Read to the end for a link to the sequel
You want to talk about losing hope for a better future?
You want to talk about your body not being your own?
Do you know what it’s like to walk around with a sharp fist of despair sitting on your sternum?
Do you know what it’s like to suffocate on shame and fear?
It was a Monday morning, the first week of June, the last week of my freshman year, and I was late.
I was never late. Every month, day 27 or 28, in the morning. Five or six years out of a sum total of nineteen, perfect regularity.
I had thought I was late once before, earlier in the year. My boyfriend and I had got close—close enough that I was worried. I spent a night panicking and praying, swearing to God that I would never dishonor him again if he would give me one more chance. When I woke up to to the familiar bright red blood I was overjoyed. I went out into the snow and cold of February and ran laps on the indoor track, rejoicing in the familiar tug of cramps, thanking God for His mercies. Later, I realized I had miscounted. No matter. I was still blessed by the grace of God. Magical thinking is easier than logic.
But on this day in June, I knew that I had not miscounted.
How do you explain to someone who is not a fish why the fish does not know what water is?
Everything in my world hinged on honoring an ever-present, personally invested God. Everything I did redounded to my relationship with Him. The books I read (everything but horror and romance). The music I listened to (Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant officially, everything else secretly). How I interacted with my parents (unquestioningly). My teachers and coaches (respect their authority). How I dressed (modestly). Whether I drank caffeine, or alcohol (I didn’t). How hard I competed (humbly). What kind of lifeguard I was (helpful and cheerful). Why I ran for Student Body President (a good opportunity to bear witness). Who I dated (non-Christians, guiltily, with an eye toward conversion). Where I went on Friday nights (up and down Main street, not to the ‘kegger’).
Being a Christian was like setting up KPIs at work. Saving as many people from eternal damnation as possible was the top level goal. At nineteen, I wasn’t at the top level where the product managers were delivering enterprise Salvation to places like the Federalist Society and the Christian Action Network. I was down in the Salvation weeds; my job was to emanate godliness—think of it as the platform on which new saved souls could be built. My worker bee Christian KPIs were prepped during daily quiet time, going to youth group, bible study, prayer group, and Sunday church and fueled by Christian music and finding Christian truths in literature and history. They bore fruit (theoretically) from interacting with non-Christians while breathing out a peacefulness and certainty about having purpose and vision for my life. They bore fruit (theoretically) from being a good, kind, high achieving young woman who was respectful and didn’t get out ahead of any men (Christian or non-). They were about not being afraid because I could do all things through Christ who strengthened me.
Everything I did was about optimizing godliness across the spectrum of every day life. If I’d had the skills in those days, I could have put it all into a spreadsheet and reported it as a pie chart.
And you know what? This was not a bad way to grow up, given my class and geography—it was pretty easy to see the Divine in the natural beauty of Wyoming and to be a good-hearted kid in a sleepy mountain town. When I applied to East Coast Ivy League colleges my personal essay was about the ways that the teachings of Jesus guided my life. I still have it and it is genuinely full of vitality and idealism. By the time I got to college, Christianity had already primed a naturally grateful heart and a naturally exegetical mind to take in all of the beauty, truth, art, architecture, books, observatories, laboratories, and cafe-sitting that an East Coast liberal arts college has to offer. When I stepped out of my one hundred and fifty year old Georgian style dormitory into the dappled morning mists of northern New England, I gave glory to God. When the trees flashed scarlet and amber on the Vermont hillsides in October, I praised His name. When I walked to my classes inside of the stately brick library with its multi-story mullioned windows and velvet upholstered chairs, the gratitude I felt was of God.
When I raised my hand and argued with my Religion professor about whether or not the author of the Pauline gospels was one man, writing the revealed word of God or a bunch of scribes gathering together a century of holy writing on papyrus fragments, I did it for God.
When I walked home in the starlight, deliriously happy that my boyfriend’s arm was around me, it was all of a piece. I was 19 years old. He was 21, almost 22. He talked to me about history and economics and military tactics and had a motorcycle and liked to get ice cream late at night and watch old movies. I believed God made the world out of love, and that to honor His world was to love it and all the things I felt about my boyfriend was mixed right up into this stuff.
Like the Freudian psychologist, Adam Phillips, says, “we still have bodies and souls.”
The spring of my freshman year, I took a class called Education 20. It was taught by Ted Mitchell, who was then an up-and-coming professor at Dartmouth. It was a course about pedagogy that was based on how people learn, which sounds obvious, but was not at the time. Education was then (maybe it is still?) about creating curricula and lesson plans and disseminating information from the mouths of experts, not about encouraging people to acquire knowledge in ways that are suited to how they learn. But Ted Mitchell and his department were evangelizing a whole different pedagogy. They were inspiring and incentivizing our innate curiosity. They believed that great teachers showed their students how knowledge is acquired and where to find more of it. They had no interest in locking up ‘thought-equity’ inside ivory towers and peer-reviewed texts.
For Ed20, there was one type of writing assignment, repeated four times, plus incentives to attend class, attend small group meetings, and participate in discussions. The grading was points based and extremely detailed; you knew from day one how many points you needed to get the grade you wanted. For this reason Ed20 was considered by some to be a “gut” course, meaning easy. A whole subset of the class took it with a non recording option (NRO), which meant their transcript would just show a pass or a fail. Since the grading was completely transparent, it was possible to do precisely the minimum amount to pass. The rest of us were in it to learn.
The first writing assignment was to take a speech by James O. Freedman, who was the president of Dartmouth at the time, and analyze it. I thought it would be easy. All you had to do was get a 6 out of 10 to pass the analysis. After that, you could rewrite it as many times as you want—it was up to you to choose whether or not you wanted to work toward a 9 or a 10.
When I got mine back, it had a 4 on it.
This was extremely not OK. I had gotten straight A’s at Sheridan High School back in Wyoming. Maybe we didn’t have AP classes there, but there’s no way I deserved a 40% on an essay. I went to see my TA. Instead of telling me what I did wrong in the paper, she asked me questions about the speech. I was impatient with this. I didn’t want to discuss the speech. I wanted to know why I got a 4 on my paper. “Don’t tell me what the speech says—tell me what it doesn’t say,” she said. Ok. I thought. I get that.
I rewrote the paper.
When I got it back, it was a 5. “Much better!!” she had written, “but why does the speech say what it does say?” I ground my teeth and rewrote it again.
I got a 5 again. This time, the comment was “Great Work! But you have to synthesize all of these ideas, not just list them. Don’t forget your word limit is 300 words.” I rewrote it again. It was 299 words.
I got a 6. I had passed the assignment.
I didn’t want to just pass the assignment. I went to see the TA again and asked her to tell me how to get something better than a C-. “What is missing from your analysis?” she asked. I waited for her to tell me. She continued, “it’s not a rhetorical question. Ask yourself what is missing.”
I went back to the dorm and read the speech again. I read my latest draft again. I did not have any new ideas. I went down the hall to talk to my friend who was also taking the class. She’d gone to a private high school and had helped me before on papers, so maybe she had some advice. She did not. It was a stupid assignment, she thought, she’d revised her analysis three times and couldn’t get better than a 7, so she didn’t think her TA knew what he was talking about. What was with all the questions instead of telling us the criteria for improvement? It wasn’t worth her time. Ed20 was just a dumb Education gut.
I went back to my room and read the speech for what was probably the 100th time. Suddenly, something was different. In the film version of this scene, there would have been a shaft of late afternoon light. I would have sat up, pencil in hand, a sparkle in my eye. Music would have started to play. In the real version, I just suddenly saw the anatomy of the speech. I could see the interlocking sequences of the words and how each sequence created meaning that was bigger than a summary of the word denotations. I could see how the author had stacked phrases and sentences into a cadence that built momentum from the hypothesis. I could see how some word choices created emphasis—or de-emphasis—depending on where they were placed. I could see where the writing appealed to emotion and where it appealed to intellect.
I deleted all of my previous analyses and started completely over. For the first time, I had a clear sense of a defining idea—a premise—before I had written a single word. This was different for me. I hadn’t studied rhetoric or essay writing in high school. I hadn’t been taught how to find a thesis statement. I had just read a lot of books, so I knew what a nicely made sentence looked like and had a big (for a nineteen year old) vocabulary. Up until that moment, I had got through school by generating sentences that looked like the kinds of things I’d read until I had enough words typed to call the whole thing a paper.
Now, suddenly, I knew the premise and could see the shape of the arguments that would support it. And, I had found the soft underbelly of the speech I was writing about, had probed the smooth skin of its rhetoric to find the place where the logic had been stitched together. I teased the seam apart, exposing the delicate, quivering ideas that powered it, and laid them on a table, each one ready to be labeled and reframed. It was intellectual vivisection and I had found my scalpel.
I now had a propulsion system for expressing my ideas. There was an exhilarating feeling of control. Where previously words had been sparkling motes that I fished out of air, here and there, like a little kid with a dandelion puff, now they came in a clear-seeing stream. Knowledge begat flow which begat purpose which begat agility. I knew the schema of my subject—I could feel its curves and dips. My sentences came out tensile and accurate. Writing felt good—like music or touch.
I got an 9, which was an A-. The comment was a smiley face with an exclamation mark and a single question. “What’s the larger context?”
I wanted the A. I wanted the 10. I sent the TA a blitzmail. “Can I go over 300 words?” The reply was swift: “No.”
How could I add context if I couldn’t make it longer?
I read my own analysis again, this time looking for its soft underbelly. Just as I had done with the speech, I found its seams and, from there, where I could clean up my own handiwork. I took every word and turned it over, feeling for the right fit. Each one had to have the right connotation and, at the same time, carry the right number of syllables and sounds to create the right cadence. Everything had to cohere into a single, logical, pleasurable, sequence of meaning. I learned how to use a thesaurus. I learned to take my own sentences apart and put them back together again for more concision. I cut adverbs and adjectives. I read each sentence aloud. The essay became a living thing, smooth and supple. It was like in the Gospel of John when the word became flesh and dwelt among us. It was keyboard transubstantiation.
I turned it in.
I got a 10.
Spring in New England hits like an amphetamine.
My boyfriend and I would walk home from the film society, or the “Hereot Hoedown,” or frat row at midnight, and the cool air would be sweet with the scent of incandescently flowering trees. We would stand in front of the stone columns of my dorm, postponing the moment of decision. Would he go home? Or would he come up to my room?
There was one night . . . and then another.
We were responsible. We’d had enough counter programming to know where to get condoms in the middle of the night (in the big bowl, in the reserve library, underneath the Orozco Murals) and how to use them.
Except not really. I, in particular, had no idea how to use a condom, nor anything about ovulation, or pre-ejaculate, or really any other details about sex other then the very basic anatomical ones.
Still, I knew enough to know that I could have gotten pregnant. I went to the Women’s Center on the morning of the third day. I knew vaguely, because my undergraduate advisor had regularly and tactfully dropped bits and pieces of information about women’s health in our small group meetings, that there might be something I could take that might prevent it if I got it quickly.
It was terrifying to even go into that space, which was created specifically to help women when Dartmouth went co-ed, but for me was more like going into Sodom and Gomorrah. The Women’s Center was a place where sex and sexuality were spoken about in practical, even medical terms and without moral or religious guardrails. It was a place where you could get birth control even if you weren’t married and mysterious things like dental dams and where people talked about things like “consent” and “reproductive rights.” It was, I had been taught, explicitly, a godless place—a place for people who had given themselves over to a sinful way of life that did not honor God’s commandments. There was a poster advertising a counter rally for a “anti-choice” event. It took me a minute to realize that “anti-choice” referred to a group of people I knew, slightly, from Campus Crusade for Christ events. I didn’t realize it at first, because the only way I’d ever heard them referred to was as “pro-life.” My pulse quickened.
I looked around the waiting room, but no one seemed to be around. It felt like I had invaded an enemy camp. It felt like someone was going to come up behind me and put their hand over my mouth and shame me for being a Christian.
I was already scared—I had already done the very worst thing that a good Christian girl could do and was already pretty sure that there was going to be very serious consequences.
I was already ashamed—which was why I had no one with me—there was no way I could tell any other Christian friend what I had done—it would have been better to admit to being on drugs, or having stolen something. And, I certainly couldn’t tell any non-Christian friend. I would look like a hypocrite. I was a hypocrite.
I had no one whom I felt I could ask to go with me to try to find something I couldn’t name and didn’t understand, but that I was pretty sure I needed. My UGA would have known about whatever was the early 90s iteration of the Yuzpe regimen and would have helped me out with no agenda and no questions asked, but much as I loved her, I could not admit that I needed help. Admitting that I had sex was, for me, admitting that I’d betrayed my most precious values.
So I had no one who could say, hey, it’s ok that you’re scared. You’re not a bad person—the people who work here aren’t bad people—it’s ok to get some advice and information.
I had no one to say, let’s find someone who can help you find the knowledge that you need so that you can learn it on your own terms and do what you decide is right for you to do.
So I left, as quickly and furtively as I had come and went back to my dorm room to beg God to give me just one more chance, a grown woman pulling wishes and hopes out of the air, like a child with a dandelion puff.
Two weeks later, I was late.
I was never late.
I went to the infirmary before the second of my three final exams. Got the test that was positive. Got the piece of paper with abortion clinics listed on one side and the crisis pregnancy centers listed on the other.
I stumbled back out of the infirmary and walked through the hurtingly bright June sunshine my exam.
Took the exam.
Stumbled back out into the hurting light.
Went to meet my boyfriend on a bench in front of the soaring glass facade of the arts center—that already beloved space where I had experienced film, theater, and music like nothing I’d ever have found in rural Wyoming.
He hugged me and told me he would support me no matter what I wanted to do—no matter what my choice was.
The word hung in the air: choice
I looked at him. He sighed in a way that I recognized—I had seen this hesitation once or twice before when he’d been put on the spot for doing things that the mainstream Christians thought were ungodly.
He said it again: he would support me whatever I wanted to do, no matter what my choice was. He said that his family loved children, and they would support us. He also said that I needed to think really seriously about my education and what I wanted—he said that was the most important thing.
He said we should pray about it. So we did
Then, he left to go to his own final exam—the last one he would take as a Dartmouth student.
I stayed there, alone.
I sat on the bench in front of that shining symbol of campus liberal arts and watched everything I had so newly learned to love vaporize into the hurting light. The PR/PS section of the Baker library stacks, the sound of the back beat on frat row on Friday nights, the face of my Ed 20 TA when she handed me my perfect 10, the lazy shimmer of the Connecticut river.
I sat there, alone, and watched as everything from my other life as a Christian twist into something that I no longer recognized. I couldn’t see the divinity anymore. Nothing was of God. Nothing was love. Nothing could be done to spread the message of salvation. I didn’t know how to live now that I had failed God in what I believed was the worst way that a woman could fail Him. The clear, living water I had swum in all of my life was clouded now. I didn’t know how to breathe without it.
I’ve written about what came next before—but if you’re new to Survival by Book, you can read a version of it here, in the next installment of College, a Love Story.