By Elsa Williams
Thirty years ago, when I was 15, I turned myself into an atheist. I excised my faith, but I couldn’t excise the idea of sin. I decided that I was evil and I embraced that new identity, with the kind of devotion that only the religious can muster.
My mother was a Christian Scientist, but never pushed me into devotion. I had to go to Sunday school, but beyond that I was on my own. She had been raised a Christian Scientist, had left the faith in her late teens, and returned to it in her late twenties, when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. All that doctors could offer her was a life of suffering, so she turned to prayer. Mornings I could always find her in bed reading her Lesson. Her Bible and Science and Health marked with metal bookmarks and blue chalk. The practice of Christian Science involved quiet reading, contemplation, and prayer, and, as a child, I didn’t have the discipline.
When I was 11, I started to mark my own books and read the Lesson each week. Which meant that by the time I got serious about Christian Science, I was in middle school. Ugly, awkward, and socially isolated. And very receptive to the idea that everything on the temporal plane was suffering. I had no trouble believing that I couldn’t trust anyone but God. It soothed my loneliness and abetted my desire to think of myself as a disembodied mind, a glowing jellyfish floating through a dark world. Free from fat, body hair, acne, and bullying.
When I was 15, I realized I was bi. One spring night, I dropped into a hypnogogic vision of a woman’s naked body under my own, my leg between hers, my hand on her breast. I came out of it transformed and dazed.
And in that daze, one day in after-school rehearsal for The Good Woman of Setzuan, I suddenly realized that the bump at the front of the music teacher’s too tight jeans was his penis. His penis was right in front of me. Men had penises in their pants all the time. It felt like a revelation. Desire was completely different from the crushes I’d had before, where I fixated on any crumbs of attention that a boy or a male teacher gave me. This was about the messiness of bodies.
That spring, my mother took me to Paris for a week. We woke up very early every morning, and spent every minute visiting museums and historic sites. I spent the trip in a haze of sleep deprivation and hormones. I was totally absorbed by the nipples and belly buttons of the Egyptian statues, the sensuality of the ancient black stone. I searched out every painting or sculpture of the three muses dancing naked in a circle, lost in a secret reverie of women’s bodies touching.
I had always lived in my head, either worrying or daydreaming. And living in my body was intoxicating. Warm velvet pleasure. I wallowed in it, even though I knew I should be fighting it. I was supposed to be the watchman of my mind, but I had abandoned my post.
By that time, my mother, though still a practicing Christian Scientist, had pulled away from the community. We moved to California when I was 14, and it took her a long time to connect to any kind of community there. But also, the year before we moved, she’d had viral meningitis. She told me that Christian Scientists could turn against you if you got sick, blame you for not having prayed hard enough. I’m not sure if that happened to my mother, or if the fear was enough for her to exile herself.
So it felt like there wasn’t anyone I could turn to for advice on how to reconcile religion with queer desire. Talking to my mother was out of the question. She did not seem to have any concept of sexual desire as a thing women experience. I have since wondered if she has ever had the visceral experience of desire, and if so, why it didn’t make her question the sexual rules she grew up with in the 1950s? That girls only have sex to please boys, and that it is a tight wire act to extract what they need – marriage, respect, and fidelity – out of the bargain. That homosexuality is intentional, deviant, and political, permanently tied to the Communist menace from all the propaganda films the teachers made her watch on Friday afternoons.
My desire didn’t feel like a political stance – it felt like a vital part of me – but it did feel intentional. I was sure that if I worked hard enough, I could retreat into meditation and dull the demands of my body, the same way I had used prayer to dull the pain of a jammed finger. My new sinfulness felt fragile, like if I opened it up to debate, I would be forced to give it up.
The closest thing in Christian Science to sin was Error, the error of turning away from God’s Truth and putting your trust and belief in the false world of the senses. So I turned away from God and identified as a sinner.
Overnight, I became a materialist, a humanist, an atheist. It felt imperative that I extract myself from a worldview that denied the reality and importance of my desire. One night that spring I snuck out to watch the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show because I had intuited that it had something to say to my new sinful self. I searched out sinful books. Story of the Eye, City of the Night. But also anything I could find about being queer. The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, Black Unicorn, Another Mother Tongue, Gossamer Axe, Rubyfruit Jungle. None of which had much to say about being bisexual.
The conviction that I was now irretrievably evil helped me escape from a set of religious ideas that was encouraging my worst impulses of isolation and social withdrawal. And it helped me ignore all of my mother’s heartfelt but regressive ideas about sexuality.
But thinking of myself and my sexuality as bad made it hard for me to realize that I was allowed to be as inexperienced and naive as my peers. I felt thoroughly debauched. I had sinned in my heart. And I wasn’t going to stop. I was fiercely protective of that sin. I refused to be ashamed.
For a couple of years, my sin remained in the purely theoretical realm. None of my friends drank or did drugs or went to the parties the popular kids threw when their parents were out of town. I lived in the cloister of being a nerd girl. Though I intended to have as much sex and do as many drugs as I could, if I could make myself cool enough for either one to be on offer.
That cloister didn’t protect me for very long. I chafed at the other girls’ timidity. And the world was much bigger than my honors classes. I was a tall, striking teenager who looked older. And I worked hard to give the impression that I was up for anything.
When I was 17, I went down on a boy because he told me, “I thought you were adventurous.” And I felt like I had something to prove. I wanted to be tough, but spent the next day hiding in the school art studio and crying. It felt like it was all my fault because I had wanted “experience.”
I talked to the school counselor, and she told me it was OK to kiss a boy and then say no. That no matter what he said, I hadn’t been leading him on. I nodded, but deep down, I didn’t believe her.
That spring, I slept with a woman for the first time. I had been in love with Carmen for two years, but she had believed me when I said I was bad. She thought she was just another notch in my bedpost.
The school counselor was the only person I felt like I could trust, so I told her about Carmen. Told her I was bi. She told me about the Pacific Center, a queer youth group in Berkeley, which was a lifeline for me.
At the end of the school year, the counselor pulled me aside to tell me earnestly, “Elsa, you’re not bad. You get good grades. You don’t do drugs.”
Though I now cringe at her limited idea of what made me good, I wasn’t able to hear what she was trying to say. That I wasn’t intentionally causing trouble, even if my mother and some teachers seemed to think I was. It felt like my sexuality, which was so central to my identity, was inherently wild, deviant, corrupt, and a choice.
Elsa Williams is working on a memoir about her early 20s and blogs at worn-smooth.tumblr.com. She is a biomedical scientist living in Medford, Massachusetts with her husband and two children.