And why should you obey your parents, girls?
It’s good practice for obeying your husbands!
— the minister’s wife, to a Sunday school class full of teenage girls, including me.
When I wanted to write a novel playing around with the loup-garou legends of Cajun Louisiana, I started with what I saw as the fundamental basis for a werewolf story: your protagonist wakes up somewhere unusual, with no clothes and no idea how she got there. Maybe she appears to have eaten a duck, in spite of being a vegetarian. Now, go!
For me, the ideal werewolf story also needed a contrast between a monster who looks like a hero and a hero who looks like a monster. So, in addition to a sympathetic werewolf, I needed an antagonist who was a purely human type of monster — someone who might even appear admirable, from some viewpoints.
Waking up Naked in Strange Places originally had an adult protagonist. But as I explored her background and realized I wanted her to come from an oppressive, cultlike religious family, that became the heart of the book. I needed to set it when Abby — Self-Abnegation in the Service of the Lord — was still a teenager, and dealing directly with that part of her life.
Sometimes people ask to what extent the cult in WUNISP reflects my own history. The answer is both “lots” and “none at all.”
My family life was nothing like Abby’s. My parents were feminists who encouraged my education and assumed I would have a career of my own. I always went to public schools. My father had a science background. They weren’t fundamentalists.
But they were committed evangelicals, and I was raised in the church during the 1980s when the conservative “culture wars” really started to take off. That meant I had many direct conflicts with the more extreme evangelical trends of the time, including younng-earth creationism, Satanic panic, doomsday cultism, anti-feminism, and general anti-intellectualism.
My family didn’t support those trends. Yet, they remained a part of the church and had the clear expectation that I would also remain a part of the church as I grew up. I think at the time they were still able to see the church overall as bigger and better than the toxic forces within it.
But for me, the church turning foul — in many ways turning into a cult — was the catalyst that led to me realizing I wasn’t an evangelical believer. A huge part of my stereotypical “adolescent rebellion” was centered around me leaving the faith, a journey that started when I was about fifteen or sixteen — the age at which Abby leaves New Harmony.
It’s painful for parents when their children leave the faith, but it’s painful for the child, too. It’s a big, scary step to fully articulate to yourself that you don’t believe your family religion. You know it will make you an outsider, maybe even a pariah. And, if that faith is evangelical Christianity, you’ve also been told your whole life that leaving it will make you a wicked, damned person, that a literal hell awaits you, that it’s a monstrous thing.
That’s why it took a lot to start the process. It took the church losing all moral authority.
Indiana’s controversial new “religious freedom” law is a perfect illustration of that, as is last summer’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. Both pieces of legislation affirm “religious freedom” as, primarily, the right to interfere with the romantic, sexual, and reproductive choices of anybody who isn’t a straight, cisgendered man.
By their fruits ye shall know them, says the Bible. So what are their fruits? What do they work for? What changes in the world do they try to bring about? What do they mean to say when they say, “I’m a Christian”?
At one time, those answers were very different. But by the 1980s those answers were becoming what they remain today. They work for secular power, through the Republican party. They try to change the world in a regressive fashion, to erode equal rights for women, gay and transgendered people, in order to punish outsiders for not adhering to conservative evangelical sexual taboos. And what they mean when they say, “I’m a Christian,” is that they vote Republican, don’t accept that gay Americans are deserving of full civil rights, and think women should stay in their proper place.
There’s nothing moral about any of that, and nothing Christian either — if by “Christian” you mean, “following the teachings of Christ.” But part of the culture wars phenomenon was the evolution of evangelical identity from one that was about faith or spirituality into one that was about culture. And the culture they embraced was repressive, patriarchal, conformist, paranoid, judgmental, hypocritical, immoral, smug, and dumb.
Anti-feminist evangelicals started pushing something they called “complementarianism,”a different-but-ostensibly-equal philosophy, where men and women are supposedly created very for different spheres of skill and influence, which JUST SO HAPPEN to be exactly the same as the gender norms of 1950s America. This trend continued after I left the church (see Mars Hill for a recent, local example) and eventually gave rise to something called “Quiverfull”
Quiverfull is famously practiced on reality TV by a family called the Duggars, and represents the extreme endpoint of Christian patriarchy, with a heavy emphasis on “traditional” sex roles, female submission, and unrestricted fecundity within marriage. They take the Catholic ban on contraception one step further and don’t believe in making a choice to attempt to limit the number of children you have, for ANY REASON. Concerned about feeding them? Pffft. Concerned about your wife’s health? Pffft again. If you just LET yourselves have as many children as God wants to send you, then he will MAGICALLY REWARD you by making all your problems go away!
The No Longer Quivering blog, for survivors of Christian patriarchy, is full of first hand accounts by women who believed all that and found out it wasn’t true. In fact, as you can probably imagine, it was frequently a blueprint for enabling spousal and child abuse. Even at best it was a recipe for financial disaster and personal misery.
But as bad as Quiverfull is on its own, it becomes much worse when combined with another trend: the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl, who advocated both Christian patriarchy (Created to Be His Help Meet) and works advocating, basically, child torture in the name of discipline (To Train Up a Child). The Pearls’ ideas, and the sometimes deadly consequences of them, are so horrifying that it’s hard to believe they’re real. Rachel Held Evans has an introductory article: The abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl.
This hit home — hard — when one of the children who became victims, by proxy, of the Pearls’ teachings, turned out to have been adopted by relatives of a friend of mine. That made it seem real, something I could imagine happening to people I had known in the church.
Who could do something as horrible as beat a child to death, yet be convinced the whole time that they were doing God’s will? What would they be like in person? What kinds of things would they say to justify their behavior? Would they have followers and admirers? Defenders? What kinds of lies would they tell? Would they feel any secret guilt? What would that cause them to do?
And I had my human monster.