A few years ago, in a haze of post-divorce pain, I began blogging about my childhood experiences growing up in the United Pentecostal Church and submitted some of those posts here on Ex-Christian. I was astounded at the support and understanding I received. Several regular readers encouraged me to consider writing a book. So I did. (An excerpt follows.)
Valerie Tarico, author of Trusting Doubt, was kind enough to read my manuscript and write a review:
Caught between the archaic religious dictates of her Pentecostal family and the complexities of the world outside, Ronna Russell fights for survival and more in The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid. Loneliness, raw sexuality, unexpected kindness and cruelty, and through it all an understated endurance with solid granite at the core, Russell’s memoir is alternately hard, hungry, raw, and tender--like sex and love and parenthood and simply being. I sat down to read the first chapter on a busy day and instead read straight through. -Dr. Valerie Tarico, author of Trusting Doubt
Excerpt from The Uncomfortable Confessions Of a Preacher's Kid:
I found myself home alone on my eighteenth birthday, six weeks into a new town, knowing no one. We were in another new city in another new state, the third one in high school alone. I was dazed by the heat of Sacramento, sweating in my pantyhose and polyester, frizzy hair in a dowdy twist, looking like anything but a California girl.
As soon as we arrived, Karissa started work at a travel agency. Dad and Mom went to their jobs at the church as the assistant pastor and secretary duo. And I attempted to navigate the beginning of my senior year at Del Campo High.
The day everyone drove away leaving me overnight in an empty house was not long after school started. Karissa scored free tickets to Hawaii from the travel agency and decided to take Mom on vacation. Dad volunteered to drive them to the airport in San Francisco, a couple of hours away, and I assumed I would come, too. Mom and Karissa carried their suitcases into the garage. I could hear them chattering and opening the trunk through the open door. Then I heard Dad pick up his keys.
“Time to go?” I asked Dad, grabbing my purse as Mom and Karissa got in the car.
He turned to look at me with a surprised expression. “Oh, well… you should just stay here, Ronna. It’s a long drive, and I’ll stay overnight near the airport. I’ll come home in the morning,” he said decisively, though there was also something careful in his tone. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I stood disbelieving, as he shut the door to the garage behind him. I stood by the door, listening to the car pull out as the three of them left together. I kept standing there as the automatic garage door whirred closed, surprised to be abandoned on my birthday. Shocked, even. No one had asked me what I would do while home alone. There was no one to spend the evening with. I stood by the garage door numb with rejection. I drifted through the house to my new bedroom and sat on down on my tidily made bed. Blank white walls stared back at me. The emptiness and silence pulsed, suffocating me as they closed in.
They left. Empty hours stretched out in front of me. If I sit in this fucking house by myself staring at the walls all night on my birthday, I am going to go bonkers, I thought. I had a car, an orange Pinto wagon that ran most of the time, and I remembered the way to Casa Maria’s Mexican Restaurant and Bar at Sunrise Mall. Also, I hadn’t had sex in the three years since Dean dumped me. No one had touched me in all that time, not so much as a hug. I was starving for attention, with an unhinged need to feel someone else’s skin. None of the California boys in Dad’s new church were interested in me because I was fat and still dressed like a Pentecostal. My desire for contact boiled inside. My craving to be with someone, anyone, throbbed.
At dusk, I drove my trembling Pinto down the wide, open streets to Casa Maria’s and pulled into a vast, almost empty, mall parking lot beneath a neon sign flashing a red sombrero. Without hesitation, I parked and walked in the double wooden doors.
The bar was to the immediate left of the entrance. The bartender glanced up, but before he could speak, the only guy sitting at the bar looked me up and down.
“Come here,” he said, with a motion of his head.
I walked over, trancelike, and slid onto a barstool beside him without a word. I did not have a thought in my head.
The bartender looked a little nervous. “Do you have ID?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Let’s go,” the guy on the barstool said. He was Hispanic, not much taller than me when we stood up, with bushy black hair, and a thin, sparse mustache. At least 30, maybe older. I couldn’t tell.
I followed him out, glancing back over my shoulder as we went, noting the look of shock on the bartender’s face. Outside, the guy hopped into my car without any discussion. I followed his directions to another bar but got carded again, so we left and cut to the chase. We climbed in the back of my Pinto wagon, leaving the hatchback up. I slipped off my shoes and slid my underwear off. He had not told me his name, nor did he ask mine. I had not spoken at all, other than to admit that I was not twenty-one. My mind buzzed blankly as I watched the scene unfold around me.
“Turn over,” he said, taking charge immediately. Then he pushed my skirt up and fucked me from behind. Right there in the parking lot, as I stared out the back in silence. My mind detached and floated away as he entered me over and over. It did not hurt. I couldn’t feel anything. I heard his whispered groans as he pumped into me, faster and faster. I did not want him there after a while, but I also did not have any great urgency for him to finish. I watched from outside my body.
After he came, I climbed out of the back of the Pinto, ducking to avoid the raised hatch, and stood outside in the parking lot in the soft evening air. Felt the warm breeze on my face. I pulled my underwear on while the guy peed on the asphalt. I watched his steaming stream of urine flow underneath my shoes, an ugly beige mesh peep-toe flat with a bow on the toe. I knew I would never wear those shoes again.
I pulled the hatch down and got into the driver’s seat, as he climbed in on the other side so I could drive him back to the Casa Maria parking lot. We still did not speak. I pulled into an empty parking spot. He hopped out of my car and into his own.
“My name is Louie, don’t forget,” he called to me as he drove off, music blaring through his open window. Prince’s voice trailed behind as his Camaro accelerated and sped away.
I drove straight home, navigating the empty streets in a daze, darkness swallowed the space outside. Back in my bedroom, I stared numbly at the undecorated walls again. The whole encounter hadn’t even taken an hour, and I was still very much alone on my birthday. I did not inspect my body or take a shower or think about why I had walked out my door and had sex with the first stranger I saw. Nothing. I crawled into bed, curled up around myself, and drifted off to sleep in the silence.
Back in the 1980s, pregnancy tests were available only at doctors’ offices, nothing of the kind was sold over the counter. I did not have a doctor or any money. Within days of my self-inflicted sex collision, I was panicked. I secretly searched the massive Sacramento area yellow pages for pregnancy clinics, then scoured the accompanying city maps to see if I could find them. Webs of streets stretched for pages of indecipherable blurry grids. Then I saw an ad for a free pregnancy test at a nearby church. Filled with dread, I made an appointment for 1:00 the next afternoon, even though I had not missed a period yet.
The appointment was scheduled during the school day. Skipping school after lunch might have worked but if I got caught my plan would disintegrate. So I told Mom I wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from school. The woman on the clinic phone had instructed me to bring a refrigerated urine sample. While Mom wasn’t looking, I snuck a plastic tub with a lid out of the kitchen cupboard, one of the containers she used to store leftovers. I peed in the cup, but could not put it in the refrigerator, so I hid it in my closet. I worried that room temperature urine would not work for the pregnancy test, but a cup of pee in the refrigerator would be unexplainable. I had to chance it. At 12:45, I told Mom I was feeling better and that I was going to the library. I slipped out the garage door with my pee cup tucked in a brown paper lunch bag and stuffed into my purse, hoping the lid would hold.
As the garage door clanked open, I turned to see a heavily made-up Asian woman standing on the sidewalk. A bandana covered her hair, she wore false eyelashes, thick black eyeliner, and blue eyeshadow. I did not know where she came from. I had never seen her before.
“You know what means the word slut?” she accused, from her spot on the sidewalk.
I panicked and jerked my head back toward the door to the house to make sure Mom was not in earshot.
“No,” I denied.
Then I dove into my car, slamming the door shut. Who was she? How did she know? I wondered. I had to get out of there.
I turned the key, revved the sputtering engine, and backed the Pinto out of the driveway as fast as I could, looking around frantically as I reversed into the street. The woman was gone. Not walking down the sidewalk, not in a neighboring yard. Vanished as suddenly as she appeared. Had she been a hallucination? Sweat rolled down my back as I drove out of the neighborhood, carefully holding my purse upright to not spill the pee inside.
I found the church and the clinic, turned in my pee cup to the woman behind the counter, who informed me that in exchange for the information I sought, I was required to watch a two-hour anti-abortion film. Of course, a free clinic in a church would have a catch. I should have known. I had no choice but to cooperate and resigned myself to a two-hour wait for my test results. I slumped on a metal folding chair at the end of an empty row, alone in a dark, chilly room. As soon as the film started, I realized I had seen it in a youth group program.
“I’ve seen this film before,” I said, sticking my head out the door. Thank goodness, I thought. Not even Mom would believe I was at the library for two hours. I was determined to keep this entire situation under control.
“Oh, ok, well… your test results were negative. However, it’s too soon to know for sure,” she said with concern. “You could still be pregnant. Since you haven’t missed a period yet, the test might not be accurate.”
I nodded. I knew it was true and carried a deep, unsettling certainty that I was pregnant.
“Would you have an abortion if it turns out you are pregnant?” she asked as if another option existed.
“Yes,” I confirmed and walked out into the glaring sunlight. If I can just figure out where to get one.
Almost a week later, before Wednesday evening Bible study, I leaned against the church’s bathroom cubicle wall as twisting cramps contorted my body. I slid down the cold metal to a squat, silently sobbing, and trying to breathe, intense pain drove all coherent thought from my head. I could not see straight, much less wonder what was happening. After a few minutes, the pains subsided enough for me stand up and catch my breath while clutching the top of the toilet paper dispenser. I had never felt anything like that before. The pain was similar to period cramps, but times a million and with stabbing knives. I fled the church building and drove home, sweating and shaking. Mom was on her way out the door to go to service when I got there. I explained I wasn’t feeling well, again-the only acceptable excuse to forgive the cardinal sin of missing a church service—and went straight to bed.
Hours later, the convulsions returned with a vengeance and yanked me awake in the middle of the night. Spasms seared and rocked my body so violently that I could feel it in my chest. I called out to Mom for help. Mom called Dad, who was out of town, to ask what to do. I heard her low, worried voice on the phone. He instructed her to take me to the nearest emergency room in Roseville.
I don’t remember the drive or checking in. No questions, no exams, no x-rays later, I was sent home with a diagnosis of possible pneumonia and told to lay low for a couple of days.
One more day later, stabbing cramps began again with terrifying force. Dad was back in town by then. I called him at work.
“I need you to come get me. Come get me. Please,” I begged, my terror evident.
And he did.
Dad took me to a walk-in clinic on Sunrise Avenue, not too far from Casa Maria’s, where
I had met the guy in the bar. There were questions and x-rays this time. And a moment alone with the doctor.
“Is there a chance you might be pregnant?” he questioned tactfully.
I nodded, relieved. Finally, someone had asked the right question.
The doctor told Dad to take me straight to the emergency room, a different one this time, and he did. I was still dressed in my tattered, lime green sweats that I always wore to bed. I knew going to the emergency room had something to do with the doctor’s question, but had no idea what. My mind had started to blank again.
I sat in a padded, vinyl chair in the imaging area of the hospital, waiting for my name to be called. Dad sat, elbows on knees, in the chair beside me, inspecting his fingernails, his jaw clenched.
“Is this the first time you’ve had sex?” he asked tersely, not looking at me.
“No,” I whispered. “Remember Dean?” My breath caught on his name as my heart jumped with fear.
Dad’s jaw rippled. He cleared his throat and pulled his fingernail clippers out of his pocket, and began to clean his nails. He did not say anything else, but his rage electrified the air around us.
I leaned back, resting my head on the sticky plastic chair, heart and lungs vying for space. Fear of the repercussions that would come after this medical emergency was over vibrated through my body.
Now he knew. I was not a virgin and hadn’t been for a long time. I had done a terrible thing more than once and had gotten myself into real trouble now. I was inconvenient again. What would he do to me after this x-ray thing was over? His silent fury overwhelmed any concern for myself. Whatever was happening inside my body was secondary to my fear of him.
Someone called my name. I do not remember following them into the changing room or what they said after that. I swerved onto the bench, unable to approach the folded, white cotton robe beside me. Mirrors and hooks began a discombobulated swirl as my head spun. I think I am supposed to put that robe on, I thought.
The ultrasound technician came in to see if I was ready, but I could no longer stand or respond. She helped me up and onto a table in the adjacent room, placed a cold instrument on my lower abdomen, and turned to watch the screen. Instantly, she was on the phone, urgency in her voice; words I could not decipher. Her voice sounded far away. She looked far away, too, even though she must have been standing right beside me.
Moments later, gurney wheeling down a hallway, voices yelling, operating room, bright lights, scissors blades ripped through lime green terry cloth, masked faces loomed…
“100, 99, 98…”
Recovery room. Slide from the gurney to the bed. Really? So far away.
The ultrasound technician stood at the foot of my bed, pale and shaken, surprised I had survived. Metal staples marched across my lower abdomen, a forever scar.
The nurse cracked, “You’re gonna use birth control next time, aren’t ya?” as she wiped me down with a wet sponge. My cheeks burned with humiliation.
“Yeah,” I whispered into the pillow while she rubbed my ass.
“Your fallopian tube ruptured, ya know. It’s called an ectopic pregnancy. You lost so much blood, you’re lucky to be alive,” the nurse remarked briskly as she hoisted the scrub tub under her arm and walked out, having delivered the only information I would ever receive about what had happened to my body.
I kept my face buried in the pillow. I had never heard of ectopic pregnancies or fallopian tubes before.
Dad stopped by the hospital once during my week-long stay. He half-sat on the edge of my bed as if he did not plan to stay long, then read scriptures to me, prayed, and left. Karissa came to see me every day after work, but Mom did not visit. No one mentioned Mom to me, and I did not ask where she was. I was relieved to not have to face her shock and disappointment. No one discussed what had happened to me that night, or who got me pregnant. No one asked me why or how I felt or what they could do or what I needed. No one yelled or cried or touched me. There was no conversation, just a big fat Holy Shit atmosphere.
What I did not know was that Dad had the family in communication lockdown. Karissa was forbidden to talk to Mom or anyone else about my pregnancy. Dad allowed Karissa to visit me in the hospital, but Mom was not allowed to come. Karissa thought that Mom did not know why I was hospitalized because that is what Dad told her. Years later, I discovered that Mom did know about my pregnancy, but Dad forbade her to talk to me about it. So she did not.
I never attempted to discuss my experience with anyone. This situation was all my own fault, and I knew I did not deserve comfort or forgiveness and I sure as hell did not want to hear another Bible verse. My scream for help was met with silence.
In the weeks and months to come, I floated away inside my head. My desperate reach for connection had backfired, and I had been punished, seemingly by God himself. Silent days surrounded me like a prison cell. No one spoke to me. I heard no voices.
This terrible thing happened to me
I did this terrible thing
My body is broken
I am broken
Please talk to me
Don’t talk to me
Would it have been easier if I had died?
A few weeks later, Dad sat at the head of the dining room table, papers spread before him. The medical bills had arrived. He motioned me to a chair. I sat.
“Brother Mackey had to backdate the insurance paperwork to get this thing covered,” he pronounced as he cleared his throat and straightened papers purposefully into stacks. “We have a $3,000 deductible. I think it’s only fair that you pay it.”
“Okay,” I murmured.
“How much can you pay per month?” he asked, his mouth set.
“$150? I’ll get a job,” I promised.
“Mm. Ok.” Dad accepted, returning his attention to the stacks.
Something had been bothering me, though. What happened would not have happened if I had been appropriately treated during the first trip to the emergency room. And my father was a stickler for justice.
“Dad?” I said cautiously, “Umm, I’m just wondering why you aren’t suing the first hospital for negligence. They said I had pneumonia,” I felt tremulous.
“I would have if something had happened. It was a close call,” he said.
There could be no more complete proof of my personal irrelevance than that it did not matter if I died, beyond how he would handle the bills. Solid evidence that my emotional and physical state were of importance to no one. When I look back at all of this now, I am not quite sure how I survived, or if I did. What part of myself vanished during that time?
Six weeks absent from my senior year, no one noticed when I went back to school. I had been a new face, anyway. I limped through the rest of the school year, heavy with heartbreak, pretending the fabricated appendicitis story Dad told the church people was true.
Decades later, a therapist told me, “Find a picture of that teenage girl, from around the time of the tubal pregnancy, when you were alone, and your family was fractured. Every morning, look at her and say, ‘You’re with me. I’ve got you, and I am going to get you through this.’”
I did it. I found a picture of myself that I could hardly stand to look at, snapped at the lake with my family. I drove to meet them for a picnic in a panic, crying and pleading to God all way, please don’t let me be pregnant, please don’t let me be pregnant. Knowing I was, but with no idea what was coming. The young woman in the picture is hungover, fat, scared, and miserable and about to have a life-threatening event. Every morning for a month, I reached for that picture and gave her a good look until she met my eyes.
“You’re with me,” I said. “All day. I’m going to take care of you.”
This self-compassion felt impossible at first but became easier as the days went by. We both started to believe I could take care of her. Somehow during that month, I began to look at that miserable girl in the photo with empathy, instead of shame and hatred. I pulled her toward me through the years, the first time she had ever not been pushed away.
The Uncomfortable Confessions Of a Preacher's Kid is currently available for preorder from my publisher. Use the code PREORDER2018 for a 15% discount off the listed price.
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