The Myth of Safe Spaces

This post was originally published at Incredibly True Stories of Christian Science Healing on Tuesday, May 12, 2016. It is reprinted here with permission.

There just isn’t a safe place to process Christian Science.

The first time I shared any of my CS stuff with my minister, there was one paragraph that I repeatedly deleted and then rewrote, trying to explain why it’s terrifying to complain about Christian Science. There’s no way to capture the work of the Committee on Publications. I worried there might be a UU rule that I had to be friendly to my religion of origin.

Our congregation offered “Owning your religious past,” a weekend workshop. I had some trepidation about it, but mostly, I was excited to attend. Maybe I’d be able to set down some of the CS baggage I’ve been hauling around. Integrate it, move more fully into UU. Settle into a spiritual home.

There was one friend who suggested I postpone. “Do you think it might be smart to avoid unearthing this stuff while your therapist is out of town?” I saw her point, but I also thought it might be helpful to have a deeply connecting experience, something soul-sustaining in her absence. I could lean on my church during my time of need, and this workshop might help me do that on a deeper level.

Before I’d even settled on a seat, a woman set off all my alarm bells. Not safe! My brain screamed. She looked like an amalgam of all the female Sunday School teachers I had, every practitioner who patted my head after a bee sting at sleep-away camp. There’s a look prevalent among Christian Scientists: well-groomed, attractive, white, upper-middle-class woman with a smile intended to comfort that fails. There’s an expected element of attractiveness.*

Sunday School Teacher Amalgam (SSTA) and I wound up in the same small group, despite my attempts to dance out of her space. I decided to enter into the conversation honestly anyway. Being authentic was what I wanted. This was my spiritual home. I wouldn’t let a gut level reaction to a likely pleasant woman derail me.

“I grew up in Christian Science.”

She offered a smile and motioned toward a book she was holding.

“Over the past year, I’ve been realizing how damaging it was,” I trudged onward, trying not to look at her, aware of her eyes on me. “I left it thinking the doctrine was true, I just wasn’t good at it, but now I’m seeing that no one could be good at it; it’s impossible.”

“I imagine it was your branch church, don’t you think?” she interjected. Her face was less warm, still smiling. “I mean, it’s so open to interpretation. It just depends on how it’s practiced.” Never have I ever heard a Christian Scientist describe it as “open to interpretation.” She held out a book toward me. “This is something I’ve been reading.”

I flipped open and read this sentence: “Pain, sickness, poverty, old age, and death cannot master me, for they are not real.” I recognized the name. Another New Thought author. Someone who studied Christian Science. I forced a smile and handed it back to her. I know, she wasn’t trying to get me to practice radical reliance. She might be horrified at the idea of allowing a child to die unnecessarily. She found her book soothing, and she might even read it in a doctor’s waiting room without experiencing cognitive dissonance.
She continued. “I guess that why I’m here at UU, because I can believe this.” She patted the book’s cover and held it close.  “I can believe anything here, and I can study it on my own but still have community. I can study Lessons in Truth.” (I do get frustrated with the idea that you can believe anything and be UU, but that’s another post, maybe a different blog.)
I shut up. Suddenly every Sunday School teacher was sitting next to me, listening to my protests, correcting me. “Now, Hester, you know that’s not Science. We love you so much! You are God’s Perfect Child, don’t let error drive like that!” I crumbled inward. “When you smile, you’re reflecting Divine Love.” They were probably right, I thought. I shouldn’t be at UU. I shouldn’t be saying these things to strangers. I wasn’t reflecting Love, I was being hateful. Letting error win.
This wasn’t a safe space. Divine Love is everywhere. How can you escape omnipresence?
As we were packing up to go home, my minister stopped in front of me and asked how I was doing. I gave her my patented blow off: a smile, wave and a “oh gosh, how are you?” I’m unaccustomed to its failure, but when I looked up a few seconds later, she was still standing there, eyebrows raised. “Are you waiting for me to answer?” I was flabbergasted. It hadn’t worked. I couldn’t really name anything other than the sense of overwhelm, but her insistence on waiting was anchoring. I knew she was safe.
The next day we did a guided visualization that ended with us entering our childhood churches. It has been years since I’ve felt the crunchy red velvet cushions while counting the screws on the seats in front of me, decades since I’ve wiggled on the organ bench to reach the foot pedals, filling in for the vacant organist. (I later found out he needed surgery, so they asked him to resign) Our instructions were to recreate the floor plan.
My drawing was deliberately sketchy. I didn’t want anyone to be able to recognize my church, or me. We broke into new small groups, I wasn’t with SSTA. I marveled at how different Christian Science was from all the other churches. No cookies. No social gatherings, no pot lucks, no weddings, no funerals, no rituals of human connection. No activities that reinforce the material existence. No candles, no kneeling, no stained glass windows, or crosses. No Christmas Eve or Easter special services. Christian Science churches are adorned with words and thoughts. There’s no there there.
We took a break, and someone stopped me in the kitchen.  “You grew up in Christian Science?” he enthused. “I know someone who was really good at Christian Science.”
“Well,” I sighed, mustered up a smile not quite worthy of Divine Love, “if that someone is local, I imagine I know them. It’s a small church.”
“Her name is Eliza Schuyler?** She was studying to be one of those, what do you call them? The higher ups?”
“Practitioners.” I nodded. “I know her well. I spent summers at her house. I dated her son.”
“Oh, he was a good Christian Scientist too. Philip? He wrote about Christian Science, right?” He did. I’ve read his sentinel articles, including the one published after his death.  I nodded. His voice hushed and he leaned toward me. “He died though.”
“Yes,” I nodded. “he did.” He died. How good could he have been at Christian Science? I skirted out of the room as quickly as I could without being rude. Thoughts of Philip, and related, thoughts of my failure in Christian Science, flooded me. I tried to slow my breathing, allowing my gaze to rest on the pulpit, on the chalice, on the front window. Tears came, despite my best efforts. I was breaking so many rules, being there, and breaking rules lets error in, and error is sin, disease and death.
Our next exercise was to write a letter to someone who impacted our religious life. We could write where we are now, how we chose to be here. We could write their response, if we wanted, and we could respond. I sat in our sanctuary and wept while I wrote two letters.

Dear Phillip:
Fuck you.
I go years without thinking of you, without feeling how inadequate I was when with you, and then I get slammed with it again. Go the fuck away. I thought I had a safe place to talk about Christian Science and I’m hearing about you and your mother and how great you were. Do you know why I’m not a good Christian Scientist? Do you want to know? Because it’s impossible. It’s like some giant mind fuck game that I will never, ever win. I can’t be what you wanted, because what you wanted is an illusion.

My other letter was to the practitioner who gave me absent treatment through both my breast lump and break-up with Phillip. Two times we failed to demonstrated the omnipotence of Truth.

Dear Sandra:
When a teenager calls you with a lump in her breast, the appropriate thing to do is to tell her parents to take her to a fucking doctor. God’s Perfect Child is an impossibility. She doesn’t exist. Not here. Not at Prin. Not in Boston. So because I’m never going to be perfect and I know I’m always going to have something toxic growing inside me, the only conclusion I can draw is that I will never be worthy of the love I’m seeking.

I swallowed my fear and read the letter to Sandra out loud when the time came. Speaking truth.  I wanted to be brave. I wanted to feel safe. I didn’t.
I’ve had a hard time writing about this workshop, and it’s interesting to me because usually if I feel strong emotions, the words just flow. If they don’t, it’s because there’s something I’m not letting out. I couldn’t figure out where my stuck place was until last night, then I saw it clearly. It’s anger.
Anger has been choking off my writing. I went to this workshop hoping for a safe place to lay my Christian Science angst to rest, and I didn’t find it. It’s possible that outside of other ex-Christian Scientists, there isn’t a safe place. It’s so hard to explain, so hard to understand. People nod and smile, extend a hug, but I spend my time certain they believe I’m overreacting, worried that maybe I am overreacting. I can’t tell if I’m misreading the room because I spent my entire childhood and early adulthood stifling any doubts or negative feelings, or if I really am overreacting.
To be clear: Christian Science isn’t a reframe of the mind-body connection, it DOESN’T BELIEVE THE BODY EXISTS. There’s no mind-body connection involved. Just mind. It isn’t a sweet, empowering religion full of love and girl power. It’s toxic and dangerous, if you’re practicing it right. If you’re not practicing radical reliance, if you’re more of a dabbler, it’s just sort of dumb, which I suppose is fine, if that’s your thing.
I wish I could be saved. I want a church that wraps me in her arms and apologizes for the harm done to me in the name of religion. I want solace. I want safety. I want an escape from the omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent force of Divine Love that taught me to stifle my inner wisdom, to ignore the sensations of my body and any emotions that didn’t result in a benign smile. I want to be rid of the religion that made it impossible to name neglect and abuse as anything other than Love, since Love is all.
It’s possible that this is what’s happening between me and Unitarian Universalism, but it doesn’t come with the emotional reassurances of an altar call; it’s long and arduous and filled with messiness and uncertainty.
*Legend has it, Mary Baker Eddy overcame aging, and because of that, looked beautiful her entire life. “The deformities and infirmities said to be the inevitable results of age, under the opposite mental impressions, disappear,” she told readers of the Christian Science Journal in 1884.
**lolz. Couldn’t help myself. They were the only names that came to me.
Addendum: I want to say something about finding a spiritual home, and I’m not sure I can capture it properly. Part of it is flat out asking my minister “am I overreacting?” and believing her when she said no. Reality testing– it’s so simple, easy, and super powerful. That there’s no room for it in Christian Science is the salt on the egg.
The other part is I had a moment yesterday that could only be defined as joy, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt that emotion. It felt awesome, and it was a result of hope surrounding my experience at UU.  Having a spiritual home where I can be myself, where I can question things, change my mind, muddle around in a mess, and still be loved, feels like what it’s all about.

2 Replies to “The Myth of Safe Spaces”

  1. My gratitude to you for publishing this piece. So thorough. For years, I had sought a means, an understanding individual (ideally, a professional), who would understand what I had gone through in this religion. There really was no one.

    However, there really is a well-worn path of people in other religions who have, perhaps, crashed and burned, and could find understanding/solace/comfort in the company of other individuals who had gone down the same path. Professional help was available, as well. If you were raised Catholic, for instance, you could relate to others who had been to Catholic School, suffered beatings, slaps, etc., from the nuns. Or, say, if you were raised Southern Baptist, you may have been given an inordinate amount of terror regarding hellfire.

    But if you were raised in Christian Science, I mean, where do you go? How do you explain it to others? How many professional people have dealt with issues specific to CS? Christian Science is sort of out there in it’s own world, and those who have not been through the nuttier aspects of it, can’t appreciate what it is like. And, the less said about the stranger aspects of it in the public sphere, the better, as far as the Church was concerned, the better.

    There were no tails of protracted illness, pain, suffering, in my home background. No one died because of lack of medical intervention. However, my mother, who raised me in the religion, was a real piece of work. As a child I had buck teeth. Around the time of first grade, I noticed that certain other children in the class were wearing braces. I knew I had buck teeth, so I asked to have braces put on, so I could be like the other kids. “You don’t need braces”, was my mother’s response. Then she would close her eyes, turn away from me, and say “work it out in Christian Science.” Of course, the teeth never “healed” in Christian Science, but I did go through childhood at times, having my buck teeth imitated by other kids, mocked, comments such as “Hey, Bucky Beaver, how’s your Bucky Beaver teeth?”, etc. (I finally had the buck teeth straightened, as an adult, or faced the prospect of going through my adult life with buck teeth, at times in excruciating pain, because of having orthodontic work done on an adult mouth).

    I posted about this over at “Emerging Gently.” As an 11 year old child, my mother’s summer reading assignment to me was reading “Science and Health.” Just what a child that age needs to read…right? She mocked my fear of deep water, I resisted taking swimming lessons, because of my fear, and she informed every visitor to our house that I couldn’t swim. (Conveniently ignoring the fact that she never learned to swim herself). No words of Christian Science comfort. It took getting into trouble in the deep end at my Christian Science Sunday School teacher’s home, and him pulling my out and saving me, before I heard comforting words of Christian Science.

    Because I realized, years later, that I wanted to get myself out of the frame of reference of Christian Science, but I felt unable to do so. There were, literally, no resources, to turn to, to try to get validation, comfort, and therapy. Edwin Frandin Dakin’s book “Mrs. Eddy: The Biography of a Virginal Mind”, would have been an incredible help, but I wasn’t able to find my way to it.

    In recent years, such books as “God’s Perfect Child” by Caroline Fraser, have given a frame of reference to some of the things that have gone on in people’s lives, where they had previously felt alone. “God’s Perfect Child” is suchan extraordinary book, on so many levels.

    Like you, I missed the interaction of people in the Christian Science Church. No socials, no potluck dinners, no celebrations, no candles. The human interaction, the warmth, are just lost in the austere surroundings. I always thought, for instance, that it would be nice to go to the Easter Sunrise Service, at the Hollywood Bowl. But Christian Scientists don’t do that. The warmth of human interaction is lost in the constant absolutism of CS, the “war with the senses”, and so on.

    You’ve said so much in your piece. I have to go now, but I hope to add some more comments soon. Thank you.

    1. Hello, again:

      Just a few more comments…

      One of the great things, when you wake up from Christian Science, is when you get on the other side of it, you begin to realize how people perceive it, who have not been indoctrinated in it. How counterintuitive it is. You realize that trying to practice the perfectionism, the absolutism, of Christian Science on a continuing basis is both unnatural and unhealthy, from a mental health standpoint.

      There was a time in my life, when I wanted to mentally separate myself from C.S., but really felt unable to do so. Those who have grown up with the Internet, perhaps, can’t fully appreciate what it was like, before it’s advent. The Internet has been around, now, since about 1992, and then really came into public usage around 1995. Before that time, if you were a struggling Christian Scientist, or felt, like I began to, that I was a victim of a form of mind-control, you really had few options.

      For example, I had heard about a fellow who worked with survivors of cults, etc., who were trying to make it back into the real world. I contacted him, discussed my problems with C.S., and he said he would be willing to work with me, but it all felt like virgin territory. He’d never worked with Christian Scientists before, and I felt odd, in any event, doing it. Christian Science presents such a gentile fact to the world, it doesn’t appear to resemble a cult at all. And I felt guilty, as well. Wasn’t going to ANYTHING outside of C.S. an admission of failing on my part? And wouldn’t going to ANYTHING outside of C.S. inevitably going to harm me?

      Believe me, I felt like an odd duck for many years, in trying to seek, yet not find, comfort, and a frame of reference, for what I had been through.

      I mentioned, in my other commentary, about the loony home I grew up in, with a mother who used the religion against me. She would play mind games on me. She would say, or do, something that was upsetting to me, and when I would react to it, she would simply say: “That’s alright. I know you love your mother. You’re just being handled.” (“Handled”, in the Christian Science definition of the term, means the control of another person’s thinking, by an outside individual, or individuals).

      In other words, she would say or do something cruel to me, and then the normal reaction I would have to being emotionally violated, would be to tell me that my upset was simply the result of outside people controlling my thinking. What a nice way to play mind-fucking games with a child, under cover of Christian Science.

      So, I know what it’s like, to really have nowhere to turn, when my background was being raised in a home in the bizarre end of Christian Science. There was a time, when there was no Google search engine, and one could simply type in “recovery from Christian Science”, and get all manner of results.

      But that has all changed, thankfully. One book that has helped is, of course, “God’s Perfect Child”, by Caroline, Fraser. I also liked “The Religion that Kills Christian Science and Mind Control”, by Linda Kramer. A former C.S., she really nails the mind control aspects of C.S. Although she does it by comparing it, and championing born again Christianity, which she’s gotten into, which I’d rather not delve into. But the book is a valuable read to people who are dealing with the mind control aspects of C.S. The book has been retitled “Perfect Peril”, and is available on Kindle.

      I also appreciate the recent articles on ExCS, dealing with Quimby, and Swdenborg, Berkeley, and Hegel. If you think that Mrs. Eddy was visited by God, and that the entire religion only came from her/God, this will help clear up things very well for you. So grateful for this website, and your letter, as well.

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