In 2011 Kevin Miller, asked me “Do you believe in hell?” Miller, a Canadian movie producer, was interviewing me for his documentary Hellbound?, gathering a variety of perspectives on the subject of hell. His interviewees ranged from fundamentalist ministers to atheist philosophers, from liberal theologians to angry protesters—the kind that have sometimes assembled at military funerals to rant at passersby while holding signs proclaiming “God Hates Fags!” and “9/11 God’s Judgment On Faggot-Loving America!” While on camera Kevin told that particular group’s leader that he doubted hell’s existence. She replied that she was overjoyed at the prospect of God burning Kevin in hell forever. She wasn’t kidding.
At first when Kevin asked, I refused to be interviewed. I’d recently published my memoir Crazy for God chronicling my journey out of the evangelical world. I figured that I needed more encounters with evangelicals and their obsessions like I needed a hole in the head.
I’d assumed Kevin was an evangelical. In fact he was on his own journey out. Kevin persisted. He called my bluff: he showed up one day and put me on the spot. I’m glad he did because my association with Kevin’s project forced me to keep thinking about American fundamentalism.
The result was that several years later when Donald Trump was elected and the 81 percent of white evangelical voters who supported him were credited with his win, I was better prepared to process this stunningly improbable news. My former brand of religion was driving the news cycle once again. My memoir had been an attempt to put the religion of my childhood behind me, but the country was still living in a nightmare my family helped create more than forty years before Trump ran for office.
A year or so after he interviewed me, Kevin invited me and other participants to help him launch Hellbound? We held screenings followed by discussions in theaters coast-to-coast. In the Q&A sessions that followed the screenings, the question “Is evangelical Christianity complete nonsense?” came up again and again, albeit phrased in various ways. Sometimes angry evangelicals put the question as a snarky challenge. It was a sort of dare for me to come clean and declare myself an atheist and thus (in their minds) a betrayer of my own and my late father’s beliefs. At other times, former evangelicals asked, looking for encouragement from me as a fellow escapee. They were clearly navigating Post-Evangelical PTSD.
Here is my video on my own journey through post religion trauma. Please Watch:
Many people who came to our screenings were working through painful withdrawal symptoms.
I met a father who tearfully spoke about how he’d mistreated his gay son when he was still an evangelical pastor and, after his son came out as a teen, had disowned him. I met several women who said they’d indoctrinated their children all too well through home schooling to become diehard fundamentalists. Now years later these mothers had fled the evangelical ghetto, only to have their own grown sons and daughters dig in their heels and stick with the program. One mother said of her daughter, “Now she refuses all contact with me and is even denying me visits with my grandchildren in case I ‘lead them astray.’”
The movie challenged viewers to consider more than simply the existence of hell. It articulated a threat to the entire evangelical worldview.So do my books. As a result I get letters like this filled with the same sort of pain I feel remembering by own years caught like a fly in the spiders web of evangelical lies…
From: Diana Lee
To: Frank Schaeffer
Sent: Wed, Mar 22, 2017 8:39 pm
Subject: Re: Calvin Becker Trilogy
While I was in therapy recovering from the literal brain damage I experienced due to evangelical fundamentalism plus incest, my therapist advised me not to read others’ stories/work because she wanted me to keep my memories uncontaminated from others’. SO I just finished your Calvin Becker trilogy (Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma) because I kept the same policy while writing my memoir series.
Your trilogy hit me hard because it was so accurate! I could feel the oppression and control once again.
I want you to know that I greatly admire the fact that you make readers aware that it was actually Elsa who was the sickest of the two parents. What she did to Ralph is exactly what my fundamentalist ex did to me! I was the one with bipolar symptoms because of what he was doing to me — over-control, hostility, criticism. I looked like the crazy one as I was breaking down while he sported a halo, always stayed cool, calm and collected and was always found in church Sunday morning and evening plus other times.
Ralph’s breakdown experience in Zermatt was similar to my own —- before I falsely assumed I was crazy and checked myself into a psych hospital. I assumed I was crazy because a traumatic surgery had triggered a part of my then-compartmentalized mind to open and suddenly —- like Ralph.
I had a completely different perspective on evangelicalism as well as the bible and god. During my intake process at the psych hospital, I told the chief of staff who was admitting me, that I realized I was crazy. His response was, “This is not where crazy people come, Diana, this is where their victims come! Your symptoms are about what has been done to you.”
I felt sorry for Ralph that he was unable to escape the evangelical fundamentalist environment because it is impossible to recover and stay in the environment that is destroying our and brain and methylating our genes. But I was thrilled Calvin ran as soon as he was able. I hope he was able to get the therapy he needed to get the fundamentalism out of himself. That, I found, is so much harder than leaving church and family.
This is a personal question. After reading your trilogy that struck me as a memoir series, I’ve wondered if any of your family were ever diagnosed bipolar or DID [dissociative identity disorder]? Since those were my pre-recovery diagnoses and common to evangelical fundamentalists and others indoctrinated into cults, I was not surprised that I thought I perceived both in Ralph and DID in Elsa. I didn’t think I could possibly hate the psychopathy of evangelical fundamentalism more than I already do, but Calvin, ratcheted up my utter contempt for that system because of what it does to innocent peoples’ lives and minds.
Thank you for telling it like it is. It is clear now, why I became even more ill as I read your mom’s books and tried to apply them in my life because I innocently and earnestly wanted to be the perfect Christian mother and wife. Instead, they unwittingly undermined the best parts of who I am and encouraged me to stay with a sociopath and that eventually caused me to lose everyone and everything I loved. Elsa’s illness and hypocrisy, helped destroy my life and family. Fortunately, I had the courage to check myself into a psych hospital and did all the therapy needed to rewire my brain and to free my mind from the psychopathy known as evangelical fundamentalism. No thanks to born-again Christians, I now live psychotropic drug free and no longer have the PTSD/Bipolar/or DID diagnoses. I hope that is true for Calvin also!
One of the many things that surprised me was reading that Calvin’s fundamentalist environment matched exactly what I’d experienced in the Assemblies of God —- minus the speaking in tongues BS —- including the same songs and all the apocalyptic stuff. I am SO glad that I followed my therapist’s advice and wrote out my own story before reading Calvin’s! My story is different but there is a lot of overlap due to the same indoctrination and upside down reality. I learned about L’Abri in Palo Alto in the early 1970s and had incorrectly assumed your parents were coming from a better place. So it was a shock to read it was the same system I had been born into and had been trying to escape. I think I now hate Elsa’s arrogance, uppityness, delusions and control and —- possibly narcissism —- as much as Ralph did when he let himself tell the truth in Zermatt. I came to respect Calvin’s grandmother as well as Calvin for trying to save her life. Not surprising, my evangelical family were ready, willing and able to let my grandmother die and would have if someone had not intervened on her behalf —- they wanted her money. Other evangelical family members claimed “your will not mine” while they let others in my family die prematurely.
Did you ever find time to read the copy of my memoir Shattered Diana? Like you, I am very aware that Trump has surrounded himself with a cabinet filled with “dominionist” Christians who are committed to destroying America.
Diana Lee, MA
Hi Dianna, Your letter is the most intense and interesting letter I think I’ve received over the years as it relates to my 3 novels (works of humor) in the Calvin Becker trilogy about recovering from fundamentalism. Thank you. You made my morning today. I’d like permission to publish your letter on my blog. I could include your name or not as you wish. I’d like to include it with a link to your memoir. I think I could bring you some readers that way.
Frank, Of course I give you permission to post my letter with my name!!! I will do almost anything to make people aware of how dangerous evangelical fundamentalism is. The price tag for being born into it or converted into it is simply too high for any human to pay.
The Shattered Diana series is an auto-ethnographic study illustrating the remarkable courage of its author in her agonizing quest for authentic self-discovery in the face of the absurdities, toxicity, and destructiveness of dogmatic religious fundamentalism. This series pioneers a compelling literary genre growing out of Diana Lee’s extensive knowledge of history, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, biblical literature, fundamentalism and cults. On Amazon
A little about the first book in my trilogy…
In Portofino, Calvin is the son of a missionary family, and their trip to Portofino is the highlight of his year. But even in the seductive Italian summer, the Beckers can’t really relax. Calvin’s father could slip into a Bad Mood and start hurling potted plants at any time. His mother has an embarrassing habit of trying to convert “pagans” on the beach. And his sister Janet has a ski sweater and a miniature Bible in her luggage, just in case the Russians invade and send them to Siberia. His dad says everything is part of God’s plan. But this summer, Calvin has some plans of his own … Portofino is the prequel to the noted trilogy that includes Zermatt. A huge bestseller, Portofino has been translated into seven languages….
THE CALVIN BECKER TRILOGY of NOVELS (Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma)
“Poignant and hilarious Schaeffer is very funny, but we are never far from a sense that harshness and violence are real; we are never entirely sure how things will turn out.” —Richard Eder in Los Angeles Times
“The wonderful thing about this book is that like any really good vacation, it ends too soon.” —The Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Beautifully written . . . great insight and unselfconscious humor.” —Publishers Weekly
“A wry coming of age tale . . . splendid.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A profound and sometimes painful look at the challenges of practicing faith, and a lot of fun to read.” —Washington Times
“Told with warmth and humor.” —Library Journal (starred)
“Mr. Schaeffer’s gifts as a novelist are more than comic: Saving Grandma has a deeper river flowing through it as well, one that is sensual and loving and full of true grace. This is a wonderful book!” —Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog
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The most poignant things about your memoirs and other writings infuse love like a bright light that permeates and surrounds the whole thing, As important as the stories and details are, without that, the meaning in it all would dissolve and break down. And I don’t know if you consciously set this infusion or not but either way, it’s exactly what is so lacking in religion. The meaning in it is gone. There is no heart. Without that heart, people cease to care about it and wander away. It isn’t enough to want to be loving. The religion itself has become an empty clamor of striving and trying too hard to be something it is not. And the lack of love in family is especially insidious. I see the Trump era as a clear sign that family breakdown from religion leads to societal gaps formed from more and more egregious lapses in ethics. Lapses that have a reach that go far beyond mere bandaid fixability. This all reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s famous lament after the appalling breakdown of society that was World War I and the long spell of cynicism that represented a tremendous shift in European culture. All the good in religion had for centuries come to that breaking point of vanity of knowledge culminating in the loss of love.
Hi Katherine, Thank you so much for this comment. I’m reminded of the truth you tell here every time I care for my grandchildren. Meaning flows from love and nothing else. I think when you say “I see the Trump era as a clear sign that family breakdown from religion leads to societal gaps formed from more and more egregious lapses…” you have spoken truth. Thank you for reading my work. F
I can totally relate to what Diana Lee said above. I’m in therapy right now mostly through all the crap I went through growing up in a very evangelical, heavily end-times oriented, legalistic baptist church. My psychiatrist basically said the same thing her’s did-“The victims are the ones I see. They true patients and crazies would never even think about walking through my door.”
Frank, have been reading(Crazy for God at the moment) and following your blogs for some time. Thank you for being the voice of reason in the midst of all this insanity. I live in a red state-West Monroe, La to be exact-you know, the land of Duck Dynasty and all that, so you can only imagine how it feels when 99% of your family and friends are Trump supporters. Can only talk to a very, very few folks about how I few. It’s almost like we need a special “code” word so as to not say the wrong thing and “out” ourselves as traitor to the God’s chosen man Trump-Aka The next St. Paul awaiting his Damascus Road experience(NOT!!)/King Nebuchadnezzar/King Cyrus or what other spiritual rationalization they can come up with that coincides with their own motivations and agenda. Sorry for the venting ramble but reading you Frank has helped me to hold on to my sanity. Thanks for all you do! Sincerely, Stacey L. Taylor
Hi Stacey, if it helps you can talk to me via my email when you need someone. firstname.lastname@example.org Hang in there sister! F
I work at Google but in former life, that very few know, I was a minister, and I went to the most fundamentalist centric college in the country (HAC), was offered a post working for Jerry Falwell and then my whole world collapsed. Read all your dads books and only recently found your blog and was shocked that many many others have come out of this. It’s cathartic yet disturbing to relive it all. Anyway to chat with you about this?
Thanks BTW I enjoyed speaking at Google in Boston… the talk is on YouTube
I am admired by your articles and see the struggles you have encountered with evangelicals. It’s bad enough the Christian religion is so divided, then only to here different views from each one claiming that they are right. My question is have you ever doubted your decision and wondered if the start of Christ is true?? Do you have faith in Christ or have you fled the faith?? I know you are asked probably a lot of times. My friend believes and says you are but to my mind and interpretation of your articles it would seem to me that your not I think I’m right and if I am I am gonna get a few of your books to him so he can see what you have been through so that his eyes are open. So are you atheist??or agnostic??
I wrote “Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God” to answer these questions for myself… give it a read and let me know what you think. Best. F