Isolation and Sex

It has been a bad week for women in the news. The escape of three young women held prisoner in a Cleveland neighborhood, shackled and locked in a room, for 10 years! The arrest of Jeffrey Krusinski, an army officer in charge of preventing the sexual assault of women in the military, himself arrested for committing these very acts. And Elizabeth Smart speaking at Johns Hopkins about how her Mormon upbringing taught her that without her virginity intact she was like a chewed up piece of gum. When she lost it at the age of 14, raped by her kidnapper, she often wondered, “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

Isolation and Sex

In all three of these situations they are common factors. The three victims in Cleveland were physically isolated and then sexually abused. They had no way to seek help. Women in the military become part of a closed community, with its own rules and system of hierarchy. Once signed on they are a small minority who agree to a structure that does not give them permission to speak up thus breeding sexual abuse that will go unpunished. Elizabeth Smart, who, even as a mainstream Mormon, took the lesson of the sanctity of virginity to its heartbreaking conclusion and remained kidnapped longer because, after losing her virginity, she no longer felt worthy of any other life.

Although none of the stories in Beyond Belief come anywhere close to the horror of these three events they have caused me to reflect upon the stories in the anthology and how they speak to the ways in which isolation leads to the sexual control of women and women’s ultimate resilience to find their way back to freedom.

First comes the isolation. Isolation can take many forms from outright physical separation to the more subtle practices and beliefs that separate women emotionally and intellectually from those around them.

Religions create insular, all-inclusive worlds. In Dirty Girl, Erin Seaward-Hiatt’s story, she recounts her own lesson on virginity. In a Mormon Sunday school class she was offered a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies covered in debris to get the message that her virginity was sacred. It took a bad marriage and three times confessing the minute details of her sex life to three different strange middle-aged laymen before she finally threw away her faith and walked.

In Mary Johnson’s (An Unquenchable Thirst) experience of living as a Catholic nun for 20 years her celibacy was controlled by a cloistered environment where women spied on one another and were not allowed to talk openly about their sexual feelings. The rules kept them isolated from one another and to knowledge about their own bodies. Though they were never alone and lived within a tight knit community that was supportive in many other ways each woman was internally isolated.

In my own case the isolation of living as an Orthodox Jew in a small community and practicing the laws of mikveh (immersion in water after menstruation) led to the control of my sex life making me into a baby-making machine. It all made sense, within the confines of the orthodox world, its values, its beliefs, its laws. Cranking out children was normal, a woman’s number one job, a one-way ticket to the world to come.

As powerful as isolation can be I need to remind myself of the resilience and power that a woman’s deep reserve of inner strength has to ultimately help her to break free. Beyond Belief has many fine examples; Elizabeth Taylor Mead, Melanie Hoffert and Carolyn Briggs come to mind. Our resilience, our strength, as women, is a rich and deep vein, it’s what has kept me going during many years of my life and what kept me going this past week of bad news.

I find solace in knowing that more women than ever are speaking out. Telling our stories and coming out of isolation is more important than ever and I am once more grateful to each of the Beyond Belief writers and their willingness to raise their voice.

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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.
Mary

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 www.maryjohnson.co