Monday, July 3, 2017

Pamela's Prayer and Purity Culture

Do you ever find yourself at a loss to describe "purity culture"?

To explain how it supplants individual agency, conscience, and boundaries in favor of ignorant obedience?

How it sets young people up for abusive relationships?

How it equates innocence with virtue?

How it demeans women by claiming to "protect" them as precious jewels?

Well, you are in luck, my friend, because the 1998 independent evangelical film Pamela's Prayer is now available on Amazon Prime. And there is nothing subtle about it.

Even struggles to describe this highly unusual irregular story, which not only lays out the most rigorous principles of so-called sexual "purity" but includes an unforgettable example of emotional incest as a bonus. Yes, that's Pamela's dad on her bed in the picture.

I will admit to shedding a few tears when I watched this movie as a 20-something in the IBLP cult. As extreme as the story was, it still seemed sweet and romantic. Its very existence was an acknowledgement of my yearning for heterosexual companionship. And I was already older than the bride in the story.

I didn't yet have the vocabulary to discuss the characters' psychology. It would be another decade or more before I began to grasp concepts such as: grief, attachment, trauma, self-care, sexual repression, bounded choice, emotional incest, emotional abuse and control, intimacy, boundaries, autonomy, enmeshment, differentiation...

Pamela's Prayer has come to mind occasionally over the years, so when my sister told me it is now available online, I was curious. Surely it wasn't as unhealthy and gag-worthy as I remembered? I hit play, then dragged the marker to the last ten minutes to find out.

No, it was worse.

My kids won't be watching this movie, but if they did we would talk about...

  • How Pamela's widowed father could have cared for his own emotional needs by investing in healthy peer relationships. 
  • How a person's worth is not measured by sexual experience or lack of it. 
  • Developing healthy independence from parents.
  • What qualities to look for in a romantic or sexual partner. 
  • In what ways parent-child relationships are different from partner-spouse relationships. 
  • How each couple negotiates the boundaries of their relationship.
  • Dating as self-discovery.
  • How the goal is not a wedding, but mutual trust, pleasure, and growth.
  • And so on...

In many ways, my courtship experience paralleled Pamela's in the movie. Some would look at my marriage today and consider it proof that "purity" works. But I beg to differ. I'm not proud of avoiding intimacy so long, and I believe our relationship owes its success to other factors.

More about leaving "purity" behind in an upcoming post!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Paczki, Thanksgiving, Gingerbread

A couple of weeks ago, our Kroger was selling pazcki--a rich Polish Fat Tuesday treat that evoked numerous memories of "fasting" from pleasures during Lent.

Losing our religion meant losing plenty of rituals, too. I tried to salvage what I could, but holidays--etched as they are with emotional baggage, cultural expectations, and sometimes religious history--had been rough for me for years, even as a devout theist. It's not as if I wanted to spend every Christmas Day tearful and depressed, but over decades, it had become my tradition!

I keep trying to jettison those Norman Rockwell expectations. It was a big deal the year we didn't have a single guest for Thanksgiving. I closed the kitchen and we ate our favorite snacks instead. And lots of pie. It's not that the holiday was so tied to religion (it's based more on American mythology, after all), but here in the Midwest, it encapsulates so many tropes about family and culture.

I love turkey, so I roasted one the week before and had leftovers for turkey sandwiches. We watched the Macy's parade and played games and read books. There were hardly any dirty dishes and everyone was happy! (The next year I tried to duplicate my success, but ended up sobbing in my room. Disney magic to the rescue--"Moana" and popcorn at the theater were just the diversion I needed.)

I can't lie; Christmas is still hard. But according to my journals, it always has been. The first holiday season after my faith in the "Virgin Birth" dissolved, I felt truly unmoored and the only song that felt comforting was Faith Hill's "Where Are You, Christmas?"

Some of my family's traditions survived the transition with us: secular advent calendars are easy to find. Some years we light count-down candles on an evergreen wreath centerpiece. We still hang garlands and lights or tinsel, put up a tree, bake holiday treats. We still watch The Muppets' Christmas Carol. I made a new playlist of holiday tunes that aren't triggering. One Christmas, we watched reruns of Leave It To Beaver all day. Another year, we enjoyed the company of a friend visiting from Colorado and played with our new puppy. Sometimes we see family; other years it is just us.

We talk a lot about the meaning of the Santa myth and older customs that sprang up around the darkest part of the year. Last year we hosted our first Winter Solstice party! I steered away from the colors I associated with Christmas and focused on other seasonal elements. As the door closed on the last friend that night, the evening felt like a great success. When we opened Christmas presents a few days later, my emotions were still buoyed by the warmth of that night.


At first after deconversion, I felt like Easter had been stolen from me. But I dug a little deeper, checked out some library books, and connected with the ancient celebrations of spring, water, life, and rebirth. Some years we color eggs, or bake cookies. We've had egg hunts; we've invited guests for a fancy brunch. Last year we kept it simple with real flowers and chocolate bunnies.

Of course, new traditions have a way of growing all on their own.

My menus have always celebrated the seasons: the first rhubarb coffeecake in spring, mandatory annual asparagus, the sweet peak of berry season, a box of ripe peaches, pasta tossed with garden-fresh pesto, warm and fragrant applesauce, roasted butternut squash, hot mulled cranberry juice in front of the fireplace, citrus biscotti making bleak January mornings more bearable...

Where my family read missionary stories aloud and closed the evening with prayers, our kids love to wrap up the day with an episode of Phineas and FerbStar Trek: The Next Generation, or M*A*S*H before heading upstairs for quiet reading followed by hugs, kisses, and lights-out. Right now, we're enjoying the last season of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Towel Day 
On May 25, like fans worldwide, we made time to celebrate the life of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. We curled up on the couch with snacks and, of course, towels, to watch the movie together. We sang the opening song along with the dolphins. We laughed. We pointed out our favorite scenes and actors. We celebrated the brilliance of the late Alan Rickman even as we mourned his passing. We watched the deleted scenes. By bedtime everyone felt warm and cozy and good about life, whatever its meaning. It was as close to a happy holiday experience as we'd ever had.

It's too soon to say what other family rituals our kids will remember as traditions.

Pi Day?
Winter Solstice?
Star Wars "May the Fourth"?
Beach vacations?
Afternoons spent in the backyard Tardis?
Watching fireworks?
Meteor showers?
Or maybe something spontaneous--like the innocent gingerbread that turned into a jolly family bikini-drawing contest. :-)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On Seeing and Being Seen

Seated on my therapist's couch a few weeks after the election, the words tumbled out recounting both my successes and the rumblings of fresh anxiety now threatening my progress. As I waited for the elevator after our session, just one of her observations echoed in my head. Since then, it has etched itself on the walls of my mind in burning gold.
"You weren't seen. You need others to see you. Maybe someday you'll be able to see yourself."

The election shook me, for sure. It left me questioning,
"Can anyone hear me? Hear us? Don't they see us out here? Are they BLIND, or am I invisible? Do my tweets fall into a void? Does anyone notice my pins and posts and likes and upvotes? Do I make any difference?"

The new children's film A Monster Calls captures the emotion of feeling infuriatingly invisible.
"Do you know what I see when I look at you, O'Malley? I see nothing."
And then one day the invisible man decided, I will make them see me.

These blog posts document years of attempts to "make them see me". By their very nature, abuse and neglect have the effect of making victims feel invisible. So I've written about women erased from their own stories. About feeling hidden, and trapped. About learning to speak up, to take up space, to hold my groundto live out loud.

Watching the Golden Globes, I was caught off guard by the powerful compliment Viola Davis paid to Meryl Streep:
"She sees you."
Davis went on, telling Streep: 
"You make me feel that what I have in me--my body, my face, my age--is enough."

Could that be what my counselor meant?

Maybe seeing myself is what I've been trying to do all along.

As if the selfies, status updates, blog posts, dates, marches, and performances on stage will somehow prove that I was here. 

I appreciate the people who can make me feel seen. For now, I still look to them for clues about how to see myself. Because despite my intention, I'm not there yet.

But maybe, someday, I'll be able to see myself.