I describe myself as liberal Christian to agnostic, depending on the day. This is my intellectualized response to the faith questions that I inevitably encounter in my town shared with a private Christian university. Because questions about personal faith often follow the one about which church you attend. If the conversation continues long enough, I tell them about the former grocery, now church, where I’ve found a home. My church is filled with seminary students and those (like me) who doubt. I feel safe to be myself there; these are my people.
I come for the community, when the little remaining faith I have is gone.
“But why is that?” you may wonder. It’s a lengthy tale, I reply. One that probably needs visual aids; I imagine crafting elaborate maps and colorful infographics. How do I document the verbal violence that I hid from as a girl between the ages of 7-14, when my earliest memories were overheard yelling, that continued until we moved across the country?
I sometimes wonder how the church failed to notice us: I, who escaped into books, and my mother who always lingered after the church service concluded. As if part of her knew that she didn’t want to go home.
Maybe I felt that way too.
I can only tell my part of this story — of a violence that spans generations of angry men on my father’s side of the family. Those who seethed, then exploded around those bodies standing in the foreground of an uncaring universe. There I am lapsing into metaphor. I try to protect extended family unready to address what we could not name — these Voldemorty things.
I try to maintain my privacy and to describe events I barely understand myself.
When adequate descriptors seem far away from my mind, I feel lost. You might ask, what is this series of events to which I refer? I name this experience: my father’s verbal and emotional abuse toward my mother and inevitably towards the rest of my immediate family. That included me.
Growing up, I remember my father’s temper, peppered with curse words I wish I hadn’t heard that early in my life, mostly directed towards my mother for being herself. I knew the quiet moments could not last; these silences inevitably ended with my father’s accusations and my mother’s tears. I read constantly, immersing myself in the young adult science fiction novels of Madeleine L’Engle. Her best known work, A Wrinkle in Time, remains a comfort to me. When home was filled with angry words, L’Engle’s steadying prose kept me safe.
Sometimes I wonder if any of this, the verbal and emotional abuse I overheard as a child through early adolescent, actually happened. When no one talks about the scariest things that I’ve endured, I have trouble believing myself. But I cannot ignore these patterns of memory, the collections of scenes I cannot leave behind. It hurts to remember, but I can’t forget. Too much of me was shaped by that visceral cruelty and sadness. As an adult woman, I mourn for the girlhood I lost.
I am a highly therapized adult, as my friend Nattily refers to young women like me, those of us who have spent most of our adult lives learning coping skills we always needed, but had to seek out for ourselves in the safety of clinical spaces. I’ve spent my twenties attempting to make sense — to make good, perhaps — out of the grief that comes with raising myself socially and emotionally. I don’t know if this loss — of a mother who didn’t protect me as a child and a father who doesn’t know me as an adult — will ever stop hurting. This familial grief has become a dull ache, as I’ve entered the latter part of my twenties.
I’m learning to trust the church again. I don’t know what they could have done to help my family.
Maybe they tried. I called my childhood pastor a few years ago, wondering if he noticed the growing tensions among us, and asked what he remembered about my family. Did he notice my shoulders nearing my ears or my mother weeping in the safety of church walls. How could he not? And yet nothing changed for a long time. No one intervened. I survived in the safety of books and hoped for a life apart from my family. I’ve made my own safety.
I don’t know how to believe in a God who left me to care for myself emotionally. I don’t know if I want to do so. That God seems cruel, absent, or merely imagined. I remember praying mostly to feel heard, but never for the circumstances to change. Maybe because that I didn’t expect anything different. These days, the only places I feel the presence of God are in the kindness of others and in music. I see God in other people and in the words of those who still believe.
Because the God I believed in as a child could not survive into my adulthood. I’ve come to appreciate the hope that comes with doubt. That not knowing can be a way of maintaining these tiny sprigs of hope, which as a friend of mine says is like a weed. Hope sprouts in the driest of ground.
I maintain hope in a church that can listen for these subtler forms of familial trauma — a church that doesn’t push me to see God as father and sits in silence together when there are no responses that adequately explain God’s absence. I need a church that loves me where I am — whose members recognize my anger at God and acknowledge my fears that this being could be entirely made up.
I need the church to be with me in my familial grief — as I mourn for what never was and cannot be. Because I doubt that I’m the only one who understands this space of confusion and hope.