Religion: part 2

Content warning: This post contains mentions of sexual activity, sexual harm, and sexual discrimination. I hope that you’ll listen to your own inner wisdom when deciding whether or not to continue reading.

I lost my religion because of sex.

Imagine a girl of sixteen, raised in an extremely strict fundamentalist Christian household. Her parents recently separated, she’s given more freedom than she’s ever had. She goes to a public school for the first time. Boys pay attention to her. Her friends talk about and do things she’s never even considered before.

Her whole life she’s been told to guard her purity. “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Solomon, 8:4) is quoted at her frequently, as is the idiom “vroeg ryp, vroeg vrot” (translated as “early to ripen, early to rot”). She knows that God only approves of sex within marriage. But more than that, she knows that any unclean thoughts are sinful. She knows that even thinking about someone in a lustful way is tantamount to sexually abusing them, since they didn’t consent to playing a starring role in your fantasies. (Needless to say, she spends much of her early puberty apologising to God and to the souls of the hapless boys she had now sullied by thinking of them in a sexual way.) She knows that stoking lust – even by just kissing someone – is sin.

Her dad has told her, numerous times, that he will have failed in his task as a father if he one day hands her over to her husband no longer a virgin. At church and in youth meetings she is shown the image of two sticky paper hearts – this is your soul, and the soul of the person you’re romantically involved with, she is told. When you have sex, these two sticky hearts are glued together. When you then split up, the two hearts are torn apart. Heart now torn and tattered, you move on to the next partner, and pretty soon all that remains of your heart is a limp piece of paper with no ability to stick to anything anymore.

You have destroyed your own capacity for intimacy by having sex with people before marriage.

From about the age of 14 onwards, she is plagued by romantic and sexual worries. She doesn’t particularly want to be handed over to a man for marriage. On the other hand, even if she is, that could only happen in her early twenties or so. At 14, that means at least another 7 years of waiting before getting to have sex – a really long time if you’re batting away lustful thoughts every day, and guiltily reading the sexy bits in Reader’s Digest’s condensed books over and over again.

She can feel from the adults’ reactions that sex is really important. They talk about sex with a strange mixture of forced confidence and shame, making her suspect even then that they have some guilt over their own sexual conduct. Some adults testify in church about their sexual pasts, sharing how God saved them from their slutty behaviour and brought them into victorious second-hand purity. She knows that the hopes of her parents’ generations are pinned on her and her peers – that she will vindicate her parents with her own purity and, one day, with her successful marriage. She pledges to remain pure. She tries hard to push away all sexual thoughts. She feels gross when she masturbates.

Then at 16 she gets her first boyfriend. He can’t keep his hands off her. When they’re sitting together during school breaks or when watching a movie, his hands wander round her ribcage, over her stomach, lingering over the waistband of her underwear. When they walk somewhere he holds her around the waist, hand gradually drifting down to her bum. She likes it. She really, really likes it. Eventually their clandestine make-out sessions move from simply kissing to rather frantic heavy petting. She is awakening to the exquisite pleasure of discovering and being discovered for the first time.

She feels guilty and she also doesn’t. It’s as if she’s living two lives now – this aliveness, this exploration with her boyfriend is removed from the rest of her life. She is so consumed by all the new feelings happening inside her, that questions about right or wrong fall by the wayside. If you’re very very hungry, you don’t worry about the ethics of the food you’re eating. And she was ravenous.

They don’t have sex for a long time though – she holds out for five months before that happens. And then, one night, he climbs through her bedroom window and after hours of making out, just as dawn arrives, they finally do it. It doesn’t last very long (of course it doesn’t) and afterwards she is surprised at how non-earthshattering it felt. She’d actually liked some of the other stuff they’d done more. After all that fuss, all that resisting, the actual act of penetrative sex felt like just another fun thing in a repertoire of discoveries. Not really more intimate – and definitely no more pleasurable – than touching and being touched had been.

Nonetheless, this was It. They’d crossed the Rubicon. Made a soul tie. Become spiritually wedded. It was okay, she told herself, because she loved him.

I’m sure you know what happens next. Her mom finds out (fortunately her parents had already split up, because her dad quite seriously might have killed her, or put her in hospital). The church finds out. Amidst all the hysteria her boyfriend makes a run for it, his last words to her being that one day they could try again, when her mom “isn’t in the picture anymore”.

Her heart is broken – more, much more about her boyfriend breaking up with her than about the fact that she is now a fallen woman. But she’s also very sad about her mom, who can’t look her in the eyes anymore, who feels betrayed and disgusted by her behaviour, whose eyes are red-rimmed with grief for weeks. She agrees to burn her diary (in which she’s of course written all about her sexual experiences). She agrees to talk to the pastor and his wife, who insist that she be exorcised of the demon of lust (she manages to extricate herself from that one, although who knows, they probably still think of her as the demon-possessed girl who got away). She attends video lectures about sexual purity. Everybody knows.

Most of all, she spends hours on her bedroom floor praying and crying. “Show me,” she begs of God. “Show me why this was wrong. Put conviction into my heart, and then I will truly repent.” Because she knows in her heart of hearts that she is more sorry for hurting her mom than she is for actually having had sex. She searches the Bible, but it doesn’t say anything about soul ties. Jesus says stuff about not lusting after your neighbour’s wife, and the apostle Paul gets really cross about men having sex with their mothers in law, but other than that she finds only vague references to sexual purity. For every reference to sex, there are about fifty verses about helping the poor, about redemption, about bearing good fruits and even about having slaves and farming and how to raise children. Almost everything in the Bible is discussed in more detail than sex. Masturbation is never even directly mentioned. 

If the Bible is so little bothered with it, why is the church so obsessed with sex? Where do all these ideas about “soul ties” and “purity pledges” come from? The little seed of doubt inside her mind, long sprouted, starts growing vigorously.

But still, she tries really hard. With her next boyfriend, she even tries to refrain from making out. When their chaste kisses do veer into intensity, she demands that they pray afterwards (looking back, her boyfriend was either remarkably patient or remarkably horny to stick around for all that praying). They date for two years before, at the age of 19, they finally do have sex.

By then she’s well over it. She’s spent her first year after high school in an ultra-Christian college where she learned to make music, clown, mime, and do missionary work. Her leaders there had convinced her for a while to break up with her boyfriend (so as not to lose her focus on God, and of course because purity) but they’ve started dating again by then (in secret).

Everybody’s relationships at the college are policed to the extreme. Senior girls walk past her and pull her shirt down so a piece of her lower back won’t stick out and awaken sexual thoughts in men. Showing cleavage is an absolute no. The college is in favour of “courtship” instead of dating – an elaborate ritual wherein the father as well as the pastor’s permission must be gained first before a couple can start spending time together. (Many of these couples kiss for the first time on their wedding day). She feels more and more disaffected and sceptical. The church leadership’s over-involvement in everybody’s lives feels oppressive.

So she and her boyfriend eventually have sex, and she keeps it a secret, and she barely feels guilty, except about betraying her mom again. The next year she goes to university. Strangely enough, most of the girls she becomes friends with here are also really secretive and embarrassed about the fact that they’re having sex with their boyfriends, even though most of them didn’t grow up in the same oppressive purity culture she did. This was an Afrikaans university, and thus most of her friends came from the Dutch Reformed church, more staid and hands-off than evangelical, yet here too puritanism had stretched far and wide. Sex means shame. Sex means secrecy. If you have to have sex, you keep this non-ideal fact about yourself very quiet. You try to get birth control without your parents finding out.

Oddly, after a while she becomes the girl her friends talk to when they’re wondering about sex.

More than one friend comes to her with the metaphor of the torn sticky heart, which has apparently permeated their adolescences as well. Some of her friends have purity rings or have made purity vows which they then broke. They’re in tears. They’re scared their parents will find out. They wonder if their boyfriends will still respect them, now they gave away their most previous asset (“why would he buy the cow if he can get the milk for free?”).

She becomes angry. Incensed, even. The stigma around sex has made it impossible for her, and for most of her friends, to even find out about what they like. There can be no discussion about how the clit works, for instance, or about how to actually have an orgasm, when everybody is still stuck on whether or not sex is sin.

We don’t talk about pleasure. We don’t ask for what we like. Resigned, embarrassed, we hand over our sexual power to a bunch of boys who don’t know what to do with it, who brag amongst themselves about having the best “ride”. We expect them to lose respect for us, because we’ve been told we’re not worth respecting anymore. We’re sinful. Living in God’s disapproval, how can you even expect to feel good?

In my early twenties I start wondering: What even is sin?

I come up with many different ideas. Perhaps sin is not acting lovingly towards others. Perhaps sin is not serving God wholeheartedly. Perhaps sin is straying from God’s plan for your life. My definitions become wider and vaguer, but from the start I know one thing: Sin is not as simple as “having premarital sex”. Because I have done mean stuff in my life. I have harmed others. I have felt guilty and convicted and asked God for forgiveness for doing things; I know what true conviction feels like: like a leaden sadness inside my gut, like being profoundly sorry. I have never felt that way about having sex. If a system punishes an act which (when it’s consensual) is at worst awkward and at best absolute ecstasy, but it doesn’t make nearly as much of a fuss about malice and even abuse, then the system is fucked.

And eventually I realise that the concept of sin is completely arbitrary. It’s a word made up millennia ago by men who wanted to control entire populations, especially women. And its definitions have shifted and changed according to whomever held the reins at the time. The idea of sin is completely useless. Am I living wholeheartedly? Am I being kind? Am I being true to myself? Those questions are much more useful than wondering whether I’ve sinned.

(me at 22, saying ‘fuckit’)

And so I leave Christianity behind. (And, bit by bit, I start having shameless sex).

But I’m still very very angry. Because I can never have my first teenage sexual experiences again, and those are tainted with shame and fear. I had to choose between enjoying my own body and having God’s approval, and that is an evil and abusive choice to force upon anyone.

I am angry because it’s downright gross that other people get to have an opinion about my sex life. It’s invasive and creepy that my dad, and the pastor, and so many others, felt they had the right to know the most private facts about my own body. It’s abusive to be treated as if your body is not your own. It is damaging to be taught that your body is the hotseat of sin and shame.

Things could have gone much, much worse. Looking back, I am immensely grateful that my first sexual experiences were with sweet guys who took things at my pace, who practiced safer sex, and who didn’t harm me in any way. If they’d taken advantage of me in any way, there would have been nobody I could have spoken to, because my behaviour had already isolated me from my community entirely.

But the damage lingers, nonetheless.

And so many of my peers did not escape nearly as unscathed as I did. Imagine being a queer kid in this milieu, told that your sexual orientation is an “abomination unto God”. Or imagine being sexually abused in this milieu. Imagine the many, many ways in which a person’s psyche can be damaged by these invasive and creepy teachings. Imagine how hard it is to regain trust in your own truth, to break free of shame, to learn how to live without doubting yourself every step of the way, when this elemental distrust in yourself has been hammered into you from childhood.

There are many harmful institutions in our society. But in my own life (and in many others’), purity culture and evangelical Christianity as a whole has been the most obviously abusive; and it shocks and worries me that it goes largely unchallenged. This is a sick system. It is a shame-based system. It is permeated with oppressive patriarchy and body-shaming and slut-shaming and deeply harmful ideas.

Whatever good things can be found in evangelical Christianity (and I can’t think of many), those good things exist elsewhere too, and much more abundantly. There surely are well-intentioned people who subscribe to and even preach purity culture, but then they too are doing harm. And, to be clear: these are the same churches that look away tactfully when one of their members abuses his family. They preach vague prosperity teachings when their members go hungry. They crack down on “sexual sin” to a profoundly invasive degree, and refuse to intervene when people are actually in harm’s way.

There is so much more to say, and I intend to say a whole lot of it, so stick around if you want to hear. But for now: As Jesus said, “if a tree bears only bad fruit, then you cut it down”. And the fruits of evangelical Christianity are rotten to the core. It’s time we cut it down.

Everything is holy

We’re coming up on Easter. And I’ve been wanting to write about religion (specifically Christianity) for a long time now, so in honour of the occasion, here we go.

I cannot quantify the harm nor the value that religion has contributed to my life. I know that my existence has been shaped by Christianity; and some days I feel itchy about this, allergic to all things religious – and then, on other days, I feel immense gratitude. 

However, if I look at my country, and at the Afrikaans culture I come from, I feel that Christianity – Calvinism specifically – has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm. Generations upon generations of my ancestors lived lives steeped in suffering, silence, and oppression (both giving and receiving). The punitive approach of Calvinism created an artificial divide between body and spirit, between earth and heaven, between man and woman – fertile breeding ground for the kinds of injustices that have blighted South Africa for centuries. I believe that religion is largely to blame for Apartheid – both in obvious and less obvious ways. I believe that it is religion that has allowed people to forget about their connection to other humans and to the earth herself, leading to rampant capitalism, to exhaustion of our natural resources, to climate change.

But of course, religion is a man-made thing. In a sense, blaming religion itself for the ills of the world is a cop-out, because it too is only a symptom of an ill society, just like capitalism, or any of the other malfunctioning institutions we have created. They are symptoms of greed, of fear, of dogmatic thinking, of the need to control, of disconnectedness. They tell us something about who we can easily become as humans: how easily we grab onto anything that resonates for us and try to make a monument out of it. How easily we step out of flow and try to hammer truths into immobility, forcing a moment of transcendence into stagnation.

This can happen to anyone, with anything: One might become just as dogmatic about ideals like compassion, or equality, or respect for nature. In fact, Christianity was built on beautiful ideals. But somewhere along the way it lost its joy and became an institute built on crippling self-righteousness and shame.

Yeah, I’m not a fan.

And I will write about that. I’ll write an entire series about that.

But I also need to acknowledge that in many ways religion has been good to me.

The word “religion” of course encompasses many types of faith, and these have affected people in a variety of ways. What I write here applies to my experience, and to the brand of Christianity I was raised in: fundamentalist, charismatic yet Calvinist-influenced Christianity (think fire-and-brimstone meets happy-clappy coupled with a good dose of shame and suppression). Other people’s experiences may, and do, differ widely.

My parents met as ‘rebel’ Christians: Both had broken away from their Calvinist Dutch-Reformed roots, had been ‘born again’, and been baptised as adults (something of a scandal in 1980s Afrikaans culture, enough to get them kicked out of the Dutch Reformed church). They were hungry for something that felt real, for relationship with God instead of rote singing of hymns, for community and communion instead of weekly lip-service.

By the time they had me, however, their versions of faith had already deviated from each other’s. In my childhood, my dad’s religion did not appeal to me at all, even though I was convinced by it and correspondingly scared of God. His religion was fervour bordering on frenzy, a morass of condemnation, self-congratulation, isolation, and rampant rage. We joined a new church; we left it within weeks, my dad foaming at the mouth. We couldn’t listen to pop music, or celebrate Christmas, or play with Barbies. We were always told that we were different, pure and right in a world full of heathens, atheists, and fake Christians.

I don’t remember my mom openly disagreeing with my dad about religion. I think most of the time she didn’t, at least not consciously so. But her faith was…alive. She found comfort in God. He wasn’t the jealous God my dad was fond of citing, but rather one who invited debate:

Like David argued with and railed against God in Psalms, my mom told me, so too I could go to God with my questions and even with my anger. (Which I did, many times, especially in my teenage years).

To my parents, God spoke (though it seems he said different things to each of them). He spoke to them in Bible verses, in moments of clarity, through other people, during worship. If nothing else, my parents’ religion seemed very involved: Theirs was not a God of distance but of daily interaction. Every small event was a miracle. Every struggle was a test. Every sadness an opportunity to grow closer to God.

The combined push-pull of my parents’ Christianity worked very well on me, and I was a very religious child. Even though I am still unearthing the damaging ideas of God I then internalised, it wasn’t all negative. I was raised to believe that God could speak to me, and so he did. I was raised to believe that God cared about my life, and so I told him all about it. I developed the habit of thanking God for every beautiful thing I encountered, a practice which has carried me through many difficult times since. That feeling of having an intimate witness, a friend and protector who is always by my side – I sorely needed that as a child. In many ways, religion saved me.

(This picture has nothing to do with religion, but it’s a picture of me as a child, looking appropriately odd and vaguely angelic, so I thought it would do.)

One of the most beautiful things I gained from religion was the concept of grace. As a teenager I read Philip Yancey’s book ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ and it changed my life. This concept of grace, of being welcomed into a life that places emphasis on abundance rather than performance, has remained with me ever since. Sure, there were some recesses of my mind that held (and perhaps still do) an idea of God as a punitive being, one who punishes pleasure and will tolerate no straying. But mainly, by the time I entered my pre-teens I had grown to love God on my own terms, as a figure who extends compassion to all.

Strangely, the more my dad forced his doomsday religion upon us, the more I doubled down on my own more compassionate brand of faith. It was like God and I would share a little knowing wink, a shared moment of “you and I know better, don’t we?” The very religion that was used to oppress me became my shelter.

I also really liked Jesus. He hung out with dodgy people and spoke movingly of inviting the drunkards and the homeless to a banquet fit for kings. He was patient with his disciples (mostly). He was kind to prostitutes. He condemned hypocrisy. He said “I have come that they may have life, and life in abundance.” (John 10:10)

To me the Bible was filled with poetry.

Even today, reading the first verses of the gospel of John inexplicably fills my eyes with tears: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The principles of Christianity that I cherished – grace, gratitude, faith, honesty, relationship, cultivating a spiritual practice – these I later discovered to be principles for life. I was able to take them with me into secular adulthood, but I doubt they would have formed such a foundational part of my life had I not already learned to live by them in my childhood.

And the last thing: growing up religious left me with a taste for the mysterious, for the inexplicable, for the divine. Try as I might, I have never been able to fully divorce myself from the concept of a higher power. When I’m driving in my car and the Stellenbosch mountains unfold before my eyes, and at that moment the perfect song starts playing on the radio, I signal a mental ‘thank you’ to god. And then I laugh, because I don’t even know what god is – but I’m okay with that. To me god is in the soul of trees, in the laughter of my friends, in the ache in my heart when I think about the collective pain of the world. To me god is in my garden. To me god is in my feet, in my palms, in my ability to see beauty. God rests in the intimately known, yet hovers also beyond what my mind can understand.

God no longer bears much resemblance to the religion I was raised in, yet I am grateful to religion for playing its part in teaching me this: everything is holy.

Content warning: This post contains mentions of abuse and mental illness. It was a hard piece to write and I imagine it might be hard to read as well.

What do you get when you combine flaming intelligence, a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness, an undiagnosed mental illness and fundamentalist religion?

You get my dad.

I’ve never been sure whether I love my dad. As a child this bothered me tremendously. I’d wish he would die and then I’d beg God for forgiveness for my savage thoughts. I’d feel sorry for him, when he’d be weeping at the table after reading the Bible for instance, embarrassed on his behalf for his exhibitionism. He cried a lot, and at strange times – when something would strike him as beautiful, or as sad, or when his own feverish mind tipped into momentary despair. It took me a long time to accept my own overabundant tears as a valid way of being. My tendency to weep about every beautiful thing vaguely grossed me out for a long time, like an unfortunate genetic reminder of my dad’s need to be the centre of attention.

Now I don’t think that knowing whether or not I love my dad has much to do with anything. I have compassion for him. I am sad that the choices he made have alienated him from everyone. I’m sad that he shows no signs of developing self-awareness, I’m sad on his behalf and on behalf of everyone whose lives he traumatised, mine included. I also don’t want to be around him, ever again. And that makes me sad too.

An unauthorised biography

My dad’s early life was easy in some ways.

Growing up white, male, and intellectually gifted in a relatively well-off family in 1970s South Africa was no apparent hardship. Yet, the youngest of five children, by the time he was a young boy my grandma was seriously ill, and from my dad’s accounts my grandpa was quite harsh, following the disciplinarian model of parenting that went unquestioned in those days. I imagine my dad felt rather lost: an intense, emotional child, most likely very annoying to his siblings, head filled with grandiose ideas that no one else was interested in.

He built up a long list of grievances early on: his father, who forced them to work endlessly in the garden. His high-school girlfriend, who broke his heart. His twin brother, who didn’t always pick his side. Somewhere unacknowledged: his mother, who loved him fiercely but was always too tired to engage with him as he would have liked. There’s something there, something I don’t think he has ever admitted to himself: a deep sense of betrayal from his mother, the woman who was meant to have his back, but didn’t. This anger became a pervasive rage against all women, something that to me looks like his own anguished attempts at protecting himself against the need for approval he feels towards them. Women are inferior, yet they are dangerous. They need to be disciplined, punished, more so because he feels a helpless yearning for their love.

Somewhere during high school he found Jesus. Back then most Afrikaans people went to the Dutch Reformed Church, abiding by the faith of their forefathers in a lukewarm manner, their lifestyles comfortably sanctioned by the Church. Becoming ‘born-again’ was akin to joining a sect. Being baptised as an adult, and worse, ‘speaking in tongues’, was deeply strange. My dad embraced the strangeness. By now his identity was riding on being different; it was him against the world, and with God sanctioning his every choice there was no way he could go wrong.

When he met my mom he was a young, charismatic missionary. He’d quit conscription halfway through, after what sounds like a genuinely traumatic time in the South African Police Force – this was the early 80’s, when Apartheid riots were rampant and the police reacted extremely violently. My dad objected fiercely, but I gather that he did some things that would haunt him nevertheless. And he was bullied by his teammates, further compounding on his fear of helplessness and his faith in his own righteous ‘otherness’. This was a strange time, a time I hesitate to write about since I know so little of it – I am deeply aware of the wounds in the psyches of so many men who were conscripted then, but even today an almost unanimous silence hangs over the topic.

Women liked my dad; my mom says he was always surrounded by a group of hangers-on. But my mom, shy, beautiful, zealous in her faith yet non-performative, stirred his imagination: here was a woman who was suitably unattainable, who paid more attention to God than to him, who promised intelligence combined with submission, should he win her over.

He won her over. They were married at 21, and left the country soon after to escape his uncompleted conscription.

A childhood

A year and a half later I was born in France, where my parents would live for eleven years in total; four siblings followed.

We were very poor; my dad had grandiose ideas but very little follow-through. He’d finish a course in agriculture with the idea of starting some profitable commune-type farm, and then do nothing with it. He’d spend his time praying and going for long walks through the forest while growing increasingly excited about the signs that God was giving him. We were the Jewish nation in the desert, he said, and he was Moses, obeying God through these forty years in the wilderness. In the meantime we were living off the state. My mom stayed at home with us, because my dad didn’t want her to work, and also because we were scared of being left alone with him.

He was scary. Sometimes he could be very funny, dancing like a big Oompa Loompa through the house, reducing us to fits of laughter. Other times he was violent, throwing things, kicking a chair over. Once he hit me so furiously that I peed in my pants. There was a kind of pattern to his moods: Gradually his excitement would build – we’d wake up in the mornings to the sound of him singing in tongues, repetitively like someone chanting a frenetic mantra, walking up and down or swaying back and forth, often weeping. At the table he would tell us about his plans, about God’s plans, voice rising as we sat cowed, scared of what would come next. There was always something: my mom would not be enthusiastic enough about his ideas, or one of us was too noisy, or I broke a glass. His enthusiasm would tip over into rage. He’d rant, usually at my mom, voice rising and rising as we all shrank back. He’d break something, or throw over the table and leave in fury. The next day the house would be in a hush. My dad would sit in bed until late, weeping – nobody understood him. If he’d given me a hiding he’d come to apologise, explaining through tears that he was only disciplining me because he loved me.

We didn’t have many friends. My parents had some from whichever church or prayer group we’d be attending at the time, but usually it didn’t last long. There’d always be a fight, usually about differences regarding an interpretation of the Bible. My dad especially hated opinionated women, viewing them as abominations in the same category as lukewarm Christians, gay people, and anybody, really, who dared disagree with him.

We weren’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music, read fairy tales (Pagan myths) or be close friends with ‘worldly’ kids. Not that the worldly kids would have me, anyway. In primary school my sister Esther, just a year younger than me, made friends a bit easier than I did, her sunny personality and willingness to fall in with others’ plans serving her well. I was too awkward and intense, and easily bored by the games everybody wanted to play. I wanted to act out scenes from my favourite books: dig for diamonds in the front yard, or build a tree house, or start a detective agency. Everybody else got tired of it quickly, even Esther who was my biggest ally and loyal sidekick, while I carried on stubbornly.

In school I was that annoying child who always volunteers an answer to every question; my classmates hated me accordingly. I once threw cow dung at a boy who was teasing me and after that I gained a reputation as the girl who smells of poo. When I tried to fit in it wouldn’t work for long: Esther and I once snuck out to listen to the Spice Girls in the basement of our apartment complex with some classmates, but my dad discovered us and dragged us out in front of everyone, giving us perhaps the biggest hiding we ever got. Kids were understandably wary of inviting us to things again.

We were different from other kids. We were nervous. My mom was depressed, although I didn’t know that then, only that some mornings her eyes would be hugely swollen from crying and we’d gingerly try to be extra nice to her.

By the time I was eight I was twisting and pulling large clumps of hair out of my head, until eventually the bald spots alerted my parents. My dad cried and asked for my forgiveness: it was because he’d hit me as a baby, he said. I was embarrassed by his effusiveness and by the awkward attention I was receiving. I didn’t want to look weird, or weak, so I stopped. I read a lot of books. I daydreamed compulsively. I was very lonely.

One time my mom left my dad, fled with us when he was out of the house, and took us to a shelter for abused women and children. He found us within a few days, standing outside shouting tirades at the staff. Alternatively he cried, begging my mom to come back. It was embarrassing, and re-traumatising for all the other women and children. We went back.

The next time my mom left my dad it was to come back to South Africa. My dad was in China then, teaching English for a few weeks while getting the lay of the land: we were going to be missionaries. He was going to learn one of the many Chinese dialects, an obscure one for which he would then invent a written language, then translate the Bible into it. Meantime, while he was gone my grandparents bought us all tickets to come back to South Africa. I was almost ten by then.

My first memory of South Africa is of my aunt coming flying into my mom’s arms at the airport arrivals, both of them weeping, as us children stood awkwardly glancing at our new cousins.

Our new country was wonderful, even when my mom took my dad back – she’d been convinced by religion, I think, still striving to be a submissive wife, and by the fear of forcing a broken home upon us. Chastened for a little while, soon my dad was exactly the same: moving us from church to church because he disliked the respective pastors, forbidding my mom from seeing her family because they were putting evil ideas into her head. But the people here were nicer. I felt less foreign. I had some friends.

We were in a small private Christian school, where I promptly fell in love with a boy who eventually asked me out on a dare from his friends. My dad got wind of it and stormed the school, shouting at the headmaster for allowing such impurity. The whole school found out. I felt a pariah, crying and begging my mom daily to take me out, which she eventually did to homeschool us instead.

Then for a while she left my dad again, when I was eleven. This time it felt very real, she was even seeing a divorce lawyer. We lived in a little house on a farm, had very little money, got a pet pig, had a vegetable garden. My mom made us smoothies every morning. We took horse-riding lessons and visited regularly with other homeschooled kids.

Sometimes we’d visit my dad in his weird empty bachelor flat. We’d eat fish and chips the entire time, him forcing long mountain hikes upon us while ranting about my mom’s iniquities. It was repetitive, unceasing: his list of grudges, the people who had wronged him, his promises over and over to himself that God would help him triumph. We hated visiting him but we knew we had to. One time he refused to take us back to my mom and kept us with him for a few more days – I don’t know what made him return us eventually, perhaps the fact that we were crying all the time. Strangely, we often begged my mom to take him back. We were sorry for him, he looked so devastated.

One time I even told my mom that I thought God hated us, flinging my frightened accusations in her face, enjoying her resulting tears.

They got back together; a visiting preacher finally convinced my mom to embrace forgiveness. Also, she was heavily pregnant with my youngest brother at the time, and I don’t think she had any idea of how we’d all get by. My dad has started his own translation company by then and was earning lots of money when he was energised, sometimes working through the night for days on end.

We moved a lot. Eventually we ended up on a farm in the Kwazulu Natal province of South Africa, where I entered into my teenage years with admirable awkwardness. My dad’s mood swings endured, but they were tempered by the space around us – I would flee often into the surrounding countryside, accompanied by my dog, walking for hours on end. We were still homeschooled but we’d made some friends in Sunday School, some close friends even. I got a horse. I was also profoundly religious, strangely finding sustenance in my time alone with God, who was different from my father’s God although we gave him the same name.

Interestingly, people liked my dad. He was witty, charismatic, chameleon-like in his ability to charm dour farmers, pastors and our friends’ moms alike. After a while of course there’d be a big blow-out and they’d disappear from our life; his secretaries always quit eventually, even the farm labourers didn’t usually last long. But unanimously people would react the same, upon initially meeting him: “But he’s so nice/normal/interesting!”

It’s weird when people – especially your friends – think that you’re overreacting, when they can’t understand why you’re afraid of your dad, or why you think you wouldn’t be allowed to go to a party when clearly your dad is such a nice guy. He wasn’t a ranting lunatic – he was an emotionally astute man, not bad-looking, accomplished and engaging. In comparison, we were a rather rag-tag gang of children: shy to the extreme, clueless about pop culture, nervous. We made him look bad, if anything.

The year that I turned 14, God told my dad to take a Sabbatical. For a year he would renounce his job and focus only on prayer and worship, although we had no other income and a rather expensive farm to maintain. My mom was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and underwent intensive chemo treatment. I went through a series of surgeries that left me on crutches and in constant, severe pain for a year. Meanwhile, my dad was gradually entering into a strange frenzy. It culminated in him telling us that we weren’t allowed to have our friends anymore, because they were all ‘infected oranges’. He disenrolled me from piano lessons, my sister from guitar lessons, and decided that we’d all learn to play golf with him instead. We weren’t allowed to go to church anymore, which was the only place we interacted with other people.

Something snapped. One day, in a rage about my mom’s ingratitude (we had no fuel left and couldn’t go buy milk and butter from the neighbours like we usually did), my dad climbed on a horse to fetch the butter himself. He promptly fell off – he was a very bad rider. We all laughed, guiltily.

He kicked us off the farm – we left three days later, five kids and my mom in an old Audi, with our clothes packed tightly into the boot, pots and pans on our laps. We moved to my grandparents’ town on the other side of the country. This time it was final. And this time I was deeply, furiously relieved.

Of course it doesn’t end there. My parent’s divorce took almost another decade, ending in the High Court. He never paid any maintenance money, exhausting lawyers and judges alike – our local magistrate ended up recusing himself whenever a case regarding my dad came up. He filed dozens of complaints against my mom, alleging that she was a neglectful parent. Tens of times he was ordered by a judge to see a psychologist, but it never happened. When we’d visit him he’d tell us about his newest dream: to have many wives, one from each South African culture perhaps, living in houses around him with his children numerous as the sand of the sea, a la Abraham. Women don’t mind sharing one husband, he said, it’s their natural position – as long as they have each other to gossip with they’re content.

Once, he kidnapped my brothers and fled the country with them – he was caught in Mozambique, just before they would have left for Madagascar. It was a hellish time; I barely know how my mom survived it. She fended for us as best she could, putting us through school somehow. Against the backdrop of such insanity, my last few teenage years were relatively normal. I saw my dad as rarely as possible; in any case I often did things that made him cut me off as his child for months on end, like having a boyfriend, like having kissed someone.

A year ago my dad contacted me for the first time in years. It’s strange how his story repeats itself: he is living in France, doing a course in agriculture, estranged from his new wife. They’re in a protracted custody battle for their two little daughters. He is fighting a righteous battle, he tells me, and he’ll win. He’ll win. God is on his side. Soon after we resumed contact his continued attacks on my life choices forced me to break contact again. It didn’t feel healthy. I was getting nothing but a sickening sense of deja vu from listening to his stories.

                                                                                Epilogue

I thought for the longest time that I should be able to forgive my father. Everybody says so: you can’t move on if you can’t forgive. I felt it a moral failing on my part: even though I did process large parts of my childhood trauma, I could never bring myself to forgive. Every time I tried I knew that my forgiveness was inauthentic.

Then I kind-of got over it. Going back again and again to my most difficult memories to eke out some forgiveness feels counterproductive. And blanket forgiveness feels untrue. More: I don’t think I SHOULD forgive my dad, not right now, perhaps not ever. It doesn’t feel like part of my journey.

I feel instead that I should straddle the line between remembering and letting go, grieving for myself and my family while allowing anger, when it comes, its justified position.

I was reminded of this last night, as I was reading a piece from Jeff Brown’s book Grounded Spirituality. Brown writes: “If forgiveness of others arises organically, so be it. If it doesn’t, there is no issue. We are not responsible for those who wound us. They can take that up with God, or whatever they answer to” (own emphasis). And “Forgiveness of others is not always the appropriate response. There are actually situations where it is more healing not to forgive. That is the genuine and true response.”

I am not responsible for those who wound me.

I am responsible for me. And I decide, I decide, what my path will be. This is true: a tremendous and continuous injustice was done to me by my father. He was not a good person. And he will never apologise – if I am hoping for vindication from him, I will never get it. There will be no reconciliation.

This is also true: Without denying the damage he did me, my father gave me many gifts. Suffering under him taught me compassion. It expanded my faith, although that faith has since morphed away from religion entirely. It opened my eyes to the pain of others. It sharpened my intuition. It gave me self-awareness and sensitivity. It made me band together closely with my siblings, forming a bond that will sustain me all my life.

I am not grateful towards my dad, but I AM grateful towards life. I wouldn’t have my childhood any other way, now. But I am also angry. I am also sad. The landscape of my heart is profoundly uneven, full of peaks and troughs. I stumble upon my wounds when I least expect to, bewildered by the anguish buried within. I still catch myself inhabiting my body with fear and awkwardness, asking for permission to exist, to be loud, to have opinions. I still stumble upon residual anger at all men.

But I have built a brave life. I people it with love. I engage with my own wounds. I recognise myself as more, much more than my own woundedness: If I am broken, I am also whole. I am triumphantly, unceasingly alive.

And although forgiveness might not be my path, I know that compassion is. I have compassion for my father, a terrified and lonely man whose choices drove him further and further away from connection. My heart breaks over the fact that there are so many like him, men and women entangled in their own rampant emotions, undiagnosed, untreated, yet so clearly profoundly ill.

He did the best he could. What freedom, to realise this – not as an excuse, not even an explanation, only as statement of fact. My dad did the best he could with the level of maturity and self-knowledge and faith that he had.

His best was not good enough. He will have to live with that forever, as will I, but I get to have compassion. And I get to move on.