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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Beyond Belief Interviews Carolyn Briggs

This week Beyond Belief talks with writer Carolyn S. Briggs. Her 2002 memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost  was reissued in 2011 as Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. She wrote the screenplay adaptation of her book for the film, Higher Ground, released that same year. Carolyn is an associate professor of English at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa.01-carolyn-briggs[1]

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief?   It’s impossible to truly understand the experience of being immersed in a religious community unless you have experienced it yourself. However, language is the great facilitator of empathy.  In telling our stories, we invite readers to come alongside of us, to imagine themselves in our shoes (sensible, low heeled flats or Birkenstocks, as the case may be).  The stories in Beyond Belief will serve as a bridge for those on the outside to enter in and gain insight.  For those of us who have experienced an insular existence, we have the opportunity to enter into others’ stories with compassion and understanding and extend that mercy to ourselves, if we still need that kind of tending. And sometimes I do.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Writing a memoir right after I left the church was probably a mistake.  I should have allowed myself more time to process that loss.  Writing the screenplay for my memoir gave me the great gift of perspective.  It was like going home as I immersed myself in that world again.  In production, we chose hymns and worship songs for the soundtrack, and I would find myself singing them word-for-word, verse after verse.  It was all there.  I was smiling, laughing and crying listening to those beautiful songs.  I was still fluent in Born-Again and that was a lovely discovery.  In fact, I was more comfortable speaking to Fuller Theological Seminary students in California than I was addressing a film festival audience in Nantucket.   I am bi-lingual, I suppose, but neither language expresses me any longer.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? I lost the approval of many I cared deeply about.  I was an Elder’s wife. I was the director of the drama ministry.  I taught Bible study.  And then I just walked away from all my overachieving holiness.  One of my counselors told me that God would kill me for doing this. My mother was humiliated. My father was disappointed.  My children were confused and depressed.  My then husband, one of the finest human beings on this planet, was stunned with my betrayal.  I didn’t have any way of understanding the world or interpreting it. My lens for viewing the world was shattered and I couldn’t see a future without God.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? We are fundamentally wired to want answers.  Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures, and we are, to varying degrees, uncomfortable living in a random universe.  Faith is the only possible way to reconcile the events in our lives and in our world.   Science doesn’t do it.  Education is helpful, but not transcendent.  Rilke advises learning to love the questions themselves, but for most of us, that is uncomfortable. “I’m not sure if my significant other loves me, but I’m going to find pleasure in just wondering if he does.” Does that really work for anyone?

We’re also social creatures, and we seek a community of believers.  These groups usually reflect what we already fundamentally believe about the world.   When I was eighteen, the Jesus people were pious hippies—it was a perfect match for a pregnant eighteen-year-old whose boyfriend was a rock musician.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life?  I love European cathedrals. I’m rarely in an American church of any sort, but in Europe, I can hardly keep myself out of every church I encounter.  I light candles though I don’t know why. I stand before the altar. I walk from one stained glass window to the next to the next. My heart is always pounding.   Once in Istria, Croatia, I entered the vestibule of a church already observing mass.  A woman saw me standing in the doorway, and she walked toward me.  She’s going to invite me in, I thought. Instead, she closed the door in my face.  I suppose she saw me as an outsider, a curious tourist making the holy somehow profane.  And maybe I was.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Many women have written to me and told me that they are the woman in my film, the woman who has lost her faith and lost herself and only has a glimmer of hope that she can make a life apart from God.  I tell those women that God is big enough to contain their doubt.  Don’t let other people and their neuroses dictate to you how to live your life.  Religious people are threatened by people who leave their faith.  I’ve lost many friends who don’t know what to do with me, where to categorize me, what column to place me in. Am I a sheep or am I a goat? Am I chaff or wheat?  What the hell am I, anyway?  This is the kind of uncertainty that many people of faith just can’t deal with, so they close the door in our faces.  They wash their hands of us.

It’s okay if you are judged by others.  Just don’t judge yourself. You’re loved.  Keep taking a step and another one.  Remember when your parents told you there was nothing to be afraid of?  There’s really not.

Keep going.

What are your current writing projects? Most writers I know are also teaching writers, and this is a double-edged sword.  We are privileged to read about writing and talk about writing, and sometimes we read interesting student writing—all good.  Yet all of that work is time-consuming and keeps us from our own art.  I teach Composition class year round, but every spring, I teach a class dedicated to creative writing.  My students write poetry that inspires me to write poetry again.  What a pleasure!  I wrote a screenplay this winter, Geshe, which is in early stages of production.  This summer, I’m retreating to the Catskills to complete my second memoir. And in the meantime, I am writing essays exposing and exploring the oppressive elements of faith, family, and relationships.

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.

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.

Telling the Whole Story

As Beyond Belief finds its way in the world it has been interesting to observe that most of the press it has received gravitates toward the topic of “women leaving religion.” This is understandable with so much media focus on the regrettably harrowing and sensational stories about women who have to “escape” or “flee” an isolated fundamentalist community where physical abuse is rampant.

But the reality is that most women’s stories of extreme religion are about the quieter struggles, daily challenges and simmering internal conflicts. This is not to say that their stories lack intensity. As Bethanne Patrick noted in her recent interview with Cami and me for Atlantic.com “Ostman and Tive aren’t surprised that intense experiences, like sex, came up so often for their contributors. Intense experiences, are, after all, part of why many of the women got into these religions in the first place.”

Most women in extreme religions want to make religion work. As noted in the article we did notice patterns in why contributors joined.  Religion offered meaning and a spiritual connection, a sense of purpose both individually and as part of a community. Many women could not find this in secular society and became loath to give it up even when faced with growing doubts.

From the outset it has been important to me that Beyond Belief explore the whole journey of women within extreme religions because understanding why women choose them and why they stay, sheds valuable light not just on the religious world but on the secular one as well.

Although we often want the choices in life to be black and white so that we can clearly delineate between them this is the very human tendency to oversimplify and create absolutes that causes many of the problems within extreme religions. Beyond Belief attempts to live in the gray area by exploring both the religious and non-religious status quo without taking a side. It’s sometimes difficult, especially for former members of extreme religions, who made big choices in a big way at one time. As Cami said in our interview, “I used to live in a swimming pool where I knew all of the edges. Now I’m in the ocean learning to backfloat.”

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The Beyond Belief cast and crew has an exciting week ahead. We kick off this Sunday April 28th with an afternoon reading at Village Books in Bellingham WA. We’ll have a good sampling of stories to tell, one ex-catholic, four ex-evangelicals and yours truly filling the role as token Jew. It will be fun to read for the hometown crowd before heading down to Powell’s in Portland for a Tuesday night event. There we will introduce our one Oregon based author, Grace Peterson, who will join us for the evening as well as several of our diehard writers including Pam Helberg who is gung ho to make the trek.

Wednesday we stay down south with an event at the University of Washington Bookstore in Seattle. I’ve often thought that Beyond Belief would make a great text for Women’s Studies and/or Comparative Religion Courses and do hope that students and faculty will come hear us read and ask questions. If you’re in the neighborhood please join us. If you live too far away but want to be part of the conversation we invite you to comment, tell us your story or request a spot on our guest blog.

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.