As a child my parents sent me to church camp. I grew up singing praise songs and laying myself bare before the lord with other children and their devout, fundamentalist mothers. Unlike my own thin, active, mother who had no interest in religious pursuits, these women could quote the bible by heart. They were large and soft, with a cascade of chins and bosoms that went on forever. I’ll never forget watching their heavy arms shaking as they raised them, singing and clapping along to a rolling spiritual, “How great Thou art…” The smell of strawberry rhubarb pie wafted through the air, just above the hymnals. I felt the twisting of my swimsuit straps underneath my dress, waiting to be set free as I threw off my itchy clothes and jumped into the cool lake. I was barefoot every summer at Reunion. That’s what it was called. A coming together of God’s believers. As a child I loved it. I called it Love Camp.
As time went by my parents lost touch with the reunion folks. Having been raised Catholic my mother had a hard time committing to any church. All she saw was rules. eventually she settled on the Lutherans, as they seemed the most benign. My Dad was raised African Methodist Episcopal and stayed committed to it for the entirety of his life, however he supported my mom on her religious journey because that’s what husbands do. By the time I was in high school my parents had abandoned all pretense of living a religious life. I had gone with my close friend Amy to church a few times and been saved a couple of times but ultimately I was the same person as before I walked down the aisle and bared my soul. Something was definitely missing.
After my first year of college in New York I decided the city wasn’t for me. I had no desire to go anywhere but back home. So I did exactly that and ran right into the Bahai faith. It started simple enough, a girl I’d known most of my childhood invited me to a coffeehouse. Having nothing better to do that night I decided go. Unbeknownst to me, that decision would seal my fate. At the outset it seemed harmless, sweet actually. I saw young people and older people at this makeshift little coffeehouse in an out of the way building. The most shocking thing and what I instantly fell in love with was the racial diversity.
Growing up mixed race was like walking a tightrope. I lived in constant fear of falling into the hands of either side. Making friends was akin to stepping on land mines. I craved acceptance as a child and never really found it. I wanted the black girls to like me. “I’m black too! I have curly hair and brown skin! Just look at my father!” My heart cried out to them expecting them to hear me. But it wasn’t enough. My hair wasn’t curly enough. My skin wasn’t dark enough. I talked like a “white girl.” I acted like a “white girl.” To them I was privileged with my long hair and light skin. My educated parents. So they pulled my hair and slapped my face and sent me away, a reject. So I turned to the white girls. The white girls who took pity on my strangeness. Who teased me sometimes but were just curious enough to befriend me. I remember three little blond girls who took me in to their white trash world of hairspray and nail polish. Their mother’s Playgirl magazines littering the couch. war movies on television and empty beer cans all over the floor while their dad snored, dreaming of his tours of duty in the heat of Vietnam. I remember their mother, racist, alcoholic and jealous of her oldest daughter Desiree. Her platinum blonde hair stuck out from her head in a fringe, a cigarette hanging from her lipsticked mouth. I remember Desiree doing cartwheels in the backyard in her cheerleading uniform while her mother watched her from the doorway.
“Those cartwheels look like shit!” She sneered. “You won’t last a week on the squad looking like that.” She took a huge swig of beer and headed back into the house, the screen door slamming behind her. It was not the first time I saw Sharon make Desiree cry. It definitely wouldn’t be the last. I remember playing barbies with her little sister Julie, naive and hell bent on following the rules where ever she could find them.
“Let’s play barbies. Here, you can play with the black one.” In Julie’s mind it made perfect sense. Looking back on it the fact that they even had a black barbie was astonishing. It had to have come in a pack their Dad bought.
“But she’s missing a leg!” Yes. Out of a sea of barbies I got to play with the only black one who’s hair stood straight up and was missing a leg.
“Fine.” Julie at eight years old was faced with her first ethical dilemma. “I guess you can be the Ken doll. She was satisfied with her decision. “Yep that will work perfectly.” She tossed the Ken doll at me. I felt nauseous and instantly lonely. I knew Julie had no idea what she had just done. I also knew it would probably never get any better.
It never did get any better. It only got worse. By the time I was in sixth grade I had a group of friends, all of us oddballs. They were all white of course. I had given up on trying to be friends with the black girls who hated me mercilessly. I was tired of being told I was a freak because I talked white and I had a white momma and why couldn’t my daddy stick to his own kind. I knew my black aunties and my black cousins loved me and that was the best I was going to get. It was still hard though. Achingly lonely. My mother’s family completely disowned us. I’ll never forget sitting with my white cousins whom I had met for the first time at Christmas time. We all sat in a row around my grandmother as she handed out presents. I was so excited, waiting for my turn. Would it be a talking doll? A stuffed puppy with its own brush and blanket? I watched my cousins opening their presents with unrestrained joy and when it came to my turn I looked up at my grandmother expectantly, barely concealing my excitement. She looked down at me, the smile fading from her face and handed me a check. I stared at it, completely confused. I looked over at my mother and saw her face flushed with rage. “I didn’t know what to get her.” My grandmother said nonchalantly and turned her attention back to my cousins.
“I knew this was a mistake!” My mother muttered angrily under her breath. “Give me that honey, I’ll get you something.” She took the check and stuffed it in her purse. I sat there blinking back tears watching my cousins unwrap and play with their presents. I watched my mother’s sister and my grandmother smiling at them, as they showed them off. They were like a scene out of a movie. I knew I didn’t belong there. I didn’t belong anywhere. I knew my father wasn’t even allowed to be there. I just wanted to get the hell away from those people and never look back.
As I got older I became more and more aware of how I didn’t fit in. There was me and then there was everyone else. I would look in the mirror and wish I could see anything but my own face staring back at me. I was stuck between two worlds; hated by one, misunderstood by the other. As a means of survival I did what so many of us do. I threw myself into the arts. I could sing, I could dance, I could captivate an audience. It was my outlet. I could forget about not fitting in, about being bullied and teased. I could forget about being rejected by my own family. I could forget my self loathing and my loneliness. Under the stage lights I could be anyone I wanted to be and the audience would applaud. This carried me through middle school and high school where I lived in the choir room and through my first year of college as a drama major studying music, theatre and dance at Ithaca college. There was still something missing however. What had carried me through my younger years began to be a burden. I realized I didn’t want to have to be other people to be accepted. I wanted to be accepted for being myself. I wanted to dance but I didn’t have the feet or the back for it. I wanted to play music but although I could sing beautifully I was never any good at musical theory or mastering instruments other than my own voice. I realized I was on a path to nowhere and so that year was my last. Back home I had to regroup. I started working a series of dead end jobs to stay busy and tried to figure out what to do next. I was at a lonely, pivotal point in my life, ready for change and vulnerable as hell. The Bahai faith came along at just the right time, preyed upon my insecurities, and took over my life for the next nine years.
That night at the coffee house seemed like a magical one. There was music, there were people of every color who wanted to talk to me, there was a cultural life that I desperately wanted to be a part of. What I didn’t know was how these cults operate. They draw you in, figure out what you’re lacking in your life, and promise to fill it. They usually have a recruiter there who is skilled in the fine art of brainwashing and this night was no exception. His name was Oscar. Oscar Degruy. He was a tall black man claiming to be from the inner city of Chicago (coincidentally where I was born) and he was smooth talker. Smooth as silk. He focused heavily on one of the tenants of the Bahai faith that the eradication of racism is one of the most vital components. The prophet founder Baha’u’allah believed in the integration of the races above all other things, which obviously I loved. Unfortunately there were far too many stones in that soup. He and his band of converters worked on me at that coffee house until three o’clock in the morning when I finally relented and signed their card. I’ll never forget his intense gaze staring right into my brain. “What are you waiting for?!” I was so exhausted and I craved that acceptance so I said yes. It was as simple as that. I could have said you had me at integration. Interestingly Oscar did not fool my father who met him a few days later and actually did grow up on the west side of Chicago, surrounded gangs and violence. His comment to me was,
“If even half of those stories he’s telling are true he’d be dead in a hot minute. You don’t wave your gun around say those things in the hood unless you don’t want to see tomorrow.” Oscar in fact disgusted my father who saw him for who he really was, a wealthy cult recruiter from Los Angeles with a liar’s heart and a lack of conscience. As a young, starry-eyed brand new believer I failed to heed my father’s warning. Sometimes we have to learn things the hard way.
As these things go, as quickly as they unfold their peacock feathers, the bottom feeders come out to play. I had the misfortune to get trapped by one such bottom feeder, Navid was his name, Navid Falconer, and he would steal from me a thing that cannot be replaced, that cannot be atoned for, that there is no justice one can turn to. The moment I walked into that coffee house he set his filthy sights on me and in my innocence I was flattered never having been the subject of anyone’s affection in such a blatant way. Navid was from a prominent Bahai family, his brother and sister and both of his parents were active in the community. He was also a body builder. His upper arm was as big as my head. He intimidated me in a way I’d never experienced before. He took me to the movies. He took me to his house to meet his mother who warned me I was too good for him. He took me downstairs to watch a movie. He convinced me to check out his bedroom. It’s ok, you’ll be fine, you’re so cute worrying about everything. Just lay here and talk to me for a while. And then all of a sudden the dam broke. It was force and confusion and arms and suffocating and a quiet loss of innocence. He raped me in his bedroom while his parents obliviously went about their business. I could literally hear the floor creaking as they walked around. I’ve heard other rape victims say it happened so fast I didn’t have time to scream. It’s true. I remember the exact moment after it happened. I remember I was in shock. I told him “But I’m a virgin. I’m saving myself for marriage.”
“Not anymore.” he said and laughed. I’ll never forget that laugh. There was cruelty around the edges and in the middle was the kind of hilarity between guys after a particularly funny prank. It was a frat boy’s laugh. I felt all the blood rush to my lower legs. I felt like a block of ice. I laid there while he kept raping me staring at the ceiling listening to his parents walking back and forth and imaging strangling him to death with his own belt. It didn’t end there. These things never do. I wanted my power back. I HAD to have it back. So I stayed with him. I refused to admit he had stolen something so precious from me. I willed myself to believe it was consensual. That I had wanted that cruel theft. I remember him at my parent’s house. I remember my father offering him a beer. He had no idea what Navid had done to his little girl. Navid accepted it, another violation of Bahai law.
On Bahai Law:
The consumption of alcohol is forbidden
The use of marijuana and other drugs are forbidden unless prescribed by a doctor
Premarital sex is forbidden
Marriage is between one man and one woman
Homosexuality is forbidden and likened to a person with special needs or an addictive disease such as alcoholism
Backbiting is forbidden, one must not say anything negative about anyone else
One must remain politically nonpartisan
One may not criticize one’s leader despite how bad they may be
It’s ok to smoke because that’s harmless
One must engage in a period of fasting where one does not eat or drink from sunup to sundown
One must pray three times a day washing hands and face before each prayer
If one abstains one must say a long prayer at noon complete with washing hands and face and prostrations
One must proselytize, ceaselessly teaching the youth and the ignorant the tenants of the Baha’i faith so as to recruit new members
One should engage in the independent investigation of truth unless one is questioning the laws. Then one must shut the hell up and obey.
You can imagine everything I had been looking for when I walked through the doors of that coffee house and signed that card in the middle of the night. But unfortunately all I found was a litany of empty promises, terrible advice and an extension of a middle eastern lifestyle I wanted no part of. The governing body called the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel is all men and when you ask why, you are told that is one of the “sacred mysteries” you must accept. Another sacred mystery is the law on homosexuality. Homosexuality is not only NOT permitted but gay men and women are encouraged to marry heterosexual partners and procreate for the sake of God. I know personally several such couples and as you may expect it doesn’t end well. Some run off unable to deny their true natures, Some stay but lead secret lives heard about in hushed whispers over coffee, cigarettes; the victims of endless gossip. The kids are irreparably harmed, surrounded by lies and half-truths, raised to regard with cynicism even positive, well-meaning guidance. You must remain non-partisan and never speak ill of your ruler regardless of how horrible he or she may be. Men and women are considered equal but different, each encouraged to pursue their own equal but separate roles (I believe we’ve been down that road before.)
Navid didn’t last and thank God he didn’t. It wasn’t long before I was married to the cousin of the girl who introduced me to the Bahai faith in the first place. We set our sights on Portland, Oregon and it’s promises of a brighter future. We had no idea what lie ahead.
*To be continued*