“You know what’s messed up, though?” Jenny says. “If you hadn’t made those posters, this probably wouldn’t have made the news. I worked for months and got nowhere. What you did got all the attention, and it wasn’t even your fight.” She pauses. “But something good did come out of it. Despite your best efforts.”
“There’s a metaphor in there, somewhere,” I say.
“Straight white boy destroys everything, world stops to listen?” She pops a piece of cinnamon roll in her mouth. “That’s the history of the Western world.”
– from Heretics Anonymous, by Katie Henry
You know how people say they wish they had written a book? Well, I can’t wish that here. I can’t wish to have written this book, because then I would have to wish to be a much more mature and deep person than I currently am. I would have to wish to have started not being a Hosanna Hannah well before college, and to have had a much more examined life than I did before I was twenty-five. All I can wish is that kids who were raised in conservative faiths would read this book, set it down, panic, then read it again, and allow the big, deep thoughts within to percolate. Really, that’s it. Dear Past Me, you don’t have to believe everything you read, no. But, you deserve the courtesy of learning to think for yourself. God gave you a brain, kiddo. Use it…
As deeply intelligent and well thought through as this book is, it makes me a little bitter because it shows me that I am still not over going to a parochial boarding school and being fed a combination of insinuation, if not outright lies sometimes, that were unethical and dicey in terms of scare-tactics morality. I am not yet over having a dress code that was much more concerned with the skin I was showing, and the length of my skirts, and the temptation I offered my male classmates than the suitability of the clothing for the activity I was undertaking. I am still not over our dean telling us that we had to say yes – HAD TO to any boy who asked us to a school function banquet, because teenaged girls – though deeply unimportant by societal standards – still somehow held the key to Western civilization, and that if we hurt the boys and/or made them angry by our refusal, we risked sinfully and willfully participating in havoc-wreaking of the sort that got Eve basically kicked out of the garden.
Okay, no one actually said that last, but it was implied that We Were Doing Something Bad to say no to any boy. Which is very obviously patently ridiculous.
If you went to a conservative religious school, this book might make you feel very seen. But, you, like me, might also see yourself as Theresa, not Michael, the main character. Like Theresa, I desperately needed the waters to stay calm — for no one to riot, protest, or question the rules, because if things were deemed too wild, and I got taken out of my super-conservative school, The Other Options were simply to awful to examine. Readers may see themselves in gay, Jewish Avi, gay, Nigerian Jenny, in Max’s Unitarian leanings, or in the earnest and thoughtful defense of the faith shown by strongly Catholic Lucy. Actually, when I wasn’t busy identifying with fearful Catholic Theresa, I identified strongly with Lucy, who loved her faith enough to want to challenge and change it. Lucy is imperfect – she’s mocking about other faiths she feels are ‘implausible’ like Celtic polytheism, and she has swallowed some parts of the theology of her church without thought, even if they’re hurtful or oblivious – but you kind of want to cheer for her, and hope that she …works it all out and doesn’t get exhausted and give up. Even Michael can see that Lucy’s faith anchors her, and it would be horrible to see her lose that anchor, even though at times he also believes that it drags her down.
And Michael… angry, agnostic, and desperately in love, Michael’s character is perhaps the one most attractive to readers. He shrugs off belief as a “just something that makes no sense, and that I’ve never done,” and yet, Michael is a True Believer. Readers will discover that he believes, desperately, in his father. And his father is a god who no longer answers his calls, leaving Michael as an increasingly bitter, disillusioned worshiper.
Moving the family four times in ten years, working more and more hours, and demanding more and more… evidence that everyone is “okay,” more allegiance from his family, as well as a continued conformity to the rules he set in place when he was always there, as their Leader/god, Michael’s father seems to have set a world spinning and… vanished. When he does return, his focus on rules and the appearance of things being exactly the same quickly pushes he and Michael down the road toward a showdown. That Michael’s god is flawed is obvious – and the imperfection and realness allows him to be one of the better adults in the novel.
Michael is, on one hand, too immature to see his father as a person who is struggling, yet very informed on the fiduciary relationship between fathers and families, at the same time. Michael focuses on what he isn’t getting – time, attention, and gifts (ironically what some people who are religious focus on when they don’t get it) – and not at all on the benefits of being part of his family – nice home, private school, good clothes and a Mom always there. His father, in Michael’s eyes, is out there being “pathetic” and doing “nothing” with his “little job” when he’s not home where Michael feels he’s supposed to be. Michael, for all his intelligence, has a tremendous blind spot here – a furious child wailing for his Daddy, despite being a high school junior whose mother is home every day because his father’s hours mean she doesn’t have to work, despite having good ‘things’ – clothes and gaming systems and private school access, no concerns about spending money, and food on the table at every meal. Even Lucy tries to tell Michael – repeatedly – that he has a lot for which to be grateful, but he cannot hear her – at all.
Until he’s forced to listen…
Nuanced, intelligent, and in some places, light-hearted, this is a heartfelt exploration of belief – and, disbelief, too – in God or our various gods, making it a true discussion of religious freedom. Heretics Anonymous met under the charter “That all people, regardless of what they worship, who they love, and what they think / Have a right to exist, and a right to be heard.” Past Me could really have used this as a kid – here’s hoping it gets into the hands of a ton of kids who were raised and educated conservatively as I was – so that they can begin to understand the freedom of religion that the Constitution guarantees can start in their hearts and in their heads, no matter what a denomination teaches, to see their gods for what they are, and to know what – or who – truly deserves their allegiance.
Until the next book,