“Let us stand and praise the Lord with our whole heart.” Brother Conner towers behind the lectern on the stage, a skinny frame wearing a skinny tie, and reaches his long arms toward heaven.
The Portland Bible College students sit attentively in the first few rows of a cavernous old theater converted into a church sanctuary. We stand on command. The auditorium seats snap back into upright position with a syncopated rhythm. Swaying gently, eyes closed, hands raised, we chant in English or the gibberish of our prayer language, the indistinct singsong echoing against the bare walls in a cadence of its own volition. I turn my focus outward, bathe in the emotional warmth of the atmosphere, empty my mind. These moments are a hypnotic relief from the constant critical dialogue and insecurities that plague my consciousness. Praise is a form of meditation, though it’s considered heresy to call it that. It bestows some benefits of meditation, too: I emerge refreshed, with a renewed sense that—somehow—everything is going to work out for good, because God says so.
When Brother Conner deems the Lord has received His praise quota, he wraps up the worship with a prayer and dismisses us for lunch. We grasp our ever-present Bibles and file through a side door into the cafeteria, where students and faculty eat breakfast and lunch family style at large round tables. Once everyone settles, someone recites another prayer of thanks before the clatter of dishes sounds through the room.
Breakfast consists mostly of starch, and so does lunch, but today chunks of roast beef glisten on the meat platter. I’m dismayed when the student next to me grabs it and passes it the other direction. I try to wait patiently. All I can afford for dinner are the Banquet four-for-a-dollar frozen meat pies on sale at Thriftway, and I’m starving for protein.
The meat platter finally arrives at my seat, scraped clean and empty. I look around the table. Everyone has a serving of meat. All the male students have two chunks of roast beef on their plates; some hoard three pieces.
“Hey,” I say, “there’s no meat left.”
No one looks me in the eye.
My usual shyness gives way under mounting indignation. “Hey,” I say again, picking up the empty platter and holding it aloft over the middle of the table, “one of you has to give up a piece of meat. I didn’t get any.”
The men begin to grumble. A couple look sheepishly at each other and glance at me. I wave the empty platter around in the air and wait. I refuse to let them get away with this. Finally, Stephen—a gangly, quiet young man of Norwegian stock who has made a few timid attempts at conversation with me—finds his conscience. He stabs a chunk of beef and plops it on the platter. I’m grateful for his willingness to be the only man at the table with one piece of meat.
A student with three pieces of beef reproaches me. “You need to stop being so selfish.” “Yeah,” says another. “We’re men and bigger than you. We need more meat.”
A chorus of muttered agreement circles the table.
I slide the beef onto my plate and say nothing. The bites go down hard and join the roiling stew of shame and outrage in the pit of my stomach.
In 1973, I made arguably the biggest life-hanging decision of my existence. Yes, you read that right. Of course I intended to write “life-changing,” but it’s a remarkably apt parapraxis: remove one simple “c” and you morph from transformative to a noose. I strangled for 12 years. Twelve years of devolution in fundamentalist religious cults.
I discovered a modicum of peace at age 15 in a countercultural religious movement that reached its apex in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. Jesus Freaks extolled the pacifism and non-materialism exhibited by Jesus, the ultimate flower child. We should share whatever we have, as exemplified by the first-century Christians. We should wage peace instead of war; a peace that includes a deep, heartfelt tranquility because our sins are forgiven and the Lord has a plan for our lives. We shouldn’t be concerned with the shallow surfaces of things: beards or crewcuts, suits or faded jeans, what’s on the outside is irrelevant to our spirituality. The Jesus Freaks offered sanctified cultural rebellion, and my soul found a home.
During senior year, I daydreamed about going to a small liberal arts college—any small liberal arts college—where I could take dance classes and get an English Lit degree. I flipped through college catalogs while sitting cross-legged on my twin bed and imagined myself living in one of those glass-sided dorms nestled in a treed setting, strolling across campus with an armload of classic novels, bumping into a dark-haired, sensitive boy.
But my parents thought I was too willful to keep my spirituality intact at a secular school, not to mention my hymen. They were never entirely comfortable with the “freak” aspect of my religion. Portland Bible College—an unaccredited school under the auspices of a charismatic, fundamentalist, nondenominational church called Bible Temple and renamed City Bible Church in the ’90s—fit nicely into their post-WWII socio-political beliefs. Dad also explained there was no money for tuition, and Portland Bible College was cheap. As it should have been; the degree was useless. But the degree didn’t matter. The real point was to find a spiritual man willing to take me on so I could fulfill my calling as helpmate and child bearer. Mom and Dad told me I’d be lucky if such a man picked me, given my rebellious nature. They applied a gentle but constant pressure for attendance at Bible College and offered no other options.
Did I have a real choice? I couldn’t bear the thought of staying in my backward hometown and continuing to live under the same roof with Mom. I could get a job and share an apartment with girlfriends, but that much freedom and responsibility frightened me. I needed the stepping stone of college.
I decided maybe Mom and Dad were right. Maybe I was too rebellious to thrive in the secular world. I abandoned my dream and dragged the scream-wide knowing of my body down into a place that not only stifled my predilections, talents, and curiosities, but taught me to disparage them as sin. I learned to smother my love of dance, music, poetry, and novels. I learned to stuff my strong will into a strongbox.
I learned to beware my intuition, view it askance, treat it like a traitor instead of a guide.
I learned to betray myself.
And the people I looked to for guidance and protection betrayed me.
The men at Portland Bible College told me I was a second-class citizen. They told me God intended it that way. They told me I had to submit to—everything. They told me to sit down and shut up and hang my female head in shame. They told me I was worth less than they were.
Because penises trump vaginas. They told me God said so.
They believed God was male and that He was just like them. So did I.
In 1973, the culture took a seam ripper to the threads of our once complacent lives.
Creepy mass murderers. News on the radio 24/7. Corruption at the highest levels. Nudity on television. Massive gas explosions that killed and decimated, from the East Coast to the West.
Everything was in-your-face and upside-down. Where to huddle? How to hide?
Snuggled inside the cocoon of religion.
Turns out there was a man willing to take me on as his wife. Dane’s cool rebel heart beat beneath a studiously spiritual veneer. A mix of redneck and hippie due to a childhood spent between LA and Idaho, he refused to give up his signature mustache, wore Frye boots, and owned a motorcycle. Portland Bible College didn’t allow motorcycles on campus, so he stashed his Moto Guzzi at his parents’ house in Idaho during the school year. We walked in the rain to the nearby Arctic Circle for our allowed once-a-week date and made out on street corners under dripping tree branches. Not the usual stuff of romance, but when life is as circumscribed as it was at Bible College, the moment we stepped off the campus curb and clasped each other’s hand was a sensual thrill.
Dane disclosed his past life of multiple sexual relationships and experimentation with every drug out there, including addiction to heroin. I didn’t see any of that as a warning. Instead, it made him more appealing. I was a naive, 19-year-old virgin who’d never even smoked pot.
Dane became my surrogate for worldly experience, and I found that both enticing and comforting.
The men in authority over me, the ones supposedly responsible for my well-being, didn’t consider his previous life a warning, either. Mom was the only one who brought up Dane’s heroin addiction, but she framed it as a possible health concern for her future grandchildren. I dismissed her concerns and chided her, reminding her Dane’s history was under the blood of Jesus. That meant there was nothing to worry about, past or future. Once a person got saved, we were obligated to see them as born again, just as the Lord did. Everyone got a fresh start, with the ill effects of their sinful days, physical or psychological, supposedly washed away.
Dane got permission from his father, my father, and Brother Conner before asking me to marry him. They all said yes.
So did I.
In 1973, women were coming up for air in the sea of oppression and repression that was our culture. A few poked their heads out of the water: Robyn Smith was the first female jockey to win a U.S. race. In New Jersey, the first girls played in Little League. Women for the first time won equal rights in the military. The first all-women board of directors took over a basketball team.
I stand at the stove in a rental cabin at Trinity Lake, California, my uncle’s wedding present. I wear my favorite sleepwear, an oversized man’s flannel shirt worn thin and soft from many washings. The shirttail hangs to my knees. I roll the sleeves up to my elbows so I can go about making the breakfast Dane has informed me will be part of my daily routine as his wife: two eggs over easy yolks unbroken; bacon chewy not crispy; wheat toast browned not burned. I take a breath, steady myself to flip the eggs.
“You better have underwear on.” Dane’s voice is different. Commanding.
I don’t. My vagina, tender and bruised from the frequent, enthusiastic lovemaking since the wedding, can’t even endure the soft cotton of my panties.
“I’m too sore.”
“Get some underwear on. Someone could see you through that window.”
I turn around and glance at the sliding glass door at the back of the kitchen. The one that overlooks an uninhabited gully of scrub pine and straggly shrubs.
“That’s ridiculous. No one’s out there. Maybe a rabbit.” I turn back to the stove.
Dane looms behind me. “I’m your husband. You will do as I say. Get some underwear on.
Blinded by sudden tears, I smack the skillet down on the stove and run into the bedroom.
I pace in circles, mind whirling, fists clenched. I have no context for this Dane. He likes my rebel streak, my sarcasm.
We never talked about roles after marriage. I assumed our relationship would continue on as it had in courtship, as equals. We didn’t agree with a lot of Bible Temple’s mandates, like no alcohol or movies or dancing; of course he wouldn’t expect me to be one of those mealy-mouthed obsequious wives.
The realization slams me stock still and insensate. My breath sticks in my throat.
Everyone demands my submission: the school, the church, the Bible, my parents, and now Dane. My whole world stands united against my independence. I have been played and betrayed and— worst of all—trapped.
In 1973, the world was a scary place. Russia, the U.S., and France repeatedly tested nuclear bombs. The Nixon administration blew up in the Watergate scandal. Oil prices exploded and people waited in line for hours to buy a few gallons of gas. The dollar dropped. Gold soared. Terrorism ignited.
I fight back. We spend nine months fighting.
One morning, burdened and weary from the whole ordeal, I walk over to my neighbor’s house. Barbra and her husband also attend Bible Temple, and she has befriended me. Barbra displays the epitome of virtuous wifehood described in Proverbs 31: she seems satisfied to work tirelessly at keeping house, raising four preschool children, and serving her husband. I want to know her secret.
She sits me down at her kitchen table with a cup of tea and a slice of the homemade bread she bakes every day. The gingham curtains she sewed herself and the fresh flowers on the counter from her garden add to the cheery warmth of the room.
“I know it’s hard,” she says, “but you won’t find peace until you stop focusing on what you want. Your responsibility under the Lord is to meet your husband’s needs.” She looks a little wistful. “I’d rather not have sex every morning and every night. Sometimes I’m so tired, and it would seem more special if we took a break now and then. But that’s what he needs, and our marriage works much better when I submit to his desires.”
Jeez. At least Dane doesn’t demand that.
Barbra encourages me to pray for the fervor to lay down my life for my husband. That means unquestioning submission. Only then will I find true happiness in the Lord and peace in my marriage.
I fold my rebellion in on itself. Apparently my intense resistance to Dane ruling every aspect of my life is in exact proportion to how much God wants me to submit.
So I do.
The fighting stops instantly. What is there to argue about when one partner consistently does the other’s bidding? Subjugation has an unfortunate outcome, however, which is not surprising when you abdicate selfhood. I lose what confidence I have and cling to Dane as my go-between in the world. I hide out in our tiny ramshackle rental house, isolated and afraid.
There is one upside to unconditional obedience, if you can call it an upside: nothing is your fault. How can it be, when you only do what you’re told and all decision making is handled by someone else? Since I had no control, there was no reason to take any responsibility. If Dane’s decision worked out, great. If it didn’t, I secretly gloated at his failure and played the martyr. This twisted and stunted my character, creating a petulant child instead of a competent woman.
In 1973, John Lennon sued the U.S. government. Paul McCartney’s band, Wings, released “Live and Let Die.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his opus on Soviet forced labor camps, The Gulag Archipelago.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade and gave women control over their bodies for the first time.
Marriage was a life sentence in our fundamentalist belief system, no matter what. My “no matter what” included alcoholism, adultery, emotional abuse, and financial insecurity. The day came when I’d finally had enough. But freeing myself meant that risking hell after death was preferable to living hell on earth. I had to turn my back on God. The religion I’d immersed myself in didn’t allow for shades of gray—nor for compassion. I truly believed, to remain God’s child, I had to stay married to Dane.
It wasn’t just religious scruples that made me loathe divorce. I was determined that we wouldn’t be one of those sad, split-up families with extra partners making for awkward, less-than-celebratory special occasions; determined that our two daughters would not suffer the trauma of divorce.
What is the tipping point of a culture?
Is it a reflection of the tipping point of a life?
I sit on the back porch steps of a roomy 1920’s four-plex perched on the northern slope of Mt. Tabor. The morning sun warms the steps and me as I sip a cup of coffee and ruminate on the state of my life. It’s the first apartment I’ve ever rented on my own. It’s the first anything I’ve ever done on my own. I’m 35. The girls have been living here with me for six months, and Dane comes and goes while we continue marriage counseling in one final Herculean attempt to work things out.
I had been so afraid—no, terrified—to do life as a single mother, but instead of the overwhelming burden I dreaded, I discovered life was suddenly easier. I’d gotten so used to dealing with chaos and crises that I assumed it was normal. Now I realized Dane was the chaos creator. When your husband stumbles in bloody and incoherent at three in the morning, it’s a crisis. When he goes to work late and hungover and gets fired, it’s another crisis.
It felt like a bomb expert had quietly crept through the fields of my life and disarmed all the landmines overnight.
My younger daughter, seven years old, strolls out on the porch clutching a My Little Pony, her long brown hair caught up in a ponytail and her long brown legs skimming out of summer shorts. She plops down on the step beside me and makes a pronouncement: “Daddies are lucky.”
Her statement baffles me. “What? Why do you say that?”
“Because mommies do all the work and daddies don’t have to do anything.”
Swear to god.
The revelation of the message I’m living settles over me like a suffocating black tarp. There’s more than one way to fail.
I can fail at religion. I can fail at marriage. Or I can fail my daughters.
I can set them up to slog in my less-than footsteps, to search for their worth in service to a man, to hide their intrinsic strengths and desires under the cloak of demure wifehood.
Or I can show them another way for a woman to be. So I do.
To this day, when a certain kind of man—confident, entitled, predatory—asserts power over me, I freeze.
Years after I left Dane and fundamentalism behind, I married a wonderful man. My career was in full flower, my life a verdant garden. My husband and I liked to take leisurely walks through our lush neighborhood on weekend mornings.
On this particular Saturday, we stop at a small home and garden store that’s recently opened. Their yard art has caught my eye.
The proprietor, a pudgy little man with a big smile, greets us. “Welcome, welcome,” he says. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Well, we’ve recently moved and remodeled our house, so we’re just looking around for things to finish out the redecoration,” I say.
His eyes light up. “I’ve got a room full of artwork. Come with me.”
I hesitate. I don’t really want to get that involved in shopping, but he’s beckoning me, and we like to support the local mom and pop stores. I follow him into a back room with pictures hanging on the walls, leaning against the walls, stacked on the floor.
“Wow, you do have a lot of art in here.”
Suddenly he leans too close, his clammy hand grips my bare upper arm, his muggy breath fogs my face. “What kind of art appeals to you?” His voice takes on a slimy quality. “You look like a woman of taste.”
Time warps. I can’t move. I can’t speak.
Somehow, I extricate myself from him and his back room. I find my husband out front and grab his hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
When I relay the story, he’s mildly incredulous. “What a jerk. Why didn’t you tell him to back off? Why didn’t you just yank your arm away?”
To assert personal power requires a firm belief in one’s essential worth and right to autonomy. Two qualities fundamentalism continually censures in women.
In spite of the strides I’ve made, this default setting will not recalibrate. I struggle to believe in the deepest recesses of my being that my value is absolute, irrespective of what I am to any man. I struggle to wield my power.
Yes, I’ve gone to therapy, but the struggle continues. I wonder if I’m inherently flawed because—good god—how long can someone work on a problem and not resolve it?
Or is it because some life lessons can never be entirely unearthed from the soil of our being?
In 2016, at the very moment we were set to stride over a long-barred threshold and elect a woman president, my fellow citizens instead installed a man who demeans, abuses, and uses women. We stepped backward.
Fifty-three percent of white women voted for this man, including the kind of Christians I know so well. I know those women because I was one of them. They cast that vote because they believe, in their heart of hearts, that it’s a man’s role to lead, not a woman’s, regardless of qualifications. They believe it because that’s what they’ve been taught; that’s what they live. Like me, they learned to mock and despise any woman who behaved as if she had the right to rule.
And beneath that derision is a deep-seated fear: if one woman achieves power, all women have the potential for power.
And power requires courage.
Two weeks ago, this happened:
I walk into an upscale restaurant, a place suitable for business lunches and birthdays; a place I frequent since I’m in downtown Portland a few times a week. I approach the hostess. “One for lunch, please.”
She nods and picks up a menu and leads me into the main dining area. Not very far in, however; we turn down the first aisle. On the left a long bench seat runs the length of the room. A foot apart in front of it a series of tiny tables stand in formation. You know the ones: the ones with no space, no privacy. She sets the menu on the fourth table down and signals with her hand. I slide onto the bench, slightly chagrined at her choice, but I brush it off.
I glance around the restaurant. It’s after the regular lunch-hour rush, so it’s sparsely populated. I look to my right. Besides me, one elderly woman sits at the end of our designated one-for-lunch row.
Then I look across the aisle at the comfy, four-person booths that form the bulk of the seating in the middle of the restaurant. Most of them are empty, but not the one directly across from me. A man sits there, eating lunch alone. Sprawled out in all that lovely, semi-private, upholstered, four-person space. The disparity in the value assigned to our bodies in a public place literally sits in front of my face.
As much as this annoys me, I say nothing. I do not demand a seat in a booth. It just doesn’t seem worth it. Or maybe I don’t seem worth it.
I’m still growing my power, still overcoming the voicelessness fundamentalism etched into me. I sit in silence, unwilling to summon the courage to speak the words that will change my situation.
Renee Soasey (SO-see) is a native Oregonian, retired court reporter, and current college student. She has received writing awards and a scholarship to further her education in Creative Writing. After losing a beloved yurt to a forest fire, she and her husband are building an off-the-grid home in the middle of nowhere in central Oregon.