Wife Material blends religious abuse and sexual repression in a coming-of-age story about the modern Church of Christ denomination. The author grew up in the flagship Church of Christ college community, Harding University, in the heartland of the Protestant Restoration movement. Wife Material tells the story of Elizabeth Campbell, raised in a similar place and time. Elizabeth's parents are violinists. Her father seems gay. Their church disallows musical instruments and homosexuality. Lizzie succumbs to the twisted violence in her family and the pressure for early marriage at Waltham University, where suicides abound. Then, she escapes fundamentalism through a series of liberating sins.
One of the most disturbing things about Church of Christ culture (and perhaps all of fundamentalist Christian culture) is its buried anger. Anger at parents and teachers and preachers for their shaming and punishment, their fear of your sexuality, their restrictions on your thoughts. Anger that cannot be voiced, even if you are a boy and have the right to use your voice at church. All that anger at being required to squelch our natural desires and reactions must go somewhere.....if it cannot be expressed in words to the person who's triggered it. In my view,the anger goes underground, like broken appliances into a landfill, where it burns. And it resurfaces as something almost unrecognizable. A kind of bizarre glee at seeing someone suffer......especially someone you know well.
As a kid, I got in trouble for laughing. Not talking, just laughing. Too scared to speak in class, I still found certain things completely hilarious. Like farts. Maybe because I had a little brother who gave me plenty of material for a whole repertoire of body humor. Or because in mainline Church of Christ culture, all bodily functions, including any action or emission from one's southern region received the mark of Cain. Or because I really was an inferior being. I think it's all of the above. So this scene shows Lizzie getting shamed for laughing and making forced air sounds on the playground with her best friend. The takeaway for this girl character is a permanent gag on eruptive laughter or loss of control of any kind.
All it takes is one good hour of being heard. Elizabeth begins to realize she didn't cause this or plan this or ask for this. Love happened, and now she is a traveler, in spite of all good intentions to stay home. Images of the dis-fellowshipped ones race by, bodies waiting for the train, their eyes staring past you because they know you fear and pity them. And she is now among these outcasts, clutching her bags, straining to see down the tracks at what's coming next.
This piece shows Lizzie struggling to fit in with her peers at Waltham by joining the junior high cheer squad. The rules require Waltham cheerleaders to wear their skirts no shorter than two inches above the middle of the knee. But Lizzie's mother, a music teacher who thinks cheering is the lowest form of youth activity, ups the ante, in an ironic show of latent feminism.....or fear of her daughter's budding sexuality. The delight of being a cheerleader becomes the horror and dread of wearing her punishing cheer skirt to school, where it will be obviously different from the other girls' skirts.
Church of Christ families, and other fundamentalist families, have the hardest time letting their children grow up. They hate all the signs of emerging adulthood, especially those that involve sexuality and disagreement. In fact, when I think about how helpful sex is to the process of differentiation (becoming a full adult, autonomous from the family-of-origin), I realize that conservative Christianity HAS to deplore premarital sex. How else are families going to keep their children "in the fold?" I see this difficulty in families who insist on home-schooling. The trouble is in letting go. The trouble is in letting our children get out there in the world and have their adventures and leave us behind, as they must.
Lizzie steps into a room full of boys with whom she goes to school and church - boys who occupy her thoughts much of the time. These boys dominate both the religious and the academic environment. They speak in religious services while the girls are silent. They get deferential treatment at school. The curriculum ensures these boys will have the upper hand - both now and in the future, both in public and in private. Liz and her friends marinate in this social context and it trains them in a kind of sexual politic that pairs romantic possibility with subservience, selflessness, and niceness. Nobody wants to be a Jezebel, an Old Maid, a Loose Woman - these archetypes align with the unattractive, the un-marriageable, the social reject.
If you grew up in a conservative or fundamentalist Christian college environment, and if your parents worked there, you've probably heard about this. New faculty or staff at schools like my fictional Waltham University agreed to abide by strict codes of conduct in order to be hired. As a child, the secret marriages part gave me pause. Why would anyone get married in secret? Then in sixth grade, a friend told me people used to do that so they could have sex. So who cares if it's a secret? Later, I realized these secretly marrieds would spoil the fun of a church wedding with showers and silver and a cappella hymns.....all the tokens their parents needed in order to feel their investment in Church of Christ college had paid off.
The girls in this scene have a conversation like ones I remember having with my friends back in Christian school. They worry about being physically and morally repulsive. The aim of their young lives is to eradicate anything about themselves that would turn off potential mates - or turn away God.
As a young woman, I never really thought about the boundary problem in fundamentalist marriage. I accepted that when you say, "I do," your partner acquires the rights to your physical body. But someone recently said to me, "How can my wife really cheat on me? How is that even possible? I don't own her. She owns her vagina. If she decides to sleep with somebody else, how does that take anything away from me?" When I heard this, I felt tears stinging the backs of my eyes and I realized there were still these places inside me where the old paradigm still stuck.....a clot of plaster and mildew and wallpaper layers yet to be scraped away.
This picture shows the young Campbell family, sans Martin Campbell, going to church in West Texas, on a road trip to visit relatives. Lizzie memorizes the environment and the reactions of congregants to her little family. The scene foreshadows trouble that will emerge in her parents' marriage. My inspiration for the scene comes from my own childhood visits to roadside Churches of Christ and the welcoming we always got there. Young fundamentalist families can often exude beauty and hope that the salvation plan actually works. They look pretty, have multiple children, march those children into church services, and make them behave.
In this excerpt, Elizabeth's fundamentalist Christian boyfriend uses sexual insult to leverage his power in the relationship. She takes him seriously and incorporates his statement into her sense of self. This scene feeds into her growing belief in her unattractiveness to Church of Christ boys, a belief that took root in her childhood at Waltham Academy. As I reflect on this scene, it occurs to me that one way to take power over a person or a group is to suggest they are unattractive - that something is wrong with their physical form or their manner or some other aspect of who they are.
This excerpt shows my protagonist, Elizabeth Campbell, in her high school math class at Waltham Academy, the Church-of-Christ school she attends as a youth. My inspiration for this chapter comes from my own experience of Christian school in the 1980s - an experience that blocked much of my learning at this age. Blount, the teacher, infuses his math curriculum with Old Testament verses that prescribe the gender politics for the teens in his classroom. Lizzie has only a whisper of dissonance in his classroom because she's already been schooled in women's inferiority. She dumbs herself down as a mental reflex.
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