In her new book Wayward—A Memoir of Spiritual Warfare and Sexual Purity, noted actress Alice Greczyn (The Lying Game) describes a harrowing past rooted in some of the most popular and destructive fads to sweep Christian Right communities in recent decades. Among them are a focus on the “purity” of young women so extreme that tampon use is forbidden lest girls become unable to prove their virginity and a deeply misogynistic approach to courtship in which the young man and the young woman’s father must share unbidden intuitions that God has willed the couple to come together. There’s much more, as Greczyn’s disturbing account of life on the far Christian fringe makes clear.
Astoundingly, Greczyn recovered from her oppressive upbringing, eventually emerging as a self-assured atheist and the founder of a support group for youth escaping oppressive religious backgrounds. That story, too, comes to life in her new book’s incisive telling. Free Inquiry is delighted to share selected excerpts with its readers.
I awakened to someone shoving my shoulder.
“Alice, get up!” a female voice hissed. “We have to leave, now!”
I rolled over in my bunk, disoriented. The light was turned on. The girls in the cabin were packing frantically, shoving their things into backpacks and whispering to each other in urgent tones. My youth pastor Julia stood at eye level with me, her face was set with worry.
“Get dressed quickly and take only what you can carry,” she said. “We have to evacuate.”
My first thought was NORAD. The military base next to the Youth With a Mission (YWAM) camp we were visiting in mountains above Colorado Springs. We’d come to YWAM for three days of missionary training before we departed for our trip to India. Had America broken into war while we slept?
“What happened?” I asked, yanking back my covers.
“We have to leave the country,” Julia said. “We’ve been found out.”
I didn’t know what she meant, but the terror in her voice compelled me to move without further questions. Fear raced through my veins as I got dressed, yanking on a long blue skirt and a hoodie. I slipped on my sandals, then thought better of it, swapping them out for my tennis shoes in case wherever we were going had rough terrain.
My family. “Is my family okay?” I asked Julia.
“Yes, your family’s okay, but we need to leave. Now.”
I grabbed my Bible from the bedside shelf and stuffed it into my backpack atop Clif bars, toiletries, and my journal. Someone whispered for me to hurry, and I heaved my backpack over my shoulders. I was the last one to leave the bunkhouse.
The night was lit only by stars. I heard someone say it was two in the morning. I shivered in the mountain air, scrambling to keep up with the rest of the girls, but I could barely see the dirt path we walked on.
“Here’s your train ticket,” Julia said to the girl ahead of me. Then Julia turned and shoved a slip of paper into my hands. “Here’s your train ticket,” she repeated urgently. “Keep it with you.”
I made out the words “Train Ticket” scrawled on the piece of paper.
“Train for where?” I asked.
Julia ignored my question. Something felt off, even more so than it already did. I was about to ask Julia what was happening when I stumbled over a cluster of tree roots in the darkness.
“You there!” shouted a male voice. “Stop!”
I turned and saw the silhouette of a man with a gun coming toward us. His rifle was aimed at me and he wore a black balaclava over his face. I froze in complete terror. A girl screamed.
“Please, don’t hurt us,” Julia cried. “We’re just on our way to the train.”
My heart missed beats. I could barely breathe.
“You’re not going to the train,” the man said. “You’re coming with me.”
Suddenly three more people with guns and balaclavas appeared. I could barely process what was happening. They shone bright lights in our faces, blinding us.
“Move!” said one of the gunmen.
They herded us single file in a new direction. My body went through motions as my mind alternately raced with questions and blanked with panic. I heard one of the girls whimper, and I tripped and felt the hard muzzle of a gun jab into the base of my neck. It stayed there, pushing me forward.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” my gunman said.
I put my hands in the air.
“Help!” one of the girls screamed out.
“Shut up! Keep walking!”
“Where are you taking us?” someone asked.
No one answered.
We stumbled through the dark forest until another masked gunman, a woman, told us to stop. She looked right at me. “You,” she said. “Inside.”
She pointed with her gun to the door of a tiny cabin.
“No,” Julia said. “We’re not splitting up.”
“Shut up,” said the third man. “Or I’ll shut you up.”
I moved toward the cabin door before he could hit Julia. The head gunman kept the cold barrel of his rifle against the top of my spine as he shoved me inside. The door shut behind me. I was in pitch black. Was I alone? I heard someone yell at Julia and the rest of the girls to march, then a bright flashlight pierced my eyes. The head gunman and female gunman had followed me inside the small space, which I saw was no bigger than a closet. I shielded my eyes with my hands and backed into a wall, tripping over something on the floor.
“Clumsy one, ain’t you?” the man said.
The light blinded me from seeing his masked face. It was so bright. So dark, and so bright.
“Sit down,” he said, shoving a footstool in front of me.
My knees trembled as I sat.
“What’s your name?”
I couldn’t speak.
“What’s your name?!”
“Alice,” I whispered.
“Louder, I can’t hear you!”
His gun waved inches from my face.
“My name is Alice,” I repeated. My voice sounded foreign to my ears. Its calmness belied the fear surging through me.
“Alice, where’s your passport?” the woman asked.
“In my backpack,” I said.
“Remove the backpack,” said the man. “Slowly.”
I sat my pack down in front of me. My hands shook. “It’s in the front zipper pocket,” I said.
“Get it out.”
I did as he said and handed him my brand-new passport. I’d only gotten it two weeks ago at the post office with Mom. Mom. Where was she? What was happening?
“Open the rest of your backpack.”
I unzipped the main compartment. His flashlight shone on the first thing on top.
“What’s this?” he asked, lifting my Bible. “Is this your business here in China? Are you a missionary?”
My mind felt like it was splitting with confusion. We weren’t in China. We were still in Colorado Springs.
“Answer the question,” the man barked. “What is your business here in China?”
“I don’t know, sir,” I said. Then I remembered what a YWAM leader had told me to say when I went through customs in India. “Tourist, I’m a tourist.”
“Why do you have a Bible? Are you a Christian? Are you here to poison our peoples’ minds with your false god? You know we kill Christians here in China. Do you want to be a martyr?”
I shook as he berated me with questions. Something in me knew it had to be pretend, but it felt too real.
“Are you a Christian?” the woman yelled at me. Then I recognized her voice. It was Lindsay, my skit instructor. These weren’t soldiers from NORAD. They were YWAM staff members.
Lindsay put a gun to my head. Its cold barrel pressed hard into my temple. A black and white image popped into my mind of Rachel Scott, the Columbine martyr. This must be how she felt right before she died.
“Are you a Christian?!” Lindsay yelled again.
“Yes!” I said. “Yes, I’m a Christian.”
“Then you’re gonna die.”
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t swallow. My vision tunneled and warped. I waited for Lindsay to pull the trigger, but the gun’s muzzle came off my face.
“Stand up,” the man said. Somehow, I stood. “Leave your things and put your hands behind your head. I’m taking you to the execution room.”
Stunned, I did as he said. They marched me out of the cabin and down a long hill. My mind resumed some of its rational thinking without the brightness of a flashlight blinding me. I felt confusion. I felt betrayal. Mostly, I felt fear. The guns looked and felt real. No orange tips capped their barrels indicating they were toys, and the force with which I’d been shoved hurt. The combination of sleepiness and terror made everything seem hazy, like I was living in a movie scene that was part stupid hoax, part horrific nightmare. I didn’t know what to believe.
We arrived at the cafeteria building. “Get inside,” the man said.
“We have a Christian,” Lindsay called out.
I felt a fresh wave of fear rising. It was silly, I knew. Surely they wouldn’t really kill me. But their performances seemed too cruel to be a prank.
“I’ll finish her,” the new soldier said. My captors vanished into the night.
I stared at the new masked soldier, wondering who he was. He looked too thin to be Sean, and too tall to be Victor, the worship guitarist going with us to India. It had to be one of the other YWAM staff members who lived on site. They must have all lost their minds.
The soldier pointed his gun at my head. “Lie on the floor,” he said. “Face down.”
I did as he commanded. The cement was cold against my cheek.
“Hands behind your head.”
I interlaced my fingers and put them against my neck. I could see the legs of the folding tables I’d eaten at, their chairs stacked upside down on top of them. The fluorescent light emitting from the kitchen cast an eerie glow around the concrete room, and my guard’s voice echoed when he spoke.
“You stay here. I’m gonna get you a piece of paper and you’re gonna write a letter to your family explaining why you died.”
I managed a nod. His footsteps faded behind a wall. I didn’t know whether to be angry or afraid. One moment I felt a seething hotness, the next an icy nausea. A minute later, I watched the guard’s boots come back. He threw down a pencil in front of me and a white sheet of paper floated after it.
“Write,” he said.
I sat up. I took the pencil in my hand and debated whether to object to the twisted exercise or play along.
“Write!” he shouted. “Tell your family why you died! Tell them you’re a martyr!”
I flinched into compliance.
Dear Mom and Dad, I wrote. Tears began rolling down my cheeks. Teddy, Madeleine, Bryant, and Kate. If you’re reading this, I’ve been martyred. Don’t worry, it’s an honor to die for God. But please know how much I love you guys. Each one of you. I’m sorry for the times I was disobedient and mean. I love you guys more than I could ever express. I
“Finish up!” my guard yelled.
love you. Love always, Alice
The guard snatched my paper from the floor. “Back face down!” he yelled.
I was still crying as I put my face to the cement again. The man squatted beside me. I felt the cold barrel of his gun press above my ear. He clicked the trigger.
“Boom,” he whispered. “You just died.”
He stood up slowly and sauntered to a pillar. I lay on the floor, shaking with silent sobs.
I didn’t know how much time had passed before someone came and announced I could get up and go to the lodge. I looked to my guard to make sure he wasn’t going to stop me. He took off his ski mask and nodded, smiling. It was Kyle, one of the YWAM staffers. He offered me his hand. I stood up without his help.
Everyone else had already gathered in the lodge by the time I got there. I saw the Washington team, then Anthony and Julia. I spotted Landon, Luke, Zach, Chelsea, and Simone. I couldn’t read anyone’s face. It was as if none of us knew how to act. I sat on a couch toward the back of the room, and Simone came and sat beside me.
“That was so messed up,” she whispered.
“Yeah, it was,” I said.
Sean walked in front of the massive fireplace. He clapped his hands together with a smile. “So,” he said. “That was your persecution training.”
I wanted to slap him.
“We did that exercise so you guys could have an idea of what it feels like to be a missionary in a country where Christians are persecuted,” Sean continued. “Christians around the world go through this all the time. They get interrogated, beaten, and killed, all because they’re trying to spread the Gospel and save peoples’ souls. How many of you guys died tonight?”
I looked around the room. The only person with their hand raised was Jed, the eighteen-year-old from the Washington team. I raised my hand, too.
“Only two of you?” Sean said. “Wow. You guys are supposed to die for your faith.”
He said it jokingly. I felt appalled. They’d terrified us just to stage a mock persecution. I realized my youth leaders must have known about the prank ahead of time, which was why Julia had handed me a sorry excuse for a train ticket, yet reassured me my family was okay. I was livid.
“Let’s give a hand to Jed and Alice for being martyrs tonight,” Sean said.
Everyone clapped, then we sat there while Sean preached about persecution conditions around the world. Some Christians in North Korea had been slowly rolled to death by a road paving truck. Other Christians in South America had been shot up with arrows. Still other Christians were stoned to death in the Middle East, and all because they were trying to share Jesus’ love.
I didn’t know at the time how to process the mock persecution. My spine would bruise from where the gunman had jabbed me as he marched me through the woods. My neck ached for days from lying on the cement floor after I’d been “shot.” The physical discomfort was second only to the psychological ramifications. The confusion, chaos, and fear of that night left me feeling like I didn’t know who I could trust anymore. I didn’t know when another gunpoint interrogation or something worse might happen. Would they stage a kidnapping next? A torture chamber? Part of me understood that my youth pastors and YWAM leaders were only trying to open our eyes to what Christians in other countries went through. It was supposed to inspire us to pray for the missionaries being held in prisons and for the proselytizers being tortured for refusing to deny their faith. It worked. And deep down, I knew what happened was wrong.
Two years later, when Alice is seventeen and has finished her homeschool education with a General Education Diploma (GED), she moves by herself to Los Angeles believing God has called her to pursue an acting career. All of Alice’s Christian values are challenged from her first acting class, but her faith becomes thoroughly shaken by what unfolds that summer.
My family left L.A. after helping me move into a one-bedroom bungalow in Santa Monica. My new roommates were two girls a couple of years older than me—Bella, a gorgeous and outspoken Dominican New Yorker whom I met in acting class, and Juliett, a native Angeleno who looked and sounded like a cross between Shakira and Beyoncé. Both girls shared the only bedroom in our 600-square-foot space. I slept on their living room futon for $400 a month.
I’d been at the bungalow for no more than a week when the girls introduced me to a lifestyle I’d only read about in books. Nothing could have prepared me for my first house party. I felt overwhelmed from the start. Our tiny bungalow was too small for the thirty or so people the girls had invited. Music by the Black Eyed Peas throbbed from the stereo speakers. I watched from a corner of the living room as a girl carelessly spilled beer on the futon that was my bed. Several guys smoked weed in the kitchen. People in the bedroom danced like they were in a nightclub, and someone said a couple was making out on the hallway washing machine. I wanted to scream at everyone to shut up and get out.
“How you doing?” Luke yelled at me above the loudness.
“Good,” I shouted, smiling to cover up my anxiety.
Bella and Juliett had said to invite anyone I wanted. Since Luke was the only friend I had in L.A., I invited him. He laughed easily with a group of guys while I tried to busy myself restacking red cups that had been knocked over. I envied Luke’s natural extroversion. I remembered he had gone to public school, which helped explain to me why he seemed at ease in such a secular crowd. That and the fact he would be turning twenty in a month.
Just then, someone knocked over a cup of Jack and Coke. I watched as it spilled all over the corner of my white down comforter. Furious, I knelt to try and stuff my blanket further beneath the futon, and then another guy crashed into me, knocking me off balance.
“Sorry,” the guy said, obviously drunk. “What are you doing down there? You’re really hot.”
I had to leave before I snapped at someone.
The June air felt chilly when I stepped outside. I wished I’d worn jeans and a hoodie instead of the mini skirt and slinky black halter I thought I’d feel cool in. Coolness might be unattainable for me, I thought. I found cement steps behind the bungalow and sat on them. Bass vibrated through the stucco walls, but at least I could hear myself think again.
“There you are.”
I opened my eyes and saw Luke. I smiled at him wearily as he sat next to me.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“You don’t seem like you’re having a very good time.”
My grievances came tumbling out. “Everyone’s being so inconsiderate,” I said. “They’re spilling everywhere, making a mess, and the music’s too loud to even hear anyone talk.”
Luke smiled at me sympathetically. “Well, it is a party.”
“It’s my first party,” I confessed. “I didn’t know they were like this.”
“You’ve never been to a party?”
“No. The only people I know are from youth group.”
Luke’s eyes widened. “So the only parties you’ve been to were at youth group?”
I nodded. “If this is a party, I hate it.”
Luke laughed. I wondered if he thought I was a total loser. Then he quieted and looked at me, kindness beaming from his eyes. “Parties are lame,” he said. “Everyone just gets drunk and tries to hook up.”
I glanced at the red plastic cup he held. “Are you drinking?” I asked.
“A little,” he said. “Are you?”
“No. I’ve never had alcohol before and I don’t intend to start now. At least not in this environment.”
“That’s why you’re so miserable,” Luke said.
I laughed with him, grateful for his company. Luke felt like the bridge between my two worlds: my old world in Colorado, where all I’d known was Christianity and community college; and my new world in L.A., where I was being introduced to secular culture and the hedonism it offered. Luke could navigate both. Suddenly, I felt glad that God had called him to California at the same time as me.
Luke and I became good friends that summer. Best friends, the kind who saw each other every day. Los Angeles offered a slew of day-trip adventures, and Luke and I eagerly explored them all, from off-road ATV rides in the hills above Santa Clarita to sunset strolls along the Santa Monica pier. We didn’t let the city’s notorious traffic stop us. Luke never made any romantic advances toward me, and I never harbored any feelings of attraction toward him. His respect, and the fact that we had cleared up any misunderstanding about us dating, left me relaxing into his companionship with a heart full of gratitude. Luke felt like the older brother I never had. We even cuddled sometimes. I missed the closeness of my family, and when Luke let me link my arm through his when we watched movies together on the couch, it felt comfortable, safe. I trusted him and thanked God for giving me a friend in an otherwise lonely city.
By early fall, I did start to make more friends, mostly through Bella and Juliett. Our bungalow felt like a revolving door of musicians, dancers, actors, and students, and with the exception of my roommates, guys tended to like me more than girls. I didn’t care if it was because they thought I was pretty. Guys were the only people who made an effort to get to know me, the only ones I felt I could talk to and be myself. I knew where I stood with guys. With girls, I always wondered.
Building a social circle in L.A. helped give me confidence. I still wasn’t sure if I’d be back in Colorado by the end of the year, but in the meantime, it felt good to be establishing relationships with people outside of Luke. I didn’t want to solely depend on him for companionship. It didn’t seem healthy. So, I also began hanging out with Gabe, a talented musician; Travis, a model whose sexiness gave me a crush I repented for; and Miguel, a street racer bound for the Air Force.
One day, I was telling Luke about a recent hike I went on with Miguel. It was just the two of us in the bungalow that afternoon, since Bella and Juliett had gone to their boyfriends’ homes. I stood at the stovetop making biscuits and gravy for dinner while Luke sat at the kitchen table. He seemed quieter than usual, like he felt on edge about something.
“You okay?” I asked.
“You’ve been hanging out with Miguel a lot,” Luke said.
“Yeah, I guess I have been.”
“What do you guys do?”
“Mostly hike. He drag races, so he’s gonna take me racing sometime. Not like in a real race, just a spin at the place where he usually does it.”
“You’re going street racing with this guy?”
Luke’s tone was neutral, but I detected a hint of suspicion that puzzled me. I told myself he was only being overprotective.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, he’s been doing it since he was fifteen. He’s twenty-one now, so I think he knows what he’s doing.”
I didn’t like the sarcasm creeping into my voice, but it felt like Luke was patronizing me.
“Do you like him?” Luke asked.
“Yeah, I like him. I wouldn’t hang out with him if I didn’t like him.”
I knew what Luke meant. I didn’t like his tone. He’d gone from neutral to decidedly accusatory, and I didn’t feel like I should have to defend myself for making new friends. I dumped fried sausage bits into a pot of gravy, stirring the mixture with a silver whisk as I tried to change the subject.
“Wanna go to the pier after dinner?” I asked.
“What about Travis?” Luke asked. “Do you like him?”
“If I didn’t like him, I wouldn’t—”
“You know what I mean,” Luke interrupted.
I sighed. I didn’t want to have a confrontation, but Luke wasn’t giving me a choice.
“Luke, I really don’t feel like it’s any of your business,” I said. “And honestly, you seem like you’re acting jealous or something. Why?”
Luke was silent. I glanced at him.
“Because,” Luke said, looking straight into my eyes. “God showed me you’re my future wife.”
Everything slowed. The light seemed to tunnel out of the kitchen. All I could hear was the whirring of a fan, and only my hand gripping the stove kept me upright.
“Alice?” Luke said.
His voice startled me. He was standing. When did he stand?
“Did you hear me?” he asked.
I felt weighted by numbness.
“God told me you’re my future wife.”
“You’re sure?” I heard myself ask.
Luke smiled and nodded.
“You’re sure?” I repeated.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m a hundred percent sure.”
It didn’t occur to me to ask Luke how he heard God tell him I was his future wife. I’d never known how God told anyone anything. Neither did I for a split-second think Luke was lying. Luke and I were from the same world. It was a world where people said God showed them life-changing things all the time, a world where it wasn’t at all uncommon for God to reveal to men and women who their future spouses were. I’d been primed for that moment my whole life.
But this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
The cry came from deep inside my heart. I silenced it out of sheer terror. God had just revealed who my future husband was. I couldn’t go against Him.
Luke stepped toward me. Involuntarily, I stepped back. His hand touched my shoulder and I flinched. Trying to cover emotions I couldn’t name, I abandoned the pot on the stove and rushed past Luke to the living room. I felt cold. My hands were trembling. Without thinking, I went to my futon and threw my down comforter over me, holding it tight above my head. When Luke peeled back my covers, he was still smiling.
“I’m just shocked,” I stammered.
“I know,” he said. “I was, too, when God told me.”
It was as though he thought I was happy-shocked. Was I happy-shocked? I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to feel, what to do, what to say. I wanted to be happy—I should have been happy—but I wasn’t. I didn’t know what I was. I had to lie. I had to lie because to do otherwise would be to defy God. I forced a smile.
“I just can’t believe it’s you,” I said. “That you’re the one I’ve been waiting for.”
Luke stroked my head tenderly. “I know,” he said.
It was supposed to be amazing, this moment. It was supposed to be everything I’d dreamed.
“This isn’t the way I thought we would have this conversation,” Luke continued, taking my hand. “But now you know why it’s been so hard for me to watch you go off with these other guys.”
“But … but I wasn’t even—”
“I know,” Luke said. “But they were into you.”
I was speechless. I needed to be alone to process, to cry. To summon the energy to at least pretend to be happy for now, and not start off my marriage with my future husband knowing I didn’t love him. Not in that way.
“I’m just so shocked,” I said again.
“It’s okay,” Luke said. “Take your time.”
“I might need a lot of time,” I blurted. “Maybe we shouldn’t see each other for a few days, or maybe a week.” The words tumbled from my lips without forethought. “I’m happy, so happy,” I lied. “But I need time to process it. To pray over it.”
He couldn’t argue with my needing time to pray.
“Okay,” Luke said. His eyes danced with joy. “Take a few days. We have the rest of our lives.”
The rest of my life. With Luke. I smiled at him, wondering at how my cheeks could do so.
“Thank you,” I said.
“And we don’t have to get married right away,” Luke said. “I thought we could wait a couple years, ’til you’re nineteen. Or twenty.”
“Okay,” I said.
Luke stood. I didn’t want to get up. I was afraid he was going to kiss me, so I pulled the comforter close to my face. “I’ll call you in a couple days,” I said.
He nodded, seeming to accept that we weren’t going to hug our usual goodbye. “Okay,” he said. He walked out the door, still smiling.
I wanted to cry after Luke left. I couldn’t, because crying would be an admission of how devastated I felt. God had promised to fulfill all my heart’s desires if I trusted Him to write my love story. He’d promised me a romance beyond my wildest dreams if I waited faithfully for my future husband. That God had just revealed him to be Luke shattered me.
It wasn’t Luke’s fault. He was a good man, I told myself. Any girl would be lucky to have him. But he was a man for whom I felt nothing more than friendship, a man I cared for, very much, but whom I had never felt attracted to. That was why I never saw it coming. I couldn’t cry because I was too afraid of acknowledging God had betrayed me.
That week I stayed busy. I told no one about Luke’s revelation, and since my roommates and I were in the process of moving, the mercies of tasks and errands kept my mind occupied. Living with Bella and Juliett in the Santa Monica bungalow had, in many ways, been the most eventful three months of my life, but the lease was up and none of us had the financial stability to renew it. I found my next home through my acting teacher. A friend of his needed someone to housesit her apartment in Sherman Oaks, and although I never met Nicole, I moved into her home during my week of space from Luke. Nicole’s two-bedroom apartment was located on the top floor of a luxury building, with a courtyard view of tropical plants and a swimming pool. Contemporary furnishings in varying shades of olive and beige made up her soothing decor, and her plush cream-colored carpet was spotless. The bedroom where I unpacked my few belongings was almost as large as the entire bungalow I’d left. No one else would be there for the entirety of my stay. Having the place to myself couldn’t have come at a more needed time.
My week of space passed. I felt no better about marrying Luke than I had when he first told me I was his future wife. When I couldn’t put off seeing him any longer, I called him and asked if he wanted to come see my new home. He said he’d be there in an hour. I forced myself to put on a happy face, hoping real joy would come in time. Maybe if I moved forward in faith, God would reward me with the passion I wanted to feel for Luke.
Luke called letting me know he was downstairs. I felt sick with dread as I walked through the courtyard to let him inside the complex. I was scared he would kiss me, and I didn’t feel ready for that. I was ready enough to accept being his future wife, but I wasn’t prepared for the physical intimacy that might come with it. We wouldn’t have sex until we were married. That went without saying, but I had never asked Luke where his personal boundaries on other forms of intimacy stood. I knew my façade would break if he leaned in for a kiss.
Luke smiled at me through the gated door. I put on my brightest attitude, hoping to hide my nerves.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hey,” he said.
I opened the door and reached to hug him quickly, turning my face hard to the side before he could even look at my lips. I didn’t know if kissing was on his mind, but I felt certain that if it were on mine, it must be on his. I pulled away and spun on my heel to lead him to the elevator.
“Wow, this place is fancy,” Luke said, following me.
“Thanks,” I said, forcing a smile.
Luke seemed to be his usual laid-back self. I was even more nervous than I thought. I hoped that once we got inside my apartment, I could try and relax by sitting down. Instead I headed straight for the kitchen cupboard and took out two glasses. Luke wandered into the living room.
“Major step up from the bungalow,” he said, appreciating the view from the balcony.
I laughed. “Yeah. It’s been lovely having a place all to my own.”
“How’d you move here again?”
“Oh, a friend of my acting teacher needed someone to house-sit while she’s in Dallas. I think she’s moving there to get married or something.”
Immediately, I regretted bringing up marriage. I knew we’d have to talk about our own marriage plans sooner or later, but for the moment I just wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening.
I met Luke in the living room and handed him a glass of water. “Here you go,” I said.
He smiled at me. “Thanks.”
I wanted him to sit down so I could sit on whatever sofa he wasn’t. He lingered by the sliding glass doors as if waiting to see where I would sit. My anxiety wouldn’t let me wait, so I walked across the room and sat on the sofa furthest from him, hugging a beaded pillow to my lap. I tried not to look tense.
“How was your week?” Luke asked.
“Good,” I said. “Just busy moving. How was yours?”
I barely paid attention to the small talk we made. The awkwardness was too great. It was as though neither of us knew how to transition from friends to lovers. Not even lovers. What were we now? Boyfriend and girlfriend? Was Luke now my fiancé? Were we engaged, or were we just courting? I didn’t know. I didn’t want to ask. I smiled and nodded as Luke told me about his week—something about how he’d be teaching tennis until he could buy and flip his next house. Then he quieted, staring at me thoughtfully. He seemed to sense I needed some distance between us and sat on the couch opposite me.
“Alice,” he said. “I want you to know that I don’t plan on kissing you until we’re married.”
I tried not to show my relief. “Really?” I asked.
“Yeah. I prayed about it, and I told God I want nothing but purity in our relationship.”
I smiled at him.
“Of course, I want to kiss you,” Luke said, grinning. “I want to kiss you so bad.”
I laughed, relieved to let out some of the tension. Luke laughed with me. I hoped he mistook my blush for desire.
“But I want to save our first kiss for our wedding day,” he continued.
“Thank you,” I said. “I really cherish your respect.”
I meant it. Hopefully by the time our wedding day came, I would be as impatient to kiss Luke as he was to kiss me.
“I’ve also been praying a lot about the next step,” Luke said. “I think I need to call your father and ask his permission for your hand.”
I blinked. Luke would be the type to call my father, but that would make it real. “When?” I asked.
“Today. I thought we could call him together.”
My mind couldn’t formulate a way to get out of it. “Okay,” I said. “Right now?”
“Might as well.” Luke smiled at me nervously. “I’ve never done this before.”
My voice sounded far away. It felt like I was underwater as I heard myself take over and speak and move for me. I saw myself get up and move to the couch next to Luke. Our knees bumped when I sat down. I giggled, playing the role of the excited fiancée as though I were in an improv class.
“Shall we call him from your phone or mine?” I heard myself ask.
“I think it would be better if I called him from mine,” Luke said, his voice muffled.
“Okay,” I said.
The out of body feeling left. My hearing returned to normal, and with it, my anxiety. I felt helpless, like a train was barreling my way with nowhere I could leap for safety. The autopilot version of myself continued performing the way that was expected of her. Wavering between normal and dissociated states was a sensation I would get used to.
Luke dialed Dad’s cell number. I watched as he held the phone to his ear and listened to it ring. A few seconds went by. Maybe Dad wouldn’t answer.
“Hey, Ted, this is Luke Brenner calling,” Luke said. “Good, I’m good. How about yourself? Nice. Well …” Luke took my hand. I squeezed it and gave him a forced smile of encouragement. “The reason I’m calling is because Alice and I have something we want to share with you. She’s sitting here next to me. But before, I feel it’s only fitting if I ask you something first. Sir, I believe that God has shown me that Alice is my future wife. And I wanted to call you because I want to ask for her hand in marriage.”
I held my breath. I couldn’t imagine what Dad’s face looked like just then. He must have been shocked. Was he outraged? Confused? I didn’t realize how much I was counting on my father to object until Luke’s face broke into a smile. He laughed.
“Really?” Luke said. “No way.”
Luke glanced at me, looking relieved and amazed. I watched him, paralyzed.
“Wow,” Luke said. “That’s just more confirmation. Thank you, sir. I love your daughter, and I promise I will treasure her and take care of her and treat her well. Thank you.”
Hearing Luke’s words slit me like a knife to the throat. He handed me the phone, beaming.
“Hello,” I said.
I heard the smile in Dad’s voice. “Hey, missy moppet.”
“I was just telling Luke … God showed me this was coming a long time ago.”
I was stunned. “What?”
Dad spoke with the authority of the pastor he used to be. “Yep. Years ago, God told me he had a special man for you, and that I would know him when it was time. And I’ve been wondering when I’d get this call.”
I felt I might burst into tears. Dad wasn’t even asking me if marrying Luke was something I wanted. But why should he? I asked myself. God’s wants had always come before mine.
Despite my intention to marry Luke, I realized a part of me had secretly been hoping he’d been mistaken about hearing God’s will. Maybe if my father had denied him permission to marry me, he would have seen that. Maybe if Dad had hesitated, it would have planted doubt in Luke’s mind. Not only had Dad not denied him. My father had affirmed Luke’s belief with his own confirmation from God. He said he was happy for me and congratulated both of us. I said thanks and then we hung up. It all happened so fast.
Luke couldn’t stop smiling. He said we should call his mom next. As though God wanted to make sure that my heart was thoroughly convinced marrying Luke was His will, Luke’s mom said that she, too, had heard from God that I would marry her son.
“I knew all along this was going to happen,” Donna said. “When God showed me you were the girl who was going to be my future daughter-in-law, I just broke down and gave thanks. You are so sweet, and so special. I couldn’t be happier.”
Her words wrenched me. It was all happening just like the Christian courtship books said it should. God had revealed to Luke that I was his future wife. He had prayed over it, then asked my father for his blessing. Dad gave his blessing, having heard from God himself that Luke was the man I would marry, then Luke’s mother also confirmed God’s will for our marriage. I felt as if I were living the ideal of what every Christian dating book I’d read had outlined. To top it all off, Luke had said he wouldn’t kiss me until our wedding day.
When the calls were finished, I turned to Luke, forcing another smile I didn’t feel. I didn’t know how many I had left.
“So, are we engaged now?” I asked.
He grinned at me. “I guess we are.”
Engaged. It didn’t seem possible. I had never had a boyfriend and now I had a fiancé. I blinked back tears, not knowing why I was so shocked. I had been groomed for that moment my whole life.
When Luke finally left my apartment, I closed the door and collapsed into sobs. One moment I felt hot waves of grief for the love story that would never be mine, the one I had waited so faithfully for. Another moment I felt crushed by shame for not being happier. It didn’t matter that God hadn’t told me anything about marrying Luke. He never had. My whole life had been ruled by the things God told other people, and it should have been no surprise that my marriage would be any different. People would later ask me why I went along with it. My answer was as simple as it was obvious to me: If I went against God, I risked the eternity of hell. Disobeying God had never been a realistic option for me, no matter what Christians wanted to believe about free will. We all knew God’s love wasn’t unconditional if hell existed. Jesus was very clear that it did.
My mind saw my situation with grim clarity. It felt like I was entering an arranged marriage, pledged to a man not of my choosing, but of his and our parents’ through God. The custom felt ancient. Biblical. I knew arranged marriages still happened in some cultures. I also knew other teenage brides had it far worse than I did, facing husbands they may have never even met. Even so, I suddenly felt a dark kinship with them, the young women in the world who were betrothed to men they didn’t love, and with no say in the matter.
Betrothed. That was the word I felt described my status. It implied the sense of helplessness I felt, and it was also the word the Bible used to describe the giving away of a girl from one man to another. She was betrothed. And now, so was I.
With an unexpected assist from Alice’s insightful mother, she eventually breaks up with Luke. She tests new freedoms and moves into a more secular, even hedonistic lifestyle. Finally, she decides to lose her virginity with James, an acquaintance who is deeply curious about the faith from which she has—and hasn’t—separated herself. One night he shows her Jesus Camp, a 2006 documentary about a radical charismatic-Christian summer camp that she finds repellingly evocative of her own earlier life. She flees.
… I wanted to block out the memories that flooded me in the weeks after I left James’s apartment. I couldn’t get the images from the documentary out of my head. They brought back all the pain of being rejected by God, all the times I’d begged Him to slay me with the Spirit and He hadn’t, all the times I’d faked praying in tongues and the shame I’d heaped on myself afterward, and all the times I’d thrown myself to the floor in an effort to escape the hands of adults who wouldn’t go away until I fell. I thought I’d made peace with the fact that God had never touched me. It was only a lie I had grown accustomed to in order to replace the pain of feeling unloved.
How many other children were out there pretending to feel God’s love? How many of them were faking manifestations of the Holy Spirit because they could no longer endure being told there was a sin in their life that left them unworthy of truly experiencing God? How many others were feeling left out? Alone? Ignored? Abandoned? If God loved me, why had He never touched me? Why wasn’t I worth it? How could I still, after all this time, believe in a God who had never believed in me?
My anger would not be ignored. My pain would not be suppressed. An urgency that would not be quieted kept me awake at night, clenching my jaw and thrashing my sheets. I wanted answers. I needed them. The doubts I’d so skillfully pushed aside ever since I was a child would be smothered no more. I needed to know if God was real. There was too much at stake. My entire life had revolved around what I believed God wanted, and what if it was all for nothing? What if God wasn’t even there?
A solution wavered in the corners of my mind begging to come forward. I could hardly consider it. Every trained voice in my head warned I would be committing a cardinal sin if I tested God. I didn’t know what else to do.
It was a hot September afternoon when I realized I couldn’t wait any longer. There was nothing in particular that happened that day. I was washing dishes at my kitchen sink, my growing doubts about God’s existence gnawing at me like an infected wound, and I simply couldn’t wonder one moment more. I set down the kitchen sponge and turned off the faucet. Fear made my mouth dry. I didn’t know if I was more afraid that God wouldn’t be real or that He would be. The mental reflexes I’d spent a lifetime honing screamed at me to stop, to turn back in faith before I risked losing it forever. Deuteronomy 6:16 warned, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” If God was real, surely He would allow punishment for my faithlessness. I tried to tell myself He would understand—God had to understand that I tested Him not because I didn’t want to believe in Him, but because I wanted to believe so badly. The meaning of my life depended on it. I couldn’t begin to imagine what the point of living was without God. I stared out my open window as sunlight gleamed off treetops. I felt the urge to hesitate, to make more of a ceremony out of my test. Something as momentous as this deserved some sort of formality. But why?
I didn’t have a plan. All I knew was that I had to be specific about how I needed God to show me He was real. I didn’t want to suddenly hear a bird coo and be tempted to think it was Him answering me through one of the doves inhabiting my neighbors’ roof. Neither did I have the faith to think God would answer me with an audible voice. I couldn’t let God decide how He would prove His existence to me, it had to be something I decided. If God was capable of anything, truly all-powerful and omnipotent, and if He truly loved me and wanted me to believe in Him, He would understand and answer any test I set up. It had to be something concrete. Something obvious. Something that left me no way of fooling myself. If God was real, I never wanted to doubt Him again.
I glanced at the spice rack built into the wall on my right. The small cabinet door was open, displaying shelves of dried herbs, ground seeds, and flavored extracts. I knew then what my test had to be. It was arbitrary and physically impossible enough for me to be convinced of God’s existence if He passed it. I gripped the edge of the sink.
“If you’re real, God,” I said. “Knock that jar of cinnamon off the spice rack.”
My eyes grew dry without blinking. The jar of cinnamon didn’t budge. A silent scream rose within me, pleading for acknowledgement. I told God it was okay if He knocked off another spice instead—cumin, nutmeg, anything. If He’d parted seas and turned people into pillars of salt to make His existence known before, surely He’d trouble Himself to bring back a prodigal daughter by doing something as simple as knocking over a plastic cylinder. I begged. I cried. Every jar remained still and upright.
I stared at my spice cabinet for over thirty minutes. I knew because the clock on my microwave told me. The understanding sank in slowly. God wasn’t real. My faith was over. I could hardly imagine what that meant. In that moment, standing there on my kitchen mat only a few feet away from the jar of cinnamon that had unwittingly stolen the very meaning from my life, I didn’t know how I felt. Somewhere between stupefied and betrayed, between relieved and heartbroken. Was that really it? I wondered. How quickly it had all ended, something that had taken me a lifetime to cultivate. A lifetime wasted, I realized. How many times had I beaten myself up with shame for being rejected by someone who was never there? How many opportunities for love had I missed? For friendship, for joy, for pleasure, for peace?
A calm numbness settled over me. There was no cry that could escape my lips, no tear that could offer relief. There was nothing. So nothing was what I felt.
The next couple of days passed in muffled serenity, as though walking through a reality I was completely removed from. I felt no emotion. Sometimes I wondered why. Unable to feel troubled, I simply observed my thoughts from the safety of a detachment I didn’t know I was experiencing. It was an audition that shattered my calm. I was driving to the casting office running lines in my head. Satisfied I had the scene memorized, I began to pray out of habit.
“Please let me do well on this audition,” I said under my breath. “I’ve always wanted to do a movie like this. If it’s not your will I book it, I know you’ll have something better for me, but—”
My breath stopped as though guillotined. My mouth hung open mid-sentence, and my eyes widened in shock. There was no one listening. God wasn’t there. I was only talking out loud, the way a child would to an imaginary friend. God didn’t care whether or not I booked that audition. There was no being who looked out for my financial security or cared about the desires of my heart. I was alone.
It felt as though my soul had slipped on ice and found itself falling, falling, falling. Like someone had yanked a rug out from under me, only there was no floor to land on, just spiraling free fall. My heavenly father had died.
In her new book Wayward—A Memoir of Spiritual Warfare and Sexual Purity, noted actress Alice Greczyn (The Lying Game) describes a harrowing past rooted in some of the most popular and destructive fads to sweep Christian Right communities in recent decades. Among them are a focus on the “purity” of young women so extreme that …