My mom grew up straddling two very different worlds: the evangelical & the adamantly secular. I always knew this, but it wasn't until reading the following description that I had the surreal pleasure of recognizing my own formerly mysterious, personal dogma as a mutation of the rules & contradictions that raised my mother. She very rightly wrote, "there's no way to talk about my identity without talking about my parents," & I cut it out of the piece below in order to co-opt it for this introduction. Here's to parents, & here's to hoping you learn something, too!
Neither Bird, Nor Beast.
By Jan Sidebotham
I remember a folktale from my childhood about the bat and how he suffered because he was neither bird nor beast. When he approached the birds, they rejected him — he was too much like an animal. When he approached the beasts, they rejected him — too “avian.” I think many of us feel that way. I’ve often gravitated towards people who are navigating two worlds. I watched my father do it, and had to do it myself.
My father and mother came from extremely religious households. My father’s family was Methodist, I think, but they ended up joining the Plymouth Brethren. My mother’s father and mother were “Brethren” as they called it, and she did not experience any other denomination until she was an adult.
As Brethren, we hardly used the word “church” — too Catholic. We went to the chapel, where there were no images of Jesus, no crosses, and communion was called “The Lord’s Supper” or “Breaking of Bread.” We distinguished ourselves from everybody else — Catholics, other Protestants, observers of other religions — as “believers.” Which meant that we had accepted Jesus as our personal savior, and so we would go to Heaven. Serious Brethren did not drink, smoke, dance, play cards, or go to movies as those were worldly practices. We prayed — before and after dinner, and we read the Bible after dinner. We went to three hours of church on Sunday mornings; my parents hosted a youth group in the afternoon, and then there was another meeting Sunday night. Men shared extemporaneously at “The Lord’s Supper.” Women were required to cover their heads and not speak. My parents went to prayer meeting on Tuesday nights. We attended “Grenadiers,” a children’s program, on Friday nights.
An artist like his own father, my father loved drawing cartoons. When he was 19, he ended up in the “bullpen” of the New York ad agency Young and Rubicam, and he ascended through the ranks to become the youngest vice-president there and to establish their television department in the 1950s. He was one of those “Mad Men.” He took the train to Grand Central Station from Hastings-on-Hudson, our little village on the river. He ended up living a double life really — shifting between his work world and his church/family world. He ended up making a choice and left the church and my mother. I’m still not sure which he was really leaving. Plymouth Brethrenism and my mother are fused in my mind. She was not a bat; she knew where she belonged, and eventually my dad did, too — not with the Plymouth Brethren and not with my mother.
I, too, left the Plymouth Brethren eventually, but, as a child and through my teenage years, I tried to be a believer. I attended evangelical churches and evangelical youth groups; dragged my friends to evangelistic enterprises and tried to save them from Hell; read and memorized the Bible; woke up early to pray in the morning; didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, cheat. At the same time, I fervently longed to be popular, and I longed to hang out with the cool kids. In my mind, the cools kids were the wannabe hippies. I yearned after the jean-clad, braless, long-haired, make-up-eschewing “freaks.”
I went to both Bethany Chapel and Hastings High School. One of my friends’ parents were Communists and had even been Stalinists before, you know, people found out what Stalin was like. My classmates’ parents included Kenneth Clark, who testified in Brown v. Board of Education, Willard Gaylin and Daniel Callahan who founded the Hastings Institute and kind of invented the field of Bio-Ethics. Jacques Lipschitz, the artist, lived in Hastings, as did a Broadway director, many lawyers and journalists. Many of my friends were Jewish, and some of their parents were Holocaust survivors. One of our teachers required a reading of the Communist Manifesto in ninth grade. Another teacher said, “Fuck you” to a student in 1972 when teachers decidedly did not curse. As I got older, some of my friends and their parents joined “est” the group practice that preached “be here now” and often flew in the face of conventional religion [A note from the editor: turns out “est” is part-Zen Buddhism, part-Scientology & entirely fascinating. It’s worth investigation].
It was a crazy time in New York City and its suburbs — on the cutting edge of America’s experiments with drugs, sex, and rebellion, but my home resembled an Amish household more than it did my neighbors’ and classmates’. Every day I would go to school and mingle with the “world” and return in the afternoon to my very structured life centered around the Bible and Jesus.
These two powerful influences — my religion and my school — clashed sharply throughout my childhood. When I was at church, I felt like I had nothing in common with my fellow worshippers. When I was at school, I felt like I was hiding a secret. My family was just too weird. I tried not to hide my religion, for that would mean betraying Jesus by being ashamed of him, but I also didn’t really talk about it unless I had to.
When the theater teacher asked if I’d consider doing a particular part for a play, I said, “Yes, I’d love to, but not if it has bad language or is sacrilegious.” I remember that as one of the hardest, most embarrassing things I’ve ever done. He laughed and said, “Oh, it isn’t sacrilegious.” The part was for Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”
I have to give my mother credit for letting me appear on stage (the theater was considered “worldly”) or go to movies or sleep over at friends’ houses or have a Jewish boyfriend. She let me participate in the world outside the chapel and our house, and risked her own standing in a rigid culture for my sake.
I suspect that everyone moves through two different worlds, often feeling like a stranger in both, in each. When I have been in a secular environment — my high school, college, workplaces, in-laws’ home, even my own nuclear family of husband and two children — I feel like the religious one. And I’m sensitive to the ridicule or disparagement of Christians or religion. When I have been in a strict, Christian environment, I am sensitive to the judgment of “non-believers.” Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always felt one of “them,” never one of "us."