On a summer Thursday evening, shortly after my 16th birthday, my face was pressed into the maroon carpet again. Mildew filled my nostrils and I coughed. My youth pastor’s wife, Jessa, was playing piano, and my youth group friends and I had spread out and each found our own nook on the floor to meet God.
“The only thing holding us back from being in the Secret Place is our own sin,” Jessa shouted, her neck held high. I was mesmerized by the way God moved through her.
The Secret Place of the Lord was the place we could dwell if we lived holy lives. In the Secret Place, God would whisper divine revelations to us and show us miracles. I dug my face harder into the floor — lying prostrate was how we humbled ourselves before the Lord. I sang, improvising a new melody to the Lord. I felt something release as I sang, something like the warmth of God. I kept singing and the tears started flowing, as they always did when I prayed long enough. They dripped off my face and darkened the carpet underneath.
I’d joined the fundamentalist Pentecostal church when I was 13. I was a homeschooled girl with only a smattering of friends. My best friend, Siena, lived just down the road from me, on the pine-speckled canyon seven dusty miles from town. I adored her, but Siena was a public-school jock by then and had way cooler friends than me. I was lonely, and this Pentecostal church had the only youth group in town.
I wanted a group to belong to. Didn’t we all?
At least that’s how it began. Not long after joining, I was all in. I prayed in my room for hours every day. I spoke in tongues and believed I was slaying demons as I prayed in my spiritual language. I threw out all of my secular music. I went on mission trips to spread the Gospel. I cut out my non-Christian friends. I signed a contract promising that I would protect my virginity for my wedding night. I dreamed of becoming a pastor’s wife or a missionary.
My parents were nominal Christians, but not churchgoers. After I joined the Pentecostal church, Jessa and her husband, Jacob, the youth pastor, suggested that, while lovely people, my parents weren’t the Godly authority I needed. I deserved parents who would guide me into the Things of the Lord. They told me that sin could be passed down for generations and that people born into a spiritual legacy — generations of people who were believers — had a leg up on people like me from heathen families.
This came at just the right moment, developmentally speaking: I was leaving behind the childhood fantasy that my parents were perfect and coming to the realization that they were actually just winging this whole parenting thing, and that they sucked at it sometimes. This is a very normal realization for a child, but at the time, it felt irrevocable and huge.
Jessa offered to be my spiritual mentor, and I excitedly agreed. I may not have had a spiritual legacy from my birth parents, but I could be adopted into my pastor’s. I spent many hours in their living room, talking about my hopes and dreams. Jessa stroked her frizzy hair and told me all about the incredible destiny God had for me if I surrendered everything to Him. I clung to every word she said. Although she was not more than a few years older than me, Jessa held herself with the natural authority of a third-generation pastor’s wife, as if her every word mattered. I wanted to be just like her.
“I see something special in you, Carly,” she would tell me over the bowls of chicken Alfredo she’d make us during our afternoons together.
When I was with my family, I forced myself to put on “the full armor of Christ” — a Bible passage we talked about in church about spending time with unbelievers. Normal family gatherings became tense because I couldn’t let my guard down, and because I began to see my parents as my mission field — it was my job to lead them to God.
“You are brainwashed,” my mother said to me once.
“Mom, you don’t know anything about this stuff.” I felt the tears coming. “Do you know how long I’ve had to pray against your generational sin just to stay alive? You are demonic.”
The angry flicker in Mom’s eyes faded to cold, empty pupils. “Oh, now isn’t that special. Well, why don’t you go live with your new family then?”
We celebrated my dad’s birthday at the river the summer I was 16. We ate a meal of corn on the cob, cherries and grilled chicken, on a wooden picnic table a few yards from the water. We didn’t pray before eating like the people from church did, and I made a note to speak up to them about this later. I pushed the food on my plate around, sulking. I was thinking of ways I could convert them to my faith. Next to us, the river rushed constantly, filling the spaces between words.
As the sun set, we played cards by lantern light. My pastors didn’t allow anyone to play cards because they said it could open doors to the Spirit of Gambling. I wanted to mention this, but I thought that it would only stir up trouble. My heart hurt thinking about what my Jacob and Jessa were up to that night. I imagined them praying together, or worshipping around a bonfire, or dissecting passages of the Bible around the dinner table. I longed to be with them.
* * *
When my childhood home burned down in a forest fire the summer I was 17, my faith leaders hinted that it could have been because of my family’s generational sin. I tried to comfort myself with reassurances that God was both all-powerful and all good and that human suffering was all part of His Plan. But for the first time since I joined the church, those answers came up short.
Just 10 days after the fire, I left my hometown to go to a nearby Christian university. I spent that first semester in a fog, trying to make sense of my life. I remember lying on the top bunk in my new dorm room a few weeks into my college career, wondering if my faith made sense anymore, while my roommate used our dorm phone to talk to one of the boys who wanted to date her.
“That’s pretty gross, but your roommate can’t possibly be weirder than mine,” she said in a hushed voice. I held still and listened. “All she ever does is cry.” I stared and the ceiling, mortified and trying not to move as I sobbed.
The next day, my Grandma brought me a box of classic Disney movies on VHS, my favorites from my childhood — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, The Little Mermaid, and a dozen more.
“I know this is a hard time for you. You don’t have to pretend it’s not,” she said, handing over the box. “I hope these movies remind you of happier times.”
I watched Snow White on the 10-inch TV screen that somebody had donated to me, under a fort of blankets and pillows on the floor. When Snow White was over, I watched Aladdin, and then The Jungle Book. I allowed myself to be whisked away to a time before. A time before the altar calls, before the revivals, before the fire, before the fog. I hid for days in the fantasy of enchanted forests and fairy dust and singing fish, while my peers went to prayer meetings. I stopped trying to read the Bible. None of it made sense anymore.
I called Jessa, hoping for a lifeline. I confided in her that God felt so far away. She asked me if I had been praying and reading the Bible enough. I told her that I often tried, but that it all felt so forced.
“Why don’t you pray out loud with me right now?” she said.
“Maybe later. I have to go right now.” I hung up and turned on Beauty and the Beast.
A few months later, my church leaders summoned me to a humid, tiny upstairs room at church.
“Carly, we need to intervene because you are backsliding,” Jessa said. She wore a scowl on her face, and my stomach filled with dread.
“What’s going on? I don’t get it,” I said, stunned.
“It doesn’t matter what you don’t get,” Jacob responded, standing up and getting his face close to mine. The whites of his eyes swelled, and dark blotches of sweat stained his shirt. “What matters is you have major sin in your life — and until you confess, you are never coming out.” As he screamed, I stared at a yellowed poster on the wall that said “Jesus Heals.”
I gave a pleading look to Jessa, my confidant and friend, but her eyes were cold.
They told me I had the Spirit of Rebellion. They told me my heart was evil. I tried to push back, but they yelled and told me that God would abandon me if I continued to live in sin. I wish I could say I stood up for myself that night, that I ran out of the room and never came back, but the truth is I stayed. I stayed for what felt like hours, crying and letting them pray for my sins.
I finally drove home in a blur, my body spent. I knew in that moment I had lost my faith. It had been slipping from me in small ways since the fire, when I no longer felt like one of God’s chosen ones, but I always thought I’d reclaim my relationship with God from the ashes. Now, I not only felt like I couldn’t trust God but also the people in my life I had given everything to. I didn’t know how I’d recover.
I left the church after that night in the upstairs room, but what I didn’t know is that physically leaving was not enough. I moved on with my life without much talk about those fiery Jesus years, as if pretending they never happened made it so. It was years before I began to talk about my experiences in the church and process them for what they were: abuse.
The more distance I had from the church, the more I could see how brainwashed I had been by fundamentalism. During my teenage years, I lived exactly how Jessa told me to — down to how I dressed and what music I listened to and what friends I was allowed to spend time with and how I spoke and how I approached the world. I believed that by following Jessa and Jacob, I was following God. They had the final word on salvation, eternal life and objective truth. They leveraged my normal human fear of death, and my desire for connection, as power over me. As long as I followed my leaders’ every word, I was beloved and favored, but as soon as I began to step outside of their instructions for my life, even in the subtlest ways, the same people who loved me and treated me like I was special began to verbally attack me, threaten me, and desperately cling to their waning control over me. While it hurt at the time, I now look back at their cruelty with gratitude because it was the catalyst for me to claim my freedom.
I ran into an old friend from youth group while visiting my parents for Christmas, and she asked me if I attended church. No, I said, quietly, shifting my weight from one leg to the other as we stood in the produce section of my childhood grocery store. I saw sadness in her eyes.
Don’t be sad for me, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I remembered what it was like to be in that world.
For years, I believed that people who walked away from their faith would suffer eternally for it. I used to judge the backsliders, and now I was one. The words of my pastors that night so many years ago had been seared into my mind: You have the Spirit of Rebellion.
Today, I’m friends with many other backsliders. Most of them come from those spiritual legacy families that I used to long for. Often, they are the first to break away from generations of religiously devout people. They talk about how strained their family relationships are now that they’ve left their faith. Some of them have been disowned by their parents, while some are constantly pressured by their family members to come back to the fold, complete with warnings of impending judgment. Compared to their journeys, I had it easy. I didn’t have to risk losing family relationships for leaving the church. My rebellion was church. And now I’m more grateful than ever that that was the case.
Carly Gelsinger lives in California with her husband and two daughters. She holds a master’s in journalism and runs a small business helping people write their stories. Her first book, Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith, is her true account of having been lured into and then breaking free from an extremist fundamentalist church.