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The books we respond to most powerfully are those that arouse an echo in our own experience, a “Hey, I know about that!” moment. Holy Ghost Girl does that for me. Like Ms. Johnson’s mother Carolyn, I, too, found myself caught up in a relationship with a married “Man of God” at one point in my life.

It’s easy to condemn that relationship–and it should be condemned. Man of God or not, no man or woman has the emotional bandwidth to sustain two mutually exclusive committed relationships at the same time and lead a congregation. The simple, short answer is that Carolyn should have left the tent evangelism circuit, just as I should have left my job and filed sex abuse charges. It sounds simple, clean, and neat.

It’s not. The forces that shape women in fundamentalist denominations can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to “just say ‘no.'” As a woman who has been there, let me give you a few of them, and explain how they work.

Soul-winning is a core value. When David Terrell taps Carolyn to join up with his crusade as his organist, in fundamentalist terms he plucks her from a shameful, failed obscurity (she has “wandered from the fold,” failed at her “life of sin,” and is now back home with no marketable skills) and offered her not only absolution but a prominent, visible position at the very heart of his ministry. As part of a team that has as its sole stated motive the winning of souls, Carolyn has become a fundamentalist star, a woman who has dedicated her life and talent to what everyone in her social network would see as the service of God, and the winning of souls.

To “leave the ministry” is more than just a career change for women in that position. It is seen as an apostasy, a forsaking of the “narrow, hard path” about which we fundamentalist children hear so much for the “broad, easy path” that leads to perdition. When someone does that, people want to know why. It would have been difficult for Carolyn to leave without having her relationship with Terrell exposed. And then, like now, that exposure might embarrass him, but it would destroy her.

Fundamentalist ministers stand in the place of God to church members. We speak of men (and there’s a reason for that term) being “called” to the ministry. The belief is not that men choose theology for reasons that may or may not bear examination, but that God Himself reaches down and taps them on their shoulders and says, “You’re my boy.” All anecdotal and historical evidence to the contrary, fundamentalist congregations still have a very difficult time believing that their pastors might abuse the power their positions confer upon them.

For one thing, acknowledging an abusive minister calls the entire “called by God” meme into question. This, in turn, calls the whole “sacredness of doctrine” meme into question as well. Instead of sitting peacefully in their seats, nodding and murmuring (or shouting) the occasional “amen,” congregations find themselves in the difficult and embarrassing position of  having to chastise the man they have chosen to lead them.

Many–I believe nearly all–churches prefer to take the less embarrassing path. Here’s how it goes:

First, the woman or child involved is discredited. She “misunderstood.” She “took something out of context.” She “led him on.” She’s “bitter.” She’s a “troublemaker.” She “needs help.” In cases like mine, where the minister in question was also my immediate superior, there was no room for euphemism. When I timidly asked a dear friend and fellow employee about what might happen if one filed a case for sexual harrassment she was blunt: “The secretary gets fired. The minister gets transferred if there’s an affair,” she said. “If you file a sexual harassment suit you might win the lawsuit, but you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be disfellowshipped. The brethren just won’t stand for that.”

Though it’s the consequence with the least legal ramifications, the last result of bringing a suit was emotionally and socially the worst. In our particular church it was believed that once one had been been given the “good news” of our particular brand of christianity, one could not leave the church and still reach heaven. It was called “living up to the light we knew.” What this meant was that, in that time, place, and denomination, filing a suit for sexual harassment would have meant giving up my chance of heaven, if I was so unfortunate as to die before enough time had lapsed to make repentence credible and rebaptism possible. In earthly terms, I would never work for the church again. In my case I ultimately found another job and moved on. For women like Carolyn, whose whole identity is tied up in her ministry, moving on is more difficult.

And there is also the paradoxical fact that because fundamentalist ministers “stand in the place of God,” refusing them a request is equivalent to refusing God’s request.  It doesn’t matter if the request is inappropriate–after all, didn’t Abraham get kudos because he was willing to go so far as to kill his own child? And didn’t God tell one of the minor prophets that he was supposed to marry a whore? God works in mysterious ways; in the scheme of a request–or demand–for sexual favors can seem pretty minor in the beginning–particularly when “no” isn’t a realistic option.

If the woman cannot be discredited, she must be silenced. Women are silenced in many ways. The threat of disfellowshipping did it for me until I got strong enough to leave, and wise enough to understand what had happened. Others are ostracized.Friends simply no longer call. If they meet by chance they engage in only the most superficial conversations. The minister is simultaneously showered with affection and support. Add to that the simple fact that ministers have a lot to say about what is printed in church periodicals and circulars, and everything to say about what message the Lord chooses them to deliver from the pulpit, and the woman often falls silent under the sheer weight of public opinion. What makes all this so deadly is that no matter what the minister may have done, and no matter how justified the woman’s suit may be, she is at a critical disadvantage. And no matter how deeply the rejection of those who have formed her social and support system corrodes her soul, a woman who is also a true believer cannot leave.

If the woman cannot be silenced, and if the minister’s behavior has become egregious, the solution is to shift or spread the blame. The woman herself is accused of “leading him on.” She is accused of being an “accuser of the brethren”–which is code for Satan. If it’s hard for some to swallow that explanation, blame is simply spread around–to the devil first (“The devil’s working hard”) then to all of us (“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”), then to the fact that we are “living in the last days” (The Lord says that even some of the brightest lights will go out) and ultimately the guilt can become global (“We live in a wicked world. It’s all part of the fallen condition of the world.”) Once it’s spread that far, it’s easy to forget that Pastor X believed that he had a right to sleep with Ms. Y even though she wasn’t crazy about the idea because…well, because he wanted to, and because his wife didn’t understand him, and because the rules about pastors and divorce and adultery are too strict anyway, and because she had a great butt.

And then what happens? Some of us leave. We find other jobs. We find other churches. We find other faces for Divinity. Some of us stay, and if we stay we will either shut up about what happened or, if we are very brave, and believe deeply men who profess to speak for God can and should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us, we pursue our case, not because we’re going to get anything out of it (by that time most of us have realized that the financial, emotional, social and spiritual costs of this path are going to beggar us), but because we hope that in raising our voices we will remind other ministers that with great power comes great responsibility.

And if we do, we learn that we are “angry,” “vindictive,” “shrill,” “carrying things too far,” “insisting on our pound of flesh,” “being unchristian,” “giving the Lord’s Work a black eye.” We are reminded that we are to forgive those who sin against us, that no one held a gun to our heads while we were in those seedy hotel rooms, those back seats,those back rooms among the cleaning supplies, plungers, and discarded Morning Watch books, or god help us, on those desks. We know that. Most of us spend a lot of time wondering if we do share responsibility for the destruction of our own lives. We wonder if we did dress inappropriately. We wonder if we inadvertently sent a “come-hither” message. We wonder how it happened that we started out serving God, and ended up servicing a minister.

We don’t know, because abusive ministers are smart. They don’t pick the strong, happy, emotionally healthy women as their victims. They pick those of us who have failed. who know shame, who have bad reputations, who believe we are damned, who have grown up being victimized by other men of God. They pick those of us who believe we are nothing, and are so pathetically grateful to discover that we are something after all that it takes us far, far too long to discover that we were never nothing, and that what we have become is killing our souls. They pick those of us like that, and then they use the power of their “God-given” positions to use us. And because we have grown up in a system that has taught us that we are nothing, that we have no right to determine what happens to our own bodies, that we bear all of the responsibility and none of the power in sexual matters, we let them. And we wonder if it’s our fault.

Why does it take Carolyn so long to realize that David Terrell is not going to “do right by her?” The mystery is that she is able to know it at all. I hope she’s doing well.

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"Iris," by Bodie Parkhurst. Poster available in a variety of styles and sizes.

Back when The Boy was four and we were newly arrived in Portland and poor I worked for a time at Cinnabon. When I first got the job I was embarrassed. I mean, here I was, with my Master’s degree in English and mad writing and design and illustration skills, baking cinnamon rolls in an alcove at Fred Meyer’s.

Working at Cinnabon is hard, hot work. You’re on your feet nonstop, working in close proximity to ovens that are ON. The cinnamon that Cinnabon uses is so very intense that the one and only time I let it get on my arms I got hives. On the other hand, I have a long and loving history with cinnamon rolls. One of my earliest memories is of standing in the a cabin in a logging camp, watching Iris, a woman who would become a dear friend once I learned to talk, take a pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven.

Yes, I was under-employed, but I arrived home smelling delicious, and once I mastered the cash register it didn’t take me long to start thinking in marketing terms. I’m not talking Marketing, which has to do with demographics, banners, and pricing, but marketing, which concerns itself with one simple little question: What are you selling?

About the third day in I realized that the obvious answer–cinnamon rolls–wasn’t the obvious one. It was the customers who clued me in. “This smells so good,” they would say. “Or, this reminds me of my Grandma’s house when I was little,” or, “I wish I could have one, but can’t, not on my diet.”

I realized that what I was selling was not cinnamon rolls, but memory–or maybe a fantasy–of a slower, simpler time when one could walk into a kitchen smelling of baking, sit at the table, and have a grandmotherly woman in an apron bustle around giving food, love, and comfort. I was selling soul food in its purest sense.

And that changed the way that I approached my job. Instead of seeing customers as marks from whom I needed to extract as much money as I could I saw them as battered people seeking the comfort of being wrapped in the fragrance of cinnamon, sugar, and yeast, people who needed to know that there are still women in aprons who greet you with a smile, slide a spatula under a warm cinnamon roll, slather frosting over it, and set it before you with a, “Here, honey, you look like you could use this.”

Women on diets became the customers to whom I offered the tiniest of the minibons as a way to get the taste and comfort without the guilt , high school students on tight budgets got the big minibons, the better to fill the adolescent belly. Big Cinnabons became treats for friends to share. And always, with the sweet, the offer of a drink, hot in the winter, cold in the summer.

I didn’t work at Cinnabon long; I got some big contracts in, and it turned out that by the time I had paid for my uniforms and paid the nice lady who watched The Boy while I worked that I was actually losing money. And that was too bad, because baking at Cinnabon was something I was darned good at not because I was the fastest at rolling and baking, but because while I was feeding and coddling the weary shoppers who walked by on the other side of the sneeze guard I was feeding that part of myself that remembered Iris in her cabin, and needed to believe that women like her still exist–even if I had to become that woman myself.

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A couple days ago I posted a larger copy of this picture, and promised I’d explain it in the near future. I used to do something similar with another painting I did. It was a lovely painting of Holsteins in a Gothic cathedral, and when I asked my students what they thought it meant just about anything might come back. Some were very troubled by what they saw as sacrilege–cows? in church? What could I have been thinking? To them, the picture was blasphemous, a fist in the eye of all they held holiest.

Others saw it as a commentary on religion. To them, the cows meant placidly accepting the message offered, chewing it over…and over…and over…like a cud. To them, the picture was social commentary on the failed spirituality in our religious institutions.

Which group was right? Neither. And both. Here’s how that picture happened: I was driving a forage harvest truck for my dad one summer. We were harvesting for a dairy. It was a slow, slow process that day, and I had a lot of time between picking up loads. I found myself looking into the barn where the cows lived between milkings.

This barn had skylights–something I haven’t seen in many barns–and the early afternoon sun slanted down in rays, illuminating the black and white Holsteins in a gentle golden glow. I found myself thinking of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and the Nativity paintings of the Renaissance, with their classical settings, rich, warm colors, and soft, deep shadows.

Suddenly the barn wasn’t just a barn: I saw the high roofs, the open beams, and the struts and bracing overlaid with the arches and buttresses of classical and Gothic architecture. I saw the cows as organic shapes, contrasting with the visual logic of the simple, sunlit barn interior. I grabbed my notebook and a pencil, swung down out of my truck, and ventured into the alley between the twin mangers.

I gathered up some of the sweet-smelling hay, mounded it up into a seat in one of the mangers, and started to sketch the beams and rafters. Because I was concentrating, it took me a while to realize that something was breathing on the back of my neck. Actually, it took a large, slimy drop of saliva. I jumped and turned around–and there behind me was a crowd of cows, peering over my shoulder, watching me draw.

I had never seen cows at such an angle before–from below, and just in front. As I looked, one of the cows took another step forward, stretched her nose out, and sniffed. I reached through the fence. The cows stepped back. I pulled my hand back, turned back around, and went back to drawing. But this time I drew the cows across the way.

A warm, moist puff of air alerted me to my audience again. I turned, slowly, this time, and found myself eye to eye with several cows. And I began to look–really, really look, there in that quiet barn. The cows looked back. I started to sketch, quick little thumbnails of cows from a point of view new to me–nearly under the animals, but at peace, all of us mildly interested in each other. I sketched legs, feet, noses, eyes, eyelashes, the high arching curves of eyelids, ears, udders, bellies. Eventually I heard a horn blow out in the field, gathered up my pencil and paper, and stood slowly. The cows stepped back. The spell was broken. Life went on.

Two years later, in the midst of a Chicago winter, I found myself remembering that warm, placid afternoon, the gentleness of the moment, the golden, glowing tranquility, and I wanted to capture that. Conveying a feeling like that is not easy; I found myself resorting to the symbolic body the cows had first reminded me of–Renaissance Nativity paintings.

I began borrowing from religious imagery, creating an environment for my cows. And then I created the cows themselves, drawing in their peaceful, gentle eyes, their long sweeping lashes, their delicate ankles, their jaunty registration tags and bands.

I was seeking to capture a peaceful summer afternoon, but somehow a lot of other things got into that painting. My ambivalence about organized religion and the almost mystical connection I felt with some kinds of animals made their way into that painting through the symbols I chose. I hadn’t intended to paint about those things; but I ended up painting about them, anyway. The language of symbolism is like that–and in the end, the most important message is not what the writer or artist intended, but what the reader or viewer perceives. And that’s out of my control.

I can’t tell you what this picture should mean to you; that depends on how you read the symbols. What I can tell you is what I was thinking.

I was thinking about my family, how its public image survived by isolating its members both from each other and from the larger world, and how our religious practice factored into that. I pulled images from traditional art and illustrations, and put them together into something new. If you’re familiar with those things, you’ll recognize most of these elements. Many of them come from conventional religous paintings. But in this context, they take on a whole new meaning–and that meaning is determined both by the painting, and by what you see in it.

There’s just one last thing I’d like to tell you about this painting. I started it when I was in the midst of discovering the truth about my family history, and how child molestation, secrecy, and religion combined to create an incredibly destructive force. In my need to come to grips with my life I created a whole series of sketches. This was one of them.

But they hurt too much; I packed them away and got on with the business of survival. And then, years later, I found them again. I looked at the sketches. “I can do something amazing with these, now,” I thought. Before, all I could see was the pain in them, and it had swamped me. Now, I set to work not on re-drawing them–the whole series has survived intact in terms of symbolism, figures, and colors–but on teasing out the beauty in them. I was painting my pain, but doing it with the intention of finding beauty in it.

The result is a series of pictures that are at once lovely and troubling. I love the colors, shapes, and patterns in “Blest Be The Ties”–and I find the children, isolated on their sheer wall, trapped in their best clothes, heartbreaking. I find the dancing figures at the top infuriating–and lovely. I find the angel puzzling. And that’s the power of symbols. It’s impossible to reduce them to a one to one correspondence; what the painter paints may not be what she intends to paint, and what the viewer sees may be something else altogether. The meaning can only be a shifting, evolving thing that painter, society, and viewer create among them.

So what do you see? And what does that say about me–and about you?

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Here is one of the pictures from my painted journal, Secret History. I should explain that I am less a fine artist than I am an illustrator; my work in general tends to inhabit a no-man’s-land between the world of words and the world of images. When I write, I record pictures in words; when I paint, I tell stories in colors and symbols. So–here’s a painted story, but before I tell you mine, I’m interested to hear yours. What do you see in this picture? (If you need to see details, you can double-click for a larger image.) Talk amongst yourselves….

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