“This essay is brave and important. It tells the story of growing up in a fundamentalist church—a cult really—and the narrator’s first, hard-won, tentative steps away from the “endless lists of forbidden activities [that] restricted our lives to a pinpoint of experience.” The narrative is gripping and immediate, but rendered with a smart, self-deprecating retrospection: “I’d learned that the only way to get through it was to split into two selves: public self, the devout one who played the tambourine for all the songs, and private self, the sweaty hysteric who knew she was faking it.”

And there is humor too. When asked, nay forced, to speak in tongues she falls back on some nursery rhyme, Saturday morning cartoon gibberish she knows is fake: “Bananarama-schlonken-lonken. Bananarama-bo-blonken-lonken.” At one point she tells us, “My sisters and I preferred crocheted doilies as our head covering, but in a pinch, we’d use a baby’s burp cloth or a tissue.” Burp cloth! Elsewhere, forced to wash the feet of fellow parishioners, all she can think of is how their “[t]hick, yellowed toenails curled up at the ends and reminded me of Fritos.”
I admire “I Plead the Blood” and its author very much.”

Judge Ned Stuckey-French

I Plead the Blood

by A. Lyn Carol

We met in basements and empty office buildings and, at one point, in a sheep shed they called the Glory Barn. The adults taught us to say we were “nondenominational” if anyone asked us what church we went to. I didn’t realize our church, Faith Assembly led by Hobart Freeman, was a faith-healing religious cult until years later when I discovered it in a book. By the time he died, Freeman had grown the cult into an empire with satellite churches all over the country, including southern Indiana, where I grew up. My family lived in a backwoods region of cornfields, food stamps, and Vienna sausages for dinner. Most of the people, my mother included, had little hope along with desperate circumstances, a combination ready-made for indoctrination. My father proved the exception, but only because of alcoholism. He preferred to stay out drinking with his cronies at the Moose Lodge rather than take up religion with the rest of us. But my gullible mother needed someone to make all the decisions for her and a community that offered unconditional love and acceptance. Hobart Freeman and his followers promised this.

One day a man stopped by our house for directions. He showed my mother his new car and told her how he’d prayed to God for the specific make, model, accessories, and even the exact color. Not more than a few days after praying, he said, a stranger pulled into his driveway in the exact car he’d prayed for and handed over the keys with the explanation that, “God told me to come give this car to you.” The man who told my mother the story belonged to Faith Assembly. Soon we were hitching rides to the weekly meetings.

In exchange for salvation and acceptance within Faith Assembly, we stopped seeing doctors, avoided speaking to anyone outside the church, and looked to Hobart Freeman as our sole connection and authority on all matters of life, God-related or otherwise. After we’d been in Faith Assembly for a couple years, I had a dream about one of our meetings. In it, our leader stood preaching, his legs apart and feet planted in a strong, powerful pose. Two women sat on his feet with their legs wrapped around his. I recognized the women from church: Theresa, a pretty brunette who pulled her feathered hair back with large tortoiseshell combs, and Melanie, a plump housewife with black hair and overly plucked eyebrows. They writhed against him with their heads thrown back, worshipful eyes glazed and wet.

One night not long after I’d had the dream, we hitched a ride with the Thornton family to a special church session called a love feast. It was late on a summer afternoon, and we drove with the windows down. When we passed a pig farm, Daniel, a little boy who was riding with us, yelled, “Peeuw!” and waved his chubby fingers in front of his face. My sisters and I got a kick out of this and encouraged him to keep saying it. The adults gave us a warning look that meant quiet down or you’ll get a spanking with the wooden spoon. My mother carried one in her purse. Even four-year-old Daniel understood what the spoon meant.

Mr. Thornton pulled his van into the parking lot of Stooge’s pizza restaurant. His family owned the business and let us use the basement for our meetings. I looked out at all the familiar church people gathering near the door. On average, families had three or four children, except for the Brandons with their brood of twelve. The men, most of them bearded, carried a baby or two and a diaper bag. Every female wore a denim skirt or modest homemade dress and a head covering to signal a submissive spirit toward God and men. My sisters and I preferred crocheted doilies as our head covering, but in a pinch, we’d use a baby’s burp cloth or a tissue.

As we filed out of the van, I spotted my favorite couple, Mike and Karen, having an argument. With her delicate features and strong cheekbones, Karen looked like a blonde Vivian Leigh. Mike, a lanky carpenter with a kind face, had his guitar strapped to his back along with the diaper bag. My mother had helped with all three of their children’s home births—she’d been the one who unwrapped the cord from their firstborn’s blue neck and prayed life back into her. I watched Karen point at Mike, her tone cross as she raised her voice. She caught herself and stopped. She straightened her skirt and reset her face to placid. But I had seen her mess up, which made me like her even more.

Across the street, a county fair beckoned. I smelled elephant ears and cotton candy. The Ferris wheel, lit with blue and white, looked magical, like a spoked wheel from Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage. Eighties rock blared from the speakers. Above the music, I heard the excited screams of kids riding the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Scrambler. Melancholy filled me as I imagined all the lives happening outside of the parking lot where I stood. I wanted to be the girl wearing a t-shirt and shorts with cute ankle socks and Nike tennis shoes, my hair pulled up into a high ponytail, little gold studs in my ears, and gloss on lips stained red from cherry slushies.

I followed my mother into the restaurant, my eyes down to avoid the curious diners’ stares. We went downstairs to the basement, a windowless room that vanquished the outside world. She left to talk to the other women while my sisters and I took our seats in the back row of folding chairs. When Mike went to the front of the room and strummed his guitar, my mother joined us and handed me a tambourine.

I watched her as she sang. The bobby pins holding her doily glinted under the florescent lighting. My mother felt happiest here with these people. I envied the way the songs affected her. I wanted to escape like she did, to feel devoted and moved to tears and fully trusting in a God who loved me completely. I wanted my heart to be soft and yielding, but a stubborn wall of doubt stopped me from letting go and fully believing.

***

After the singing and sermonizing, we arranged the folding chairs into a circle and filled buckets with tap water. It was time for the foot washing, a demonstration of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. I dreaded this part of the love feast the most. Touching people’s feet repulsed me, and I felt equally uncomfortable when someone touched mine. I stalled by taking triple time to remove my shoes and socks, hoping everyone would bypass me. This worked for the first round, but then Cindy, my mother’s closest friend, approached me with a beatific smile. She knelt before me and set down her bucket. Gray scum floated on the surface of the cold, darker gray water. I imagined all the sloughed skin and dirt peppering the foot stew. I couldn’t stop thinking about swallowing a big gulp and feeling sharp, crescent-shaped slivers of toenails scraping and poking my throat while grit from sediment and cells coated my teeth and gums. I feared I would act on impulse the same way I sometimes wanted to leap from the highest branches of my favorite climbing tree.

I smiled at Cindy to hide my disgust as she slipped my foot into the water. Her eyes reflected all the godliness I wanted to feel but could not. She pooled water in her hand and cupped my foot, running her fingers from pad to heel and between my toes. Her hands were gentle and loving, every movement serene. I shuddered. When she finished with one foot, she cradled it in her lap and patted it dry with a towel before washing the other. I watched her with a blank face as a frenzy of impulses and emotions crashed into each other: drink the water, vomit, kick, giggle, cry, run, sit, snarl, scream. Instead, I smiled again when she was done. “Thank you, Sister Cindy. That was such a blessing.”

Even more unsettling than being the recipient was being the one doing the washing. Feet were rough, calloused, and cracked. Toes were bent, bunioned, and corned. Thick, yellowed toenails curled up at the ends and reminded me of Fritos. But I had no choice. I looked around and only one person sat waiting: Sister Harriet, the old woman whose feet unhinged me the most. We continually prayed for obese and jaundiced Harriet. Labored breath passed through her always open mouth, and her swollen eyes watered constantly. Her feet were fat potatoes, the thin skin stretched so taut it looked ready to split open. Her bulk swallowed the chair. I carried the bucket over to her, gray water sloshing over the sides and soaking my skirt. I lifted Harriet’s feet and placed them in the bucket. I’d learned that the only way to get through it was to split into two selves: public self, the devout one who played the tambourine for all the songs, and private self, the sweaty hysteric who knew she was faking it.

***

Our church meetings ran long—four to six hours—and after the foot washing, we still had more to go. Next up was baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, which proved your true belief. We folded up all the chairs and cleared the area to make space for everyone getting “slain in the spirit.” Our church revered tongues as the holiest of languages, but it sounded like gibberish to me. I was the only one who couldn’t do it—even my sisters were able to. No matter how often I prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill me up and give me the gift of tongues, this mysterious language eluded me. My brain never stopped whispering. You can’t do it, because God knows you’re a fraud. He knew everything. He knew I was suspicious of the loophole built into the gift. We were told that the language each believer spoke was unique and knowable only to God, so what kept people from just pretending they were speaking in tongues so others would think they were holy? But everyone seemed so convinced it was real that I then worried my suspicion was the devil tricking me. I had to become a believer—if I couldn’t speak in tongues, I wasn’t worthy of the rapture, and I’d be left behind with the Beast.

The stuffy air in the cramped basement smelled like onions from all the bodies crammed in such a small place. Toddlers fussed and pulled at their mothers’ hair. One colicky baby screamed and bent backwards in his sister’s arms until she nearly dropped him. The bigger kids argued and poked at each other. We all wanted to go home. I was whispering something to my sisters and not paying attention when Sister Bonnie spoke up and said that God had anointed her to speak for him. With one arm raised to the heavens like an antenna, she radioed God’s message. “Someone here is ready to receive the Holy Spirit. The Lord asks that this person come forward and be given the gift of tongues.”

Several seconds ticked by, but no one stepped forward until my mother interrupted the silence. “It’s my daughter! She’s been praying for this. She’s ready.” She nudged me into the circle. Brother Steve motioned for me to stand in front of him. He placed his hands on my head and invoked the Holy Spirit. A couple of men stood on either side and slightly behind me, ready to catch me if the spirit didn’t. We often heard tales of people who levitated during their baptism or, instead of falling into a heap, gently floated down to the floor in a spiritual embrace.

At first, Steve’s voice was soft and patient. “Dear Lord, we ask that you bless this child and fill her with the Holy Spirit.” I waited to feel the awesomeness. When it didn’t happen, he spoke louder and with more authority, determined to overcome my Satan-instilled resistance. “Lord, we come before you tonight with a special prayer.” His fingers pressed into my temples and crown, like he was palming a basketball. I could feel myself flattening inside. I knew it wasn’t going to work. No spirit would fill me. My heart and mind refused to believe, no matter how much time I spent trying to talk them into cooperating.

I lifted my head and closed my eyes. I heard all the people around me muttering “Hallelujah” and “Praise Jesus.” Most of all, I heard my mother. I mimicked what I’d seen others do and wobbled a bit. Steve gripped tighter and shook my head with each thundering command. “Holy Spirit! Fill this young woman with your presence!” He gave a final push and released me, which I took to be the sign that I should now be unconscious. As I fell backward, I had a tiny flash of hope that I would hover as light and airy as dandelion fluff, but I was halfway to the floor before the men caught me. I was too heavy with sin and doubt for a spirit to cradle me.

As I lay there, I realized I had to speak out loud in tongues to prove myself. I had to fake it. I opened my mouth and hoped for something melodic and pretty, something that sounded like water washing over pebbles. I hoped I’d sound like everyone else. Instead, this is what came out: “Bananarma-schlonken-lonken. Bananaramabo-blonken-lonken.”

After my failure to speak in tongues at the love feast, I began baptizing myself several times a day. I’d ask for salvation and the Holy Spirit, and then, after a pep talk, I’d open my mouth to speak in tongues, hopeful that this time I would be authentic, that this time I would truly be saved. I failed. Every single time, it was the same: bananarama….

***

God confirmed he knew my hypocrisy when I broke my arm playing, and he didn’t heal it, despite my mother’s continuous prayers and fasting. For weeks, dark purple and blue bruises mottled my swollen arm, the skin so exquisitely sensitive that my own breath against it hurt. Each day that passed without healing was an outward symbol of my secret doubt; only a lack of faith on my part could explain why God failed to mend the bone. I favored the arm and cradled it with a sling I fashioned out of a bandana, a concession to man’s ways that further highlighted my spiritual failure. My severe nearsightedness was additional evidence of my lacking. Each day at school, I had to pretend to sharpen my pencil a dozen times so I could walk close enough to the board to read the teacher’s writing. My eyesight never improved despite years of praying that it would. Nor did God straighten my teeth, which were pointed and out of alignment, especially the canines. My mother laid hands on me and prayed against ancestral vampiric spirits, telling me that my great-grandfather had these same teeth and was believed to have been associated with the undead. Each night we prayed against the demons, but each morning, my tongue snagged on the sharp tips.

God’s rejection stung. My shame and budding resentment soured my desire for belief into something adversarial. I knew I had to find a workaround to keep me from the Beast since I couldn’t count on salvation to spare me. I had a recurring nightmare of waking up alone, because the rapture had come and taken my family. The Beast’s talons tapped on my bedroom window, letting me know he’d come to brand me with his mark of 666. The backyard morphed into a jungle filled with demons peering at me through the leaves and vines, their eyes glittering and their mouths wet and waiting to devour me. I went to bed clutching a Bible to my chest to ward off demons and to show Jesus I was worthy should the rapture happen in my sleep.

I worried that my mother loved Jesus more than she loved me, and one night she proved this was true. I woke up to the sound of her wailing. I found her outside kneeling in the gravel road. The sky was red from northern lights, which we’d been learning about at school, but she thought the rapture had come. I watched her from the side of the road with a chill in my gut as she reached for the heavens and asked Jesus to take her. She was so excited about leaving with him that she didn’t notice me watching her. The longer she cried out to him, the more convinced I became that maybe the rapture really was happening, or at least it was coming soon. I became even more fearful and desperate to find a way to stay safe. Later that night, I looked through my Bible and found a scripture that said no one would know the hour or day Christ would come. To my logic, all I had to do was constantly think the rapture was imminent because then technically it couldn’t happen, or it would prove the scripture false. I was dumbstruck it could be this simple.

At first giddy at the idea of having this power, I repeated nonstop the phrase “Jesus is coming” for the rest of the night and went to school the next day without having slept. I was thrilled I’d found a way to keep from being left behind with the Beast. I chanted “JesusiscomingJesusiscomingJesusiscoming” while I brushed my teeth, played with my sisters at recess, rode the school bus, did the dishes, finished my homework, and then all through the night as I fought to stay awake. Even a nanosecond could give God a chance to take everyone away. I kept this up for weeks. Believing I could prevent the rapture comforted me at first, but hypervigilance and exhaustion took their toll as I slept less and less. My paranoia grew when I realized I’d likely angered God with my workaround trick that prevented him from uniting Jesus with his steadfast believers.

***

Among the many books Freeman wrote and published, one of my mother’s favorites was Occult Oppression and Bondage: How to Be Free. She obsessed over the occult and warned me that we lived in a world of supernatural activity that we must continually guard against. The predatory demons concealed themselves in everyday items and activities that served as demonic portals: television shows, pop songs, secular books, cartoons, Cabbage Patch dolls, pierced ears, basketball games, medication. Something as innocent as reading a Good Housekeeping magazine article opened a demonic portal that lead to possession, possibly even death. I’d seen firsthand what demons could do to you and how difficult it was to cast them out. Our church had exorcisms, or “deliverance sessions,” as we called them. Our leader rolled up his sleeves and commanded the demons to leave in a bellowing voice that scared me almost as much as the evil spirits he battled. He’d wipe the sweat running down his face with one hand while he shook his Bible with the other. None of the adults ever seemed uncomfortable with the spectacle. Only the children were ill at ease and unsure where to look—at the congregants with their glazed eyes, the minister with his damp shirt, or the heavyset, gray-haired ladies rolling on the floor and moaning as their homemade skirts rode up over their thick legs blue with varicose veins. My mother went through deliverance a few times, but whenever it was her turn, the adults put my sisters and me in a different room. I didn’t see her writhe on the floor, but I heard her whimper and shriek. That I couldn’t see her made it more terrifying.

The endless lists of forbidden activities restricted our lives to a pinpoint of experience. At school, during any holiday party—especially Christmas, a pagan celebration—my sisters and I met in the library and sat at a small table in the back, trying to convince ourselves that no Christmas cookie was worth the demonic consequence we would suffer for eating it. We pretended to read but secretly watched with envy all our classmates as they whooped it up and reveled in the freedom afforded by the biggest holiday of the year. The school librarian, a grouch most other days, pitied us. Each year she walked over to us in her Santa sweater and jingle bell earrings to offer us treats, but we always said no to the variety of confections with their thick icing and sugar that sparkled and caught the light. I’d never seen such beautiful cookies. Though the temptation was mighty, fear outweighed the want. Because the cookies were of Christmas, chewing a mouthful of sugar and flour would lead to demon possession. Christmas was the loneliest time of the year for my sisters and me.

We didn’t own a television or radio because of said demons, and when we went to Wal-Mart with our mother, she taught us to “plead the blood of Jesus” when we passed through the electronics department. Saying this covered our minds with the blood of Jesus, which prevented all the demons in the display radios and televisions from entering us. I envisioned his blood coating my brain like red paint, an internal helmet to deflect Satan’s efforts. I lived in terror of hearing Hotel California or Stairway to Heaven, both odes to Satanic worship and laden with backward lyrics that subliminally seeded our fertile brains. But sometimes I couldn’t help myself. During our trips to Wal-Mart, I always snuck away to watch snippets of Top Gun playing on the display sets, repeating “I plead the blood” under my breath as I watched Tom Cruise strut around in his aviator sunglasses. I knew all the lyrics to Hotel California by heart.

***

The first demon to follow me took the form of a supersized pirate. He watched me through windows. I saw him for the first time at my grandparents’ house as I walked through their yard. I felt someone looking at me, and when I turned around, he loomed in the large bay window. He had curling black hair, a full moustache, and obsidian, pupil-less eyes. His face filled the entire frame with eyes the size of tractor tires. I began seeing him in other places, too, like the windows of grocery stores or houses we drove past on the way to church. When I told my mother about the pirate demon stalking me, she was pleased because God had given me the gift for detecting the occult.

My hypervigilance ratcheted up another notch. We had a big metal barrel in our backyard that we used to burn trash and demonic items. I sensed demons in nearly everything: stuffed animals, my Raggedy Ann doll, a copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, my piggy bank. All this and more went into the fire as my mother and I “cast the demons to the dry places lest they come back tenfold.”

Each night at dusk, the dwindling sunlight sent surges of adrenaline through me. I sprinted circles around the yard trying to outrun the panic. What if I fall asleep and the rapture happens? What if the pirate demon comes into my room and possesses me? What if I lose my family? What if I lose myself? I heard demons whispering my name all night long. I imagined a legion of them lurking in the dark just beyond the doorway to my bedroom.

Then one night they came for me. I’d fallen into a skittish sleep when I awoke with goosebumps covering my arms and legs, my hearing so acute the silence had a texture. I knew something was about to happen. I heard an audible click, clear and unmistakable. The sound came from the kitchen, and I instantly recognized it as someone pressing the buttons on the cassette player we kept in there to listen to Freeman’s sermons. I heard the tape rewinding and another button pressed to stop it. This confused me. Who would be in the kitchen in the dark listening to a sermon in the middle of the night? Then I heard another click. A song started playing, but it wasn’t like any song I’d ever heard. The voices went the wrong way, all the intonations going up where they should go down, like the beginning of each lyric was at the end. The words sounded familiar yet foreign. Then the voices blended together and the harmonies, while eerie, were pleasing. I felt myself drifting into them before snapping back with the realization that demons were in the kitchen. They were using the music to lure me. As soon as I figured this out, I heard another click, and the music stopped. No one else in the house was awake. I was alone with the demons. Fear zapped my stomach and bladder, and I knew I’d wet the bed if I didn’t get up. I grabbed my Bible as a shield. When I sat on the toilet seat, I noted the feel of cold plastic against the back of my thighs. I took this as proof that I wasn’t dreaming. I ran back to my bed and waited, but no more music played. I got under the blankets, still shaking as I repeated scriptures to keep the demons away. Then the grandfather clock began chiming, and I counted the strikes as I always did. One, two, three, four…eleven, twelve. It was midnight, I realized. But the chimes kept going. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine….Terror took over, and I screamed for my mother. When she got to me, I was hysterical and mixing up my syllables, telling her repeatedly that “The chock is climbing! The chock is climbing!” When I’d calmed down, I explained to her that the clock had been chiming and wouldn’t stop, that demons were playing Satanic music in the kitchen, and that maybe the pirate demon was in the house, too. She once again confirmed that yes, all of this was real. Poltergeist demons had come for me because Satan had singled me out for spiritual warfare.

***

Not long after this, I found a knife buried in our backyard. My sisters and I were digging up dirt to make mud pies when I spotted a wedge of silver glinting from deep in the soil. I dug it out and examined it. The blade was four inches long and worn down, the wooden handle so smooth it felt like cool, silky skin. My grandmother had probably used it to cut up garden vegetables but left it outside where it remained for decades, forgotten until I found it. I looked around for my sisters. They were fighting over an aluminum pie plate and hadn’t noticed my discovery.

My kinship with the knife was immediate. I somehow knew that it was going to rescue me just like I’d rescued it. This knife would know what to do with my fear and anxiety. Part of me understood that this didn’t make any sense, but a bigger part of me felt relief—at last, I’d found a solution. I tucked the knife into the waistband of my skirt and went inside to the bathroom. I stroked the dull blade against my skin, making pretend cuts all over my arms. I remember thinking it was an odd thing to do, but I was soon lost in the repetitive motion and tickly sensation. A fuzzy, pleasant cotton filled my head as my heart beat with a potent gratitude. The knife made me feel better in a way I couldn’t explain.

I knew instinctively to hide the knife from everyone else. Before I went back outside to finish my mud pie, I concealed it in the closet of the bedroom I shared with my sisters by placing it inside the folds of a quilted blanket. The blanket originally had an owl applique on it, but, knowing witches used owls in their spells, I had sensed demons lying in wait. My mother had praised me and used her seam ripper to remove the applique. Because I’d detected the demons, I led the prayer to rebuke the evil spirits as we burned the piece of fabric in the trash barrel. Now my sisters were afraid to touch the quilt and I knew the knife would be safe there.

Later that night at dinner, all I thought about was the knife in its hiding place, not about demons or the rapture. I loved having a secret that had nothing to do with God or my lack of faith. At bedtime, while my sisters slept, I retrieved the knife from its hiding place along with the whetstone I’d taken from the kitchen. I went into the bathroom and began sharpening the blade. I had a project, a distraction. I didn’t have to be afraid because the knife—my knife—was a talisman that would keep me safe from my mind and its awful, broken thoughts. The knife would make the constant hum of panic go away.

I made a small scratch on my inner wrist. The sharp sting was gratifying. As tiny maroon beads formed on my skin, I felt reckless and giddy. The droplets of blood drew out my anxiety like Epsom salt drew out toxins. I’d found the answer, and I was no longer alone. The knife would be my friend, the one who stayed with me through the tribulation.

After I’d made the first scratch, a new emotion went through me, one that took a moment to figure out. I was elated, but I was also angry. Not at the demons, not at God, but at myself. I couldn’t speak in tongues, God wouldn’t heal me because I was a fraud, and my mother would leave me for Jesus without a second thought. I was nothing more than meat for the Beast. I deserved punishment, but I would dole it out myself and beat God to the punch. A knife couldn’t cut a demon, but it could cut my inferior flesh. I made another scratch, and then one more, and as the drops of blood grew in size, so did my sense of gleeful retribution. Finally owning up to my worthlessness was deeply satisfying. When I was done, I got a permanent marker from the kitchen junk drawer and wrote my name in my best cursive on one side of the handle and drew my trademark daisy doodle on the other. Then I went to bed. I tucked the knife under my pillow and slept soundly for the first time in months.

A. Lyn Carol has won multiple contests including the Redivider Blurred Genre contest judged by Jerald Walker, the Redivider Beacon Street Prize in Nonfiction judged by Ned Stuckey-French, and The Wind Prize for Windmill: The Hofstra Journal of Literature & Art. In addition to these publications, her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hippocampus, SMITH Magazine, and Not Like the Rest of Us: An Anthology of Contemporary Indiana Writers. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and holds an MFA from Butler University