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.

Chuckles of Understanding, Moments of Sadness

Beyond Belief top onlyLast week Cami and I (Susan) met with four of our Bellingham and Seattle based writers to do a read-through for our upcoming events at Elliot Bay on April 4, Village Books on April 28, and Powell’s on April 30.  We met at the home of Laura Kalpakian, an award winning novelist, teacher and top-notch coach who, it turns out, had one time or another taught almost all of us. Laura is a generous and perceptive teacher and she shines when it comes to helping writers prepare to read from their work.

As we gathered around Laura’s dining room table, snacks and wine close at hand, it occurred to me that this was the first time any of our anthology writers would be hearing each others stories. Their copies of Beyond Belief were still in the mail and unlike Cami and I, they hadn’t been living and breathing all 26 stories during the past two years. How would they respond to each others stories?  Would they feel the same spark of recognition and empathy for one another that had fueled the anthology in the first place?

During the first read-through we all listened with an ear toward pacing, tone of voice, and flow of content. Suggestions were made, changes followed. Laura’s comments were, as usual, right on, witty and to the point. By the second go-round deliveries were smoother, the pulls and tugs that writers had made evened out pauses and intonations.  When everyone took a second turn, the assembled writers became listeners not of technique and delivery but of the stories themselves. That’s when I noticed Colleen smile sympathetically when Pam described her fear of burning in hell for having sex. That’s when I saw Elise nod emphatically as Cami read about her desperate desire to learn how to speak in tongues. And so it went, chuckles of understanding, moments of sadness. The spark that originally created Beyond Belief was clearly being fanned by the sharing of stories and had now turned into a full-blown flame.

Toward the end of the evening Elise Brianne reread her story in which the last lines are from the song “Show me the Way. ” In her first read-though, she had paused not knowing whether to speak or sing them. On her second pass she used her beautiful strong voice to sing the lyrics. After the final notes quieted we all sat silently. Finally Pam said, “Don’t you just miss the music? I could live without all the rest but sometimes there’s nothing like those old hymns and songs.”

There is much we don’t miss from our former faiths, much we are still grieving and angry about. But for the former Catholic, Orthodox Jew, and Evangelicals of various stripes sitting around the table, we agreed, the music of our former faiths never left us. It lives in our blood and bones just like our sadness and grief. It is as much a part of us as our new nonreligious lives, our fought-for freedoms and hard-earned sense of self worth; it is all there somehow coexisting inside of each of us. Recognizing it in each other helps me to see it in myself.

Beyond Belief Interviews Melanie Hoffert

Hoffert,Melanie-by_John_ChristensonWelcome to the Beyond Belief Blog, a forum for open discussion about women’s stories finding, staying in, and leaving extreme religions. Please share your story with us. This week we talk with writer Melanie Hoffert whose memoir, Prairie Silence has just been published.

What are your current writing projects? I just published my first book Prairie Silence in February of this year. As I’ve been promoting the book I’ve felt a lot of pressure to define my next big project. I think I’m finally accepting that I’m in a season of rest, contemplation, and regeneration. My book was born from writing what needed to be written over time; I suspect my next book will come to me in the same way.  Thus, I’m currently writing what comes, day by day.

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? This subject matter is so tricky and important.  As humans I think we are programed to make meaning out of our lives. I am on a life-long path of personal growth that at one time included “extreme” religion and continues today without it.

Today when it comes to religion, I am often caught between frustration and humility. The frustration comes from observing how some organized religions perpetuate blatant injustice under the shroud of holiness. The humility comes from recognizing that my blanket judgment about religion can be dangerous; religion is a deeply personal experience and some religions can cultivate great beauty and peace in people—I’ve been there.  I wanted to contribute to this anthology because I think “story sharing” is a critical way to break down walls, increase dialogue, and build understanding among people with different perspectives.

Additionally, much of my memoir is about my path to reconcile my faith with being a lesbian; in my book I write about my evolution through religion, starting with my early years of going to a country church on the North Dakota prairie, through my teenage years where I wore Jesus T-shirts and judged the complacency of the people in my small town church.  Eventually I come full circle in the book, admiring the quiet faith of the people from my childhood.  Since my experience with religion was such a big part of my memoir, this project seemed like a very wonderful complement to what I was already grappling with in my work.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? In my story Witness, I write about an evening when my brother shared with me questions he had about his evolving belief system. In contrast to a time in my life where, as a devout Christian, my job would have been to ask him to deny his feelings and to blindly accept my perceived truth, I was able to listen to him without judgment. And so to visit revisit my faith story from the vantage point of my growth was important and helpful.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? My journey away has been a long and slow process that happened over time. I don’t think about my experience as one of leaving, but as evolving to new understandings about life, love, and spirituality. The hardest part of the changes I’ve been through is that I feel empathy for people who are still in the world of extreme religion. This empathy causes me to silence myself because I anticipate how they will react to my thoughts about life. In other words, something still has a hold on me. I still fear judgment.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? As I stated earlier, I think as humans we need to make meaning of our physical experiences.  We naturally ask the questions humans have always asked, starting with: Why am I here? We all take different paths to address this question. And for some women, extreme religion provides clarity. Religion can also be a powerful vehicle to community, support, love, guidance, and communion with “the divine.”

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I still feel religious in some way:  I am deeply spiritual.  I honor the mystery of life.  I think there is meaning beyond our physical bodies.  And I aspire to the simplest principles I learned in church, including love and peace.  From my early experiences I take all that was truly good.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith? It is important for everyone, particularly women, to be very aware of their own voice in the context of religion; to not deny their discomfort, or their heart, when it echoes with the message: “Something about this is just not right.”HOFFERT-PrairieSilence

Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota where she spent her childhood meandering gravel roads and listening to farmers at church potlucks. She has an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, where she received the Outstanding Creative Nonfiction Thesis Award. Her essay Going Home won the Creative Nonfiction Award from The Baltimore Review; additionally, The Allure of Grain Trucks was selected as a finalist for the Writers at Work Fellowship Competition and also won the New Millennium Writings Creative Nonfiction Award. The Loft Literary Center selected her as a finalist for the Loft Mentor Series twice. Her work has also appeared in Muse & Stone and The Mochila Review.  Prairie Silence is her first book.

Join the Beyond Belief Conversation

Copies of Beyond Belief have come in to the publisher! That means that while the official publication date is not until April 2, you may be able to find them on bookstore shelves earlier than that. We’d love to hear from you if you see them at your local bookstore sooner.

As we mentioned last week, we’ll be introducing you to our contributors throughout the year. In between those interviews, we’ll be putting up a post we call, “The Beyond Belief Conversation.” This is a chance for you to share your story or experiences (or talk about them with friends offline, if that suits you better) with extreme religion. Have you been there yourself? Do you know someone who is, was or is thinking about joining?

When we conceived of Beyond Belief, we started with questions that were relevant to our mutual experience of joining religions that in some way asked us to follow rules foreign to our secular friends. Susan and I (Cami) came from very, very different traditions, but as we talked and shared our histories with one another, we realized that we had in much common. We discovered that we both joined our respective faiths (Susan into Orthodox Judaism and me into Pentecostal forms of Christianity) looking for structure and community, among other things. As we edited the stories in the anthology, we saw that women joined/converted for many reasons: Family, genuine faith, tradition, fear, a sense of belonging, etc. The more stories we read in working on the book, the more reasons we encountered.

question-marks-with-speech-bubblesWe couldn’t put ALL of the stories sent to us in the anthology, but we can make space for them here. So what about you? Are you someone who once embraced religion or faith (especially one that some might consider extreme)? If so, we’d love to know what drew you in. Why did you make a choice to leave behind the freedoms that secular life has to offer? What made you decide to trade the spaciousness of “no religion” for the guidelines of a faith or religious community? Is it because you heard a gospel that made sense to you? Were you looking for structure? Did the choices in front of you seem overwhelming while religious life offered a way to channel your energy, direction, and choices?

Whether you’ve left now or you’re still invested in the religion you once chose, we’ love to hear from you. What led you to join/convert?

Beyond Belief Interviews Mary Johnson

Welcome to the Beyond Belief Blog– A forum for open discussion about women’s stories finding, staying in and leaving extreme religions. Please share your story with us. This week we sit down with writer Mary Johnson whose memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst has just come out in paperback.

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? Telling our stories is important, and the voices of women in religion have too often been silenced. I want to encourage people to talk honestly about their experiences with a life of intense religious faith; too often we hide behind platitudes.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Writing about my experiences in the convent was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took me ten years to write my memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst. It was stressful to revisit the painful moments, and remembering the good things sometimes made me realize how much I missed the sisters. I’d also been told that leaving the convent was a sinful thing to do, a sign of moral failure—so I had to battle a lot of shame. For the Beyond Belief anthology, I chose to write about my life post-religion—and I found that challenging as well! Good writing requires a level of honesty that we humans tend to avoid if we can.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Leaving my sisters behind was really hard. The Missionaries of Charity discourage communication with former members, so leaving meant I had to cut myself off from these women who had become my only family for twenty years. There were some really great women in the convent—as well as some pretty strange ones! I miss them all.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I think we’re attracted to something that asks a lot of us. We’re attracted to a life of dedication, a life of meaning, a life of service where what we do matters. Problems happen when we aren’t allowed to give that life shape according to our own convictions, but allow the religion to dictate what we are to think and how we are to act. There can be immense abuse of power by people who assume religious authority.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I learned a great deal of compassion by working with the poor and by living so closely with my sisters. Our hours of prayer taught me an appreciation of silence and contemplation. The practice of examining my conscience twice a day helped me live with greater awareness of my actions and their consequences, and that awareness makes me a better person and a better writer today.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Trust yourself. Hold on to what you know to be true, without regard for what other people say. Try to live in the reality of the present moment, without layering on all sorts of extra lenses and stories. Seek out a community where you can be yourself without fear.

Anything else you’d like to say to our readers? I’ve found that my story sometimes scares religious people. They think that because I’ve abandoned religious faith I want everyone else to do so as well. We must each be free to choose the worldview that for us most accurately describes reality. Religion is dangerous when it forbids us to think and choose for ourselves, or when it is intolerant and narrow, but religion is also a source for good in the world. I want to encourage people to tell their own stories with real honesty and to listen to each others stories with respect.Image

Mary Johnson’s memoir An Unquenchable Thirst tells the story of her twenty years as a Missionary of Charity, also known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. An Unquenchable Thirst has just been released in paperback. Mary’s spring tour will take her to Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Placitas, Santa Fe, and New York. She’ll also lead a weekend retreat in May at Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania, examining the topic “Who am I? This I Believe, This I Hold Dear.” Mary is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Retreats for Women Writers. For more information, visit

Welcome to Beyond Belief, the Anthology

Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions tells the stories of women from a variety of religious backgrounds, ages and races who chose a religious path only to eventually reject or modify it in whole or in part.

Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions asks the questions:

Why, in a time when women have more freedom than ever before, would a modern woman chose to follow a religious tradition that distances her from those freedoms and takes away the choices so coveted by societal norms?

How and why do we as women agree to join rigid religious groups, what happens once we do, and what does it take to leave what we, at one time, accepted willfully?

Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions explores the religious experiences of:

Getting In – Why did we agree to join such rigid, traditional life-styles? How, when, and under what circumstances did we convert, join or otherwise submit to a theology and/or set of rules created by and enforced largely by men?

Life Inside – Why did we stay? What sacrifices did we make both in joining and in remaining? What does it look like from the inside? When did we have doubts about our choices? And how were these expressed or repressed? What particular burdens did we bear as women in our communities? What did we find valuable that we feared we couldn’t find on the outside?

Leaving – When did we discover we needed to leave? How did we leave? What do we miss? And are we allowed to admit that we miss it? What did we sacrifice in leaving? What did we gain? Are we ever tempted to return? How do we address/express our spirituality now?

Thank You to Our Contributors:

We, the editors (Susan Tive and Cami Ostman), were looking for slice-of-life writing that would address our questions. And our contributors delivered. We cannot wait for the world to read their incredible stories.

Thank you!