There is such ease in the language of "Not That Kind of Girl", Carlene Bauer's memoir, that readers may be lulled into underestimating the alchemy that is taking place. Bauer has managed to transform the raw, melancholic, alienating challenges of religious scepticism and literary ambition into a readable story of one woman's messy struggle for authenticity.
Like all coming-of-age tales, this one mixes the painfully familiar ("we were exhilarated by our loneliness because it meant we were being tested, or destined, or chosen") with the exotic ("my heart would flutter and whirr like a hummingbird until I said it: God"). Bauer describes an awkward youth of evangelical Christian schools and camps against a soundtrack of unbelievers (the Smiths, the Cure, the Replacements, the Pixies). Having looked to such models as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf for a sense of how to live, Bauer moves to New York City and waits patiently for her life to start. She yearns for a way to be both coolly intellectual and cosily devotional—to both love God and love the world. For a while she quietly keeps both her virginity and her piety. Ultimately (but not until time) she loses both.
This is a gentle, insightful memoir—one that balances painful introspection with quite a bit of clever cultural analysis. It is with deceptive breeziness that Bauer flits from describing her adolescent body ("ovoid and white like a peeled potato, rooted and thick") to the essence of Walker Percy and Graham Greene ("These two men wrote for God by writing against God... They hated the world, hated its trouble, but they were not wishing for the next one to come. You had to love being in the world to write, they knew.").
Here Carlene Bauer talks to us about what inspired her to write this book, what makes her cringe when looking back, and what life feels like when you take God away.
More Intelligent Life: Given your cerebral preoccupations with faith and restraint, what drew you to New York City, that hotbed of iniquity?
Carlene Bauer: While the message from churches I grew up in was that the city was to be avoided—unless you were ministering to the poor—the message I got from my parents was that the city was a place that kids needed to experience. My dad used to tell this story about how in the early seventies he and my mother took a carriage ride in Central Park and how they narrowly missed having their heads split open by a bottle some random passer-by chucked at their ride. Whenever my father told this story, he told it with clear relish at the high craziness of the city. As a kid [the story] made me think, well, you'll go into the city and you might almost bleed to death, but hey! You'll get a story out of it. It's comedy, not tragedy, whatever almost clocks you there.
Also, I seemed to have a predilection for the urban from birth. Apartments over storefronts on main streets—not a feature of the suburban cul-de-sacs I was raised in—were fascinating to me. Who lived in those lighted windows? I wanted a lighted window. I thought if you had a lighted window, rather than a whole big house, you were living an anonymous, autonomous life. Finally, I wanted to write. Once I figured out that New York was where you lived if you wanted to write, I decided that's where I would live when I grew up.
MIL: What inspired this compulsion to write?
CB: Other than a brief desire to be a ballet dancer (too pudgy), I can't remember a time when words weren't figuring. If you mean what inspired me to write this book, it was a classic case of wanting to write the story you didn't see on shelves. The delusion of grandeur was that I was going to write a version of Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer", updated for the late 20th/early 21st century and with a woman narrator. (I suppose one shouldn't divulge delusions of grandeur! Who does she think she is, etc. I wonder myself.) That was the compulsion. That was how I cheered myself on when staring at my laptop in despair. Basically, I wanted to write about religion from the perspective of someone who was both believer and sceptic for those who were and had been both believer and sceptic. The other goal was to write a book about female experience that was a corrective to most narratives in the culture. I suppose I wanted to say to people that not all Christians vote Republican and not all women are shoe-obsessed.
MIL: You begin your book as someone who accepts Jesus as your saviour. You were a seemingly healthy product of evangelical schools, churches and youth groups. What happened? When did you start to question this lifestyle?
CB: There was always a tiny voice inside me saying “That can’t be right” whenever I heard something that seemed to contradict who I understood God and Jesus to be from reading the Bible—all-loving, all-forgiving. For example: it had been made clear to me that Catholics were lesser, wrongheaded Christians because they worshipped Mary and the Pope and thought works would save their souls. The disparagement made it seem that unless Catholics recognised that they needed to accept Jesus as their saviour (for the evangelicals you had to get down on your knees and make the overture in full awareness of your decision), they were going to hell. Now, my father, my grandmother and uncle were Catholic. My best friend at the time was Catholic. It didn’t seem right that God was looking down on them with arms crossed, shaking his head when they seemed sincere in their belief. Why would God allow there to be so many wrongheaded Christians?
The same thing happened when we were told that rock music would lead you to ruin. My mom grew up listening to pop music, and let me and my sister listen to it, and she turned out okay—she was the one buying us the Go-Go’s "Vacation" on cassette and letting us watch MTV and Solid Gold. I guess I was always listening to what I was being told and then checking it against the evidence around me. So I spent my childhood making private decisions about what I would and would not believe, and keeping those decisions to myself, mostly, so as not to start trouble. Or hear that I was wrong! By college there were a fair amount of teachings that seemed outright lies. Well, okay: outright acts of ventriloquism in which people felt free to throw God’s voice.
MIL: You spend much of the book as someone who tries to have your "Smiths and Jesus too". Even as you were champing at the evangelical bit in college and afterwards, you still felt strongly about what it meant for you to be a virgin. What was that about for you?
CB: I think my delayed blooming happened for several reasons, and none of them were exactly religious. As a teenager, it was mostly self-protection and perfectionism—not, to borrow a phrase from the book of Romans, so I could present my body as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God. Growing up as a shy type in a family that skewed female, with close female friends who were also shy in their own ways, I didn't have much experience with the opposite sex. I wanted it, but didn't know how to go about getting it without looking foolish, or incurring rejection.
What I did know—or, rather, thought I knew—was that men could love you and leave you. I didn't want to look back on the first time and cringe. It seemed that that happened a lot with girls, and I wanted to avoid it. I cringed enough already. And then later, in college and New York, it was mostly circumstance. Could I claim circumstance and not insanely high standards? I wanted to feel strongly about whomever I did have sex with, or safe enough with them, and the relationships I had always evaporated before I felt comfortable enough to throw caution to the wind. At that point, ironically enough, I think I was counting my body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God. It comforted me some to think that my celibacy, though semi-accidental, could be viewed as a sort of purifying spiritual exercise. That was certainly one way to look at it. So as not to despair.
MIL: In recounting your struggle with faith—and your simultaneous struggles with nascent womanhood—how embarrassed did you end up feeling about your younger self? Is there anything in particular that you regret?
CB: Oh, loads of things! I felt much more regret than embarrassment while writing. Well, I did have embarrassment for my naiveté and credulity—for the length of time I believed in God, and what I believed, when most people seem to make their break [much sooner]. But mostly I felt sad for my younger self and her fear and suspicion. I regretted in particular the risks, romantic and otherwise, I didn't take. I regretted working too hard in my first years of New York and not going out enough. Not fulfilling my Gen X imperative of slacking—or detouring from the professional path I thought I needed to get on immediately—in the mid-to-late '90s. These were all regrets I had before I wrote the book, but they would often rise up to meet me while writing, and then pass as I tried to make good writing out of what had happened. But enough people have written to tell me how much they appreciate what I have articulated that it lessens the regret.
MIL: You write that "If you took God away, it left you with people". That seems like a tough place for a perfectionist with exacting standards for others. Have you had to find a new form of grace? A new and more terrestrial route to redemption?
CB: That is a tough place, I guess—I never thought about it that way. I'd like to say that my exacting standards are reserved only for myself, but others might disagree! I would not say that I've found a more terrestrial route to redemption. I don't think redemption's in the picture here. But I do still try to keep Christ's commandment to love one another, even though I don't exactly believe anymore. I can't shake that imperative—it feels like the right one, the only one. I feel that the friends I have in the city are a huge gift and that feels like grace, to wash up on the banks of the Hudson and somehow be eventually surrounded by so many excellent, intelligent, caring, hilarious people, many of whom enjoy wine and food. And "30 Rock".
MIL: So what comes next?
CB: I'm working on a novel. God makes another appearance. As do two writers, one male, the other female, who have a lifelong friendship that might be love.
"Not That Kind of Girl" (Harper), Carlene Bauer, out now