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.
About forty minutes into Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix standup special she addresses her difficult coming out story. Jokingly, Hannah recalls a visit with her grandmother who asks her if she is dating a special gentleman. Hannah admits the reason she hadn’t come out to her grandma all these years was because she still carried shame with her.
Hannah Gadsby grew up in Tasmania in the Bible belt even though her parents did not raise her with religion. In her teens a prickly national debate on the topic of homosexuality was a major news headline. About seventy percent of the public believed homosexuality was a sin and should be criminalized.
“When you soak a child in shame they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thoughts of self-worth”
By the time she was an adolescent, Hannah says, the damage was done, the homophobia from the outside had rooted itself within her.
At this point in the show Hannah captures the audience with her intense eyes, one cannot help but feel for the child in her. “When you soak a child in shame they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thoughts of self-worth.”
She speaks about the metaphorical closet, but I can see the young teenager in the closet so clearly; feel the shallow breaths, the small space it occupies, crouching down on the wooden planks – there is no place for her in this world.
“Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in”
Hannah continues “Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in.” I try to let the words sink in.
Hannah is on a roll and I swallow hard. “When you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes…as natural as gravity.”
The show continues, but I know I need to go back to this. Hannah makes the point that we need to rethink how we debate difficult topics. When I think back at my youth certain topics were immediately judged; same-sex relationships, masturbation, sex before marriage, bars, dancing, certain clothing, certain gender roles, racism. I can remember feeling shame very early on, as well as self judgement. The lasting impact of this has been detrimental.
“I need to tell my story properly"
I cried for Hannah Gadsby. I still do. I know parents are of the best intent. We, as a global society need to do better though for our children. Shaming and judging are not the way. What does it accomplish really?
Today it is Pride in Santa Fe. I am still not comfortable with the 'gay scene', so to speak. I want to be, but I am not. That is why I am not always at the dances. That is why I sometimes leave with a panic attack.
In Hannah Gadsby’s words “I need to tell my story properly.”
The scenes in the memoir Joy Unspeakable are so vividly described that at times I laughed out loud while in other moments I was holding back tears.
Joy Hopper’s moving story starts with her adoption into a fundamentalist Pentecostal family. Hopper takes the reader through her childhood and awkward teenage years and into her marriage to a controlling and abusive husband.
How did Joy manage to cope with the restrictive beliefs of her childhood? Moreover, why did she stay in a loveless marriage? Joy says her positive attitude provided her with rose-colored glasses with which she could see and explain the world. In every negative experience was surely a positive lesson God was teaching her.
“As sure as I’m standing here tonight, one of you will probably die before camp next year. Are you ready to meet Jesus?”
Joy is an engaging writer and infuses her story with humor and a refreshing candor.
As a teenager Joy decides to be baptized and she colorfully describes the experience after being submerged: “I labored off stage, sloshing and leaking and dripping all the way to the exit door, where I had to descend a very narrow flight of wooden stairs. The next thing the congregation heard was a thump, fa-thump, fa-thump, fa-thump fa-thump, fa-thump bang…. Why couldn’t God just send a sweet dove to land on my head to show his favor?”
With her story Joy addresses how fear-inducing techniques are used within a church. In one chapter she describes attending a church camp in which the youth pastor urges the youngsters to get right with the Lord. He continues to tell the kids about a former camper who hadn’t been ready to commit to Jesus and who had died the following day on his way home. “Look around!” he [the youth pastor] continued… “as sure as I’m standing here tonight, one of you will probably die before camp next year. Are you ready to meet Jesus?”
“I look back to this time with deep sadness, realizing I had been denied a basic human need in the name of pleasing an emotionally abusive god"
Being fully indoctrinated Joy wants to live in the faith and avoid hell at all cost. She writes about worrying concerning sins not yet forgiven as well as the imminent rapture. One paragraph that stood out to me was also from her teenage years. She relates how she doesn’t join in regarding a dance exercise at school because of her religion. At the time she feels she needs to stand up for her belief and that separating herself from her classmates is a small price to pay for eternal happiness (rose-colored glasses). She writes “I look back to this time with deep sadness, realizing I had been denied a basic human need in the name of pleasing an emotionally abusive god who demanded I feel humiliated and alienated as a test of my allegiance. This is toxic religion at its very core.”
It wasn’t easy to read the writer’s life with her abusive husband and as a reader I wanted to scream “run away!” Joy details through honest story telling why she stayed in the relationship. The book provides a window into the minds of fundamentalist Christian thinking and the reasons why it is difficult to get away from rigid belief systems.
once you start pulling on a loose thread of a tightly knit sweater it doesn’t take much for it to unravel
I highly recommend this memoir to anyone who is curious about fundamentalist Christianity or who grew up in a similar environment. What happened to Joy? Well, once you start pulling on a loose thread of a tightly knit sweater it doesn’t take much for it to unravel into a heap of fibers. And then – you can make it into something else entirely.
My mom called them jokingly ‘little goats’, as they walked single file, from tall to small, into the Brethren meeting hall. Admittedly, the girls did resemble the goats from my illustrated fairy tale book; pointy faces with handkerchiefs as head coverings and long checkered skirts. I loved looking at the youngest girl who had dimples in her cheeks and smiled with her head cocked to one side. The mother patiently adjusted the handkerchief over her daughter’s white pigtails as the girl repeatedly tore it off while looking over shoulder at us, the teenagers in the back making faces at her.
The family was a bit odd, even to Northern Dutch Brethren standards. For one, they seemed more conservative – already the young girls were wearing head coverings, which usually started for adult or adolescent women once they officially partook in the weekly ritual of communion. The husband, brother W. was German and came from a closed Brethren branch known to be more restrictive. The wife opened up at times and revealed that she was not allowed many freedoms such as wearing jeans or cutting her already thinning hair. Secondly, the family would disappear from the church for months, then reappear and ask for help, as in financial assistance. This would be a conundrum for the church. They were required to help those in need but questioned whether they were enabling a man who was using the church as a social security policy.
Such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod.
As long as brother W. said the right words he was a true church member. Brother W. suggested songs to sing, spoke prayers and participated in the communion. The one son they finally had, after all daughters, got to wear a little suit to the services and one could not help but smile. I remember studying the girls and feeling sorry for them. I wondered if they were being teased at school – such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod in approval.
Once my dad came home after visiting the family. “It is weird,” he said, “the kids all had to bow to me in greeting.” My dad was trying to tell brother W. that this wasn’t necessary, but W. didn’t want to hear any of it and made every kid bow for my dad, hands clasped together, which made my dad feel uncomfortable.
Was the church a safe haven for men like brother W.?
This week the news came out regarding the Turpin family in California. “How is it possible nobody has reported anything?” This was a common sentiment upon hearing the news. The religious Turpin family home schooled their children and lived in a neighborhood where houses are close in. When the 17-year old daughter managed to call 911 the police found the rest of the children malnourished, shackled and locked into the home. It turns out neighbors did notice odd things; the children hardly ever being out or being out at late hours and not responding to conversations. One comment made me think about the family in my church so many years ago “When kids are being that obedient, it is a clue something is wrong.”
Brother W. was tried and sentenced a couple of years ago. There had been sexual misconduct in the family, to what degree I’m not sure. Was the church, the church I grew up in, The Brethren, a safe haven for men like brother W.? Protected by a community, the Bible, brothers and elders as long as the right words were being spoken and heard? Did the church not look at the signs – the extreme requirement for obedience and submission that point to abuse? Did they refuse to see the signs? Was my church culpable to abuse?
We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
I know that in today’s world there is more awareness around abuse and signs around it than 30 years ago. However, families such as the Turpins still live among us. There is no excuse to provide them a safe haven or turn away from signs when we see them – we need to take a risk and report them. We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
Last I heard Brother W. is participating in communion again. “God forgives everything,” The Brethren teach. “Not that” I say. We need to protect the children.
What does it mean to be no longer ‘One of Us?’ Three people from the strict Hasidic community find out in the new Netflix documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The two directors are also known for the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp.
One of Us was a heart wrenching watch as it follows Luzer, Ari and Etty over a span of three years.
Luzer says that in his new life he has not lost anyone. This leaves me with a sad feeling as he has just related how he left his family behind and comes from a childhood of abuse. Purposely he does not engage in new relationships. He has built a solid wall of protection around him.
Adolescent Ari struggles with addiction and has discovered Wikipedia as a stand-in for a lack of education. His hand rises hesitantly in an evangelical meeting as he searches for a place to belong.
Etty fights for custody for her seven children. It is a losing battle in a world where men rule and where money buys the lawyers who know all the loopholes in the law. Still she finds comfort in faith and the support of other women.
The feeling of belonging and the need for community to hold us up is so strong that leaving can be paralyzing. In the case of the Hasidic community the percentage of people leaving is only two percent. After watching the documentary, it is not hard to understand why.
Ex-Hasidic members gather around a table for a Jewish celebration. Glasses are filled with wine and voices rise in a mournful but beautiful song. I can’t help but be reminded of my own roots and the a cappella singing of the brothers and sisters in the Brethren church. There is beauty and there is sadness. You can never belong again; for you don’t want to – and yet there is an ache.
One of Us - Trailer
Revelations is one of the most studied books within the Open Brethren community (Vergadering v. Gelovigen in The Netherlands). As a child I found it fascinating. It was as intriguing as one could be captivated by psychics and astrology. The last book in the Bible provided a glimpse into the unknown future. Disciple John sounded like he might have eaten magic mushrooms when he spoke of a dragon with 7 heads and a lamb with 7 eyes. However, the Brethren had enthralling explanations regarding these visions.
Many days I would study the clouds for a sign of Jesus’ return.
My dad provided me with a detailed printout of a Biblical timeline from the beginning until the end of times. This included the rapture, the tribulation, judgement day - when all the graves would open and all of humanity would be judged – and the restoration of a new earth. I still see my seven-year-old girl kneeling at the green toy chest, earnestly studying the map. “He will come like a thief in the night,” my mom would say “in the blink of an eye.” One could not rest; I could not afford to miss it. Many days I would study the clouds for a sign of Jesus’ return.
“They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the president of the US threatened today. This sentence sent shivers through my body as Armageddon movies replayed in the back of my mind.
When you grow up hearing weekly that the world will end in flames, you tend to look for signs. If I were a believer still, I would say the signs are here, mostly thanks to our own doing. The earth is heating up rapidly, methane gas is a ticking time bomb under melting ice caps, people obtain kidney diseases as they work the land in rising temperatures. Now there is a standoff between two power hungry men who have seemingly no regard for the cost of human lives. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the president of the US threatened today. This sentence sent shivers through my body as Armageddon movies replayed in the back of my mind.
Unlike Christians I don’t have the hope of a new earth.
I can’t recall the exact year I left religion behind. It was a process, which took years. I’ve called myself spiritual, agnostic and finally, an atheist. The fear remains hidden in parts of my body. I still recall the bible studies and the timeline my father gave me. Unlike Christians I don’t have the hope of a new earth. This earth, this life, this is the only one we've got. Fire and fury, power and money - these will be the destruction of it. I can only hope that enough people will band together to stop the madness.
Rummaging through twenty-plus years of stuff – trinkets, toys, baby clothes, letters, boxes of photographs, Dutch children's books, heirlooms, diaries – I experience a lifetime of emotions in just a couple of hours; melancholy, joy, sadness, love, relief, shame, silliness and so on.
After years in Seattle my fiancée and I have decided to trade in the green of the Pacific Northwest for the red of the desert of New Mexico. Now we purge. It is an appropriate time to rid myself of all the baggage I’ve been, quite literally, dragging around. Having moved from this continent to that and back again, from house to house; I have unopened boxes from two moves ago.
Then there is the other baggage. We all have some of that. In the past couple of years there have been some life changes. Both my kids left for college, my 20-year marriage ended and I fell in love with a woman. Each of these events are significantly life changing on their own.
Through all of this, or because of it, I discovered something else. While adjusting to my new life and struggling to find my place, I came to realize that the damage done by my Christian upbringing was more far reaching than I had dared to admit. This discovery was a slow process. It was with the help of friends, experts and conferences that I learned how my thinking and processing had been formed early on in my childhood by fundamentalist Christian messages. While I had left religion more than 15 years ago my brain hadn’t changed with it; I still lived and walked through my life with the same fears and judgments.
Why now? I have always loved writing and I have written in the past. Now, while preparing for another garage sale and a huge geographical move I’d like to explore and share my story. It is one of many stories. But no less important. Read with me, learn with me, share with me. If not now, when?
Pietje - say Peach-a!