|Michelangelo: "The Prophet Jeremiah"|
The day after September 11, 2001, I entered into the classroom of what I thought would be the biggest opportunity of my academic and professional career: I would be taking a storytelling class with Spalding Gray, the author who had harnessed his story into monologue. I had been captivated by him for decades.
That summer, I was working as the graphic designer of Hampton Shorts literary magazine when the editor received a call one afternoon that her friend Spalding had been in a devastating car accident in Ireland.
Spalding would never be the same.
He walked into the classroom months later, disheveled and worn. He was an old man by then. He smelled of injury, as if he had brought with him the gauze and vials from a hospital. But here we were, in a classroom on the eastern shore of Long Island. This was where the wealthy came to relax. This was where artists came to inspire.
Spalding said nothing of the previous day’s events; he wanted us to go up and introduce ourselves in artful monologue. I did my best but left the classroom feeling discouraged and sapped.
One of my greatest strengths has been in public speaking, but in front of Spalding Gray, I had nothing to communicate. I dropped the class the next day.
For all these years I thought it was Spalding’s fault—his infirmity, his depression. He threw himself into the East River a few years later, and none of us who had been in that classroom on September 12 was surprised.
Spalding Gray’s depression had won.
So had mine.
I had been in New York a year by the time I took Spalding’s class. It became a year of disenchantment, punctuated by the destruction of a city that I—like so many other dreamers—had expected to rescue me. I expected to be made well in New York.
Instead, the church I joined was full of demons. The pastor manipulated scriptures from the pulpit, then went backstage to screw women who commented well on his sermons. Witches entered the sanctuary and spoke spells over congregants. When people began to notice the disparity between authentic Christianity and the debacle the church had become, they were killed.
I had most of my possessions and much of my money stolen from me by the elders of the church. They ran me out because I have the God-given ability to discern supernatural activity.
I knew something was not right, and I was forced out of the church. Thank God I wasn’t murdered.
In the aftermath of that experience, I shut down. Storytelling was arduous, yet I had come to New York to pursue an MFA in creative writing. I no longer cared what I ate; I stopped exercising.
Friends throughout the country approached me to ask where I had gone. New friends on Long Island confronted me to ask why I never shared anything of my life, of myself.
It wasn’t Spalding Gray’s fault that I walked out of that classroom defeated. It was mine.
Sanctified denial occurs when a Christian is in so much pain—usually because of disillusionment—that she denies herself the option of healing and instead masquerades as a level-headed, born-again evangelical. She may convince herself that everything is all right.
I may not have drunk like the other writers in New York, I may not have entered and exited the beds of men whose names I would not remember later, I may not have betrayed other women through scandalous gossip, but I did worse: I pretended to be okay, to be the perfect Christian, when it was clear by my escalating weight and my putrefying talent that I was exactly the opposite.
Although I haven’t thought about Spalding Gray since finding out about his death in 2004, last week it occurred to me that, had I not been in my own bell jar then, I would have flourished in his class.
In the ten years since then, I have experienced a personal reckoning, and it’s been through supernatural means. Actually in the past five months, I have recognized that my choice in the early 2000s to squelch who I truly was became the biggest deterrent to my achieving my dreams.
Since writing about my pain on this blog in June, since inviting other women to share their anthems in August, since opening up to a world of writers and ministers to declare I am no longer afraid—I am no longer dead—I have experienced the sanctification I need to become not just the writer or teacher or mother or wife that I’ve dreamt of being, but the woman who I was formed by God to be.
Here I am.
When memories would haunt me, and they did frequently—from the sexual abuse by my cousin and family friend, to the verbal vomit shot out by alcoholic family members, to the spiritual legalism of the church community to which I belonged—I used to let those voices torment my sleep, shut me up at the altar, dry up my ink.
When I couldn’t push away the memories, when I felt the Holy Spirit tell me to stay with them for awhile, I began to understand what God was trying to do.
Over a three month period, chronological memories would come back to disturb me. Instead of hiding them, though, I sat with them. I reflected over what was said and how I had internalized vitriolic words. God would show me how a destructive behavior pattern in me formed from that event. He didn’t stop there; He didn’t even wait for my repentance. He didn’t need it. Instead, God spoke to me the opposite message that I had received during those memories of abuse.
God spoke the truth of my identity, my worth, through every memory, and He allowed me to come forth.
I was left with a stunning display of redemption. I am not who those men or women had assigned me to be. I am better.
I am God’s. He is good. He does not err. He makes all things new.
When I think back to the young woman I was standing before Spalding Gray, trying to tell my story, nothing came because I had not allowed myself to believe that I was worth anything.
So no one saw my value.
When I stand before a crowd now, I understand my worth, and I know my voice. I understand that I am created by a God who purposes good for His children, especially through suffering. I know each word that exits my pen, and my mouth, will declare this anthem of my having so often faced death but having stood quietly long enough to hear God speak above the lies: I have set you free, Renee. Go and do likewise for others.
Have you found your voice? How do you share it with others?
NOTE: The Spalding Gray Estate contacted me to ask if they could post this link to their site. It was an honor to have told them yes.