“I say I have sloughed off religion like a diseased limb.”
By the time I started telling people my husband left me for a man, I could tell it like it was a joke. That time I accidentally married a gay guy was a reliable hit, sure to get a good laugh at the after-parties of literary events. So I made the joke until it was funny, but it wasn’t funny—not at first. It hurt, as breakups always do. And it wasn’t quite true that it was an accident. In a way, I was groomed for it.
I grew up in a Christian household, raised by Catholic defectors who’d broached what their families considered the Protestant dark side. My parents threw themselves headfirst into their renewed faith, becoming founding members of a new church-plant in rural farm territory north of Philadelphia.
They met in a barn, which makes it sound more cult-like than it was. In fact the church was funded by the more liberal subdivision of the Presbytery, a mainstream branch of Protestantism. But the fact that our church was considered “liberal” is all the more disconcerting—in the Presbytery it only meant that women are allowed to preach.
The church was where I felt most comfortable. The other families there were the people I knew best. We spent hours together on Sundays, and on Wednesdays at youth group, and on Thursday nights when my parents practiced with the church band in the living room. I liked the church people. I trusted them.
By high school, our youth group discussions were almost exclusively focused on scaring us into abstinence. It came out occasionally that sex was a beautiful gift from God given to (straight) married couples for the purpose of making more Christian babies. But mostly the word “sexual” was not uttered without “sin” close behind. Myriad reasons to avoid sex were presented, most of them Hell-based, with occasional divergences into country town cliché—why buy the cow—and a few really weird ones: If you had sex now you’d get bored of it and ruin your honeymoon.
Religion brought my ex-husband and me together, both of us so repressed and eager to please that it was a relief to be with someone who felt the same way. People assume all sorts of things when they hear how our relationship ended, but it started the same as any other high school romance. We found refuge in each other.
We married when we were twenty. We had a decent sex life and a quiet, staid kind of fun because we didn’t know any better. We loved each other, but we wouldn’t have married so young if we didn’t believe our lives depended on it.
After a few years, I was accepted into the MFA at Columbia University and his job sent him to a training program in Texas. We were not concerned about what this might mean for our relationship—it was temporary, and we were married, after all. But then I visited Dallas and found evidence of another person in my husband’s apartment: a kind of sugar cereal he would never eat; another toothbrush in the medicine cabinet; a photograph of his face pressed too close to a man’s, the way he used to press his face to mine.
I believe him when he says he didn’t know he was gay. Having grown up back in Croatia, a country where, in 2011, 86.3% of the population declared itself Catholic—with numbers even higher a decade earlier coming off a war with more than few religious undertones—he likely never knew it was an option. The thought had never crossed my mind either. He had proposed to me; we were married, and that was permanent. I had been conditioned not to ask questions of the institution.
Christianity teaches that everything good comes from Almighty God, but that same all-powerful God exercises no power over the bad. We are responsible for the bad. Or if not us, those first humans who imbued us with their badness—those original people, whose Original Sin was curiosity. As it is written into the origin story, nothing is more dangerous for our relationship with God than a thirst for knowledge.
I returned to New York and emailed several churches, asking whether there was someone with whom I could talk, but none of them wrote back. I spoke to the university chaplain, who was sympathetic and said she’d email to check in over the weekend. She didn’t. I took a bus up to Boston—where I’d been an active church member throughout college—and sat in the Common while my church friends prayed over me. But they were all married with kids now and had to get home for dinner. A pair of women from my home church sent me sympathy cards with encouraging Bible verse inserts, but they were written in a cursive hand so heavy I could not read them. Religion, I felt, had gotten me here, but it was not willing or able to get me out.
I stopped going to church. I kept going to writing class. I rented half a room in Washington Heights. Another girl’s mattress lay a few feet from mine, and some nights she sat on the edge and stared at me through the dark. I filed for divorce.
I tracked down a boy with whom I’d grown up in the church—his parents were in the church band too, and we’d clocked years’ worth of youth group and mission trip hours together. We met in Bushwick, someplace dark and beery. He’d grown his hair long and left his beard untrimmed. There in the bar we told each other things we never could have back home. His family had been wealthy and, in a way, this rendered him worse off than I was; he’d been sent to private Christian school. He talked about the moment in college when he opened an actual science textbook for the first time, saw fossils, carbon-dating, evolution, global warming. He said he felt guilty because his parents sometimes called him crying, worried he was going to Hell. He talked about ayahuasca and Buddhism and a meditation retreat he went to in Colorado where he hadn’t spoken for a month. I drank a lot and didn’t say much, and came away envious of and saddened by his continued search.
It’s been a few years now, but occasionally I still speak to my ex-husband. He Skypes in from L.A. in the dead of night, which, each time we speak, seems increasingly further away. Sometimes he makes declarations about spirituality, about how we are all God if we want to be, but mostly he talks about raves and party drugs. The last time we spoke, after a particularly lengthy monologue, I asked if he could name one thing besides drugs about which he was intellectually curious.
“I’ve given up thinking,” he said, and hung up on me.
For me it is not such a clean break. I say I have sloughed off religion like a diseased limb, like it is no longer of use to me, but that’s not entirely true. Without it I am unsteady, vulnerable in a way I couldn’t be when I was not of this world. The thing about religion is that when you have it it feels good, and, like any opiate, the withdrawals are painful.
I do not feel cured or free. Instead I hang in the disquiet of remission. Sometimes, if I visit my hometown and find myself in a room of people singing or praying, I can still feel something, a phantom limb of faith. I wait to see if I am out of the woods, or if my body will again light up the scan with that most feared diagnosis—a malignancy formed in and of oneself, spreading and reclaiming control. At night when I am in bed alone, I sometimes wonder which would be worse.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War (Random House, Little, Brown UK), and the fiction editor of Blunderbuss Magazine. She has an MFA in Fiction and Literary Translation from Columbia University, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Stockton University in NJ.