Fundamentalist faiths are bad for everyone, but women undoubtedly suffer more than the men do. Whether they’re evangelical Christian, Mormon, or Muslim, the message is clear: If you’re female, God has a special, shitty role for you.
But every now and then, the women break free. They escape the faith — or at least the more extreme version of it — and serve as inspirations for others.
Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions (Seal Press, 2013), edited by Cami Ostman and Susan Tive, compiles several stories by these women. They write about the “pain that comes from the rigid expectations and diminishment of women so often built into religious orthodoxy.”
It’s as frightening and powerful a book as you might imagine.
Below is one particular story that stood out to me: It’s by Pamela Helberg, a lesbian mother who lived as a fundamentalist Christian for many years. The piece is called “Body Language”:
My parents and I had just returned from a long Sunday morning at church and I was starving. During the last half hour of services I had tried in vain to sing and pray loudly so that no one could hear the deep empty sounds coming from my gut. As soon as we got home and I changed out of my church clothes I headed straight for the kitchen to make myself a toasted cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup, my favorite Sunday lunch. My thoughts were focused so intently on getting the bread perfectly browned in the frying pan that I didn’t see or hear my parents suddenly double-team me. Dad came from the living room while Mom snuck up behind me from the dining room, tears streamed down both of their faces.
“Pam Sue, your mother and I need to talk to you,” my father said tightly, his voice modulated to neutral with a hint of loving concern.
Uh oh, I thought, this cannot be good. I turned off the stove and scanned the kitchen for a possible escape. They each blocked a doorway, effectively making me their prisoner. I took a deep breath. “Why? What’s up?”
“Sit down.” My mother stepped away from her post and pulled a chair out for me. I intuited that I should obey.
“Pam Sue, your mother and I love you very much.” This loving concern, these tears, felt like a bad omen.
“I love you too,” I said with a slight hint of a question. My stomach clenched with dread. I knew what was coming next.
“What is this this this… sickness? Are you and Chris lovers?” my mother blurted out.
My heart jumped and my eyes stopped focusing, the kitchen began to spin.
“We are very concerned for you, young lady. We don’t want you to go to hell.” My father began sobbing. His face bright red. “We don’t want to spend eternity without you.”
I had never seen my father cry, and his unmasked emotion scared me. I couldn’t look at him. My desire to run away grew stronger.
“What kind of game are you two playing?”
“We know you are more than just friends,” my mother spit out. “What you girls are doing is a sin. You will go to hell.”
This omnipresent threat of hell had dictated most of my choices throughout adolescence, and while I wasn’t always a good Christian girl, I did spend much of my time pleading with God for forgiveness, hoping for redemption so I wouldn’t spend my hereafter burning and screaming and gnashing my teeth with the unrepentant masses.
“Pam,” my dad said, “we can’t just sit back and watch you destroy your chance for eternal life.”
I could feel my face growing hot with anger and panic. I looked down at my hands to avoid my parents’ eyes. I couldn’t speak.
“I almost died having you,” mom said through her sobs,” and I will not sit back and watch you go to hell.”
I knew the story of my birth, but this was the first time my mother had wielded it as a weapon for Christ. I recoiled, ever more certain that, until I’d met Chris, my whole life had felt awkward and out of sync, and now things were beginning to feel good and right. I finally felt loved and known by someone, and seen, instead of hidden, judged, and condemned. The unfairness of it all angered me. Why did my happiness have to result in losing my parents’ love and support? I had just turned eighteen, yes, and I yearned for independence, but I wasn’t ready to be without my family, not yet.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, terrified and panicked. I wanted nothing more than for this interrogation to end. “I’ll never do it again. I promise we’ll stop.” I was willing to say anything to make the nightmare end. But my parents weren’t ready to leave the ultimate destiny of my eternal soul in my young and incapable hands, and they demanded I go with my father that very night to see Pastor Gary for a laying on of hands. A healing, they called it. If only it could be that simple.
I was grateful for the silence and the air-conditioning in the car as Dad and I drove to the church later that evening. I didn’t know what was more oppressive, the stifling August heat or the afternoon’s dismal events looping endlessly through my mind. I kept recalling my parents’ insistence that my relationship with Chris would lead me directly to the gates of hell where I would spend eternity suffering in fire and brimstone, smoldering away with the rest of the sinners as we writhed in agony forever. Didn’t I know, they’d asked me repeatedly, that lying with a woman was the most egregious of sins?
Didn’t I know? Of course I knew. I had highlighted 1 Corinthians 6:9 so many times in my Bible that the verse had practically disappeared.
As my father and I left the comfort of the cool car and made our way across the still- steaming tar parking lot and into the stuffy sanctuary, Corinthians thrummed within me along with a multitude of other Bible verses.
Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they must be put to death.” Romans: “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received the due penalty for their perversion.”
I knew them all by heart, had memorized each admonition as well as I had memorized the luscious curves and contours, the sweet and secret depths of Chris’s body. How could I not know that what I felt for Chris was a sin? But how could I go forward without her? I couldn’t, not in this life. I would worry later about the hereafter.
As I trudged after my father up to Pastor Gary’s office, I left my body, remembering the very first time Chris and I had indulged in what I had been taught were perverse and unnatural relations. We had met at summer camp a year before and immediately became inseparable. After camp was over, although we lived about two hundred miles apart, we often spent the weekends at each other’s houses, always sharing a bed, snuggling before sleep, a habit that had begun at camp.
That First Night was just another night after a long day of hiking and stealing furtive and passionate kisses on the trails near my house, dinner with the family, a bit of television — yet I felt a new, more powerful longing welling up within me. On That First Night a surge of confidence and courage coursed through me as I moved my hands over Chris’s lean athletic body, holding my breath and daring myself to touch her in new and forbidden places: under the waistband of the boxers she wore as pajamas, farther up and under the T-shirt that covered her taut stomach and firm breasts. She did not stop my curious fingers, welcoming my explorations with subtle shifts of her body and small happy sounds. As my fingertips found tender and exquisite flesh, I breathed heavily, and moaned softly. Soon, we were moving together, her hands now on me too, desperately seeking each other’s soft spaces. Our bodies pulsed as one as sweet instinct enveloped us. I clung to her, sharing this fierce and lovely ride until rainbows arched from my toes and our breathing slowed, my hands still exploring, caressing her damp and trembling limbs.
“Welcome home,” Chris whispered and kissed me softly on the lips. Home indeed. My world immediately felt complete, as my mysterious adolescent yearnings resolved into this new expression, these new ways of speaking to the girl I loved. For a few minutes in the quiet aftermath, I reveled in this fresh intimacy, in the joy of our mutual exploration and discovery.
But later That First Night my euphoria came to an abrupt end when I panicked, suddenly terrified I had just doomed myself to eternity in a pit full of wailing, burning sinners. By finally giving in to temptations I had fought my entire adolescence, had I just succumbed to earthly pleasures and forfeited any heavenly rewards? I leapt from the bed and hastily recovered my abandoned pajamas. I looked briefly at Chris, who slept peacefully already, and ran up the stairs to the living room where I flopped into my father’s recliner and prayed. I tried to speak in tongues, but, as usual, the special prayer language eluded me and I settled for plain English.
My church taught that the gift of speaking in tongues is bestowed upon believers who are baptized in the Holy Spirit. Mere mortals receive this special language, a secret code, in order that they might have a direct and private conversation with the Lord. So far, I was not one of those chosen to have this gift. I’d always feared that God had long ago abandoned me as lost.
“Dear Lord Jesus,” I begged, feeling the creeping weirdness I always felt when talking to this Invisible Being I was supposed to be devoted to, for, while I had been raised in the church, its yoke weighed on me, heavy and uncomfortable. “What have I done?” I cried. “What shame have I brought upon your holy name? Forgive me, Father. Forgive me for giving in to Satan’s temptations and earthly pleasures. Help me, Lord, help me to resist these terrible urges, to look only upon you and your love for me. I love you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus,” I muttered and rocked in the recliner. “Forgive me, forgive me.” As I pleaded for my very soul, still a small part of me was not quite ready for redemption, not ready to dismiss as sinful the completeness Chris and I had just shared. I was so wracked with guilt and righteous anger that I didn’t hear Chris come up the stairs. I jumped at her touch and her voice.
“Where’d you go?” she whispered, genuinely puzzled. “Why are you in here?”
Darkness enveloped the living room so I could just make out her silhouette.
“What are you doing?” She moved closer, touched my shoulder.
“Praying,” I said, my cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
“Because we shouldn’t have.” I answered, my conviction waning the moment I saw her. “What we just did, it’s a sin.”
“Really,” I said. “Romans 13:12, ‘Don’t participate in sexual promiscuity and immorality…” my voice trailed off, and when she took my hand and gently pulled me from the recliner and led me back down the stairs, back to bed, I did not resist.
Thoughts of Chris, our bodies entwined, our fingers and lips seeking each other’s pleasures, filled my mind as Dad and I entered Pastor Gary’s windowless office where I imagined I could smell the stench of sin: burning human flesh, brimstone, fear. Pastor Gary was a stocky man, balding with wisps of black hair, dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans, black cowboy boots. He reminded me of Neil Diamond. I hated Neil Diamond.
“Pamela, I am just very pleased that your daddy spoke with me about your afflictions,” he drawled in a leftover Texas twang. “I am so excited to pray with you tonight, to cast these demons of homosexuality out, to let our good Lord and Savior in to heal your wounded soul.” His feeble attempts to reassure me only scared me more.
He motioned for us to kneel in front of his massive walnut desk, on the plush rose- colored carpet. My father knelt to my left and put his hands on my head and lower back. Pastor Gary knelt in front of me, his hands on each of my shoulders, closed his eyes, and began beseeching God to join us. I closed my eyes compliantly, but the anger I’d felt earlier in the kitchen was still swirling inside me, faster and more furious than before. I wasn’t ready for this “demon” to be cast out of me, no matter what the consequences.
“Jesus! Holy Spirit, Heavenly Father, gloooooorious Son of God, be here with us now,” he commanded. “Touch this young woman, fill her with your love and forgiveness.”
“Yes, Jesus,” my father said softly. “Touch Pam with your healing love.” Hearing my father’s voice calmed me a little. I suddenly remembered to breathe.
For a few beats, the two men waited expectantly, ready for Christ Himself to burst through the door, sword drawn, prepared to do some serious spiritual battle with my homosexual inclinations. I desperately needed a way out of this prison of love and good intention I’d found myself locked in. As the men continued to murmur quietly, my mind drifted back to Chris and what she would think of me in this particular situation. I had given up trying to explain my family’s faith to her after that first night. She refused to understand, having been raised Catholic (who are not even real Christians according to our church). Evidently the saints interceded on her behalf and the afterlife was of no serious concern to her. Besides, as our intimacy deepened, I saw absolutely no benefit in pushing my crazy religious beliefs on someone fortunate enough to have escaped them thus far.
I remained trapped between the bliss of our love—this new intimate language we were learning — and an absolute fear of divine retribution. My god was an angry god, an Old Testament god, a god who did not take kindly to any sort of sexual activity unless performed within the confines of a traditional marriage, and, I suspected, only then in the missionary position and for procreative purposes (though to say this out loud would have only revealed the deepening fissure between my parents’ faith and my own budding certainties).
Pastor Gary’s voice boomed, startling me out of my reverie. “Hahkahlafalafalah. Holy Spirit, be with us now. Hahkawaffleahfalalah. Hahkahwaffle waffle ah.”
Those chosen to speak in tongues allegedly all receive different prayer languages, and, like snowflakes, no two are alike. To my ear, they all sounded eerily similar, and Pastor Gary’s sounded disturbingly like a Saturday morning breakfast order at IHOP.
“Jee-suzzzzzz, have mercy on this child’s soul. In your name we command the demons of homosexuality to leave her now! Malakalafalafala makawaffle ah.” As Pastor Gary did his best to cast the demons out, I silently begged them to stay.
I sensed my father muttering in his own prayer language next to me; I fixated briefly on his short aspirations and the occasional soft pop as he moved his lips. I could hear him fighting back tears, reminding me of the risks I faced if I chose Chris over eternal life.
Could hell be any worse than being trapped on my knees in this office, being prayed for against my will for demonic forces to depart from my body? — forces that gave me both great pleasure and terrible guilt. I could not imagine life without Chris, never touching her again, but I also couldn’t imagine going on without the support of my family. Eternal agony of endless burning, endless suffering, loomed all too real for me side-by- side with something I didn’t even understand about myself. I knew I had to figure out a way, at least temporarily, to keep both my family and my relationship with Chris. If Judgment Day were to arrive anytime soon, God could see how I was trying to do the right thing, couldn’t He? Maybe He would see fit to at least let me past the pearly gates. I didn’t need a mansion made of gold, just a small humble cabin far away from hell’s furnace — and someone to love. I started to tremble.
As my knees grew achy and my spine stiffened and my feet got numb, I remembered all the other times people had prayed over me, all the times I had answered the altar call and gone forward at the end of the church services to receive my own baptism in the Holy Spirit, my own secret language. So many believers I couldn’t count had laid their hands on me or waved their arms in the air over me as they prayed for God to touch me with His grace, prayed that I would be slain in the Spirit and receive His secret code. But each time I went forward, desperate for this spiritual currency, I came away speaking only English and some rudimentary high school Spanish. Now, tired of fighting a confusing internal fight and sad for my parents, who loved both God and me, I continued to tremble on my knees in Pastor Gary’s office, knowing that both men would attribute my involuntary shaking to God working within me. Only I knew that I shook with the fear of making an impossible choice. Emotionally exhausted, I just wanted to go home.
I took a deep breath and tried to get myself under control.
A simple solution to my immediate dilemma was within my own power, I just had to use it. I cleared my throat and tried to act confident.
“Barreemabeanabarreemah,” I raised my arms slightly, palms up. “Barreemabeanahbean.” No demons left my body, and my head didn’t spin around while I projectile vomited, but my soul floated above us, hovering over this strange trio trying to make sense of the scene.
“Hakabarreemabeanabarreemah,” I gave the R’s a trill for authenticity. “Barremabean. Holy Spirit, thank you.”
I felt Pastor Gary and my father relax next to me. They continued to murmur in their prayer languages, thanking Jesus over and over:
“Praise you, Jesus.”
“Thank you, Lord.”
“Thank you, Jesus.”
“Praise you, Lord.”
“Amen,” I interjected, hoping to wrap things up.
“Amen!” Pastor Gary agreed emphatically.
“Praise the Lord,” my father said, weeping for the second time that day. “Praise the Lord.”
As we walked back to the car, Dad put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a little squeeze. “I love you, kiddo,” he said.
“I love you too,” I said. I knew I had won an important, if temporary, reprieve from the impossible choice I would someday have to make. I had no idea of the struggles that lay ahead as I learned to speak the new language of my love for Chris while uttering the secret words that kept me bound to my family and friends.
If life begins with the splitting of a cell, my lesbian life began that night in Pastor Gary’s study. I was not made free from my burdens, but I split into two selves. My inner and outer being were forced to separate, setting me on a long and arduous path to rediscover what would make me whole again.
The whole book is filled with incredible first-person stories like this.
If you live in the U.S. or Canada and would like to win a free copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, please leave in the comments your own story of how religion has negatively affected you (or any of the women in your life). Please use the hashtag #ExtremeFaith at the end of the comment to be entered in the contest — I’ll contact a random winner next week!
(Excerpt reprinted by permission of Seal Press.)