“Forbidden knowledge” suggests sex, the fruit that God supposedly didn't want the first man and woman to discover. In the real world, there is usually a power struggle between the young or powerless and authority figures who try to control what their dependents believe. Censorship is often based on the best intentions.
In sixth grade, I learned about sex from a girl classmate who told me how babies are made. I repeated the story to my mother, half expecting her to refute it. My parents had three daughters, but the idea that they had ever done that seemed to blind my mind's-eye. I couldn't picture it.
My mother told me to wait until my baby sister had gone to sleep. Then she explained, with obvious discomfort, that the story was true, and that men and women should only "do it" if they’re married and in love. She said I wouldn’t really understand how it all worked until Mr. Right appeared in my life to propose marriage. Uh-huh.
Years later, when I was rummaging among old clothes in the basement, looking for the makings of a Halloween costume, I found a large envelope that contained old photos.
The photos were from 1944, dated on the back in my mother’s neat handwriting. I knew that was the year of my parents’ wartime wedding, when Dad (Art, newly-promoted to the rank of lieutenant) wore the snow-white uniform of the United States Navy and Mom (Jane, newly-promoted to the rank of Master of Arts, University of Oregon) wore a military-looking blue suit, incongruously topped off by a ladylike hat with demi-veil, as they posed for pictures outside a church in New York City, where Dad was conveniently stationed and Mom had family.
I couldn’t remember the first time I had seen the wedding photos, the official record of my parents’ union.
I had never seen the others. In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined them.
In approximately six shots (I can’t remember the exact number), Jane and Art each smirked into the camera. They were stark naked.
Their energy was almost palpable. They had clearly taken turns capturing each other's images as mementoes of what couldn’t be shown. And like a stunned Victorian explorer in the ruins of an ancient whorehouse or temple, I had found the fetish objects.
I had just reached puberty, and the couple in the photos (I couldn’t bring myself to think of them as my parents) barely looked any older, though I knew that Jane had to be 25, and that Art was 22. Art had grown up on an Oregon farm, where his knowledge of sex (if any) must have come from watching animals. Jane had travelled by train (for five days!) to enter graduate school on the opposite coast from the island of Manhattan, where she had grown up. In her teens, she had listened to jazz in Greenwich Village and considered herself Bohemian.
Jane and her accent must have seemed exotic to the local westerners. Art had apparently fallen under her spell. I had heard the story of the "friendly" rivalry between Art and his male friend for Jane's affection. She had made a choice.
Jane was five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds, but she must have represented whole realms of knowledge and mystery to young Art. And she must have been charmed by his country innocence, his apparent incapacity for deceit. He was descended from Daniel Boone, and his white-bread pioneer ancestry probably added to his appeal for her. He even had a family name that sounded like “hillbilly,” his childhood nickname.
Those photos were the forerunners of the wartime porn I discovered later: cartoon images of eager-looking young men in (and out of) uniform with their red-lipped, knowing-eyed gals from port cities.
Holding the shocking photos, I was torn between impulses: to put them back where I found them, to keep them hidden in my room, or to show them to someone else. The arrival of my six-year-old sister settled the outcome.
I couldn’t keep her from seeing the naked people in the photos, so I told her who they were. In a flash, she grabbed a few of them and ran upstairs, where our mother was having coffee with some women friends.
To say that our mother was aghast would be an understatement. I heard “Where did you find those?” in her furious stage-whisper before I entered the room. Under cover of telling me to keep better control of my little sister, Mom sent us both out of sight.
Once her guests were gone, our mother told me that I wasn’t supposed to see those photos and I certainly wasn’t supposed to show them to anyone, ever. She told me several times that photos like that were not meant to be looked at. But then what were they for? Arguing with either of my parents on this subject was guaranteed to produce fireworks, so I simply left it alone.
In the following years, my knowledge of both sex and war increased, along with a certain intuition that the two subjects were related. Who would be reckless enough to get married and fuck (not necessarily in that order) during a war that engulfed the whole world? Maybe that was why. Jane and Art were probably among the giddy lovers who didn't want to know that “until death do us part” could mean months, weeks or days.
My mother’s New York friends, almost all Jewish couples with children my age, visited us regularly. I became vaguely aware that their extended families in the Old World had all died off during the war, although the word everyone applied to this event was "exterminated," which also meant ridding a house of bugs or mice.
I didn't begin to grasp the obscenely sexual reality of torture and murder on a massive scale until I saw the appalling photos of skeletal survivors taken in 1945, when the concentration camps were opened by victorious armies.
Love and death, the combined subject of most operas, had apparently filled the world in 1944. Art and Jane had clearly wallowed in sex as though they had discovered it, and took turns seducing each other with a camera while so many were stripped of everything they owned, including their warm, pulsing lives. I was the post-war result of Art and Jane's folly. As a morally-righteous teenager, I could hardly stand it.
As I grew still older, I felt increasingly moved by the "dirty pictures" in the basement, long after I lost track of them. How beautiful Jane and Art had been, like Adam and Eve before losing God’s approval. How lucky I was to have had the chance to see them before they took on the roles of Mom and Dad.
In time, my parents' bodies aged and failed, as all must do. Now that they've passed on, I hope they have rediscovered a bliss that doesn't need to be hidden. Or given up.