Last month, Dateline NBC did a feature about Wells Church, a cult started by two ex-frat members in Texas. In the background, there was a woman dressed in a long broomstick skirt, her white hair in a modest bun. My aunt and uncle saw the report and thought that woman might be my mother. They started Googling, trying to remember exactly the name of the evangelical recreational vehicle missionary organization she had joined. Though Mom had avoided this frat cult, the search bore stranger fruit: a guest appearance on an episode of a Christian parenting podcast. My aunt emailed me, “I thought you should know.”
This story is a kind of lie. It’s not how I found out about the podcast. I was feeling guilty about the magical thinking I’ve conducted about my mom’s internet skills. I’ve assumed she doesn’t know how to Google me. I’ve assumed she hasn’t read anything I’ve bylined, and would be incapable of finding the website where my clips are neatly organized for anyone to see. This isn’t completely foolish thinking. She’s the kind of interneter that pays $5 a month for an email account. So, to be less of a hypocrite, I Googled her.
But the story about my aunt and uncle is a better opening.
The podcast is called License to Parent. My mom and stepdad were there to report from the front lines, not as Christian celebrities or theologians but as two parents with on-the-ground experience, like players from an NBA team recently eliminated from the playoffs, sitting in with Marv Albert to offer color commentary. Their qualifications: “veteran parents” who have “successfully” raised three daughters. They don’t offer a definition of successful, but I assume it’s an adult with a gospel-rich vocabulary who believes the Bible is the literal truth. For the purposes of the podcast, my mom and stepdad are said to have “seen the payoff” of parenthood and are qualified to give advice to a new generation of breeders.
In his headshot on the website, the host looks like a mercurial high school basketball coach. He runs Shepherd’s Hill Academy, a Christian Therapeutic Boarding School that saves children from the “maladies” of the twenty-first century. Their website is chock full of blonde, blue-eyed children looking up to—I would assume—a benevolent God. They boast of being “unapologetically Christ-centered.” It’s a place to send your children to scare them straight. One of their therapeutic programs forces kids to live without running water, electricity, and “today’s technology.” The host’s name is Trace Embry, and he makes Christianity sound quite a bit like Scientology.
Trace: How many kids do you have?
Stepdad: We have three girls in our family. One is forty-two, one is forty-three… and one is thirty—
Trace: I’m curious as to why you keep looking at your wife to find these things out. After this many years it doesn’t just roll off the tongue? [laughs] He’s a male.
Stepdad: You got that.
The lie is in the timeline: forty-two, forty-three, thirty-three. No one starts listing their children from the middle out. My stepfather can’t remember my age because he had no part in raising me.
By the time I met my stepsisters, my me-ness, my order in the family structure, was fully baked. I had self-identified as an only for nineteen years, and like a lot of onlys, I’d never been much of a joiner. Not unlike an emo Groucho Marx, I want very much to be a part of a group, but cannot fathom what group I would feel comfortable being a part of. Including my two late-to-the-party stepsisters. They are sweet and agreeable and have always shown me more kindness than I have shown them. With their corn-fed, blue-eyed stock, they look more like my stepfather and my mom. No one would mistake us for family.
Technically—and by technically I mean according to the legal documents that my mom and stepfather signed fifteen years ago—they do have a grand total of three daughters. If this is their official spin though, I wonder if they ever have to comment on the ten-year gap. One of my best friends is ten years younger than her closest sibling, and her family tosses around jokes about her being an “oops.” Does anyone offer inappropriate winks or elbows?
A friend thinks that I should take this as flattery. I turned out so well they want to claim me, instead of what I assume would be their reaction: talk of me as a cautionary tale. I can’t tell how much of this impotent rage is about not being publicly outed as a black sheep, a real-life heathen. The way this podcast describes the product of “successful” parenting doesn’t sound like the me who passive-aggressively rejects religion in day-to-day life.
Trace: Would these types of things [acting out in public] be tolerated by your parents? Or would you have tolerated it from your kids?
Mom: My parents would not have tolerated it at all. I know that. I didn’t tolerate it with ours [fades away]
Stepdad: I think the responsibility of a parent is to be able to direct them as they need to mature in Christ.
The first time I listened, it sounded like my mom got close to the lie, but steered out of it. I thought she caught herself skidding into a lie, realized she had to pick a singular or a plural pronoun, and applied the brakes.
But when I listened again, she does pick a pronoun: Our. She steers into the lie. Her voice only fades after the lie. Either she isn’t fully committed, doesn’t quite have the story down, or she doesn’t know what to do with the lie once it’s out there.
It seems appreciable that my mom and my stepdad don’t have the narrative to sell what they believe. At no point in the podcast do they mention their first marriages or acknowledge the initial failings that could have led them to “success.” They don’t hold up to their own qualifications for Christianity, so they have trim the branches that get in their sight line.
Mom: Well, I can remember growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. There was a lot of emphasis on women getting out of the home and we were told a lot of lies.
Trace: The women’s movement.
Mom: The women’s movement, yes. We were told a lot of lies. I think those lies have so permeated our culture that we are overlooking the truth of the scripture.
When I turned twenty-five, I was working at a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City, and had just broken up with my boyfriend for reasons that weren’t clear to me. It felt like the right thing to do, but I had done a thoroughly bad job of it. It was the first time I had broken up with someone I still loved, and I was looking for a sign to tell me if I was either being strong, or being coward for leaving him. For my birthday, mom sent me a copy of Lies Women Believe: The Truth that Sets Them Free.
The lies were in the vein of: “I can’t help how I respond when my hormones are out of whack” and “If I submit to my husband, I’ll be miserable.” She sent the book to my office and I passed it down the industrial carpeted hallway as if I had brought in baked goods. I don’t think that book ever made it home with me. I left it with a coworker who occasionally went on suburban Kansas talk radio to yell into their conservative microphones. She would shout out passages from her office, and, like a Greek chorus, we would cackle.
Mom sent the book as an apology. She wanted to apologize for telling me so many lies about Jesus when I was young. It was not the apology I was looking for. I wanted an apology for the curtain of Christianity, for her transformation into someone I didn’t recognize. I sent her an email to detail my anger, and I theorized in a bulleted list why I thought she might be angry with me. Reading that email now, I was more calm than righteous, surprisingly poised except for one line: These truths are my shackles.
Mom: We don’t have many role models today. Women today raising children don’t have many biblical role models.
Trace: And those women who are raising children today are using the role modes of Lady Gaga and Madonna to dress their little girls. It’s appalling.
Mom: It is appalling.
I could tell you that on a clear spring night, I remember my mom having one of those “driveway moments” that NPR used to promote, hers with Madonna. I could tell you that my mom is a terrible singer—tone deaf, no idea of rhythm—and could never name a favorite song if you asked, but she drove around the block to hear the end of the ballad from With Honors, “I’ll Remember.” I pretended to keep sleeping as she meandered around the neighborhood. Parenting didn’t often allow her private melancholy.
There’s a picture of me in front of my mom’s classroom bulletin board, wearing a white and pink She-Ra costume. The bulletin board says “Scare Up a Good Book.” The costume was from a pattern I picked out at JoAnne Fabrics. She-Ra was the heroine of her own story, but in typical comic book fashion, she wore a skirt that barely covered the goods, and her breasts defied physics in a skimpy, metal armor-like corset. Gaga’s infamous meat dress is significantly less revealing than what She-Ra wore on a daily basis. The costume my mom made was more appropriate for a ten-year-old. My skirt is longer, and the top has long sleeves, I wore Reeboks instead of boots. I am grinning in the picture as if I’m getting away with something—as if we’re getting away with something.
I could talk about the time I was Debbie Gibson for Halloween, or Jem, or any other role model that wasn’t ripped from the verses of the Bible. Or, how I tried to dress like Baby from Dirty Dancing when I was ten, and I would run into corners just so I could shout that no one could put me there.
Stepdad: There’s an importance in a relationship between father and children and that’s what’s lacking today. Fathering children.
Trace: You are right about that.
Does my stepdad think of me when he says this? Did I carve this theory out for him? Was I the genesis, if you will (it’s fine if you won’t)? Or does he think I fall into a pattern, another drop in the spiritually contaminated bucket of the “women’s movement”?
Maybe he justifies this lie of letting people think that he’s my father by knowing the outcome if it were true. My stepsister’s souls are ratified. They understand feminism to be a lie, their children don’t believe in dinosaurs, and it’s not their fault that I haven’t seen them in five years.
Maybe he thinks about that first year, before he and my mom started spelunking deeper and deeper into scripture. He bought me a pair of diamond stud earrings for Christmas and declared that I was really his daughter because now we all had diamond earrings.
This is where my imagination fails. Take away my history of living in sin, my acceptance of evolution, and steadfast belief that the patriarchy invented god to keep women submissive, and I wonder what they’d wish was different about me. Do they wish I would volunteer more, pray with them, or picket an abortion clinic instead of donating to one? Do they just wish I was anyone other than this dark-eyed heretic who holds onto her mistrust and bitterness like a weapon?
Follow this logic. If my problem is that my father was a drunk and failed me, and this other man believes that he wouldn’t have, is the solution to just omit my father? When they describe their three daughters, the women they describe are my stepsisters, not me. They black out my father and the woman who gave birth to my stepsisters, and they black out at least half of my DNA.
Is this redaction? I keep searching for the right metaphor—there are so many ways to dig out of a narrative. Redaction is usually visible to an audience—the reader can still see that there are pieces missing, and can’t help but try to fill in the blanks.
Is this more like time travel? Am I Marty McFly coming back to 1985 and discovering upwardly mobile parents who make their childhood bully (and attempted rapist) wax the BMW while a new Toyota Xtra Cab 4×4 truck waits in the garage, only my new truck is a new father?
Maybe they’re ultimately trying to commit to a retcon—the weapon of choice in comics and soap operas to amend previously established facts. In the beginning of season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s younger sister Dawn is abruptly introduced without explanation. The characters accept Dawn as if she had always been there, but the audience is left to restructure what they thought they knew, trying to understand such a narrative betrayal. This mystification of the audience is intentional, part of a larger plot that is incidental. Whether or not Dawn is a mystical key that unlocks dimensions hidden in the form of a needy, preteen girl, suddenly the viewer is forced to grapple with a truth that no longer feels honest.
When I’m struggling with a metaphor, I usually catch myself in a lie by omission. I’ve neglected a detail, or I haven’t acknowledged why I’m struggling. The truth of the essay is usually in the struggle, part of the problem I’m trying to solve. Maybe this narrative rerouting that my mom is doing is more like the recent cultural mantra of “living my truth” that’s been passed around from Girls to Kelly Clarkson to my Twitter feed. It’s an aphorism for doing what you want—a close cousin to “do what you love.” It seems only applicable to people who have the means to do so.
When I was in second grade, I told some of my classmates that my parents and I lived in a mansion. My mom and I had just moved into a wealthier suburb and I had started at a new school, so I made up nannies, luxury cars, and several TVs to even the score. I may have said that my dad was an actor or a rock star and I was in therapy because of it. My mom found out and I had to tell everyone the truth: that we lived in a modest, two-story townhouse, and we could never afford therapy.
Mom asked why I did it, why I would I lie like that. I remember thinking that it felt truer than anything else.
Trace: What counsel do you have for parents who both have to work to make ends meet?
Mom: I think as a mom and as a wife, I have found that I need to be organized, I need to have a schedule.
Trace: You need to be a CEO.
Mom: I am. A wife and mother is really a manager of time and resources. I think a mom is a real key to getting the family together and seeing there is time to get together.
Right now, I’m not as interested in calling out the complete disregard for the reality of current economics. How the erosion of the middle class has pushed families into needing two incomes and a stack of credit cards to create the illusion of any upward mobility. I can’t imagine who in the License to Parent’s target audience can afford to live on a single income—even Trace admits that his wife also works at Shepherd’s Hill Academy with him.
I’m more interested in what institutional knowledge my mother has of being a mom and a wife at the same time. What prescription can she pass on from the first six years of my life while she was learning to identify as a mother at the same time her marriage was falling apart?
As a single mother, she was exhausted after my father went on disability and stopped sending child support because he had a bad heart, because of his drinking and because he—like the economy in western PA—was depressed. She and I often ate McDonald’s or boxed mac and cheese for dinner. There were countless times when she couldn’t afford to buy a movie ticket or a respectable sweater. I was bad at doing my chores, and they either went undone or she tried to pick up my slack. She often worked until she made herself sick. Once, when she was trying to sell our condo, she looked at the stains on the carpet and the cheap carpet steamer she had rented from Giant Eagle and burst into tears. “I am a bad mother,” she shouted into the carpet, as if it were evidence.
Of course, I’m thankful she found someone to help her in a way that I never could—someone to help her scrub the stains—but I’ve never forgiven my stepfather for giving her this new truth. Not long after they got married, I used his computer to check my email—so uncomfortable in the designated male space of his office. I noticed a Post-it note on his monitor.
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.
I could not imagine the superhuman balls it would take to casually tack that to the edge of a monitor. As if my mother were so feeble-minded that she needed a grocery list of vows to remind her. I’ve blamed him and that scrap of paper for starting this whole thing.
That’s not quite right. I think her tendency for immoderate devotion was always there. I think, like a lot of people, she was desperate for a truth, any truth. She was tired and this truth offered her respite. I can’t even remember whose handwriting it was on the Post-it note. It might have been his, but it might have been hers.
How much more honest would it have been, how much more valuable, if my mom had told the story about the carpet on this podcast? What if she had said that it’s hard to manage parenthood—especially by yourself—that sometimes you cry and, that often, the stains never come out?
Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is at work on an essay collection all about herself.