A memoir of childhood and losing my religion
God in Three Acts
When I was seven, my mother separated from my father and found Jesus. Before she was "born-again," she'd relegated God to my grandparents, whom I'd accompanied to Sacred Heart one Christmas Eve. There, I'd watched a priest in flowing robes lift a chalice high above his head while uttering words in a language I didn't understand. But my mother and father never went to church, and they rarely spoke about their Catholic upbringing unless it was to complain about the harsh discipline of the Irish nuns in the Catholic schools they'd attended.
My mother's new-found connection with Jesus confused me more than the Latin phrases that one Christmas Eve. I didn't understand what being "born again" meant, although I knew it wasn't literal. I did know that being "born again" was serious business and not to be taken lightly, as my grandparents' did their Catholicism. Being a Catholic seemed to consist only of church on Sundays, crossed hearts before every meal, a few crucifixes where Jesus hung with jutting ribs, and the Virgin Mary scattered around the house.
When Jesus moved into my mother's heart, he took up too much room and crowded everything else out. She'd bury herself in a Bible she'd received from a friend--her head bent forward so that light brown hair formed curtains on either side of her face, hiding her features. I rarely saw her and preferred the Jesus crucified on my grandparents' walls. A passive bystander, that Jesus only required attention on the days he needed dusting.
tagged along with my mother to numerous Bible studies, where she
would sit drinking tea with other born-again women; Bibles open on
laps in one of their living rooms. I noticed these living rooms were
in houses--not one-bedroom apartments like ours. They were bigger,
had carpets without stains left by people who'd lived there before,
and matching furniture--not haphazard collections of hand-me-downs
like the ones my grandparents gave us.
When my father found Jesus, my parents reconciled, and my mother and I left our one-bedroom apartment, loaded our things into our Datsun 510, and made our way back up the dusty switchbacks to the tiny town we'd moved from just six months before. As we crawled up the dirt road towards Crown King, I swallowed down the trepidation that settled like a lead balloon in my stomach.
Perched on top of the , Arizona Bradshaw's, Crown King's population hovered around 90--mostly members of the forest service and those drawn to life off the grid. During summers and holidays, the town's population would swell slightly with residents of vacation homes. We'd initially moved there because my parents had leased a restaurant, aptly named the Tie House because it was built entirely from railroad ties --a fact my father repeatedly pointed out to the weekenders who usually road three-wheelers and buzzed like bees around the forest, before stopping in to eat at the restaurant.
When my parents' lease was up, my father found work at a mine that used cyanide ponds to leach particles of gold out of ore, and the Tie House was converted to another bar that competed with the Crown King Saloon directly across from it. School fund raisers were held in the latter, and I would play hide and seek with other local kids out back whenever there were special events or parties.
Before my parents had separated, I'd gone to the town's one-room schoolhouse for the latter part of Kindergarten and the beginning of first grade. There, I'd sat in a desk, surrounded by kids ages 5 to 13, and learned how to color and write my name. I'd intuitively known that the kids in the desks around me came from homes like mine and this was slightly comforting. After school, I'd sometimes shoot random pool balls on a faded pool table while my father sat drinking in the Crown King Saloon. More than once, I'd watched him stumble drunkenly through our front door and listened to my parents argue.
When Jesus came to Crown King with us, the town put out a "no vacancy" sign. While Crown King continued to revolve its only form of entertainment, my world began to change. My father stopped going to the bar--except when he'd falter, occasionally, and a child sitting in a desk near mine would deliver the news with relish, eager to point out my father's hypocrisy. My mother was still a ghost preoccupied with Heavenly matters and the state of her relationship with the two men in her life--my father and Jesus.
Sometimes when she was talking to me, she would stop midsentence, bow her head, and recite, "Jesus, please forgive me for all of my sins and trespasses. In Jesus name, Amen." She would repeat this mantra over and over--eyes clenched, and brows furrowed--oblivious to my presence or what she'd been saying to me before Jesus so rudely interrupted.
My parents' taste in music changed. Before Jesus moved in, my mother would sometimes dance around the house with Elton John singing feverishly about Saturday Night on the record player. One warm summer evening, my parents took their small box of records onto the back deck of our tiny A-frame cabin and flung them one by one into the forest below. Elton John hit a pine tree and cracked in two, landing on a pile of pine needles near Logins and Messina. Jesus was not a fan of Crocodile Rock or House on Pooh Corner, it seemed.
I did not feel anything for the Jesus my parents had grown so attached to. If anything, I resented his intrusion. He was an albatross hanging from parents' hearts, turning my childhood into an endless lesson on the dangers of sin and Satan's many forms, from Scooby Doo to trick or treating.
But I resented our holy houseguest the most when I was at school, where my parents' albatross became mine by association and formed a giant target on my back. Whereas I'd previously found comfort in shared circumstances with my classmates. It was now understood that my circumstances were not shared by any of them. My parents had brought an intruder to town and I was to blame just as much as they were. Every school yard has a scapegoat. After Jesus followed my family back to Crown King, that scapegoat was me.
We moved to Alaska when I was nine. On the way to Seattle, Jesus rode shotgun with my parents while I scrunched uncomfortably around boxes in the backseat. Alaska was to be a fresh start for all of us. No one in Alaska had witnessed my father in the Crown King Saloon drinking while he preached fire and brimstone to an amused and inebriated crowd. No one in Alaska had ridiculed my parents for misguided attempts to start a church in a town that didn't want it. No one in Alaska had bullied or ridiculed me for the pushy houseguest that clung like a barnacle to my parents' hearts and keelhauled mine.
Sitka sits among a chain of southeast islands known as the Alaskan panhandle. During the early 1980's, its population stood at around 8,300. Many residents made their living off fishing and tourism. A pulp mill sat on the eastern edge of the island, and the remainder of the population worked there. When I was in the fifth grade, the pulp mill cut wages by 25% and its workers went on strike. Picket lines formed along Sawmill Creek Road. The Alaskan Lumber and Pulp Company broke the strike without a resolution, and the mill closed permanently in 1993, leaving 400 Sitkans out of work. My father worked as a printer for the Sitka Sentinel, the town's only newspaper.
In Sitka, it rains 236 days out of the year. During the summer, it stays light well into the morning, and on the shortest day of winter, it gets dark around three in the afternoon. Cruise ships drop off tourists with cameras hung from straps around their necks, to trample the town from June to August. I'd watch them jostle their way into the crown jewel lying at the center of town--St. Michael's Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Church. When summer ended, I'd walk to and from school under streetlights which cast glowing reflections into puddles splashing underneath my feet. The creeping darkness engulfed the town like a damp, wool blanket that smothered everything beneath its weight.
For tourists, Sitka offered rocky beaches, majestic mountains, streams bursting with Salmon and an abundance of wildlife. For my parents, Sitka offered financial stability and eighteen churches to choose from. For me, Sitka offered a chance to reinvent myself.
My parents found a Pentecostal church which we attended twice on Sundays and once on Wednesday evenings. My father, an accomplished guitar player, became a part of the worship team. My mother has a pretty voice and would perform in front of church while my father accompanied her on the guitar.
Before Jesus came along, my father would play John Prine and Hoyt Axton while my mother and I sang along. His fingers would move deftly on the guitar, and I'd marvel at how fast he could pluck the strings.
When my parents played songs for Jesus, they approached it with solemn intensity, and I'd sequester myself in my bedroom while they practiced in the kitchen and argued about imperfections in their performance.
I approached my reinvention just as seriously as my mother and father did their religion and religious music. I'd always been big for my age. Food provided comfort. Baked goods made religious get-togethers more tolerable, and I looked forward to going out to breakfast Sunday mornings after church.
But my large size had become another target for classmates to shoot at, and my mother's preoccupation with her own weight was even more wounding, and so my relationship with food changed just as drastically as my mother and father's religion.
It began with the teasing.
Coming home from school after a particularly brutal jab from a peer who sat near me, I asked my mother if I was fat.
"You're a little heavy."
It stung. More so, probably, because when we'd lived in Crown King, my mother had tearfully shared that my father didn't love her, anymore because she'd gotten fat. More so, probably, because my father had scolded me over outfits he deemed "too tight" and dinner portions he deemed "too big".
She offered to put me on a diet. I agreed and basked in my parents' approval as I began to shed pounds. But their praise and attention ignited something else.
Indignation. Anger. Pain.
Why did my weight determine how my parents treated me?
Once in Crown King, I'd asked my mother to play with me and she'd refused, saying that she didn't enjoy doing things that I did. My mother and I finally had something in common, and I was determined to beat her at her own game.
I don't remember when I decided to enlist the Devil's help with weight loss. I only know that at twelve years of age, I was so furious at my parents and everything they stood for--mainly Jesus--that I committed the most rebellious act I could think of.
Satan help me to lose weight. Help me to lose weight.
My heart beat quickly when I said the words in my head, as if I was stealing a piece of candy from a store. But no security guards stopped me, and no lightning bolts struck me dead.
I began to cut out more foods. If one apple was good, then a half an apple was better. If I was allowed 4 ounces of chicken, then I could only eat two. A cup of milk became , became , became , became none at all.
I poured over recipes in cookbooks, imagining how each one would taste. I baked frequently and watched as others ate whatever I'd spent the afternoon mixing and putting in the oven.
I ached with cold and spent much of my time sitting next to a small space heater in the kitchen. I wore baggy clothes and rarely talked to anyone. My parents stopped praising my weight loss and began encouraging me to eat.
I worshiped the scale and, it was as big an albatross as Jesus was for my parents.
At church, my parents would lead me down the aisle to the alter for prayer and I'd kneel obediently, thinking about food while people laid hands on my shoulders.
Three things occurred before my parents hospitalized me for anorexia. The first took place outside of church on a Sunday when my father punched an elder, a former alcoholic who'd stayed at the church when he was homeless and credited Jesus for his new wife and job as a police officer, in the mouth, The elder towered over my father and sported a logger's beard with a matching gut that hung like a holster over his belt.
I remember another member of the worship team placing an arm around my father's shoulders, talking softly as he led my father towards the parking lot out of punching range.
It's strange how my God eclipsed everything much like Jesus did for my mother. What should have been an emotionally unsettling scene took up scant attention in my mind.
The scale took up too much room, and nothing else mattered.
The phone calls happened next. Their ringing crowded in on my chosen God, clamoring for my attention, and formed rocks in my stomach that made me uncomfortably full even though I hadn't eaten. I remember my mother taking the phone into the bedroom as soon as she answered, dragging the chord behind her, and locking the door so I wouldn't come in. I could hear the murmur of her voice, low and frantic until she screamed, "Leave us alone!" Her words traveled through the bedroom door and echoed in my ears like a shot.
The elder dressed as a police officer, and two strangers, a man and woman whom I would later learn were from CPS, standing on our front porch ushered in the final occurrence. When my mother let them in and called my father to come home from work, I knew that something was very wrong. I could feel my rapidly beating heart, and the rocks churned in my stomach, making me ill.
I don't remember much else about that meeting. Just that we all sat in the living room and tears moistened my mother's face. I remember that I went over to where she sat and tried to comfort her, and the strange woman said this was proof my mother had done something wrong. I remember my confusion and fear. I remember that I didn't feel angry, anymore, and that I would have given anything to go back to a moment in time when this wasn't happening.
Within a week, my mother and I flew back to Arizona. My parents had found a place in Scottsdale that specialized in eating disorders. They said it was a nice place, but I didn't want to go and begged them not to make me. They told me they didn't have a choice. If I didn't go, the state would put me in another hospital, and I would be removed from their home indefinitely. This was the only way.
The hospital was a nice place. The grounds were lush and spacious, more like a park than a treatment facility. There was a pool and places to sit outside. I shared a dorm style room with another female and went to groups for women with eating disorders. I was the only one with anorexia--the rest were bulimic and older than me. Two of them were gymnasts. The therapist told the group that I was the youngest eating disorder patient she'd ever seen in the hospital. I wore this label with pride. Today, girls as young as six or seven can develop eating disorders.
I ate what they told me to eat. After I overcame the fear of the first bite, I was grateful for the food they forced upon me. The nutritionist promised I wouldn't get fat. When they weighed me each morning, I had to step on the scale backwards. Afterwards, I asked the nurse compulsively if my weight was okay. She always said, "yes.", and I believed her. It was a relief to put my faith in something else.
My mother visited me daily. My father flew down from Alaska every Wednesday for counseling. My mother wrote me countless letters in treatment. My father gave me awkward hugs when he saw me.
I was in treatment until our insurance ran out--three months in all. We stayed in Alaska for just one more year after that. Neither of my parents attended church. My father started playing in a band that did small gigs at weddings and bars, but he didn't go back to drinking a lot, and I never saw him drunk. My father and I started running together. We'd jog along the lush trails of Sitka's national park, fog rolling off the waves of the Pacific below, while Spruce and Hemlock trees formed a canopy from the rain.
My mother and I would sing along to Phil Collins and Peter Cetera. Sometimes, we'd rent a VCR and watch movies together. I started reading Stephen King. My father and I went to see Stephen King's, Thinner, at the theater, and he asked me if I felt like the main character. I didn't, but at thirteen my psyche was difficult to explain.
I no longer weighed 84 pounds and wouldn't dip below 105 or above 110 until well into adulthood. I stopped shoving my eating disorder into others' faces and they accepted it. I think I was even happy after treatment. For a little while, at least. But that's how happiness is. It comes with one season and disappears with the next, much like those Sitka summers receding under a blanket of darkness to usher in another depressing winter.
Later, I would learn that the elder had attended a police training on spotting signs of molestation. My transformation fit these signs. Child sexual abuse was finally being recognized, but eating disorders weren't really on the radar, yet. The church had deemed mental health professionals to be tools of the devil. My parents relied on prayer until the elder's accusation and CPS involvement. A couple years later, the deacon was arrested for possession of child pornography and joined the ranks of James Baker and Jimmy Swagart--disgraced by the very things they preached so fervently against. My mother is still a Christian, but she has chosen her church carefully. My father is agnostic. I don't know what I am, but I try to be a good person.