I wasn’t out to myself, hadn’t even really considered the possibility that I was a lesbian, when Ellen came out on her sitcom in 1997. I knew, of course I knew — the intimate, tempestuous friendships. The way that picture of naked Teri Hatcher wrapped in Superman’s cape made me feel like throwing up. The baseball hat collection. The Indigo Girls CDs. Scream-singing, “Now you just turn away and say ‘Romeo, I think I used to have a scene with him!!!!” out the window of my pick-up truck. But my subconscious mind was — somewhat inexplicably — shielding my consciousness from it. I was a 16-year-old kid in a deeply dysfunctional family in rural Georgia. Surviving was already hard enough.
What I remember about the night of Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode” is: everything. Spaghetti and garlic bread for dinner, windows wide open in the muggy springtime evening, a cacophony of tree frogs and crickets, jasmine and magnolia, University of Tennessee Lady Vols orange basketball shorts and a too-big t-shirt, my sister on the small couch and my dad on the big couch and me sprawled out on the floor not looking at either of them.
I don’t know now if I can recall every plot detail, guest appearance (Oprah! k.d. lang! Laura Dern!), and line of dialogue because I remember it from then, or because I’ve watched it a hundred times since then, because I’ve been a professional lesbian TV critic for 13 years. Probably the second thing because I wasn’t really listening to what Ellen said on TV that night; I was listening to the way my family reacted to what she said. They laughed, a lot — with her, not at her. “I always thought Ellen might be gay,” her best friend Spence said. “I mean she could always run faster than I could, throw a ball farther, climb a tree faster…” My dad cackled. I did too. “Ha ha ha! How hilarious in a completely unrelatable way!”
Ten years later, at the age of 26, I found myself sitting again on the floor of a living room, intensely observing the reactions of the other people to what was on TV. The house was in my Baptist church’s backyard and had been converted into Sunday School classrooms. Our women’s Bible study group crowded in on a Wednesday evening to watch the next installment of Beth Moore’s “Breaking Free” Bible study, a deep dive into the 61st chapter of the book of Isaiah that promised to teach us how to find freedom from personal captivity. Moore is one of the most well-know, most prolific women evangelicals in the world. She’s written dozens of books, sold out hundreds of arenas, held the attention of millions of women in the palm of her hand. I was as close to worshipping her as I could get without breaking the first Commandment.
The crowds of women Beth Moore spoke to on her Bible study videos didn’t react much outside of occasional chuckles at her anecdotes about being a wife and a mother and this and that Texas thing (big hair, high humidity) — but that night, on that VHS tape, the women Moore had in her audience rose up as one and jeered, boo-ed, growled their outrage and disbelief. She stopped them. She held up her hand and asked them to show compassion. But also, yes, she agreed with them — the sin she’d just mentioned that set them off, the sin of homosexuality, lesbianism especially, was one of Satan’s primary agendas in keeping women captive. The gay rights movement was propaganda, a satanically induced web that was methodically woven around them, and once they were trapped — KABLAM! — a full scale demonic attack on their minds and emotions. Gay relationships, Moore went on to write, “are not love. It may feel like love because it is an overwhelming takeover of the heart, but it is not love.”
The women in my Bible study murmured their agreement and disgust at the TV. “I heard in lesbian relationships, one has to be the man and one has to be the woman, which proves God’s plan for marriage is between a husband and a wife,” one woman said. Another had a lesbian cousin and could confirm the rumor that gay women wanted to disrupt God’s natural order by axe-murdering all men.
I’d been out of church for over a decade by the time Abby Wambach and Glennon Doyle announced that they were in a relationship. I knew everything about Abby Wambach, had been following her career my whole adult life, but I’d never heard of Glennon Doyle. I felt an immediate fondness and protectiveness of her, though — first of all, because every headline kept calling her a “Christian Mommy Blogger,” when even a cursory Google search of her name revealed her to be a #1 New York Times best-selling author; and second of all, because I’d also one time been a Christian Blogger who fell in love with another woman. I jokingly wrote a headline about it that made some people mad — Abby Wambach Infiltrates Blonde Christian America — because it tickled me to read the way people were talking about the news, as if someone as huge as Abby Wambach (physically, culturally, athletically) had stealthed into a church and bamboozled a naive woman whose book titles all include the word “warrior” into falling into sin with her.
Anyway, it turns out all Abby Wambach had to do was walk through the door.
There. She. Is. Glennon wrote in her new memoir, Untamed, when she recalled the moment Abby Wambach entered her life by entering a restaurant where she was eating. She’d never met Abby Wambach, had no idea she was going through a huge crisis because she was recently arrested for a DUI, that it was trending on Twitter, all over the news. Glennon got up from her chair and reached out for a hug. Abby Wambach quirked her eyebrow and smiled across the room. Glennon thought Fuck fuck fuck Why am I standing? Why are my arms open? What Am I Doing?
It was a fair question for a lot of reasons, including that Glennon was still married to her husband Craig, the father of her three children, and a central figure in her previous best-selling books, at the time. In fact, she was on a book tour to promote Love Warrior, a memoir she calls “the story of the dramatic destruction and painstaking reconstruction of my family” after her husband’s infidelity when she met Abby.
I assumed that would be the central conflict of Untamed. And in some ways it is — but not the ways I expected. Doyle’s first two memoirs were marketed, in many ways, to the women who crowded into that Beth Moore Bible study with me over a decade ago, straight Christian women with husbands and children who wanted to understand what was keeping them captive and be set free. And so I thought there’d be excruciating inner turmoil, hand-wringing about sin and are gay relationships really love and the axe-murdering misandry. Nope! Glennon worries about hurting her children by divorcing their dad, she worries about physical intimacy which she realizes she’s never really experienced with a man, she worries about her career and her parents and her friends. But she never worries that her desire is sinful, that her blossoming love for Abby is anything other than real; holy, even.
I fell in love with a woman for the first time in my mid-20s; we were co-leaders on a mission trip, in charge of a group of college-age girls who felt called by the Lord to spend their summer building churches, volunteering in schools, visiting the elderly in state-assisted nursing homes, and flirting with the all-boys college groups who came to work for only a week at a time. I wrote in my journal the day I met her that she was going to be trouble for me. I didn’t mean it in a gay way. I meant it in a disciple-y way. Like she was going to distract me, time-wise, from my prayers and Bible study.
I liked her immediately, more immediately than I’d ever liked anyone in my life. She was the kind of person who gave everyone nicknames as soon as she met them; laughed freely and loudly and often; told wild stories about the ways God had engaged with her on a personal level, and listened to other people’s stories with exactly the right amount of awe and “mm-hmms!” Her eyes were the color of the Cornflower crayon from the Crayola 64 box of my youth. Not the wrapper of the Cornflower crayon, but the actual crayon on paper, the hazy days blue of a summertime breeze. I’d never seen eyes that color before.
The first time we held hands, we were in a pool at a hotel on our off-day. Ostensibly, we were measuring the difference in size. My hands are huge. Hers were tiny, which I said was weird for a water polo player. How did she even grip the ball? She didn’t let go of my hand when she answered. She said she’d teach me the freestyle, the backstroke, and how to do the “egg-beater” kick to stay above water. I grew up with a pool in my backyard; I was the best swimmer I knew. I told her she could teach me anything.
When she kissed me, I thought of Isaiah 61. Not Beth Moore. Just Isaiah 61. “Freedom for the captives… release from the darkness for the prisoners… oil of gladness instead of mourning… garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…” She’d called me Hoagie since she’d met me, which was nothing new. She whispered my name that day. Heather. When I stood with her, in a bridesmaids dress, while she married her fiancé six months later, she read her part of Song of Songs: “I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk.” I looked right at her, right into her Crayola cornflower eyes and read mine: “Eat, friends, and drink; drink your fill of love.”
Glennon Doyle falling in love with Abby Wambach isn’t the whole story of Untamed. It’s the catalyst, really, for Glennon Doyle to relearn her life, to examine the “spark that was always inside me, smoldering.” That spark doesn’t spread a linear fire, from Abby to Happily Ever After. Untamed grapples with body image, racism and the place of white people talking to other white people about it, parenting, sobriety, divorce, forgiveness, jealousy, sex, church, faith, religion (three different things), activism, Knowing, Becoming, and the life of caged cheetahs.
Anecdotes are stitched together with object lessons and wrapped in stream of conscious ruminations. One chapter might explore Glennon’s childhood bulimia, the next a present-day struggle about allowing her daughter to join a soccer team at the behest of her wife (one of the greatest soccer players in the world), the next a story about how a house is a metaphor for something else completely, and the next a confession about not being a good friend. Doyle is deft at self-deprecation but never veers toward self-loathing, disarmingly earnest and vulnerable, and unafraid to own her own contradictions. “I don’t know if I would call myself a Christian,” she writes at one point, a stunning revelation for a person with her built-in audience.
It’s been a long time since I read a book that even nudged up against Christianity, and I confess that Doyle’s blunt, clear-eyed pragmatism about it left me feeling pretty giddy. Here is a woman who has raised $25 million for people in need through Together Rising, her non profit organization; a woman who seems completely free from personal captivity; a woman in a relationship with another woman who knows, unequivocally, that it is love. A woman who isn’t challenging God with her sexuality, but who has come to believe that God was challenging religion inside her. An oak of righteousness, Isaiah might say, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
“I left my husband and I am building a life with Abby because I’m a grown-ass woman and I do what the fuck I want,” she writes, 200 pages after Abby walked into that restaurant.
In the end, Doyle comes to understand that being untamed isn’t about choosing Abby; it’s about choosing herself.