Jerry isn’t solely responsible for the deterioration of my relationship with my grandmother, and he certainly could never have known how having me undress for him would have harmed my other relationships. But the way he used his position of authority in the church to manipulate me did, to some degree, great or small, help separate me from a person who loved me, and whom I loved, and I have never had many of those. I didn’t need any help being a half-assed grandson, but his actions and her response together helped make it feel pointless to try to be a good one.