Ninth Letter is proud to feature "Invisible Nails" by Samuel Autman, winner of the 2015 Disquiet Literary Prize in Nonfiction. “Invisible Nails” engages the reader from the first paragraph, when the author falls to the ground in what appears to be religious fervor in front of a Pentecostal congregation. After this startling opening, we then see Autman’s years-long descent into the unsettling world of “sexual conversion ministries.” A deeply religious black gay man, Autman’s true self is always up for negotiation, and the pain and risk of his earnest struggle has life and death consequences: the health of his soul lies in the balance. This remarkably honest essay fuses powerful dramatic scenes with an equally brave exploration of the inner struggle for his true identity. Every stage of his journey in this essay matters, and by the end, when he appears to have made peace with himself while still capable of feeling empathy for those who tried to “help” him, the reader feels that the balance he has achieved has been more than earned.
I curl on the floor between two pews, my hands covering my face. I scream and sob in a way I’ve never before, the yell of someone losing a limb to an axe or saw, a gutbusting shriek that pours from my innermost being. Wrath and a certain Christian shame moves through my vocal chords, as if something in me, but not of me, cries through me. Sorrow and embarrassment are a braid of tears and mucous on my chin. I feel so spiritually and physically exposed I might as well be masturbating in front of my mother while standing on a stage under a spotlight. My 6-foot-4 220-pound overly worked-out frame easily stands out as one of a dozen black bodies in this sea of eight hundred mostly white and female attendees. A soft, warm feminine hand touches my shoulders, a needed physical reassurance. In an instant a woman’s soothing voice whispers, “You’re gonna be all right, brother. It’s okay.” I know the voice. From the back of the auditorium, Erma’s “Glory to God!” and “Hallelujahs!” reverberate, ever Jesus’ cheerleader. I’m here because she had convinced me it was God’s will. A male usher grabs my right arm, and then hand as I struggle to get to my feet. I shake off the embarrassment and sit back in the pew. Besides, it’s not my fault. If John could fall out as if into a deep sleep at Jesus’ feet in the Book of Revelation, how was I supposed to respond? When the power hits, you fall, no matter how ridiculous you look. I’m not going to reveal just how embarrassed I am by the incident. That’s the way Pentecostals do it. Whether it’s cavorting or falling out, they have their minute and a half performance before the congregation. It ends. They return to their seat as if nothing had happened.
The collapse takes place near the front of the Edman Memorial Chapel in Wheaton, Illinois at a conference called Pastoral Care Ministries in the summer of 2002. I don’t fully understand what has happened. All I know is that Leanne Payne, a fragile woman standing behind a wooden lectern, has triggered me like no other preacher. The whole thing catches me off guard because I’ve been in Pentecostal church services off and on all on my life. Why is this different? With her big glasses, dimpled grin, and gray hair pulled back in a bun, she looks like a character on an oatmeal canister, a marketer’s dream of a comforting grandmother. The microphone transforms her warm, soft voice into a thunderous shrill that’s hypnotic. Oh, the frequency, the vibration that she’s tapped into somehow short circuits my own spiritual radio station. The jitters in my stomach afterward make me want to vomit in between the pews, where, just moments before, I lay hollering and out of my mind. I don’t. This is my life’s most upside-down moment. I’m a black man in a room filled with mostly white women, a gay man desperately seeking heterosexuality. Months before this moment I wore a purple Polynesian wrap and stood on the sidelines cheering in San Diego’s gay pride parade. Now I’m encrusted in shame and guilt. When they commingle they leave a stain like tar that’s not easily washed away.
For the last few years I’ve been inhaling Payne’s tapes and books Crisis in Masculinity and The Broken Image: Restoring Personal Wholeness through Healing Prayer, staples of ex-gay ministries worldwide, at Erma’s beckoning. At forty-five years old, she radiates a toothy smile, big hair, and a kindness I find irresistible. I’ve known Erma since I was a fifteen-year-old boy who secretly had homosexual tendencies he hadn’t acted on yet. Although there were years we were out of touch when I was “backslid,” Erma’s comforting “Hallelujah brother” was always a phone call away. My prayer partner for years, she’d determined that through this ministry, an affiliate of Exodus International, finally she had found a way to pray me out of being gay. My attachment to Erma borders on codependence at least, spiritual Stockholm syndrome at worst. Her kindness and our common history in the Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal church, bind us. Over the years she has managed to worm her way into my skull. If I listen to her she will decree where I stick my dick.
Months prior to the Wheaton incident, I lay prostrate on a carpet in my San Diego apartment sobbing as the World Trade towers collapsed on my TV screen. God is a box I disappear into every few years. The voice from the box beckons, fills me with shame, declares my homosexuality as wicked, defiled, and ungodly, yet I return to the box.
The blond man leading the prayer for me looks like a Mormon missionary, clean cut, in glasses, no more than thirty years old, skinny and fragile. I sit in a circle surrounded by other “homosexual strugglers,” as they perform the laying on of hands ceremony. They know I’ve been hooking up with a buddy for sex in my apartment in San Diego. We’re in the basement of Grace Chapel Church in North Park, a gay-friendly neighborhood near where I live in the winter of 2002.
“Dear Lord Jesus, please help my brother Samuel overcome these same sex attraction issues,” I feel his hand on my shaved head and the pressure of other men’s atop his. “Lord, you know his heart’s desire is to follow you and do the right thing. Jesus help him be the man you want him to be in your name we pray. Amen.” At the end of the prayer they put a crucifix on my head and pour on holy water, water that they have blessed. Leanne Payne would be proud. This is exactly the kind of thing she espouses in her book. We need symbols and points of contact for our faith; not that these heal us, but rather form a bridge between the manifested and the unmanifested. The men sitting in the room have come from throughout San Diego County. Nobody raises his voice and everyone speaks of God in this awe-filled way. We’ve all paid hundreds of dollars to participate in “Living Waters: Pursuing Sexual and Relational Wholeness in Christ,” a six-month course complete with a manual and ministers trained by Desert Stream Ministries headquartered in Anaheim about ninety minutes north.
The manual includes such chapters as “The Father’s Pursuit of Us,” “Welcoming Him into Our Brokenness,” and “The Cross: Resurrecting the True Self,” mixing heavy doses of Christian therapy with the doctrines of Vineyard Ministries, a worldwide charismatic denomination, which like other Pentecostals, emphasize the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit, loud music, speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, and casting out of demons. The Vineyard is mostly upper middle class, educated whites; and the preachers don’t wear ties. The San Diego Vineyard periodically has service at a bar in Pacific Beach, offering a more relaxed, less judgmental vision than the God of my youth.
The men in this room are all convinced homosexuality is unnatural, foul, and needs not just rehabilitation but the actual self that is gay needs to be crucified with prayer, fasting, and many hours laying on the floor prostrate before God. Not curing or made over, but excised until a new self arises. The true me, made in the image of the Creator, is Lazarus in the tomb, they say. Hooking up, masturbating, drinking, and going to the gay bar, in other words the things that come natural, are the grave clothes covering up the true me. I so want to believe this me is the false self, and the true self is the Christian self. It seems that I not only need to die metaphorically, but almost literally. It sure doesn’t seem likely, but if God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus opened blind eyes and cleansed the lepers, can’t that same God zap me into heterosexuality? Either it works or it does not. We all hug each other as we say goodbye, key because part of the “gender neurosis” is rooted in not having healthy ties and boundaries with men.
I hop in my car, toss the Living Waters Manual on the back seat, and go home. Within minutes, I log onto my AOL account and hop into a gay chat room. Why am I doing this? Ten minutes ago, was I not sitting in a room full of godly men trying to feel the power and get free? One of my AOL buddies instant messages me:
“Hey Sam? Where you been?”
“Oh, here and there, working a lot.”
“We need to connect man. It’s been a long time since I rode that dick.”
“Sounds good man. I’m tired. Long day and I gotta be at work early. We’ll connect soon.”
“Man, did I do something to piss you off? You’ve been pretty distant lately.”
“LOL. It’s not you. Just me and my shit. Under a lot of pressure. We’ll get together soon. Ciao.”
My body shakes. Tim is masculine, styles hair at a high-end salon and loves to get up for brunch on Sundays, either at Café on Park or Hash House A Go Go in Hillcrest. We’d go nude bathing at Black’s Beach in La Jolla. The gay people, many clutching Speedos, towels, and sun block, stroll past the straights and head for the far end of the beach—the gay section. Sometimes guys are sucking each other off or actually fucking. It’s wild. Although Tim lives less than a mile away and I crave to see him, I don’t because I know where it will lead. It’s a comforting relationship—not quite boyfriends but more than fuck buddies.
I snap out of it and call the most savedest woman I know: Erma.
“Hey Erma. I just got back from Living Waters. It’s going okay. We’re in a really hard part.”
“Don’t let Satan trick you, brother. We’ll be going to see Leanne in a few months. Now she has power with God. I’ve never seen anything like it, Samuel. You talking about someone who’s walking the walk. This woman is on a whole other level. Her walk with God is awesome. You’ll really connect with her. She quotes a bunch of theologians going back to the 1800s. She’s heavy on the intellect, but says God can connect the heart and mind by the Spirit. She knows the Word.”
As she speaks of Leanne Payne, a certain hope arises within me. Like Jesus and the woman with the issue of blood, either menstruation or postpartum bleeding, she said to herself, “If I just touch the hem of his garment, I know I will be made whole.” If I can just get to this Leanne Payne conference I know I’ll be touched by God and will be straight. Erma prays for me and we get off the phone. I am feeling encouraged, eager to see this Leanne Payne that Erma has been talking about for the last year.
The day before my spiritual nervous breakdown in front of the other conference attendees at the Edman Chapel, I stand in the doorway of the Wheaton College main dining hall looking at the rainfall. It’s not a calm, soft Midwestern drizzle but like the torrential Arkansas downpours I had seen as child. I know I’ll never see a harder water pressure fall from the sky. Inside my heart and memory I hear Michael W. Smith singing the words “Let it rain, let it rain. Open the floodgates of Heaven,” from his live CD Worship, and I cry. That same soft feeling of expansion, splendor, and sweet opening of my soul that happens when I’m alone walking my bedroom floors with my hands lifted descends upon me. In moments like these I feel tremendous unity, oneness with the Creator and his creation. This is a moment the Creator crafted just for me. The madness that compels me to go straight escapes my mind and I’m enraptured in this splendid moment. The lyrics to the song continue to loop inside. In moments like this, the struggles to come out of homosexuality feel worth it. All is well. Some things I believe and some things I know. I know my name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life like I know my name is Samuel Autman. Total perfect love—no judgment or condemnation or people trying to impose anything. It’s a soft arising of God from within. These moments are rarely shared with a group and are often music induced. God feels deeply personal and on my side.
Payne looks resplendent in her white flowing Episcopal vestments as she marches down the aisle in a processional with her ministry team. The accoutrements remind me of things I’ve seen in Catholic churches the time or two I visited. The group carries a large metal crucifix, burning incense, and containers of holy water. Pipe organs blare. Payne loves rituals, symbols, and images that she fears Christianity turned away from since Martin Luther and the Reformation. In her books, Payne flails against Protestants who she says foolishly “smashed the idols” used by the Roman Catholic Church and in doing so lost a vital link to contacting the divine. The chapel has fire-truck-red carpet, tan wooden pews, and stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Four Gospels, all congruent with Payne’s costume. Having grown up in the Missionary Baptist Church and later the Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal denomination, I am awed by the highness and formality of this ceremony. I’m definitely from a “low,” informal church. Payne bows her head, gives a long invocation. She looks up, relying heavily on lecture notes and Bible verses that she has been using for years and makes the case for the next forty-five minutes that Americans, even in the church world, are worshipping at the altars of Baal and Ashtoreth.
“If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts then rid yourself of the foreign gods and the Astoreths and commit yourself to the Lord and serve him only,” she screams, directly quoting 1 Samuel 7:3-4. “And He will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths and served the Lord only.”
Payne loves talking about the church’s “sin of misogyny” or the hatred of women, which, she asserts, goes hand-in-hand with the modern worship of Baal. Pointing to passages German-Canadian psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Stern’s book The Flight from Woman, she argues that society’s and the church’s suppression of women has stifled the expression of God’s feminine aspects and overly emphasized the paternal—a not-subtle jab at the papacy. She pushes her glasses up, looks at the crowd periodically, and goes back to her notes like the college professor she had been for decades. “This was the vice underlying the homosexuality found in Greece during the classic times,” she says. She says because of it, women were not considered a fit companion for men, which led to homosexuality and ultimately Rome’s fall. I don’t understand the link as she says this, but I’m listening.
She’s just getting fired up. “Due to the grossly sexual nature of Baal worship, most of the Bible commentators leave out the details on the kinds of orgies that its worship leads to.”
According to Payne’s interpretation of the Bible, the Children of Israel had periodically taken to worshipping Baal and Ashtoreth, the gods of the Phoenicians. Ashtoreth is cited as the queen of heaven. Payne called her Baal’s wife and female counterpart.
“I don’t even like to talk about this,” Payne says and then she proceeded to use phrases like “lascivious lifestyle,” “lewd practices,” “perversion,” and “licentious behavior.” “It’s the worship of one’s own procreative faculties, phallic demons.” In other words, they were demons that look like penises.
My stomach muscles tighten as she’s talking. Her presence in the regalia, her scholarship and presentation, are formidable. She’s no slouch. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t at all like what she’s saying. If I were to follow this I couldn’t keep watching Queer as Folk on Showtime. The Brian character definitely bows down and worships penises in bathhouse orgy scenes. For me, it would mean no more trips to Black’s Beach with Tim or three-day getaways to the clothing-optional hotel in Palm Springs. Payne wants to rip all of the fun out of my life, forcing me to sit in a church following boring doctrine. I realize it. Looking through the gay male magazines with sculpted bodies and go-go boys dancing on the bars are easily a part of what she’s saying. I am a dick worshipper and the condemnation feels dreadful. Every word Payne speaks drives a dagger into me; these are hard words from a woman who outwardly appears warm and sweet, but she’s got invisible nails in her hands beneath that robe and she’s delivering death blows to my carefully constructed gay self, a gay self I had abandoned and reconstructed and abandoned again.
“How long will you waiver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
The deities and practices must be not only repented for, but also verbally confessed and renounced by name, she explains. “Ministry team, get the holy water.” She orders the team’s men to step back, because exposing the sin of misogyny sometimes caused women to react negatively to men. Her voice now roars its hypnotic chant/yell in the way that only old-fashioned Pentecostals do. The row of white women in front of me, the woman next to me in a pantsuit, and a handsome man three seats down in jeans hugging his Bible, they are all–and I am repeating her words too–declarations of liberty from Old Testament deities. Payne’s view is clear: wicked spirits in high places.
I renounce you Baal.
I renounce you Baal.
I renounce you Ashtoreth.
I renounce you Ashtoreth.
I renounce you in the name of Jesus.
I renounce you in the name of Jesus.
I renounce the sin of misogyny.
I renounce the sin of misogyny.
I renounce the idol gods my fathers served.
I renounce the idol gods my fathers served.
Here is where it happens. Somewhere along the prayer, I stop repeating after Payne and start to scream. I think I scream the word, “Nooooooooooooooo!” Then I am sure that is what I scream. Embarrassment—and in no small part, my Pentecostal training—kicks in, and I fall to the floor, sobbing.
“See, there it is, right there.” I imagine the minister pointing at my heaving frame. “I command any unclean spirits to manifest at this time. If there’s any manifestation, look up and see how the Lord will destroy that. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. May this put you in remembrance of your baptism!”
Truly, I am erupting in pain, anger and revulsion. Spiritually, I am vomiting every word back up in shrieks and yells. I can’t stop. Payne calls it a demon. I call it pain. As other people begin to scream, some convulsing and falling too, ushers scuttle around the room to assist them.
Payne starts expressing glossolalia, speaking in the longest most complicated syllables in tongues, sounding almost Germanic. Not like the “ah bah, bah, bah” or “he coming on a Honda” kind of gibberish I hear in some churches. And I am sobbing with the force of the memories flashing through my head.
I cry for my sister Syrethia back in St. Louis, living in a group home with a kind of schizophrenia which forces her to regularly run nude through her living quarters, assaulting employees and knocking over furniture. When she terrorized me and my mother with this behavior, I didn’t flinch at dragging her before the congregation to have the preacher drive those crazy spirits from her. Now I’m behaving like the Gadarene demoniac, one who according to scripture was so demon-possessed he lived among the tombs, and screamed and flailed at the sight and words of Jesus. I owe my sister an apology.
I cry for Samuel Anthony Autman, Sr., my absentee father who seven years prior had died face-down in the dirt, like a dog, frozen to death outside, still clutching two 40-ounce bottles of beer. The vacant lot where he died is a mere two hours and forty minutes from Wheaton in Peoria, Illinois. He’s the seed of my lifelong spiritual journey.
I cry for the monumental disappointment that is The San Diego Union-Tribune, a newspaper that wants to be inclusive, but can’t seem to shake its subtle right-leaning tendencies. For the last six months my gut has been screaming to leave. For thirteen years I’ve worked as a reporter at papers including the Tulsa World, The Salt Lake Tribune, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and have both loved and hated print journalism. Have I pissed away a lucrative career and put my livelihood in jeopardy on a crazy, religious whim? With no job prospects, and only one book idea, I feel more vulnerable than hopeful. If all else fails, when I run out of money, I can always crawl back to dailies.
In the depth of my despair, I feel a hand pat me on the shoulders and a voice whisper into my ear. “It’s gonna be all right. Just go ahead and cry and let it all out.” I look up. It’s Jenny, my other friend who has come to this conference with me from the San Diego Vineyard. She had been sitting a few rows in front of me. Her face mixes pity, pained relief, and painful glee. I cringe. Jenny knows the drill. Erma’s cries of “Glory to God” and “thank you Jesus” from the back of the sanctuary are distinctive and flat-out irritating. She loves that I’ve fallen out in front of these people. I’ve been too dignified to be delivered before. Her plan to get me to Payne’s conference has worked, hasn’t it? She must believe that all of my faggot demons have hit the road.
True, when the service ends, my being feels lighter than it has felt in a long time. I compose myself, walk to the back of the sanctuary, and peruse the books on the table for a bit. Before long, Erma, Jenny, and I convene briefly in the church’s orange brick courtyard. Dazed under June’s hot sun, I chitchat, embarrassed and confused, while they feign conversation. The women haven’t been getting along this week, and we lapse into awkward silence.
“Well, brother, obviously you lost a few devils,” Erma says placing her hand over her mouth and chuckling in her loud country way. Mississippi is leaking though.
“I guess so huh?”
“Samuel, that was amazing. I think God totally delivered you from the lifestyle,” Jenny chimes in. “It was SO gnarly.”
I don’t know what the word gnarly means, but my white friends use it all the time.
I also know that screaming is good for the soul.
On the way back to my dorm room, I stop at a bench to call Steve, a guy I had found through the Internet. Steve was a tall, lean brunette to whom I was very attracted, and he was relocating from Los Angeles to San Diego to live with me because he was already moving and needed a cheap place to stay. With no income, a roommate could offset southern California’s high cost of living while I search for another job.
“Hey man. What’s going on? How’s Chicago?”
“It’s okay. I need to tell you something.” I pause. “I’ve decided I no longer want a roommate. I’m gonna keep living by myself for a while.”
Silence, then, “Why? What’s happened?”
The roots of Baal worship have been blasted out of my being that day, I want to say. I’ve convinced myself. I’m not turning back. Jesus, forgive me for not being completely forthcoming. It’s a lie by omission but why cast my pearls before swine? The truth is I know if he becomes my roommate, I might act out.
“It’s not you. I just decided I want to keep living alone and thought it would be best to tell you before you moved all the way from L.A. Sorry, man.”
“I guess. Well, okay.”
I hang up; sure I have done God’s will. Issues of keeping my word and pulling the rug out from under someone never occur to me. I just want to get right with God. Many temptations lie before me in San Diego—all those muscle boys. The last thing I need is a man I find remotely attractive walking around my condo in boxers and a tank top.
Several days later in San Diego, Jenny and her friend Jodie come to my house to help me do spiritual cleansing of the ungodly books I’ve accumulated. In the book of Acts when the Christians were delivered from wickedness the apostles ordered them to burn their curious arts and books. I feel uneasy about parting with books, but I want to follow God.
Jenny and Jodie box up any books that don’t have the word Bible, Jesus or church in the title. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin by James Campbell ends up in the pile, as does Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey, by Maya Angelou and Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of America 1950-1970. “What about this one? This one doesn’t feel good to me either, brother. It’s gotta go,” Jodie says. They never add any book to the stack that I don’t nod my agreement to. In the service of God’s kingdom and in pursuit of heterosexuality, I concede.
“We’ll take these away for you,” Jodie says, clutching a stack of books.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll take them to the Goodwill or something.”
“Are you sure? We’re happy to take them,” Jenny chimes in.
I assure them I will handle it.
After they leave, I put the book crates in my two-car garage behind the condo. Surely God will help me want to throw away books that are leading me astray. Maybe the desire will come. But soon, I decide to keep the books. They belong to me. I don’t want to worship a God who opposes intellectual expansion. A few weeks later, I hear Oprah Winfrey talk about The Power of Now, a book that has changed her life. I pick up a hardback edition of the book and something within me breaks wide open. In it I read about the concept of the “painbody,” an accumulation of one’s unconscious emotional pains. The author likens the painbody to an energetic entity. Once confronted, some people even cry out like the demons described in the New Testament. The insight makes me smile inside. A feeling of inner vastness unlike anything I’ve ever experienced—so deep, so wide, and so peaceful—unfolds within me. So splendid, regal, royal, majestic, a sweet wonderful feeling envelops me each time I read passages from this book.
There’s a picture hanging in my condo titled The Moorish Chief. I purchased it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the late 1990s. The picture speaks to me on a spiritual and physical level because the image focuses on a handsome, muscular, dark-skinned man who looks like he’s a king. He’s a tall man in a long flowing white robe, standing in the doorway of a castle or palace. The description says no one knows if he’s a real person in his environment or an artist’s model. In either case, he looks like a god who has fallen from the sky. In this image humanity and divinity unite in the face of a black man. His physical demeanor signifies dominion.
Over the next few years, I learn to close my eyes and sit in the silence until that sweet peaceful feeling arises from within. It’s the same feeling I had when I saw the rainfall and heard Michael W. Smith’s song that day in Wheaton. Sometimes the feeling comes over me in the shower, or while driving and certain songs come on—it could be Donna Summer’s “On the Radio,” or any tune that taps that certain soft sweet frequency. It’s a frequency of love, joy, and extreme peace. It’s a vibration of ultimate well being. I still love the Scriptures, and through meditation I move into that blissful interior palace where all that I am is loved, nurtured, and embraced. I recognize that Erma and Jenny were friendly people who helped orchestrate the near-crucifixion of my true self with the nails of their friendship. Erma and I are still in contact. The last time she prayed for me on the phone she said felt some kind of a barrier.
“What was that?”
I was silent. Listening. I was not screaming, not shouting “Noooooo!” In the silence I was removing the nails I couldn’t see and dancing to the rhythm of the song from emanating from my own soul.
Samuel Autman is a member of DePauw University's writing faculty in Greencastle, Indiana where he specializes in the personal essay and journalism. “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow” appears in The Chalk Circle: Prizewinning Intercultural Essays anthology. "A Walk Through the Neighborhood" was printed in the Black Gay Genius anthology. His essays have been appeared in the anthologies The Chalk Circle: Prizewinning Intercultural Essays and Black Gay Genius, and in publications including Under the Gum Tree, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, I'm Black and I Travel, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. He is currently at work on Sanctified: A Memoir. Find him at www.samuelautman.com.