By the time I turned in my final remedial math exam, my family had settled into a tiny rental house in Pennsylvania. I was now eligible to start community college, getting prerequisites out of the way while finishing up my high school diploma. For my first semester, I was registered for Basic Problems of Philosophy (my mother, snickering, said, “There are a lot of problems with Philosophy,” implying that it was a godless discipline), and Earth Science.
Community college was a dazzling experience. Not only could I drive myself there three nights a week and not have to worry about tiptoeing around my father’s ever-simmering rage, I could talk to normal people face-to-face. I became painfully aware of the conspicuousness of my long skirts and hair, and went out of my way to dress up for college. I preferred to have people think I was simply overdressed than advertising my religion.
On the first day of my Philosophy class, our professor walked in – a tall, lithe woman wearing a fedora. “You may call me Professor V.,” she explained. “You may also call me Dr. V., if you need medical assistance, which I can provide.” She had three doctoral degrees, she explained. My eyes kept widening as she introduced herself. She seemed like a creature from a higher dimension: poised, collected, professional, and utterly unlike any other woman I’d ever known. Our first exercise was to probe the foundational source of our own identity in a one-page essay. I answered that, as a Christian, my identity came from within the imagination of God, the source of all Creation. I wrote easily, but afterward began to think. Was I being honest in my answer? Or was I only reproducing someone else’s thoughts?
Integrity became an increasing fixation in my life. Every day, I worked an eight-hour shift at Wal-Mart, and despite my best efforts to vary my wardrobe and to solicit comments on being overdressed rather than appearing strange, inevitably somebody noticed that I didn’t wear pants. “It’s Biblical,” I sighed. It was a shortcut other women had taught me to say when I didn’t want to have a long conversation about my dress. “If they’re thirsty, they’ll keep asking,” my mother and her friends had instructed. Inwardly, I was sick of inspiring thirst.
I felt as though the Holy Bible were plastered to my chest. There was nothing I could do to avoid mentioning it. I began to obfuscate when strangers and friends confronted me. “It’s religious,” I said sometimes. Other times, “I just like skirts.” As I looked around at my coworkers in cute jeans and tank tops, I felt less and less inclined to “witness” and wanted desperately just to go about my business without incurring questions from strangers.
I couldn’t see the other girls as evil, depraved, captive or on the prowl to destroy men with their bodies. I saw people that I liked, people I wanted to be like, and the conspicuous nature of my dress burned in my conscience. “I don’t really believe wearing jeans is wrong,” I dared to think between fearful bouts of repentance. “This skirt I’m wearing is a lie.” But I quickly stuffed those thoughts into a hidden place in my mind, a place it would be safe to probe later, when I wouldn’t have to explain a pair of jeans to my mother or to God.
I want to be authentic, I thought. I wanted my actions to reflect my beliefs. And yet there was no room to examine my own heart in private, to sort out what I really believed about women’s dress. Every time I got dressed in the morning, I took a stand for the Message by donning yet another floor-sweeping handmade skirt. To dress otherwise would be to send up a battle flare, declaring my apostasy in one stroke. I’d be set upon instantly by a horde of Message women, all reminding me why Brother Branham said women shouldn’t wear pants and praying that the Lord would lead me to repentance. “Aha!” I could imagine some of them smirking. “We knew she wasn’t saved. She’s probably Serpent’s Seed.” I wasn’t ready for the drama I knew would instantly fall on me, so I hid as best I could: by wearing fancy skirts and answering, “I’m comfortable this way,” while inwardly chafing at the failure of my integrity. Wearing skirts meant always performing: I never had a moment’s privacy to sort out what I really believed.