Telling the Whole Story

As Beyond Belief finds its way in the world it has been interesting to observe that most of the press it has received gravitates toward the topic of “women leaving religion.” This is understandable with so much media focus on the regrettably harrowing and sensational stories about women who have to “escape” or “flee” an isolated fundamentalist community where physical abuse is rampant.

But the reality is that most women’s stories of extreme religion are about the quieter struggles, daily challenges and simmering internal conflicts. This is not to say that their stories lack intensity. As Bethanne Patrick noted in her recent interview with Cami and me for Atlantic.com “Ostman and Tive aren’t surprised that intense experiences, like sex, came up so often for their contributors. Intense experiences, are, after all, part of why many of the women got into these religions in the first place.”

Most women in extreme religions want to make religion work. As noted in the article we did notice patterns in why contributors joined.  Religion offered meaning and a spiritual connection, a sense of purpose both individually and as part of a community. Many women could not find this in secular society and became loath to give it up even when faced with growing doubts.

From the outset it has been important to me that Beyond Belief explore the whole journey of women within extreme religions because understanding why women choose them and why they stay, sheds valuable light not just on the religious world but on the secular one as well.

Although we often want the choices in life to be black and white so that we can clearly delineate between them this is the very human tendency to oversimplify and create absolutes that causes many of the problems within extreme religions. Beyond Belief attempts to live in the gray area by exploring both the religious and non-religious status quo without taking a side. It’s sometimes difficult, especially for former members of extreme religions, who made big choices in a big way at one time. As Cami said in our interview, “I used to live in a swimming pool where I knew all of the edges. Now I’m in the ocean learning to backfloat.”

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The Beyond Belief cast and crew has an exciting week ahead. We kick off this Sunday April 28th with an afternoon reading at Village Books in Bellingham WA. We’ll have a good sampling of stories to tell, one ex-catholic, four ex-evangelicals and yours truly filling the role as token Jew. It will be fun to read for the hometown crowd before heading down to Powell’s in Portland for a Tuesday night event. There we will introduce our one Oregon based author, Grace Peterson, who will join us for the evening as well as several of our diehard writers including Pam Helberg who is gung ho to make the trek.

Wednesday we stay down south with an event at the University of Washington Bookstore in Seattle. I’ve often thought that Beyond Belief would make a great text for Women’s Studies and/or Comparative Religion Courses and do hope that students and faculty will come hear us read and ask questions. If you’re in the neighborhood please join us. If you live too far away but want to be part of the conversation we invite you to comment, tell us your story or request a spot on our guest blog.

Beyond Belief Interviews Leah Lax

This week Beyond Belief talks with writer Leah Lax. Leah earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She has published prose, poetry, award-winning fiction, memoir, essays, the libretto for a major opera, and a world-traveling exhibit. She contributed to the 2010 anthology Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Lives. Leah currently lives and works in Houston.

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What interested you in contributing to the anthology? Over the ten years since I left, I’d only met a few women with similar experiences. The idea of gathering such a group together was exciting, particularly since Beyond Belief shows our common thread across a number of religions. I consider all women who live or have lived “under the veil” to be my sisters. My memoir is dedicated to them.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Very painful. In order to make a scene come across as genuine on the page, a writer has to essentially experience it in exquisite detail as she writes, allowing emotion and sensation to drive the process. Although I teach memoir writing, I frankly don’t recommend doing it and tell my students so at the first class. They just laugh.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? My two youngest, who were thirteen and fourteen at the time, refused to leave with me. A lawyer told me that since I am a lesbian (this was in Houston during the Bush administration), that there was no judge in the vicinity that would grant me custody. My entire life had been defined by our home and children and I had to walk away.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I can’t draw a general conclusion here. I can say for myself that I stepped out into a vast dangerous confusing world far too young and extreme religion offered structure and clarity. The rules and their God were parental, the community familial, and I still needed both.

To me now, people in those communities seem stuck in a pre-adolescent state since they were never allowed to do the essential things adolescents have to do—like challenging authority, threshing out their own morals, exploring their sexuality. When I left, I went through a period of doing those things as if I was picking my adolescence back up where I had left it years before. I’ve found this true of others who left similar communities. The people who remain, however, like younger kids, accept without question—and seem to need—the parental authority they call God.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I can read the Hebrew Bible and prayer book fluently. I have a huge working knowledge of Jewish Law and am familiar with the basics of mystical philosophy. I know how to bake good challah, and where to buy the best human hair wigs for orthodox women. My heart holds onto values touted in Hassidic life: a profound level of kindness to animals, the social responsibility of sharing with others, deep respect for the elderly, etc. I accept that my Orthodox life formed me in many ways. The best: I wake every morning with the startling joyful awareness that my life is impossibly brief, a huge unearned gift, so I better get to work.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Here’s a quote from the Epilogue to my memoir Uncovered. Although addressed to women still living a fundamentalist life, I feel it applies to everyone:

TO MY COVERED SISTERS: To get the best from religion, you have to sift. Allow yourself to do that, no matter what people say. Stand up to the guilt or shame that some use as a tool of religion (it’s a dishonest tool) and reserve the right to think for yourself, judge for yourself, even when you stand before judges. Suck out the wisdom, inspiration and beauty and leave the rest behind. Most covered women don’t think they have that strength. But you do.

Keep your voice. Free choice, choice you must not sacrifice, is yours.

What are your current writing projects? I’ve recently completed two different manuscripts. The first is a memoir entitled Uncovered about my thirty years among the Lubavitcher Hassidim as a covered woman, a mother of seven, and a hidden lesbian. The second is entitled Not From Here, a collection of first-person accounts by immigrants and refugees to the U.S. from around the world telling the stories of their journeys. I think I did that project because, after leaving the Hassidim, I felt like an immigrant myself.

Beyond Belief Interviews Donna Johnson

In this week’s Beyond Belief Blog we sit down with Donna Johnson to discuss her continued quest to understand faith and embrace questions that don’t have easy answers. Through the writing of Holy Ghost Girl Donna found a way to connect the disparate parts of her self. The sight of a gospel tent stretched against an evening sky still leaves an ache in her heart, but she no longer flees at the sound of a tambourine. She has been known to tell people she’ll pray for them. And she does. The big questions posed by religion continue to occupy Donna. She lives and writes in Austin Tx, where with the help of family and friends, she works at becoming a regular person.Donnawithoutchicken

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? I was glad to have the chance to contribute to the dialogue around extreme religion in a way that didn’t demean the experience of those for whom the “full gospel” mode of worship is meaningful.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? I finished Holy Ghost Girl before writing my piece for the anthology, so I was already familiar and comfortable with revisiting that time in my imagination. In the piece I wrote for the anthology, I focused more on trying to understand why I left. What I found surprised me. It wasn’t the harshness of the environment or the betrayal of faith or the misuse of funds or the lies. I discovered in the writing that I left because I was always going to leave. It was simply not in me to stay. I was always an outsider, in essence a writer.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Everything about life as part of the tent family felt like home. I loved it. I still love the best parts of it–the music, the connection between people, the mystery. When I left, I felt like a person with no history, no roots. And I knew the people I loved best, the people I left behind, would consider me a traitor of sorts…and they did. I missed having a place of belonging in the world.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? It depends on the woman, and on the religion. I’ll confine my speculation to my own tradition. The old-time holy rollers were the precursors of the charismatics, many of who morphed into evangelicals. I think some women, and men, are drawn to ecstasis, an embodied and ecstatic experience of religion. Some scholars believe humans have a built in need for that kind of experience and that we seek it out in many venues; sporting events, political movements and rallies, concerts.

I also think that increasingly fundamentalist strains of religion are among the few cultural holdouts in modern society that truly value traditional women’s roles, and I wonder if that is part of the appeal. Things are changing so quickly and women are expected to fulfill so many roles now. Perhaps a system that upholds one role above all others brings clarity and comfort. Though I can’t fathom why the need for clarity and simplification should override the repression that comes with these systems. There is also the overwhelming depiction of women as sexual objects in this country. I can see extreme religion as offering a sort of respite from hyper sexuality.  Untitled-1

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? The idea that we are all connected and responsible for each other, that we are indeed our brothers’–and our sisters’–keepers.

What advise do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Pay attention to the still, small voice inside. Pay attention to those nagging doubts and questions–even when, maybe especially when, they contradict the voices of so-called spiritual authority. Authoritarian voices are always full of certainty. I’ve learned to value uncertainty. It’s when you don’t know that you stumble upon something fresh and new.

What are your current writing projects? I’m working on a new memoir. It’s a reckoning of my behavior, especially my failures as a mother, and trying to figure out how much of what we do is part of our programming and if it is, in what ways are we accountable and how do we begin to let go of grief and regret. It’s a difficult subject for me. I’m using a more associative, poetic structure that I did in my memoir Holy Ghost Girl, and that interests me.

 

Talk Amongst Yourselves–About Shame

We had our first TV interview this week to help launch the book. And although I (Cami) had a good time on the set, and although I’m as proud a parent as can be of Beyond Belief, I was surprised to notice, as Susan and I walked out to the parking lot in Seattle, the appearance of Shame. Are people going to like it? Did I say anything stupid? Is it okay to have told my own story? How many times did “um” come out of my mouth? Shame, uninvited, dove straight down my throat and settled comfortably, like it had its own key, in my chest.

ShameAh, good old Shame—the emotion that insists we are inadequate, not enough, not supposed to show up and be our whole messy, emerging, imperfect selves. Nothing like being on television to bring it on.

Fortunately, everyone I know, it seems, is reading Brené Brown right now. Brown is a psychologist and “shame researcher” (can you imagine spending all day everyday with Shame?). So, because I had three of her books in my house which I had purchased at some point but never read, I picked one up and flipped it open. Here’s what she says about Shame:

Brown says that Shame is triggered when we are identified by others (or when we think we are identified by others) in unwanted ways. She cites a common unwanted identity surfacing when we have “difficulty navigating all the messages and stereotypes that discourage [women] from taking an unpopular stand on an issue or sharing opinions that might make others feel uncomfortable.”

The moment I read that statement, a light bulb went off in my head. Just the very possibility (which only exists in my mind at this point, by the way) that Beyond Belief or something I might say about it could make some people uncomfortable pulled me right back into something I lived with for 20 years in my faith: The belief that to step outside of “the lines” is to challenge something bigger than me—and that’s bad (which means I’m bad).

No doubt about it, to say what is true for you instead of what is true for the masses or for your religion or your parents or… whoever, is to face your Shame. Shame tells you that you’re small and should stay small, should be quiet. Many of the women in our anthology have faced this message; and now they’re talking.

Today I say to Shame, “Listen up! We all get to talk about whatever we want to talk about. That’s all. Thank you for coming. Good night.”

The writers in Beyond Belief (Oh right, I’m one of them!) have set a powerful example of telling their own stories as they experienced them. I’m so grateful for that example and I aim to follow it.

What about you, reader? How did/has shame snuck up on you in your life? Or how has it been fostered by others? What did you say back to it? How did you wiggle free from its grip?

*For another reflection on Shame, read Pam Helberg’s recent blog post too. Pam is one of our wonderful contributors; her story, “Body Language” appears in the second section of Beyond Belief.