He’s a bit creepy, is Ian Bannen, in his role in the 1970 TV movie “Jane Eyre.” He plays St. John Rivers, a solemn young clergyman pledged to be a missionary to India. He’s cute enough, mixing little boy sincerity with raven-haired adult resolve. But he’s got this religious thing going on. That, and an inflated ego or a bent view of God’s demands. Probably both. I recognize too much of my former self in him to think otherwise. Bannen plays the role I once lived: Good Boy/Good Church Boy/Little Mr. Please-Everyone-Else-Especially-God.
I had to be good and better than good to make up for a deep-rooted inner sense that I was sick, would never measure up, was deep-down worthless. I didn’t have a word for the type of person I was, didn’t want to know the word. Knew it was bad. Knew I was bad. Knew I was dirty and shameful and rotten to the core. I didn’t want to look too closely into the pit at the center of my psyche. But I knew always it was there. I tried to fill in the hole with religion.
I see all this in the St. John character on the mini-silver screen. My husband Dave and I look at each other across the popcorn bowl. “Repressed gay man,” he says. I agree.
St. John (Brits pronounce it SIN-jun) lives with his two younger sisters who encourage his developing interest in their house guest Jane Eyre. When he at last gets alone with Jane, St. John leads her to the village church where he preaches each Sunday.
“I want to serve in a large way,” he tells Jane. “I have to serve my Savior. I have to serve my Savior.” He sounds earnest, serious, sober, intense. “Do you understand? I shall do it with all my power and with all my strength.”
He’s trying too hard. I can relate. He wants to find a hard-headed woman to accompany him on life’s journey. He’s set his sights on Jane, not because he’s in love with her, but because she’s strong and determined. She has character resources he needs.
“Don’t you see?,” St. John says. “God sent you here for a purpose, to join with me in this great work…. Marry me. Together our strength will more than double what we each have. And we’ll give it all to God.”
This is me proposing marriage to the woman who became my wife. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I wanted her to save me from myself, be my ticket into heaven, my rock and my salvation. Later in our marriage I wrote her this note: “In some way I don’t understand, you have saved me—from myself—and I love you for it.”
I was way off base expecting someone else to save me. Never a good idea. I put my wife on a pedestal, myself in the dirt. I had to serve her—she was my savior. I resented her for this, and it was my own doing. I disempowered myself and sabotaged our relationship.
In the movie, Jane Eyre has the sense to turn her back on St. John and his proposal. But he catches her, spins her ‘round, pulls her to himself.
“Say yes, Jane, say yes. I need you as I’ve never needed anyone. Help me. Help me. Help me. Give me your strength as well, for I neeeeeeeed it.”
He has never been more creepy. I shudder to hear my past self in him. Funny how an evening’s entertainment can reach out and bite.
Yet I console myself with this: I was desperate, yes. I was flailing, yes. I was stupid, misguided and all the rest. But I was reaching for life as best I knew how. Perhaps this ultimately was my salvation.
This essay appeared in the January 20123 issue of The Community Letter