In You Are Your Own author Jamie Lee Finch describes herself growing up as an anxious and serious young girl. That was me I thought as I listened to her voice reading her book. I was that serious child, fearing the world around me, believing I didn’t fit in, afraid for my hell-bound peers, the responsibility weighing heavily on me.
Could it be that I’m not this girl at all?
This was my story. I’m this serious girl who’s afraid of the devils out in the world. It wasn’t until I listened to Finch’s audio book that it struck me that I might be a product of the fundamentalist Evangelical movement’s ideas that were so popular in the eighties as she explains.
Could it be that I’m not this girl at all? Is it possible that the story I was convinced was mine isn’t really who I am at my core?
Finch speaks about the pressure and guilt she felt around converting people. I cringe with the memory of my telling the Jesus-died-for-you-on-the-cross story to one of my disabled friends in my bedroom after school, hoping and praying Jesus would take care of the rest.
A topic in the book is purity culture and how the implementation of this was a calculated response of Evangelical leaders to the sexual revolution in the sixties. I don’t remember the term “purity culture” being used in The Netherlands but I know the sexual education of the Evangelical and Orthodox Christian youth was that of abstinence before marriage. Finch writes about the guilt and shame when it comes to sexual desires and the devastating effects this had on her health and body image. She speaks of becoming disconnected from her feelings to the point of not knowing what she herself liked. This too rings true for me.
In an environment in which you were taught that your own thoughts and feelings could be inspired by the devil, how can you trust yourself? How do you learn to know what your intuition is? How do you know what you yourself like?
In an environment in which you were taught that your own thoughts and feelings could be inspired by the devil, how can you trust yourself?
People sometimes ask me what my sexuality is. Am I straight, gay, bisexual? I still haven’t given myself permission to know, really know and feel who I am and what I like. I know what love is. I don’t need to answer other people’s curiosities. I’ve come to believe that most people are fluid when you come right down to it. However, I know now that I missed an important part in my development: a healthy sexual image and development in which I could explore safely without shame and guilt. This has had damaging consequences for me personally that I struggle with to this day.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you are bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). No, You Are Your Own Jamie Lee aptly titles her book. She writes about religious trauma rooted in Evangelical Christianity using scholarly research. Since I’ve experienced both Evangelical and Orthodox Christian communities, I am confident this book will resonate with the latter group as well.
What is my story if I wasn’t that fearful serious young girl? I look at my daughter now, who is twenty-four years old. Even though I still held rigid black and white beliefs inside me, I knew I couldn’t impose them upon my children. I wanted them to move in the world freely and with confidence. And she does and she has.
It’s time for a new story.
Educated by Tara Westover had been on my reading list for quite some time. Now with my second semester of graduate school finishing up I read the memoir within a week. Besides being on both Bill Gates’s and Barack Obama’s night stands it was one of New York Times’s ten best books of 2018.
While the hunger for knowledge is captivating, there is the thread of pure survival that makes this memoir so compelling.
Tara Westover is the youngest of seven children growing up Mormon in a survivalist Idaho family. By the time Tara comes around her mother has almost given up on the notion of homeschooling as the kids are needed in the junkyard by Tara’s dad.
This memoir is about Westover’s journey obtaining an education, going from thinking Europe is a country to receiving a PhD from Cambridge. While the hunger for knowledge is captivating, there is the thread of pure survival that makes this memoir so compelling. For Westover to achieve her educational success is not just to get up to speed with her peers but to face family resistance, abuse and rigorous beliefs. While reading this book I felt Westover was walking a tightrope. She could fall off on either side at any moment.
Scrapping and handling iron and steel, the children find themselves seriously injured on a regular basis. Since the family doesn’t believe in conventional medicine, mother treats the wounds with herbal remedies.
“I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.”
Tara’s older brother Shawn emotionally and physically abuses her. His manipulative abuse looking similar to that of an abusive partner. Hours later he would apologize, give her a gift or convince her she was the one that had it all wrong. For years Tara convinces herself there was nothing wrong in the way he treats her. She would laugh it off; it was all innocent play. She writes: “I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.”
I read a short review of this memoir from a reader that said they were a bit frustrated with Westover’s naivete and belief in her parents after she left her family home to study. I didn’t feel the same way. I know how hard it is to rid yourself of childhood beliefs. Even when confronted with new rationale and contradictory evidence it can take a long time for thought patterns to change. Westover was raised in a family that was taught to be self-reliant in an us-vs-them world. The loyalty towards her family must’ve been enormous.
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Westover writes: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” Coming myself from a black-and-white background I understand what she means. Westover doesn’t dwell on her Mormon or religious background. Although her father’s survivalist end-of-times beliefs stem from religious fundamentalism, Westover doesn’t blame religion in her memoir but speaks of mental illness. It’s her dad’s strong voice and conviction that silences others. There is no room for growth, no searching of other’s truths.
When Tara finally does see that how her family lived was not congruent with how she wanted to live her life she writes: “although I had renounced my father’s world, I had never quite found the courage to live in this one.” She hadn’t been vaccinated, for example. Fear instilled in us by our parents is nothing to laugh about. Knowing something and living something are two different things.
Westover’s discovery of feminism is one example. In the UK she learns of the theory of feminism. Returning home to Idaho she’s witness to a domestic issue between her brother Shawn and his wife. She isn’t able to apply her newly acquired theory quite yet. She doesn’t advise the wife about women’s rights and standing up for herself. Tara falls back into familiar patriarchal ways. Because that feels safer for her in that moment in that place.
When Westover confronts her parents with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her older brother they deny. They try and turn her siblings against her. With some they succeed, with others they don’t. It’s a familiar story. Is it shame that makes the family so desperately want to alter reality for everyone else? They tell people it’s because she isn’t on the righteous path. This is an easy claim. If you’re not a church member any more, you’re an easy mark. Of course it’s you, you’re on the wrong path.
Tara Westover beats many odds to get an education. I find myself in awe of her strength to stand up for herself, questioning everything she was taught and building a successful life in a world she was told to fear.
She sat on a low adobe wall; a slim elderly woman wearing a flowing skirt and a sun hat. Her long silver locks fell into her face as she pulled weeds from a garden patch behind her and slid them into a linen bag. She looked up as I strolled by in my shorts, tank top and a camera slung over my shoulder. She had one of those faces that instantly lit up as I said hello. “You have a good day now,” she smiled a wide smile. But then, as if reconsidering, she said “how about I wish you luck today - good luck!” I smiled back and wished her the same.
Maybe this is a sign that I’m on the right path
It was not the first time this week that a fleeting thought entered my mind: ‘Maybe this is a sign that I’m on the right path.’ A thought I’d like to dismiss quickly. I am an atheist and do not believe in signs or the spiritual. I believe in solid science. I believe in randomness, but also in cause and effect.
Nevertheless, as I continued walking the cracked sidewalks of Santa Fe, I felt less self-conscious with my camera. I felt a little brazen even; walking up private driveways to take a shot of a turquoise door or a flower in bloom.
Change is not always chosen. A lover takes their life, a partner dies of cancer, we are laid off. We are forced into difficult instant decision making.
Then there are the changes that develop over years, we awaken to them. A seed grows slowly, we don’t even know it has been planted at all. As it grows, we start feeling the shape of it, it’s edges, it’s urges, it’s questions. We look for the answers, but not necessarily in the right places. But the need for change does not let up, it keeps nudging us, annoyingly so. “I am doing all I can,” we say, “What else is there?”
the need for change does not let up, it keeps nudging us, annoyingly so
One day you might be running your daily mile or driving to the grocery store and a thought just pops in your head. “Why don’t I just…” You immediately want to dismiss the thought. “That’s crazy; I can’t do that!” But the thought is there. You keep going back to it. You twist the thought around. You go online and read more about what you can do with it. Finally, you talk it over with your friends and partner. “I’m thinking about making a change, what do you think...”
You could make a mistake. You are about to take a risk. There is no way of knowing. No-one ever knows what happens next, whatever path you are on. So, you take a shower and a walk. “How about I wish you luck today – good luck!” - the beaming silver-locked lady says. I don’t believe in signs, but I do believe in the wisdom that comes from the generous elderly.
Pietje - say Peach-a!