Thick summer haze blended with the spirals of smoke belching from the backyard grill. A teenage girl in a sepia-colored seventies outfit poked at the flames with a stoic face, silently urging them to gulp up more pages from the notebooks she fed them, one after another. The fire surged with joy and then abated, leaving only charred fragments sinking into dust or drifting lazily into the air. The grill was stuffed, but not for long. Soon the makeshift altar had reduced its sacrifices to embers. The girl sighed with relief, though the anger blazing in her chest had not subsided.
Her mother had read her diaries. They had to be burned. Her most private thoughts unmercifully exposed, her trust breached, the girl vowed to herself that no one would see those words again. As I would discover thirty years later, she also made a promise to her future daughter: she, unlike my grandmother, would never so mistrust and mistreat her own offspring.
“I trust you.” My mother said, over and over again. “I will never invade your privacy.”
I kept journals sporadically, largely as an outlet for childhood frustrations. When other girls shut me out of their circle, I scribbled furiously about it. When I realized guiltily that Christ had commanded us to love everyone, I hastily amended, “Ignore my last entry. I love everyone, those girls especially!” Sometimes the pages were filled with incoherent childhood rage: “STUPID STUPID STUPID!!” I vented. I knew more emphatic words, but good Christian girls never swore.
Despite knowing that my diaries would never be read by mortal eyes, I nonetheless resisted uttering any religious fears or insecurities. I had been told that Satan could not read our minds but could definitely hear what we said. I surmised, though I was never told, that the devil was probably smart enough to read, too, so I avoided showing fear or doubt in the pages of my journals. I alluded in the vaguest possible terms to crushes I had on boys, convinced that to have a crush was to succumb to sinful lust and thus to leave an opening for Satan. Those thoughts were evil, and must be repudiated and denied.
In time, new media burst on the scene. I sent my first email at 11 years old. My mother, still adamantly adhering to her promise to trust me, didn’t stand over my shoulder or vet my communication. I was free to email my friends at church as though we were having a private conversation. At least, that was my assumption. I was quick to discover, yet slow to appreciate, how different the lives of my peers were.
The internet was new to most people I knew, but some guidelines had been established rather quickly: the first rule was to remember that the people in chat rooms weren’t always who they said they were. The second was related: never share identifiable information. Armed with this common sense, I boldly entered chat rooms and held conversations with strangers. Their potential wiles and innuendos flew over my head like a fleet of supersonic jets. If they were there at all, I was none the wiser for a long time.
Among the interests I pursued on the internet were websites for other children who played the Catz video game, which allowed the player to raise and breed virtual pets and show pictures of them to others. I also discovered MIDI files, which exposed me to music I had never heard before and yet held none of the threats of Satanic infiltration like rock music on the radio. MIDI files had no beat or lyrics. They couldn’t infiltrate my brain with images of sex and drugs. This latter discovery soon led to my first jolt of surprise at the exceptional quality of my mother’s trust.
I had taken to downloading MIDI files in bulk and listening to them with musical enhancement software that made their tinny sounds more realistic. I also forwarded a few to my friend Sara, the pastor’s daughter. I shared the ones I liked best and least, along with the ones that sounded most unlike any other music I’d heard before. With all the enthusiasm (and abuse of punctuation) of a twelve-year-old engrossed in a new toy, I attached my latest MIDI in an email to Sara with the subject line, “THE WEIRDEST MIDI IN THE WORLD!!!!~!!!~!!!!!”
Within hours I received a sobering reply – not from Sara, but from her father.
“This is very serious and I think you need to talk to your mother right away,” ran the email. “I have deleted this file and you need to do the same. Hotel California is a rock and roll song and I will not have it in my house.”
Scathed and ashamed, with tears brimming in my eyes, I dutifully searched out my mother and led her to the screen. “I had no idea it was rock and roll,” I explained, utterly unfamiliar with the song. At once I felt horrified, guilty and betrayed – no one had told me that Sara’s dad read her emails! Furthermore, the MIDI had no words and no bass! How was I supposed to know it was Satan’s music? If I had been caught smuggling LSD into Sara’s bedroom, I couldn’t have felt more guilty, more dirty, more wrong.
My mother rolled her eyes at the email and told me not to worry about it. The next time I saw our pastor, though, I was convinced that his eyes were burning a hole through my skull, probing for my darkest sins. He knew what a terrible girl I was, duped by rock and roll. The evil that lived in me clamored to get out. I felt my sin bubbling near the surface, about to burst forth and condemn me to death and hell in one great, horrible bang. I avoided the pastor. I avoided Sara. I avoided the computer. But time was strong enough to make me forget, or at least to think that next time might be different.
“Sometimes I struggle with all these doubts. I’m not sure the Bible is really true. I’m not sure God exists at all,” Sven wrote over instant messenger. We were seventeen.
I sucked in a sharp breath. He was confiding in me! My heart fluttered with honor and with fear at the gravity of his confession. What should I say?
“I know what you mean,” I finally responded, hesitantly. “But I’m usually afraid I’m not one of the elect. I mean, why me, of all the people in the world?”
“Hmm,” wrote Sven. “No, I don’t worry about that at all. Sometimes I just feel like it’s all made up, like there’s nobody on the other side when I pray.” Apparently realizing our depth, we soon retreated to safer topics, but the sobriety of that moment clung to me like static electricity.
Sven and I had begun chatting online whilst playing video games, an activity that caused many heads in our church to wag in consternation. Soon, however, our conversations took more serious avenues. We plotted group excursions to the Renaissance Faire, and talked about the books we’d read and the few movies we’d seen. We shared aspirations to open small businesses one day and to see more of the world. The internet was a lifeline to me, stuck at home in a rural area with no wheels, no work, and no school. Talking to Sven made me feel connected. But I wasn’t prepared for the next jolt to my misplaced sense of trust and confidentiality.
Minutes after Sven confessed his doubts about the existence God, he began to type: “My mom says…” and my heart froze. The rest of the words blacked out in my head. Had she been there the whole time? Had I just bared my own soul, unawares, before the woman who hated me? Sven’s mother had been trying for a decade to break up our friendship: she forced him to discard the gifts I gave him and forbade me to see him alone, then invited another girl to stay in their home and sent them off to run errands together in the car (a privilege and trust that I apparently never merited). When groups of his friends gathered in their house, I was conveniently shunted from the list, though the rest of the church seemed to know. Even as far back as second grade, I could recall her telling my mother that we couldn’t play together anymore, lest I seduce him with my deadly seven-year-old wiles. I had not forgotten this litany of insults, and was horrified to think that I had just given her new ammunition. “She isn’t even saved,” I could imagine Sven’s mother saying of me snidely. “She admitted it: she isn’t one of the elect!”
My mind whirled. Was it a test? Had she read the logs from every conversation we’d had together? How could I be so stupid as to think we were allowed to talk alone? Boys and girls were never allowed that! Then anger rushed into my head: why hadn’t he told me? How could he have that conversation, so obviously private and confidential, right in front of her and not think to let me know she was there? I felt a sting of shame that I had dared to hope for confidentiality in the first place: what I said to him, I should be willing to say to her, too, right? That was what it meant to abstain from the very appearance of evil, wasn’t it? Still, I chafed at what felt like betrayal.
Hesitantly, I asked as casually as I could if she’d just walked in, hoping that the question didn’t raise even more suspicion. To my vast relief, he said she had, and that she’d left again. Perhaps she’d missed our sacrilegious doubts. I remembered my mother’s statement, “I trust you,” with fierce pain and pride. Was I the only one whose mother trusted her? I had been spared this time, but now I knew that Sven’s mother might walk in and read his screen at any moment. No written conversation was safe, no confession private. No friendship existed between only two people.
When my mother said, “I trust you,” she was unique.
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.