Beyond Belief Interviews Pamela Helberg

Pamela Helberg is something of an expert at living two lives:  Fundamentalist Christian/closeted lesbian; Catholic school employee/mostly out lesbian; writer/computer geek; lesbian mom in the not so gay 90s.  She received her MA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University where she studied under award-winning novelist Laura Kalpakian. Pam founded and operated Fremont Place Books in Seattle and taught English composition for many years at Whatcom Community College, before succumbing to her inner geek and launching a career in IT.  She lives in Bellingham, WA with her partner Nancy where she works at making her life more congruent.  She blogs on a variety of topics at http://www.pmbgp.blogspot.com.pamhelberg

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household.  When I was four years old, my family left Bellevue, WA, a developing suburb of Seattle and relocated to Sultan, a small logging town 45 minutes from anywhere interesting.  To this day I don’t know what possessed my parents to move us there, but they did, and not long after we arrived, my parents became born again.  My childhood played out in a series of evermore conservative religious communities.  These years left an indelible mark on me.  I was so afraid of going to hell, I spent my first four years at college as a member of a conservative Christian student organization where I alternately tried to pray away my gay and seduced other bible study members.

I have a lot to say about the role religion played in my life, and how it continues to be such a dominant and distracting force in our culture, sucking energy that could be channeled into more productive pursuits.  These are themes I am interested in exploring more deeply.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? I always experience some PTSD whenever I write about the time I was devoted to fundamentalist Christianity. I get angry that I wasted so much time and energy, so much of my youth, in this culture of fear, a community that essentially devalued the very essence of my being. I am relieved I was able to extricate myself when I did. The experience has provided me with rich material for writing.  Still, I’m sad and slightly angry.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Alienating my parents and the fear of their rejection was painful, as I write in “Body Language”—though that all worked out happily in the long run. The most difficult part of deciding that I could no longer be a Christian was the realization that none of my friends were going to make that transition with me—the loss of those relationships and the fact that I was rejected for being true to myself.

I remember a letter I got from a woman who had been a mentor, she was a youth group minister when I was in high school. I wrote to tell her that my partner and I had adopted our first daughter and she wrote back to tell me how horrible I was, that I was making a huge mistake, that the child deserved two heterosexual parents, and that God would punish us. That hurt.  Being alone between two worlds for a time was very challenging. I had to trust my choice, and it has proven to be the right one.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I have no idea—in fact, I can’t imagine a modern day woman needing religion especially if one is educated and independent. That said, I think we are attracted to what is familiar and safe, so there’s that; if a woman was raised in a religious household she might be afraid to leave her family and friends behind.  None of us likes change. On the other hand, if a woman comes from a place of chaos and instability, perhaps the order of religion attracts her, the clear rules and boundaries.

One doesn’t have to look very far to see how much of a scam religion is, how full of hypocrites, how the “man behind the curtain” is not so great and powerful as he seems (and it’s always a he). And then there’s the community—religion offers a ready-made group of friends and activities. I spent eight years working in a Catholic school and if I could forget about the religious aspects, it was a generally lovely and generous community.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Many irrational fears: fear of being struck by lightning (seriously), fear of being left behind by the rapture—if I come home and my partner isn’t there but her keys, the car, and her wallet are all still in the house, I immediately think that Christ has returned and I am not among the chosen (which isn’t a surprise, really). I still harbor a slightly violent distrust of all things labeled spiritual, no matter how benign.

The only positive remnant I can think of is my biblical literacy—I know my bible, can recite bible verses, and I can find the religious symbols in literature. These are small skills in comparison to the trauma I still carry, though I am in therapy to work on modulating these negative feelings.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Trust yourself—if you think you are being used, abused, belittled, ignored, subjugated, you probably are.  If you are being asked to do something that doesn’t make sense, don’t do it. If someone wants your money for the glory of some god, don’t give it to them.  You don’t have to be a believer to be a good and moral person—religion does not have the corner on decency.

Put your faith in yourself, not in the unseen or inscrutable.

What are your current writing projects? I am currently working on my memoir which chronicles the creation and ultimate dissolution of my Perfect Lesbian Family—how two lesbians created a family (insemination, adoption) and then how I navigated uncharted territories as a divorced lesbian mother seeking child custody.

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