The Sadomasochism of “Hard As Nails”
There’s only one word for what unordained Catholic minister Justin Fatica does, and that’s sadomasochism. Not in a sexual sense, of course, but in the sense of causing acute humiliation, physical sensation, or hypnotic focus to affect a quick conversion. Generally, this follows along the well-worn path of religion as based on submission to a dominant and all-pervasive God. The fundamental psychological precursor to this religious S&M is the role-playing of D/s (dominance and submission). While not in a sexual context, the psychodrama of self-flagellation and mutual prostration before God is the stock-in-trade of religious observance–often peddled to guilty supplicants at frenzied festivals the world over. Not all religious traditions are as overt about this ritual subservience, but even if never expressed physically, it inescapably underlies the psychology of every believer.
In his Hard as Nails ministry, which was the subject of a revealing HBO documentary of the same title, (HBO on demand through 1.20.08), Fatica has introduced a new generation of vulnerable American youth to his extreme form of fundamentalist Catholic S&M at its emotionally manipulative worst–the rabid inculcation of personal guilt and sin, and the glorification of the literal blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The conceit of Fatica and other religious hucksters like him is that life is often brutal and hurtful, so he can rationalize being just as brutal in his so-called defense of the vulnerable and downtrodden. He’ll ‘preach’ to any group, but make no mistake, he deliberately targets the suicidal, the lovelorn, the obese–friendless angst-ridden teens. In his pursuit of the greater guilt, he dramatizes and plays up the suffering of Jesus, often screaming 2 inches from peoples faces about the pain and suffering their ’sin’ causes. As recounted in Newsweek:
“If you sin, you better have the courage to bash Jesus’ face in!” Fatica screams at one cherubic girl, pushing her to the verge of tears. “Have you sinned in the last 24 hours? Have ya?! HAVE YA?!”
Later in an interview, Fatica expressed some remorse for that incident, and said it happened rarely. Maybe so, but it’s just one of a thousand abusive crowd-control tricks he uses. A repetitive part of his shtick is to single out a vulnerable member of the audience and humiliate them further by concentrating on their deficiency (such as repeatedly calling an obese person “fat”). Then he turns on the audience and asks why they haven’t supported that person in everyday life? By the end, of course, everyone in the audience is hugging the fat girl, who is then “healed” through Jesus’ love. Never mind that it was actually human physical touch and affection that did the trick, possibly more than the person had in a long time. And never mind that it was achieved through his push-pull whipsaw control of the kids’ peer-conscience and sympathy. This kind of manipulation was enough to get him banned in some schools and from all Catholic churches in Vermont.
Other reviewers have singled out a scene which I also found downright disgusting. The muscled Fatica stood in front of a group holding a boy’s hands while an assistant repeatedly and forcefully pounded his back with a folding chair, as he flinched and shouted between strokes “He Loves You.” If that isn’t a form of public sadomasochism, (with hypnotic shock induction) I don’t know what would be. In an interview with ABC, Fatica justified this by saying “if you’re going to get on my case, talk to the WWE.” And then he claimed to be following in the footsteps of St. Francis jumping into thorn bushes. All well and good, except the WWE doesn’t operate on false pretenses: You’re going there to see people beat each other up, and they’re not trying to induce a conversion.
Fatica has no theological education nor any background or training for his ‘ministry.’ He is not ordained and his only credentials are his belief and his chutzpah. As you would expect of someone with no limits, self-imposed or otherwise, he engages in extreme theatrics. He puts kids on life-sized crosses and stages mock crucifixions complete with hammers and nails, which are pounded with more noise than violence–but all the while he or one of his ‘ministers’ is shouting at the poor victim/convert about sin and redemption and giving their life to Jesus. There are mock floggings with vicious insults and taunts, and very real knock-down sessions where people are thrown to the ground. One young man broke his shoulder in the process. It’s all sort of a grown-up version of the wailing histrionics of Jesus Camp.
As appalling as are his methods, Fatica’s cult is growing. He seemed to have no shortage of willing audiences not only throughout the American northeast, but in Barbados, of all places. Though it seemed some of the elders in the church didn’t quite know what to make of him, at 27, Fatica is an injection of hot young blood into the old whited sepulcher that is the Catholic Church. So though some appeared bemused, they appeared to welcome his sound and fury. And Fatica demonstrated strong organizational skills as well: At one fund raising dinner, wealthy benefactors ponied up $30,000 to keep his road-show going.
I have no doubt that Fatica believes in what he’s doing. I have no doubt he honestly thinks he’s helping people. In order to delude and manipulate others, it’s first of course necessary to delude oneself. And that appears to be exactly what Fatica has done. This is why I oppose all forms of the “tyranny of belief” (previous article), because it allows people to live in unchecked self-delusion. While some people keep their delusions private and do no harm, firebrands like Fatica are only content when spreading their trumped up zeal to thousands–in his case over 60,000 in the past year.
What’s so bad about helping vulnerable teens? That’s the unanswered question that has become the truck-sized loophole Fatica drives his van and trailer through as he plumbs America’s highways and byways for new recruits. And it’s what gets him a pass from the mainstream media, which rolled over like Fatica’s personal lap dog (Newsweek) and shrugged, “Justin Fatica yells, threatens and humiliates teens into finding Jesus. You got a problem with that?”
For starters, Fatica’s “help” is based on a lie–and not just any lie–the biggest of them all. The doctrine of sin, salvation, and redemption only works by making a person feel incomplete, by reinforcing the deep self-loathing a vulnerable and confused teen already feels. The more a teen has suffered, the more they have been misunderstood or repressed by parents, rejected by social cliques, suffered sexual abuse, been unsuccessful or felt damaged in love, or in the clutches of addiction, the riper they are for the picking by religions’ false promises of unconditional solace and acceptance. Far from unconditional, this wretched bargain requires the kids to engage in the greatest self-effacement of all: confessing to being sinners in need of external redemption.
Like a kid trying to ride the bicycle of life for the first time, they have felt the hell of skinned knees and bruised egos of their early failings and are being instead offered heaven–a complete panacea. To those who are suffering or have given up on their young lives, it’s an almost irresistable siren-song. It offers a retreat into early childhood simplicity, the comfort of loving parents, clear and simple rules, and a sense of belonging. Their self-respect is in the gutter, and though that lens, Fatica’s browbeating must seem deserved–like the abuse they’ve already suffered, like bottoming out–the prelude to a better life.
That the supposed “better life” comes with a price of lifelong guilt, repression, shame and delusion is the farthest from their suffering minds. And once they’ve been inducted into the hypnotic cadences of mental self-flagellation and the projection of any growing self-reliance they might feel onto an external “savior,” building their own self-esteem becomes ever more out of reach.
Fatica helps these kids bolt on permanent training wheels instead of just encouraging them to pick themselves up when they fall, get back on the bicycle, and learn to ride. This is why I refer to it as sadomasochism and mind-rape. Because once a young person has accepted the lie of their own insufficiency and incapacity, they are permanently mentally scarred–ruined for ever taking full responsibility for their lives. They have now projected all of their successes and failures outside themselves. And they have pathologized their normal human impulses (especially the sexual ones) so they can never feel whole. The younger they are when it happens, the worse it is for them if they ever want to undo it later. They will have to “turn around and walk the razor’s edge” of taking full responsibility and accepting their humanness and a life of risks and rewards. If they want to grow up, they will have to lose their imaginary friend. Many will never have the courage to undo that trauma and will instead spend their lives with terminally low self-esteem–addicted to following other delusional people like Fatica.
What Fatica fails to understand is that to become adults, we must accept that there are no such quick-fix solutions. Some problems are intractable. Some pain is unavoidable. Sometimes we lose in love and it hurts. Sometimes we are rejected. We may become addicted, and not just to drugs. Eventually we will have to die. Life is dangerous and short and there are no guarantees. In failing to acknowledge these universal truths, Fatica is simply living on other people’s misery.
In Barbados, while holding his baby son Joseph, Fatica asked one young man if he would kill his son. The man gingerly answered “no,” to which Fatica replied “that’s how much god loved you, he killed his only son for you, just like the baby I’m holding here.” This is typical Christian doctrine, and seeing it delivered this way underscored for me not just the fact that Fatica is an extremist, but also how much he is really “on message” for all of Christianity. True or not, this is what they believe. Fatica just rubs kids’ faces in it a little more forcefully.
The film was skimpy on Fatica’s background other than his admission that his own conversion came because he got poor grades and didn’t fit in as a teenager. Spending hours praying in church alone also led him to the only doubts he admitted during the 78-minute film. His relationship to his fabulously wealthy parents had obviously suffered, and they had little respect for his extremism. When pressed, they said they were glad he had found a way to make a living.
Filmmaker David Holbrooke is to be commended for gaining the trust to get such up-close access to Fatica and his family. But what happened to journalistic balance?? There was not one skeptical interview in the whole piece. There was not one evaluation of Fatica’s methods by a psychologist or sociologist. There was not one interview with an ex-member, nor any discussion of the group’s finances or how much Fatica himself profits from the ‘ministry.’
Even at that, Fatica apparently became incensed at some aspects of the film, and felt betrayed by the promotional copy:
Phrases like “a gauntlet of abuse,” “messianic tendencies,” and “a latter-day Elmer Gantry” were daggers for Justin and Mary. They felt betrayed by the people who had sat at their kitchen table and held their infant son, Joseph. Mary told me she had thought of me as a man of integrity, but no longer.
Promotional copy aside, Holbrooke’s film was a love-letter to Fatica. He may think he was unbiased and made an effort at balance. But if that was his intent, it did not succeed. Holbrooke presented an unvarnished picture of Fatica, to be sure. But by omitting any analysis, he appeared to endorse Fatica’s methods.
As a humanist and atheist, I take the emergence of Fatica’s Hard as Nails ministry as yet another wake-up call. It makes me want to start speaking publicly to parents about the importance of their kids’ psychological wholeness and the dangers of repression and quick-fixes. It makes me want to redouble my efforts to promote the study of psychology, critical thinking, self-esteem, self-acceptance and self-reliance for teens. Someday I hope to be able to work personally with teens in some form. It’s a heavy burden on my heart.
The truth is, there is a lot of suffering and abuse out there. There are a lot of parents who are derelict in their duties. Who fail to listen and hear the cries of their offspring. Who dismiss them, ignore them, condescend to them, act hypocritically toward them, and in general fail to lead them and teach them about life. As long as that is going on and young people do not feel there is a place for them in society, they are vulnerable. They need a listening ear. Some just need to feel there are adults they can trust–just to talk to. Some have tried befriending adults and been betrayed, molested, or worse. There is a horrible vacuum–a giant sucking sound of adult self-absorption, of indifference to kids’ problems. They feel it and often turn to drugs, to self-injury, or contemplating or committing suicide.
This is no surprise. Fatica is the shadow of society’s indifference. We have failed to do enough to care for our kids, so this cartoon fraud is jumping in front of us–in our stead–claiming to provide the love we’ve failed to offer. If their parents and teachers ignore them, the government ignores them, and even we atheists ignore them, who can blame kids if they run into the arms of self-deluded and self-aggrandizing predators?