The trouble began on a Sunday when I was fifteen. I was dressed and ready for church, waiting while the others bustled about in preparation, when a sudden conviction took hold of me: “I’m not going,” I told my mother.
She frowned in confusion, purse hanging from her forearm. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not going to church,” I said.
“Are you crazy?” she asked. “You do know that Ralph is pastor, don’t you?” Ralph was my stepfather.
“I’m never going again. I don’t believe in God.”
My eleven-year-old brother stood outside his bedroom door, smirking. Ralph kept to the master bedroom, letting his wife of two years handle her rebellious teenager. She shook her head as if to clear it. The year was 1983, in the city of Redlands, California.
My mother told me to get in the car; we were already late. I refused, and the argument devolved into shouting. She tried to collar me, I ducked out of her grip, and she chased me around the house, both of us shrieking like lunatics. Finally I locked myself in the hall bathroom of our house on Orange Street.
“You want me to kick the door in?” Ralph asked my mother in a weary voice. He was outwardly a calm man — a “mellow guy” in that era’s parlance — but prone to startling bursts of violence. At the time, we were being sued over an altercation at one of the church’s wine-soaked parties. The plaintiff had been cruelly mocking the church’s shy keyboard player when Ralph had clubbed the boor over the head with an acoustic guitar. By then I’d come to understand that the Church of the Living Word was not like other churches.
Panting with fury, I leaned my body into the door to resist Ralph’s assault, but it never came. Instead my mom and Ralph spoke quietly for a minute, and then she told me, anger simmering in her voice, that if I refused to follow their rules, I could find a new place to live.
“Good!” I shouted, and they left. The sudden stillness didn’t dampen my rage. I threw open the bathroom door and stomped out of the house without even a change of underwear to sustain me in what I presumed would be my new life on the streets.
I justified this blatant disobedience by reminding myself how strange our church was. We didn’t meet just on Sundays, for one thing. Sometimes we went six days a week, and the services, which could last for hours, were full of yelling, tears, speaking in tongues, and “intercessions” in which the congregation would gang up on a single member who’d lost favor, shouting the person down and reducing him or her to a sobbing heap. Occasionally we’d travel long distances to join thousands of other worshippers and see the church’s coleaders, Gary and Marilyn, a couple so close to God they already had one foot up in the Cloud of Witnesses, where the saints resided. The church’s founder, John Robert Stevens, had been watching over us from the Cloud since his recent death.
The goal in our church was not to go to heaven after you died but to create heaven on earth, at which time we’d don our “resurrection bodies,” which would afford us the power to fly, travel through time and space, speak all languages, and live forever. In exchange for this reward we had only to submit: to the elders, to the pastors, to Gary and Marilyn. They told us where to live, whom we could marry or divorce, what jobs we should have, and how much of our money and time we should give to the church. In other words, the Church of the Living Word was a cult. By the time of my rebellion, I’d quietly come to see the supernatural talk as nonsense and the basic structure of the church as authoritarian. Still, the notion of quitting hadn’t entered my mind until the very moment I’d taken my stand.
As night fell, I skulked through the orange groves north of town, wandering the rows, eating the fruit, and wondering how I was going to make this new independence work. I climbed a steel windmill to the crow’s nest below the blades, where I intended to sleep, thirty feet above the crawling things on the ground. Behind me spread the modest lights of town. I curled up on my side for warmth, staring at the dry Santa Ana River, a mile-wide strip of sand known as the Wash, where off-roaders carved up the riverbed with their knobby tires. An abandoned paper mill — towers, warehouses, and catwalks silhouetted against the San Bernardino Mountains — rose like a bombed-out city skyline. I closed my eyes but couldn’t sleep. I was cold and hungry. My rash act of defiance now felt stupid, trivial, and doomed.
Well after midnight I gave up and went home. I jimmied my bedroom window open and climbed in to catch a little sleep in my closet, where I hoped I wouldn’t be found. Huddled in a nest of dirty clothes, I woke a few hours later to the sound of my bedroom door opening. It was before dawn, and I knew it was my mother, perhaps unable to sleep, wanting to see if I’d come home. I pictured her standing on the threshold, staring at my neatly made bed. I imagined her worried look with both satisfaction and guilt. I didn’t want her to suffer, but I was gratified that my running away from home had mattered to her. I’d feared it hadn’t.
For reasons I still struggle to understand, my mother and I have never been close, not the way mothers and sons are supposed to be.
I was born in a one-bedroom apartment in Costa Mesa, California, my pregnant mother attended only by her eighteen-year-old husband and the “manager” of his surf-rock band. A day before she was due, they had left the hospital against the obstetrician’s orders. My father did not trust doctors, and my mother went along with his wishes. The deciding factor was the doctor’s insistence on a C-section. My mother’s hips were too narrow to pass a baby, he claimed. When she and I both survived natural childbirth, he said it was “practically a miracle.”
I liked hearing this story growing up. I also liked, perversely, my mother’s story of how she would sit in a car and play with me while my father went inside some seedy apartment or another to sell drugs. Hours later he’d come back drunk and high, but my mother never minded, because she was so in love with her new baby.
I even liked the story of how, when we ran out of food at the apartment, she used to take me to a grocery store and push me in a cart up and down the aisles, feeding me yogurt and grapes until I was full. Then we’d walk out without buying anything. The store employees knew what she was doing, she said, but they pretended not to notice.
Back when my mother and I talked more than we do now, she would also sometimes tell the story about when I quit nursing: I grew impatient one day, waiting for her milk to come, and I bit her, hard. Shocked by the pain, she slapped my face — lightly, of course. According to her, I fixed her with an almost-adult look of outrage, as if to say, How dare you. You’ll be sorry. (At this point in the story, my mother always laughed: before I could even walk, I was already her serious, stubborn, independent son.) “Fine,” she said, and she set me on the kitchen floor, poured cold milk into a cup, and placed it beside me.
“And you know what?” she would ask, finishing the story. “You drank it all without spilling a drop. And then you looked at me, so satisfied, like you were saying, I told you so. After that, you never let me nurse you again.”
I’d usually smile at this, but over time the story lost its charm.
My own memories of my mother begin when I was four. By this time we’d moved to Anza, California, a high-desert town of two hundred gun nuts, survivalists, nudists, hippies, pot cultivators, and ranchers; a land of boulders, cactuses, rattlesnakes, jackrabbits, coyotes, stinkbugs, barbed wire, and big sky bordered by mountains. My brother had recently been born, and my father had left. The three of us lived in a little red cabin on ten acres of scrubland my grandmother owned: a lonely sort of paradise. I recall hours spent by my mother’s side in a hammock outside the cabin while she read me the entire Chronicles of Narnia, chapter by chapter, book by book.
Then the “herb pickers” came into our home and our lives: five shaggy, single young men, members of the Church of the Living Word, sent by John Robert Stevens himself to gather medicinal herbs known to the native people who’d lived in those parts for thousands of years. (Like my parents, the church distrusted modern medicine.) The herb pickers lived in a large white tepee but frequented our cabin, where my mother would cook them dinner and serve them wine, and they would talk late into the night about John Robert Stevens and his radical new church.
As abruptly as they’d arrived, the herb pickers packed up their tepee and left, but in their place appeared dozens of cassette tapes containing the rumbling voice of John Robert Stevens. His sermons replaced music and talk in our cabin and the reading sessions in the hammock. Another church family joined us, or we joined them: a father and mother and three kids. Together all eight of us loaded into the couple’s pickup to ride an hour each way to the nearest Church of the Living Word congregation — or “body,” as they called it. Because one service a week became two, then three, then four, we soon had to move from Anza to be nearer to the body. My mother was an enthusiastic churchgoer, singing as loud as anyone in the room, chanting and repeating words of praise and defiance. “Hallelujah!” she would shout during services, startling me. I hardly recognized this intense, feverish woman.
The elders moved us to Redlands so my mother could work full-time (without pay) at a church-owned clothing factory while we lived on welfare and food stamps. She left for work before dawn and came home after dark. My brother and I spent our days at a church day care with other kids whose parents worked at the factory. We hardly saw our mother anymore, and when we did, she was too tired to talk.
I outgrew day care and began to roam the town on my bicycle, falling in with other children whose parents didn’t or couldn’t watch them too closely. For kicks we stole chrome valve caps from the tires of expensive cars and handlebar pads off BMX bikes outside the mall. When I reached my teens, I expanded my illegal activities to include smoking pot and shoplifting alcohol. I didn’t spend much time worrying about the state of my relationship with my mother, who had risen from factory worker to wife of the new pastor of the Redlands body, a position that brought with it a busy social calendar with little room for raising her children. I’d gotten used to the idea that she and I lived separate lives. My renunciation of the church felt like the next logical step.
I stayed huddled in my closet as my mother turned from my bedroom doorway and left. I dozed fitfully till morning, then listened with fascination to the sounds of my family preparing to leave for work and school. After the front door closed, I rolled out of the closet, stretching my stiff limbs. An intruder in my own home, I showered, changed, packed my school bag with clothes and toiletries, and ate breakfast, covering my tracks as I went. Finally I was prepared, but for what? Then I lit on the answer: Anza. My grandmother still owned the cabin where we used to live, and she’d always told my brother and me that we would eventually inherit that property (a well-intentioned falsehood, as it turned out). In the meantime an old friend of my father’s lived there rent-free as an informal caretaker. He would understand if I showed up, wouldn’t he? The plan wrote itself: I would steal Ralph’s old pickup and drive to Anza.
What about gas? I had no money and didn’t even know what direction Anza was in, much less the specific roads to take. In the master bedroom, in a jewelry drawer on top of the dresser, I found a ring of keys, and this small victory banished any doubt from my mind. Moving fast, lest someone return home and catch me, I climbed into the truck and tried the keys until one fit. I had never driven anything larger than a minibike, but how hard could it be? I cranked the ignition and stomped on the gas pedal, as I’d seen Ralph do. The engine heaved but didn’t turn over. I let it rest and tried again and again. I kept at it until the battery died, and then I sat there for a moment in the cab of the old pickup, defeated.
I returned the keys, made one final sweep of the house, and took off down the alley toward Redlands Senior High. School seemed an inauspicious start to my new emancipation, but I had nowhere else to go.
The solution arose over lunch break when my best friend, Jeff, casually invited me to stay with him. His older brother had just moved out, and his mother always welcomed guests.
That night I slept on the top bunk in Jeff’s room, and the next day, after school but before my mom and Ralph returned from work, I slipped back into my parents’ house, where I found my latchkey brother, home from sixth grade. Grinning, he told me he knew I’d been hiding in the closet the night before. He’d heard me enter through the window but hadn’t ratted me out. My brother and I had spent our lives as rivals, so it surprised me to suddenly find him an ally.
“Cool,” I said. “Thanks.”
He shrugged and wished me luck as I shoved clothes into my book bag. “I won’t tell them where you are,” he promised.
“Give this to Mom,” I said, and I handed him a note:
Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Just don’t try to find me. You’re better off forgetting about me. Maybe someday we’ll see each other again, but probably not. Goodbye.
Over the next five days I settled in at Jeff’s house. His family resembled families I’d seen on television, with one exception: Jeff’s mother was obviously a lesbian. I had no opinion about this, only gratitude that they’d agreed to let me stay. Their house was somewhat larger and nicer than ours. Jeff’s mother was a nurse, and her partner also held some sort of professional job. Every night the two women came home from work, cooked dinner, ate with me and Jeff, then settled onto the couch to watch television — a slow-paced existence that stood in stark contrast to the hectic, always-running-late energy of my house on Orange Street, where my mother and Ralph would throw together a quick dinner after work, then take off for church functions almost every night, unless the church came to our house in the form of a wild party. I enjoyed the peace of life with Jeff, and each night I shared a bunk bed with the brother I thought I should have had. We never fought, since we had nothing to fight over.
Another crucial difference between Jeff’s family and mine was revealed that Friday, when his mother called a family meeting. Anxious, I took my place at the dinner table with the others.
“I understand you’re having trouble at home,” Jeff’s mother said to me, and I shrank in my chair. She said if I needed a place to live long-term, I was welcome to stay there. They would never turn away anyone who needed help. But I had to be up front and open with my parents about the situation. “Do you understand?”
I nodded, speechless and ashamed. My family didn’t talk like this. We dealt with problems by ignoring them. To directly and immediately address an uncomfortable situation would have been unthinkable. And we would never have welcomed a stranger into our house. To us, there were church people, who mattered, and everyone else, who did not.
“I’m happy to sit down with your parents to work out a plan,” Jeff’s mother said, “but first you’re going to have to call and tell them where you are and what’s going on.”
I sat at Jeff’s desk in his bedroom and dialed my home number. My mom answered. I could hear the relief in her voice, and I knew right away that I wasn’t going to switch families. She told me she was sorry, and I began to cry: deep, silent sobs.
“Come home,” she said. “We’ll work it out.”
After I returned, we went about our lives as if nothing had happened. Nobody broached the subject of my rebellion. Ralph treated me in a friendly, casual manner, and sometimes I’d catch my mother smiling wistfully at me. Part of me longed to rejoin the church and be a good, obedient kid, but to give in at that point would have meant that all the anguish I’d put us through was for nothing.
I think I’d refused to go to church because I’d wanted to test my relationship with my mother. I’d wanted to know which she would choose: the church or me. I still didn’t know.
On Sunday, the original problem of my refusal to attend services still unresolved, I waited in my room while the others got ready. To my surprise, they left without even a goodbye. Alone, I watched football, my feelings too tangled for me to enjoy this new freedom.
Later that week my mother called me into her dark bedroom. We sat side by side on her bed, facing the wall and glancing at each other. “I talked to Marilyn,” she said, and she smiled the way she did when talking about God or drinking a lot of wine. “She wants to meet you in person,” my mother said. “Can you do that for us? It’s all we ask.”
I said of course, eager to make amends and relieved that this whole episode would soon be over, one way or another. Besides, even an apostate like me felt a thrill at the thought of meeting the leader of the church. Marilyn was a celebrity. Before marrying Gary, she was the widow of John Robert Stevens, who’d gone to the Cloud of Witnesses at the age of sixty-three, leaving the church without a clear leader.
Though I was oblivious to it at the time, John’s death had stunned his followers, many of whom viewed it as a great betrayal: Where was the eternal life they’d been promised? Where was the resurrection body? If John himself couldn’t make it past sixty-three, what hope did the rest of them have? Many disciples began to suspect they’d been duped. To make matters worse, a number of scandals had been simmering over the years: a silver mine that drew large investments from church members but whose earnings had mysteriously disappeared; unsavory sexual contact among pastors and subordinate women; and a slew of church businesses that turned profits but didn’t pay their workers. With John at the pulpit, the scandals had been kept to the status of rumor, and those who wagged their tongues were labeled Nephilim (a biblical race of evil giants), possessed by “rebellious spirits.” But upon our leader’s death, rumors turned to accusations, and accusations led to lawsuits. At the time of my meeting with Marilyn, the tsunami that would eventually reduce the church from more than a hundred congregational bodies to a scattered handful was on the horizon.
That Sunday morning we drove for an hour along the freeway to the massive, gleaming-white flagship church in Anaheim. My mother and Ralph settled into the main sanctuary, while my brother and I observed from the curiously half-empty balcony. As the service progressed, I noted how much the church had changed over the years. When I’d first attended, everyone had stood in a circle, with no distinction among pastor, elders, and congregation, but now I looked down upon a stage with an imposing pulpit and, behind it, two rows of seated leaders. In the front were Marilyn and her A-listers, and in the back row, which spanned the width of the stage, sat grim-faced men, many in suits and ties. Our little church in Redlands had mirrored this shift. Ralph’s sermons, delivered from under a ten-gallon hat, were often angry and hectoring as he blamed the congregation for not praying hard enough, for failing to submit fully, for holding back from the collection plate.
In spite of this, I experienced the service with a mix of nostalgia and anticipation of my meeting with the star of the show. As the proceedings wound down, I went to sit beside my mother, and after Marilyn offered the final blessing, we joined a couple of dozen others milling about in front of the stage. Marilyn descended the steps and worked her way through the mob of admirers, smiling, shaking hands, and distributing hugs. Up close I recognized her beauty despite her age, and I felt the pull of her fame. I didn’t know how many church members reviled her and blamed her for John’s death and what they saw as the corruption of the church. She certainly hadn’t helped matters by immediately marrying Gary and installing herself and him at the helm of the church her late husband had built. Some considered her a demon or the devil himself, tempting the great man and leading him to his doom. If only he’d stayed with his first wife, they thought.
But that day in Anaheim, Marilyn stood among her fans, including my mother and me. Our turn came, and Marilyn smiled at us, tilting her head as if trying to place our faces. I stood back while my mother approached. Marilyn put a hand on my mom’s shoulder as she realized this was the wife of the Redlands pastor. Then she waved me over. “So, here he is,” Marilyn said, and I blushed in the heat of her gaze. Moved by a sudden, surprising impulse, I opened my arms and embraced her without reservation or embarrassment. She asked me a few casual questions I don’t remember. What I recall is the wordless connection, the warmth, the feeling of excited happiness to be in this stranger’s presence. I hadn’t expected any of it. When her questions ended, I stepped away, relieved that I hadn’t blown it. My mother exchanged a few words with Marilyn, and then it was over. The entire interaction had lasted perhaps three minutes.
At home later my mother summoned me into her bedroom again. She sat on the bed, as she had during our last talk, but I remained standing. She asked what I had thought of Marilyn.
“There’s something definitely there,” I said, aware that I was saying what she wanted to hear.
“Well, she told me that you had a good heart. She said you’re going to be fine, but that I need to let you go your own way.”
We stared at one another for a moment, and then she put her arms around me. I returned the hug but was too startled by Marilyn’s verdict to feel anything.
In my room I closed the door and stood at the window, trying to sort out the gap between the way I felt and the way I should have felt. I’d gotten exactly what I’d wanted, but somehow it wasn’t making me happy. Mom would no longer have to nag me, her errant son, about church or anything else. For her everything was going to be much easier now. A stream of traffic flowed south on Orange Street, families returning home from a weekend in the mountains or a Sunday at the Wash. A Fleetwood Mac song popped into my head: You can go your own way. My mother had the church, and I had my independence. For the first time in years, I felt like praying.