Who knew choosing Christ could be so subversive?
Written By Darrah Le Montre
Edited by Megan Granger
It all started right after Grandma died: The feelings for girls. The speedy thoughts I couldn’t control. The fear that I was gay. I got drunk for the first time. Girlfriends asked me to smoke weed with them and a group of boys they’d just met. I learned about oral sex from NWA. I got mono from not eating and worrying about algebra. I lost friends by being a doormat. I was bullied by mean girls who claimed to be my friends. I feared high school, which was looming. I lost my way.
But I also found something around that time, when my sister befriended a born-again Christian family who lived down the block. The Hayneses had two daughters, one my sister’s age. My sister would tell me bits and pieces about this foreign thing: religion.
Growing up in a Jewish household meant that we were expected to be proud of our Jewish heritage, we ate potato pancakes (or latkes) during the high holidays, and while we could date outside of our religion, we would be pressured to break it off sooner rather than later—to avoid hurt feelings, of course. We had no religious upbringing to speak of. My father was basically an atheist. My mother believed in God but attached no ideology to that belief. We were not mitzvahed.
One Saturday morning, with the smell of bacon wafting from the kitchen—I was a vegetarian by then—I hid in our shared room with my sister and watched cartoons on a tiny TV we had gotten for Hanukah. Suddenly, a Jesus cartoon came on. “What’s this?” we said aloud. We giggled uncomfortably. Then we found ourselves glued to the petal-pink TV in silence.
“Your food is ready!”
We kept watching, spellbound. During commercials, we put our heads down, feeling guilty. When the cartoon came back on, we affixed our eyes to the screen. We learned about the disciples, the money men, Jesus’ fury at corrupt religious leaders, Mary Magdalene, and the crucifixion. Another commercial.
My mother knocked on the door. “Food is ready!” she said. This time she was mad.
“OKAY!” we chimed.
“What are you watching?” she asked.
“Nothing!” we lied. Luckily, she didn’t open the door.
I can still remember the warm amber glow and canary-yellow aura surrounding the resurrected white Jesus; his outstretched arms; the clouds like a blanket around the Risen Son; his ascent into an animated blue sky that was bluer than I’d ever seen it in real life. Jesus’ warm love was emanating through the screen and into my heart. I was entranced by the vision and the idea of a man so loving and accepting.
By the end of the cartoon, we were basically born again.
Around that time, my sister had begun this bad habit of hitting me. And I had begun this bad habit of letting her.
An Amy Grant poster hung beside my bed. She had put it there. My personal space was diminishing.
My grandmother had been slowly dying for about ten years by the time my mother and aunt told me, while drunk, what was wrong with her. She had contracted HIV—which had then turned into AIDS—during her open-heart surgery. A triple bypass. The surgery was ultimately successful, but Grandma lost nearly all the blood in her body and they had to give her a transfusion. It was 1982. She was pumped full of infected blood.
When I learned the truth, I told my mom I was relieved.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because we finally know what’s wrong with Gramma,” I said.
“Oh, we always knew,” Mother replied.
Family folklore has it that the doctor called my grandfather after the blood test results came in. He admitted it was his fault. Because of his surgical mistake, my sixty-two-year-old grandmother was HIV positive. The doctor cried into the phone. My grandfather consoled him and never sought damages.
I suffered anxiety from an early age and, later, OCD and eating disorders. My three siblings and I were not shielded from my grandmother’s illness. I was her favorite, and I held her hand while she writhed in pain. The cocktails in the early ’90s weren’t what they are now. We all prayed when my grandfather injected “blackie” into her IV. Our prayers were rarely answered.
I’ve never cried so hard as the evening I found out my grandmother had died. My siblings were playing video games. How could they? Grandma was dead. I had failed to save her. My mother was going crazy. My father became the sane one, which was a feat. I hid in my room writing letters to my grandmother, and one was read aloud when her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t attend.
I did attend the memorial service. I was thirteen. I scanned the room frenetically and giggled nervously. I’d never been to a memorial, and seeing my family cry made me feel really confused. And the guy at the podium mispronouncing everything and getting names wrong made it all seem like a bad dress rehearsal for a play where people wanted to be sad. I never wanted to be sad. I just couldn’t get a handle on anything or anyone around me.
Before she died, I used to think that if only I would catch HIV—or if Papa, my grandfather, would—then Grandma wouldn’t feel so isolated by her illness.
Whenever we visited her in the hospital and passed the chapel, I would say a silent prayer. My parents dissuaded me from going in. It became understood that entering the chapel was taboo, as if doing so meant you were weak. You would basically be talking to something that didn’t really exist, so it would all be a waste of time and really quite embarrassing.
I wanted to go in.
They joked that my sister was probably in there. Praying. I knew she wasn’t. She was pretty angry by that time.
Sister was fifteen and a half and had a major chip on her shoulder when we moved to Chatsworth. We had high hopes that the new house would offer the family something that had died with my grandmother: unity. After the first walk-through of the two-story house on an idyllic cul-de-sac, my mother announced with a pouty lip, “I don’t like it.”
I tried to be good and small and get good grades. My sister and I shared the master bedroom, donated by our parents. I hid remnants of my existence in a shared wall-to-wall closet. My personal space was practically nonexistent. The master bedroom contained all things pale country pink, my least favorite color, while my Bob Marley CDs and Mickey Mouse duffel bag and decorative butterfly coffee mug sat on a shelf in the closet. If I dared put any of my things out, my sister would corner me, yelling, “Put it back in the closet!” Then she would tell me, in her best Marcia Brady voice, that I really should burn my CDs, because sinners sang those songs. I never did believe Marley was a sinner. Even as a Christian, I just couldn’t swallow that pill.
She got a job gift-wrapping at a local pharmacy gift shop. I visited her. She showed me Precious Moments porcelain figurines with a religious bent. She began collecting angels. After work, she’d go to church. My family was furious. I was caught in between.
One afternoon, I locked myself in my parents’ room and dialed a hotline for suicidal teenagers. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was growing increasingly fearful that I was gay. Puberty was in full swing and my persistent sexual thoughts about women had spilled over to include my best girlfriends. We would go swimming and they would notice me noticing them. The hotline operator was named Sarah. She assured me that I wasn’t gay, that it was totally normal. She said it happened to her, too, and that she was definitely straight. I repeated back what I’d heard. Maybe I would be like Sarah. Not like Darrah. I hung up and masturbated.
At school, I befriended the slutty girls and tried to help them. They showed me how to use tampons and smoke weed. I told them they had worth. They told me I was sweet. It was a practical arrangement.
I was valedictorian of my junior high school class. I wore what appeared to most to be a Russian wedding dress. Head-to-toe taupe lace and pearl drop earrings. Other girls’ parents told them they should be more like me. My mom went broke buying this two-piece outfit, an intricate bodice paired with matching ankle-length skirt. I never wore it again, and much later, finding it sheathed in a Jessica McClintock dress bag would inspire a mixture of embarrassment and pride. High school was in three months. I would inevitably go from newly minted popular girl who had swam with the sharks and earned lipstick-tinted chinks in my armor to being a small fish in what felt like a gigantic scary fishbowl.
In high school, I wore thrift store clothes. I begged my mom to take me to Salvation Army at 6 p.m. on work nights. She would complain loudly that she needed to make dinner for six people. But I would brush that off, because a part of me knew she was just happy we were spending time together—even if it wasn’t at Macy’s. The perfect complement to these new old digs? A King James Bible.
A teacher at my new school wore a necklace with a cross inside of a Jewish star. I once asked her what it meant. She told me she was a Jew for Jesus. My mother said she shouldn’t be talking about that at school. It felt wrong to me, too. Didn’t she know my parents wouldn’t approve of her religious choice? It was against the rules. You were either Jewish or Christian. You didn’t get to be both. It was greedy. At least, I couldn’t be both.
Another teacher, Mrs. D., was uncommonly funny and kind. She was easily sidetracked and ended up using more class time describing a Mexican folk-art mask hanging on the wall in Spanish class than teaching us how to conjugate verbs. She also saw me. After school one day, she handed me a small desk calendar with Bible quotes printed on each page. She prefaced the gift with an explanation that teachers in public school weren’t supposed to show favor to any religion or even discuss religion with students. I held the calendar tightly, with a broad smile that made my cheeks hurt.
The Jewish twins who’d had me over for Friday night Shabbat dinners a year before mocked me at school. Punk kids mocked me. My parents mocked me. “What, are you Christian now?” they asked. When I said yes, they pressed for answers.
“I found Jesus,” I explained simply. They laughed.
That Christmas, the two albums I listened to nonstop were Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and the Time-Life Treasury of Christmas, which I saw on TV and begged my mom for. She bought it in four easy installments of $9.99.
Surprisingly, we got a tree that year. My father insisted we call it a Hanukah bush. Underneath the greenery bedecked in blue and silver tinsel rested a wrapped present for me from my sister. Once I shook it, I instantly knew it was the same gift she’d gotten me three years in a row. Estée Lauder’s amber-hued Beautiful perfume. I hate surprises, so I played five questions (square or circle, liquid or solid, edible or not, etc.) before I shook it and belted out “BEAUTIFUL!” She was pissed and told on me, but her anger was quelled by my excitement.
Despite our rampant division, a favorite pastime of my family’s was to gather around our sixty-inch widescreen and watch a boxing match. I cried when Tyson lost his title. My mom held me.
By that time, I considered myself a Christian. Distinctive from most Christians, I was a Christian, meaning I was observant; I was choosing it, not just born into it. My parents had more choice labels for me: Jesus freak. Bible beater. Bible thumper. In the beginning, my chin would crumble when Dad passed me on the stairs and shot an epithet my way. The name-calling stopped when I starting wearing the names like badges of honor.
At school, I read my Bible and ministered to other students. I read books about abstinence and coached girlfriends who I knew were sexually active. When my dad wasn’t home, I hosted after-school conversations with boys in our driveway, encouraging them to practice abstinence until marriage. One day, my sister leaned out of our shared bedroom window and said, “Oh, shut the hell up already.” It was in that moment that I knew I had surpassed her in faith. Her jealousy had overcome her trust in the Lord. I had won at being a Christian . . . and I was even more alone than before.
I was sixteen. A rumor was flying around that a boy in drama class liked me. He was kind of cute but a geek and also alternative-looking, with long hair and a lanky gait. He was a senior and listened to Nine Inch Nails and Tori Amos. I was still into my previous boyfriend, a skater boy who smoked. Having a new crush was a welcome distraction. There was another rumor going around about that boy that proved to be true. He was bisexual.
My mother liked him but worried about AIDS. The picture of my grandmother dying was emblazoned on our psyches.
Her lips began to grow lesions. She bruised so easily. Her legs were so thin. Her skin was like sandwich paper. She was bedridden. She used dry shampoo. Her home grew dusty. She never ate out. She never went out. My grandfather was her nurse. She cursed at him from the bedroom, ordering him to feed her. Liquid into an IV. She died just after their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Alone in a hospice. Mother said the nurses gave her too much morphine. Probably on purpose.
My new boyfriend—the bisexual—and I slept in separate rooms on prom night because it wasn’t proper to share a bed. I wore a corset, which he considered sexy. I just wanted to look skinny. I took laxatives that night, which made me feel bloated. I had begun taking diuretics, too. I was flailing without a church, and I was being bullied at home from nearly every corner. We dated for six months, which was epic for high school. When we broke up, my relationship with my mother suffered. Liking him had become our one commonality.
It was the end of junior year. Watching televangelists on Saturday night was perfectly fine with me. But my sister made fun of me. I had nowhere to turn. Heavenly Father felt far away suddenly, somehow. So, finally, I turned off the light.
Yes, I was disillusioned by this religion. But mostly, my sister, who claimed to be Christian, was hurting me, and my father was hurting me, and my mother was hurting me. So I turned off the light. It would make things easier, perhaps.
The poems I had begun to write with unparalleled enthusiasm—using ANGEL as an acronym, panegyrizing the Son—changed into feverish free verses about sadness and hypocrisy.
The spiritual ideology I clung to as a teen was what I desperately needed at that time for security and a foundation I had never been given. But my family ripped away my lifeline, and I was too weak and too young to claim it righteously any longer. It took a year and a half for me to stop believing I was going to hell. But hell found me.
I turned off the light and I found another religion: drugs.
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”
The same insecurities that had plagued me my whole life overtook me and I fell victim to the devil that is speed.
There is no God. When I hear people say that, I flinch. Having my spiritual devotion and beliefs minimized, ridiculed, and mocked made me feel small. My voice was stolen. Because of the dark avenues I turned to in place of Christianity, I am reticent to ever snatch away anybody’s lifeline. The results can be personally catastrophic.
I still struggle to remember I am not my roots. I am a flower grown from them.
It would be easy for me to blame my family for my self-harming choices. But now that I’m the mom of a young child, I can understand how difficult it must have been for them to see me date people they didn’t approve of or choose a spiritual practice they didn’t agree with.
However, after the healing practices I’ve dedicated myself to, coupled with the decade-plus of recovery I’ve invested in, I would never give myself up as easily as I did at sixteen. The self-work I’ve done, by the grace of my higher power, can’t be taken away by anybody.
And I’ll be damned if I ever sand away at my daughter’s choices and salvations. The stakes are simply too high.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of life and death.
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Darrah Le Montre is a writer and journalist and devoted mom. Her work has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and nudie blog SuicideGirls.