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Here’s a little taste of On Fire for the Lord.It’s one of my favorite bits, though at the time I was living it I very much wished I weren’t. Enjoy!

The summer I turned four I realized that the women in our church fell into two groups: the Good and the Wicked. The Good wore pointy brassieres on their high, cone-shaped breasts, neat fluffy sweaters over the pointy brassieres, and neat modest pencil skirts over flat, girdle-smashed bellies and backsides. They formed trios, had their hair done weekly downtown at the College of Beauty, wore matching dresses and scarves, and played the piano or the organ as opposed to the guitar or the drums. Their daughter arrived early for Sabbath School. They petticoats were starched, and their ringlets perfect. They ate only vegetarian foods, and quoted Ellengy White, who they referred to as “Sister White.” They pressed their flattened palms together, bowed their heads, and closed their eyes when we prayed like the children in Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, and called God “Our Dear Kind Heavenly Father.” The Wicked were something else again.

Theaters were forbidden, so naturally none of the Good Adventists would admit to having seen The Sound of Music, but word of the Family von Trapp had penetrated even our closed society, and family musical groups became all the rage. Such groups were known simply as “The Allen Manuel Family,” “The Dave Swanson Family,” or even more simply, as “The Singing Andersons.” These groups achieved some degree of local fame and sometimes even went on tour to other Adventist churches, as long as they were less than a Sabbath Day’s Journey away.

A few families cut records, which they marketed before sundown on Friday nights at Missionary Volunteers and after sundown on Saturday night at Vespers; buying and selling between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday was forbidden. More of the groups got reel-to-reel tapes of church services where they provided special music, spliced them together, and distributed them to their friends, gratis.

When a family friend asked Momma if we girls and Matt could sing special music for the Young Adult Sabbath School class Momma, flattered, said, “Of course. They’ll be happy to.” She did not consult us.
Pam was mortified at having to sing at the Junior High students, many of whom took pleasure in tormenting her. Marie didn’t want to sing, either, though she denied that it was for social reasons. She put a lot of effort into seeing to it that no one dared to torment her. For me, the thought of standing up in front of anybody, even without actually trying to sing, was terrifying, though I was flattered to have been asked, and my dreams of becoming Deldelker enjoyed a brief renaissance. My illusion that this was the start of bigger and better things for us didn’t last long; Pam saw to that. “We can’t sing,” she said bluntly.

“We can, too,” I said hotly. “Sally and I sing like Deldelker.”

“No, you can’t,” Pam said again. “None of us can. We’re flat.”

I looked down at my chest. “So what?” I asked, a bit defensively. “So’s everybody else.”

“No they’re not,” Pam said. “We can’t stay on key, and our voices wobble.”

“Deldelker wobbles,” Sally said defiantly.

“You’re not Deldelker,” Pam said. And that was that. She took organ and accordion lessons; she knew.

I started listening to us with Pam’s ears, and realized she was right. We sounded lost, lonely, and ragged, our thin voices piping out the high notes and chanting monotone through the chorus with none of Deldelker’s round, fruity tones. We had the wobble down pat, though. The song was “Wonderful Words of Life.” Every night after worship, Momma lined us up and drilled us.

“Sing them over again to me
Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see
Wonderful words of life
Words of life and beeyooty
Teach me faith and d-o-o-o-o-t-y
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of li-hi-hife
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of life.”

Marie elbowed me. I elbowed her back, a little harder. Momma glared at us. “Sing nice,” she ordered. “At least try to follow the tune. You could sing nice if you wanted to. Now sing it again.”

We sang it again, sighing heavily between stanzas, yipping out the li-hi-hifes like lovesick coyotes, injecting a little of Deldelker’s wobble when we thought we could get away with it. We sang the wonderful words of life over and over again to the indifferent living room until we were letter perfect and the words had lost all meaning, and then we sang them some more so we wouldn’t forget them before Sabbath.
When we started practicing three weeks before our gig I didn’t care about the song one way or the other; by the beginning of the second week I hated it. By the beginning of the third week I simply stood and chanted sounds loud enough to satisfy Momma.

The Thursday before our musical debut Momma loaded us into the car and drove us over to a Wicked woman’s house to practice. Though she had agreed to be our accompanist, she looked no more pleased about the arrangement than we were. When we filed in her front door I looked around curiously, trying to spot something I could clearly identify as Wicked, but  it was just a tiny old house, both a little nicer and a little messier than ours. I wouldn’t have suspected she was Wicked at all if I hadn’t known that she was divorced and wore miniskirts.

She sat down at her organ and began thumping out our song. We straggled in on the third measure. Momma made us stop and start again until we all came thumping solidly in on “SING them ovER aGAIN to ME…”

After two repetitions the Wicked woman slid off the organ bench and said, “That’s enough; they’re as good as they’re going to get.” And we were, which was too bad.

“They’re going to laugh at us,” Pam muttered as we drove home.

“So what?” Momma shot back. “They laughed at the Lord.” Pam had no answer for that—everything that hurt us, Jesus had had, and worse. What right had we to complain about anything?

Friday night Momma ironed our matching lavender gingham cross-stitched skirts and wound pink spongie curlers into our hair, as she did every Friday night. We each had an assigned hairstyle. Pam’s was a sort of log that ran around her head, topped by a donut on her forehead. Marie’s was ringlets, or a ponytail surrounded by a doughnut. Mine was the log with straight bangs. Sally alone didn’t have to suffer rollers; she had Momma’s naturally curly hair. That Friday when Momma wound the rollers into our thin, fine hair, she swathed our heads in scarves and hair nets, and threatened us within an inch of our lives if we lost even one roller.

The next morning I got up and pulled off my hair net. Three rollers lay in it. My heart sank. I scurried into the bathroom and looked. Straight muddy blonde hair dangled over my right ear. Pink rollers clung to my scalp above my left ear. Momma poked her head into the bathroom, took one look, and yanked the curlers free. She ran a comb through my hair, wound as much of the log around her finger as she could, then rolled the straight part and sprayed it hopelessly.

Finally she sighed, said, “That’s the best I can do,” and turned to Pam, whose doughnut had smooshed into a flat tire. When we were done she looked at us, tight-lipped. Our hair had become an Act of Outright Defiance. We could have had pretty curls, like she and Sally did. We just hadn’t tried hard enough. “Sing it through just once more,” Momma said. “Just to be sure.” We started half-heartedly. “Not like that,” she interrupted us. “Like you’ll sing it for the Young Adults.” We started again, floundered, forgot the words.

“Sounds like you didn’t make’em practice enough,” Daddy observed, jingling the car keys. “Sounds like they spent too much time outside playing.” Guilt swamped us.

“You kids get in the car,” Momma said. We drove to church in silence. Momma herded us down the long flight of crumbling steps to the school, where the Young Adults worshipped. I was too frightened to relish the fact that I was skipping Sabbath School, something I had long yearned to do.

Momma opened the door to the Young Adults’ Sabbath School room. Her friend, the class leader, came bustling back to us, smiled her infectious smile, said “hello,” then bustled back up to the front. “Today we have a special treat,” she said brightly. “The Dan Parkhurst Family will sing ‘Wonderful Words of Life’ for us.”

And it hit me. The Young Adults thought we were a musical group. Boy, were they ever in for a surprise. The Dan Parkhurst Family shambled to the front of the room. They darted a quick glance at the lanky bepimpled high school boys lounging in their chairs in their Mandarin-collared shirts, and at the teased-and-hair-sprayed high school girls in their miniskirts, go-go boots, black eyeliner, and white lipstick.

As one, the Dan Parkhurst Family dropped its eyes to the floor, where they remained throughout the performance. My own particular memory of that experience is of a pee-colored stain shaped something like what I later learned was Florida.

The Wicked woman teetered over to the piano in her tight little miniskirt and spike heels. The bepimpled boys in their Mandarin collars gaped, open-mouthed, as she shimmied onto the stool and spun it experimentally. Then she pounded out our introduction, and we were….ON.

“Sing them over again to me…” we whispered. “Wonderful words of life.”

Momma and Daddy’s friend smiled encouragingly from the back of the room. The Young Adults were silent—apparently equally stunned at the sheer improbability of five tone-deaf children in a single family, at our nerve in attempting something for which we were clearly unfit, and at the Wicked woman’s tiny skirt.

We stared at the floor, our mouths opening and closing like goldfish. I assume at least some sound came out; it could not have been good. I have a dim memory of our old family friend hustling us out of the room when it was over. We had been granted our five minutes of fame and we had squandered them.

Momma chivvied us back up the hill in time for our Bible Study classes. On the way home after church Daddy asked, “How did it go? Did you remember all the words?”

“Yes,” Pam replied. I couldn’t have told him if I remembered all the words or not.

“See, you can do it if you try,” Daddy said smugly. “I told you so.”

“But we were awful,” Pam burst out. “We sounded awful.”

“But at least you tried,” said Daddy.

“But we were awful,” Pam protested again. “They laughed.”

I was surprised; I had been too terrified to see anything except for the pee stain.

“So what?” Daddy asked. “You did your best.”

“But we were awful,” Pam muttered sadly. “They laughed.”

Marie folded her arms and set her jaw. Her blue eyes were steely. “I’m never doing that again,” she announced.

“Yes, you will,” said Daddy. “The church is full of people who won’t help out because they can’t do something perfectly. If you’re asked again, you’ll do it again, young lady. And you’ll keep on doing it every time you’re asked. I’m not going to have my girls saying ‘no’ when they’re asked to do things.”

There is this to be said for doing something very, very, badly: People don’t ask for an encore. Perhaps the truest measure of the Dan Parkhurst Family’s musical career lies in its brevity; we were never, ever, invited to sing anywhere again. The moral of the story lingered on, though. We understood that, no matter how good the reason, and no matter how painful we found a thing, we could not say “no.”

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So I’m publishing another memoir–I’ve got the preview online for curious readers–such is the magic of CreateSpace–and will have the final corrected version up in the now-foreseeable future. I’ve published a number of books now, and I think it’s safe to say that they tend to raise eyebrows, and sometimes hackles. This is funny, because if you met me in person you’d think I was so nice as to be nearly invisible–really. I went to boarding school for two years. At graduation I had classmates tell me, “I didn’t know you were in our class.” In grad school a fellow student informed me that I was “the easiest person on the world to ignore.”

It’s called “protective coloration,” and all the smartest animals understand its value. Protective coloration allows those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t have the tools or stamina to win brutal confrontations to survive by stealth. It allows us to blend, to disappear into the background, to become invisible. Sometimes we manage to evade detection long enough to discover our writers’ voices, and, like explorers returning from unknown lands, tell our stories.

Some of those stories are lulus. That protective coloration works precisely because it allows us to be overlooked, forgotten, dismissed. We become the “fly on the wall.” Because our survival depends on it, we become master observers, and while we don’t remember everything, we remember far more than those whose stories we have shared–however peripherally–like to think. And then we find our voices. It’s not that what we’re saying isn’t true–although that’s a common accusation–so much as that we tell uncomfortable stories. Writing truly can be like that. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” None of which makes our critics any less irate.

All of which brings me to my latest memoir, On Fire for the Lord, and Other Scalding Tales. I almost published it as fiction. But I didn’t. This is my story, and as Anne Lamott says, I “own it.” It’s part of what has made me who I am. To call it fiction is to betray myself, to say that what I remember isn’t true, that those who preferred to dismiss my uncomfortable memories as examples of my “weak grip on reality” and attempts to garner an unfair share of praise and/or sympathy were right. I would have probably been a happier child had I had less of a death grip on reality, and as for praise–well, this book isn’t likely to get me much of that, either. I was not a particularly admirable person. Sometimes I wasn’t even a very nice one. This book isn’t about nice, or admirable, or victimization. It’s about growing up as part of a strict Seventh-day Adventist family, in a home where there were too many secrets.

This was not an easy book to write. The stories reflect my my life as I remember it, though I’ve changed names and identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of others whose lives my story touches. The act of writing anything involves selection and pruning if the writing is to have any meaning. These stories are true–but they are not the whole truth. My siblings have stories they could tell–and I wish they would. I think we’d all understand each other better.

I hope that those who wish to understand Adventism will look further than my story, mostly because it is my story. It’s a personal experience, shaped by a unique set of influences. It doesn’t reflect the reality of every Adventist home–a fact I was recently reminded of when I participated in a group studying the effects of Adventist children’s literature in general, and Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories in general. Though all of us who participated had grown up in “good Adventist homes,” our childhood experiences differed radically. My story is not the whole story. But it’s part of it. And worth telling. And so I did, because while we were perhaps not typical, neither were we unique. And most of all, we were Examples. And we were broken. If for no other reason, that makes understanding our story worthwhile, because the things that broke us were things that we found in our family history, in our church, and in the face of God we were shown.

But I found other things there as well. I found truly lovely moments. I found a love of scholarship. In some of my teachers I found inquiring minds and a willingness to look hard at ideas. Ultimately, I found the tools I needed to make one of the biggest decisions of my life–the decision to be honest about what I believed and what I didn’t, where I found comfort and where I didn’t. The tools Adventist education gave me were the tools I used to break down the prison that Adventism had erected around me. While On Fire for the Lord is a simple book at first glance–it’s just a collection of short stories grouped around a single theme–it explores a complex situation to which there were only complex answers.



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I write books. I write a lot of books, and I write them at the same time. I do this because I’m a storyteller, and because I use writing as a way of escaping to another place, time, and life. And all that’s great–but it really doesn’t result in good books.

This is because while I am a storyteller, I tend to get lost in minutia. My readers might enjoy my storytelling, but they tend to have a hard time following the big story–the overarching narrative that ties all the little stories together, and makes them more together than they are apart.

A few days ago I posted a request for people to weigh in on which of my current writing projects they’d like me to focus on next. The answers were pretty much divided, but then fate took a hand. A book I’m typesetting about helping loved ones who are facing death included a passage on the importance of “both/and” thinking, rather than “either/or” thinking.

The writer explained that it was particularly important in circumstances where “ambiguous death” was involved–missing persons, Alzheimer’s patients, and as in my case, where my father’s terminal illness brought up a whole scorpions’ nest of emotions, memories, and history. His death was incredibly complex, and I found myself wishing for the false simplicity of an either/or answer to the questions he left behind.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been weighing those days, and I’ve come to see that the question of whether we would be either/or people or both/and people really was the defining question we faced. How we answered that question is what determined how those terrible days played out.

Recognizing this has given me something I never have had before–a clear theme for a book, one that governs every aspect of how I will put this book together. I have the stories–lots of them–but I’ll be retelling them, editing, shaping, and pruning to explore that central, vital question the manner of Dad’s death posed for us–would we be either/or people, or both/and people?

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Sybil Exposed

Debbie Nathan
Simon & Schuster, 2011
In 1973 the world met Sybil, a woman who, as a result of horrific childhood abuse, has been forced to split herself into 16 distinct personalities. After years of therapy by the heroic Dr. Connie Wilbur Sybil is reintegrated into a 17th, complete personality, and goes on to live a happy and productive life. The book is billed as non-fiction, and was initially presented as a case history.

An absolute ban on communication with “Sybil” was instituted upon the book’s publication. Among other things, all of “Sybil’s” psychiatric records were sealed. Whatever fact-checking or due diligence was done by psychiatrist Connie Wilbur and writer Flora Rheta Schreiber had to suffice; Sybil met the world as a fait accompli, which demanded the public accept it as true in its entirety. After all, why would anybody make up a story like this?

In 1973 the world met Sybil. Who the world did not meet was Shirley Ardell Mason, the woman whose life the book Sybil purported to document. Sybil Exposed, by author Debbie Nathan, sets out to rectify this. Though Wilbur’s psychiatric records either remain sealed or were destroyed upon her death, Flora Rheta Schreiber’s were donated to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and, after the death of Shirley Mason, the records were unsealed. It is these records, combined with records and interviews of those who knew Mason throughout her life, that form the basis of Nathan’s thesis: That Wilbur’s “treatment” (which included enormous, ongoing doses of Sodium Pentothal combined with barbiturates and hallucinogenics followed up by leading and suggestive questioning was in large part responsible for the “personalities.” Mason herself seems to have understood the “personalities” as ways for identifying certain emotions and actions, rather than as discrete people, and indeed at least once wrote Wilbur a letter (which has been preserved) trying to set the record straight. She argues that she is not multiples, but one person, and requests that her therapy focus not on unnecessary “fusion,” but on exploring why she has felt it necessary to tell such stories. Wilbur interprets the letter as “denial,” and sessions proceed as before.

Nathan provides evidence that Wilbur and Schreiber both had their doubts about the multiple personality disorder diagnosis, but found it professionally and financially advantageous to first create, and then maintain the fiction. In short, it is not an exaggeration to say that no matter who or what Shirley Mason may have been, Sybil was born in a marketing strategy meeting.

And therein lies the seeds of one of the fascinating and troubling passages in American cultural history. Sybil provided “proof” that children may suffer horrific abuse, repress the memory, and the recover it in therapy–and that such memories are always true. This idea was the basis of the Satanic Daycare furor that devastated so many lives–including that of Shirley Mason herself. When her “therapy” begins she is a functioning, productive woman. In short order she is a basket case of nerves and drug addiction, isolated from her support system and completely dependent on Wilbur. After Sybil is published she spends the rest of her life in hiding.

In short, Wilbur and Schreiber, between them, take a bright, troubled, artistic woman and reduce her to a professional patient, and then isolate her from those who might have been able to help. It’s a readable, thoroughly documented record of a woman who was arguably destroyed by the very woman she should have been able to trust the most–her therapist.

Sybil Exposed is available in bookstores and on Amazon in hardcover and kindle editions.

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