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.

 

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?