August 1, 2008

Faith & Writing: Beth Fehlbaum, author of Courage in Patience

The Author

Beth Fehlbaum, an experienced English teacher, drew on her experiences as a teacher and as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse to craft the fictional story of a teen girl's first foray into recovery from sexual abuse. She wrote Courage in Patience to give hope to anyone who has to face their greatest fears and find out what they're made of.

You can learn more about Beth and her work through her primary website and blog and through MySpace!

The Book

After six years of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse from her stepfather, 15-year-old Ashley finally finds the courage to reveal the painful details of her experiences with her mother, who refuses to acknowledge the problem and turns her back on her daughter. After confiding in her teacher—the only adult whom Ashley can trust—she is removed from her home and sent to live with her father and his second wife, Beverly, an English teacher. Nurtured by Beverly, an extraordinarily positive influence in her life, Ashley and a summer school class of troubled teens learn to face their fears and discover who they really are.

Click cover to order COURAGE IN PATIENCE today!

The Question: How does your faith, your spirituality integrate itself into your writing?

I strongly believe that religion should not be used as a tool to tear people down. I think that belief comes through in my debut novel, Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse.

Courage in Patience's protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl named Ashley Nicole Asher. Ashley is removed from her mother's home because her stepfather is suspected of sexually abusing her. But even before she is removed from her home, she experiences what becomes for her a crystallizing moment that colors forever her perception of fundamentalist churches. This happens when her classmates who, while not really friends, pretty-much ignored her, change into born-again "zombies" who are intensely interested in whether or not Ashley is "saved."

I based Ashley's discomfort from this situation on something I experienced myself, when I was in seventh grade. A church in our town held a "pizza party"-- but it was really a revival. Overnight, people I considered my friends, changed. I suppose, in their eyes, they had changed for the better. But for me, it was an isolating experience. Suddenly, my friends turned their backs on me, because they had found the "right" way, and they had the little brochures with the prayer in the back, to prove it.

Although I attended church, suddenly I was "not good enough" for my friends, only because my particular branch of the Protestant Tree did not use the word "saved"; it did not baptize by immersion; and it did not consider its way of believing to be the ONLY way to Heaven.

In my writing, I do not try to convert anyone to my way of thinking. However, I do think it's important to reach out to kids who, like me in seventh grade, find that because of their friends having some childish understanding of what God is all about, they are suddenly on the "outs", in spite of having done nothing wrong. To those kids, I would say, hang in there. You're not alone. And, truly, I think that God probably hangs His head in shame, when people hurt others in His name.

Here's an excerpt from Chapter One of Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse. The voice of the narrator is fifteen-year-old Ashley Asher. By the way, Chapter One may be read in its entirety. Just click here to go to my blogspot page. Chapter One is posted there.

© 2008 Beth Fehlbaum, Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse

When I was in seventh grade, a local church began to evangelize by passing out flyers announcing "pizza parties" on Friday evenings. I had already become suspicious of other people's motives for being nice to me, so I wondered why strangers would want to feed me pizza. What I found out was that the "parties" were really revivals, and the idea of a man yelling hellfire and brimstone stuff at me was more than I could take.

Believe it or not, we were members of the Methodist church. It was, in fact, one of the few places I felt safe and loved. People did not really know us; they had no idea what we were like at home, but they accepted our masks. Charlie was head of the landscaping committee, and my mom was a lay leader, a member who helped lead the congregation. I'm sure the people who told me how lucky I was to have such wonderful parents would be shocked to know the dirty little secret of Charlie's nighttime activities.

I think the reason I felt so loved at church was that the minister told me that God IS Love. God didn't create ugliness in the world. God was not a punishing god. God was there to hold you up when you thought you couldn't take anymore. The God I knew didn't list conditions for His loving me.

I didn't have any close friends, but when my classmates came back to school on the Monday after the "Give Your Heart to Jesus and Have a Slice of Pepperoni" thing, they carried Bibles, pamphlets, and holier-than-thou attitudes toward anyone who wasn't there.

"Have you been saved, Ashley?" Korey Hendrix asked as he slid into his seat to my right in first period math class.

"I … think so. I mean, we don't use that word in my church, but I've been baptized," I said, as I finished writing my heading on my paper.

"And how were you baptized? Did'ja go under water?" Korey never even acknowledged that I took up space in the row next to his, unless he wanted to borrow a piece of paper or have me pass a note to Sherry Brown, who he was going out with. Why was he so interested in me now?

I had a bad feeling about this. "No, the minister put some water on my head."

"Did you pray this prayer?" Mary Hood chimed in from two seats behind me. She recited what amounted to: "Jesus, I know I'm a horrible person and I don't deserve Your love, but the wretched piece of crap that I am humbly asks for You to lower Your standards enough to allow me to be called one of Your children. In Your name, I pray. Amen."

Of course I replied that I hadn't said a prayer like that, even though I had never known any belief but Christianity. I was a "cradle Christian." But apparently not the right kind.

"You're supposed to pray this prayer and cry a lot. It's how you know the Devil has been washed out of your soul," said Korey, turning to the back page of his pamphlet.

"If you didn't cry, how can you really know you've been saved, Ashley?" I jumped when she spoke; I didn't realize that Cynthia Morris was standing to my left, looking down at me.

There were so many more happy and peaceful born-again zombies surrounding me at school, I began to wonder if they were right. Maybe God was punishing me for being the wrong kind of Christian, by allowing me to be spied on, groped, pulled at … you get the idea. I thought, "If I can get some of what they've got, I'll have some of their peace too." And maybe God would smite Charlie, or at least make him leave me alone.

I never went to one of the pizza parties, but I did start riding my bike down to the Christian bookstore in my neighborhood. It was one of those bookstores that put books about Catholicism and Buddhism in the "cult" section. I spent hours poring over the literature, to the strange looks of the clerks. I mean, how many twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls spent time in the self-help section of their store? I couldn't afford the hardcover books they had on "how to bring happiness to your home," but I did buy little soft-cover gems like The Jesus Person's Pocket Book of Promises. In it, I found over one hundred numbered promises Jesus had made to me, most of them regurgitations of the prayer my newly blessed friends had cited as The Way, written from Jesus' point of view, which only people who attended pizza party revivals, certain churches, and were baptized the "right" way were privy to.

I was in so much pain and so angry all the time, I figured I would try anything once, or twice … or countless times. Maybe I was so fundamentally flawed, I wasn't even doing Christianity right. The thing was, I couldn't cry. I prayed that damn prayer so many times on my knees beside my bed, like it said to do. Then I'd wait for the uplifted, "saved" feeling that would happen when the Holy Spirit filled my body and soul, but it never came. Maybe I was such a worthless person even God had turned His back on me. I became angrier then, and curious about the nature of evil. How did bad people come into the power they had?

I biked to the library and checked out a book on Adolph Hitler, the baddest of the bad that I could think of. Why did people listen to him? How did a person who was so evil become so powerful? I wanted to know.

When my mother saw the book on my desk in my bedroom, she snatched it up and insisted that I take it back immediately. "I will not have that man in my house!" she railed. "He was a tyrant and an evil person!"

"Yeah, I know, Mom, that's why I want to figure out why people listened to him."

"No! Get that book out of my house!" she flung open the front door and let me know that if I didn't take the book back to the library immediately, she would throw it into the street.

You know, it almost makes me laugh. My mother's high sensitivity to the presence of evil in a bunch of pages bound together with glue and a cover, coexisting with her complete refusal to acknowledge the real Satan sleeping next to her each night (when he wasn't trying to pull me out of my covers, that is). It's freakin' surreal. I could laugh at how clueless she is, if it weren't so painful.

As Charlie's pursuits and mental games became more intense, the survivalist within me really started to emerge. Or the terrified coward. It's pretty much a toss-up. Like Hitler and my stepfather living at one point on the same planet, there is a tough, take-no-prisoners survivor—and a pathetic wimp—living together inside of me.


Shonell Bacon said...

Thanks for participating in the premiere, Beth! I love your post, and I agree; the point is not to browbeat people into submission, but really to give them information - from all sides - so that they can come into faith in a mature, informed way.

Jennifer C. said...

I never experienced that while growing up. I went to a lot of revivals, but I just received an abundance of prayers, but nothing calling me a heathen or anything like that.

I found my relationship with God at my own pace.

Shonell Bacon said...

Hey JC - As you know, I got back into church last year, and though I never experienced anything as stronger as Beth discusses, I did - at times - feel like I had to be different than who I was in order to be "accepted". It was awkward and confusing for me sometimes, even at 35, because I was so new to the whole church as a part of faith environment.