by Bethany Jarmul
In my earliest memory, I was a five-year-old self-righteous ass. Maybe I was born that way—popped out of my mother’s vagina thinking that my cry was more euphonious than the Jupiter Symphony, that my poop smelled of freesia and honeysuckle, that I was the best nipple-sucker there ever was or ever will be.
In a preschool classroom filled with colorful toys, alphabet posters, and tiny chairs, I stood next to my best friend, Kate. I wore a plaid skirt and collared shirt with two braids down my back. Kate had dark hair and eyes, a sweet smile. We played with Sky Dancers, pulled their strings, sending the pink-and-purple fairies floating through the air like helicopter seeds. I noticed a warning on their box: “For Ages 5 and Up Only.” Kate was four.
“You can’t play with this toy. It’s not for four-year olds,” I said.
“Yes, I can. I play with it all the time.”
I marched over to Kate’s mom. “Kate can’t play with this toy. She’s only four.”
“It’s fine. Kate can play with it,” Kate’s mom said.
“But, but… she’s not supposed to!”
“It’s fine, Bethany. Now, go play.”
I stomped back over to Kate, cheeks and ears flushed.
In another memory, Kate told me that as a Catholic she prayed to Mary. “Well, you’re wrong,” I said. A few years later, she told me that her mother believed in evolution. I said, “What? Your mom is a lawyer. She’s smarter than that!”
I’m amazed that Kate was friends with me, that anyone was.
On Christmas morning 1998, when I was six, my family sat around our dining room table. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, then blew out the candles on our cinnamon rolls. Dad read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible, but I was restless. Presents waited beneath the tree, and I wanted a Barbie doll more than anything.
When it was time, I bee-lined for a rectangular, Barbie-sized box. I tore off the paper and saw a doll inside. But she had dark brown hair, a plain blue dress, and a cloth on her head. The box said: “Mother Mary.” I swallowed the lump in my throat.
A few days later, while my mom and I were grocery shopping, a gray-headed lady said to me, “What did Santa bring you, sweetie?”
“Candy,” I said.
The only Santa I knew rode through our neighborhood on a fire truck collecting canned goods for the food bank and handing out cinnamon hard tack candy.
According to Shahram Heshmat, an expert on behavioral economics, most people don’t choose their identities. Instead, they internalize the values of their parents or culture. Parents, peers, and other role models can be the sources of identity, and children often define themselves based on how they believe their parents view them.
My parents taught me that I was saved by faith, not by works—that God was gracious, forgiving. Yet my life was governed by rules. If being a Christian was about having a relationship with a loving God, then why did messing up feel like stepping on a booby trap? In addition to the sins listed in the Bible, my parents added a litany of “no-nos.”
EXCERPT FROM THE “BAD THINGS LIST”
- Big bang theory
- Britney Spears
- Christina Aguilera—all non-Christian music was banned, except James Taylor, my mom’s favorite.
- Disney movies— “bippity, boppity, boo!” magic was unacceptable.
- Evolution—even dinosaurs were suspect.
- Global warming— “made up.”
- Harry Potter—but Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’ novels were encouraged.
- Other denominations
- Other religions
- Physicians and therapists—“untrustworthy.”
- Pokemon cards—at my Christian school, the boys collected and battled Redemption Cards, where the goal was to win “Lost Soul” cards.
- Power Rangers—when pretending, we had to be “God Rangers.”
- Tampons—yes, tampons!
- Tube tops
- Vaccines, most prescription medications
Following these rules was my way to prove my love for God, so I was like the little engine: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”
In psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, identity versus confusion is the fifth stage of ego. This stage occurs during the teenage years, when teens develop a sense of self and explore their independence. Kids who are not allowed to test out different identities may be left with role confusion, which can result in being unsure of who they are, where they fit, or feeling confused about their place in life.
I sat by myself on the brown bleachers in the gym. I scanned the roaring crowd of several hundred middle schoolers talking, laughing, hugging binders to their chests or flicking paper footballs. My first day of 8th grade, my first time attending a public school after years at a Christian academy. I’d never seen so many kids my own age. My heart galloped as I waited for the bell. I fidgeted with my red mesh backpack, zipping and unzipping.
“Fuck!” said the guy sitting behind me. I jumped, then tried to relax, act normal. “Fuck that shit!” he said. I snuck a look behind me. The guy’s jeans were hanging low, red boxers exposed, and a gold chain hung around his neck. I tried not to stare.
We lived in a small town in West Virginia with an undercurrent of poverty, racism, and drug abuse. Some students had no hot water, their body odor announcing their presence. Others tossed around the “n” word like a hacky sack. Fights broke out weekly and drug searches monthly.
I could have adapted—cursed a little, tried some cigarettes, made out with boys under the bleachers. Instead I took advanced classes, escaped into novels, and clung to my upbringing like a blankie. Meanwhile, I learned about many new things—all of them belonged on the “bad list.”
I was a purity-ring-wearing 17-year old virgin when I watched porn for the first time, lounging in the dark in my childhood bedroom, laptop glowing on my thighs. I had never seen a penis before, not even in a photo, only drawings in health class.
In his memoir, Stephen King describes how, as a recovering alcoholic, he can’t understand social drinking. How could anyone have just one glass of wine? That’s how I felt about porn. It’s like I had grown up on a vegan, no-sugar diet, then been set loose in the world’s largest ice cream shop, all the flavors free for me to sample, stuffing my face until I hurled.
While reading my Bible, going to youth group, and praying, I kept thinking: You’re a hypocrite, Bethany. You’re a filthy, dirty hypocrite.
One day, when I was alone, I took a pair of scissors out of a kitchen drawer and walked down to the basement. I’d heard about cutting at school and wanted to try it. I sat on our army-green futon and held the blade to my wrist. My parents will see it if I cut myself here. I lifted my shirt and held the blade to my stomach, below my belly button. Maybe I can cut away some of this fat while I’m at it. I heard the front door opening, someone coming home. I hid the scissors behind the futon’s flower-print pillows.
I first left my childhood home to attend a Christian college in rural Pennsylvania. I befriended others from a variety of denominations and backgrounds. We stayed up late, debating free will versus predestination, lamps glowing in our overstuffed dorm rooms.
In a tiered classroom, surrounded by 30 of my peers, I watched as Dr. M. paced the floor, his bald head reflecting the fluorescent lights. This class was a required “Science, Faith, and Technology” course. I expected the same spiel I’d always heard about how evolution was fake. But instead Dr. M. said, “Evolution may be a method that God used, guiding the process… The Big Bang Theory allows for, even points to, a Creator. Someone had to cause the bang… The book of Genesis was written to teach us about God, not intended to be a science textbook.”
I sat up straight, my fingers flying over laptop keys, not wanting to miss a single word. I wasn’t necessarily convinced about the origins of the universe, but I mentally removed evolution from the “bad things” list.
Researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas found that the idea that “opposites attract” is untrue; rather, people seek similarity in relationships and are drawn to others who are like-minded. Interestingly, they also found that people in relationships do not change each other’s identities over time.
My sophomore year, I met Andrew— a homeschooled history major from Washington. He had pale skin, brown hair parted on the side. His oversized sweaters hung on his wiry frame, complete with mom jeans and off-brand tennis shoes. His animal magnetism was three-pronged—peculiarity, piousness, and pride. After consulting his father, a mentor, and God, Andrew agreed to be my boyfriend—my perfect, geeky Ken doll.
I wonder if it’s not just that we choose partners that are similar to us, but also those who have attributes that we wish we had—identities that we want to claim for ourselves. Somehow I found a man whose upbringing was even more stringent than my own. For example, I believed in waiting until marriage to have sex. Andrew believed in waiting until marriage to kiss.
One day, we were sitting at a table in the library. “Have you ever cursed before?” I asked.
“One time I said the c-word,” he said.
“The c-word! What word did you say?”
“C-R-A-P,” he whispered.
I laughed. Students at nearby tables gave me nasty looks.
“That’s not a bad word. I say that all the time.” I looked down at my hands folded in my lap.
Later, I told my roommate, “If I was the person that I want to be, then Andew would be my perfect match. But sometimes I feel I’m not good enough for him.”
Andrew broke up with me a few months later.
My junior year, I joined a group of students who carpooled together to attend a church several miles from campus. They had an informal leader named Curtis. He was 22, with blue eyes and crooked teeth.
During one meeting at the church, eight of us sat in folding chairs in a small classroom. Curtis stood behind a wooden podium with a well-worn Bible. He talked about God’s grace and the importance of confessing not just to God but to others. “Now, I’m going to open it up to anyone who has something they want to share,” Curtis said.
I listened, eyes wide, as Rachel, Curtis’s girlfriend with long, silky brown hair, shared about her struggle with depression. Another girl talked about her battle with anxiety. One thin guy spoke, with wavering voice, about his pornography habit. I cleared my throat. My voice cracked as I said, “I’ve struggled with porn too.”
As we packed up our belongings, Curtis and Rachel hugged me and prayed over me. Simple prayers like: “God, help Bethany to know how much you love her.”
I wasn’t “cured” of my porn addiction overnight. But I finally experienced this grace that I’d heard so much about. Something unlocked inside of me. Slowly, I began admitting my imperfections, the messiness beneath my plastic facade.
I was 22, a recent college graduate, working as a copywriter at an advertising agency in Pittsburgh. The agency employed about 35 people and was located in a two-story brick building. The decor inside included a foosball table, an aquarium of colorful fish, and a life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe.
The agency threw a Halloween party during the work day, and our boss expected everyone to dress up. For the first time, I had to come up with a Halloween costume. Although I was too nervous to talk much about my faith, my coworkers knew I was a sheltered Christian. I decided to play up the irony and dress as a biker chick—leather jacket, dark eye makeup, red lipstick, and fake tattoos. I looked like Biker Barbie, but I felt like Mary in disguise.
During the Halloween party, I drank two Angry Orchards and was feeling buzzed. I leaned against a co-worker’s desk. Scott was a spectacle-wearing, round-faced PR specialist in his late 30s, with a desk covered in Pittsburgh Pirates memorabilia.
“You know, prayer really works,” I said. “Did I ever tell you about my car?”
“I don’t think so,” Scott said, turning toward me in his wheely chair.
“I heard a sermon about how when you pray specific prayers and God answers them, then it becomes a testimony. I needed a car, but I was a poor college kid. Instead of just praying for a car, I started praying for a red Ford Focus. A few months later, my parents surprised me with a used car. Guess what kind?” I was talking faster, louder than normal, thinking about how amusing it was that it was easier for me to talk about my faith after having a couple drinks.
“A red Ford Focus.” Scott said, unimpressed.
“Yep!” I grinned.
“Well, you should pray for me.”
“Oh, what do you need prayer for?”
“Pray that I’ll win the lottery.” He turned back to his computer screen.
At 24, I married a man who loved me—flaws, history and all. “It doesn’t matter what your parents think,” he said. “I’ll love and support you regardless.” I kissed his shaved head, the freckle on his lip. He’d never looked sexier.
With his support, my view of God and faith continued to evolve, allowing me to break away from my parents’ impositions. I wore a flower-print bikini, just like Barbie. I enjoyed my first trick-or-treat experience. I said “Black Lives Matter.” My dad replied, “All Lives Matter.” Mom told me I was selfish when I took Zoloft during pregnancy, got a COVID vaccine while breastfeeding. I watched WandaVision. Dad sent me articles about its many evils.
Eventually, I realized that I was turning my back on more than just a few rules. When I became a mother at 27, it caused me to reevaluate my identity and to want to purposefully decide how to raise my children. As clinical psychologist Laura Markham explained, “The brain goes through all these changes when women are pregnant or postpartum…We develop new aspects of ourselves that ever after are a part of who we are.”
Before I could determine how to raise my kids, I had to identify this part of me that I was trying to reject. I didn’t have a name for it. It rolled around in my mind, kept me awake at night. Its voice was my inner dialogue that I constantly had to tell to “shut up!”
At 29, shortly after my second child was born, I perused the shelves at a local thrift store, inhaling the intoxicating smell of old books. I selected Girl Meets GOD, a memoir by Lauren F. Winner. Later, I curled up with the book on my brown recliner.
I learned that when preparing for his revivals, Billy Graham worked with Catholics, liberal Presbyterians, and others outside of the orthodox Protestant tradition. Powerful conservative Christians were outraged and denounced Graham. This created the split that still exists, between evangelicals, like Graham, and fundamentalists.
As I read the next section, my hands shook. I read the paragraphs again, tracing the sentences with my right index finger as I mouthed the words:
“Fundamentalists, like those who tangled with Graham, tend more toward separation from the rest of American culture. They tend to be more suspicious of interfaith and cross-denominational conversations. Fundamentalist parents are likely to be more restrictive when it comes to what TV shows and rap songs their kids can be exposed to. There’s the matter of science. Not all fundamentalists read the first chapter of Genesis as a textbook scientific account of the planet’s origins, but almost all people who do read Genesis that way are fundamentalists.”
Wow, I thought. My parents were fundamentalists. I was a fundamentalist, and I didn’t even know it! I like to imagine that at that moment I burst out of the fundamentalism box, singing Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” But it’s not that easy.
Trying to extricate oneself from an identity, whether from birth or learned, is like trying to yank up a Shepherd’s tree, the roots of which can be 230 feet long. Not only is it difficult, but there will be dirt, large chunks of earth, clinging to those roots.
A few weeks later, on a not-too-cold December day, I dressed Asher, my two-year old, in his puffy blue coat. We strolled through our neighborhood, pausing to pick up rocks and watch the neighbors’ dogs. Asher stopped in front of a yard decorated with Santa Claus and reindeer. He pointed to Santa and shouted, “Noah!”
Teaching my kids that a fat man in a red suit squeezes down the chimney, delivers gifts on every continent all in one night—I can’t bring myself to do it.
When Asher watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and the Halloween episode comes on, I have to leave the room to prevent myself from skipping it. I cringe when he says “crap!”—the strongest word I say around my kids. And I wonder—if he asked for a Barbie doll for Christmas, would I buy him one?
A few months before I read Girl Meets GOD, Asher and I were in our living room video chatting with my parents. I was sitting on our brown recliner, my laptop perched next to me on a side table. He ran over to me, “Mommy!” He kissed my arm, smiled at me with his round toddler face, then bit me hard.
“Ouch! No, Asher!” I said, “Don’t bite.”
He shook his little finger and said, “No, no, no,” then ran off to grab a toy car.
“You need to spank him,” my dad said, squinting at me on my laptop screen.
“No, Josh and I are in agreement. We aren’t going to spank our kids,” I said.
“Not even a smack on the hand?” Mom asked, shaking her salt-and-pepper topped head.
“No. How does hitting him teach him to stop biting or hitting?”
“There’s a verse in Psalms that says ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’” Dad said.
“That’s referring to a shepherd’s staff. It’s talking about discipline. I do discipline him. It doesn’t mean you have to literally hit your child with a rod.”
“Where did you hear that?” Dad said.
“Dad, I really don’t want to talk about this anymore.” I ran to grab the TV remote out of Asher’s hand.
Growing up, my parents hugged me and told me “I love you!” every day. They helped with homework and cheered me on at every musical. When I write “You’re the best mom!” on a Mother’s Day card, I mean it. And when I say, “I felt shame because of the way you raised me,” I mean that, too.
When I opened that fundamentalism box, I wasn’t sure who I would find. Maybe I’m a Mary doll dressed up like Barbie, making a fool of myself. Maybe I’m a Frankensteined doll with Barbie’s brain and Mary’s heart. Is it possible to not be a doll at all?
I don’t know if I will ever shake off all of my fundamentalism. I’m not even sure if I want to. As humans, we are inherently shaped by things we cannot control—our DNA, our upbringing, the history of who we are, and of those who came before us. If I could instantly eliminate all fundamentalism in me, would I do it? If I did, would the person who was left still be me?
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and work-from-home mom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Scribes*MICRO*Fiction, Sky Island Journal, WOW! Women On Writing, and Allium, A Journal of Poetry & Prose. She grew up in the hills of West Virginia and lives outside of Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. She enjoys drinking chai lattes, reading memoirs, and taking nature walks. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.