I don’t think many of you appreciate just how strange America is to foreigners. Your culture has been spoonfed to us via sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters; giving us an apple-pie wholesome, saccharine-soaked picture of what life in your country is like. Heroic cops with hearts of gold, harmlessly neurotic couples, friends living in central-city apartments while somehow working minimum wage jobs – it’s all a comforting fiction that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world.
Whereas my first real taste of America was when my mother brought me here in 1996. Within a day, I witnessed a brutal mugging outside a mall, followed by a cop pulling out a pistol and shooting the perp three times in the chest.
As someone born and raised in Europe, and especially after that day, I would have told you that the biggest culture shock was your nonchalance towards weapons and violence. But as I scratched away at the gun-oiled, blue-white-and-red surface of the United States, I learned that the true culture shock was to be found elsewhere.
Specifically, in your attitudes on religion.
My stepfather had always been a very dominating presence in our lives, hence why my mother gave in to his constant badgering to move ‘back home’ with him to Texas where ‘everything was better’.
They’d originally met when he was working in Spain on the 1992 Olympics, and he’d flown to London for a conference that my mother was also attending. He was loud, confident and interesting; a far cry from the quiet, frail man who had fathered me – even quieter and frailer at the end of his life as he succumbed to cancer.
Perhaps it was that particular robustness of character, and the seemingly indomitable physical presence of this American man that initially attracted my mother. Whatever the case, their romance was as short, explosive and colourful as the Fourth of July – and they married within two months of meeting each other.
But while my mother saw a bombastic giant with a big heart, a bigger smile and a laugh that could fill an empty auditorium, what I saw was an overweight bully with too many teeth and a voice that made my ears ring.
That wasn’t the only reason why I had very little time for the man; the other reason for my animosity toward him was that his proud, evangelical Christian roots were in direct conflict with my burgeoning homosexuality.
Oh, and how he tried to crush that out of me.
I grew to loathe the hunting trips, gifts of knives, gun magazines and soft-porn automotive calendars he buried me in; all to try and make me ‘man up’. The near-constant drone of his soporifically stereotyped, artificially macho drivel became an ugly white-noise in the background of my teens.
But when my mother was killed in an interstate pileup, everything took a distinct turn - from just plain awful to absolutely fucked.
Having legally adopted me and with my having no living biological parents, my stepfather had full custody.
He refused to let me go back to the UK, and instead plunged our dwindling family unit into the heady haze of Southern religious doctrine. Perhaps he saw it as a means to either expunge the guilt he felt at my mother’s death, or as a way to come to terms with her loss.
Maybe it was just a habitual reflex, ingrained in him since he was old enough to be dragged along to church.
In any case, it was a miserable time for me.
Unable to deny my sexuality any longer, I tearfully told my father – at age fourteen – that I wasn’t attracted to girls, that I only had feelings for boys.
I’m sure you can imagine just how well that went down.
First was the ‘therapist’ in his tobacco-stinking office, sitting in a leather armchair under the accusing gaze of a gruesomely crucified Jesus. He ‘strongly advised’ me to ask God to take these evil impulses from me, lest I burn in the flames of Hell for all eternity.
Then it was the intense-eyed, nearly psychotic inter-church faith healers, who would lay on hands to ‘pray away the gay’ until I wept and cried out as their hard, urgent fingers gouged bruises in my pale flesh. When I confessed to my ‘therapist’ that none of it had worked, he sent me home with an envelope for my stepfather that contained multi-page, colourful camp brochure.
Three weeks later I was shoved into the back of the family sedan along with a hastily packed suitcase, and driven halfway across unfamiliar country to a place for ‘boys like me’. A place where I would be turned from being a sensitive, effeminate, cock-sucking little faggot and instead made into a strong, god-fearing heterosexual – with a healthy American lust for tits and ass.
The place was known as Purity Falls.
I can’t begin to describe how beautifully ugly the place was.
Set in a wooded reserve backing onto rocky hills, the camp buildings were a jarring mix. The shining veneer of sturdy polished doors fitted to rough-hewn log cabins was as wrong as the equally polished smiles from the camp staff, and their outdoorsy, yet disarmingly clean boy-scoutish uniforms.
The flag of the United States of America flew proudly from the shiny brass pole outside the main lodge, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if apple pie was literally being baked somewhere in that postcard setting.
But from the moment I clapped eyes on the batons carried by the counsellors and the gun at the director’s hip, I knew it was a conversion camp.
“Welcome to Purity Falls,” rasped the director, pumping my stepfather’s hand with a finger-breaking handshake, “your boy is in good hands here – we have a one hundred percent success rate.”
While my stepfather seemed reassured by the steel in the man’s voice, something about it set my teeth on edge.
Then, with a perfunctory side-hug and an insincere farewell, my father left me in the hands of my new ‘family’.
So began my stay at Purity Falls.
Our day predictably started with enforced prayer, then cold, communal showers.
I don’t think there is anything more confused and miserable on this Earth than a bunch of freezing, naked, pubescent boys battling their newly awakened sexuality, shivering under ice-water showers while mad-eyed, uniformed adults scream threatening biblical versus at them.
Then it was physical training – mostly running around the wooded hills of Purity Falls – followed by another frigid shower and a massive ‘manly’ breakfast of steak, bacon and eggs.
Afternoons were spent mostly doing physical labour and camp chores, interspersed with more enforced prayer. Evenings were filled with ‘Purity Training’ – which largely consisted of watching badly made VCR tapes designed to brainwash fatigued minds into believing in the doctrine of Christian Rebirth.
And when someone was deemed ‘purified’ enough by the staff and the director, they would be taken away by the camp counsellors to the ‘Cradle of Rebirth’ in the woods near the falls. When the boy came back, he would be docile, compliant and – exactly as the Director claimed – one hundred percent ‘cured’ of all homosexual urges.
And I believed him. I’d seen one of the boys who came back from the Cradle, and the blank intensity of his gaze confirmed that the last vestiges of individuality had finally been strangled from his broken mind.
After that, I vowed to avoid the Cradle at all costs.
During one of our few breaks under the wasp-filled apple trees in the camp orchard, I noticed one of the younger counsellors – David – staring off into the distance and mumbling to himself.
The other boys took advantage of his inattention to goof off or to try and relax, but my curiosity got the better of me.
Creeping closer, I heard the faint words of a song dribble from his lips, ”…then sharpen it dear Henry, dear Henry, sharpen it.”
I don’t know why I responded, but the words of the song were so familiar that they came unbidden; “But with what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza, dear Liza, but with what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza, with what?”
David turned to me, his usually blank face a white mask of knowing terror.
“Keep singing. While you sing it can’t focus, and I’m free of it. Don’t stop.”
As I rushed off the next few stanzas, he babbled at me urgently;
“You have to get out,” he took a step forward and grabbed my shoulders painfully, his nails cutting through the thin fabric of my shirt, “if you don’t go to the Cradle, you’ll end up here forever, like me.”
“What?” was all I could manage.
As I stopped singing, his eyes dulled and went curiously soft and empty, before the colour returned to his face.
“Back to work, fags!” he yelled, shoving me towards the others.
After that strained, eerie interlude with David, I learned that not everyone who was deemed ‘pure’ came back from the Cradle and was released.
Those who weren’t ‘chosen’ at the Cradle – whatever that meant – would stay at the camp until either they eventually did became pure enough, or they became camp staff and stayed on permanently, like David and the other, younger counsellors.
Suffering through yet another degrading, freezing ablution session, and another day of back-breaking labour, my resolve began to crumble. Spending the rest of my life in this place was a prospect that chilled me to my soul, far more than any cold shower.
So I started working hard. I sang loudly and fervently at the services in the chapel, and I memorised my Bible with suitable religiousness. I piled on weight and muscle over the next eight weeks – and eventually, during an evening prayer session where the male counsellors bear-hugged us and made us sing psalms until our lungs hurt, I was eventually deemed ‘purified’ by the camp Director.
With a gut-roiling mix of terror and abject relief, myself and two other boys were dressed in white linen robes - then led from the lodge down the cut-stone path to the Cradle.
The falls themselves were beautiful – cascading vertically from the cliff forty feet above us and churning the dark plungepool below. The path, slick with spray, took us around the lip of the pool, then behind the waterfall, where a cavern had formed from erosion long ago.
White and green limestone was speckled with quartz and agate, the torches held by the attending staff creating prismatic highlights that scattered through the vaulted cavern. The reflected light transformed it from a dark, fearful hole into something desperately and wonderfully glorious.
“The Cradle,” whispered David’s awe-filled voice from behind me. In the centre of the cathedral-like cavern rose a crown of stalagmites, glistening with faint moisture from their dripping counterparts high above us – and from a depression in the middle of that curious structure, a white glow began to emanate.
Two of the staff flanked the phenomenon, wildly and ecstatically chanting in something that sounded like – but wasn’t quite - Latin.
The light brightened until my eyes began to burn, and spidery tingles spread across my body, lifting all the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck.
Then a singing angel rose from the pit, and I fell to my knees unbidden, in an uncontrollable act of mindless worship.
The being that stood in the centre of the Cradle seemed to be made almost entirely of actinic light; with massive silver, pale gold and rose wings rippling behind it. Rainbows fired and flared around the crystalline structure of its cathedral, forming a web of shifting, disorienting, kaleidoscopic colours.
Two shining white arms were held up in front as though it were praying devoutly, and somewhere within the dazzling radiance where its head was, I could faintly make out huge, luminous eyes.
Overcome with genuine religious ecstasy, one of the other boys ran toward the shining angel, screaming above the ethereal singing, “I am pure! Take me, oh please, take me!”
What happened next is something I still have difficulty processing.
There was a flash of the angel’s huge white arms, then the boy was enveloped in the aching glare. The crystalline singing from the being intensified, rhythmically pulsing as though to a great, slow heartbeat.
There followed a curiously incongruous sound – like a deflating balloon – that tore through the cavern.
“REBIRTH!” screamed the director, spittle flowing freely down his chin.
The boy tottered forward from the light of the angel, his now-naked body streaked with milky, pink-white fluid, and his expression beatifically blank.
As the next boy hurried forward and was enveloped by the angel, David began to sing behind me, “Then wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,”
With a thrill of awakening, I responded; singing strongly in sudden panic, “With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, dear Liza? With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, with what?”
And then suddenly, David darted forward, swinging one of the extendable batons the counsellors used to keep us ‘compliant’. When it struck the angel, the singing stopped – and with a shriek of alien rage, the illusion shattered.
The thing reared hugely and obscenely above us, a segmented and ridged exoskeleton of ecrulean chitin, perched upon four barbed and multi-jointed legs. A pointed, triangular face held scissoring mouth parts still fresh with the blood of the ‘purified’ boy – and through the pulsing, translucent flesh of its soft underbody I could see the partly devoured remains of a human being.
But worse than that was the questing, undulating ovipositor. The tube was pushing a newly-formed clone of the most recently devoured boy out of the body of the horrifying insectoid female in front of us.
I started screaming, then the cavern erupted into shouting as the ‘angel’ speared David through the chest with its barbed forelimbs. Blood rained down on us as the gigantic winged mantis tore his ribcage apart.
The Director and the other staff lay on the floor now, screaming and clutching their heads – shrieking in concert with the creature as it tried to pull out the baton that jutted from one of its soft eyes.
In a moment of desperate calm and clarity, I walked over to the writhing form of the director, unclipped the pistol from his hip holster, and I began to sing. “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole.”
Then I began firing at the head and torso of the giant, winged insectoid until the clip was empty, pink-white ichor covered everything, and the screaming had stopped.
My stepfather didn’t speak to me much after he picked me up from the county police station. I think uncharacteristically keeping quiet and for once not berating me for being a ‘pussy’ or a ‘faggot’ was his own strange way of apologising.
If I were to simply say that the whole Purity Falls incident was just ‘swept under the carpet’, I would be doing you a gross literary injustice. The cover-up was so incredibly thorough and well-co-ordinated that it took my breath away; from the memorised stories agreed upon by the other parents, to the falsified statements and false evidence planted by the backwater Christian cops.
I think, in a way, it was an even more terrifying display of the toxic power of evangelical religion – that through their twisted belief system they actually thought it was more important to ensure that the locals protected one another than it was to tell the truth.
In any case, I was banned from ever speaking the name Purity Falls again, on pain of prosecution – not that I care anymore.
Because I just can’t get one thing out my head. What happened to the ‘boys’ who were birthed by that thing in the cave? What were they?
I think they are still out there, walking amongst us. Perfectly calm, perfectly compliant – ticking timebombs, just waiting to pupate into so many grotesque ‘angels’ – just like the one at Purity Falls.