Anyone who stumbles onto this blog will notice my bitter streak as relates to Christianity, the religious right, and fundamentalism. This negative attitude is not founded in ignorance – quite the opposite. This lengthy story is pulled from an old series from the last blog. It had been 4 LONG posts, and now is one – you are warned!
It is very surreal to read these articles written by these born again Christians (some of whom were my professors), decrying the things that I value. It is also hard to remember that I was a part of their world for several years. Not only while I was in college, but for at least a year on either side of my attendance there.
And I felt compelled to write down the story of that journey. I feel that it is so vital to who I am, and how I think, and how I raise my children. I don’t feel like I can even adequately explain my reaction to the things I read that come from the Religious Right in these present times without showing just how well I understand the way they think – what their priorities are – what their fears are.
So here’s my story:
When I was 14, my mother decided that she had a gaping hole in her life, and that she needed to fill that hole with Jesus. I am quite uncertain what the hole REALLY was in her life. But I think it may have been a sense of connection to the community, and the world, and instead of giving of herself in a secular way, finding a church was the only way she could think of to connect to the world at large. We were a pretty isolated family. We lived in the country, and my parents had stayed connected to their friends from the town we’d previously lived in, but did not connect to the town that I spent most of my life in. That may have been because my parents were reaching UP in the move, and were not as well off, initially, as most of the community around us. They worked their way up through the years, but that did not enhance their social connection to the town.
Regardless of the reasons, my mother decided she needed to find Jesus. My father was abhorred. He hated god, because god killed his two of his brothers and his mother, and that pissed him off. He was also abhorred because he had three motorcycles, and had in the past years taken to going for Sunday morning rides, sometimes with, sometimes without my mother, to gather with other motorcycle riders. Therefore, he said no way. He wasn’t doing that, he was going to continue to ride his motorcycle and go to the Marcus Dairy – the Sunday morning motorcycle hang out. I think it was a diner. It still strikes me as odd that motorcycle riders congregated at the Marcus Dairy (in Danbury, Connecticut) on Sunday mornings. What the heck ever happened to the bars? And the beer? And the night? Now it was milk. In the morning.
My mom took the three of us kids, me 14, my sister 11, and my brother 8, to all the churches in town. We tried a Congregational Church (too bland), an Episcopal Church (too stuffy), a Pentacostal Church (too weird), and then, an independent bible-based church which met in a high school auditorium. And there, my mom found Jesus. It was a very small church with about 100 people, mostly families with small kids, and then an assorted bunch of (I’m sorry if it seems tactless) loser adults. They really were, though. Every single adult who went to that church was a misfit in some way. A *serious* misfit. As I got to know each of them as the years went on, they each had their own reasons to be called, by me, a Freak.
The pastor of the church at that time (it’s since gone through so many changes – in leadership, in location, in attendees, etc.) was a very intelligent and intellectual theologian. He was, in all honesty, a very good man. He was earnest, he was very kind, and he lacked the judgmentalism that I’ve seen in …. oh, every single other pastor or church leader I’ve ever come across. He did not speak down to people. But he also spoke way above my head, and all of these positive character attributes never worked to convince me that the stuff coming out of his mouth was important to me, or to my soul. Later in my life (and in this story), I started to pay more attention, and understand more of the theology that was being spewed at me. At this point, all that this stuff meant to me was Rules.
I really bucked the changes brought to my life. The parts I did see of what the church taught was so different from the things I had previously been taught in life. That I could only be friends with other Christians: which meant the very narrow category of people who had asked Jesus to come into their heart and cleanse them of sin, and therefore allow them to go to Heaven, because they have been forgiven of all past and future sins. Catholics were most decidedly NOT Christians. Episcopals – no way. Congregationalists? Snort. And that Unitarian church that met in the high school cafeteria? Well, they worshipped the stars, and therefore, they were actually the devil. Or several devils. Right there in the same building as us, the Only True Christians. Suddenly, all of my friends were suspect. Suddenly, every time I came home from school and mentioned Tracey or Missy or Jen or Oliver, the first thing my mother asked was “are they a Christian?” if the answer was “they’re Catholic” or “their family doesn’t go to church” then the only thing I was allowed to do with them was —- Invite Them to Church.
I remember one weekend, an old friend of mine who had been listening to my complaints of this shift in my family did decide to come and see if this church was as crazy as I thought it was. We sang a hymn that day with the chorus of “Cause me to Come, Lord,” and my BF and I sat there giggling, singing “Cause me to Cum, Chris,” or any other name of boys we found cute.
I remained very resistant to the whole church thing. My dad also remained resistant, and angry, and resentful. He was resentful because my mom never went on the motorcycle with him anymore, and she started volunteering to do things at the church, and started spending time on the phone with people from church, and he didn’t like it. They fought about it a lot. And then the four of us would go to church, and my mom would put my dad on the ‘prayer list’ and everyone would raise their hands toward the ceiling of the high school, and beg Jesus to call my father to him, and to change his heart, and open him up to the Word of the Lord while others would murmur “amen, jesus,” and “hallelujah!”
Church was often a 4 hour event. Two hours of church, an hour of Sunday school, and an hour of socializing. It was excruciating. I was miserable. There were two people my age. Myself, and boy named S. S liked me. I did not like S, but he kept things slightly interesting, and so I would flirt with S, and do everything I could in order to be certain that he continued liking me, so I would not be thoroughly bored and miserable, but only mostly bored and miserable. S was into all of the church business, and he would never have Kissed or Held Hands before marriage, so it was all very innocent and flirtatious.
But at school, outside of the Church, I was not as innocent. I started dating behind my parents’ back when I was 15. It had to be behind their back, because no one was a Christian, and if they were, they were boring, and I wanted nothing to do with them. I sometimes found common ground with the two Mormon students in my school because their lives were as dominated by Rules and Restrictions as mine had become, but they were not dating material. I think they even believed in their doctrines — unlike myself. Furthermore, their church would have found me Evil, just as mine believed completely that they were members of a Cult.
I started to date one person in particular seriously, W. That old best friend of mine from above, who was my cohort in turning hymns into pornography — her older sister used to date W. I knew a lot about their relationship because of that. And I knew that Big Sister had an abortion after she and W had an “accident.” When the “accident” happened, I was 12 or 13, (and the Big Sister was 16 or 17, and W was 14 or 15), and my mother had not yet gone all Born Again on me, and I told her about my friend’s sister’s plight and decision.
As you can imagine, my parents (plural – my motorcycle-riding, gun-collecting, deer-hunting, target-shooting father did NOT need religion in order to side with my mom on this one) were absolutely horrified that I had chosen this person to date. I did my utmost to convince them that W had Changed. For a while, they required that we get together either at our home, with my parents present, or with his mother (who was Divorced, and therefore, a suspect chaperone). They slowly relaxed these rules. Unfortunately, I was not able to see how relaxed they would have gotten over time.
I first had sex with W when I was 15, almost 16, and a Junior in high school. Pretty soon after I started doing the dirty deed, I went on the pill, because he had, in fact, learned his lesson while dating my friend’s sister. He brought me to planned parenthood, and I had an exam, and I got the pill. I then dutifully got a ride from a friend or snuck myself in my parents’ car to downtown Waterbury every few months thereafter, to ensure that I would not have to contemplate the Worst Sin Imaginable myself.
I never felt any guilt over being sexually active, despite the messages that were being pulsed into my brainwaves on a weekly basis. I did not feel that I was harming myself, or that I was making Jesus cry. I felt like I had a delicious secret, and I loved to imagine what my mother’s friends at church would think if they knew. I continued to play the game at church – perhaps even more convincingly than I had in the past, because I now had something invested in them thinking that I was on board. I was baptized in a lake at a picnic with a few others at one point (and my mother was absolutely horrified, b/c the t-shirt I had grabbed to wear over my bathing suit – to avoid indecency, was one I had bought at a concert with friends – a Ratt and Poison concert. The t-shirt had all of the Poison band members’ pictures on it. Perfect for a baptism.) I had no religious experience to coincide with the baptism.
Most of my junior year was spent with me sneaking around, living a double life. My parents thought that I was following their rules, while I was in reality being as creative as possible to be able to be out and about with W. I would say I was going out with girlfriends, or the like, and really go out with him. His mom worked nights, so we could go to his house and have nothing in the way of our Fun (although it wasn’t really, for me, all that fun yet. That didn’t come until adulthood). By the time W’s senior prom came along, we had played the game well enough that I was allowed to go, and was even allowed to stay out all night, because my parents believed me when I told them that there was a chaperoned sleep over party at a friend’s house.
I suppose my dad was really never convinced that W was an okay guy. While we were at the prom, my dad went through W’s car. He found notes I had written to W which detailed my joy and happiness in the fact that he had been My First. My mother called W’s house and tracked me down as we were getting ready to go to the beach with friends the day after the prom (after spending a night alone in a hotel).
And the next phase of my life began.
That day after the prom was the first day of my Hell. That Hell was the rest of my high school years.
I was grounded – thoroughly and completely. My parents took my phone (it was just an extension in my room – this was 1988, pre-cell phones for certain, and even pre-cordless, if I remember correctly), they disallowed me from going anywhere after school, in the evenings, or on weekends. I was given no privacy. My room was searched while I was at school, and I often got in renewed trouble because of things that my mother read. WHY I didn’t stop writing things down, I will never know. (But look, I still continue to write things down via this blog – so I truly never learned).
I lived in the lower level of a raised ranch house. Therefore, my bedroom windows were level with the ground. I went out after my parents went to sleep almost every single night. W would pick me up at the bottom of our driveway (lived in a very rural area), and we went to his house, where, remember, his mother was NOT, b/c she worked nights. We would then watch movies, have sex, and he would eventually bring me home. We had a few near-misses – where we would fall asleep, and I would find myself creeping back up my driveway in the daylight as I knew my father’s alarm was going off. But I never actually got caught in the act. I think, however, that my father is part Ostrich.
What I feel so terrible about now is the knowledge that my entire family went through hell during this time. Not just me. My brother and sister were stuck between me and my parents – in turn hating each of us, and blaming us for the discord that had become our home. The fighting was constant. My sister, especially, had a hard time, as she told me later. W and I did plan on running away, if things were to cross another line, and I had a constant bag packed. My little sister was very upset by this, and I discovered in the past 5 years that she, too, had a constant bag packed, and planned on insisting that she come along, rather than be left alone in the house without me.
My father reacted by succumbing to the prayers and the courting and the begging and the pleading, and he became a Christian. I remember the night he told my mother – he had done it privately, as most people did while I was in this small New England “bible-based, non-denominational” church – the huge altar calls and hoopla wasn’t something I saw until Liberty – which is the next chapter. We were driving in the car on the way home from a concert of a Christian Singer which I was Forced to go to because I (at age 17) could not be trusted home alone. They thought I was asleep. He told my mother that he had accepted the Lord into his heart, and that he was a Christian. I knew it was because of me. Right now, 16 years later, I cannot remember if he SAID it was because of me, and all I put him through or if I just knew it to be so – but it was. Perhaps because I had shown him that there really is Sin in the world, and that if there is Sin, there must be someone who presides over acts, and deems what is Sin and what is not Sin.
I also have another theory, though. I do believe that people look to religion to serve other purposes in their lives. I believe that my father had a very hard time justifying the randomness of his idea that I should not be having sex – and that Christianity provided to him a very nice pre-written set of rules. He is a very legalistic person, who likes black and white, and I think that when he took the time to look close enough at the theology of Born Again Christians, he saw how the rules and biases really fit in well with his own fears and ideas. It gave him the o.k.
And my theory for my mom: she’s a very stoic person, she keeps a real reign on her emotional side, and always has. Church gives her the okay to be emotional. It takes away whatever barriers she’s put up between herself and her emotions, and gives her Permission to Cry. When she’s at church, the minute the music and the singing starts, she starts to cry and cry.
But, the story. I really was all-out rebelling at that point. Only with sex, though. I didn’t drink, I didn’t ever try any drug. I was also VERY monogamous. But I was sneaking out the window constantly, which led to me falling asleep in classes during the day, and getting very poor grades. I also would sneak out of school, either down a back driveway when the security guard was peeing, or in the trunks of friends’ cars. I also (horror of horror) bought a new phone, and plugged it in to the wall so I could call W and tell him when to come and pick me up. There were also occasions, when my mother was working when I got out of school, that I would take my dad’s Jeep, and drive (without a license) to where W worked.
There was one point where I had sort of wised up, and decided to play things a little smarter. I wrote a “note” to W about how I was so pleased that we saw the error of our ways, and that we’d decided to start to focus on the Lord. I then put that note on my dresser, under a book, but with a corner sticking out. I very closely saw where the lines were on the paper, and knew that if when I returned home from school the lines were in a different place, my mother had read my “note.”
Sure enough, when I got home, the note had moved. My mother called me from work soon after I got off the bus and told me that she had thought things over, and decided that I seem as though I deserved a second chance. She said that W and I could take her car and go out to dinner that night, as a little test.
I think we had 2 weeks (at most) of very limited freedom before I came home from school one day to my entire closet emptied out on the floor of my bedroom … Including the extra set of sheets into which I had folded my birth control pills. My mother later told me that Jesus appeared to her during her “quiet time” and told her where to look in order to find proof of my continued sinning.
My parents were so unable to get me to “shape up” and get back into the church, and get rid of my “attitude” – oh yeah, and my boyfriend — that they made us all go to Family Counseling. Christian Family Counseling, of course. Another thing for my siblings to hate me for. It was so tedious. We had to draw pictures on a flip-chart of how we viewed our family. My siblings put the four of them in one corner of the paper, and me way off in a different corner. I hated them all, and I wanted to leave, and not have to deal with them, and their stupid religion.
But that got sooooo tiring! I got sick of hating my family. I got sick of being grounded and not being able to participate in any social life whatsoever – with or without W. Honestly, I was also getting sick of W. He had graduated the year before me, and spent almost the entire year unemployed. He didn’t want to go to college, and he dissuaded me from doing the same. When I decided that I did in fact want to go to college, he jeered at me, and made fun of me for being a “nerd” and for thinking that I was better than him. But at that point, it just made me sick.
He stopped being worth all the fighting to me. I no longer wanted part of our “future plans” wherein I would graduate high school and be a secretary for my entire life (that became so ironic later) while he kept dreaming about money falling into his lap so he could open his own dog kennel.
I thought long and hard about things, and I decided that I didn’t only want to break up with W, I wanted to rejoin my family. I made a very calculated decision that I would, for real, become Born Again. That I was sick and tired of the divide between me and my siblings and my parents, I was sick of the tense dinner table, and sex really wasn’t all that fun, anyway. Especially since I now found W to be rather gross.
I did not “believe.” I actually felt that I could NOT become a Christian. There was a belief in our church that if god “called you” to him, then you could accept Jesus Christ into your heart, and be Born Again. I never felt called. I never felt a pull. There were many times that I would say the words, and I would TRY to mean it. But the people around me, at my parents’ church, were heaped over in tears because of the “power of god,” they were jubilant, they were …. so INTO it, and I just never felt that click. So, during the times of my life when I did believe in the doctrine, I felt that I was just not called. I had not been chosen, and I would, in fact, go to Hell. But at the very least, I could be a part of the community, and perhaps one day, god would call me, or not. But I didn’t want to be on the outs anymore.
My parents went away to Hawaii for a week, and left us home with friends. While they were gone (and I had a bit more freedom, because the friends were not as attuned to my sneakiness), I broke up with W. I presented this fact to my parents with much celebration when they returned, and we started on the Road to Repairing our Relationships.
This was the March of my senior year. So I had 4 months to actually enjoy my senior year. I was able to re-strengthen friendships, attend parties, go to the Prom (with a male friend who was not a boyfriend), and do normal senior year things.
My parents nevertheless decided that I was not ready to attend college away from home, so I had to attend a commuter college for a year, to “prove myself.” Which I did. I got a 4.0, had a very successful internship in a prosecutor’s office (I was a prelaw major), and was accepted as a transfer student at American University, where I really really wanted to go, b/c I wanted to go into law, and perhaps even politics, and I was excited about academics and about my future. I also really wanted to live in D.C.
I was permitted to go to a religious university. Only. My parents felt that American University was some how suffused with evil (there were pro-choice posters on campus … which made the 1991 Zuska uncomfortable, but did not make me think I could not attend the school). My parents made enough money that I did not qualify for any type of financial aid. They were not willing to support my decision to go to a school other than one with religious ties – whether that support was in the way of co-signing loans or paying outright. I responded to these edicts in a very bratty and entitled way, and regardless of the fact that they held on too tight to the reigns, I remain embarrassed of my behavior.
I should have found a way to make it work for myself. People have done it. I know people who have done it. But at the time, I think that having their support – not just financial, but also moral support, was very important to me, and it would have been very difficult to split paths AGAIN. So I was willing to tantrum, and to pout, but not to go any further than that.
For some reason, I really wanted to be in or around D.C. I felt a magnetism to that political center. But there were no religious schools IN D.C., so I started looking at a certain radius around D.C. I also wanted to go to a relatively large school. I was sick of little worlds; my small rural town growing up; the teeny tiny church we went to – it was boring. There aren’t many relatively large religious schools — at all. Further, not all religious universities were liberal arts. Some were only willing to prepare youths for the ministry: bible courses, mission work, church leadership, and the like. Very few of which were doctrinally permissible for women, and none of which I was interested in.
I eventually settled on Liberty. They had 5,000 students, and were recently accredited (also a rare thing for the type of religious schools that I was being pushed toward). I could have done better academically. I had my strong GPA from my transfer school and decent SAT scores – I could have gone somewhere with a better reputation. But I wanted big, and I wanted to be in driving distance from D.C. Who cares that they didn’t even require people to take the SAT? Right? (When I got to school, we laughed that people had filled out applications for their DOG, and their DOG got into the school – unfortunately, I don’t think it was a joke.)
I did not, at that time, know who Jerry Falwell was. My parents’ church was tiny – as perhaps I’ve said before. 100 or so people. We were an independent church, that refused to adhere to the dogma of a specific denomination. I somehow (??!!!???) missed out on the whole moral majority thing.
In the 2 weeks before I was due to travel down to Lynchburg, Va, I received a little booklet called “The Liberty Way.” It had lists upon lists of rules. I kind of thought they were kidding. “women must wear skirts to classes and in all campus buildings before 5 p.m. Pants may be worn on campus, but not to classes, after 5 p.m.” huh? “Men are under no circumstances allowed within a 10 foot radius of women’s dorms, and vice versa” huh? “all on-campus students must be in their dorm room by midnight.” huh? chapel will be held three times per week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and attendance is mandatory. Room check will be performed by R.A.’s every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Room check will include: bed made; floor vacuumed, furniture dusted, floor and surfaces cleared.
I told a friend and she was worried for me. I somehow didn’t believe that this stuff could be for real. I had visited the campus the spring before, and I didn’t notice it as being “off” like this thing described. Anyway, it was too late. I packed a few skirts “just in case.”
My very early days at school are a bit of a fog. I was a transfer student, so I missed out on some freshman orientation stuff. My roommate was a freshman, and she was very conservative, very Christian. I liked her well enough. There were some girls on my hall who I got along with.
I know that I was willing to make the best of the situation, and I did not walk in with a rebellious attitude. At all. I was a little worried for some of my “wilder” friends on my hall, because I didn’t want them to get in trouble for breaking the rules which were, in fact, very very real.
In my first semester, I was exposed to a new kind of religion. While Liberty is not officially “southern baptist” but rather an “independent baptist” entity, it has a southern baptist flavor. I was used to tiny little churches in high school auditoriums where housewives and businessmen made up the “praise team” and led songs from the front of the room while shaking a tambourine. This place had a STAGE. And people sang their ever-loving hearts out. They put out CDs. They went on tours. Oh, and did the girls ever wear make up and hairspray. It was just unbelievable. (I’m looking for photos of the girls with the hair … but they seem to have updated. This is a current photo of the biggest singing/praise group – The Sounds of Liberty. I guess it was 15 years ago when they had the hair. Perhaps one day I’ll get that scanner, and share some from my yearbook.)
There was also a huge difference in the preaching. There were true hellfire and damnation sermons. I was literally SCARED on several occasions. It was scary. People came and talked about how hot the fires of hell are, and how they never end, and how it will feel like your flesh is dripping from your bones and how you will wish you could just die so it would stop, but it will not …. unless you accept jesus as your lord and savior ….
and unless you re-dedicate your life, if you’ve already accepted him. You had to rededicate all the time, it seems, if you wanted to be really sure you didn’t burn up. Forever. I always felt like I had to try again, say the prayer again, and again, and again — b/c it just never took. I never felt like Jesus was living in my heart, and I never felt like a damned thing was happening to me.
So I pretty much still knew I was going to go to hell.
But I tried so hard. I remember one guy came, and he had us make this commitment that we would, for Jesus, fast. Every day. From 5 p.m. until the next morning. My room mate and I decided we would. The man was supposed to come back in 3 months, so we could all revel in how much we gave up for god (i.e., a normal dinner time and any dessert). But he never came back … it was canceled, he got busy. Whatever. We eventually stopped going to dinner at 4:30.
I did try for a while to adopt the rules of the religion, even if I couldn’t manage to get swept away in the spiritual/emotional tide. We were encouraged to take a stand, and let those around us know that we stood with Jesus. Be the salt of the earth, and all that jazz.
And from that came one of my biggest regrets in all of my life: As a 18 year old kid, I wrote letters to two of my best friends from high school, telling them that these are the things I believe in, and that I am not ashamed of who I am. Included in the list of the things I “believed in” was that “abortion is murder.”
They both had abortions during high school. Of course I knew this.
No, we haven’t spoken since. [It makes me so sad, and mad just writing this down. Ugh.]
My roommate left for good after that first semester. She and her parents ran out of money. She was engaged to a boy who was in the service, and didn’t see the point in taking out loans when all she wanted was to get married anyways.
My second semester brought me a cheerleader for a room mate, and a lot less reverence.
The attempts at being “truly born again” stopped there. The end. Buh-bye. My time at Liberty became a contest as to how much illegal music (yeah, really illegal music …. like Debbie Gibson or something) we could sneak in the room; how long we could get away with hiding a mini t.v.; and how many rated R movies we could watch.
Seriously … how pathetic? We were, though, pretty pathetic. There were about 4 of us who spent that semester in the dorm, talking, watching t.v., and watching our “wild” friends dress up and get sexy for their nights in downtown Lynchburg with wild boys and beer.
For some reason, toward the end of the semester, I decided to run for a student government position. I have no clue how that started …. I think my cheerleader roommate started to flirt with the then-president of the student government, and I got to know him through that. He was running again, and wanted me to run as secretary (I was at that time working in work study position for the president of the university). His extended network and I really clicked, and I had again a new life – this one stayed. The rest of my time at Liberty, as of then, was fantastic. Junior year was best, but even for my senior year, I had a true social network, and I was pretty happy.
For my junior year: I had an executive position in the student government, I had keys to the whole campus; I had a parking pass that let me park wherever I wanted [oh yeah, and I was able to bring my car, since I had all these responsibilities]; we somehow got out of everything; and this thing here — The Coffeehouse — we started it. There were 4 of us who mostly ran it, and it was small then, and it was the most secular activity the school had seen. Poetry, singing, skits … they all had a somewhat spiritual flavor, or we wouldn’t have been allowed to do it, but we also didn’t let it turn into Chapel, or even chapel light.
I think, however, that the best part of that year, and the next 2 or 3 of my life, was my best friend … I’m going to call her Rose. We had known each other through the cheerleader, but I hated her then. I thought she was shallow, and materialistic, and her hair was too big (but not in the “Liberty girl” hairspray style). She had 2 friends who she hung out with constantly, and they seemed to think they were the SHIT. This was during my “watch t.v. every night” phase, though. So I had an odd perspective.
Before my junior year, I was required to be at school a couple weeks early for student government stuff, and so was Rose: for some reason which I do not remember. I went out one night with a student-government cohort and another girl, and Rose came. “Oh, great.” I thought. We ended up together in the backseat of the car for a long drive to see some petrified tree or something. I don’t know what happened that day – but Rose and I spent the entire night laughing, and we had just the best time in the world. I’d never had such a good time. Ever.
We were inseparable from that moment.
But by the end of that year, we felt like we were all getting older. Graduation was on the horizon, and at Liberty, that means it’s time to get married. We had to start looking around for people to couple with. It was REQUIRED.
I met my ex in the March of my Junior year, and that put a strain on mine and Rose’s “joined at the hip” status. My student government friends were all a year ahead of me, and they were leaving. Things were just different. Some of the magic was gone.
Rose and I went to church sometimes. We tried some others in the town, b/c we were sick of Jerry Falwell and his red bloated head. We mostly slept through, and enjoyed the scandalous looks we got as we roamed around town in our sweats at 11 a.m. as the after-church people saw us and knew we weren’t praising jesus all morning. We had a pretty irreverant attitude most of the time, and didn’t give a shit.
Our rebellions were still super slight, though. I was definitely not stopping at hand-holding with the ex … but he was technically a virgin when we got married. Rose and her beau weren’t quite so chaste. But that felt private. The church had no call to tell me whether or not a boy could touch my boobs. They were my boobs, dammit.
I knew Liberty and its ways were not for me. I knew that I would not continue going to that kind of church when I left. Yet, I still felt like the basic tenets of the theology were “right.” Like yes, Jesus was God’s son. Yes, there is a hell (which I still was pretty sure I was going to); Yes, you had to be married, and you should never get divorced. ABSOLUTELY homosexuality was a sin, and abortion was the HIGHEST of sins. You MUST raise your children in the church. Or else … they’ll be heathens, and evil, and they’ll likely grow up to be mass murderers.
More important to me, and my development as a person, was the non-religious aspects of the ideology which I took on as my own. The opinions on abortion and homosexuality straddled both the religious and political; but I also was a little Reaganite [what I now recognize as a Reaganite]. I campaigned for Papa Bush’s reelection and was devastated about what it would mean for this country that Bill Clinton won. Devastated. What I distinctly remember is that I believed in the Welfare Queen. I believed that homeless people had no business sitting on the side of a street holding up a sign while McDonald’s was hiring. These things were, to me, Absolute Truths. I was one of those people who was convinced (as a college student with no money, no job prospects, no trust fund, no wealthy parents) that the Republicans’ rich-friendly policies were for ME. They would help ME.
I left school after graduation. I moved back in with my parents to await my wedding (although the ex and I did say we wished I could move in with him – we just knew that it would freak our parents out, and create strife we weren’t willing to live with for the rest of our lives). I directed all of my legalistic rage at my sister. Because she wasn’t shaving her legs, and was going through her own brand of rebellion.
Then I got married. I moved to Alabama, where the X was in school. X and I did find a church as soon as we were married. I think we were both uncomfortable with the church world at that time, but we weren’t in any sort of all-out rebellion. We were newly married, knew we would one day be parents, and we wanted to do the “right thing.”
We went to a relatively large church, but by far not the largest in Birmingham, which a friend of his parents recommended. I was quickly startled at the similarity between this church and all I had seen at Liberty. Liberty was my first exposure to church as a stage, and I thought it was unique. Turned out it was NOT unique. The pastor in Birmingham had the same hair sprayed man haircut that all the men at Liberty had; the sermons were cookie-cutter; the parade of people walking down the aisle so they could “rededicate their lives to Christ” was just as persistent; the fear of hell was just as consistently evoked. I was not impressed.
For a little while, we were just less than enthusiastic about attending. We had initially tried the “young married couples” bible study group – but I found no real connections with the girls [no, we were most decidedly not women, no matter how desperately we were playing at it] and all of their hairspray. X found no connection to the boys. In some ways, looking back, the “young married” bible studies I had come across in those years give me the absolute creeps. I almost feel like it was on the same spectrum as the training of boy soldiers we saw on Blood Diamond last night. They didn’t hand us a gun, of course, but they handed us the ability to bind ourselves to one another, to bring children into the world, and to think exactly what they wanted us to think. We were painfully young, and so wanting to do good in the world, and with our lives, and each other, and our future children. But we were so little. I was 21! X was 22.
X was concurrently embarking on another major relationship in his life [our lives], which I think contributed to his discontent with the Church. He was heading into a much more “intellectual” phase of his life, and I think he was ready to be done with the emotionalism. I just thought it was fake, and I was sick of all the damned hairspray. I also thought that the repetition, and the ‘sameness’ of it all made it suddenly less credible. I was squirming. My world view was starting to crumble and shift.
So we started looking around at other churches. The first thing we tried (which, really, is 100% in line with X, his field, his interests) was the Episcopal Church in town. I was uncomfortable with that church. First of all, there was a woman .. what? priest? pastor? reverend? Had they not read the bible?? Women can’t head churches. Hello, sin much? Second of all, they were having AIDS fundraisers. This was absolutely, positively pushing things too-too-too far. How could they support homosexuality like that? I couldn’t do it. I felt like there was no point in attending a church that didn’t even bother to crack a bible open (which, oddly, was also a complaint I had about Jerry Falwell in that he spent so much time ranting on politics, I would seethe over the fact that there was no real preaching going on).
I think, instead, we just stopped going to church.
Then we moved to Berkeley. E was born 25 days later. Once a kid was in the picture, I felt like we were missing something by not going to church. I had heard somehow about a Presbyterian Church in town, and I wanted to try it.
In the meantime ….
I had a very close friend from college. We will call him T. When we were in college, T was just the life of a party (a very alcohol-free party, of course). He was fun, he was funny, he was warm. He was a very very best friend of mine. He had an excellent sense of fashion, he loved to sit and tease girls (and boys) for their lousy clothing choices, he used to just revel in the fact that he, myself, Rose, and our other friends were considered “beautiful people.” I was so comfortable with him all the time.
At one point, X and his friends told me that they walked in on T kissing another boy. I told them they were full of shit, T was not like that, and they were a bunch of macho fucks [okay, I probably said “jerks”] who had too much testosterone. T was my friend. Of course he was not gay.
At another point, T called me to tell me that someone else had accused him of being gay [I think it was X’s friend – X was/is a jock, and his friends were of that sort. He was, too.]. He asked me what I thought. I said, “it doesn’t matter, because you’re not.” Maybe I said, “well, we’ll tell them that you’re not.”
I wonder how quickly I knew that I had failed a major test of our friendship? Was it that day? Or was it not until much, much later?
After college, T floundered around a lot. He couldn’t settle down. He was flitting from NYC to Atlanta to D.C., and then at one point, he landed in Maryland, at some camp or something. Why a camp? What is he talking about? he said he was trying to be more spiritual. There were things in his life he needed to deal with, and he realized that, and so he was trying to deal with things. I think it was a place like this.
By the time I hit Berkeley, it was clear to me that T was gay, that he had been hiding it, that he had been making up the fact that he had girlfriends over the summers at home, and that he was in the world’s shittiest situation. I was angry. How could this be? How could someone try so damned hard, and still not be what everyone around him thought he should be? I felt that there was something fundamentally unfair about a religion that served to make people hate themselves, and put people in a situation where they could not live up to the standard – no matter what they did. No matter how many damned CAMPS they went to. T was T. And he wasn’t going to stop being himself because this religion said that he was sinful.
That was Issue Numero Uno — my doubts were huge at that point, and had nothing to do with hairspray and face make up. [An aside to say that during my last days in Berkeley, T moved to San Francisco. We got together, he officially came out, I told him, “I know, T!” and I apologized for not being more accepted years before. We had a great 6 months hanging out before he realized that San Francisco was not and could not be home for him, and he went back to the Southeast. We still talk occasionally, and every time, it’s like home again.]
A second thing: I had made a couple of friends through the Presbyterian Church. They were Very Christian. They used their beliefs (separately, though) to craft a parenting style which I saw as mistreatment of their children. Spanking their babies for crying when they were told to stop. Creating a puppet of an 18 month old who would practically walk in place crying and frustrated because he was afraid of what his mom would do if he didn’t listen to her, but wanting to run over to her and grab her legs. The spankings, though! So many spankings.
And my own parenting journey also pulled me away. Dr. Dobson’s parenting missives were nothing but child abuse in my mind. Why was I being told that my children were horrid sinners at the age of 2 months? Why was I being told that my job is to teach them to get in line; to obey; that when they cry in their cribs, they’re not unhappy or hungry or lonely — they’re rebelling?
This went 100% against my instincts, and I was unwilling to take any of it on for myself.
How much was I influenced by the town I was in? I like to think not at all. I don’t think it mattered that I was in a town with co-sleeping, bare breasted, baby-sling wearing mommas who would have had me arrested if I dared raise a hand to my child – because I didn’t know them yet. I was alone – other than these two women I met through the church. Who were scary.
There was also the time that I went home to my parents’ church while visiting. E was in my arms – she was probably 9 or 10 months old. An ex boyfriend of mine was their with his wife and their 6 month old child. His father was a deacon or whatever in the church, and he got up to pray, and in his prayer, he said to god that he knew that both my E and his grandson were sinners. That they had been sinners since their conception, and until they accepted Jesus Christ at their lord and savior, sinners they would remain.
I walked out. I would have nothing to do with a place that told me and my child and the heavens above that a 9 month old child was a sinner.
So, that was Issue #2.
I believe my final big issue – other than some other episodes that worked to seal the deal – was the Welfare Queens. Another big lie which I had uncovered.
X was a student, and we didn’t have that much $$. I wasn’t willing to give up my goal of staying home with my baby, and so I decided to try to start my own business. I posted fliers, I sent out letters, and I made phone calls. I ended up with a few lawyer-clients, a few mediator/arbitrator-clients, and a few professor clients. And a couple of students. For the lawyers and mediators, I did paralegal work – summarizing transcripts and depositions and other legal things. For the professors and students, however, I did straight transcription.
Oh how boring, you may say.
But really, not so much.
I worked on a project about sex ed in schools; a project about sex workers; a project about welfare reform; a project about father’s involvement with their kids if he was never married to the mom, and it also ended up being a LOT about welfare; and a project about college admissions.
I listened to tapes of conversations with people who were experiencing a poverty I had never imagined. Women with 2 or 3 children and no income other than welfare. I learned what the welfare system really is. I learned about the lack of opportunity given to people who find themselves on welfare long term. I heard the voices of women who were absolutely trapped, and had nowhere else to go.
There were no welfare queens. There was no cheating of the system. There were poor women, poor children – suffering from a true lack of food, education, opportunities, self-respect, respect from others, and on and on and on.
I could not believe how the principles I was taught varied from the truth. How could people just say “if you want a job, go to McDonald’s and get a job!” – and put the kids in what daycare? And get there with what car? And wear what clothes when we get there? And when we can’t do the work because we left school before we could read – not because we were rebellious, not because we made bad choices, but because we did not have the examples that you had, Mr. Falwell, and your children, and your students who pay $10,000/year [yeah, that was all it cost then] – we didn’t have those examples, and those lessons. We had schools that were falling apart and we didn’t have textbooks and we didn’t have buses, and we were hungry all day.
And I knew that I was lied to.
I was lied to about people who need help; I was lied to about the fact that they are out to take from me – and that if they only TRIED, they would be able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and have everything my parents had.
I was lied to about homosexuality.
I was lied to about human nature, and the sin in babies.
And I found that when it came time to talk to E, as she got older, about the universe, and about church, and about god …. I couldn’t do it. I had piles upon piles of books that were full of religious bullshit – written for kids, sent by the grandmas – and I couldn’t read them to her.
Because I knew that if I did, then I was lying.
I did spend some time reading the bible on my own. I thought that perhaps the people who I had learned from had contorted the message. Perhaps it’s not the religion itself, but rather, the religious. I looked closely at the passages about women not teaching men. I didn’t see it as succinctly put as I was taught to think it was, but I still wasn’t won over by some new, and newly beautiful, truth. I put the bible down.
1. When I found out that X had lied to me about how and why we were in Berkeley, I felt like it was all a freaking sham. I thought I had “found god’s will” and in fact, I had found that someone wanted my husband — really bad.
2. When I found out that when he was 8, my brother had been molested by our “worship leader” at church – a man who I had felt so close to, and whose family (wife, son and baby daughter) was so important to me during my later teen years. I was so angry – but less at him, and more at my parents and the general population of the church. At their blind trust because this man stood up at the front of their church every week with his hands raised to the ceiling made them turn off their other filters. I know that I didn’t have alarm bells going off about him, either, but — I think they were there. I hated the idea that someone can just say, “yes, I’m born again” and wa la! Come to my house! Eat at my table! Have my children at your house whenever you want! You are a Christian, and therefore, you are “okay.”
3. When I realized that if X hadn’t been a virgin when we married, I would have known that for some reason, having sex with him gave me yeast infections. Every fucking month. Yeast infections that made me feel like I was on fire, all the time. That made sex hurt more than any other painful ordeal I had been through (including childbirth!). I would also have known that X didn’t give a shit if sex hurt, that he wouldn’t be willing to change a damned thing (I don’t know what would have worked), and he wouldn’t be willing to stop having sex.
And he wouldn’t have been a virgin if we weren’t told that sex was evil and bad and gross and that we would go to hell if we did it. We would have been able to find out whether or not we made a good couple. Hell, we could have moved in together before getting married, and I would have known that he was not just a tall boy with a high level of intelligence who played Division I baseball, but rather that he was a selfish son of a bitch who had a lousy sense of humor and loved to manipulate people into thinking that they were stupid and that he was so smart that they should never think to disagree with or argue with him, or else he would laugh at them, for being stupid. (Which his daughter, E, has recently pointed out to me – and which made me very, very, very sad. Because while I was able to file for divorce – there isn’t anything that I can do to help her avoid that condescension, as infuriating and hurtful as it is.)
So, if you take all of these issues and episodes, mix them together with the fact that I never really “got” the spiritual vibe of the religion, you get Zuska today. There were times, while X and I were still together, that I wondered if I made the right choice. Was I snatching my kids from heaven’s promises? Those doubts are gone – they were fleeting. I never wonder if I was wrong. Never. I have been to my parents’ church on a few occasions since I fully turned my back, and I was not at all pulled by the message or the “truth” as they see it. I went once with my sister, and she pinched me and said, “Z! You need to stop looking so angry, I swear, you look like you’re going to explode!” because I just can’t fathom believing that crap. Why do people choose to sit down in a town hall or a high school or a store, just to be told that they’re evil sinners? When they’re not.
I don’t think I’m articulating this last piece as well as I’d like to. I want to talk about the brutality of this god of my parents, and about the absolutely SICKness of revering a being who killed his own child. I want to talk about the promise of heaven as it is described by the churches I was a part of: a place where you spend all day every day on your knees praising god. Huh? That’s heaven? What the hell is up with this god character that he keeps creating new people, trying to convince them to live their lives in this manner while thinking themselves (and everyone who doesn’t agree with them) vile, just so they can die and then fall on their knees and worship him forever and ever amen? No thanks.