Road to Exile by Paul Toscano - Read Online
Road to Exile
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Paul Toscano’s memoir recounts how the Brooklyn-born grandson of Sicilian immigrants became a discarded dissident of an unpopular American religion and discovered the dark side of the American dream. This is a tragicomedy of the American soul, of hollow hopes and untested ideals cracked by the crowbar of events, abandoned in shards, then revisited, individuated, revolutionized, and renewed by the workings of a relentless and ineffable grace. His story is an American story.
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Road to Exile - Paul Toscano

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Excommunication, like revenge, is best served cold. Mine was—cold and quick on a clear autumn day.

Excommunication! The word resonates like the bell of a gothic cathedral and seems as anachronistic as a rank of grinning gargoyles, as rebel monks, warrior popes, or heretics burning in a town square. It is a rite one might suppose had been relegated long ago to a footnote beyond the margins of modern life, a practice outdated as the related ritual of exorcism that serves the same end—the expulsion of the evil one.

On September 19, 1993, the evil one to be expelled was I. Yes I, who as a youth had hankered to be an apostle of Jesus, was on this day branded an apostate of the Church I had chosen and then served in my fashion for over 30 years.

What had I done to merit this medieval censure? Not adultery, not fornication, not mayhem, not manslaughter, not murder. Not even misappropriation of church funds. My iniquity was much worse—the worst. I had committed the sin of sins: I had criticized the inspired leaders of the Mormon Church, the LDS Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, leaders whom true-believing church members accept as prophets, seers, and revelators of the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth (D&C 1:30).

In truth, I’d done more than criticize my leaders. I’d teased them. No, not just teased. In my futile fury I’d taunted and mocked them—and in public, too. By that impolitic act, I transformed myself into a pariah, a persona non grata within Mormondom and among Utah’s power players.

My fall from grace was not precipitous. It proceeded by degrees, step by step, day by day, thought by unapproved thought, speech after dissenting speech. These marked my passage further and further from the contemporary Mormon way of thinking, of believing, of judging. Bit by bit I became convinced that the spiritual power rustling through Joseph Smith’s revelations, animating the genii loci of Latter-day Saint settlements along the Mormon pioneer trail from New York to Utah and burning in the bosoms of the first Mormons, that spiritual power—in the decades since the martyrdom of its first First Elder—had been banked into cold corporate embers by an increasingly short-sighted leadership elite. Mormonism’s prophets, seers, and revelators had in my view become profiteers and regulators.

Joseph Smith’s provocative promise of an eclectic religious feast that featured the best theological and theurgical dishes of Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Protestantism, and even paganism had, after 160-years, been reduced to a ghastly gruel of the very worst of nearly every ideology—all sugared with a uniquely Mormon brand of obedience-obsessed sentimental niceness that coated the conviction of every loyal member: my religion right or wrong, my church holy or not, my prophet conscious or comatose.

Mormonism had morphed into McMormonism. The doctrinal haute cuisine of 19th century LDS heterodoxy had become a 20th century fast-food menu distributed worldwide by an expanding ecclesiastical empire that could boast of opening of a new chapel somewhere on the globe every day—14,000,000 saved.

The innovative power of its foundational texts had been sacrificed for the grudging acceptance of an often suspicious and sometimes hostile nation. Mormon apostles, despising the persecutions of the 19th century and desirous of the world’s praise, encouraged the worship not of a charismatic, crucified, and cosmic Christ but of a controlling Christ, a corporate Christ, a cash and carry Christ—a Christ they considered compatible with contemporary culture.

My beef with the ecclesiastical hierarchy was not the usual Mormon liberal’s lament that LDS church leaders are too doctrinal, too religious, too impractical, or too otherworldly. My more damning and intolerable criticism was that they are too material, too banal, and too tyrannical. In public discourses I told them that they had sold out, had betrayed the ideals of the Mormon movement, had pulled the LDS ecclesiastical superstructure off the footings of Christ’s gospel and fixed it firmly on a foundation of legalistic sand and mud.

From their perspective, I could not be right. They, not I, had been called by God. Had they been in error, surely God would have told them so directly—and not through the likes of me. Naturally in their view I could be only an apostate, a tool of Satan, a threat to the kingdom of God. I had challenged their leadership, their inspiration, their priesthood prerogatives, and their commitment to Jesus whose gospel I claimed they had failed to preach to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. I was to them what the 1960s anti-war protesters were to Lyndon Johnson: a disloyal irritant.

Excommunication, therefore, was only a matter of time. What has surprised me, however, is the relevance of my Mormon ouster to the experience of many mainstream Americans.

What relevance, you may ask? What possible connection can the story of a Mormon excommunicant have to America and Americans, to non-Mormons and anti-Mormons, to Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Native Americans, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, or New Agers, to the churched and the unchurched, to secularists, positivists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists, astrologers, mediums, to the intellectual elite and the intellectually naïve, to the informed, the uniformed, and the disinformed? Can a carping, ostracized, and failed radical reformer of a religion barely esteemed above a cult have anything to say that is relevant to the sprawling, roiling, diverse masses of a modern nation?

My answer is yes. My story is relevant to all those who have trusted in, devoted themselves to, and then been betrayed by some chosen, cherished institution to which they have sacrificed time, talent, or money—be that institution corporate, academic, military, ecclesiastical, charitable, political, or even familial. As improbable as it may seem, my story is quintessentially an American story about power abuse and its aftermath.

What happened to me in Mormonism has happened to countless others in sundry contexts. This is the story of ideals, expectations, aspirations, and assumptions that flower in youth, later wither in the heat of institutional corruption, and finally send down roots into uncharted well-springs of imagination in search of nourishment for a late and unexpected spiritual revival.

This story disavows the ubiquitous falsehood that we can plan our lives, achieve our goals, and create ourselves in our own image. It affirms instead that we cannot positive-think ourselves into a self-constructed reality without losing our sanity, that we cannot author our fate or control our destiny without losing our souls. It is a story that validates not only the expected but the unexpected, not only light but darkness, not only pleasure but pain; it validates both sacred and profane, good and bad, success and failure, determinism and free-will, life and death.

While rejecting the notion that we can shape ourselves, this story affirms that sometimes we can influence the shaping. It argues that self-creation is doomed to shipwreck on the shoals of ignorance, that we cannot plan our lives because we cannot know the end from the beginning, that what we think we want today will not be what we want tomorrow or the day after, that we cannot predict what we will love or hate or how we will be changed, even though we may assume with St. Paul that we will all be changed in the twinkling of an eye, in the twinkling of a life.

This American text, set in the unfamiliar context of an American religion, is the story of idealism, of awakening, of reflection and reconsideration, of rejection, pain, and loss, and of the sojourn from group-think into the wilderness of individual judgment. It posits in the place of the American dream a universal reality not readily found in the outer world, a mostly interior reality, that reveals us to be not mere observers of, but participants in a strange and complex cosmos into whose mortal shadow we are doomed to pass despite our personal denials and the societal palliatives of our arts, sciences, and religions. This story suggests that rather than dream a fantasy, we should embrace a mystery; rather than die for a stagnant proposition, we should live for a pregnant paradox. To paraphrase Jesus: Whoever seeks his life shall lose it, whoever loses his life shall find it (Matt.16:25).



Five a.m., September 19, 1993, Salt Lake City, Utah. The pre-dawn sky is dark and clear. The stars shine brightly. Margaret, my wife of 15 years, and I are up. We have somberly dressed for what we know will be a difficult and defining day—Judgment Day. Our four daughters, ages 9 to 14, are also up and dressed. They had insisted on being present at the chapel where I am likely to be stripped of my LDS Church membership and my Mormon identity. They sense more than understand the grim meaning of the unfolding events.

Five forty-five a.m. We pile into the van. The starlight has receded. The dawn is brightening. Silhouetted cloudlets floating across the icy pale eastern sky above the Wasatch Mountains herald the still distant sunrise. The dew is cool and heavy on the grass, and the crisp hint of fall sweetens the air. The children are silent. I drive. Margaret sits peering through the passenger window as we make our way to my ecclesiastical execution.

I seem serene, but am numb. I am certain I will be excommunicated by the disciplinary council consisting of the three men who lead my local congregation (the Big Cottonwood Stake) and their 12 high councilors. This day they will try my case, expel me from my church, my religious past and everything associated with them. This will be the last day of my life as a Latter-day Saint.

I do not know then that in later years my sister-in-law, Janice Allred, and my wife, Margaret, will be excommunicated; neither do I know how we will unravel ourselves from our Mormon connections, nor how we will manage to navigate our way from an ecclesiastical homeland to which we can never return.

Outside the chapel, a crowd of friends and supporters huddles in the brisk morning air. They hold candles and sing hymns. This is not the first excommunication vigil to be held that fateful September. Mine is one of the trials that by month’s end will result in the ouster of six LDS scholars and writers. The other five are Lynn Kanavel Whitesides, Avraham Gileadi, Maxine Hanks, Lavina Fielding Anderson, and D. Michael Quinn. General authorities presiding over the LDS Church will deny involvement. They will claim, falsely, that these disciplinary councils, all held in the same month, were not orchestrated or mandated from the top of the church hierarchy but were invoked by local leaders acting on their own.

The truth will eventually surface that all these ousters were instigated by one of the LDS Church’s twelve apostles, Elder Boyd Kenneth Packer—a former reluctant World War II bomber pilot who, as a teenager, is rumored to have used live ammunition in his .22 rifle when he and his friends played cowboys and Indians in the hills outside his home town of Brigham City, Utah. In a well-publicized speech given in May of 1993, Packer had identified feminists, homosexuals, and intellectuals as enemies of the Church.

At a few minutes before 6 a.m., the starting time for the disciplinary council, I park the van, and we all climb out. Neither my family nor any of the well-wishers at my vigil will be allowed to witness my trial. Excommunication proceedings are not public events. I am to attend alone, although the few witnesses I have arranged to testify as to my character will be allowed to address the council briefly one at a time. None, except for Margaret, will be allowed to stay.

I barely have time to offer greetings before the trial begins. One friend complains about the early hour. But I explain that the timing was my idea because I preferred the ordeal to start and end early rather than start late and end in the wee hours of the night.

My family joins the vigil, except for my nine-year-old daughter, Sarah, who takes my hand and accompanies me into the church building. She is determined to stay with me. When she is told that this will not be allowed, she takes a seat outside the door of the room where I am to be tried and will not move for the next seven hours.

The room is rectangular and nearly filled by an oversized, slightly oval, wood conference table around which all the men who are to try my case can sit in comfortable chairs. As I enter, I am politely greeted by the three members of the stake presidency, the twelve members of the stake high council, the stake executive secretary, and the stake clerk. Every one of them shakes my hand. I am shown my place—a chair at the foot of the table. The stake presidency sits at the table’s head and is flanked by the executive secretary and the clerk. The high councilors take their places at the table’s sides, six on each.

The stake president, Kerry Heinz, asks one of his councilors to open the proceedings with prayer, and that councilor prays for divine guidance. This seems strange to me since President Heinz has already told me that he has been all but directed by Elder Packer to excommunicate me. In their younger days, Heinz and Packer were chums or colleagues in the small, northern Utah town of Brigham City, where they worked together in the church seminary and institute program organized to provide religious education to Mormon youth. Since those days, Heinz has revered Packer as his mentor.

After prayer, Heinz explains how the disciplinary council is to proceed. Six of the high councilors are charged to see that no injury is done to the Church, and the other six are charged to see that no injury is done to me. In the hours that follow, I will see no evidence that the high council does anything to discharge these duties.

President Heinz then explains that I will be allowed to call a few character witnesses to testify briefly, but that none of them will be allowed to stay and observe the proceedings. He then states that a copy of the speech I had given at the August 1993 Sunstone Symposium will be provided to all present, and a tape recording of that speech will be played for all to hear.

Every year, usually in August, the Sunstone Foundation holds its Salt Lake Symposium at which 1000 to 1500 Latter-day Saints (who are mostly questioning or disaffected church members) attend to listen to lay persons make various theological, historical, sociological, political, psychological, academic or polemical presentations. The LDS Church has never approved or appreciated this gathering. It was, in fact, threatened by it. In late 1991, church leaders had officially put Sunstone off-limits to faithful church members and employees, including the faculty and staff of Brigham Young University with campuses in Utah, Idaho, and Hawaii. Disobedience to this expectation could lead to church discipline.

As I take my place before my judges, I expect my church tribunal to examine the whole of my life in Mormonism from my conversion (contrary to my parents’ wishes) at the age of 16 in 1961 and my baptism in March of 1963 through my full-time mission years from 1966 to 1969, my time at BYU from 1963 to 1966 and 1969 to 1978, down to the moment of my trial. I also assume my tribunal will consider the theological concepts Margaret and I had developed and published in our co-authored book Strangers In Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology (Signature Books, 1990) and in the one or two speeches I had given each year at the Sunstone Symposium since 1985 (later collected in the 1994 book The Sanctity of Dissent). But none of this will be brought up at my trial. Instead, the tribunal focuses solely on a single speech entitled All Is Not Well In Zion: False Teachings Of The True Church, which I presented at the August 1993 Sunstone Symposium. In this paper I argued that the retreat in Mormonism from the worship of Jesus Christ in favor of the worship of God the Father, a retreat encouraged by the LDS apostles, was contrary to scripture and served the interests not of the Latter-day Saints but of the Mormon ecclesiastical corporation and its patriarchal hierarchy, a power structure that subordinates the interests of individual church members to those of the corporate Church.

After Heinz completes his instructions, the trial proceeds as outlined. He hands out a copy of my Sunstone speech that had been transcribed from a tape recording; then the recording itself is played. A moment of silence follows, and I am then asked questions about the views I had expressed. After this, the tribunal hears my character witnesses one by one, including the reading of a letter from a close friend who had served on this same high council with the very men now adjudicating my case.

Finally Margaret testifies, explaining that I have been largely misunderstood in Mormonism, partly because of my Mediterranean, east-coast personality that tends to put off more reserved Utah Mormon types and partly because I take seriously the sacred texts of our religion in which I see substance to criticize certain current church practices. Heinz allows Margaret to stay through the rest of the trial despite his earlier decision to exclude all witnesses. I assume he does this because he believes my excommunication will break our temple sealing to each other and realizes that she has a vested interest in the proceedings.

The trial that started at 6 a.m. concludes a 1:30 p.m. Margaret and I are asked to leave while the tribunal deliberates. They do so for an hour and a half. At about 3:00 p.m., Margaret and I are called back into the council room. We sit at the foot of the long table surrounded by my judges. Their faces are grave. There are no greetings this time. I know what their decision is. In fact, for a week prior to these events, I have been aware of what the outcome would be.

President Heinz pronounces the verdict. I am guilty of publicly opposing church leaders. I am declared an excommunicant.

When the verdict is announced, I cannot catch my breath. My mind goes momentarily blank. I cannot recall the words I had prepared in anticipation of this result. Those present think, perhaps, the heretic is confounded. But this is not true. I am no heretic. I am not confounded. It is just that the verdict has pierced me with the reality that I have come at last to the inexorable end of my life as a Latter-day Saint, an end that seems somehow foreordained.

How the Brooklyn-born grandson of Sicilian immigrants manages to become a discarded dissident of an unpopular American religion and, in the process, discovers the dark side of the American dream is the story laid out in the chapters that follow. That story is the story of the American soul, the American tragicomedy of hollow hopes and untested ideals cracked by the crowbar of events, abandoned in shards, then revisited, individuated, revolutionized, and renewed by the workings of a relentless and ineffable grace.

Believe it or not, that story—my story—is your story.


1945-1951 Born in a Caul

I was born a mere month after Adolph Hitler killed his dog, murdered Eva Braun, and committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin while J. Robert Oppenheimer’s team of mostly foreign physicists madly midwived the atomic age in the remote deserts of Los Alamos, New Mexico. I was not a baby-boomer, but a war baby, born into a world of shame and exceptionalism when America stood on the brink of empire.

My maternal grandparents were Lorenzo Catania and Leonarda Grimaldi. Lorenzo came from the western Sicilian seaport of Trapani; Leonarda, from Santa Ninfa, a hill town to the east. Lorenzo immigrated here alone while still single. Leonarda came later with her orphan mother, Angela Medici Angona, and a foundling named Giuseppe, whom Angela had informally adopted and whom I knew as my great-uncle Joe.

At Ellis Island, Angela was turned back due to illness, leaving her children in America; it took her several years to re-earn her passage. This story was told to me by one of my mother’s sisters late in her life, and I have been unable to verify it. Eventually, Lorenzo and Leonarda married in Brooklyn, where they purchased and took up residence in the tenement house at 209 Meserole Street. My mother, Rose Angela Catania, was born there on December 15, 1917, although the midwife that delivered her registered her birthdate several weeks later as January 3, 1918.

My antecedents were fairly close-mouthed about their histories. They evaded direct questions about the past. What I know is mostly anecdotal—stories told by family members whose knowledge proved always to be sparse and imprecise. For this reason, I am not sure if my maternal grandparents met in this country or knew each other in Sicily. I have a certificate of their Brooklyn marriage. The fact that my paternal grandfather Paolo Toscano married my paternal grandmother Mariana Mendolia in Tunisia, North Africa, did not come to light until I was over 50 years old and was able to recover a record of their marriage from the Bishop of Tunis, prelate of the city to which they had immigrated in the early 20th century, prior to emigrating to the United States. From the Bishop of Tunis, I also recovered birth records of my father’s five older siblings, the youngest of which died in infancy.

I have never been able to find the birth record of my father, Samuel James Toscano. I repeatedly asked him for it during his life, but he would never produce it, if in fact he had it. He claimed to have been born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on August 15, 1915. There exists no birth record for him in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. I had assumed that the midwife who had delivered him probably failed to record his birth. I had been told this was not uncommon in those days. But a few years before my father’s death in 1997, he claimed that he was a twin and that his brother had died in infancy. This story my dad related to my youngest brother, Joseph, who did not report it to me until after my father’s death at age 82; so I never had the opportunity of questioning Dad about it. I reviewed the birth records from Tunis and discovered that my father had a brother who had died in infancy; but this brother was born on August 15, 1914, a year to the date before my father’s claimed birthdate in 1915. I have come to think that my father may have actually been born in Tunis, that the dead child may have been his twin, that my father had been smuggled into this country, and that these are the reasons he could never produce a certificate of his birth and, therewith, evidence his American citizenship. But these remain conjectures.


The date and place of my birth are no mystery: May 24, 1945, Brooklyn, Kings, New York. Nothing unusual marked my arrival, except that my mother’s labor was long and hard and that I was born in a caul that covered not just my head and face, but my whole body. Strangely, this amniotic sack that encased me never broke throughout my mother’s labor. It had to be peeled off after I was born. It dried to the consistency and color of thin, crinkly, semi-transparent white packing tissue. My mother kept it in a little purple velvet-colored case.

My caul was for her an omen, emblematic of the promise of my future exceptionalism. But growing up, I did not feel at all exceptional. What I felt was shame—a shame inherited from her and, to a lesser extent, from my father. This was the shame of being the child and grandchild of Sicilian immigrants who arrived 120 years after the American Revolution, 50 years after the Civil War, and 20 years after the conquest of the West and who, consequently, had taken no part in any of the foundational events of this nation. I was ashamed of being not quite American, of having a foreign mother tongue, and of bearing second-class surnames that evoked the unsavory images of both poverty and criminality. Throughout my mother’s life, she referred to her neighbors of northern-European extraction as Americans. To her they were members of another tribe, the dominant tribe that shaped a culture alien to her and that left her feeling unaccepted and unacceptable and, paradoxically, secretly superior; for, she took refuge in her secret sense of superiority to those who made her feel inferior. In her mind, Richard M. Nixon (whose own inferiority complex was to become legendary) was the archetype of the ignoble American. Jack Kennedy was her hero. When Nixon lost the race for the U.S. Presidency in 1960 to the Irish Catholic, my mother’s secret sense of exceptionalism became briefly visible. But that short interval, in which lower-class Catholics basked in the reflected glory of their twin heroes President John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII, died on November 22, 1963, the day the Americans killed her president. From my mother, I inherited this paradoxical sense of shame and exceptionalism; but I would not realize this or how it influenced my choices until I was in my senior years.


Sometime in 1947, when I was 2-years old, my father and mother moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Rosemead, California, where my father briefly went into business with his older brother John and his sister Lena Buscemi. With an investment of $3000, a goodly sum in those days, my father became a silent partner in John’s taxi cab and truck stop business. The investment, however, was not applied to capitalize the business; rather—as my dad learned only too late—it was misapplied to fund Uncle John’s gambling habit. When the money ran out and its use discovered, my father collapsed. My parent’s fled the tentacles of Dad’s family and returned to Brooklyn, ashamed of being made dupes by crooked relatives.

Back in New York, we lived in a small apartment on the 2nd floor of my maternal grandparents’ tenement house not far from the Williamsburg Bridge. The neighborhood was something of a slum in a district of warehouses and sweatshops where my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother worked for slave wages sewing collars and pockets into women’s coats that would later be sold at a discount in New York’s garment district. For a time after returning from California, my parents were furnitureless. My mother contracted rheumatic fever from sleeping on the cold floor; my father’s navel burst from stress, and he was hospitalized. While recuperating, he attended night school to become an electronic technician.

My parents’ apartment was adjacent to that of my grandparents. They shared a common toilet—just the toilet bowl in a room of its own. When I was small, I was bathed in the kitchen sink. The adults, however, used the sole and common shower rigged up by my grandfather in the basement. My mother complained about this because my grandfather had centered the showerhead in the ceiling so that anyone using it had to stand naked in the middle of the large room with no curtains or screen. These poor arrangements made daily bathing impossible. Perhaps we stank, but I never noticed.

The smells I remember were of garlic, butter, and breadcrumbs that my grandfather sautéed in a pan every day near noon. He turned out to be my pre-school primary care-giver. A decade or so older than my grandmother, he retired from day laboring and watched over me while my mother and grandmother toiled away in the sweat shop owned by Mr. Magaluso.

The sounds I remember were the sounds of Sicilian and English. I grew up speaking both. To this day I am not certain which was my first language. I had a knack for the spoken word. My grandmother, Leonarda, spent hours teaching me to recite from memory long Sicilian poems all of which I had forgotten by the time I was nine. But at age three or four, I could be plopped onto a table-top and coaxed into rattling off these gems to the amusement of my grandparents’ cronies. They wanted to put me on Italian radio—the Sicilian equivalent of Ted Mack’s amateur hour. The hilarity of my performance was in part due to the double-entendres and occasional obscenities common to Sicilian folk poems coming out of the mouth of a chatter-box little boy.


My mother and father had worried about leaving me with my grandfather, who by then was showing signs of absent-mindedness. At first they tried enrolling me in a day care center, but I hated it and cried so much that they had to take me out. My grandfather’s care had been the only remaining option. Mother, however, apparently felt I would not get from him proper nourishment. Pasta covered by butter, garlic and breadcrumbs and eaten with a glass of red wine was not, in her view, appropriate for a 4-year-old. So, every morning before work, she whipped up a bowl of cooked cereal for me. This concoction I would not eat.

I remember her coaxing me before she left: Paulie, promise me you’ll eat your cereal.

I promised. And I intended to keep my promise. But by lunchtime, the cereal was a cold, sugarless, soggy clump that could not compete with the heavenly aroma of the seasoned garlic and butter sauce my grandfather was cooking up for his spaghetti. He knew I was supposed to eat the cereal, but he was too kind-hearted to force me. And so, I’d share his lunch. When Mom came home, she was upset and would insist that I had to eat the cereal. My grandfather was too thrifty to throw the remnants out; so every day she found the evidence of my misdemeanor. She scolded my grandfather, who grunted and headed for the basement where he was installing a winepress. Then she scolded me, who had nowhere to go. The next day I promised again, and then broke my promise again. Mother did not take it well. With each passing day, she became more distressed.

Finally, in desperation, she threatened me: You either eat you’re cereal, or you’ll wear it, she shouted and then stomped off to work.

I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right. Wear it? How can you wear cereal? She must have meant something else. Maybe she was confused. I looked to my grandfather for help, but he was obliviously reading an Italian newspaper. By lunch time, the cereal had grown cold and dank and inedible, so I ate the pasta.

I didn’t hear my mother come home that afternoon until she called me. I came bounding into the kitchen and saw her sitting at the table holding the bowl of cereal in her cupped hand. She smiled at me.

Come here, Paulie, she cooed.

I never suspected a thing. I went to her, all smiles. And then she did the unthinkable. She turned the bowl over onto my head. I froze in my tracks and looked at her as the goop dripped over my eyes and down my face, and then I started to howl. It wasn’t the cereal that made me cry, but the fear that my mother had morphed into someone else.

A big argument ensued, as my grandfather cleaned me up and my grandmother scolded her youngest daughter. For better or for worse, this was the first and last time my mother or my father attempted to control my choices until 1961, when they vigorously opposed my decision to join the LDS Church.


I sensed no shame in my early childhood. I was treated as if I were exceptional; and I had no reason to think I was not. I was comfortable in my world. I could speak English or Sicilian. I fit in with the kids in the neighborhood. I could even read English before I was enrolled in the Catholic kindergarten of the Most Holy Trinity Church. I remember the day my mother held my hand and walked me to my first day of school. With each step, I felt the tears welling-up as my fear increased. Then, just as we approached the gate into the little alley that led to the school yard, I heard a child caterwauling uncontrollably. When I saw her, I recognized her. Her name was Grace, a girl from my neighborhood. I knew exactly how she felt. I did not want to disgrace myself, so I forced back my tears, took a couple of deep breaths, put on a brave face, and let go of my mother’s hand.

My teacher was a nun. I don’t know what order of nuns ran this school, but they wore the most wonderfully elegant black habits with black veils lined in white linen, their beatific faces framed by crisp, starched, white wimples. Their waists were cinched with leather belts from which hung rosaries with huge wooden beads. They wore sensible black shoes.

Sometime that fall, my kindergarten teacher got around to asking me a question. I remember she wanted me to identify the letter G that she had drawn carefully several times in cursive capitals on the blackboard. I answered softly in English, it’s a G.

She didn’t hear me. What? she asked, what did you say?

I was shy, frightened, and didn’t know the protocols. It’s a G, I repeated quietly.

I’m sorry, she said, I can’t hear you.

Well, I said without regard for her religious authority, if you’d take those flaps off your ears maybe you could.

This story was repeated over and over by my family members for decades to anyone who would listen.

My father’s parents and siblings lived in Detroit, Michigan. The cast of characters I grew up with in Brooklyn consisted of my maternal grandparents, Lorenzo and Leonarda Catania, their seven children, spouses, and offspring.


I can recall only a few snapshots of my life in Brooklyn:

• The day my cousin Angela and I, at age five or six, were playing in the small, cement courtyard behind our grandparents’ tenement house and were attacked by a dragon fly the size of a B-52 that sent Angela darting into the house and me to the corner of the yard where I crouched screaming my head off until several adults carted me into the apartment building (the first manifestation to me of the bug phobia that would afflict every member of my immediate family except my father).

• The weekend I spent with my grandfather and grandmother and, as I recall, all their children, at a small cabin located in a mosquito infested glade on the spot now occupied by LaGuardia airport, where my mother and her sisters laughed themselves to tears while beating off mosquitoes as they cleaned the crate of finger-length fish my father and my mother’s brothers had brought back from a day’s fishing.

• The time I had to be taken home from Catholic school for peeing my pants because I’d been too frightened of the big kids to use the little boy’s room.

• The Catholic school stage production in which I played a tree or some other inert element of scenery.

• The evening spent on Meserole Street with a flock of kids my age, dodging the trolley and the traffic until my mother called me up to the apartment so I wouldn’t miss the very first broadcast of I Love Lucy.

• The day my Aunt Josie taught me hygiene in the cramped little toilet between my parents’ and grandparents’ apartment.

• The day my uncle Eddie surprised me with a huge, whipped-cream-covered birthday cake.

• The wintry day I spent looking and laughing out of our 1st story apartment window onto the street and watching pedestrians slipping and sliding on the ice-covered sidewalk that wrapped around the corner of Titolo’s deli.

• The snowy day in December 1950 when my mother brought home from the hospital my new-born brother Lawrence.

• The day the tall, old doctor, dressed in an overcoat and fedora and speaking in a thick German accent, made a house call to diagnose my colicky brother’s allergy to cow’s milk and prescribed soy milk instead.

• The day this very brother playfully clubbed me on the head with a glass baby bottle full of formula he had gripped from the rubber nipple; it was the first time I saw the stars.

• The afternoon I spent peering through the plate glass window of Mr. Meyer’s tin shop on the ground floor of our tenement house, mesmerized by the greenish glow of flame rising from one of the copper irons heating in his soldering oven.

• The terrible day we left Brooklyn for opportunity in California—the last I ever saw of my grandfather—the trip that took us north to Chicago, where outside the city my dad’s car skidded on an icy-road and slid harmlessly into a snow-drift, after which he turned south on Route 66 down through St. Louis, Tulsa, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff and the small desert towns on the eastern verge of the southern half of our then western-most State, and then to the town of Rosemead, where we lived for a year or so before moving to the little two-bedroom house with detached garage, deep backyard, dichondra lawns and lemon, peach, and fig trees at 430 Walnuthaven Drive, West Covina, California, the place I’d call home until I left for Utah in 1963.


It is commonly thought that early childhood experiences shape one’s life. If true, I can recall only one that may have had such an impact. It was an event that oriented my spiritual life. It happened in Brooklyn one morning when I was in second grade. Every day before class students and teachers attended Mass. The Most Holy Trinity church was spectacular: great wooden doors at the main entrance, a long nave defined by two long rows of gold-topped Corinthian columns that separated the nave from its flanking aisles and led to a transept and magnificent altar bearing huge candlesticks to the right and left of a central golden tabernacle that housed the sacred host, corpus Christi—the body of Christ. Sister Mary Francis had told my class that God inhabited the tabernacle on the altar. I was stunned to hear this. And I believed it. God, the Supreme Being, the Creator of Heaven and Earth and Hell, the Father-Son-and-Holy-Ghost, that very God lived in the little golden tabernacle on the altar of the church in Brooklyn, just a few blocks away from where I lived on Meserole Street. It was hard to believe. But Sister Mary Francis wouldn’t lie. She was a nun. She was our teacher.

The day after this revelation, at morning Mass, I deliberately positioned myself on the aisle-end of a pew to give myself a clear view down the nave through the transept to the altar and directly into the tabernacle. I knew that at a certain point in the mysterious Latin Mass the acolyte would ring a bell just before the priest would genuflect before the open door of the tabernacle. At that moment its interior would be open to view. In that instant I decided I would break the rule to keep my gaze lowered and would, instead, lift up my eyes and look directly upon the person of God, himself. My heart raced. My breaths were short and shallow. The bell tinkled. The priest kneeled. I summoned my courage and glanced up and boldly stared into the gold interior walls of the little receptacle on the altar and saw—Nothing.

I did not conclude from this, as some might have done, that God did not exist. My conclusion was that God, anticipating my audacity, had made himself invisible. I thought then that I would have to be very clever and devoted indeed if ever I was too see him as he could see me.

The next morning, I stood on a little stoop in the school yard, looking at my schoolmates as they played together before the bell summoned us to line up for class. I thought to myself that I would dedicate myself to the invisible God in the tabernacle for the sake of my friends who had not lifted their eyes to behold him.

It would be many decades before I would realize, to my profound shame, how utterly I had failed in the exceptional vocation to which I may have arrogantly called myself as a 7-year-old on that fateful day on the dais in the school yard of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity.




The second defining moment of my young life came in 1958 in the half-bathroom of my parents’ West Covina home where, in the same depressing instant, I realized that I was not only mortal but that I was, to my shame, a second-class citizen.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first inklings of shame came shortly after my parents’ second arrival in California in 1952, when we all lived briefly with my Aunt Lena and her much older husband, John Buscemi. On the day we arrived by pre-arrangement at their doorstep, I was coaxed to kiss the ring on his pinky finger. Even as a child, I sensed this to be both weird and humiliating; but Uncle John was old-fashioned—a cliché out of a gangster movie. He had a leathery Al Capone look and a raspy voice. Years later I learned that he and my aunt were beneficiaries of black market dealings in chickens during World War II that funded the large and lovely rambler home aristocratically set back from the curb and located near a corner of De Adalena Street in Rosemead. It had a guest house (then occupied by their son, my older cousin Al, a swarthy Sicilian with periodontal disease), a deep back yard carpeted in St. Augustine grass and dotted with sprouting fruit trees and featuring an untamed rose garden.

Within weeks of our arrival, we moved into our own rented apartment built above three adjacent garages. The apartment consisted of a central living room flanked by a bedroom on the left and a bedroom, bathroom, and small kitchenette on the right. The structure was built at the end of a long, dirt driveway behind two other rental properties.