Beyond Belief Interviews Grace Peterson

Grace Peterson is a writer and blogger living in Oregon. Her stories have been published in several anthologies and she blogs about the writing craft and recovery topics. Grace’s new memoir, gracepetersonReaching has just been published by All Things That Matter Press. It tells her tale of entering and leaving a religious cult and breaking free from the power of a charismatic cult leader. An avid gardener, Grace keeps busy writing a garden column, updating her garden blog and working on her forthcoming gardening book.

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? It began with serendipity and a random Google search. When I found Susan and Cami’s website and read their call for submissions I immediately thought, well, this is right up my alley! Having someone interested in my journey was and is a priceless gift.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion?  It made me very grateful for where I am today.  I was an emotional wreck during the bulk of my seven years under the influence of a hyper-religious man I call “Brock.” During that time, opportunities to explore my emotions were far and few between. I had convinced myself that seeking outside help was wrong. I was like a caged animal. If my “free expression” wasn’t congruous with Brock’s point of view, I was either a rebel or demon possessed. I felt terribly hopeless.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? I remember thinking, if leaving Brock means leaving God then, so be it. I really didn’t want to live the rest of my life without God but I didn’t want to live under Brock’s control either. Brock had taught me to fear the outside world. It took 5 years before I could start to trust people. During this time I began to realize that what I had believed was wrong. I had to admit my part in it. It was much easier to lay blame on Brock and play the victim. It took several years and lots of therapy to own up to the role I played in my own deception.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? For me, initially it was about finding a cure for what was ailing me. Once I was in it became about belonging. I had grown up with parents who were emotionally unavailable. I was longing for connection and wanted a family, particularly a doting father. I believe all of us need to feel a human connection. We’re on this earth for a united purpose.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Not very much, I pray, not in a ceremonial way. I talk to God and hope that a higher benevolent being cares about me and my loved ones and the goodness of humanity. I hold on to the hope that when we’ve exhausted our efforts to control things, we can trust that higher power to guide us. I’m not a religious person. I doubt I’ll ever step foot in a church again.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Extreme religion is all about conformity to a specific set of doctrines. I would remind women who are struggling with their faith to hone their intuition. We’ve all been gifted with the ability to think and reason and wrestle, to discover what works and what doesn’t.

Additionally I’d remind women that we can eschew religious people and/or institutions and still be connected to our higher power. We don’t need a bevy of pious people to guide us. We can think for ourselves.

One last thought:  A belief system that is hurting you emotionally, physically or spiritually is a red flag. Even if you can’t put your finger on what it is, listen to your gut. It’s okay to think the unthinkable—and to protect yourself from situations that are hurting you.

What are your current writing projects? My memoir Reaching was just published. In it, I go into much more detail about my life, how I was lured into a cult and how I got out.  I’ve also written a light-hearted garden book which will be released in late fall 2013. I write a garden column and author two blogs.Reaching  front cover

Anything else you’d like to say to our readers? I’d like to state publicly how honored I am to be a part of such an important undertaking. Thank you Susan, Cami and Seal Press for believing in this project and giving each contributor a platform to share their story.

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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.