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.

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.