Growing up in a Pentecostal “church” (Part 2)
[read Part 1 here]
There is no graceful way to say it. I was their cash cow. The “church” I was raised in exploited me for money. And they psychologically damaged me in order to do so.
I didn’t always see it as exploitation. I was a child, after all, doing whatever the grown-ups wanted me to do (though they claimed it was what God wanted me to do). There were times when I saw it as my duty. Other times, it was a privilege. Most of the time, though, it made me feel bad. But I was too young and isolated to understand these feelings, let alone articulate them, or stand up for myself. So I accepted that this was being done “for God’s glory.”
It started when I was 5. I wrote some silly little song about how Jesus was amazing or whatever. And Mom set it up for me to sing it at church, pronto. I did, nervously, reluctantly. They said I was so precious, so adorable. I returned to my seat — glad that’s over!
A few weeks later, they wanted me to sing again. I said no; I didn’t feel like it.
That’s when the first mindgame happened. Still remember it vividly, because it confused me so much: My mother barked, “You go in the bathroom right now, and pray to God, and tell him why you don’t want to sing for Him! See what He says about that!”So I locked myself up in the bathroom, prayed, still didn’t feel like singing, came out and reported to her: “God said I don’t have to sing.” She was furious. Refused to accept my answer. Threatened that if I didn’t sing, I would be disobeying God’s will — a dire sin. It then became frighteningly clear to me, that no matter what, God’s will would always magically line up with Mom’s will. My prayers, my feelings, didn’t matter.
So I sang again. And again. And again. I only agreed to their requests because I knew what kind of reaction a “no” would get.
I had to rehearse constantly. Rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal…. They’d make me perform at all sorts of events: birthdays, holidays, Pastor Appreciation Day. And here’s what I would do at each one: stand onstage, stiff as a statue, staring at a point in the distance so I wouldn’t have to look at all the people looking at me, singsingsing, then hurriedly get off stage.
There were so many events, they’re all a monotonous blur now. A constant cycle of rehearsing, performing, then rehearsing again. Sometimes, if the events ran late, I’d start to doze off — only to be jerked awake because my turn to sing was next, or to be scolded for ruining my hair and makeup. I didn’t get it. Why did they want me to sing all the time?
Then, one day, I was old enough to realize that when I would sing, people would put lots of money into the church’s donation bucket. Oh.
The Chosen One
The church, all the while, would drop heavy hints that I’d better not start slacking, because now the stakes were high: “Did you know you were their key performer last night?” “There were one thousand people in that audience.” “You raised so much money, that church can pay off their bills!”
But it didn’t stop there. This wasn’t just about me being a cute little girl singing for Jesus anymore. No, in retrospect, I get it: this was a serious source of income for them, and they had to keep the money coming in to their donation bucket, at my expense.
I don’t know when exactly I first noticed it. When I was 7? 8?
As I’d sing, the church elders would suddenly begin convulsing and shouting things in tongues, so inspired by my singing that they’d (allegedly) get filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Pastor would occasionally brag about me from the pulpit. What a good goddaughter she is. What a good example of how God’s children should act: giving their talents to the Lord.
One Sunday, we had a Guest Pastor who interrupted his own sermon to point at me and shout, “There are children here with callings on their lives!”
And then the worst of it started happening: I have so many memories. Of church elders. Putting their hands on my forehead and prophesying, God has anointed you to sing His Word! You will travel the world one day saving souls with your voice! Little Prophet, Little Prophet!
This is the convoluted message I was getting from all this:
my singing voice had magical powers to fill people with the Holy Spirit; God Himself had put a special anointing on me that none of the other kids had; and as long as I obeyed God, I was going to become a world-famous singer.
If the stakes weren’t high before, now they were really super extra high.
A Shift in Desire
I was 13 when I was accepted into an afterschool program called YoungAtArts. The idea of the program was to give kids from underserved communities the kind of performing arts education that our under-funded schools weren’t offering.
At the end of my first semester with YAA, I was given a solo for the recital (“Where is Love?” from Oliver). For the first time in my life, I enjoyed singing. I liked being onstage. I wasn’t afraid or pressured to be there. I was using my voice, on my terms. Singing out of a desire to do so, rather than out of a fear of not doing so, really brought me out of my shell.
Our director, Mrs Pirtle, assigned songs to me based on what was best for my particular voice (classical, heady, high soprano). To bring out the best in me, rather than forcing me to be someone else. Singing was no longer about being used for someone else’s gain. Now it was my gain too! I gained friends, confidence, and a love of singing so profoundly deep that at times, it seemed impossible. How could I go from hating singing, to adoring and desiring it this fervently? The answer: autonomy.
The more time I spent at YoungAtArts, the less time I spent singing for my mother’s church. Eventually, I stopped singing for them altogether. The church would seethe, Why don’t you sing for God anymore? Older and confident enough to rebel, I’d curtly respond, Because I don’t want to. And that was that.
I actually started writing this blog post a week ago, and had to walk away from it to process all the heavy feelings that bubbled up.
Nobody wants to admit just how deeply their childhood affected them, even though rationally, I know it wasn’t my fault. No child could have grown up in that environment, bombarded with those delusions, and come out completely unscathed and level-minded. So why do I hold it against myself, that I bought into their grandiose projections of me, for so long? It’s infuriating, how easily groomed I was. And infuriating, how difficult it is to “un-mind” that conditioning.
Lists always help me feel sane. Here goes:
How I think my cult-exploited “trophy childhood” affects me as an adult:
- I have trouble seeing myself as a whole, real human being. I feel more like an image or projection. Like I’m constantly performing a version of myself I think people will approve of, overly aware of my own face and body, and constantly monitoring my movements and appearance. And when I don’t have the energy to “perform myself,” it gives me anxiety. I try to leave the stage behind, but the stage always finds me.
- Nothing is good enough. Every time I accomplish something, it only exacerbates my sense of emptiness. (For instance: I graduated this past week and felt totally lost and worthless instead of happy.) I try to practice gratitude for my achievements, but I’m starting to think I should stop aiming to achieve things at all, and instead focus on accepting myself wherever I’m at in life, whether I’m successful or not.
- In the back of my mind, there’s always this sense of impending doom. Like, I HAVEN’T SUNG ONSTAGE IN THREE YEARS, I FORGOT ALL MY PIANO LESSONS, OH NO, I’M RUNNING OUT OF TIME, I HAVE NO FUTURE WHATSOEVER BEYOND THESE THINGS, GOD’S GOING TO PUNISH ME. I’ve never been able to imagine myself beyond age 23. And I’m 22.
- I feel torn between trying to become famous/known in some regard, and trying to be normal.
On the one hand, I got a teeny-weeny taste of “fame” last year when my political writing started getting shared all over the place. Suddenly, I was getting fan mail. And hate mail. Someone even made fan-art of me. A few people called me a “leader in the feminist movement,” thought I never intended to present myself that way. People would write to me and thank me for writing back, then apologize for wasting my time. Sometimes I would meet cool people, think we could become good friends, but then find out they couldn’t seem to appreciate me outside of my writing or politics — no, I was “Alicen Grey” now. And it freaked me out. I didn’t like it, at all. I wanted to shake these people and say “I’M A PERSON, PLEASE TALK TO ME LIKE A NORMAL PERSON!!!!”
So it’s like…. clearly I’m not the type who wants, or enjoys having, fans. But then that contradicts everything I was groomed to want as a kid. So it leaves me feeling confused. Why don’t I like being treated this way? This is who I’m supposed to be, isn’t it? If I don’t like being this person, what other option do I have? And then the emptiness kicks in again. It’s fucking maddening.
How I feel towards the cult for exploiting me:
- REALLY FUCKING HURT AND ANGRY.
- Angry angry angry.
- I want an apology.
- I want to know what kind of person I’d be, if they hadn’t set such toxic, grandiose standards for me so early in my development. Would I still feel like a two-dimensional image? How much of the anxiety, self-monitoring, and emptiness, would I still have? Would I have it at all?
- Disgusted. How could they look at me, as a little girl, and see dollar signs? And then flippantly cause so much psychological damage without thinking of how it impacted me? FUCK, that makes me sick to think about!!!
I am posting this for the catharsis, mostly…. but also in the hopes that someone out there — another trophy child, another cult’s child prophet — will see this, and reach out to me. I feel so fucking alone in this. Sure, I’ve met plenty of people who were “child prodigies” but I’d like to meet someone who was groomed to be a child prophet, in particular.
All these epiphanies… are making me realize, that maybe I should slow down with my political writing. Slow down with the whole “Alicen Grey” persona. Just focus on getting myself on a career path, saving up for my future, staying out of the limelight. Like well-adjusted people do. Is that what they do? I don’t know.