“I learned that as deep as a wound is, that’s how deep the healing can be.”Mary Karr, 2015 Syracuse University Commencement Address
I recently had the privilege to speak with students on the Notre Dame LGBTQ retreat, and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own time as a gay student in college. When I return to campus, I can often see other graduates basking in a shimmer around the edges, the Catholic glamour of the Basilica, the warmth of the grotto, and the roar of the Stadium. Friends fondly recall late nights in LaFortune and flood their former dorms with nostalgia. For many, Notre Dame is and was a dream come true.
I wish I could see it. I want to be just a normal college graduate, who looks back on those days and wishes to relive them. But I can’t. And I’m don’t.
I recently spoke with a fellow alumnus. He said he felt confused for a time about what Notre Dame meant to him. Like me, he was supposed to be one version of the model graduate, a well-rounded student who went on to an exciting career. But as he came to better understand himself after graduation, he discovered something buried that surprised him. Within himself, he said, he bore a confusing ill-will towards the University. I realized that I bore it too.
I don’t want to carry this. The campus is beautiful, the people good, the classes interesting, and the aspirations of today’s students great. But when I come back to campus, I find this beauty tarnished by a weight some of us carry within ourselves.
This weight doesn’t negate the gratitude I have for so much of my college years. The warm places in my history include talking philosophy with David Solomon after class at Legends, seeing Hamlet in London with a David O’Connor seminar, reviewing my first attempts at fiction in Steve Tomasula’s writing course, playing soccer on the quad, baking in Lyons, learning my first drinking games (as a naïve senior) on Eddy Street, and praying rosaries around the lakes. I received lifelong stimulants for my intellectual life. I met wonderful people, many of whom I still speak with regularly. And you can’t deny the visible beauty of campus.
But what do I do with the many places where my my faith as a Catholic also drove me into agony as a student deeply afraid of being gay? What do I do with the places, like my dorm, where I found both friendship and rejection, the places of the the head-on collision between my faith and my sexuality? Where do I put the memory of wondering what it would be like to jump off the roof of Geddes Hall? What do I do with this place that holds for me both beauty and torment?
For the last couple of years, I’ve written. Mary Karr once got the advice: write what you would write if you weren’t afraid. So I choose to look fear in the face. I won’t let history hold pieces of me underground in coffins made of feigned forgetfulness.
I’m now editing the manuscript of a memoir about my sophomore and junior years at Notre Dame. It’s about falling in love, getting kicked out of my dorm, struggling with depression, and hiding it all from friends and family. “If we would’ve had any idea,” my parents now tell me. As part of this process, I’ve shared the story with the characters of my past. I’ve let them see the pieces where I’ve been hurt, where I’ve hidden, and where we all could have been spared suffering and isolation.
One friend, a central character in my most devastating period at Notre Dame, apologized for his role in it. I did too. I didn’t realize that I needed his apology. I thought I had moved on from the emotions of those days. But reading his message, I cried like a child, and our strained history turned into a gratitude for his willingness to look at this with me and seek reconciliation.
This newfound gratitude doesn’t take away from the ugliness of much of that time, and it doesn’t just make the weight of campus torments go away overnight. But writing and sharing the story changes things. I expose the horror of those days for what it is, but the pain is revisited in the context of something much deeper. It’s a necessary piece of a story I hope is good. The ugliness and the pain somehow become pieces in something we shape into beauty, hope, and reconciliation.
For me, college doesn’t have to have been a happy time in order to find beauty there. Reflecting on my old sufferings has made me relearn how to love my characters. We all learn to love each other again. Even if I didn’t graduate in the shimmering light of many of my peers, I can now make something beautiful of this. I must. If you are or were like me, you can too. The past may be difficult. But it can also be beautiful. Notre Dame may not have been a good time for me. But I can still learn to love thee.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.