It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review. I’ve been very busy reading books for my Ph.D. and simply haven’t had the luxury to read much else over the past year or so. I made an exception, however, for the recently released memoir of Kristy Burmeister. Although she was raised as a Mennonite this year Kristy has joined me in entering the Catholic Church, but what Kristy offers in this book is not a conversion story, at least in the traditional sense of the word.
Over the past few years, Kristy has been a theological sparring partner online in a few of the forums I frequent. I have always found her opinions to be well thought-out, compassionate, compelling, and rooted in a living faith in a God that she has struggled with. I knew that there was something special about Kristy from my first interactions with her and as she slowly began to share her story, first with a few of us online, and now in this incredible memoir; I learned why.
Act Normal: Memoir of a stumbling block documents a period of fear and abuse in the life of Kristy Burmeister when she was a teenager in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is the story of a faith that endured incredible hardships at the hands of a congregation and a stalker when she was a teenager.
It’s a story of faith that we all need to hear but is rarely shared. It’s a story that shares what happens when faith is used as a justification for abuse when faith becomes a weapon wielded to hurt. It tells of a faith used to empower silence in the face of injustice and lies in the name of dogma.
This is the story of deconversion, and it’s an incredibly important story to tell. In the era of #metoo and perhaps, more importantly, #churchtoo, this book is arriving at just the right time to be heard in our culture. Unfortunately for Kristy, her abuse and experience were not heard 20 years ago where the book begins.
What Kristy is able to accomplish in the book is incredible. She is able to communicate effectively her own mind at the time these things were happening to her. The way she’s able to embody the mind of a teenager within the youth group culture of the 1990s is what really drew me in. This was my life, and my experience too. Kristy was one of my people. She would have been standing with me praying “at the pole,” headed to newsboys concerts, and figuring out how to “kiss dating goodbye” while still having a romantic companion.Her narrative drew me back 20 years to my own high school years. It dug up my old memories. My old joys. My old hurts. It made it all the more real for me when she began to disclose the systemic way that she was pursued by a mentally unstable stalker.
This man had been a member of her church. He had been involved the life of their family and helping with church projects in the congregation where Kristy’s own father was the pastor. When the issues started to arise the church look the other way. Some believed this particular man had been cured of his mental illness through prayer. Others found it unchristian to do anything that might exclude another person even if that meant that the young girl within their midst lived in constant fear. Hearing Kristy tell her story broke my heart again and again.
I love the church but I’ve seen the ways that the church is broken is it need redemption. What really struck me as Kristy talked about the terror that she experienced was the number of good intentions and theological platitudes that were used as weapons so that the church members wouldn’t have to deal with the uncomfortable truth: one of their members was abusing another.
Life is often messy. People have problems, and giving your life to Jesus doesn’t make everything ok. The church is not a safe haven from the violence abuse and hurt of the outside world. Sometimes it can be a safe haven for the abusers. This happens when “forgiveness” is used to perpetuate abuse, “prayer” is used to avoid intervention and when “acceptance” for some forces eviction on others.
This book challenged me to evaluate my own history within the church. Am I guilty? Have there been times when I have allowed wounds to go unhealed and violence to continue against the vulnerable because to do otherwise would make things theologically complicated? If I’m truthful, I know the answer is yes. I can remember the fear in the eyes of those who have finally worked up the courage to come out to me or those who have come to tell me they have left the faith worried they would lose my friendship. I pray that those I have hurt can forgive my failings as Kristy is finally able to begin to do in her book.
Healing and forgiveness is a long and complicated journey and I for one am deeply grateful for being allowed to walk with Kristy as she explores her own road in this book. Please pick up a copy. The church ignored Kristy nearly 20 years ago, but we don’t have to today. There are countless others suffering at the hands of their church today, I pray this book will help create a space for them to share too. Hopefully they can hear: you don’t need to act normal, you are not alone.