Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, homophobia
Age 12: Their parents give them a promise ring inscribed with “True Love Waits,” to be worn on the ring finger until replaced by a marriage band. They wear it daily for a couple of years before forgetting about it in the back of a drawer only to find it again years later, dented out of shape and with a crack running through the metal.
Socialization according to the Oxford English Dictionary: the process by which a person learns to function within a particular society or group by internalizing its values and norms.
Socialization according to several members of the southern Rhode Island homeschooling community: Your child’s ability to hold a decent conversation and function in public. This ability is often cultivated through church twice a week and classes outside the home once a week, frequently hosted in a church’s rec room. A child’s ability to converse intelligently with adults or supervise younger children is often pointed out as “good” socialization, regardless of their ability to connect to others their own age.
Critical thinking is a vital part of their education – they must develop the ability to defend the faith in conversation, although they aren’t really sure who they’re supposed to be defending it from. When practically everyone around you believes in the same things, who do you debate with? The person behind you in line in the grocery store? Your sweet piano teacher? Your grandfather? While their father preaches in church or goes off in the living room about something he read on The Drudge Report, they silently list logical fallacies. Begging the Claim. Circular Argument. Ad Populum. Straw Man.
College is: free thought or liberal brainwashing; critical thinking or indoctrination; growing to be part of the world or growing apart from His people. Their father restates his theory that they have been brainwashed by The Liberal Agenda during every argument. Years after they tell him that they don’t consider themselves a Christian anymore, he still expresses a firm belief that they will come back to the fold someday.
Excerpt from letter regarding their church membership status (lapsed): … you have believed a lie: that your own judgments are more right than God’s words. You have been deceived, by the father of all lies… We stand eager to help you, with affection and humility, knowing that we ourselves are capable of being deceived even as you have been. Please do not delay.
In college they joke with a friend who was also homeschooled about starting a support group or picketing homeschool conventions, gossip about which of their former peers are getting married at 20 and which are venturing further from home. They compare notes: one of them took a high school literature course where the textbook blamed the deaths of Mary Shelley’s children on her promiscuity. Both of them used the same science curriculum which established creationism as a theory on equal footing with evolution. After saying goodbye, they browse through the website Homeschoolers Anonymous, read a few of the many stories of abuse and neglect, and are stung with the realization of how lucky they were.
I was young and now I am old yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely;
their children will be a blessing (Psalm 37).
Age 17: Their parents give them How to Stay Christian in College by J. Budziszewski for Christmas. Their stomach drops when they open it, and everyone around the tree acts a little too jovial. A portrait of the pastor-father at home: Having a two-way conversation in the living room as unthinkable as talking back while he was at the pulpit. Impossible to approach, first for the wrath of God looming behind then the empty promise. Identities so interwoven that any subject sounds like a sermon. Later, they read a few sentences in the book concerning sex before marriage. All the usual analogies that have been around the block a few times themselves: the non-virgin as used gum, old elastic band, smelly gym shoe. They briefly consider burning the book but instead toss it under their bed.
A few months before Christmas they were in the shower when they heard muffled shouting from the other side of the bathroom door. Afraid that someone had been hurt, they turned off the water and wrapped a towel around themselves without drying off. They opened the door to find their father pacing back and forth, eyes wild, asking where he went wrong, what was wrong with them, how did this happen? They are eventually able to decipher that the cause of this outburst is a feminist page they liked on Facebook earlier in the day – a page that occasionally posts about abortion rights. After they get dressed and their father calms down, he and their mother sit on the edge of their bed and tell them that they feel like they’re losing touch, like they’ve failed as parents. We’re losing our daughter. They unlike the Facebook page.
Age 14: Hanging back in the after-church circle with the “other” girls – often outside the circle completely. No favorite devotionals to use as currency in conversation. When others talk about struggles in prayer life, they grimace and make up something about their own. The actual extent of their prayer life is that they’ve been saying the same short prayer for years before they go to bed: less than a minute long, a rush in one breath. (Their father always says that faith isn’t about a feeling and neither is prayer, but shouldn’t they feel something?) At youth group everyone else knows the lyrics to the Relient K songs, has read I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. They twist their promise ring in circles around their finger and stay quiet. When they complain to their parents about not having many friends their age, the response is always that Jesus is the best friend you can ask for. Priorities are God first, then family, then friends.
Age 8: They have heard the Ten Commandments read every Sunday longer than they have been able to speak. They have also heard that the wages of sin is death and that the gift of God is eternal salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. They aren’t quite sure what adultery is until what happens in the basement with that teenage boy from church happens. Then they know. They connect that sin with the wages of their grandmother’s unexpected death months later. They can’t look their father in the eyes whenever he delivers a homily on the seventh commandment. After the congregational confession of sin, during the brief period of private prayer they close their eyes hard enough to see sparks and beg to be washed clean. But the dirt under their skin never leaves.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame (Psalm 34).
When they were young they took thorough sermon notes in the provided space in church bulletins, often going beyond the blank to overlap with the hymns on the next page. In the car on the way home they would proudly parrot back the main points. As they get older they spend more time meticulously blacking out every letter as soon as they finish a note than they do writing. They do not speak on the drive home.
The Church shall never perish! Her dear Lord to defend, to guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end: Though there be those who hate her,
and false sons in her pale,
against both foe or traitor she ever shall prevail (The Church’s One Foundation).
Before the teenage boy’s family stops attending, they glare at his back every time one of the psalms they’re singing mentions enemies or punishment or weapons. After he leaves, they make a deal with themselves to only mouth the words they can’t bear to sing out loud. Eventually their voice disappears completely. If we are what we repeatedly say: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
They’ve had their own library card for as long as they can remember. After first venturing into the Young Adult section around age 10, they never look back. Their parents don’t supervise their reading habits so they grab whatever they want even if it mentions witchcraft or romance. They devour stacks of books every week year-round, stacked twice as high in the summer. Glimpse fractions of themselves in a sentence here, a side character there. They glut themselves on the pages, desperate for stories of other times, other places, other people – people who rarely mention God and often fail but still struggle towards what they only know to define as goodness, a different goodness than that of their parents. Goodness that doesn’t exist as a shining monolith floating just out of reach above the muck but something murkier, something sculpted from the dirt we walk on with every choice we make, amorphous, shared. A multiplicity rather than a single path. A goodness that doesn’t exist in a dichotomy with sinfulness. A goodness not handed down from above but grabbed for with both hands, wrenched with both hands out of our chests and thrown into the chaos we are all tangled up in, because look at this mess, isn’t it terrible and wonderful, and here we all are thrust into the middle of it, tossed up against each other before drifting apart, but before you go this is for you, I give this to you, because I see you. I see you.
Age 13: After saving up for ages, they finally buy their own laptop. They start reading articles about feminism, about the LGBTQ community, about problems of police violence in America. Their eyes absorb all the ways the real world branches off from the doctrines of their childhood, binary oppositions between good and evil. One night they open an incognito browsing window and search for the word “molestation.” They have to close the page three times before they can read the definition. On Amazon, they search for books written for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and read the entirety of the “Look Inside” sections.
Age 16: Their parents finally agree to let them see a Christian counselor after they announce that they never want to get married or have children. They’ve asked to go on and off for the last few years, but their parents don’t trust secular therapy. And besides, kids can’t get depression. What would you have to be depressed about? When they get there after a three-hour drive, the counselor tells them that she finds it helpful to think of God as the author of her story, someone walking by her side who already knows where her life is going. They consider that by this logic God wrote that scene in the basement. They think that they and God have creative differences about where their story is headed. They stop going to see the Christian counselor.
The door to their room open, they sit cross legged on their bed, pretending to work on a language class while secretly watching theBattlestar Galactica reboot. More specifically, watching the scenes featuring Katee Sackhoff as Lieutenant Starbuck over and over again. Studying how her confidence is embodied: the sprawl of her at the gambling table, the toothpick cocked just right in a smirk. This is the first time they are able to admit that they not only want to be her but to be with her. In the homeschool Shakespeare class they’re taking, every time they read the part of a woman dressed as a man a thrill they don’t have words for runs up their spine.
They look at themselves in the mirror of a room in a college rental house as the sentences “I am a girl” and “I am a boy” both ring just as nauseatingly hollow in their ears. They discover the terms “nonbinary” and “transtrender” almost simultaneously. Neither word is in the OED. The definition of nonbinary according to Wikipedia: A catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine; identities outside the gender binary. The definition of transtrender according to Urban Dictionary: A person who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth because that’s “in” right now. See also: special snowflake. When they come out to their girlfriend, although supportive and encouraging, she tells them that she’s not sure she’ll be attracted to them if they start acting “more masculine.” Although they promise her they won’t let this prevent them from taking whatever steps they need to feel comfortable, they will wait to buy a binder until after the breakup.
After their parents find out about their girlfriend, during one of many emotional conversations their father reaches for their hand across the dining room table and asks for forgiveness with tears in his eyes. Their mother and father both believe that this confusion is because of how they were hurt as a child. Their parents feel they have failed not because of the actual assault or their reactions afterwards but because of what they see as the results now. Shaking and detached, they tell their father they forgive him but don’t think that’s true.
Age 20: Their parents give them a book called The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into the Christian Faith by Rosaria Butterfield, former atheist lesbian English professor, current wife of (male) pastor and mother of two. Rosaria is a big fan of mixed metaphors and a bigger fan of misgendering trans people. This is another book that they consider burning but instead cover it in ball point pen pressed hard enough to indent the pages before tossing it in a corner.
The singular “they” pronoun is a) grammatically incorrect, b) “like using the royal we,” or c) something you already use every fucking day. They read through yet another internet forum about how difficult it is to get the people in your life to use gender-neutral pronouns and wonder when they’ll have the energy to come out beyond a few select friends. When they complain to their girlfriend about being misgendered, she responds that realistically it’s inevitable unless they medically transition. They almost want to laugh when they imagine their parents’ responses – think it was shocking when your child came out as bisexual? Well, have I got news for you …
Age 22: During a summer visit their parents give them a six-page handwritten letter from a “former” lesbian who attends their father’s new church in Colorado. They and the ex-lesbian have never met, but their parents tell them that she felt compelled to write to them and that whatever she wrote comes from the heart. She included an additional gift: a leather and rope bracelet with a metal plaque that reads “Jesus is Lord.” This supplement puzzles them. A bribe, perhaps, to strengthen her plea to reject their sinful lifestyle? The letter starts with this woman they’ve never met declaring that she is probably the best person to tell them this – “this” being how morally wrong their lifestyle choices are. Her tone of overfamiliarity carries throughout. Bracketed Bible quotes make up about half of it. They skip over the brackets because they already know what’s inside, have to smile when the writer mentions Rosaria Butterfield as an inspiration, then add the letter and bracelet to their list of things to burn and go on with their day.
Shortly before they graduate college, they participate in an awards ceremony for the English department at their school. The professor who gives them their award uses the right pronouns and their chosen name, looks at them and smiles as he does. Afterwards, professors who had still been calling them by their birth name in email exchanges greet and congratulate them with the right one. They think about how none of this seemed remotely possible a year before, how the parts of a life coalesce.
Psalms. Bible Gateway. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
“socialization, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 8 October 2016.
Stone, Samuel J. “The Church’s One Foundation.” Cyber Hymnal. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
Em Phelps is a former homeschooler and recent college graduate who is currently working full time before hopefully continuing on to a graduate program in writing. They spend a lot of time thinking about existing in public as a nonbinary person. You can find them mumbling into the twitter void @whylimes29