The Things That Must Not Be Named (The Opposite of Love is Shame, Part 6)

Do you like the Harry Potter reference in the title? This next section is part of my Voldemort. In the first Harry Potter book, Harry and Professor Dumbledore are having a conversation in which they discuss Voldemort. “”Sir?” said Harry. “I’ve been thinking… sir — even if the Stone’s gone, Vol-, I mean, You-Know-Who —” “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”” So here I am, naming some of my Voldemort.

Some of my earliest memories touch on sexual things that I should not have known anything about until I became an adult, and some of them not even then. My frustration with these memories of sexual abuse is that they are repressed memories and currently I have not been successful at tapping into those memories, and while part of me wants answers and understanding, part of me wants the memories to remain repressed so that I don’t have to deal with them. But then again, that’s dissociation, according to my therapist, and dissociation is not helpful in healing childhood trauma.

I remember my father telling me as an older teenager that psychology was wicked and that if anyone ever offered me psychological help and offered to explore repressed memories, to not do it because the therapist would “put ideas in my head.” I wonder, looking back, what the hell he was so worried about. Why did he not want me to ever explore repressed memories? What is it that he or someone else wanted to hide? When it comes to shame, secrets are not helpful, and secrets keep us bound in shame.

One of the reasons I want to explore those repressed memories, is to be set free, because as the Bible tells me, the truth sets me free. Even without the recollection of those memories, however, there was a lot of sexual shame for me to process, and sometimes there still is. I know there are memories buried because I acted out sexually, playing sexual role-play games with other children, even though I was only six or so. I do not remember how I knew all those things, but I did. I recall knowing enough to know to what “suck my dick” meant and how degrading it felt to me at that age. I have other memories that are coming back slowly, and I guess that is healthy but as much as I want to know, I want to continue in my dissociation as well.

Something inside me told me it was wrong because I never let my parents catch me playing such games, but they were enraged when they caught me pleasuring myself around that same time. I was so young I had no idea what they were upset about but that this felt good and I needed to do it in secret after that. Doing it in secret, however, just made it far more exciting in my mind. I wish I had known what I was getting into. I knew enough to get me into trouble but not enough to understand what I was doing.

Demons, Trauma, and My Patron Saint

Back before I knew I was mentally ill and thought I was just crazy I had an experience that scared me and shook me up for thirteen years. I have finally, just recently, become at peace with the incident. My fiancé and I had gone to the beach, and the full moon shone across the waves. As we walked out onto the beach, those moonbeams were calling me to the water. It was so beautiful, and peaceful, that is, until I began to be strongly compelled towards the water. But as I walked towards the water, I knew that if I were to go into the water, I would never come out. The water would swallow me up. Perhaps it was because of the suicidal ideation that I had had for years that made that scene so vivid in my mind. For many years, I blamed it on literal demons and figured I must have done something evil and God had allowed the demons to harass me.

When it comes down to it, I wasn’t far off the mark, except that God had not allowed literal, evil, spiritual beings to attack me. It was a demonic attack as far as metaphors go, however. I now believe that demons are a metaphor for our trauma, a being that ancient cultures created in order to describe trauma because they didn’t have the words. This is why stories exist, to help us understand things about our lives. This scene had far more to do with my mental anguish and trauma than anything else. But, I spent almost thirteen years worrying that I had inadvertently invited demons into my life and wasn’t sure how to get rid of them.

One day recently, my patron saint came to me, and it was so blatantly obvious that she was the one. I never expected, when I picked up Kate Moorehead’s book Healed: How Mary Magdalene Was Made Well, to connect so intensely with Mary Magdalene, although I had some inkling that I would connect some which is why I purchased the book. I wasn’t even looking for a patron saint, but that’s kind of how God has always worked in my life. I think that maybe I relate to her because it appeared that, like me, she wasn’t a good Christian woman, but she was a devout follower of Jesus Christ.

Mary Magdalene was close with Jesus, because Jesus had healed her trauma, he had exorcised her seven demons, these demons being a metaphor for trauma. Jesus did a lot for her, and she was so grateful. She was present and grieving at the crucifixion, and she was the first one to witness the resurrection of Jesus, the most important event in Christianity.

Kate Moorehead talks of Mary Magdalene and the seven demons that Jesus exorcised from her, saying that Mary Magdalene was mentally ill. She starts off by giving evidence as to why Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, as many people seem to believe, and she spends time examining why women were even judged by their sex life to begin with. Personally, my opinion of Mary Magdalene would be the same whether she was a prostitute or not, because as Moorehead shows in this book, our past doesn’t have to dictate our future.

But the point Moorehead was making is that Mary Magdalene has been judged unfairly by whether people thought she had sex and how much and who with, as if that defines her. Moorehead asks why, if she had been a prostitute, that this was considered the most important thing about her in describing who she was. She even digs into the creation myths in the first chapters of the Bible to make the point that women have always been defined by their sex lives in Christian tradition, even though women are so much more than who we have sex with.

She talks of the real Mary Magdalene, not the one we made up because of our obsession with sex. She talks about how Jesus healed her and reminds us that Jesus is still in the business of healing. The place where I would disagree with Moorehead is her idea that Jesus usually heals immediately, because that’s the nature of exorcism. In my experience with PTSD alone, I’m being healed little by little, as complex trauma is exposed to the light and processed. The point is the healing. This book is also useful for people that aren’t mentally ill, because she talks about our insistence on entertaining negative thoughts about ourselves and how we need to get rid of those too.

Thanks to this book, I’ve connected deeply with Mary Magdalene and her life and story, that she is bringing me closer to God.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for me. (Please and thank-you)!

Fearing the Zombie Apocalypse (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Part 5)

My third (and final) baptism happened when I was twenty-three and I was the mother of an infant and pregnant. The pastor had been preaching a series of sermons through the book of Revelation, and the things he was saying were very scary.

I knew that I was not saved because I was apparently an unsubmissive wife because I did not hang off every word that came out of my husband’s mouth like it was the Gospel. I was constantly shamed in that church about not being a good wife, because I would not only voice disagreement with my husband but I would ask questions of the pastor without my husband present, and that was not allowed because I was only allowed to know what my husband allowed me to know and so it was him that was supposed to give me answers or go to the pastor himself for the answers and then decide if he wanted me to know the answers. This whole withholding of knowledge was the biggest issue for me at the time, because I had so many doubts, so many questions, and I just wanted to know stuff. I loved to read, and I loved to learn. I loved to read and learn and absorb and I have always been an overthinker. But now I was only allowed to read books approved by my husband. Of course, I had my secret stash.

In the cult, we were only allowed to use the King James Version of the Bible, as this particular church at the time taught that the King James Version was inspired again by God in 1611, the year it was translated. This double inspiration meant that the KJV and the KJV only was the word of God in the English language. There were a few crazies that were the favorite guys that my pastor followed and so he preached insane things like that there would be a rapture in the end days where Jesus came back again for those who were saved. That is actually a common Christian belief, but this pastor took it further. He said that the Bible clearly states that “the dead in Christ will rise first” and some bullshit about forty days and therefore, if Christians were watching like they were supposed to be, they would know when the rapture was near because God would rise the dead first, and they would walk the earth like zombies for forty days before the rapture.

I was scared that once I saw these zombies, my days of getting saved would be limited and that even then it might not work and that I would end up living through the tribulation, which was a whole different horror story of its own. While I like to read some horror stories, I have no desire to live any of them.

In great distress I went to the pastor and told him that I was not sure that I was saved and that I was scared that if I died tonight on my way home from church, that I was going to hell. He told me to go home and to read the book of John, because the Bible stated that the Gospel of John was written so that we may believe. I went home and devoured that entire Gospel in one night, trying to make connections and notes. The next morning when my husband went to work and the baby was settled, I again read the entire Gospel, and I came away from it convinced that I was not saved. I wanted to get saved immediately, but I got this idea in my head that it would be far more special if my husband were by my side when I got saved, so I spent the next several hours in horror, being afraid that God would kill me because I did not get saved immediately but rather waited several hours.

My husband came home and we knelt together beside the bed while I begged God once more to have Jesus come into my heart and save me, that I repented of my sins and that I was sorry but most importantly to please let me go to heaven when I die. I called the pastor immediately, and his excitement was obvious. He somehow thought that I would now become the perfect submissive wife to my husband because I was a Christian now.

As you can probably imagine, this shit was exhausting, and it took a toll on me. But I was baptized one last time, in a cattle trough in the middle of the church parking lot because the pastor believed that baptism was to be very public and humbling, and so people could see people being dunked into a cattle trough as they drove past or came out of their apartments across the street.

There is much angst among the vampires in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. The books have deeply Christian themes, and several of them, particularly Louis and often Lestat, have shame about who they are and the things they have done. But even Lestat has a come to Jesus moment:

“When Lestat is taken by Memnoch to heaven and is confronted with the image of God’s face, it is a powerful and shattering experience. Because God goes against all of Lestat’s expectations. God doesn’t judge or condemn Lestat. Instead, he asks, ‘you would never be my adversary, would you? You wouldn’t, would you? Not you Lestat, no, not you!’ Lestat’s silent and ambiguous response is simply an exclamation: ‘My God!’ It is the human face of God that means so much to Lestat – that and the plea that implies Lestat’s nature is not what he always believed. Much later in the novel, Lestat is confronted with God on the cross. And here he has his most visceral experience of the divine, when God tells Lestat, ‘The blood. Taste it. Taste the Blood of Christ.’ In a literal picture of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the vampire literally drinks Christ’s blood. It is only when God is in human, bodily form that Lestat finds any connection to him at all – and the bodily experience of drinking his blood is the most concrete and transforming experience of all.” (Clements, pp. 48-49).

God meets us where we are at, but my version of God was completely and utterly messed up. But, slowly but surely, I kept having doubts, I kept asking questions, and over time, I escaped all of this.

Playing Both Sides (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Part 4)

I found myself homeless when I was nineteen years old, and I figured that being homeless was a better alternative than driving back to the city my parents lived in like a prodigal daughter that wasn’t actually a prodigal but whom some of the cult perceived as prodigal. While it is no excuse for my bad behavior, desperate people act in desperate ways, and I was no exception.

On Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, and any other time the church doors were open, I was dressed modestly with a long skirt and a shirt that was less than three fingers below my collarbone, singing hymns. But on Monday mornings you could catch me outside the pub with a miniskirt, fishnet tights, with my hair and makeup done totally different than it was the day before. Not that I ever had the guts to walk into the pubs, because I knew God would fry me for eternity, and I knew I was living dangerously as far as the cult was concerned.

I wished that I had the “guts” that my other homeless friends had in that they had no problem selling their bodies for money, and it was damn good money. I happened to be unemployed, again because of my own stupidity, which is often how I have found myself unemployed. I certainly was not the prettiest out of the group, but I often wished that I could do what they did, that if God would not throw me in hell or punish me by bringing me even lower than I was already, I would give it a try. I suppose that in this case I am grateful that fear kept me from prostitution.

I’m also grateful that fear of going to that pit of fire forever kept me from doing drugs when everyone around me was doing them. They called me a prude because I would not have casual sex and I would not do drugs, but I was happy to be around both. I’ve never been a casual sex person it wasn’t entirely my fear of hell but also the fact that sex was very emotional for me and I had trust issues surrounding it. I suppose that happens when one is raped, sexually harassed, and sexually abused as a child. I was dirty and ashamed, and I did not want to make myself even more dirty. I would be unable to present myself as a pure virgin on my wedding day and that was one of the biggest sins a fundamentalist could commit. There are bigger ones, and I committed those too.

There was this disconnect where I thought that the only two options available to me were to remain fundamentalist even though some of it seemed like bullshit, or I could totally ruin my life with drugs, pre-marital sex, and bad friends. It is quite possible that I thought this because those truly may have been the only two options I had at the time. Fundamentalists who “got saved” once they became adults had these elaborate stories about how they had supposedly lived a life of sin before accepting Jesus as their personal savior. It seemed that the minute they did that, they suddenly reformed themselves and thanks to Jesus they were now new people and no longer struggled with their previous sins.

This of course fed my shame, because those stories were only good if you had not been saved before doing that stuff, and I had been saved hundreds of times by this time. Here was I, someone who grew up in a “good Christian family,” struggling with grievous sin. Since I am talking frankly and honestly, the things I was doing were wrong, they were sin, and they were lots of times illegal. While I was doing these things, I also wanted the people I was doing them with to get saved so that they could be saved from hell. It was a very confusing time.

So yes, I was baptized again. This time it was in a private swimming pool owned by one of the more popular families in the church. The pastor went on with the same drivel about how baptism does not make you a Christian, that it is a symbol of the new life in you, of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This whole idea of baptism and communion being pictures and symbols rather than sacramental never made sense to me, but this is what the church taught, and it was what I believed even though it didn’t make sense.

Not surprisingly, in looking back on it, that baptism didn’t take either and I was still doubtful of whether I was saved or not. This would be an ongoing issue until I learned that baptism was a sacrament that immediately initiated a person into the family of God. But I mostly stopped my nervous habit of praying the sinner’s prayer over and over because I figured that if I was not saved by now then perhaps there was no hope for me. I was going to hell no matter what I did or said or how earnest I was.

My Relationship With God Was a Domestic Violence Relationship (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Part 3)

As a teenage girl I would earnestly pray for God to “break me” as God breaking me and putting me back together was apparently the only way that I could be of any use for God. I would never be good enough if I had not been broken first. God was supposed to shatter me and then put me on the potter’s wheel and mold me into something beautiful and new.

There is a story told in all four Gospels (which I will return to later and which is one of my favorite parts of the Bible) in which a woman comes and she breaks a jar of ointment to anoint the feet of Jesus after having already washed them and dried them with her hair. The fundamentalists said that the point of that story was that she had to break the jar before it could be of any use to Jesus. Until it was shattered it was worthless.

We were told that if messed up, God would spank us. Metaphorically of course, but that was still a threat because the idea was that if we did not obey God’s commands exactly, that God would take us to rock bottom to punish us to lovingly bring us back to God. Besides, spanking in fundamentalist churches is more like beating. I was told that there was nothing whatsoever that was good in me and that if I wanted anything good, I needed to follow Jesus, because threats are totally the way to make sure people are all in. The Bible in Hebrews uses that violent imagery.

One day I wrote in my journal: “Oh Lord, you are so merciful! Again, you slapped me. You slapped me harder this time and gave me more. The merciful part is that it doesn’t sting for long. These ones stung more and longer than the last but thank-you for doing what you had to do to get my attention. I know that people need a shock before they will listen. I have been going my own way, so you had to give me a shock to make me listen.” (17 November 2002). I seriously thought that I deserved to have God slap me in the face or come down with a huge cattle prodder and beat me. This is completely and utterly fucked up, but I did not know that at the time. It seemed very reasonable. If I didn’t do what I was told I was in for a beating. After all that’s how it was like with my parents growing up, and God was my spiritual father, so God operated the same way. But God only did this to me because God loved me.

In their book Proverbs for Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker say: “Do we really believe that God is appeased by cruelty, and wants nothing more than our obedience? It becomes imperative that we ask this question when we examine how theology sanctions human cruelty.

If God is imagined as fatherly torturer, earthly parents are also justified, perhaps even required, to teach through violence. Children are instructed to understand their submission to pain as a form of love. Behind closed doors, in our own community, spouses and children are battered by their abusers who justify their actions as necessary, loving discipline. ‘I only hit her because I love her.’ ‘I’m doing this for your own good.’ The child or the spouse who believe that obedience is what God wants may put up with physical or sexual abuse in an effort to be a good Christian.”

This quote resonated deep inside my soul, I recognized myself and that what I had been taught made me equate violence with love.

When I was seventeen I spent most of my time wondering how God was going to chasten me, how God was going to break me and mold me into something that pleased God more that the awful person that I was, and freaking out that I was too worldly. I lived in absolute terror that God would do awful things to me if I strayed from God’s path, which is how I ended up becoming even more fundamentalist than my parents for many years. I was so afraid of doing it wrong that I went to extremes to be right with God and show God my love, which probably has a whole lot to do with my not being able to separate love and abuse. For a long time, I thought that abuse was love, all because of shit like this.

The shame was so prevalent. I first got baptized when I was ten years old in a freezing cold creek that was basically in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by bush and sugar cane fields, it was a creek that flowed rapidly most of the time, but I remember the water being relatively still that day, because the church chose baptism times around what the creek and weather would be like. We were not one of the fancy churches with white baptismal robes and a baptismal pool. We just showed up at the creek after church in our church clothes. I was terrified of “being dunked” as my parents jokingly called it.

I think my entire Sunday School class may have gotten baptized that day because the biggest pressure had been put on the pre-teen class. We were old enough that we should already be saved, because hey, who wouldn’t want to be saved from hell?

Herein lies a huge problem with fundamentalism, that obsession with being saved from hell. Hell is one of those necessary, foundational beliefs, without which, there would be no fundamentalism. There are several things that fundamentalist cults like the one I grew up in need in order to be successful in maintaining their control. They need shame, they need hell, and they need the doctrine of original sin. In fact, Matthew Paul Turner, in his book Churched states that: “Being a fundamentalist was pointless without hell. With no hot and fiery pit existing somewhere below the soil, our views and beliefs lost a good deal of their meaning.” (p. 108).

Sure, the church gave lip-service to this wonderful new life I could have in Christ but usually only after literally trying to scare the hell out of me first. Anyway, for some reason the shame got to me right before and many times after I was baptized. Almost every time hell was preached about, which was a lot, I just knew I was going there. I was constantly told that people could only be saved if they really and truly meant it when they prayed to be saved. I guessed that I just never meant it enough and I spent my childhood and teenage years being terrified of hell and the fact that I was obviously going there. I prayed “the sinner’s prayer” more times than I can count, and I eventually went on to be baptized twice more as I thought I had gotten “truly saved.”

The next time I got baptized was a time of even greater confusion for me and I was still straddling the fence of this elaborate double life I had lived since I was a child. On one hand I was the picture of a decent fundamentalist young woman, on the other, my heart wasn’t in it at all and I knew the whole thing was fucked up but those people were my life, they were my community, I literally knew nobody else and had nobody else. So, it was a matter of conforming if I wanted to keep my community and life as I knew it.

This baptism was done when I was twenty, right after my six-month stint of homelessness, where I had done things which I still regret to this day. I guess that I may have been in search of another community to attach myself to. I wanted to fit-in somewhere, and I was never quite good enough for the fundamentalists. I always missed the mark. But the things I did during that time were big bad sins that definitely meant I was not saved. I knew I had done wrong, and this was not just a thing that I could pretend was inconsequential. I had messed up big time, in ways that could have totally ruined my life, and not just in the fundamentalist community.

References:

Brock, Rita Nagashima and Rebecca Ann Parker. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. 2002: Beacon Press.

Turner, Matthew Paul. Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess. 2010: WaterBrook.

Dirty, Rotten, Filthy, Sinner (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Part 2)

One of the very first entries in my journal said: “I’m a dirty, rotten, filthy sinner, and I don’t deserve God’s love.” The phrase “dirty, rotten, filthy, sinner” was something my father often said, especially in discipline or spiritual conversations. I also recorded many suicidal thoughts in my journal that year, and that continued all throughout my teenage years. By December of 1999, I was writing things like “just knowing how horrible I am, and how useless is a start.”

I was ashamed of my very life. I can’t remember the expanse of my sins as a fourteen year old, and they weren’t anything serious, but I was still ashamed because I wasn’t modest enough, I wasn’t pure enough, I didn’t talk about the right things, I was proud of my accomplishments and pride was a sin so I needed to be “humbled” and God was out to get me. I wanted to fix my hair a certain way which was vanity, also a sin. These were apparently very serious violations against a holy God.

The pastor would preach about how each individual in the congregation was responsible for nailing Jesus to that cross, that if I was the only person to ever live, Jesus would still have had to die as a sacrifice for my pride and my vanity and wanting to wear something even remotely fashionable.

“Many of us were taught that if you do not fit inside the circle of the church’s behavioral codes, God is not pleased with you, so we whittled ourselves down to a shape that could fit those teachings, or we denied those parts of ourselves entirely,” says Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book Shameless (p. 4). I strived so hard to do what I was told. It was reinforced over and over that if I truly loved God, I would obey. Questions were not allowed. It was a case of comply or be punished. Doubts had to be pushed deep inside my soul, and never entertained because I was supposed to trust God completely, and if God said it in God’s word then it was literal truth.

I was often told that I was a rebel at heart, that I was a dirty, rotten, filthy sinner, that I deserved God’s wrath. I was never good enough and I never would be because I never quite fit in, either with my family or with the church. I remember desperately trying to gain an interest in cricket because the rest of my family was interested in cricket. I knew absolutely nothing about cricket, I couldn’t understand why my family was so enthralled with the games, and why they shouted at the TV when things were either going well or not going well. I’ve never been a professional sports fan. I read my mom’s cricket magazines that came in the mail once a month, I hung posters of cricket players who I didn’t know and didn’t care to know, on my bedroom walls, so I could pretend to be interested in cricket long enough to actually become interested in cricket. It was often pointed out to me by my family that I just did not fit in because I did not like the same things that they liked. It wasn’t for lack of trying or lack of pretending or lack of trying to deny who I was.

I was ashamed that I was different, I was ashamed of my doubts and questions and fears because those things were not tolerated. As I will talk about later, when I was about thirteen, I began cutting myself in some sadistic way to atone for my sins. To punish myself so that God would not have to do it and that God would accept my sacrifice and love me, and because I was deeply ashamed that I was such an evil person. The doctrine of “original sin” was of utmost importance to the cult because without it, the entire cult would fall apart. As my father reminded me of often, I was a dirty, rotten, filthy sinner at birth. I was told repeatedly that I had inherited a “sin nature” the moment I was conceived. I am honestly not sure about my theology surrounding sin, I’m still trying to work it out, but the concept of God is love is now my starting point and I work from there.

My philosophy shifted a little after I left home, which I left as soon as it was possible because I have this habit of running away from things. I figured that if people were going to talk shit about me and claim that I had done bad things and that I was going to be in trouble anyway, that I sure as hell was going to have fun doing it, although I lived this strange double life, because I still wanted to be “right with God” which meant being submissive to the cult leaders.

So basically, I was just bad. I was born bad. I was supposed to be ashamed of the figurative nakedness of my sin. Sure, I had done things wrong like everyone else, but I actually behaved better than most other kids, because I was ashamed and beaten into submission. What I never realized until right after my 34th birthday was that God did not want me to live in shame, that God wanted me to live in the knowledge of God’s love. Nadia Bolz-Weber describes this perfectly:

“Shame has an origin, and it is not God. When Adam and Eve tried to avoid God, God said, ‘where are you?’ And they said, ‘we were naked and tried to hide from you because we were afraid.’ God then said to them, ‘who told you you were naked?’

Who told them they were naked? My money is on the snake. For some reason God allows us to live in a world where alternatives to God’s voice exist, and those alternatives to God’s voice are where shame originates.” (2019, p. 135).

The priest who really reinforced this whole idea of God loving me often told me that the voices I was hearing were not of God because God is love and the voices that I was listening to were unloving and full of shame. She would tell me that every time I talked badly about myself. She told me that I was listening to lies and needed to start listening to truth.

Veronica Hollinger, in an essay titled Fantasies of Absence: The Postmodern Vampire, writes: “This deconstruction of boundaries helps to explain why the vampire is a monster-of-choice these days, since it is itself an inherently deconstructive figure: it is the monster that used to be human; it is the undead that used to be alive; it is the monster that looks like us. For this reason, the figure of the vampire always has the potential to jeopardize conventional distinctions between human and monster, between life and death, between ourselves and the other. We look into the mirror it provides and we see a version of ourselves. Or, more accurately, keeping in mind the orthodoxy that vampires cast no mirror reflections, we look into the mirror and see nothing but ourselves.” (1997, p. 201).

References:

Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. 2019: Convergent.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Fantasies of Absence: The Postmodern Vampire” Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. 1997: The University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shame Can’t Appreciate Beauty (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Part 1)

Growing up, I wanted so badly to believe that God loved me, and yet, I could not. I deeply craved God’s love and would do anything for it, which is what kept me trapped in a cult for so long. I was earnest and tried so hard to please God. Even though I was wrong, I loved God the best way that I knew how, the ways that I had been told to, but I always felt like I never measured up.

In the words of Jocelyn Zichterman (2013, p. 8) “If you had asked me at the age of twenty what my childhood was like, I would have said it was wonderful. I would have told you how loving and kind my parents were. I would have said that they were some of the godliest people I knew and that they had endured great heartache and trial. And I would have assured you that that the Lord had seen them through all of it.” One time I had tried to reach out to someone I thought was a friend to try to tell her what was going on at my house, and she told me to stop slandering my parents as they were good Christian people, that they loved me so much and I was so lucky to have a godly family. It was around that time that my allergy to “good Christian people” began.

Vampires in the 20th century were unable to love, according to Nina Auerbach (p. 60) who notes that Dracula was incapable of loving anybody. Dracula, however, was able to suck the life blood out of people. Love and shame cannot co-exist, because love is the opposite of shame. The very first chapter of the Bible says that God not only created me, but that God created me in God’s image. That God declared the creation of humanity to be “very good.”

But cults cannot control members that way. They focus on Eve eating the damn fruit and thus humans were doomed with a sin nature, before they were even born. It was a part of the genetic makeup of human beings. And yet the two creation stories, that appear in Genesis chapter one, and Genesis chapter two, those were deemed to be a literal account of what really happened. The part that they skipped in those first few chapters was the part about being created in God’s image and being described as very good.

Elrena Evans points out that “The vampire achieves immortality by sucking the life out of another (2010, p. 38). The vampire of shame sucked the life out of me for thirty-four years until I was overwhelmed and figuratively dead and then rose to new life believing that God loved me. Having the life sucked out of me was miserable. I did not recognize that my life blood was being sucked out of me until around my thirty-fourth birthday. One thing that I told my therapist just a few short months before was that I was scared to believe the priest who told me that God loved me, because if I believed it, I knew it would forever change my life, and that was scary. I instinctively knew that it would blow my mind and that there would be no going back.

The problem was that I had been through so much trauma in my life, and shame had been the only constant, the only thing I had to cling to when times got bad. I told my therapist that I wanted to go from surviving to thriving but clinging to shame because it was all that I knew would never bring me to a place to where I could thrive. Shame would never heal me, and it would keep sucking the life out of me until I had nothing left.

I lived most of my life in my imagination, where the world was any way that I wanted it to be, and yet the scenarios I lived in my mind were still full of condemnation and shame. I didn’t know anything else, so it was hard to imagine anything else. It just so happened that those years of retreating to the world inside my head was one of the things that saved my life. I might still have been living in shame, but it was shame for what I felt were legitimate things to be ashamed of. Going from real life shame to imaginary shame somehow felt different but shame is shame and that was the reality that I lived both in real life and in my mind.

I began writing in journals when I was fourteen in 1999, a young fundamentalist teenage girl, growing up in North Queensland, which to be honest is one of the most beautiful places on earth, at least to me. I have been to the wonderfully exquisite Cape Tribulation, in which the rainforest literally meets the sea. The Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef combine into a rare beauty. I have hiked in the bush around a lake that is inside an extinct volcano. I have lived in a small town on the rim of a crater, the red volcanic mud permeating everything and the torrential rains coming down so hard on the tin roof that I had to shout to people in the same room for them to hear me. I’ve broken off fresh sugar cane stalks and sucked the sugar right on out of the cane. I have traveled down a mountain range with over 200 bends in 19 kilometers. I’ve seen the most gorgeous of waterfalls. I have ridden down streets lined with jacaranda trees in bloom with their amazing purple flowers.

Although the beauty of North Queensland can be found nowhere else on earth, it’s hard to notice such beauty when you grow up being abused. The beauty surrounded me every single day and I hardly ever saw it. I got to drink milk straight out of the vat, right from the dairy farm of a friend, before it went out to be processed. I got to play in huge piles of cottonseed on that same farm. My family would go possum spotlighting sometimes at night. My sisters and I made entire tiny villages in the volcanic mud and would play there for hours. We would sit in a wheelbarrow full of water just to try to cool off because it was a hundred degrees outside. My father would take us for rides on his motorbike, to which he would hook up a snow sled so that we could all ride at the same time. It wasn’t in any way safe, but it was fun.

As beautiful as all that was, I never truly appreciated it until I left. I was merely struggling to survive and some days I didn’t care if I didn’t, which is probably why when I got to be an adult, the therapists would write things like “Katy-Anne engages in risky, impulsive behaviors.” Whether I lived or whether I died didn’t matter because both were as miserable and as scary as hell.

References:

Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. 1995: The University of Chicago Press.

Evans, Elrena “There’s Power in the Blood.” Christianity Today. February 2010.

Zichterman, Jocelyn R. I Fired God: My Life Inside – and Escape from – the Secret World of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Cult. 2013: St. Martin’s Press.

Brutal Force, Will, and Desire (The Opposite of Love is Shame: Introduction)

I couldn’t decide between committing suicide to end the pain now, or to spend an eternity in hell, so when I did make a suicide attempt after over five years of obsessively thinking about it, I only got so far because it turned out that my fear of hell overrode my desire to not live a life of shame. It’s a shame but I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, because I never planned to live that long. I wanted out so badly, and I’ve always tried to run away from my problems, and it has never once worked out for me. I was in a no-win situation, but at least I was just miserable without burning forever in conscious torment by a “God of love.”

People never know how to respond to me when I tell them that I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist cult in Australia. They think of Australia as such a beautiful country with the reefs and the rainforests, and it’s gorgeous, but that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from its fair share of religious extremists. While Australia is a very beautiful country, growing up in the context of a cult made me not really notice the beauty as I struggled to survive in that fundamentalist society.

I do not remember a time where I did not live with shame. It was ingrained into me before I could speak the word. In this cult it was acceptable to spank babies when they showed their willfulness and their little sin natures. Many, many years later a therapist would tell me that I had low self-esteem, but the fundamentalists did not believe in self-esteem. They said I did not need to proudly elevate myself to think that I was a good person, because I was not. I was told that I needed “God-esteem” instead. Self-esteem was a psychological term and we shunned psychology. I was supposed to live by and believe in a literal interpretation of the King James Version of the Bible and apparently if I did so, my life would be great.

In talking about Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (I love these stories), Lloyd Worley reminds us that the vampire Lestat points out that to make someone a vampire “there need only be brutal force and a vampire’s will and desire,” (86) which totally sums up being raised in a life-destroying Christian fundamentalist cult. We were brainwashed sometimes by brutal force and the cult leader’s will and desire, and it was all carried out in the name of God. This soul sucking cult has destroyed many lives, some are able to leave and rebuild and others are not.

In Hollywood Gothic, David J. Skal says that a Bishop’s wife once described the story of Dracula as “an allegory of sin” (2004, 65) which is one possible interpretation although I go further and use it as a metaphor for shame. Skal goes on to say that “if nothing else, Dracula is a quintessential story of power and control” (2004, 66). Shame coupled with power and control is exactly what I am talking about in this series.

In the cult, they give lip service to the idea of a loving God, but only to where the whole Christian life sounds like a horror movie. I was terrified of frying for eternity in a blazing inferno where not only did you suffer being burnt forever, but worms would also eat my burnt flesh. The book of Revelation in the Bible was used to scare me many times. It didn’t matter if I had “accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for me and asked Jesus into my heart” (which I did with great regularity out of sheer terror), if I did things that went against the beliefs of the cult, I was told that I wasn’t “saved,” because a Christian was a person who was so grateful for not going to hell that they obeyed God, which really meant obeying the pastor.

As Hillary D. Raining says in her book Joy in Confession, guilt and shame are two different things, and I actually never understood that until I read her words as I was preparing to make a sacramental confession one day. She describes guilt as something that you feel when you’ve made a mistake, but that shame makes you feel like you are a mistake. Basically, instead of saying “I’m sorry, I messed up,” which would be guilt, shame says “I’m messed up.”

Shame sucked the life right on out of me, almost consumed me completely as I never intended to live to adulthood but instead had dreams of ending my own life many times because the vampire of shame kept making its appearance.

References:

Raining, Hillary D. Joy in Confession: Reclaiming Sacramental Reconciliation. 2017: Forward Movement.

Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, revised edition, 2004: Faber and Faber.

Worley, Lloyd. “Anne Rice’s Protestant Vampires.” The Blood is the Life: Vampires in Literature. 1999: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

The Opposite of Love is Shame: a Continuing Saga of Learning that God Loves Me

I am beginning a blog series about learning that God loves me after a lifetime of shame. I plan to post on Monday and Thursday each week. I am writing this because I need to get my story out for my benefit, but I’m also writing it for the benefit of others.

You also have to know that you’re going to meet my favorite literary creature, the vampire, many times during this story. So what’s with those vampires, anyway? What kind of freak loves vampires? That would be this freak, thank-you very much.

Susannah Clements tells us in the conclusion of her book The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero: “vampires matter to us as metaphors, in what they represent. We can see in them parts of ourselves – our darkest fears or our deepest desires. The evidence of their significance is in a long, varied history of vampire lore, literature, literature, film, and television.”

Then in his book Loving Vampires: Our Undead Obsession, Tom Pollard explains that “as metaphors, vampires illumine our most secret feelings about issues too sensitive to discuss openly,” (2016, 14). He also says that “vampires symbolize hidden parts of the self.” (7).

So, that’s what the vampires are doing here, giving us a metaphor.

With that out of the way, lets begin…

One day, soon after I had turned 33, I met an Episcopal priest in a coffee shop on the Mississippi coast. She asked about some of my story and I told her some. As we were saying our goodbyes, and my promise to be in church on Sunday, she looked at me and she said: “God loves you. I know you don’t believe it right now, but God loves you, and I’m going to remind you every time I see you.”

I was always taught that the opposite of love is hate, but I’m not really sure that’s true. To me the opposite of love is shame. I say this because this is my experience with both love and shame. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid from the God who loved them because they were ashamed. Shame shows up in the first chapters of the Bible. I grew up in a cult. I’m well acquainted with shame. What I didn’t know anything about, however, was love. I learned about God’s love from an Episcopal priest and what my friend Tracey calls a “holy busybody,” an ordinary (but extraordinary, friend named Faye).

Shame sucked the life right on out of me, almost consuming me completely as I never intended to live to adulthood. Instead I had dreams of ending my own life many times because shame kept making its appearance. Mother Kate Moorehead, an Episcopal priest, says in her book about my patron saint (more about that later on), St. Mary Magdalene: “when a person feels shame, it separates that person from the essence of who they were created to be…Shame separates us from God, from each other, and from our true selves. When we feel ashamed, we run from God and we hide our true selves.” (Moorehead, 22).

The priest told me, over and over again, that God loved me. My friend showed me, over and over again, that God loved me.

References:

Clements, Susannah. The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero. 2011: Brazos Press.

Moorehead, Kate. Healed: How Mary Magdalene was Made Well. 2018: Church Publishing.

Pollard, Tom. Loving Vampires: Our Undead Obsession. 2016: McFarland and Company.

Prayer Beads

This is a set of my handmade prayer beads made with matte purple jasper

When I first started making prayer beads, I made them as an act of repentance, as a self-imposed penance for the first time I messed around with witchcraft. I went on to dabble in witchcraft three times, once fairly deeply, until I realized that I missed the body and blood of Christ which spiritually sustained me. On June 23, 2019, I officially was “reaffirmed” into the Episcopal Church by the Right Reverend Brian Seage, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. This means I made a public renewal of my baptismal vows, which I had broken. Not that I made vows when I was baptized three times in the fundamentalist cult I was born into, but I had made those vows both at my confirmation and at the baptism of my children.

The crescent moon tattoo on my right arm was done when I first began to delve into witchcraft, and sometimes I want to regret that tattoo but now I see that it’s part of the story. Prayer beads were very meaningful to me when I first tried them. At first I was afraid to try them because, as a priest said at a street fair when I asked them if they sold prayer beads “we don’t need any trinkets in order to speak to God, we go straight to God” and this is basically what I’d always been told. It turns out that what I’d always been told wasn’t truth, not this time and not a lot of other times either. But I longed to try them, because this whole spontaneous prayer thing wasn’t working for me, because my prayers mostly consisted of begging God to help me with my bad circumstances or cursing God out for said bad circumstances.

The kind of prayer that I had been taught was no longer working for me, and to be honest I don’t think it was really working for God either. I got to the point where I could not pray at all, except for the liturgy every Sunday, and I knew that God would understand. But I still longed to pray. I expressed an interest in trying to use the Episcopal/Anglican rosary, and a friend from my church gifted me a set. I began to use them almost every day, and it was amazing. Although the fundamentalists insisted that rote, memorized prayers were wrong, they were wrong about that too. They called them “vain repetitions” and claimed that the Bible was against them and that meant we were too.

It was through the use of prayer beads that I began to understand that prayer wasn’t necessarily about me. It was about focusing on God, about quietening my heart, about listening. I also got involved in centering prayer which was a unique experience and one I do periodically when I have an extended period of time, but prayer beads are great for when I only have ten minutes. I’m also learning about breath prayers right now and those are meaningful as well. The beads help me to calm my anxious brain and focus, using my sense of touch to help me to pay attention to the prayers.

I began just making a set for myself, and in fact I just gifted that set to a special friend, and it was almost as meaningful and significant as using them myself, realizing that I was helping other people to pray. I sell the beads for $35 a set or 2 for $60. I use beautiful beads, usually gemstones, because prayer is beautiful and holy and I wanted the rosaries to be beautiful also.