sent in by Ellen
It's been a month since I registered here -- a month of gaining strength from being among all of you. Thank you. I don't think I could express the following anywhere else.
My heart starts to race whenever I think about submitting my anit-Testimony because I know truth is required here, and I can't tell it. My story is so conflated with gothic overlays and my own reshaping of memories over the years that I'm not sure I know fact from fiction. I hope a sincere attempt will suffice.
My large extended family, its roots in the American South, was a severely under-educated crew, albeit with gleaming intellect. Most of my family members put this gift of mind into the twisted service of various forms of Pentecostal/Evangelical preachment. Some chose to let neither their intelligence nor their piety stand in the way of their incest.
My parents already had three children, ages six through ten, when I was born. Since she'd almost died with her third pregnancy, Mom was scheduled for an abortion of what would turn out to be me. She found she couldn't bring herself to sign the papers, and instead ran, crying, down the hospital corridor. Weeks after this, Dad was rendered sterile from a case of mumps. These two events were seen by my parents as evidence of Divine Intervention to bring about my birth and to give them the last of their children. These same events were seen, I'm sure, by others in the family as signs of Diabolical Manifestation.
Growing up, I often felt less like a person than like a personification of terrain over which forces of good and evil fought. Within my family of six I felt lovingly harbored, but the eyes and words of certain members of my extended family conveyed a palpable mistrust, suspicion and dislike of me. These two factions helped shape my sense of self.
My mother's mother had been a street preacher. I never knew her. Mom, whose various relatives had died from ailments like "The Bloody Fluts" and "Dropsy", told me often and sorrowfully of how she was kept from her dying, babbling mother by the xian women in attendance because, at the moment of death, the demons would fly out of the mother and into the daughter. Cerebral hemorrhage may have been written on the certificate, but the precipitating cause of death was demons.
As a little girl, Mom had been made caretaker of her stillborn brother until word could reach the backwoods as to whether baptism was required before burial. She dressed and undressed him as if he were her doll, carried him with her, slept with him, as they waited.
At my paternal grandmother's funeral, the local police had to be called out to the church to break up the bone-crunching brawl that had erupted between the faction of attendees which insisted that music must be played to "rise up" her soul and the faction equally adamant that music would condemn Grandma's soul to hell.
Well, you get the general tone of stories belonging to my people which saturated my sense of reality.
Dad, ordained at nineteen, was, I gather, a riveting Arkansas preacher, in demand for revivals. His sister once told me he "was the most called in seven Southern states". He, his talent and ten or twenty of the family had all descended on California by the mid-'thirties, where, in addition to his having his own congregation, he became a radio preacher in Los Angeles.
At this late date, I'm sure I shall never know why he steadfastly refused that I be baptized. Maybe it was the first step of a long journey he was yet to take or maybe he just wanted to stick it to a few of the more despicable relatives, but I believe, in retrospect, this choice of his was the source of much of the drama that swirled around me. How else coud one explain my Damian-of-"The Omen"-like shrieks, wails, and tearing at the garments of my mother and myself which Mom said greeted each one of my father's sermons? She eventually gave up and left me at home on Sundays under the watchful, if vengeful, eye of Grandma.
Dad always maintained that he left the ministry (when I was three or four) because he could no longer justify hurling the threats and condemnations that the congregation demanded, when all he really wanted to do was help them learn to live better with one another. For many years I suspected it was my black heart that he had chosen to protect in this way.
He had no other marketable skills. He got a job as a night watchman in San Pedro, with his major assignment being the shooting of wharf rats with his .45. My sisters assure me he considered this job a step up.
Among the six of us, life became jesus-free except for warm moments of my parents' duetting old church hymns for me. "Sometimes when misgivings darken my way..." was, to me, a song about our colored (the p.c. term back then) neighbor, Miz Givens, with whom I had a chummy relationship. (She gave me the only religious experience I remember enjoying -- she lifted my blue-eyed blond self up with her and held me in her arms as everyone in that black church sang, with joy, it seemed to me, aiming their voices at the high stained glass and beyond.)
In general, though, the literal bent of my child-mind made all efforts to bring me to jesus pretty unfruitful. Once, for instance, Grandma referred to god as "The Holy Spirit". The word, "spirit", meant nothing to me, but I wrestled with the word and decided that "spirit" was much like "carrot", so, for a long while I lived content with the notion of this great celestial vegetable schooning lazily through the ether, watching over me.
Some of the relatives (grrr...) interceded at one point when I was about five or six and marched me to a summer bible school session where the children were (what?!) coloring the devil. Little voices piped, "Did I stay in the lines?" "Are his horns red?" I believe this prompted my first hazy comprehension of the concept of obscenity.
Horns, Dad later explained to me, were what he and Mom had been taught Jews had hidden under their hair. (He then explained "Jews".) Also, he added, unlike white folk, colored people had no souls. We waited each other out for the long moment of my incredulity. Then he laughed. "What b.s.!" he said.
By the time I was seven I was painfully aware that Dad had "backslid" and was therefore suffering the condemnation of his family, even though two of Dad's brothers, who had molested my sisters, were forever to be hailed as war heroes.
I wondered why they hated us, and worse, wondered if they were right to do so. I began to devise tests for god's love and omnipotence. One involved my entreating god to rescue the doll I was about to throw down a stairwell onto concrete. Whatever faith I had began to shatter like a doll's head.
On another occasion, with Mom obliviously sweeping the floor nearby, I lay on my stomach staring at a full-color rendering of the crucifixion and I willed myself, for the longest while, to go into jesus and feel his pain and be with him and know him. I let the image wash over me. I held my breath. I stared and stared without blinking. I strained as though constipated. Zilch. Not a twinge of empathic anything stirred in me. This was the defining moment wherein I accepted that I probably was the devil's spawn and I'd just have to make the best of it.
The best of it was a shoplifting spree of a few years' duration (and I am not suggesting that rejecting xian mythology promotes a life of crime) which netted me untold numbers of E.C. Comics, like The Vault of Horror and The Crypt of Terror -- manifestations of art and literature whose unflinching and consistent sense of morality couldn't save them from a Congressional ban, but which began, I believe, my consideration of ethical imperatives. Yes, the little devil-child filched her moral underpinnings.
I've since read more scholarly materials as well, but these haven't tended to persuade me with the same power as that of example. When, for instance, at the age of twelve I stumbled on the writings of the wits of the Algonquin Round Table, it became clear to me that life would be infinitely more enjoyable spent in the company of funny, irreverent, innovative people than with those whose minds had already mummified. I mean, really, if y' gotta choose between hangin' out with a Pat Robertson or a Dorothy Parker...?
But I digress. At ten, I was the only child still at home when Dad decided (to this day I don't know why) to take another crack at the ministry. The idea was for him to team up with an old fellow Pentecostal Pimp-for-the-Lord who had his own congregation and the unlikely name, Cookie. I was dragged repeatedly to Cookie's very own Vault of Horror/Crypt of Terror where I obediently joined in the jerks, shudders, shouts and waves for Teamchrist. Shamefacedly I submitted to compliments from the church women with their wan smiles, treacly voices and heads tilted piously at that xian 30 degree angle. It was only when Cookie started drawing me close to his cooking-smell-infected self, breathing shallowly the words, "We gotta get you baptized, Little Darlin'", that I really started to freak. He might as well have been intimating upcoming child-rape, which, I dunno, maybe he was. I just knew that I had to draw the line at baptism ("Say what, Damiana?").
So, one Saturday night, in a meticulously planned spontaneous outburst, I fell to my knees before my father, my hands extended prayerfully up to him, and I whimpered, "Please, Daddy, In jesus's name I pray, don't make me go to church tomorrow..."
None of us did. Ever again.
The rest of my life, as I've let my heretical beliefs be known, I've been subjected to sneak attacks (like the high school slumber party which turned out to be a ruse to get me converted by the xian parents of my hostess, with the complicity of all the other girls), thinly veiled proselytizing and outright hostility. Though much of this has scared or distressed me, none of it has shaken the essence of my core conviction, which is that existence is enough. An atheist I yam.
Now, at the age of 61, I've come to this website out of grief for my daughter, who has been struck down by the bacterium, Episcopalia Charismaticus. Here I've learned that my father's story was not a fluke -- people do leave the ministry. So here I have hope that my daughter's priest husband might... might... repeat the best of our family history, or that she, herself, might be re-enlightened.
Though my daughter may be added, now, to the list of relatives who believe I'm in league with the devil, I think I'm merely sane. Hurt, still grieving, often angry and bewildered, I continue to revive my sanity here, for which I give gratitude to the WebMaster and all of you.
Please allow me to stay among you even though I was never baptized. Please let, at the very least, "The Dead baby as comfort toy" qualify me as having been screwed up enough to belong here.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)