The year we move for the second time, my father’s study and my sleeping quarters share a room. My father wants to be close to his church and my mother wants to leave a neighborhood where she feels too visible, so they buy a patch of marshy land in the woods fifteen minutes away from the public rec building where our congregation meets. In the time it takes to clear the land and construct and deliver a modular house, we live in a short-term rental. The carpets smell of stale cigarette smoke and large spiders exhibit themselves on stark white walls. In the study-bedroom, my twin mattress is on the floor in a corner and the walls are lined with shelving units from Walmart. I am fifteen and resent the invasion of my privacy accordingly. The bedroom is mine between when I go to sleep at night and wake up the next morning. The rest of the time, my father barricades himself in with his books and computer. His voice echoes through the thin walls, reading bits of his sermon as he gets ready for the following Sunday. The words wash over the couch where I sit with my schoolwork.
In the newly completed house in the woods, there is a single furnished room in the basement set aside as my father’s office. His voice doesn’t reach the ground floor that often, but sometimes the sound drifts by as you pass the stairwell. I have my own room again, with a bookshelf for all the books packed away in storage during our time in the rental and big windows that overlook the drop-off into a dense stand of oak and pine at the back of the property. I spend most of my time sequestered in there with my schoolwork and laptop. My two younger brothers and I are all homeschooled, and for most of my “high school” years I take the textbooks that my parents purchase and teach myself, poring over pages of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley and skipping large chunks of my math workbook. I think I spent as much time watching Battlestar Galactica and browsing social media as I did on school in the last two years before college. My mother knocks and opens the door every so often and asks how school is going, and the stack of books next to me on the bed offers enough proof for her to duck back out again. She’s occupied with my youngest brother, only four years old, and trusts me to self-direct.
This trust was not entirely misplaced; up until I discovered the Internet in all its uncensored glory, I was a voracious reader, easily mistaken for a serious student. I checked out piles of books from the library and read two or three at once. In the house we left for the new construction, I rigged a pulley system in one of the backyard trees so I could climb with free hands and then pull up a book and a snack in a bucket once I reached my favorite branch. In the town we lived in before that, the local library invented a new award in their summer reading program when I read not the most books but the most pages for my grade level at age eight. I disappeared into books almost completely from the time I started reading, and it would take my mother calling my name more than once or tapping my shoulder for me to resurface. Once I receive my own laptop as a teenager, ostensibly for schoolwork, I discover the void of the internet is an even more effective tool of self-erasure. I can start scrolling through Tumblr and by the time I look up again it will be time for dinner.
In the afternoons, I often walk the few steps between my door and the bathroom for a shower. I run the water so hot that the mirror fogs completely, and my skin is red by the time I step out. Under the showerhead, I empty, the sting of the water providing a release from the grasp of my circling thoughts. I stay there until the scorch is unbearable then scrub myself, quick and rough, without once looking down at my body. Sometimes, the water fails to wash me away and I curl up in the bottom of the tub, breathe in the steam, and scream without sound.
I don’t remember which of these I’m experiencing the day I hear a raised voice from outside the door. I don’t know how long it continues before I notice, like a lobster unaware of passing the boiling point. When I hear, I turn the water off and wrap a towel around myself, still dripping wet. My mind searches for an explanation – has the four-year-old stumbled through the trees out front into the path of a car? Has the dog? Has someone tumbled over the drop-off in the backyard? I open the bathroom door to discover my father pacing back and forth in the narrow hallway. I can’t register what he’s saying, but phrases like “How could you?” and “Where did I go wrong?” sneak through. I start crying and ask, “What did I do? What did I do?” over and over. Finally, the pieces come together – apparently a feminist Facebook page that I liked earlier in the day, when I was meant to be doing schoolwork, has several pro-abortion posts. I don’t remember the sequence clearly but eventually I am seated on my bed between my parents, fully dressed with my hair still wet. They interrogate me about the state of my faith, the state of my mind when I liked the Facebook page. I tell them again and again that I didn’t see the pro-abortion posts before liking it, which is true; if I had, I wouldn’t have interacted with the page for fear of this exact reaction. I tell them I’m still a Christian. We pray together. I unlike the Facebook page and stay in bed the rest of the day.
With the gift of unfettered internet access and a door to hide behind, albeit one with no locks, I had begun to investigate a variety of world views denounced by the people in my life—feminism chiefly among them. This was in 2012, the year of the Steubenville high school rape case, and my Tumblr dashboard was full of headlines and discourse about it. I see screenshots of anchors on Fox News—a station my father watches regularly at the time—discussing Steubenville, followed by paragraphs written by Tumblr users that link these men’s opinions about the teenage victim to larger issues of patriarchy and victim blaming. I start feeling sick to my stomach if Fox is on when I venture into the living room.
The two great loves of my father’s life are the Boston Red Sox and the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Both underdogs, in their own way – failures cursed through no means of their own. Luther carried the curse of original sin, the Sox the curse of the Bambino (at least until they won the World Series again in 2004 after an 86-year dry streak). What drew my father to Luther as opposed to other Reformers was the fact that both the curse and its lifting were completely outside of his control. In Luther’s Bondage of the Will he articulates his beliefs about free will, specifically that humans don’t have any. We are completely overpowered by sin as a result of Satan’s rule over the mortal world. Only when God redeems a person do they gain the will to follow him. Luther writes,
… doubtless it gives the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of His own mere will abandon, harden, and damn men, as though He delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such poor wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been such a stumbling block to so many great men down through the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man. (That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was, and how close to grace.)
The vortex of circular logic presented here—God condemns humanity; God makes it impossible for humanity to accept salvation without His direct intervention; God saves a select few based on no merits of their own; these few should be grateful because without this intervention, they would be condemned (by him)—pulls Luther, and my father, closer to God. First, it drags them as low as possible, “to the deepest pit of despair,” so they appreciate God’s grace all the more. Belief in predestination requires throwing yourself completely on God’s mercy, hoping that he’ll count you among the small number of the saved, and never questioning why you and not someone else. Luther’s answer, and by extension my father’s, to the counterargument that this theology suggests a capricious and cruel God boils down to the idea that we’re lucky he chooses to save any of us at all. He would be completely within his rights to send the whole of humanity straight to hell.
I can’t help but wonder what role this belief in humanity’s total depravity plays in my father’s ongoing struggle with depression. I suppose it’s something of a chicken and the egg situation. While researching this essay, I found my father’s page on a website that complies audio recordings of sermons. I scroll through the titles of homilies he gave at our old church: “Bewitched by Self-Justification.” “Boasting only in the Cross.” “Me, Repent? Yup—Here’s Why.” “Spoiled Religious Brats.” “Who You Callin’ a Pharisee?”
While our family moves into the house in the woods, the congregation goes through some changes of its own. Two couples, both of whom came to my father for marriage counseling, get divorced. We shift from meeting in the rec building’s gymnasium, where my father’s makeshift pulpit is centered underneath a basketball hoop, to a smaller meeting room when it becomes apparent that the extra rows of seats in the gym aren’t going to fill. An unhoused man who comes to services occasionally and calls himself a prophet tells my father the church will fail. My father starts staying in pajamas all day and writing sermons on his laptop in bed. He emerges from the bedroom late in the day and watches television late into the night, often nursing a glass or two of whiskey.
A few months into living in the house in the woods, I sit next to my mother at the kitchen table, showing her pictures I saved to my computer from Pinterest that I’m thinking of taking to the hairdresser’s. I want to cut my hair short for the first time, and carefully selected the styles that look the least like “alternative lifestyle” haircuts. There are a few extra-short chops snuck into the mix, and I scroll past them faster than the others. My father comes upstairs from his basement study to make a lunch of microwaved chicken nuggets or cold cuts. He stops at the table and peers over our shoulders. “Don’t get that one, you’ll look like a dyke!” he says, pointing at the screen. I start crying immediately. He backtracks, insists repeatedly that it was a joke and I’ll look beautiful with any hair. I’m trying to hide my tears, embarrassed by the snot running out of my nose, not making eye contact. He sighs, exasperated, and continues into the kitchen. I do not remember my mother saying anything during this exchange. I go back to my room. When we go to the hairdresser’s the next day, I select a style that’s longer than the one my father pointed out. Afterwards, I post “before” and “after” pictures to Facebook, wearing the same dark purple flannel in each picture. Relatives and church people compliment the cut. The only comment on the “before” picture is from a homeschool boy my age saying he liked my hair better long.
Sunday afternoons in the spring, a baseball game usually drones in the background while we all change out of church clothes and eat lunch. My father’s been an ardent Red Sox fan for as long as I can remember, and my brothers and I were born into the self-punishment of that as much as we were born into Presbyterianism. My middle brother wears a Red Sox hat every day for years, even sleeping with it on, until it begins to disintegrate off his head. The Sox failed to win a World Series for 86 years, a dry spell slightly shorter than the more famous Chicago Cub’s. The Sox’s curse supposedly resulted from trading away Babe Ruth to their rivals the Yankees in 1920. Until they won the Series again in 2004, the team suffered through many near misses, instances where they would make it right to the edge of success and then blow it. Even though they are now one of the most successful and financially well-off teams in the league, Sox fans still shoulder the years of bad luck, and their martyr complex shines through when a stadium full of fans chants “Yankees suck” even when they aren’t playing against the New York team. The Red Sox are a team for those who don’t really believe they deserve success but will still find outside sources to blame for their misfortunes. In my experience, Rhode Island baseball allegiance divides pretty evenly between the Yankees and the Sox. My father occasionally makes jokes comparing the Yankees and Catholics.
Forty-one percent of Rhode Islanders identify as Catholics, the highest percentage in the country. There are 150 active parishes and 40 Catholic schools listed on the state diocese’s website. Six of the parishes are St. Anthony’s. My father was raised a Christmas and Easter Catholic by two liberal agnostics. He also identified as agnostic up until college, when he experienced something he defines as a miracle while studying abroad: He tried to climb a seaside cliff in Greece on a dare from a friend. Halfway up, he found himself with no way forward and no way back. He hung onto the cliff for what seemed like hours while his friend below ran to get the cops, who showed up without a plan and stood around at the base of the cliff. His limbs grew tired. In the most practiced line of the story, he tells us that although he had been exploring “eastern” religions, reading books about Hinduism and Buddhism, in that moment he prayed to the Christian God. A mysterious older man showed up at the top of the cliff with a rope and helped him up. My father offered to buy the man a beer at the local pub, but he declined and walked away without saying a word. My father never knew his name and never saw him again. After this answer to prayer, he began exploring Protestant religions. He and my mother, who he started dating shortly before his study abroad, began attending her parents’ house church (I have vague memories as a toddler at these meetings, watching a VHS on a prickly couch while people sang hymns with an acoustic guitar accompaniment in the next room). A few years after graduating college, he enrolled in seminary to become a Presbyterian minister. I am not sure if he was already enamored with Luther at this point and if he was why he became a Presbyterian, the domination loosely fathered by John Calvin, rather than a Lutheran. Perhaps the liturgy of Lutheranism, its collars and chanting, was still a bit too close to the Catholicism he grew up adjacent to.
My father and I are in the car on the way to Vermont, a few months to half a year after the shower incident. About a month before this trip, during one of my breakdowns, I told my parents that I never want to get married or have children, my voice muffled by the stuffed animals on my baby brother’s bed. Something about their reaction to my melodramatics shifts. Soon after, my father shows me a website for a Christian counseling center in Vermont. He asks me which of the counselors I would be most comfortable with. I have asked my parents on and off about going to therapy for a few years. My requests were never taken seriously until now. I don’t particularly want to see a Christian counselor, but it seems like it’s my only option. I pick out a smiling older woman with glasses.
Our old minivan starts smoking on the highway. My father swears under his breath, pulls over, and calls AAA. Eventually a tow truck driver shows up and we begin the long drive back to Rhode Island. No one speaks in the cab of the truck, where my father is squished between me and the driver. I look out the window at the pine trees and rest stops until we get to the repair shop. We try again in a few weeks, and I meet with the counselor in her sunny office. I don’t know where my father goes while we meet—if he sits in the waiting room or cruises around the small Vermont town. The counselor has a kind voice. She tells me that she likes to think of God as the narrator of her story, someone walking alongside her, and that he is a generous God who forgives all my wrongdoings. I fill out forms, including one that mentions that my counselor reserves the right to consult with my pastor. I hesitate and then check the box allowing her to talk to my father about my progress. She asks about where I am on my walk with God, and gently tells me it’s okay to have doubts. I lie and tell her my faith is strong while tears stream down my cheeks. The rest of our handful of sessions take place over Skype. I sit in my father’s office, turning from side to side in his swivel chair. I look at the Martin Luther bobblehead, the Martin Luther stein, the shelves upon shelves of theology. I keep lying.
My sophomore year of college, my family moves to Colorado after my father has a falling out with the Presbyterian Church of America. He joins a different denomination that echoes his views about predestination, good works, female pastors, and the place of contemporary music in worship services. The closest available position is in Colorado Springs. My parents want me to move with them, transfer from Rhode Island’s state school to one out there. But I sense an opportunity that may not come again. I start looking for housing and find a spot in a house with a couple people from the school’s music program. I move out of my parent’s house that fall and come back to visit with my college boyfriend while they get ready for their move. Most of my belongings end up in storage in my grandparent’s barn. I stay with them over summer and winter breaks in my uncle’s old room.
Occasionally my parents fly me out to Colorado for a few weeks to visit over summer breaks, and on one of these trips I finally tell them that I’m not a Christian anymore. I begin writing a letter to them on the plane there and read it to them in my father’s new basement office, choking on some of the words. I can’t look at them. It takes almost the whole visit to get my courage up, and I read the letter only a few days before I’m leaving for Rhode Island again. We all cry, and they don’t seem that surprised. My mother tells me that they have discussed this possibility before and that they are confident that one day I will find my way back to the faith. The air in the house feels too thick for the next few days, even with the air conditioning, and I struggle to breathe.
About a year after this first coming out, I sit with my parents at my grandparents’ dining table. My entire family just discovered that I broke up with my first boyfriend to date a woman. I’m not sure who snooped through my social media and found out first. My parents and my mother’s side of the family function like a hive mind; as soon as one of them knows anything, so do all the rest. My parents are devastated by this discovery. My mother tells me she’s ready to die and got heaven; this life is too much for her. My father holds one of my hands in both of his. Tears streak his face behind rectangular glasses, running into his beard dotted with gray. He begs my forgiveness for failing as a father, for not keeping me safe as a child from the older boy who molested me. I say I forgive him, but I don’t know if I can forgive him for apologizing for the wrong reasons. I am twenty and this is the first time we have discussed my assault openly.
The concluding section of Luther’s Bondage of the Will sums up his argument with:
For, if we believe it to be true, that God foreknows and predestines everything; and moreover, that he can neither be mistaken nor hindered in his foreknowledge and predestination; and once more, that nothing is done outside his will (a truth which reason herself is compelled to yield) — then it follows from the testimony of this same reasoning, that there can be no such thing as Freewill in man or angel, nor in any creature.
I once overheard my father tell a couple who had experienced several miscarriages that there was no way of knowing if their unborn babies were in heaven or hell; even before leaving the womb, they carried the burden of original sin. It astounds me that my parents still have so much hope that I, who have committed so many of my own sins on top of Adam’s and rejected the promise of my baptism, will still be in that multitude clothed in white and waving palm fronds before God’s throne in the last days. Redemption arcs make compelling narratives, but mine and my parents’ ideas of redemption differ. I don’t believe there’s a heavenly ghost writer nudging my narrative along to a cathartic ending with no loose ends. That’s not the sort of story I enjoy reading, anyway.
I had hoped that writing this essay would grant me the space to view my father as a complex person, separate from our relationship, but I don’t think I’ve quite achieved the required level of distance. Writing this, I feel like that teenager again, spending days sitting on my mattress on the floor, hardly talking to anyone, stewing in cynicism. Lately, my conversations with my father are all mediated by my mother, taking place over speakerphone when they call me every few weeks. I haven’t talked to him alone in what feels like years. Our last one-on-one conversation took place on a beach in Rhode Island shortly after my first girlfriend broke up with me. My family had the decency to not be openly relieved. He assured me that I would find the right person someday, and that there was still room for me in God’s flock whenever I wanted to come back. Our feet sank into the soft sand as we walked along. The wind blew snot across my face.
Wren Phelps is a nonbinary writer from Rhode Island and a grad school dropout. Their work has previously appeared in Nat. Brut and Vagabond City. They are currently working on a chapbook of flash nonfiction and visual imagery and a full length essay collection. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram @mxfrazzle.