Long Reads is a bimonthly feature, showcasing long-form essays.
I was probably the most religious kid you ever met. I genuinely believed in God, the way that most kids believe in Sunday morning cartoons and rainbow colored fruit rollups. The only other things I was equally as passionate about were Lisa Frank stationary, The Little Mermaid, and the color hot pink. I actually thought that I would wait until I was married to have sex. I genuinely believed that angels walked with me to the bus stop, cheered me on in fights with bullies at school (yet stood by idly as I got my ass kicked, of course), and that they would guide me to the right places to be with the right people at the exact right times.
When you’re young, you still genuinely believe that magic can be properly conjured with enough ordinary household items and a proper imagination.
No matter how old I get, or how much I travel, I’m always a little amazed to walk into a church that doesn’t have tapestries of a white Jesus kneeling with a lion on the walls. At 34, I expect that a service doesn’t peak until the pastor leads a fevered worship in his silk, tailored suit and glittering gold rings doing cartwheels down the aisle or laying out his attendees with the Holy Ghost, watching as they convulse on the floor in their Sunday best, completely possessed by their faith.
To a child, it’s a mesmerizing, frightening spectacle. When you’re young, you still genuinely believe that magic can be properly conjured with enough ordinary household items and a proper imagination. I can’t count the number of times I tried to re-create the wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’ classic Narnia series using cardboard boxes and my mother’s moth-eaten housecoats from the ‘70s.
The concept of heaven and hell was even more poignant. I often dreamt in epic cinematic effect, where the two battled it out in my subconscious, usually for something inane – like Lisa Frank stationary. And my mother, always quick to rush to my side when I awoke, turned faceless black monsters into devils and old, white men with long silver hair into angels.
I think I just read too much Tolkien.
But at the time, it catered to the naïve belief that the murky philosophy of life could be easily categorized into good and evil, simplifying problems that were emotionally taxing and negating the need for analysis and problematization. Add to that the soothing, narrative voice of my mother, who remains the most beautiful woman on the planet, and I was ripe to believe in a world governed by invisible deities that pulled the very strings of existence, who didn’t bend to any contradictory argument based off of science, logic or critical thinking… no matter how persuasive.
There was no need to think otherwise. That was taken care of entirely.
As a pre-teen, my mother was quick to counter any indulgences in customary adolescent interests, which she woefully interpreted as distraction from the impending End Times. How would I be prepared to battle the Anti-Christ if I was too busy jamming to my Brandy CD?
She told me that the thick plumes of black smoke were demons leaving our home — that I had invited them in.
R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series was a written representation of all the things she had blacklisted in life: lust, disobedience, privilege, intellectual freedom... The only book she read with any consistency was the bible, which sat dog-earred, ragged and annotated in blue and black ink on the nightstand next to her bed.
My father, who lived in constant fear that I would encounter a young boy as predatory as he had once been, policed my body with tyrannical precision. He saw religion as a convenient vehicle by which to enforce an unfounded fear of pre-marital sex, even though he himself found religion to be utterly ridiculous.
He never stopped to question the approach, not even when he came home to find me in tears because my mother had torched my entire R.L. Stine book series in an aluminum trash can in our backyard. I remember her holding me as I cried into her chest. She told me that the thick plumes of black smoke were demons leaving our home — that I had invited them in.
I later learned they were just carbonized particles.
Later in life, when I read about black smoke in War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, that memory came back clear as day. In that book, black smoke was a poisonous gas used by Martians to eliminate human beings. But for me, that black smoke suffocated the unique joy I felt by reading…making it sinful, dirty and subject to censorship. (So, naturally, I became a writer.)
My older brother was never subject to the same rules and regulations. He only came to church for Easter service, and neither of my parents seemed preoccupied with saving his immortal soul whenever he found himself in trouble at school or playing any number of heavy metal albums, from Slayer to Iron Maiden… but who are they compared to Brandy?
And then one day, when he was sixteen and I was ten, they brought home a cashier from our local grocery store. I don’t remember the conversation very well, but I remember watching my parents list her virtues before my brother, as if they were discussing the bio-ethical qualifications of a piece of aged steak before consumption. My brother was humiliated. After retreating to his room to seek comfort from his collection of heavy metal CDs, dejected, I heard my father tell my mother, “I don’t understand – when I was his age, I had five girlfriends.”
♦ The Greatest Show On Earth ♦
One summer’s day, my mother made a passionate declaration that the one and only Benny Hinn would be starting his ministry in our fair city of Orlando. I had no idea who he was, but her enthusiasm was contagious. We drove around town returning plastic flowers to crafts shops so she wouldn’t need to ask my father for money to buy new clothes and jewelry. When Sunday came, she told me it was only a short drive downtown, but it was more than an hour to the outskirts of town, which we found after stopping at several gas stations along the way for directions. Summer in Central Florida is particularly excruciating — I nearly scratched the skin clean off of my legs trying to dig through my itchy white tights with pink love hearts.
At that point in my life, I had not yet been to a football or basketball game. I had never experienced the awe of large crowds, when thousands of people congregate for the single purpose of escapism — whether it be through sport or worship. I was not prepared for the sea of people who filled up rows of stadium seating, packed like teeth. They stood, eyes closed, with their hands in the air, singing in unison to gospel songs that blended into each other like an ocean tide, washing over me, through me, and all around.
Hinn approached me, microphone in hand, and asked my mother about my particular affliction. She said I was lustful and free-willed.
I immediately understood my mother’s excitement, even though I didn’t comprehend the subject of the excitement itself. The energy was contagious and palpable and unlike anything I had felt before in my short life — it felt like what happens when imagination and ordinary household items finally come to life and create a whole new world, one that doesn’t bend to rules based on physics.
We sat close to the front, where Hinn stood with a small selection of suits and women with large hair. After a spirited sermon, the content of which I don’t really remember, he invited people with afflictions to the stage for healing. One by one, I saw men and women in wheel chairs and on crutches serve themselves up in front of a standing vase of bright pink flowers on the blue-carpeted stage and speak into a microphone, detailing their lifetimes of pain. And one by one, I saw Hinn lay his hands on them, taking their seizures, their cancers, and their disabilities and banishing them into the ether of darkness that I presumed was preoccupied by devils and R.L. Stine books…
When he grew tired of using his hands, he used his coat. When he grew tired of using his coat, he used his tie.
I had never been more afraid of a pair of hands or a wardrobe in my life, and my father and brother had given me plenty of reasons to fear theirs.
So when my mother dragged me to the stage, like a lamb being led to the slaughter, I reacted the only way I knew how – by yelling and screaming and twisting, even though she and several large suited men held me in place with their large hands covered in large rings. Hinn approached me, microphone in hand, and asked my mother about my particular affliction. She said I was lustful and free-willed.
I was ten. I sang “Touch Myself” by the Divinyls some times, but that was it — I swear.
And like any lustful, free-willed kid, I responded by kicking the large man with the unfamiliar accent in the shin with my black patent leather shoe and running away as fast as I could to the toilets. I remained there until a message over the intercom summoned me to the information desk, long after the service ended, where my mother waited, furious and disappointed.
She didn’t say a word to me about it on the car ride home, but more books and CDs disappeared. I wouldn’t have known if not for the smell of that black smoke… like sulfur.
♦ The Beginning Of The Beginning ♦
People often ask me about my tipping point. Surely, it was the book burning. Anything reminiscent of Nazi Germany would be a clue for anyone at any age that something was wrong… but it wasn’t. Surely it was when my mother told me that my Tori Amos CD had made her subject to demonic attacks in the middle of the night… but it wasn’t. Surely it was my mother being convinced that I was possessed by demons and asking a strange, grown man to exorcise them from me in front of thousands of people… but it wasn’t.
My faith wasn’t challenged until I was 19, when my on-again, off-again boyfriend of four years raped me while I was home for summer vacation. To explain what it was like to be in love for the first time would be to contradict the multitude of feelings behind a first love, where words, poems, and all the sappy songs of the rainbow don’t seem to come close to describing the all-consuming possession of my heart by another. But in this case, it was possessed by a monster.
After the rape, he made me shower in front of him — and when I drove home, I had to pull over on the side of the road, where I vomited and experienced the first of many, many panic attacks to come.
I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I cried for no reason, all the time.
At 19, I still believed that premarital sex was wrong, even though I had publicly declared that I had no desire to marry. The contradiction between the two didn’t register until some years later, but that’s besides the point. At the time, my world wilted into the ground, beneath the dirt, buried beneath shame and guilt, and books that I wasn’t supposed to read and music I wasn’t supposed to love and views of which no preacher would ever approve.
I returned to university, trying to function with a full course load and a budding social life, both of which suffered greatly. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I cried for no reason, all the time. I made plans to meet friends only to cancel last minute, so paralyzed by the idea of being around other people whom I feared would sniff out my shame like blood hounds. I had my mother on speed dial, and eventually told her what happened in the hopes that she would provide some comfort. She drove up to see me and stayed with me for a night. We had dinner at Chili’s and saw a movie. She didn’t have much to say on the subject, and seemed content just hugging me and telling me that everything would be okay. That was enough.
And then, the morning she was meant to leave, we went through the bible together, praying, and she started to speak in tongues.
Glossolalia, also known as speaking in tongues, is that relic of snake-handling practiced in the Appalachian mountains, where people believe — as I once did — that someone could be possessed by the spirit of God and speak his words in his voice. In that sense, religion was very egalitarian; that was the only point in time when my mother, demure and soft-spoken, ever took on a booming, male bravado — one she never possessed with my brother or my father, no matter what they said about her… or me.
Losing my belief was like tearing myself in two and choosing which half I’d take with me, while the other one stayed behind with my mother in her familiar world of angels and demons.
I was then — as I am now when I think about it — overcome with goose bumps, and silent. I knew not to interrupt when she had the Holy Ghost. She knew it too, which is why it only happened when she needed to remind herself of her stranglehold.
So I spoke to God. How many people can say that? I had many conversations with God. But this time, I asked him — or her — why this had happened to me. My mother's response was the exact blessing I needed – because it was impossible for me to continue believing in a religion where rape could be justified as a pre-martial safeguard, to deter any desire I might have to stray from the chosen path before the right God-fearing, Republican man blessed me with his Republican seed, after exchanging holy vows.
In God’s eyes, or the God of my mother anyway, my rape had been a blessing. To think of it as anything else would’ve been defiant, sinful, and arrogant — an even faster way to demonstrate how spiritually damaged I was.
I’ve seen building demolitions that were less violent than the schism in my faith created by that event. Losing my belief was like tearing myself in two and choosing which half I’d take with me, while the other one stayed behind with my mother in her familiar world of angels and demons.
To be perfectly honest, it was like being violated a second time.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I had tried on and subsequently discarded the evangelical approaches of modern-day atheism espoused by high-profile figures like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins that I came to realize that my mother’s religious manifestations were a result of a lifelong battle with borderline personality disorder and severe depression. Religion had been the only constant in her life, from indigenous ritual inherited from our Cherokee ancestors, to Pentecostal-inspired fanaticism. And I made peace with those memories of my childhood when I realized that the only way she could connect to others was by first attempting to subjugate them to the same religious rules and regulations enforced by her own mother – a lifelong sufferer of schizophrenia.
When I left religion, I stopped being the only person she had in that world.
I look back on the way I watched my mother, perhaps it was the same way she watched hers. Walking into the house from school, putting down my lunchbox and finding her in a sweaty, fevered spell — in front of the television, in tears, holding herself — trying desperately to reconcile the pieces through the words of a big man in a silk suit yelling through a silver portal. When nobody else within her immediate surroundings cared about her enough to yell at all.
My mother was one of sixteen children originally. Twelve survived infancy. Nine live today. And now I know that her God was the most pervasive entity in her upbringing… as my God was in mine.
I would have given up my shot at the eternal bliss beyond just to have my mother, but she was never mine to have. I know that now. She needed a mother maybe more than I did, and in the absence of that, she needed a daughter who was willing to fill in. But in playing that role, I eventually grew to speak a language that she couldn’t understand: logic.
Try as I might, I cannot imagine the kind of loneliness she must have felt to go to such extremes in order to simply relate to another human being… even her own daughter. And now that I am as far away from religion philosophically as I am from my parents geographically, she looks at me like a stranger. There’s no sign of recognition, no hint of familiarity. When I’m home, she follows me around the house without making any attempt of physical contact, so afraid to be contaminated by whatever it was that drove me away from her one belief system to begin with.
So now – I don’t believe in God. I think that goes without saying. And I’ve tried on many faiths in-between. Later in university, I tried reconnecting with the indigenous roots my mother had left behind by joining the American Indian Student Union, learning traditional songs, dances, and engaging in the narrative art of story telling. I lived in Japan after graduating from university and marveled at the concept of Buddhism, which co-existed peacefully alongside Shintoism, even though they contradicted one another in many ways. I think Catholics and Protestants could learn a lot from that. I still have Shinto charms from the shrines there to guard my health, my heart, and my mind. I seriously contemplated converting to Judaism, enticed by the idea of a heaven with no opposing hell, until I fell in love with a Polish Jew who begged me to reconsider.
… Fancy that. He preferred himself a shiksa.
Eventually, I turned it all in for science. I bought a membership to the Natural History Museum in Chicago and I read The God Delusion and Atlas Shrugged, the unofficial manifestos of libertarian snowflakes around the world.
I left that behind when I realized how underrepresented women of color were in fields that made it their business to tell us just how deluded we were by centuries of religious practices that had been our only saving grace when science and its beloved scientists left us behind.
Christopher Hitchens once said that women are evolutionarily restrained from being funny. Clearly he’s never seen me do stand-up. Bill Maher isn’t an Islamophobe — don’t you know? He brunches with Ayaan Hirsi Ali… now that she’s been civilized by the Dutch, of course…
And Sam Harris, who recently said that Black Lives Matter will take race relations back fifty years, has always been more concerned with encouraging the very pseudo-intellectual millennials who continue to confuse philosophy with narcissism without ever having studied either one. But, oh, how they make it their business to constantly tell me, “Jennifer, I refuse to believe you were ever religious. You’re simply far too brilliant.”
While I wanted to identify with atheism, its movement, and its followers, I felt discarded by their platforms.
I still wonder how people can be so entitled as to carelessly dismiss such a significant part of my upbringing, when it is directly responsible for making me into the brilliant person you may call friend… but I promise you, I do not return the favor.
Malcolm X was religious. Martin Luther King, Jr. was religious. Both of them at various times, in different ways. Their religions did more to bring me freedom than the philosophy of science, because science never applied to people who look like me. Science excluded me from the very accomplishments that would have been impossible without women who looked like me. The same science that put my mother into a mental health facility at sixteen, forcing her into ice baths and denying her food to treat her suicidal tendencies. The same science that intentionally injected black men with syphilis in Tuskegee, Alabama.
My mother believes in black magic and white. Does the same thing apply to science?
People of color know that today’s scientists could just as easily have been yesterday’s slave owners, who tore us away from a religion that defined us before the Middle Passage gave us Irish names and a white Jesus kneeling next to a lion instead.
While I wanted to identify with atheism, its movement, and its followers, I felt discarded by their platforms. I was raised in a religious home that was emotionally violent, but by learning about my culture and history as a woman of color in America, I was able to rationalize the importance of religion in fierce movements throughout history that did recognize me as a person, regardless of what I believe.
My particular brand of existence means allowing belief and non-belief to coexist peacefully alongside one another, just as Shintoism and Buddhism do in Japan — just as I must with my past.
I learned that atheism, like any other religious institution, can have an agenda — and it was often an agenda that excluded me. Why on earth would my mother ever go to these people for identity?
So where does this leave me now? I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in atheism. I believe in beauty. I believe in courage. I believe in justice – justice for everyone. And when peer-reviewed, critically annotated, and properly cited, I do believe in science.
But nothing will ever stop me from feeling those goose bumps at the sound of Glossolalia. Nothing will ever terrify me more than movies with the word “Exorcism” in it. Nothing will make me angrier than watching a silk-suited scheister on a TV asking naïve old ladies to send in their pension checks. Nothing will ever break my heart more than knowing that some people need this because they have nothing else.
My particular brand of existence means allowing belief and non-belief to coexist peacefully alongside one another, just as Shintoism and Buddhism do in Japan — just as I must with my past.
Just as I must do when I travel… otherwise, how could I enjoy the magnificence of art that does, on occasion, move me with its beauty so much that it gives me pause to believe in the divine yet again?
On New Year’s Eve, I wandered into St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg, Austria, a Benedictine monastery of Romanesque architecture in the heart of one of the most aesthetically beautiful cities in Europe. The pews were packed with parishioners and tourists, many of whom appeared genuinely religious, and the air was thick with incense and song. I stood against the wall in my fluffy parka, entranced by the reverence and the ornate beauty, thinking back to my upbringing in the Pentacostal, non-denominational megachurches of the Deep South.
Parishioners were deathly silent, happy to sit with their reverie and reflect on the year now behind us. There were no large suits with large hands or large glittering gold rings. There were no big-haired women. There was Mozart, and robes, and centuries-old religious ornaments covering every inch of free space — like rows and rows of packed teeth.
And as I stood amongst them, with church bells and the smell of cinnamon numbing the increasing excitement outside, I couldn’t help but think this to myself: How boring! Those Austrians don’t know what they’re missing.
And I suppose they can thank God for that.