First published in The Epitaph, Number 6, January, 1997
Sean Kelly exhibits the telltale signs of a Catholic education.
For instance, there's his preoccupation with Heaven and Hell - a preoccupation he wasn't really aware of until beginning work on the recently released Who in Hell... A Guide to the Whole Damned Bunch, which he co-authored with Rosemary Rogers.1
Who in Hell... ia an encyclopedic guide to the denizens of the fiery pit. Everyone you'd expect to find is here, from Dante's long list of demons to those worldly sinners envisioned as condemned by the Venerable Bede, as well as dozens of modern-day figures placed there by Kelly and Rogers themselves.
The authors, while allowing a wicked sense of humor to shine through in every entry, play strictly by the rules when condemning fellow human beings to eternal torture. Jack the Ripper is here, rightly condemned for murder, as is Nostradamus for sorcery, while Mae West bought her ticket to Hell for a lifetime of lust and Sid Vicious with suicide. (Remember, that business with Nancy Spungen was just an accident.)
But there are plenty of surprises. The sin that earns a place in Hell for self-confessed rapist-cannibal-Satanist Aleister Crowley is simple fraud. Henry VIII, who ordered the execution of 72,000 people (72,002, if you count his wives), is certainly in Hell - for heresy. And if the federal government couldn't convict Al Capone of murder, racketeering or extortion, neither can Kelly and Rogers; Capone is in Hell for tax evasion (which, we are assured, is indeed a sin according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Less likely but legitimate candidates for the pit include singer Dick Haymes (sloth), actor Rex Harrison (vanity), and Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower (cruelty).
Who in Hell... also notes that there are some crimes "so heinous as to result in immediate damnation of the soul, even though the sinner's body (repossessed by a demon) continues to 'live' on earth." Kelly and Rogers' one Hell-dweller who hasn't received an official death certificate yet is "the butcher of Cambodia," Henry Kissinger. His sin: hypocrisy.
What in hell inspired Kelly and Rogers to write Who in Hell...? Their previous Saints Preserve Us! was a "minor hit" for Random House, prompting a sequel. But the collaborators didn't know what kind of hell they were getting themselves into.
From its conception, Saints took just over a year to complete. The process was a fairly straightforward one of research and writing. "What interested us was their patronage," says Kelly, referring to the reason St. Christopher is the patron saint of travel, and St. Clare the patron saint of television. The research was relatively easy, as there are numerous resources on the lives of the saints.2
Who in Hell... was another story. "We discovered, to our shock," says Kelly, "that it wasn't going to be the research project Saints was." After exhausting the obvious sources - Dante, Homer, Virgil, and classical Greek and Roman texts - and combing the Internet, the authors found precious little other material about Hell and its inhabitants. There were "stymied."
They did find an occasional nugget, as in the Venerable Bede's History of the English-Speaking People, which recounts one monk's near-death experience and subsequent vision of Judas Iscariot roasting in Hell.
But such information was hardly a revelation. Kelly remembers thinking, "Well, duh! If anybody's there, I guess he's there. That's not news. So we were a bit flummoxed for a while. We had a bit of a time-out where we wandered around trying to figure out who's in Hell."
Kelly and Rogers turned to devils and demons, the "actual personnel down there," which was fun for a while before it began to wear on Kelly, who feels that too great an interest in Satanism and demons is demonic in itself.
After exhausting demons and classical figures, the authors realized they would have to start making judgment calls. Finally, recalls Kelly, "we said, 'The heck with it. We'll just put 'em in.'"
The first person they condemned was Adolf Hitler. "Rosemary called me up," says Kelly, "and said, 'Hitler's in Hell. He was baptized Catholic, and he committed suicide.'
"And I thought: I know how to do this now."
The spell was broken, and the authors dove headfirst into Hell.
They set some ground rules based on traditional Catholic interpretation of sin, and stuck to them - religiously. First and foremost, a person could not be condemned to Hell if he or she had received the Last Sacrament (final Holy Communion and Penance), or had otherwise demonstrated true repentance before death.
"You get a long list of villains, and then try to think if there's any way they could have gotten out," says Kelly, who likens the condemnation process to a session between Siskel & Ebert: Everyone who ended up in the book had to get two thumbs up - or, more accurately, two thumbs down.
Rogers put dibs on American presidents (because she's an American citizen) and on "the Hollywood stuff," because celebrity scandal is one of her favorite subjects. "I think Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon must be her Bible," says Kelly.3
Kelly had the most fun researching and writing about "various figures in Stalin's circle, because it's not something I'd ever given a lot of thought to. I knew nothing about the early days of Communism - aside from the fact that Trotsky had been given a hard time. It was interesting to discover how wicked some of those guys were, as well as how brave and good some of them were."
Researching Nazis, however, was no fun at all. "It's grotesque. It's pornography."
In the process, there were compromises, of course, and occasional disappointment at being unable to condemn a particular person. Rogers, for instance, wanted to put Bing Crosby in Hell, "because he clearly was one of the worst people who ever lived, and was also a hypocrite in the bargain. On the other hand, as a good Catholic, he doubtless got extreme unction and the whole nine yards at the end."
This was also the case for Joseph P. Kennedy, "the presidential patriarch and truly one of the heinous creatures of his time."
The result is that the entries in Who in Hell... can be divided into three camps: demons and devils; mortals envisioned by Dante and other writers; and mortals Kelly and Rogers personally condemned. The last category takes up about half the book.
"It was fun to put some people in Hell," Kelly says, "because it so clearly mocks the idea of Hell to put this wonderful person there for this absurd sin."
Not to mention the scores of horrible persons sent to Hell for equally absurd sins. That Aleister Crowley isn't charged here with idolatry, blasphemy, or even lust, and Al Capone received the equivalent of a parking ticket, requires some insight into Kelly's personal ideas about Hell and their effect on the book.
With a name right out of a Leon Uris novel, Sean Kelly's Irish roots - and his parochial-school education - should come as no surprise. Born and raised in Canada, where he was taught by Catholic brothers in grade school and Jesuit priests in high school and college, Kelly is one of the western world's innumerable "recovering Catholics."
Kelly never suffered the malady of blind faith; he was one of those kids who quickly questioned concepts obedient little Catholics are supposed to accept at face value: "Faddah, Faddah," Kelly intones, "how come it says here in the Bible, 'Call no man "Faddah"', Faddah?"
"The Jesuits," he recalls, "at least take you aside after class and say: 'That was a brilliant question. You are obviously a brilliant lad. You know, we have to say certain things to the other lads in class, because, let's face it, they're morons. So we have to tell them that when you die, you get burned. We tell them that because otherwise they'd misbehave and we'd never get anything done. But I can see that you're the kind of likely lad who understands there's more to it than that.'
"And then you think: 'Oh boy! I've been co-opted! I'm in with the in-crowd now!'"
He adds: "I always aced theology and catechism and metaphysics, but I never had that kind of twitch: 'Oh, God! There's something out there!'"
It's another story for his co-author; Who in Hell... is dedicated to Rosemary's late husband, Patrick, "who's in Heaven."
Kelly believes Rogers (who was schooled by nuns in the Bronx) means the dedication literally, and has that twitch - "although she doesn't spend a lot of time genuflecting all over the place."
When it's suggested that writing a very witty book about Hell might be a way of exorcising one's personal demons of Catholic angst, Kelly says he wouldn't argue the point. "I've done various books on various weird subjects, and one of the things that's always interested me about undertaking something is that you can start from anywhere, as long as you start."
But until he and Rogers were actually committed to the project of writing Who in Hell..., he didn't give the subject much thought, "except to think it was an absurdity - that if God is the sort of god who would condemn his creatures for all eternity to agony, then I choose not to spend any more time with Him than I have to."
Then, in the course of researching the book, it struck Kelly that the concept of Hell "wasn't purely absurd, or ridiculous on the face of it. Obviously, the vast majority of people have had some notion that you don't go out like a candle - that there's something left after you or someone you love (or someone you hate) has gone. It's very difficult to conceive of the personality being simply erased. So there's an idea of the afterlife, or some continuation of consciousness after death."
Citing his four-year-old's constant refrain of "It's not fair!" Kelly notes that "there seems to be born in us a longing for justice. That just seems to hit human beings at some point: That there is the idea of justice, and that it's possible for things to work out justly - and that it isn't happening in this realm."
Kelly believes it's the combination of this desire for justice and the inconceivability of simply ceasing to exist that creates the belief in Heaven and Hell.
As for his own beliefs, they haven't changed a bit, despite his recent preoccupation with the netherworld. Kelly doesn't subscribe to a traditional idea of Heaven or Hell, but he acedes to the difficulty most people have in accepting the idea of nonexistence (which Freud called "the oceanic feeling").
"There's a certain kind of theology of Hell which is expressed by St. Teresa of Avila, who says, 'All the way to Heaven is Heaven, and all the way to Hell is Hell.' In other words, the fruits of evil are evil. St. Teresa is suggesting we believe that the bad guys who are 'getting away with it' are in fact really not getting away with it: They're tormented and they're riven with guilt and anxiety.
"That," Kelly concludes, "makes a little bit more sense to me - Hell as a spiritual or psychological condition. The closest word we have in secular terms is depression, or despair. That's why Dante has 'Abandon all hope' up over the gate to Hell, because that's what it is. Dostoyevsky says it's the condition of a human being unable to love, but you might as well say it's the condition of a human being unable to hope."
As Kelly spent more time pondering Hell as a condition of despair, he understood why suicide is considered the ultimate sin: because it is the ultimate act of despair.
Actor George Sanders, whose suicide note read, "Dear World, I'm leaving you because I'm bored," is a perfect example. "That's a man who's telling you he's already in Hell," says Kelly. "All we're doing [in Who in Hell...] is marking it down. We're not passing judgment on this guy."
A number of people are included in Who in Hell... only because they were considered sinners in their day, such as Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Dorothy Parker - people, Kelly notes, "I personally would prefer to spend my afterlife with, even in Hell. But they're in there to tease the idea of Hell - the idea that any of us can judge any of the rest of us."
And what about those of us who don't make it into Heaven, but don't quite qualify for Hell, either?
"There are several conditions possible in the afterlife," Kelly says. "Torment, punishment, nirvana, beatific vision... But if we're lucky, we'll end up in Purgatory."
As for Limbo, Kelly says, "I found out I'd been a victim of Protestant propaganda. I had the impression that Limbo was something that the Catholics thought up around 1920 to get out of sending babies to Hell. But in fact Limbo - the idea of an afterlife condition that is neither Heaven nor Hell - is very ancient.
"The first of the church fathers to argue against Limbo was St. Augustine. Until he came along, it was universally believed that the unbaptized (of whom there had obviously been trillions and would be millions more) did not go to Hell - they simply existed in the afterlife in a condition of a kind of 'brute happiness.'"
A number of other fathers debated Augustine's argument that unbaptized babies went to Hell - and these dissenters were excommunicated from the church.
Limbo, then, "seems part of the tapestry of orthodox Christian beliefs."
Despite his respect for the beliefs of others, Kelly imagines that the entire tapestry is pure human fabrication. "When you read about the early visions the saints had of Hell, it's obvious that these people were psychologically disturbed.
"The surprising thing to me is in books about life after death - the ones where people come back from near-death experiences. All these people went to Heaven and came back. They all say the same thing. They all 'walked toward the light,' assuming they were in Heaven.
"But what if that light is actually fire?". . .
Kelly is drilled on a number of names that didn't make it into Who in Hell... and a few that might make it into future editions.
Elvis: "Well, he's not dead yet, you see. The moment he dies, he goes to Hell for gluttony."
Marilyn Monroe: "Now, I don't believe that she committed suicide, so I can't get her for that. I'm not necessarily certain Bobby Kennedy came in and shot her, but she did die under mysterious circumstances. I've read a couple of biographies, and lust wasn't a problem for Marilyn - she didn't seem to have been much interested in it. She was a person of some sort of spiritual value. I can't imagine what she would be in Hell for."
Kelly agrees that one can cross off the entire Kennedy clan, simply because they were good Catholics - "and because, at the end, John had priests all over him at the hospital. So one has to assume not that he's in Heaven, but that he escaped - they 'pulled it out,' like Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited."
Bill Clinton: "Clinton seems to be a guy who's really putting himself at spiritual risk because he's got that 'Whatever you want, hey, whatever you want' thing. It's not the quality of a saint... There's no there there."
Bob Dole:: "Wherever he's going in his afterlife, he gives the impression sometimes that he's there already. There's a real zombie feel to it, like the second Reagan run where you really thought, 'Good God, what do they give this man in the morning to get him up and walking around? Some kind of huge electric charge? Some kind of Geritol-nitro cocktail?'"
And what about Ronald Reagan? Is he, as mentioned in the introduction to Who in Hell..., one of those "Protestants too ignorant to be held accountable?"
"Yes. One of the things about Reagan is that he comes from Catholic stock; they decided the 'bowl of soup' was worth converting and changing the spelling of their name, so I presume a couple of his ancestors are cooking pretty good.
"But I guess 'invincible ignorance' is something you can plead for someone who was just too dumb to know what they were doing. One of the qualifications for mortal sin is full knowledge.
"Until the end, Reagan thought he was doing good. If you actually could have got through to him and shown him, literally, the consequences of something he had just done, he would have been appalled. He had no idea that cutting welfare means that children don't eat."
Michael Jackson: "I think so. I know it's fashionable to think he's more sinned against than sinning, and a victim of his childhood. But the more I read about Jackson to do the research [for the book HERstory: Lisa Marie's Wedding Diary], the more it seems that the man is actually a child molester. And I can't imagine a system in which that isn't one of the great sins."
Madonna: "Looks like a character who's going to come back to the church."
Bill Gates: "He's the one about whom most people say, 'He's going, right? Bill's going!' The only reason I'm holding out judgment on him is that I'm hoping that they have a Macintosh system in Hell. I know how undependable the damned thing is, so when I get there, if I have any luck at all, it'll crash just as I arrive at the gate.". . .
1 No relation to Joyce.
2 While researching Saints Preserve Us!, Sean was surprised to learn how many saints were also poets. Their work was not exclusively religious, but included riddles and other material written for their own amusement. Sean is currently trying to convince a publisher to take on his next project - an anthology covering 2,000 years of poetry by the saints. The only inconvenience: Just two of the poet-saints he has discovered wrote in English, so he's working with a lot of translations. Recovering Catholic or not, Sean says, "Whatever the brothers did to me, it took."
3 Rogers' next project is a book that attempts to make tedious movies more fun to watch by revealing the events that conspired on the set during filming.. . .
Copyright © 1997, 2002 Joyce A. Rogers. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or redistributed by any means in any form without express written permission from the author.