I was not raised with religion. I was raised in a Mississauga bungalow with a cold war and the sitcom banter of resentful family units to revere. My mother was appointed judge when I turned six. She balanced her time between playing snooker and swinging the gavel. Didn’t give much heed to philosophical, or moral matters. A judge must be impartial. A pool shark must be not be hindered by emotion.
So it was through my father that I found my first religion: a trinity of women onto whom he projected the most inaccessible aspirations of his feminine self. He was no great reader. Unwound evenings with a six pack of Molson Canadian and reruns of Married with Children, or his favourite VHS of 1980’s Madonna music videos. I sat at his feet, a little ratty-haired thing in eighties floral dress and leggings, and watched as Kelly Bundy, the teenage daughter with legs the length of barstools, brought the world around her to its knees. She was a goddess in her own right, unapologetic in her simplicity. Flaunted her beauty with a power my father and I both watched a little slack-jawed, in awe. Kelly became the Jesus of our household. When she peeled off her sweaters, revealed the holy light of her form, the world rearranged around it. Men slipped from their postures, conversations dribbled from their aim, women turned their chins down, humbled. Kelly Bundy was an alchemist, and her body did the work of Jesus in my little cold war world.
When night came, and when my father was sufficiently licked, we’d sneak to the basement of mirrors, and pop in the Madonna VHS tape. Here was the Mother. Here was the source from which Kelly drew her power. I watched Madonna kiss the feet of her black Jesus and work her own body, her own beauty into so much more than its desirability. Madonna’s body was an instrument of faith. It moved with the choir ⎯ no ⎯ it led the choir, and through her voice the angels Vogued into formation. I danced when she danced, how she danced, encouraged by my father to conjure that same state of grace she manifested through our sixteen-inch square TV screen. These were the holy moments, a brief period in time when my spirituality aligned with my father’s spirituality I danced. He reveled. I took only feeling, no meaning from what we watched, and so could slip unquestioning into the paradigm of feminine strength he created for us.
So we had the Mother: Madonna. And the Daughter: Kelly Bundy. Beyond them and their mythic forms there was the greatest, most incomprehensible of powers, the Holy Ghost or rather Holy Capitalist: Ayn Rand. She sat, for years beyond my comprehension, hidden by words, on a shrine of cigarette butts, poker chips, and empty beer cans. She lived in a box of seven books, and all I knew of her were the quotes my father brought out in moments of need.
“Freedom,” he’d read from the Ayn Rand Lexicon, as a priest does his favourite passage from the New Testament, “To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”
I asked my father for nothing. Expected nothing. Depended upon him for nothing. He preached the value of selfishness. And rewarded my ability to respect his selfishness with a contingent, conditional love.
I’d often stare at the cover of that Lexicon, marvel at the photograph there. Ayn Rand’s stern, round face, the black eyes, short hair that reminded me somewhat of my grandmother’s. She lacked the beauty of the Mother and Daughter, existing rather on the plane of the mind. She completed the trinity, and thus was God to the religion my father had created. It was a religion not of women, not really, but of ambition. It was sex, fun, and fundamentalism. I was caught inside it like a fly wrapped snugly in a web of well-established capital.
The more I struggled to understand, the more I questioned my own devotion to the trinity, the tighter their grasp became. I starved to liken myself to Kelly, grew my hair, and bound my feet in heels. The lift they gave brought me closer to men’s want and thus, I thought then, to God. I carried myself with the smug superiority of Madonna, addicted to ambition, to the cheering of one or other crowd, the constant accumulation of praise from strangers.
No effect was so deep and destructive as that of Ayn Rand. My father waited with a devout patience for my literacy. When it at last arrived, he brought me to the local bookstore where he kept several box sets of Ayn Rand’s Collected on hold. This was the only gift he liked to give, believing if all the world would fall in line with Rand’s views, the world would be at last a sort of Eden.
He handed the books to me as one hands down an heirloom, smiling the most authentic smile I’d ever seen cross his face. I was being initiated, at last, into the full breadth of his sect.
I had been waiting all my life to see what it was my father clung to with such vigour. I began with the slimmest volume, Anthem, which I read in under two days. “I” was the central preoccupation of the story: man’s fight for autonomy, for separateness from the greater collective of society. I searched for magic there, desired more than anything a deep spiritual unlocking that would draw me up to whatever secret world it was adults worshipped from. I was unmoved. Read next The Fountainhead, which unraveled in me perplexing contradictions. Here our hero, a self-aggrandizing architect named Howard Roark, opens the novel naked at the edge of a cliff. He looks out over the great landscape stretched before him with a determined superiority. His forms, he believes, are to be imposed on the forms put forth by the God of men unlike my father. In Howard Roark I saw my father’s struggle to justify selfishness, to break free from a world of compromise and community. I came to understand, through contrast, what the nature of true religion was. Here two parts of me formed and showed themselves distinctly: the one being the intuitive, instinctual self, ever-uncomfortable and resistant to the ideas set forth in the book. The other was far less critical, far more eager to agree. That second self engaged each and every one of the books with running reassurances. This voice told me that an aspiration to greatness at the expense of others is a noble pursuit. It told me rape is an acceptable expression of desire, and that the love a man who couldn’t love you as much as he loves himself is a pure and transcendent love. It took me over a decade to overpower the insistence of this second self. It is outstanding really what a daughter’s desire for her father’s love is capable of.
I remember reading an anecdote about Ayn Rand’s almost mythical admiration of an anonymous long-legged blonde. Mousy little brown-haired Ayn would sit in her study looking out the window at the girl in mini skirt and golden ponytail as she played tennis in the sun. Ayn found in the tennis-playing blonde the light to her shadow. She projected onto her, as Hitler did his blue-eyed youths, the notion of an ideal human: active, attractive, engaged. Seeing her photograph I can’t imagine Ayn Rand so much as lifting a pencil without considerable awkwardness. She knew she did not inhabit her own ideal and so clung to it ever more desperately.
This is the effect the trinity of Mother, Daughter, and Holy Capitalist had on my father. Each was increasingly inaccessible to him, and so were worshipped with unquestioning devotion. It took me a while to see it: my father who could not love a real woman unless she maintained a ten-year-old’s agreeability. Who wanted my mother for her lithe figure, the way she bent over a billiards table, hustled men out of their drinking money; snookering her way through law school. Whose love for her didn’t leave the pool hall, didn’t survive marriage, her will, her judgeship. Who left me when I hit puberty, declaring before school one day that he’d be driving that evening to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player. Who couldn’t bare the will and well-forming opinions, the doubt, the hesitation of a daughter who’d gotten her period. Who when his new wife spoke up too loudly, resisted too often, cut her face out of their photographs and replaced it with the face of teen pop idol Selena Gomez. To him there are girls and there are Gods. There are no women.
In university, when most were beginning to rebel against the Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, or Muslim ideologies they were raised on I was just beginning to question my devotion to Madonna, Kelly, and Ayn Rand. Or maybe ⎯ more honestly ⎯ to my father. It was It’s a Wonderful Life that did it. I’d resisted watching the film for ages as my father had often preached against it, citing it was communist propaganda. That is brainwashed viewers into believing there is something noble in self-sacrifice. I watched the film with a group of friends over the holidays, and hard as I tried to maintain my father’s perspective, some deeper yet untapped voice spoke up. I was drawn to tears, to standing and spreading my arms in my first truly felt “Hallelujah!” by the conclusion of the film. It felt the way I imagine one feels being cured of deafness or blindness. I remember watching video clips of them in shock, then awe, then collapsing into gratitude and tears. There was love in me for the first time. Not a love that looked to be loved in return, or sought approval, but one that came out overflowing and without the impediment of thought. I loved Jimmy Stewart the moment he held up a wad of wedding cash in the bank and began parceling it out to the clientele. I loved the clambering of his neighbors to aid him out of his misfortune, the mild mannered faithfulness of his angel Clarence. The simplicity of ever doing the next right thing. There was no promise of beauty or wealth in this, and it struck me, on a level my father’s influence couldn’t reach; these things didn’t matter to me. Not really. It took a childhood of Ayn Rand Quotes about selfishness to show, in glaring contrast, the value of generosity of spirit and action.
I am not my father. I am not Kelly Bundy, nor Madonna. In some small chamber of my mind Ayn Rand sits at a great grey writing desk, gold pen in hand, and looks out longingly at the woman that is me.