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A Memoir Isn’t a Self-Help Book

In the ten stunning essays that make up her debut memoir, Heretic, Jeanna Kadlec recounts her youth and young adulthood in the Evangelical Christian church while weaving in important explorations of U.S. and Evangelical history, cultural criticism, and political analyses. Through each intricately woven part of Heretic, Kadlec painstakingly dismantles every aspect of her identity and invites on her journey from good, Christian girl to disenchanted Christian wife to ex-evangelical lesbian astrologer. Although Kadlec’s story is about figuring out who she is and wants to be, it’s also about the difficulties of leaving community behind, the grief that accompanies that loss, and the struggle to build a life that is entirely her own. Kadlec not only offers a portrait of a person who — by fighting against all odds — was able to claw their way to a life on their own terms but also an examination of exactly how it feels to have to do so.

Having grown up queer and critical in a faith community of my own, I knew that there would be a lot for me to relate in Kadlec’s book, but I wasn’t prepared for how rich, incisive, and eloquently crafted it is. Heretic isn’t only striking on formal and structural levels, but it prompted me to re-examine parts of my own life, as well. I was given the opportunity to interview Kadlec right before the book’s release, and I knew I had to focus on the questions that stuck with me most after I finished the book. Our conversation went on for over two hours, but below, you’ll find some of the highlights.

Stef: I’m really interested in how you settled on the title for your book. I come from a religious upbringing, so it immediately reminded me of, as you talk about in the book, the view that heresy is one of the worst things that we can do. And it also reminded me of how Jesus was once labeled a heretic. Obviously, you’re rightfully critical of evangelical Christianity in a way that would be considered heretical, but also thinking of our memories or of certain events or moments in our lives as being viewed as heretical by the people who were there…that is something that is interesting to me, too. So, I just thought maybe you might want to speak a little bit about that or and how you landed on that title.

Jeanna:I love that question, and it’s so weird getting asked about the title because Heretic is the first major nonfiction project I ever worked on, and the title came before anything else. The title hit me in the body in a way that I think sometimes people talk about ideas hitting them or a spark of “Oh, a character came to me.” I was like, “Oh, I should write this,” even before I think I consciously understood what the memoir itself would be and how it would take shape. The concept of writing a book about my life in some capacity called Heretic just came and overwhelmed me.

And I remember very distinctly when it happened because I was walking. I was out for a walk with my ex-partner. We were walking in Somerville and just having a walk in the evening, and we were talking about my writing in some capacity and I just remember this happening. It was like lightning. It was one of those very stereotypical moments where people talk about the moment of creative inspiration being so embodied and being so clear and so, “This is it.” And that was the title for me. I have never had that experience with a title before or after.

I think that even though I wasn’t really thinking actively about heresy in my immediate time coming out of the church and coming out and processing, the fact that the title came so clearly indicates something about, as you note, that the old stories and those sermons about the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and about heretics really had settled somewhere deep in me and the knowledge of what I was, was very profound, and I really wanted to wrestle with that. The title has always been a north star.

When we talk about memoir, we talk about how people you’re writing about will disagree, and they’re not going to have the same perspective as you. In fact, they might just say that you’re lying. I love the idea of this memoir being connected to this word, just playing with that idea that people are always going to have different ideas or perspectives of what we went through. Even the people closest to us.

That is such a beautiful and generous reading of the title. I wasn’t thinking of that take on it at all. It was very much through the religious lens, the way that I was conceptualizing it as I was working on it. But in a retrospective way, I do love that idea, that even the positionality of being the narrator of a memoir is a kind of heresy, that’s gorgeous.

I think some people might consider it a sin to write about them and portray them in a certain light. So, I was drawn into that very quickly.

Something that was definitely hard for me, I think, in the early years of working on it was that question of consent.

I really struggled in those early years, especially with a few questions around what my parents would think, but also just with the ethics of representing people, even people who I was no longer in a relationship with and people who had arguably done significant harm to me like my ex-husband. I still really wrestled with a tremendous amount of guilt. What is mine and not mine to share? How can I still be fair to this person? And it took years to figure out and to be like, I want to tell the truth of what happened to me, but I also want to do it in a way that is as generous to what I understand this person to have been going through as possible. That was very challenging.

In the author’s note, you had mentioned that anyway. That this is from your perspective. And I think that’s where the connection came for me after reading the author’s note and the title. People are going to think this is not accurate.

Which is a question and an allegation that every memoirist deals with.

I have a strained relationship with my parents, a very estranged relationship with my parents these days. But I feel like I have been extremely lucky in the years leading up to the book being published because my mom, in particular, has just been so generous when we’ve talked about it. She has just consistently said over and over, “This is your version of what happened.”

And she’s really affirmed that. She had her version of what was happening. Obviously, she was in this marriage and this domestic abuse situation with my dad, but she’s like, “You and your sister had your own versions of what was happening in that house.” I think that having that affirmation reflected back to me by my mom just really helped me to build those boundaries up. When considering readers who I wouldn’t know, who then would be projecting their own shit onto me, that really helped a lot.

Totally. You just reminded me of something I tell the high school students I teach. We read a lot of non-fiction in my class because I teach AP language, and we talk a lot about other people and their experiences. I give them a lot of readings from people who are Black or Indigenous. And sometimes there are things in the works that make them ask, “How could this be real?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s real to these people, so you don’t need to interrogate whether it’s real or not, do you? You can just let that be and live in their space for a second and not worry about this ‘Empirical Truth’ that you think you have to be searching for all the time.” And I feel like memoir breaks that barrier, and that’s what I like the most about it; there is no capital-T Truth. There’s just a lot of lowercase-T truth everywhere, and we can just live in that together. Or I wish we could. I advocate for us living in that together, I guess you could say.

I think especially because as queer people — and depending on what intersection a person is living at, what particular positions they’re occupying in society — there are different kinds of being doubted and different parts of them and different parts of their experience that are going to be under attack. And so I think I was in a lot of ways, in part because I had written personal essays for so many years leading up to the book coming out, as a woman and as a lesbian, I was like, “Sure, there’s certain pieces around my relationships in the book that I may have to deal with fall out from, whatever, that’s fine, I’m used to it.”

But something that I was really, really nervous about and have been dealing with to an extent in interviews is what you’re talking about with this “Empirical capital-T Truth.” I am a formerly very religious, faithful person who still believes and still engages with the spiritual. And there are lots of people out there who don’t, which is, do your own thing, go your own way. But I have definitely been asked by a number of interviewers in a particular kind of way, “Did you really see Jesus? Did that really happen? Are you sure?” They have really started to drill in on me and connect that very brief scene to some different parts of the book to say, “Well, this is a pattern that it might connect to.” So, I’ve had to explain to a lot of folks so far: This is the world I live in and we’re going to treat it as real.

I think that’s reasonable.

Right. And it’s so interesting because once you reach a certain level of success, you get to say whatever you want and people don’t press on it. Like Hilary Mantel, may she rest, got to write about seeing ghosts. And that was fine because it was Hilary Mantel, but a debut, Latinx memoirist sharing experiences of magical realism, that’s going to get pressed on. Someone coming from a Pentecostal background talking about speaking in tongues and how it was weird, that’s going to get pressed on.

I definitely think it has something to do with the fact that you were specifically evangelical Christian talking about talking to Jesus, seeing Jesus, that people are like, “No, that’s not real. That’s not a thing that happens for people.” People are very quick to say, maybe that’s just how you interpreted it at the time, which you kind of say in the book anyway. They’d just rather focus on their perception of how that actually is: “Okay, you weren’t talking to Jesus, it was just your subconscious or whatever.” And they want to rationalize it down.

A memoir isn’t a self-help book. It’s not an instruction manual. It’s just one person’s lived experience. And it’s about being willing to connect with that person, with that narrator as they are. And you don’t have to agree with, I mean, provided they aren’t doing incredibly harmful things to themselves and the people around them, you don’t have to agree.

Yeah, you don’t. And you also don’t have to make it about you. You can make connections without fully understanding. I don’t know, I think people don’t understand that’s a thing that can happen. You can be connected, you can feel a connection to somebody else without fully understanding their experience, and that’s fine. Maybe it’s just as a result of working in organizing spaces and racial justice stuff that I know you can’t expect to fully understand somebody else’s experience and whatever they’re going through. And we say that and people say that, but then they can’t release it when they’re engaging with stuff like this and I just don’t understand that. What’s the block there?

I think that that gets at queer community things, too. I mean, that gets at things that are specific to our spaces and around wanting to put things in very neat little labels. And I can only fuck with it if you’re under this category and if you fit into this thing that I recognize. If I don’t know how to categorize you or if I have put you into a category that I don’t like or that I don’t trust, then it’s suspect, and that connection’s inhibited as opposed to just being open to an individual experience.

I was wondering about the structure of your book. There’s moments where you’re getting really tense or you’re describing something that’s just generally very difficult or really scary. And then you’ll just pop in with some historical information or reference or some examination of pop culture. And I really liked the flow of that, because it was nice to see that some of that tension was cut for a second before you came back around to it. How did you get to this structure? 

What it is now is very much a hybrid memoir. It’s very much a personal narrative braided with history and pop culture and a lot of other things, which is for some people, and other people really hate it — and that’s okay. This is what I read. I wrote my favorite kind of memoir. This structure is a representation of how I talk and how I think. It’s highly citational, it’s highly indicative of my academic background. The first drafts of this book were trying to be straight memoir, by which I mean more a book that is just personal narrative and is the kind of memoir that reads like a novel, and you’re just in the narrator’s POV. You’re in-scene a lot, not a lot is being told, it’s just scene, scene, scene, scene. It’s unfolding like a movie the whole time. I tried to do that, but I kept digressing. I kept going off on these long tangents talking about Lilith or talking about art history and the history of feminist performance art in the ’70s and talking about Carolee Schneemann and shit.

My agent and I found a way to make that work with the first three sample chapters that we ended up sending out on submission. We sent a book proposal out to editors the first time with three sample chapters and nobody bought it. A lot of them were like, “What the fuck is this?” We were trying to sell it as straight memoir, and they were like, “You have these random tangents about art history.” So, we spent a year revising, and I really cut a lot of my personal narrative down and tried to make it more of a critical essay collection. When we went out on submission again, the editor who I ended up really connecting with, my editor Jenny Xu, had the vision for bringing it into that space that I think instinctually I had always wanted to go toward, which was this blend of memoir with the cultural crit.

I also think that way. Everything to me is connected to everything else. Stuff that I’ve written for Autostraddle so far since I’ve been here has been just…history is tied into everything that I do. Other literature and pop culture, too. I examine my own life through that lens. I almost feel like I’m doing a closer reading by examining the ways that all the little things kind of come to where I’m at right now and how I got here.

I think it is a close reading, and I think there’s something very queer about it and something that very much is divesting from that really harmful heteronormative, actually just very white supremacist, Enlightenment idea that there’s an individual genius in the tower and that he is struck with the lightning of inspiration and that he alone receives this solitary knowledge and comes to it on his own without community, without any input from other people, without education, without the influence of those around him. And so to me, there’s something incredibly queer about making your thinking plain on the page and about representing your process for the reader. How do I talk about being a teenager if I’m not talking about the books I was reading, the music I was listening to, what my parents were doing, the people who were around me, the Bible verses that were incredibly potent, the kind of lineage of how purity culture is moving through the churches, through the schools?

All of this context is actually quite essential to really represent both how I get where I am, but also on a broader scale, how so many people who are like me get where we are and that’s incredibly important. My books are always going to be in conversation with other books. My work is always going to be in conversation with other people. And hopefully, after you read my book, you go out and read those other people.

Something that struck me is the part where you’re detailing the beginning of the process of deconstruction and the processes of your divorce and just coming out. There, you talk a little bit about how tarot helped you find a new way of hearing yourself and trusting intuition. I hadn’t really thought about the ways that being a part of a faith community kind of takes that away from you until I read that part. Would you be willing to talk a little bit about the process of learning to trust how you’re feeling without looking for the explicit approval of something else outside beyond yourself? Do you feel like that’s something you’re still learning how to do?

It took a very long time. I think that I am much, much better at it now. I definitely am a lot better at trusting my gut. I’m a lot better at believing myself and at believing my experiences, but it took many years. It took a lot of talk therapy. I’ve stayed in talk therapy almost continuously for the last ten years, which I’m really glad I’ve done. The last few years, I’ve been tempted a few times to duck out. But particularly given the very weird ups and downs that accompany writing a memoir that includes revisiting really traumatic experiences, I cannot recommend staying in therapy when writing a memoir strongly enough. It’s incredibly valuable.

 I’ve been in therapy, and around the time that I was starting to think about leaving my ex-husband, I started on antidepressants which, shocker, are extraordinarily helpful or at least, I should say, were incredibly helpful for me and are something that I intend to continue doing. So between having professional medical help and intervention and also basically what I did with tarot was fold it into my preexisting journaling practice because I had been journaling almost my whole life. I’ve had a lifelong journaling practice, which I think is really lucky.

It must have been so difficult to disentangle your sense of morality from religion, too. And just thinking about what makes a “good person”? What does it mean to be a good person? How do I, outside of this thing, become a “good person”? I imagine that that was part of those early conversations with tarot and with your journal, too.

I still just kind of auto-piloted on Christian morality for a while. Just for myself because I was just too busy figuring some other shit to handle big morality questions. But I think something that really, really helped was the ex-partner I mentioned before. We started dating about a year after my divorce. And she was an atheist, well I imagine still is, I don’t know. But she was at the time at least a very committed atheist and had been her entire life. And so she was one of the first people who I was in such a close, intimate relationship with who I was like, you are a foundationally “good person” and religion has never been a part of orienting you to that. I think that she’s one of the people who really helped me start to parse out what I thought about honor and integrity as moral codes outside of any religious non-Christian framework. But that wasn’t probably until a solid year after.

And it’s so interesting, right? Because I think that the big ones just don’t change no matter who you are. The big ones — don’t kill people, don’t assault people, don’t hurt children —  it’s just don’t hurt people. They’re big ones that are just universals that I think are actually very easy for everybody to agree on. And we don’t have to make it a fucking commandment.

Speaking specifically about evangelical Christianity, you talk a lot in the book about how evangelical Christian belief impacted the founding of this country and how it impacts politics now. It made me think about its wider influence on our “culture” here and other religions — if you think about Catholicism, which is the church I grew up in, and Amy Coney Barrett — that are usually separate have moved closer and closer to the values of evangelicalism over the course of our lifetime. I just wanted to ask if you had some thoughts on what you think the cause is of that. You mentioned in the book that there are some people in our world who seem to exist to make evangelicalism irresistible in a sense, like Chip and Joanna Gaines for example. Do you think that that’s connected to it or is it just a power grab like everything else?

I talk about this very, very briefly in the book, but my dad’s family is Catholic and we were very close to my grandparents growing up. When my grandpa died and my grandma came to live in the same town we did, I grew up going to mass often and was in an extremely close proximity to Catholicism in a way that most evangelicals never are. It’s so interesting to me in the way that these far right Catholics and far right evangelicals have become strange bedfellows. On the far right fringes, you have this agreement in this way that they’re both really seeking theocracy and have agreed to disagree on their theological differences in order to do this power grab.

Evangelicals embrace Amy Coney Barrett practically as one of theirs. And it’s like, no, she’s a fucking fringe Catholic. But she has all the evangelical talking points, which is also really indicative in the way that she talks about biblical womanhood, for example. The way she talks about her marriage and her motherhood is so out of an evangelical marketing textbook in that way that evangelicals, over the last what 50 plus years, have put targeted messaging — around gender roles, around “family values,” around anti-LGBTQ stuff, around purity culture — into the hands of mainstream Protestants and also Catholics in order to try to build coalitions, in order to get abstinence only education in schools, in order to do what we’re seeing them do right now with introducing this fucking “Don’t Say Gay” Bill in the House.

I think it’s very much the political power. At the end of the day, I do think it’s very much using religion in the name of consolidating political power and economic power. But among those people who are doing that, you absolutely have the true believers who I think those of us who grew up in the church can spot like Mike Pence. He is a true believer. And for that reason, he scares the shit out of me. Because for as many of these people who are going to stand up and say they’re Christians in order to get elected, you also have the Mike Pences who practice what they preach and who absolutely with their entire heart believe that they are doing God’s will on Earth. And honestly, those guys scare me more than anybody else.

I think people underestimate how difficult it is to leave a community that’s so integral to who you are and how you think. Even if it’s destructive or abusive, it’s still the place that you always went and that you were always a part of and that you felt included in. And in the book, you made a point about how many of the alternative spiritual modalities focus on individual healing as opposed to healing with and through community. So, I’m just wondering, what do you think we can do to keep these things that seem so separate from these individualist values and just the organizing structure of the U.S. from taking on those values and that structure? How do we keep these modalities from reenacting some of the same violences that you mentioned in regards to organized religion on those who practice them?

I think that what you hit on, “How do we keep these groups, these queer communities, these spiritual communities from taking on those and reenacting and reinforcing and replicating those social violences that have been previously done to us?”…I think that fear is a huge reason why people get reluctant to rejoin in the first place. That fear of getting hurt again. The fear of “I don’t want to make myself that vulnerable again to this group of perhaps unknown people.”

I don’t want to say that abuse is hard to control for, because it’s not. But I think getting hurt is hard to control for, because humans are human, and humans are going to be human. But there are definitely, and I am not necessarily the person to be giving solutions here, but I think there are plenty of mutual aid organizations and cooperatives locally here in New York that have really great models of more collectively distributed power as well as things that I look for like transparency and accountability. They have incredibly clear accountability structures for the people in charge, and those people are actually held accountable with clear paths to restitution if there’s harm done.

Just to use an example from my own life in a church space, an evangelical church is so often just on its own floating without a denomination. It’s just one guy with a group of 200 people and he doesn’t have to answer to anybody. There’s no accountability there. And then when the people, when the folks may come trying to hold some space, they get shut down, they get dismissed, they get denied. They are gaslit and, ultimately, shunned out. That structure can be replicated so easily, religious or not, when one person’s in charge.

This is also why, just to speak in the spiritual space more generally, I am so skeptical of and so cautionary to folks of the “guru mentality” and of only getting your information from one source, only relying on one person for your horoscope, only relying on one person even for your information about what’s going on in the world. Again with transparency, people shouldn’t be afraid to share their sources. They shouldn’t be afraid to redirect you to other folks. They shouldn’t be afraid to admit that they don’t know everything because nobody does.

Transparency and being willing to be held accountable are just two things that are foundationally threatening to patriarchy. They’re foundationally threatening to white supremacy. And those are basically the structures that our entire culture in this country is built on. If you’re rocking with those two things, you’re already doing great in your organization.

Just staying on the community aspect…When I was reading your book, I was just thinking about people’s reactions to it and how a lot of people might assume that when you leave a hurtful or abusive community or even a hurtful or abusive relationship or actually even if you’re just coming out as queer, that you find a new freedom to revel in. And I think that that is true to a certain extent. But in the book, you discussed very candidly that it wasn’t an immediate feeling that you had. That freedom was elusive in these situations because you were technically losing so much at the same time. I just think that is such a crucial part of the conversation that I don’t ever see. We are constantly talking about the things that we have gained, and there’s rarely ever a roadmap for people that shows them how hard won that freedom is. So, I was curious about the process of reexamining that time of your life and what that was like for you as you were writing the book. What made you want to include that as part of the conversation? 

It wasn’t even a question that I would talk about it. The loss was such a critical part of that process for me. Loss like that shapes you; it shapes people in an absolutely foundational way. I feel like there is almost a Grand Canyon in my life, and there’s the before I was 25 and after I was 25, and just so many things, places, experiences, but also so many people on the other side of that canyon. And I will never see them again. I will never talk to them again. And the enormity of that loss, I don’t even know that I conveyed half of it in the book. It’s extraordinary.

I am so happy for queer folks who get to come out and not experience that. And also, there are so many of us who do, and I really felt it was vital to stress how grave the consequences of living with that are. That grief doesn’t leave. And I think that grief is also really complicated for those of us who continue to be on the other side of it in whatever capacity, for whatever reason. I know that I don’t want to have relationships with those people anymore. I know that I am better for being on this side of things. The people in my life now, the relationships I have now, are so rich and so deep and so fruitful and just loving in ways that I never experienced before. And also, I still dream about people from my past a lot. And I still have a lot of grief for it, and I’m just not sure if that’s ever going to leave. I have finally come to terms with the fact that it’s okay if it doesn’t, that I’m not a “bad queer” for still grieving the loss of people in my life who were homophobic, frankly.

I think things are getting a little bit more nuanced, but that experience of loss has been so brushed over. When people experience that, I’m sure some people do have that feeling of, “Okay, I left and I am better for it,” and that’s the end of the conversation. I think that representation of it being like that has taken over in a weird way. But I think it’s totally natural and human to miss that part of your life and miss those people.

Folks in my life now, they have childhood friends, they have college friends, they have people who can speak to these different parts of them. And there are a handful of people in my life now from high school and college. There are four of them who have stayed in my life since all of that. And everyone else is gone. Given how close I was to a lot of people and how good I am at staying in touch also, it’s a chasm.

I’m so glad you talked about it in the book. Like you said, it feels like you are supposed to turn your back or else you’re a “bad queer.” And I don’t think that’s real. I don’t even think it’s aspirational to be honest, but maybe it might feel good to some people to do that. But I don’t think it’s real.

And I understand the ways in which it’s been important to have representation of the, “I’m doing great” given the criminalization and stigmatization that we are sick or that we are criminals or that what we have is an illness. So, I understand the impulse for so much of the art to emphasize, “We are fine and we are happy” and all this stuff, even if lesbians are dying on TV all the time. But also, I am glad that we are in a place where the nuance can be there, too.

You write a little bit about how when you realized that you’re queer, the fact of being queer didn’t necessarily feel wrong. You didn’t feel guilty for being queer, and it wasn’t something that was unnatural to you. You talk about how the divorce was a bigger sin in your mind, but you also talk about how you knew that other people would obviously view it as a bad thing and it would change your life inside and outside of the church. I had a similar experience when I came out as a teenager. I didn’t think it was wrong or unnatural or even immoral. I just knew that it would be a problem for other people and that it would blow up some things in my life and wouldn’t go over well. And when I think about that and think back to being 14 years old, I am constantly impressed by that grace. Reading that you had that same experience, reading that you also gave yourself some grace in that moment, it made me wonder where that grace came from. And I just wanted to see what you thought made you capable of extending that hand to yourself where it was like, “Yeah, no, this is fine. Technically, this is fine. It’s just the problem is…”

“The problem is that I’m married.”

Yes! What do you think made you capable of doing that at that moment? How do you think you came to that?

Honestly, I don’t know where that grace came from. I suspect that it probably came from having been around so many queer people in my life. I had been friends with queer people since I was in high school, and I was a women’s studies major in college. And so, I think that the realization that I’m queer felt like things just clicked into place. It felt like getting the right prescription for glasses. It was just that whole thing about how when you die, you see yourself, you see the flash of your whole life. It was almost like at that moment I saw, well, I did die, but also I saw my whole life in a flash and I was like, “Oh.”

When I first started reading the book, I think I assumed that the audience for the book would be other ex-evangelical people or other people who left faith communities at some point or maybe just queer people and other women struggling with processes of deconstruction and coming out. But then, as I kept reading, I thought about conversations that I often have with my partner about the US. She’s not American, and she can’t understand how ingrained Christianity is in everything that happens here. And then, as I was reading this book, I was like, “Well, maybe this book would also be a good primer for people on understanding this place a little bit better.” So, I just thought I would ask you, now that it’s finished and you don’t have to think about the audience, technically, who are you hoping might find this book aside from the audience you had in mind?

Queer people and ex-evangelicals or folks who are ex-fundamentalist in some capacity of any organized religion or cult are obvious audiences for it. And part of the reason that I really explicate and go so deeply into detail, connecting those micro- to macro-processes of how Christianity works in the country, is because I wanted it to be accessible and hopefully informative for folks who didn’t grow up with religion, didn’t grow up here, and who wanted to better understand why things are the way they are and why does the U.S. does what the U.S. does. I think the fact that I went to grad school in Boston and was so profoundly surrounded by really skeptical liberals — not to use it as my dad uses that word but — liberals who were so condescending to the Midwest and to the South and who were convinced that the separation of church and state was a real thing and who just didn’t take anything I had to really say seriously contributed to my chip on my shoulder and my desire to write toward the coastal elite. Ignoring evangelicals and ignoring Protestant Christianity’s chokehold on this country doesn’t make it any less fascist than it has always been.

One of the actual great gifts, even though the book isn’t out yet, has been having some folks who grew up in really liberal households, really atheist households, come to me and be like, “This helped so many things click into place,” in terms of understanding the far right and how they treat abortion. Some people who have had really horrible relationships with abusive ex-boyfriends who were steeped in evangelicalism and they were like, “I didn’t understand why he was saying certain things. Then, I read your book and it helped me understand why I was being treated the way I was.” Which is horrifying, but also, I’m so glad that it’s able to serve as this translator for people who don’t have that language.

I’m really happy that it’s finding audiences that understand that shit is really fucked up and that maybe just don’t have the ear and that that just didn’t grow up in the church and don’t hear the dog whistles in everyday life.

Yes, totally. Chapter two, especially, I felt chapter two in my soul as a perpetual Florida defender.

Chapter two is a love letter to every queer person who’s from a “red” state.

Another thing that really resonated with me was when you were discussing the ways that you read scripture closely and critically because I did that exact same thing, and I feel like I can partially trace my love of stories back to that experience. Do you feel like that experience is what led you to where you are now as a writer and reader? 

I think that it’s impossible for me to untangle my love of books from the level to which I was ingratiated with and in scripture as a child. Did my mom read me a lot of other books before bed? Yes. Did I learn to read very early? Yes. Did I have favorite books that were secular? Yes. Check, check, check. All those things. And was I also constantly reading stories of scripture and were stories of scripture played on my cassette player and was a children’s Bible my first book? Also, yes. The Bible is just inextricable from that love of story and reading. And the book of Esther was my favorite book of the Bible growing up. Hilariously, as you certainly know, it’s the only book of the Bible that does not mention God, which in hindsight I find very amusing. Woman heroine saves her people, gets the bad guy murdered. God isn’t mentioned anywhere. I loved that story.

So gay.

Oh, it’s such a gay story. It’s also so femme. She wins a beauty pageant. It’s very gay. Very drag. It’s so good. But yeah, and I think that the affinity that I had later on for close reading in high school and for just how easily I took to studying books was definitely laid out by reading scripture. Once I was allowed to stay for Sunday sermon, once I wasn’t being taken off for children’s Sunday school, in the churches I would go to, you get the Sunday bulletin and sometimes the pastor, his sermon will have notes and little fill-in-the-blanks to fill in as you follow along with certain verses. There was that. And also, I just took to bringing a notebook to church so that I could take notes on the sermon. In part, because it helped me pay attention better. But I think in part, it was something that I could then refer to later because I just really wanted to know more. I was just really curious. It’s impossible to pull them apart. And I think, in really weird ways, the church ironically laid that foundation for that love of reading and textual study that would, of course and later on, lead to me leaving.

In regards to learning, you describe how in the beginning of your tarot journey, you kept pulling the Hierophant card. You said you were mad about it because it’s usually related to religion and then after you got an alternative tarot deck, you realized that it wasn’t just about religion and that it was more about healing from religion and about teaching and writing. It made me think of the ways that writers and artists are teachers in their own rights. That even if you’re not directly imparting something on the people who encounter your art, they are still forced to learn something. It could be actual new information or learning by some kind of self-examination. And so that made me wonder, in the ten years that you spent healing and dealing with the aftermath of everything that you talk about in the book, who have been your most important teachers in this process? Who do you look towards for that reassurance?

I think I go a few different directions with that, and I think some of my teachers are very literally people who have taught and mentored me over the last few years like Theresa Reed and Briana Saussy. And also, some people who are very close friends but who I would consider mentors like my friend Mecca Woods, who is a wonderful astrologer and who was the first person who told me that I should really do astrology professionally and who really held space for me in figuring out that journey. I think in some ways those teachers are public figures who I don’t have a personal relationship with. I think of Brene Brown’s research on shame and empathy and how much that has helped my healing journey. I think of writers in the [queer] community who have passed on. Audre Lorde’s work is a touchstone that I return to again and again and that I learn something new from every time I go back to it.

Toni Morrison’s work, actually the collection of her non-fiction, The Source of Self-Regard, has been — this is weird, but I feel like people who are extra religious will get this and that I mean it in the highest compliment — a devotional that I go through a little bit each day and then go back to the front and then I reread it, and I go back to the front and I reread in that capacity. And there are folks whose writing has directly taught me through conversation and through the advice that I have sought; there are folks who have taught me indirectly, like you’re saying, through their writing; some people who are no longer with us, who I will never meet but whose work is so important to me and also to so many other people and who I just feel really lucky that we live in a world where we still get to have their work in print and where books are relatively accessible, whether through buying them or through the library. I don’t know, how lucky am I to get to just read Toni Morrison off my bookshelf, to just get to read a Melissa Febos memoir and think about how I want to structure my next book? That’s a level of conversation with other creative folks that was not accessible even a hundred years ago.

One last question, and it has a little bit of a preamble. One of my best friends, who was also raised Catholic, and I are always joking about how Jesus was gay and we concocted this entire narrative about Jesus as a gay man and the real reasons why Romans saw him as a threat. When I was reading your book, I thought about how maybe this is just our goofball way of trying to navigate our own religious trauma. Or maybe that’s our way of reclaiming him for ourselves. I say all of this because the ending of your book, the very ending hit me so hard. I was like holy shit, yeah, Jesus was gay.

That is the takeaway of the book actually, is that is Jesus is gay.

The ending hit me like a freight train because earlier in that section you said you didn’t want to reclaim anything from Christianity, but then we get your reclamation of the resurrection. And I’m just in awe of this and I just love what you’re getting at with these lines: “This is the truth about queer people, we’ve resurrected ourselves, we’re born again, our tombs are empty, we are risen.” And I was just hoping you might talk about that a little bit just to cap off our conversation because I think that is such a wonderful, beautiful sentiment.

I’m so glad that was resonant. I will say, I actually wrote that section so long before the opening and final sections of chapter ten were part of the proposal for the book the second time around. They weren’t initially. I wrote them a full year and a half before I wrote the rest of the chapter, and they were part of a summary of the book actually. They were part of just the summary I had written for what I envisioned the book to be and so the last little bit of the book, those lines that you read was really just me going off in a book summary. But also, I remember when I wrote it because when I did write it, it was one of those moments where sometimes you feel like it’s just pure flow and then you look at what you wrote and you’re like, “What the fuck? Is this the best thing I’ve ever written or is this horrible?” But I felt like it was really good even though this is so not usually how I write. I sent it to my agent and asked, “Is this wild to end the summary talking about resurrection?” And my agent is Irish Catholic she was like, “This is perfect, this is exactly how it needs to end.” Then, cut to a year and a half later and I was working on the final chapter and my editor had just been like, “Let loose, tell us what you’re thinking about now.”

I was going off on all of these different tangents about spirituality and I had these visions of Jesus just really inconveniently during the process of writing the book that were really upsetting to me that I wanted to stop happening, so I included them in the chapter because I thought if I tell other people about them, they’ll go away. I went to that summary to try to ground myself again and I was like, “Oh shit, this is really good, I should include this.” To answer what it means to me specifically, again, I just know that every person in the [queer] “community,” all of our experiences are really individual and unique in so many ways. We’ve all got different corners and entirely different Venn diagrams going on. What I went through so felt like a death, it so felt like an ending and now, I’m not the same person at all. And when I think about writing those lines, it’s like well yeah, this is what it has felt like over the last ten years. I have been slowly in the process of resurrecting myself.

And ironically enough, I think that queer people can actually intensively relate to the resurrection story, which is fucking weird. But I think one of my favorite lines in that section is actually, “Do not look for her, she is not there.” It wasn’t directed at anyone, but when I think about it now,  there are certain people who did stay in my life in the initial aftermath and in some of the years following who were mostly blood family who continued to interact with me with the same expectations as if I was still the same. “Oh, well you’re gay now but you’re still the same,” and I was like, “Nah, I am a profoundly different person. I am rewired, I am rewiring myself, I am divesting from shit, I am rebuilding myself. And also just trying to unlearn, relearn how to be in relationship with the world around me, how I have benefited from and also participated in systems of oppression, how to not do that anymore. I am different and also trying to be better and trying to continue to be different.” With the version that I was then, it was in some ways really hard to try to recall and reconstitute from memory for so much of the book because she doesn’t exist anymore and she hasn’t existed in a long time. This is me now trying to remember her then.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 84 articles for us.


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