In a blistering new memoir, the comedy writer recalls her youth as an obsessive-compulsive believer and how she ended up in a strip club
Maggie Rowes dark, funny new memoir, Sin Bravely (subtitle: My Great Escape From Evangelical Hell), opens under the watchful gaze of a shifty-eyed Jesus. As she sits with her mother in the waiting room of the Christian mental health rehabilitation center, the author then 19 glares up at the painting, suspicious of the Nazarenes serene expression. She knew his perfect love could curdle into indifferent cruelty in an instant, and that she could be cast aside, damned for eternity, on a whim. Rowe was filled with doubt, even as she awaited her admittance into Grace Point Evangelical Psychiatric Institute a last-ditch effort to curb the obsessively pious Born Again Christians all-consuming worries about going to hell.
I did not want to see a traditional therapist because I figured they would try to dissuade me from a belief in hell, that theyd tell me the whole thing was a fairytale or opiate and that seemed incredibly dangerous, Rowe explained. I needed someone to work within my belief system, so I was really happy when my parents found Grace Point for me.
Raised in the Evangelical Christian church, Rowe was always a believer. Even as a child, Rowe found herself consumed by worry over whether she truly had been saved, and whether her acceptance of Jesus Christ had stuck. Shed said the words, but what if she hadnt really meant them? What if she hadnt meant them enough? She lugged around a massive Bible, memorizing lines of Scripture the way other kids memorize baseball stats, but as her familiarity with it grew, so did her fears of inadequacy.
Her parents encouraged her to get baptized at age nine, hoping to quell some of her fears about really being saved, but the ceremony only served to exacerbate her worry. Plagued with recurring thoughts about eternal damnation, Rowe sought answers from her local pastor, who seemed overwhelmed by the little girls questions and left her feeling even more anxious. As she grew older, she struggled to balance her religious morals with the temptations and realities of American youth; when she left for college, the worry went along with her. Even as she rationalized experimenting with drinking and sex, her old fears refused to let go. After a trying sophomore year, her parents checked her into the Grace Point for the summer, where the bulk of Sin Bravelys narrative takes place.
There, Rowe introduces us to a curious cast of characters one might say colorful (especially in the case of the perpetually irate, reformed biker who found Jesus after dropping a hellish mixture of angel dust and crack) but overall, the personalities she encounters are painted in sad, anxious shades of black and grey. Grace Point is not a happy place, despite the forced cheerfulness of its employees; the friendships Rowe forms during her time there feel rare and precious, glimmers of light in the fog of meetings, therapy and the misguided exclamations of her dangerously clueless counselor, Bethanie.
The smug, saccharine Bethanie the closest thing to an outright villain found in Sin Bravely constantly tries to force wildly inaccurate diagnoses on Rowe for the sake of what seems like convenience, if not outright ignorance. Group therapy sessions with her were a nightmare, as she steamrolled discussions and thundered against what she saw as heretical ideas, even when her tactics worked to the detriment of her patients. Rowe saw her as both an adversary and an almost pathetic figure, one with whom she locks horns more than once.
Bethanie was one of those people that you encounter in all walks of life who lacks a healthy skepticism of her own opinions, who is really sold on her own ideas, Rowe reflects. That attitude is especially dangerous in mental health. My bumper sticker is Dont believe everything you think.
It takes a light hand to keep such serious subject matter from sinking into the doldrums, but Rowe deftly juxtaposes dark humor with raw emotion without ever yanking the reader out of the story.
I really worked to keep it in the 19-year-old voice and not jump into my perspective now. When I was going through earlier drafts I would try to catch moments where the voice slipped into my current one, where it would be a little too wry, a little too confident or certain or calm, Rowe explains. It helped that I had two giant notebooks from the time I was there where I journaled about every bit of the experience. I also saved folders of handouts from the different therapists that I took notes on, so I had a lot of help in remembering what I was like then and how I thought.
The books biggest breakthrough moment comes near the end, when the centers no-nonsense Dr Galvade diagnoses Rowe with a very specific kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Being able to put a name to the condition thats dominated her life fills the author with hope, as does a phrase sin bravely offered up by Dr Benton, the psychiatrist who becomes her greatest ally at Grace Point.
Using phrases or mantras to encourage and comfort myself has been a powerful practice for me. For years I would say to myself Remember the purple sky when I was feeling anxious, which to me meant remember a sense of internal spaciousness and kindness toward myself, says author Rowe. Theres so much junk that goes on in my head, I think its important to add some friendliness to the mix.
Martin Luthers adage to sin bravely in order that you may know the forgiveness of God and Bentons admonition to ease off the Bible a little dovetail to leave Rowe feeling very brave indeed. Her newfound comfort with the idea of being bad take her to a strip club and on to the stage. Despite the power of her new mantra, Rowes night at Lookers ends in crisis.
As the taste of blood seeps into my mouth, I think, Dear God, Ive done the same thing again. Ive made the same mistake. What is wrong with me? The throbbing bass of the song Centerfold bangs in my ears. My blood runs cold. My memory has just been sold. Its loud. Too Loud. I press my earlobes over my eardrums. Was sinning bravely just an excuse to sin? My eyes smart from the dense smoky air, my contacts sticking to my eyes, my eyelids sticking to my contacts. The air and the volume are punishing. Im sorry, I say to God over the throbbing bass line banging into my head. Im sorry. I got it wrong.
Rowes younger self spends most of the book beating herself up, which her current counterpart draws on to deftly illustrate the panic, incessant anxiety, and rote repetition that accompanied her brand of obsessive compulsion. Young Maggie is a sympathetic character, and a frustrating one; its hard to resist the impulse to yell at this ghost girl to just snap out of it, to calm down, to stop fretting about hellfire and worry more about her homework but thats now how anxiety works, and to ignore that is to render the reader as crass and tone-deaf as the hated Bethanie.
Rowe navigates the tangle of her own messy emotions with a firm hand and an eye for detail. Poignant little moments abound, and some of the most interesting (and ironic) ones appear when she allows glimpses into the inner lives of her fellow Grace Pointers. The heart pulls towards wine-sipping Cindy with her doomed dreams of motherhood, and stone-faced art professor Dwayne, whos only there on court orders and isnt even that religious: Im no fan of born-agains, but theyre better than junkies. Her motley crew could have easily veered into farce, but instead, became the most stable aspect of Rowes anxious summer.
Her time at Grace Point left a profound impact on her, and as Rowe tells it, was the catalyst for the next stage of her evolving relationship with spirituality and faith. The experience began to dislodge my belief in a literal reading of the Bible. After that I began to visualize God differently, as a spirit of kindness, she says. Theres an Indigo Girls song that I used to sing to myself a lot: He is only what is best in us, whats decent and kind and right. I began praying to a higher spirit within myself.
Now married and working as a TV writer and actor in LA, Rowe seems to have found peace, as well as a healthy distance from the tumultuous period of her life we observe in Sin Bravely. Shes moved away from her born again beginnings, instead embracing meditation and, at one point, starting a whole new religion called Pyrasphere, a satire on what has been called prosperity theology.
Shes come a long way from being that little girl with the big Bible and even bigger worries about hell, but hasnt turned her back on the church entirely. Sin is just less of a concern than her overall wellbeing these days.
I continued to suffer from anxiety and obsessive thoughts although the thoughts stopped centering on hell. I moved into an ashram called the Himalayan Institute after college and studied meditation, which made an enormous difference. Meditation helped to watch the thoughts and feelings come and go and not get caught up in their storms, she explains. Today, I regularly attend two Buddhist organizations, the Zen Center of Los Angeles and Against the Stream, but I also attend certain Christian functions. I try to cultivate a generous, kind spirit and am open to anything to help get me there.
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