Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
The writer on her memoir about complications with the church, navigating romantic longing, and doing things on her terms.
I met Cameron Dezen Hammon in person for the first time on a rainy night at an independent bookstore in Dallas, where we had this conversation. Hammon initially reached out to me over email to tell me about her memoir, This Is My Body (Lookout Books), a story that takes place during a season she spent in recovery for sex and love addiction as well as toxic religion. That got my attention. I often write about drinking, having quit many years ago, and I’m fascinated by the various ways humans try to salve the inner ache. Hammon’s story was different from my own—a baptism off Coney Island, a singing gig at a Houston mega-church, speaking in tongues, this was wild stuff to an agnostic like me—but I was moved by her search for belonging and her attempt to reconcile faith and feminism. One reason why I love memoir is the way it collapses the distance between strangers; we enter new worlds but what often shines brightest is our common struggles.
SH When you first reached out to me, in describing the book, you said, I think it’s about the complications of religion, it’s about romantic longing and obsession. I was like, I’m in. I don’t have a lot of background with the church, but I’m very curious about religion. And what I see similarly in both of our stories is an early longing for something greater than ourselves and a real, almost quaking desire to reach that thing. I went to the bar and the bottle to fix me and you went to God and the church. Why was God the thing that you reached for?
CDH My dad was Jewish, my mom was Catholic. I was always around a synagogue, around church.I think a lot of the appeal was the theater of it. I love the bells and whistles, all of the physical, tactile things. I was always drawn to mystery and to the ineffable. Someone once described me as a “super spook.”I would hypnotize my friends for fun. I made up this elaborate story about a ghost on the playground. I’m still not sure if it was a real ghost or if I imagined it. We would get phone calls at night from my classmates’ terrified parents, saying, “Your kid is telling these stories and my kid is freaking out.”
I also was trying to find a way out of the chaos of my family. The church felt safe. But it didn’t really become a need until my mid-twenties. I dated people who grew up in the church. I had good friends who were religious, but I still thought of religion as exotic. I thought Protestants, because I’m from New York and New Jersey, were exotic. You were Catholic, or you were Jewish. Those were the options. We didn’t know any Evangelicals back then. I would occasionally come across these people as I got older, and I was fascinated, like, Tell me all the things. What do you believe? Do you pray in tongues? You really believe all this? I was not interested in being converted, but I was interested in it almost as a sociological experiment.
SH Let’s find out how that went.
CDH(laughter) The Christians I met were like, you’re interested? Let’s get you talking about God. So, it worked on me, I guess. But, in my mid-twenties I had a complete freak out. I got HPV, like everyone in their mid-twenties. In 1998 though, no one was talking about HPV.
I literally was in an exam and my doctor said, “This is the scourge of your generation.” I thought. I am going to die from sex. So, I need to figure out how to live in a way that’s going to protect me from sexually transmitted diseases that are going to kill me. It sounds crazy saying it now.
SH But actually, so much of religion is about protecting people from the dangers and excesses that can be created by sex. It totally makes sense. That’s just a late twentieth century version of what has been going on before where people think masturbation might send them to hell.
CDH They still think that.
SH (laughter) I guess I’ll see them in hell.
CDH (laughter) Won’t we all.
SH Why the Evangelicals?
CDH When we say “evangelical” today, the word has a political connotation, and rightfully so and especially post-2016. We think of Evangelicals as a voting bloc. Twenty years ago, evangelism was just a word. I met a group of British evangelical Christians in Brooklyn. They were artists who were not competing with each other, but were helping each other. I was a musician and trying to make a record. I had a development deal with Warner Brothers. I didn’t have any peers that I felt I could connect with on a level that took us out of the game we were all playing. We were all trying to get record deals before the music business tanked. They came to all my shows and they invited me to their home and made me food. I was mesmerized. And they loved me. I believe that they loved me. It changed my life.
I thought, This is what I want. Now I’m going change everything about myself because I can’t just halfway this. I’m going to have to do this all or nothing. So, I moved to Texas to get married to my boyfriend, who I refused to have sex with since, you know, I was afraid I was going to die from sex. We’d been having a sexless relationship for two and a half years. Then I decided we needed to get married.
I asked him to marry me in a bar in Brooklyn. And he said, No. So that was cool.
SH That’s like the least Brooklyn story, by the way. (laughter)
CDH When I came to Texas and saw someone wearing a T-shirt from a Christian camp for the first time, I thought, She’s gonna get jumped!
SH Because you’re from New York.
At first I thought, these are my people. It took a while to realize that they were not quite my people.
SH Did you speak in tongues? I’m just fascinated by it.
CDH Are you asking me to speak in tongues?
SH No. That’s too much. (laughter) That’s intimate. But can you talk about what do you think that’s channeling?
CDH In my church in Brooklyn, we did this thing once a month called “Big Hug” where we rented a room in the East Village and plastered the walls with newspaper clippings, about the things that we were praying about: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, homelessness, all these social justice issues that we were so focused on. Our pastor was a drum and base DJ and he was spinning records and there were candles and Christmas lights everywhere. It was just this moody, vibe-y thing. That was our church service. The women in my little church would be praying, and you would start to hear this musical babbling. Again, I had to go the full way with everything. I wanted what they had. This woman in my group told me, It’s a gift. Pray for it, just ask for it. I did. I diligently prayed.
So, I’m praying, and the DJ is doing his thing and it’s dark. I think it was Hebrew, honestly, that came out of me first because I had a memory of Hebrew from my childhood. I can still say a couple of the Friday night Shabbos prayers from memory. Then it just kind of turned into this weird babbling musical sound that came out of my mouth. I did it for years. I haven’t tried to do it since examining it, but it’s like any kind of meditative practice, really, it’s just vocal. For me, that made a lot of sense because I’m a singer and I’m an external processor, and I vocalize everything. So, it felt really normal and natural and fine. It didn’t freak me out. Before I experienced it, it seemed so exotic and weird and scary. Now I think of it as just another way to meditate.
SHThat’s one of the reasons why I brought it up. I actually think that it is often talked about or perceived as a scary, almost sinister thing. For those of us who are not in the church, that enhances the idea that there’s an otherness to this kind of Christianity. This is a book that’s about the Evangelical Church, written by someone that looks like you, about a subject that is kind of misunderstood in much of literary and mainstream culture. What were some of things about the church that you wanted to convey?
CDHI wanted to talk about the crisis of gender in the church and the way that it hurts and harms people. It’s a crisis for people of color, the queer community, and women. I also wanted to address my complicity in it from all of the years that I spent there, because I can say a million things about why I stayed so long, but it’s still really fucked up that I did. Now, on the other side of it, I thought I was playing a long game. I thought we’re all eventually going to turn this ship toward all of the right things. That was a huge joke on me because the ship is not turning.
SH I think of this book a bit as a #MeToo memoir for Christianity. The church is not an egalitarian institution. In a way, it wasn’t made for a modern world. We’ve tried to reframe it according to one, but it’s behind the times.
CDH From a theological standpoint, there is a doctrine of egalitarianism, and there are protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church that I’m a part of now that are egalitarian. Women are priests, are affirmed, and can do anything that a man can do. However, it’s still built on a patriarchal structure. There have been movements through the last hundred years to elevate and affirm women, to elevate and affirm LGBTQ clergy, but female priests and pastors are still getting questions about their bodies and their clothes and inappropriate shit every day. Even in egalitarian communities, we’re still fighting for equality.
SH Can you speak a bit more about your own awakening to these issues.
CDHI had been working a job for a year that was killing me. I was leading worship for a church that just moved into a new building. The person who had my job before me had quit abruptly and I was working crazy hours for no money, sort of auditioning for the job that I already had, just waiting for a seat at the table. I was the face the congregation saw every week because the pastor was never there. He’d just written a book and was out selling it. I assumed that I was working toward that full-time job. I found out that my piano player had been offered my job for a lot more than I was making. We were in rehearsal and he’s was like, You’re never going to believe it. So and so offered me that worship pastor job. I was like, You mean my job?
All long I thought, No, no, I’m a leader. I’m praying from the stage, people come to me with their problems. I’m singing, I’m the face they see every day, every week. I’m just going to go ahead and do those things. That was when I realized I was dreaming.
I think it became clear again later on, when I was part of a megachurch and got assaulted, which I write about in the book. It happened backstage, at a church, after a service. I felt like, I can’t tell anyone about this because my husband has a cancer diagnosis, and if I lost that job, we’d love our health insurance. I thought, Oh, so I’m just any female body that any man can lay his hands on at will, because I have no power here. That’s really true in the world at large with women. We are all living with this. But to have someone say from the microphone on stage at a church all these things about forgiveness and repentance and loving your neighbor, and then grope you fifteen minutes later is pretty eye-opening.
SHI wanted to talk about the romantic obsession you had with another man. You write about the ritual of texting, the itch to do it and then waiting to hear back. There’s this dopamine-adrenaline system that gets engaged, and I think everybody can relate to that. The iPhone has blurred the lines of affairs and how we see infidelity, but this was obviously something outside your marriage. Can you talk a little bit about why it was important for you to include that in this book?
CDHFrom a craft perspective, it was the animating force that got me into the book. I was interested in it enough to tell the story of my conversion and deconversion, but through the lens of this thing that I was living through at the time. I was writing it as it was happening, which I don’t know that I would do again, but it was the only safe way for me to process the feelings I had. To be with this other person in my mind without destroying my family and my career.
The impulse to visit a ghost is big in me as a writer. I visit ghosts on the page. I write about loss a lot. I was living it and reliving it. But, now with some perspective, it really was a craft device that got me into the story and got me out of the story and got me through the story. It provided the structure.
SH When you started the book, you didn’t know you were going to leave the relationship.
CDH No. I didn’t know that I was going to end it. I didn’t know I was going to survive it. So, I didn’t have a guaranteed beginning, middle, and end, but it worked.
SH Fuck. I totally get everything you just said as a writer. I want to ask you about memoir, a genre we both obviously work in, and a question that I often get is, why we would do this. Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to write a memoir and also how you navigate other people’s privacy and stories?
CDH Memoir to me is and always has been what I can do. It’s the clay that I have. I don’t know how to write fiction. I’m trying to and it’s abominable. So, I think this is kind of my jam.
SH I feel the same way. I can’t figure out how to invent things.
CDHI can’t either. With memoir we’re looking at events and figuring out what they mean, which seems much more reasonable to me than making up events and figuring out what they mean.
SH I told a fiction writer once, I just work from my past. That’s all I know. And she was like, What do you think I do?
CDHThe impulse to make sense of one’s life is a huge part of it. As far as privacy goes, I’m still married to my husband. We made it through this. He’s also an artist. I said to him, “I’m not asking for your permission, I’m just saying, I’m doing this thing. So, are you cool with it?” We were already a mess. We were in the mess, and I said, By the way, I’m also writing a book about this. I think that the writing of the book was how we processed. Our problem was that we were strangers in the same house, having been married for so long. We were just passing in the hallway. But we came together to talk about the book project. How do you feel about this? Are you okay with me including this? And so that got us talking about it. Is that strange?
SHNo, because I know from my own experience, when you’re writing a memoir, you’re working out your life. Those actions are always in harmony with each other.
CDHI will say that I have a thirteen-year-old daughter and it’s a little different with her. At this point, she doesn’t want to know. She didn’t read it. I told her I didn’t think she should. And she was said, “Yeah, I don’t want to know anything about your romantic life with my father.” Thank God for that.
SH What is your relationship with the church right now? And what would you like to see happen in the church?
CDHI still serve an Episcopal Church. I do a service in a beautiful old building and there are no screens. No technology. My experience in the Episcopal Church has allowed me to continue to call myself a Christian. How faith sits with me kind of changes day to day. It’s really not anyone’s business what I believe moment to moment. I’m going to stay in the church, my kid’s going to stay if she wants to. I have invested and given seventeen years of my life to this thing, and I’m not going to go away. I’m also not going to compromise my integrity. I’m not going to allow my voice to be silenced. I’m not going to stay somewhere where I’m not valued. So that makes it harder work for me. But it’s a balance that I’m trying to strike.
Sarah Hepola is the author of the bestseller Blackout and Unattached (forthcoming). Her essays have appeared in the New York Times magazine, Texas Monthly, Elle, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Guardian, Slate, and Salon, where she was a longtime editor. Follow her on Twitter @sarahhepola, on Instagram @thesarahhepolaexperience, and on Facebook @facebook.com/sarah.hepola.blackout.