Meet ex-SDA Writer Melissa Duge Spiers - Part 1

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March 18, 2023
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Santiago interviews Melissa Duge Spiers, an award-winning memoirist, screenwriter, and essayist based in Silicon Valley, California. She grew up as a 4th generation Adventist, got baptized at 12, and left the church after high school. This is Part 1 of a 2 part conversation.

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Credits: Music: Hall of the Mountain King Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) • Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Episode Transcript

Haystacks & Hell Intro

[00:00:00] Santiago: Welcome to Haystacks and Hell, an ex-Adventist podcast where we tell stories about growing up Seventh-day Adventist, leaving faith behind, and building new, fulfilling lives.

Meet Melissa Duge Spiers

[00:00:16] Santiago: Hey everyone, welcome back to Haystacks and Hell. I'm your host Santiago and today, I'm very excited to speak with Melissa Duge Spiers, AKA Deconstruction Auntie. Melissa is an award-winning memoirist, screenwriter, and essayist based in Silicon Valley, California.

[00:00:35] She attended high school at Andrews Academy in Berrien Springs, Michigan, right next to the flagship SDA school Andrews University, and she graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University. Her upcoming memoir, The Glory Whole (spelled W H O L E), won the 2021 Book Pipeline Unpublished Manuscript competition and covers sin, sex, shame, and family secrets within the SDA church.

[00:01:05] Her first feature screenplay, Brave Woman, garnered awards and placement in Sundance, Austin Film Festival, Athena Film Festival, and others. Melissa also writes for magazines and blogs with work appearing in publications like the Huffington Post, Metropolitan Palm Beach and Metropolitan New York magazines, Forbes.com, The Wall Street Journal Online, and the upcoming anthology Take the Fruit, Flood the Desert.

[00:01:33] Melissa grew up as a fourth generation Seventh-day Adventist with her dad being an Adventist pastor and doctor, and she was baptized at the age of 12. But later, as she tells it, she ran screaming out of the SDA bubble the moment she graduated from high school. In addition to her writing work, she's very active on TikTok and Instagram discussing Adventism, fashion, serial killers, and much more. So with that background, let's jump into our conversation.

Interview with Melissa Duge Spiers

[00:02:03] Santiago: Melissa, thank you so much first of all, for your work, and thank you for coming on the show.

[00:02:08] Melissa: Thank you for having me! I am so excited, this is the first time I've gotten to talk to you, an ex-Adventist also, so this is really, we're gonna get into the dirt.

[00:02:16] Santiago: Oh, amazing, yeah no, it's, it's so great to have you on. I wanna start out by asking you what some of your earliest memories are about growing up Adventist.

[00:02:26] Melissa: Oh my goodness, what a great question. Definitely cradle roll, you know, all the, the felts, I loved the felts on the board, you know? And all the singing, like marching in the army and the infantry. All those, now in retrospect, terrible songs.

[00:02:45] Santiago: Yep [laughing].

[00:02:47] Melissa: And also just, you know, the awful, awful, process of preparing for church every Saturday morning, which was just so stressful. And, you know, having to get dressed and fancied up and stuff as a little child was just incredibly stressful.

[00:03:03] Santiago: Yeah, I remember you mentioning in a previous interview, and we can get into this a little bit more in a bit, but mentioning that your appearance was very highly controlled by your parents.

[00:03:14] Melissa: Yeah, yeah, very much so. And that's one of the really interesting parts for me in terms of trying to separate what was family and what was Adventist. Women are generally valued for our sexuality and our presentation a lot in the church, but I think our family kind of upped that. Certainly for the girls in my family, it was all about how we looked. But you also couldn't be proud of it or, or be vain. But you just had to be perfect [laughing].

[00:03:47] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, I definitely didn't have to deal with nearly as much of that growing up, but I, I can relate a little bit to the stress of getting ready for, for church on Sabbath morning. I think a couple weeks ago I put out a poll on Instagram saying, 'Hey, you know, were your Sabbath mornings generally stressful or were they generally kind of peaceful?' And I think like over 90% of people said they were stressful.

[00:04:11] Melissa: Exactly, I took that poll and I think I wrote HELLL on it.

[00:04:15] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:04:18] Santiago: Yeah, oh my goodness. Speaking of which, not to put you on the spot, but have you taken the ex-Adventist survey by any chance?

[00:04:26] Melissa: I have, and I am so excited about it. I've talked to my sister and her friends, and everybody is just so grateful that that is being done. It's way overdue and we were laughing, my sister and I, about how perfectly he nailed the terminology.

[00:04:44] Like she said, 'Oh my God, it was like an out-of-body experience, hearing terms like "breaking the Sabbath," you know, how it's been 30 years since I've heard that term. And it just like gave me these flashbacks.'

[00:04:54] And, you know, so he, they really nailed it and it was very thorough and I cannot wait to see what he does with it, you know? And, and what, how he's gonna pull it together with a research paper or what, or whatever, what, ahh, I'm so excited.

[00:05:08] Santiago: Yeah, me too. And I think it's, regardless of whether, whether you maintain faith or not, this is hopefully a tool that you can take regardless of what your current belief system is.

[00:05:18] Melissa: Yeah, yeah, you're absolutely right there. It's very hard to find ex-Adventists or people who are discussing the process of possibly being ex-Adventist. You know, it's just, we are truly like a scattered herd of unicorns, you know? And so the fact that, that there will be some sort of research on us is amazing.

[00:05:44] Santiago: Yeah absolutely, I couldn't agree more. So I want to ask you what growing up in Michigan and attending Andrews Academy was like.

[00:05:54] Melissa: It was interesting because we moved around a bit, so we moved to Michigan from, uh, well, we moved from California to Ohio briefly, and I went to Spring Valley Academy as an elementary school kid for a couple of years. And I was homeschooled until I was in third grade or fourth grade actually, because, you know, Ellen White.

[00:06:14] So we moved to Andrews when I was in eighth grade, and then I attended eighth grade at Ruth Murdoch and then all four years at Andrews Academy. And at the time there was a principal there, Richard Orrison, "Dr O" as everybody called him, which is pretty freaking funny.

[00:06:31] And he was extremely controlling. I mean, he was unbelievably strict and terrifying. So Andrews was a pretty tight ship at that time. And it was just one long desert of behavior control, I guess. Andrews is so insular, at the time I think Berrien Springs had literally one stoplight.

[00:07:00] And even, I mean, I, there were no movie theaters. Even the post delivery guy was Adventist. So you really didn't, until you could drive, you had no exposure to the outside world at all. So it was incredibly insular and very dull for a teenager.

[00:07:20] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:07:21] Santiago: Yeah, I remember listening to one of your other interviews and you mentioned that once you were able to drive, you would drive to another high school in search of a boyfriend. And I'm wondering if you don't mind me asking, was that partially because of the controlling environment at the school? And, you know, what, what was that like?

[00:07:40] Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. It was, um, well it was partly just of course, me wanting to see what "real teenagers" did because I had no clue. But also I just instinctively knew, like it was all about the purity culture stuff. And, and I learned later as an adult that all of my Adventist peers were having sex and were experimenting and were doing basically normal teenage stuff, I guess.

[00:08:02] I didn't know that. I was such a goody two shoes and I took everything at face value. Like, I didn't believe the Adventist system even, or any of it, even in high school, I don't think. But, but I was a, I was a Type A goody two shoes, and if that was the only thing to do, then I was gonna be the best at it, you know?

[00:08:20] So I was just good, good, good. So when I got to be a senior, I just decided, well, everyone was so obsessed with sex, you know, um, you could just smell the fear on all the adults, you know? Just, they were so terrified that we were gonna be doing this thing. And especially for girls, it was just so loaded. And I was like, well, 'Gotta find out what this is all about because they sure are scared, so it must be pretty good.'

[00:08:48] Santiago: The forbidden fruit.

[00:08:50] Melissa: Right, yeah! And so I, but I just knew not to do it within the Adventist system, like, not to experiment within the Adventist system. First of all, it was a small school and there wasn't anybody I was interested in, so that helped. But also just, it just seemed too exposing yourself to gossip or discipline or something. And so I decided I'm gonna just go pick a boyfriend off the local high school basketball team, which is exactly what I did.

[00:09:22] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:09:23] Santiago: Yeah no, I don't blame you. Even though I attended what I think is a decent sized Adventist school, even then, I understood very clearly that everybody knew everyone and practically everything about them. So I can imagine growing up in Berrien Springs at that time, that probably was especially true. I'm curious, since you mentioned purity culture, what did purity culture look like for you growing up in that environment, and how do you think it affected you and, and your peers?

[00:09:55] Melissa: Back then there was no Josh whatever, who wrote the I Kissed Dating Goodbye thing or any traditional purity culture. Plus of course, Adventists would not have participated in that because we didn't dance and you couldn't wear jewelry, so you couldn't have that purity ring or whatever that everyone else had, and the father-daughter dances.

[00:10:13] And, plus Adventists just don't play nicely with others, right? 'We're just so superior to everybody.' I can't convey properly the smothering wet blanket of it. You know, some girls were dragged into Dr O's office before every banquet to like, they had to model their dresses to make sure they weren't too short or too whatever.

[00:10:36] I never had that, but then of course we had marriage and family class, right? Where we were basically given charts of how physically a relationship could progress. And basically there was like a three year expiration date. So if you were dating for three years, it, it would like lay it out, you know, the first six months it would be holding hands or whatever.

[00:11:00] And then by the end of three years, I mean, boys would just need to have sex and wouldn't be able to wait any longer. And so you just had better not be dating for three years, you know? And then we used that awful book by Harold Shryock that I talk about a lot on TikTok, On Becoming a Woman. Oddly enough, we never even knew there was one called On Becoming a Man. I haven't finished reading it yet. I just got it and I'm so excited to compare the two.

[00:11:28] Santiago: Oh man, yeah, I'm adding those to my reading list.

[00:11:31] Melissa: Yeah, exactly, [laughing] ew! But you keep putting it off, like I just, every time I look at it and I'm like, 'Ugh, I'll do something else.' And then of course we were physically controlled also in terms of the dress code and, you know, you weren't allowed to sit with boys on the bus or you, you, there was, there's very regimented segregation of the sexes, also. So it was very all encompassing. There was nothing in high school that didn't have to do with your purity, basically.

[00:12:02] Santiago: Hmm, so given that that was such a big focus, did you personally ever have "the talk" with your parents? 'Cause that's something we've covered before. And then did, did you have any specific formal sex education at school?

[00:12:17] Melissa: Basically no to either. There was certainly no discussion with my parents. It was just understood that you didn't. And you know, that was kind of our family structure, anyway, it was you were good. End of subject. Then at school there was, I mean, that marriage and family class sort of, well, and in eighth grade we had a, um, it wasn't sex education at all.

[00:12:45] There was, there was no actual information that you could use to have a normal sexual relationship. The eighth grade class was very heavy on all those traditional things thrown at women about, you know, 'Do you wanna be the chewed gum? Do you wanna be the, the rose with all the, the, you know, petals ripped off? Do you wanna be the paper that's crumpled up and thrown in the trash?' You know, all those things. We got that from eighth grade onward, but that was basically our sex education [laughing].

[00:13:13] Santiago: Yeah, oh my goodness. Even though I didn't get them personally, I've still heard other people talk about them recently, so I'm afraid that people are still getting those just horrible, horrible analogies and completely, completely unscientific, by the way.

[00:13:29] Melissa: Yeah, right, exactly. The whole thing, rather unscientific. Yeah, no, I've heard from younger women who were in boarding schools around 20, the late, like 2016, 2018, and they were still being used then.

[00:13:44] Santiago: Oh no, oh boy, okay. Well, for anyone listening who hasn't listened to the previous episodes about sex and sex education, or is just interested about sex education in general, I can't recommend enough some of the resources that are up on the website. They're inclusive, they are not shaming in, in any way, um, so please check them out. Right? Imagine that, what a concept.

[00:14:10] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:14:12] Santiago: So I'm curious, because you mentioned, you know, you've mentioned before that you did get baptized. You mentioned that you placed a lot of importance on kind of having this appearance of being good, doing things really well. I'm curious, in your family or within your Adventist community growing up, did you ever hear people talk about having a relationship with Jesus and what that meant to you?

[00:14:38] Melissa: Oh my goodness. That is really an interesting question because, no. You know, I mean, certainly when you'd have week of prayer, for example, that always was kind of the woowoo part of, you know, you'd get the more fringey type of, um, guest speakers, sometimes, that would be a little less conservative. And you'd have somebody talking about having a personal walk with God and all of that.

[00:15:06] But in, in like our family worship, and again, it was always as far as I can remember, and of course, you know, you block so much of this stuff out that I'm still trying to put all the pieces together of like, 'Where did I learn that? Or did I hear it or did I not hear it, or...'

[00:15:22] Santiago: Hmm.

[00:15:22] Melissa: Certainly you were not encouraged to trust yourself at all. You know, you were sinful and failing and all of that. So I think even having a personal relationship with God was not, because there could be a lot that could go wrong with that, right? If you're talking directly to God, what if you don't hear what the church or your family wants you to hear? So it was very much, you know, Ellen White, the school, the church, family worship, and there was not much encouragement to strike out on your own, I guess.

[00:15:54] Santiago: Interesting, okay, yeah. I think, I think over time, Adventism, at least in some states, in some churches, has definitely shifted in that direction. And I think some, some younger Adventists who are listening, perhaps my age or perhaps even younger, might say, 'Well, that's not the Adventism I was raised with.'

[00:16:15] But I think people need to understand, and why I'm so grateful for the work that you, Jeff, and others have been doing, is that this is where Advent... this is where we come from [laughing] whether you wanna admit it or not.

[00:16:28] Melissa: Yes, yeah. And I do get, um, you know, on, on TikTok when I talk about, you know, Harold Shryock On Becoming a Woman and, and the experiences that I went through, that is probably my biggest, you know, flaming kickback that I get from current Adventists is, 'It's not like that anymore! Stop talking about old shit!'

[00:16:46] And I keep reminding them, 'But this is your history. You don't, you can't know where you are unless you know your history.' And let me tell you, every single teacher, pastor, youth pastor, professor at university, whatever, who is my age, that's the way they were raised. And they didn't just go beyond it. So it's still in their psyche, just like it's in my psyche and it's being passed down to younger generations. And, um, yeah, hopefully there's some progress.

[00:17:12] Santiago: Absolutely. Given what you just shared about not emphasizing so much a personal relationship with God, did you ever experience or think that you experienced moments that felt spiritual or supernatural?

[00:17:26] Melissa: No, no. And, my sister and I talk about this a lot because we never talked about it as kids, but we had very parallel situations. Which is interesting because we are very, very different people and we were treated differently by our, by our parents, by the school, everything. I mean, there was not much shared experience there. But for some reason we both had the exact same experience with this, is that neither of us can remember if we ever believed at all, and if we ever had any authentic connection to either God, or to the theology, or to the church.

[00:18:06] As far as I've been able to dig, uh, with therapy and everything else, no. Never felt like I had a connection with God, that he was speaking to me. Certainly nothing supernatural in, in terms of God. Since I've been an ex-Adventist, I've sometimes thought I've encountered oddly supernatural things, but, um, but never God related.

[00:18:30] Santiago: Interesting, okay, okay. So I'm curious, I imagine like many other Adventists you, you probably grew up believing in Young Earth creationism, right?

[00:18:39] Melissa: Oh, yes.

[00:18:40] Santiago: I imagine perhaps in college or somewhere else where, where you had discussions with folks or professors who, you know, taught otherwise, what was that transition like for you?

[00:18:52] Melissa: That's one of the more interesting things in terms of trying to figure out where I, where I switched, where I flipped. Because we definitely, I mean, 6,000 years old, that was, that was the world and creationism hardcore. And then, in college I think I took a sort of agnostic view of it. Obviously evolution was taught at Barnard and, and science was absolutely valued. And I just kind of wasn't interested in that part.

[00:19:24] It was like, okay, 'Well, I don't believe in God, so I don't believe he created the world.' But evolution seemed like such, it had been such a boogeyman, right? As, as a, in the church, but also it seemed a little bit of a far stretch for me. So I just kind of was like, 'Well, I don't know. And so I'm just gonna go with "I don't know," because I don't really need to know. I'm here, and that's all that matters.'

[00:19:47] And so for a long time I kind of took that, like, 'I'm just not gonna think about it.' And, and now of course I am fascinated by scientific discoveries and, and, I certainly believe in evolution and, it just, it's, it's a whole new world that I, I get to still discover because we weren't taught any of it, so...

[00:20:08] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. My partner is, is a scientist and it's fascinating. I'm also following a biology teacher who has a YouTube channel and some of the stuff that he shares is just fascinating. I just found out the other day, totally off topic, but I found out the other day that one of the ways that kangaroos protect themselves from predators is that they'll wade out into the water until they're deep enough that their predator follows them in and they can shove their head underwater and drown them. And my mind was blown when I heard that fact. I was like, oh my goodness, like...

[00:20:48] Melissa: Wow, I did not know that. That's my cool learned fact for today, that is super exciting, holy smoke!

[00:20:55] Santiago: Yeah, it's so, there's, there's such a, there's such a wild world out there. I remember growing up, not just within my church and within my family, but I remember, do you remember Family Radio and Harold Camping by any chance?

[00:21:09] Melissa: Oh my gosh, Harold Camping, that sounds familiar. Family Radio, it doesn't sound, yeah...

[00:21:15] Santiago: This was the guy, this was the preacher who predicted the end of the, he predicted a specific date for the end of the world multiple times. And of course each time he got it wrong. Anyway, my, my mom always had that radio station playing, always.

[00:21:31] And that definitely was a big part of my upbringing and I remember they would always have this like creation section where they would play like a couple minutes. Where they'd talk about, you know, the human eye and how it's so incredibly complex and how only intelligent design by a creator could explain how we got this. And so it's been, it's just like you said, it's, there's a whole nother world out there that we still have to explore. And part of me is excited to continue exploring that.

[00:22:02] Melissa: Yeah, yeah, for sure!

[00:22:04] Santiago: Anyway, to bring us back maybe a little bit more back on topic, I'm curious, you mentioned that you know, Ellen White was definitely emphasized within your upbringing. And I think I remember you mentioning mustard and spices in one of your other interviews. Did you grow up in a Adventist family or community where you actively avoided things like mustard and spice?

[00:22:26] Melissa: Oh my god, absolutely. I mean, we, my sister and I both ended up with eating disorders and stuff. Partly it was because of the looks pressure, but also because, I mean, for me anyway, and I think for her also, our food was so awful. And, uh, we at home, we had, uh, no salt even, um, certainly no pepper, nothing spicy, no mustard, no...

[00:22:51] Oddly enough, we, we could have Mexican food when we went out to dinner and that would come with salsa and stuff, I guess. And I don't know that anybody actually put two and two together there. You know, all those weird inconsistencies about Seventh-day Adventist rules that never make sense and are all hypocritical.

[00:23:08] But of course we were, you know, we were absolutely vegetarian. And, you know, we also, and I'm not sure where this all came from. I mean, partly because my dad was a cardiologist, so, you know, heart health was really important, so we didn't have any, any butter, it was always margarine.

[00:23:22] And you know, my mom was one of those people reading all the packages in the grocery store, embarrassing you to death because she needed to check to make sure there was no lard, you know? So we couldn't have Oreos. Everybody else got to have Oreos, we couldn't have Oreos 'cause they had lard in them. But then again, you know, if, if we made Mexican food and there were refried beans, nobody ever seemed to check that there was always, always lard in that.

[00:23:41] But, you know, I mean, just the, the insanity of it all. And generally there was no sugar allowed really, or, um, very low oil. My mom would make her own bread and it would like fall apart. It was so embarrassing to have home brought lunches because the sandwiches were just like a crumbled mess when you got them, you know, for lunch because there was nothing to hold it together.

[00:24:03] Um, so she made her own granola, which had no sugar in it. And, so it was really bizarre and I'm still trying to unpack where... It was all of course, based on Ellen White's dietary rules, absolutely. But there were also just some strange, I don't know if it was diet culture stuff that was pushed on my sister and me that would come through my mom's side of the family for just like beauty pressure, or if it was dad's, you know, health thing because of heart. So there's, there's a lot of really complicated threads in there. But yeah, our diet was Ellen White, hardcore.

[00:24:41] Santiago: You're bringing back some memories for me where my mom definitely read the labels of a lot of things, if not everything, when we were in the grocery store. And even to this day, we had dinner a couple weeks ago, and we're in a Mexican restaurant, and she asked just to make sure that there was no lard in the beans.

[00:25:00] And since they do serve vegetarians, they were like, 'Yep, no lard.' So I think in some of the major cities, you're probably off the hook if you're, if you're eating beans as an Adventist. But, no, she still to this day... And you know what, she's doing, she's doing what she thinks is right. And I will, I will give her credit for this. She absolutely did genuinely care about our family eating healthy food. And I feel like, I feel like that we did eat really healthy food growing up. Some of it was that, you know, high sodium Worthington products that many Adventists, at least in North America, are familiar with. But a lot of it was, was homemade. And I, I am genuinely grateful for that.

[00:25:44] Melissa: Yeah, yeah, yes. I, and, and you know, no one can argue that the basic tenets of the Adventist health message are healthy. You know, it's, it's called a Blue Zone out there in Loma Linda for, uh, you know, for a reason. It's, it is pretty healthy. But like you mentioned, so then again, another one of those funny hypocrisies is the, the Worthington food stuff, which is so yummy it's like crack, is so unhealthy because it's got like 12 days worth of sodium in one little FriChik nugget. You know, it's just like holy smoke, and very high saturated fat, so it's just funny.

[00:26:15] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, oh boy, yeah. Inconsistency is definitely, I think, the name of the game in, in many areas. So I'm curious, you mentioned that growing up, you know, you don't remember, you and your sister don't remember if you ever kind of fully had that connection or, or like true faith. So with that in mind, did you have any anxiety about death or the afterlife?

[00:26:40] Melissa: Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. Which is really funny, isn't it? Because you'd think if you believed... You know, either it would be a whole package like you believed in God and, and, and then the devil, or you would not believe in the whole thing. But, I grew up absolutely terrified of going to hell and the devil and demons, you know, we had all these missionary books of, you know, these horrible heathens all over the world who believed, worshiped the devil and how they would, you know, there would be these awful possessions.

[00:27:14] And, so definitely grew up terrified of not going to heaven, being bad in some way that I didn't know. Which was again, you know, just my perfectionism and my Type A, because I didn't really believe any of it, but it was just this terror. I mean, that's where the, the shame and the guilt and everything comes in that you're just gifted with, with this religious upbringing where even when you don't believe it, all of that terror and anxiety still remains.

[00:27:44] So it took me a, a long, long time to, I still actually have a hard time like watching The Exorcist or, uh, you know, very devil related horror movies or something. It just is very uncomfortable for me, and I just have to say like, because of my upbringing, I just can't go there. I can't see it as entertainment, it's just too loaded.

[00:28:06] Santiago: Yeah, no, that's totally fair and, and I can relate to that. Horror movies definitely were something that I've avoided for quite some time. And my partner and I went to visit a, kind of like a Halloween event horror house at one point. And I, by this point had gotten to the point where I knew it's, it's fake, it's entertainment. It's the way that humans have processed some of these ideas for many, many years. And I was actually okay. And, and honestly, I was a little bit proud of myself because I was like, 'Okay, I jumped over this hurdle and it's not something I have to be afraid of anymore.'

[00:28:49] Melissa: That's a triumph, that is a real accomplishment because it, it takes some doing.

[00:28:53] Santiago: Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of, speaking of some of these things, what's one of the most ridiculous things you remember being taught? Whether within your family, or at school, or at church?

[00:29:06] Melissa: The, the whole, the world is only 6,000 years old because they added up all the ages of the people in the Bible and just decided, I mean, that to me takes the cake of like absolute idiocy. Like, a three year old could figure out that it, that is not, you know? And then what were the more ridiculous things that we were taught? You know, just so much of the, the Ellen White behavior control. Again, things, you know, like no swimming on Saturday, you could go hiking but not swimming. And no bowling and, um, that your guardian angel would sit out on the curb and cry if you went into a movie theater and they wouldn't be there to protect you.

[00:29:48] Um, trying to think of what some of the more insidious things were. I guess just the general "don't think for yourself," to me, I think was really what kind of broke me in high school was where I thought, you know, screw you people. You know, I had written a, a paper, I don't know, as a sophomore, junior or something, about Esther for a religion class.

[00:30:17] And my argument was, does the end justify the means? Because she became basically a prostitute, to the king to save the people. And her uncle endorsed it and all the, you know, that it was, it was a wonderful thing, it's seen as a great story. And so I was like, you know, 'What the heck is up with this story?'

[00:30:37] And I got, so, I mean, my mom got called into the principal's office. I got like, you know, I had to have counseling sessions. I had to have this and that. It was the only time I'd ever been in trouble in my entire school career, pretty much. Because I had dared to think differently and to insinuate that maybe there was hypocrisy. And then of course, it was also about women's sexuality too, which was just, you can't... And I think if I had to pick one moment, I think that was the moment that I was just like, 'You guys are for the birds.'

[00:31:14] Santiago: Wow, yeah, okay. Yeah, there's, there's somebody who submitted a story about getting in trouble over their book report, go figure, um, oh man.

[00:31:26] Melissa: Wow.

[00:31:27] Santiago: And right, right now on Christian Twitter, I follow some progressive Christians on there just because I am curious to know what people who do not believe in fundamentalist Christianity believe, and kind of what their value system is. And even though I identify as an atheist and some atheists are, you know, completely anti-theist and they, they kind of view progressive Christians as annoying.

[00:31:53] I was just on a, on a Reddit thread talking about that. I personally view them as allies against Christian Nationalism and against kind of the, the far right elements of Evangelical Christianity in the United States that really, in some cases, would love to have a theocracy.

[00:32:11] So there's a debate going on right now. It's gone on a couple different times, but about whether or not the story of Bathsheba and David is rape. And it's very interesting to see which Christians are so adamant that David, this powerful king who called one of his subjects over to the palace, did not rape Bathsheba and that she was bathing naked on the roof, so she, she was asking for it, or she was trying to entice him.

[00:32:44] And it's very interesting to see how the progressive Christians talk about... Just, they, they seem to have a, a fuller kind of in-depth look at the text. Not that I personally believe it, but I appreciate that even though we believe different things, we have similar values and we can agree that power dynamics are important and that rape, regardless of who's doing it and what the circumstances are, is always wrong. And I'm so glad that there's some Christians out there that can agree on this, whereas many of the fundamentalists don't.

[00:33:16] Melissa: Yes, exactly. I have been following that debate. Of course, as a woman, it's very close to my heart and, and I have been watching and, and it's true. In fact, one of the things that I thought was the best statement on that was from, I believe a progressive Christian who said, 'If our pastors can't recognize rape or sexual assault in the Bible, how do we trust them to recognize it within their community?' And I was like that, there you go.

[00:33:47] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, that's so important. If, if you haven't already read it, I keep talking about it on the show 'cause I, I can't recommend it enough. The book #ChurchToo by Emily Joy Allison, is an incredible look at how purity culture fosters this environment and this culture of abuse within Evangelical Christianity and within many of our religious institutions.

[00:34:16] And you're right, you know, you, you yourself experienced this where you talk about being in a very controlled environment, being very concerned with being seen as pure. And part of that, I gotta imagine involved submitting to male leadership.

[00:34:30] Melissa: Yeah, yeah. And that's a lot of what I cover in my memoir. And actually my, my story that's coming out in that, um, anthology Take the Fruit, is exactly about that and how it does foster a culture of, of secrecy and, and sexual assault. Um, and male, you know, male believing that it's, it's their right to have dominion over women's bodies.

[00:34:59] And the story that I write about, I, I won't talk about it a lot because then that will ruin when the book comes out, but, there was a guy in, uh, a few years ahead of me at Andrews who had a reputation for actually attempting, various assaults on girls, and never very successfully. And his reason was that he was just testing their purity.

[00:35:26] Like he believed that he was, he was endorsed by patriarchal Christianity and SDAism and everything that he had learned. You know, I don't think he was lying. I think he actually believed that that was within his realm as a male in the church. That it was okay to be testing to see if women were actually maintaining their purity or not.

[00:35:51] Santiago: Yeah, wow, that is incredible. That is, that is some really fucked up reasoning if you ask me.

[00:35:58] Melissa: Yeah!

[00:35:58] Santiago: It's interesting you mentioned that, and I really appreciated what one of the previous podcast hosts mentioned. I think it's the Cult of Christianity, where he talks about having grown up as a guy within purity culture and how purity culture creates not only victims, but also perpetrators and how he in some ways, kind of was trained as a guy to be a perpetrator of some of this stuff.

[00:36:25] And it's interesting, obviously not to shift the blame on, on culture for individual actions, but I think it is important to acknowledge that and recognize it. And I think it helps better understand some of the folks who, you know, we can't know anyone's intentions truly, but perhaps think that they're doing the right thing, even if looking from the outside, it's obviously horrific and incredibly misguided.

[00:36:51] Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. I think, um, yeah, purity culture obviously is just destructive and terrible for everyone involved. And obviously we can see it more clearly how it affects women, but men in it also. You know, I've talked to a lot of men who were incredibly warped by it and, um, have a lot of long lasting issues. But also, you're right, it creates a perpetrator pipeline of, a funnel of men who truly think, I think that it is their duty.

[00:37:23] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I gotta imagine, just kind of like you mentioned, secrecy and shame... And I've talked about this before, secrecy and shame I think affects different people in different ways, but it affects everyone. And you know, I talk a lot about how I had it easier growing up as a guy within the SDA church, but I also don't want to discount any of the guys out there who are themselves victims of abuse and how there's still a stigma if you are a guy and you were abused, because people don't really talk about that and acknowledge that that exists.

[00:37:58] Melissa: Yes, yeah, I, I mean, I actually, I know of two bad situations in my roughly academy years, um, Adventist situations that were multiple victims of assault by, you know, just one teacher. And it was guys in both, in both situations. And yeah, the shame of it, the, it was, it was an entirely different thing than when it's women. And, um, in one of 'em, I don't think actually the details came out for 20 years or something because the guys just couldn't, couldn't deal with bringing, it's just, it's just a travesty. I mean, it's just a freaking travesty.

[00:38:40] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, it really is. I'm genuinely hopeful that people who, you know, still maintain faith, but claim to espouse values of justice and, and following, uh, following these morals, that they will hold leadership accountable and that they will start speaking about, you know, continue speaking about this and and speak up even more.

[00:39:05] Melissa: Yeah, that's the 24 million question is whether, you know, the church will, you know, like we've seen the, the Catholics do it and now the Baptists do it. And yes, their feet were held to the fire. They didn't have another option, but they did, they have started to like deal with the abuses within their church structures. And I would love to see that happen in the Adventist Church and we'll see, I don't know.

[00:39:30] Santiago: Yeah, absolutely. But I don't know, I feel like there's still so much... part of it is the training, part of it is the policies and procedures. But as the book that I was reading, #ChurchToo, as that book points out, part of it is the theology, right? That, that theology underlies, or at least the interpretation, right? Many people's interpretation of that theology...

[00:39:57] Melissa: Yeah.

[00:39:57] Santiago: ...is really something that makes excuses for this or says, 'Hey, no, that's not abuse. Um, both people are culpable.' And it boggles my mind how somebody, the, the author was 16, if I'm not mistaken, 16 years old when she was groomed and her parents blamed her...

[00:40:15] Melissa: Right.

[00:40:16] Santiago: ...along with the guy and made her apologize to him. And, and it boggles my mind that parents could do that to their child. But that just goes to show how deeply ingrained some of this misogynistic theology is in some of, some of our families.

[00:40:31] Melissa: Yeah, yeah. That's the part that I still have so many questions about. You know, if I was 20 again, I would love to do sort of, you know, like what Jeff is doing and start doing surveys and trying to, you know, dig in and do, do papers. And, because my question is, you know, everybody I know, in or now out of the Adventist system, knows of multiple cases of abuse.

[00:40:57] If it's not themselves, I mean, you, you have a handful, if not two or three, of people that you know, that went through rather awful abusive situations. And the fact that we all know so many of them, the church is so big, and none of them ever go public. So where, where's the breakdown there or the extreme hush hush or the, the shaming that, you know, like...

[00:41:27] Is it the parents that aren't taking the kids to the authorities? Is it, uh, you know, I've heard, there's a huge use of NDAs, the church hushing things up and making people sign legal things. And I don't know what the answer is, and I really hope somebody starts studying it and bringing it to light, because there's an enormous gap there between what's actually happening and what is getting out.

[00:41:54] Santiago: Yeah, agreed, agreed. So I heard in one of your other interviews that you intentionally left the US to try and escape the Adventist bubble. And I'm curious, like, did you always have this in mind, or how did you come up with this plan?

[00:42:08] Melissa: I, I did, you know, I, from a very young, you know, I was extremely academically aggressive and I knew I did not want to go to an Adventist college. Just from the get-go, even before I knew that I was not Adventist, but I just, I didn't think that Adventist degree was worth anything. So I wanted the best degree I could get.

[00:42:30] And whether that was true or not, that was absolutely my ardent belief. So I really, really wanted to go to an Ivy. 'Cause sort of growing up in California and then in the mid Midwest, like you think that you need an East Coast degree to be worth your salt. And I don't, you know, where that comes from, I'm not sure, but that was my firm belief.

[00:42:48] And so as a senior, junior, whenever you apply, I [laughing] did the really stupid thing where I only applied to Harvard. I didn't apply to anything else. So I didn't get into Harvard, and we kind of had a classic family tussle where my mother and her family paid for college, sort of, or mostly, I'm not sure what the breakdown was. But they were a heavy contributor to anybody in the family who went to college.

[00:43:17] And so my mother had a controlling say in what would be paid for. And my dad was a, you know, I would call him an education snob. And even though they both wanted me to stay in the Adventist system, if I could get an Ivy League degree, he was all for that. So we kind of compromised.

[00:43:38] I had always wanted to go to Europe. Like I just, I just wanted to be European, I wanted to be so sophisticated. I wanted to blah, blah, blah, you know? And so I had studied both Spanish and German in high school. I'd taken all of the classes that I possibly could. So as a kind of a compromise, I applied to Bogenhofen, the, the German Adventist school.

[00:43:59] And I went there for kind of a year in between high school and college and ended up leaving early. 'cause otherwise I would've gotten kicked out. But I stayed one step ahead, 'cause would steal a ladder out of the... There was a literally a farm next door and we would steal a ladder from him and put it out our window at night and run into the village and go dancing all night and get totally drunk.

[00:44:22] And then we'd show up at [unclear] completely drunk. But while I was over there, I applied to a bunch of different colleges and so then that's how I hopped, skip, skipped my way into Barnard and, you know, and then got the Columbia degree and, and I, you know, got my little goal, but it took a lot of maneuvering [laughing].

[00:44:41] Santiago: I can imagine, wow. Can we just appreciate the ingenuity of stealing the farmer next door's ladder to get out at night?

[00:44:51] Melissa: Oh my gosh. We were, I mean, and it was just so silly because literally the, the, the ladder would be covered in shit. And it's Austria, you know, so in the, in the winter it's like, you know, 20 degrees and there's a foot of snow. And our room was on the second story. And so we'd be, we would be tipping this shit covered ladder out the second, you know, and it has chains, so it's rattling and we're like, 'Oh my God, we're gonna get found out.'

[00:45:14] And we're wearing like, little black mini dresses and, you know, and, and panty hose because it was the eighties and, um, and holding our high heels. And so we'd like run through the snow in our sock feet and, um, in our little fancy dresses, to go to this like, you know, underground bar in Braunau, which is like not even a one-stop light town, but, you know, we had to be dressed up I mean, the whole thing was just ridiculous, so of course we got caught. There's, there was no way we were not gonna get caught.

[00:45:46] Santiago: Oh man, is that why you almost got kicked out?

[00:45:49] Melissa: Yes, yeah. So I chose to leave, some of the other people, girls who got caught, chose to stay. Some of them were actually Austrian or German or Swiss, and they needed to graduate. So, you know, they, they really had to do penance. I kind of was like, eh, I'm outta here. But one of the other girls did stay, she, or no, she left for a while. She got kicked out and then she went back because there, there was a whole end of the year trip that went to Russia which was the USSR at the time. So that was really cool and I wish I had gotten to go do that, but I drank too much.

[00:46:27] Santiago: So this is an Adventist boarding school in Austria. What was the SDA experience in Austria compared to your experience in the United States?

[00:46:36] Melissa: You know, it's really bizarre looking back how, how Bogenhofen did, and I don't know if the French one or if the, the Spanish one runs at all or Newbold in, in, um, England, I don't know if they run the same system. But at Bogenhofen it is simultaneously their seminary. So there were like 20 like hardcore seminary students there who had already graduated with their university degree.

[00:47:03] It is also a Gymnasium, which is like the official high school for German speaking kids. You know, there's the college track in Europe, and then there's the applied science track where you're gonna do, you know, and so this was the college track for them.

[00:47:18] And so it was very rigorous. They were, they were studying hard and then, and then there were like 20 to 30 just freaking yahoos like me, who most of us were American, but I think a couple, there were some Canadians and, um, I don't know, a couple of people from other places. I can't even remember right now, a French girl.

[00:47:39] I was the only one there that was on a, like, in between year. Most of them had come as a, as a study abroad as like a sophomore, junior in college. There were a couple of high school kids there that, I don't know how they got there in high school, but they were there. And so it was very interesting. It was extremely strict during the week rules. Just like at Andrews, pretty much, it was the same shtick, you know?

[00:48:00] In fact, I got taken aside by one of the teachers and told that I was wearing too much makeup, you know, so that, just like that I, it was, but then on the weekends, we were allowed to just check ourselves out and they didn't give a shit where we were until Monday morning. And we didn't have to have parental anything. We didn't have to have, you know, so we would just go run around Europe and, um, get into all kinds of trouble. And so it was this very strange hybrid of the same control that you were used to, with actually being treated like an adult.

[00:48:31] Santiago: Hmm, interesting, okay. That is, that is a weird dichotomy, right?

[00:48:35] Melissa: It is. It was a, it was a good stutter step for me, you know, having come from absolute control and not much, you know, so I learned to drink and smoke in Europe because I had had no experience at home. And so, by the time I got to an actual college, I wouldn't say I was caught up, but I had had a lot more experience under my belt with normal kid stuff than I certainly had if I had gone straight from Andrews to Barnard, that would've been a pretty big jump.

[00:49:03] Santiago: Yeah, no, I'm glad you mentioned that, 'cause that was actually my next question is if you remember ever experiencing culture shock or feeling socially awkward because of your Adventist upbringing?

[00:49:13] Melissa: Absolutely, absolutely. And I tried to cover it up, absolutely. Very few of my friends really knew much about where I had gone to school or how I had been raised. When they did find out, it was just like, 'Oh, Melissa went to this really weird religion,' and they would all come to me for their cheat sheet, basically when they were studying religion in, you know, when, if they were taking a world religions, they'd be like, 'Okay,' you know, 'I need to know the story of Abraham and the story...'

[00:49:37] And for the, I mean, for the life of me, even though it had only been two or three years, I could not tell them anything. I was just like, 'I don't know, I don't know.' And they were like, 'You are useless!' [Laughing] But, um, but a lot of feeling very behind the ball just in terms of, you know, I didn't, I'd never watched Charlie's Angels. I'd never seen Sesame Street. I'd never, certainly, I mean, one of the reasons I never smoked pot in college was because I didn't know how to operate a bong, and that's all anybody smoked out of. And I was not gonna be the stupid person who didn't know how to use the bong. So I was just like, 'Eh, no, I'm fine.'

[00:50:15] You know, so there was a lot of that, that was so embarrassing and I had to kind of try to hide or grow past. A lot of it was... and then just purely, like I was an English major obviously, and the fact that I had so much catch up to do, which I had sort of surreptitiously been doing on my own during high school. I had read all of Dickens and all of Jane Austen of course, 'cause they were permissible. But I had never read The Catcher in the Rye. I had never read anything else that was even slightly, um, you know, I didn't know anything about the beat poets. I didn't know, you know, so, I had to really play some massive catch up there, too.

[00:50:58] Santiago: Yeah, no I feel that. My, my partner and I joke and, and one of our friends too, that I'm kind of like Steve Rogers in Captain America. I don't know if you've seen [laughing] the movie where, so, so Captain America is frozen in ice. And uh, they eventually kind of thaw him out and he comes back to, comes back to life or wakes back up again.

[00:51:24] And, you know, I don't remember exactly what decade it was that that happened to him, but it's many decades in the past. And so he wakes up and it's the present and he's just, his mind's blown by all these technological advances and all these changes in culture. And he carries around this little notebook where he's writing down all of these popular cultural references. And we were joking that that was me. I literally have a list called Unbecoming Steve Rogers.

[00:51:51] Melissa: Oh my god!

[00:51:52] Santiago: And, and I might put, I might put it up at some point. So, so people can see at least from a, you know, from a North American perspective, everything I missed out on.

[00:52:02] Melissa: Yeah.

[00:52:02] Santiago: And trying to catch up on.

[00:52:04] Melissa: Yeah, oh, it's a, it's a huge list. At some point you have to fish or cut bait, right? So I decided what things I was gonna master, you know, like I was gonna go just whole hog into sex and drinking and, you know, I was gonna smoke like a chimney. But drugs I never really got into 'cause again, like everybody had done theirs by the time I reached college and everything.

[00:52:23] And so I was like, eh, whatever. To catch up, you know, I, I did some. And, and then stuff like gambling or learning to play cards, I was just like, 'Do I need to know how to do this? Do I need to devote you know, like, precious parts of my life now to learning how to play whatever, because I never learned it? No, I, I'm pretty good going all the way through life without knowing how to play cards,' you know? So you just, eventually you just have to make decisions of like, 'What am I gonna catch up on and what am I not,' because it's huge.

[00:52:51] Santiago: Absolutely, I agree. I, I never learned how to play, you know, any of like poker, anything like that, and that's fine with me. I have no, I have no need for that. It is interesting that you mentioned kind of focusing in on sex. For me as a guy, I've, I've talked about before, how virginity is a social construct that is not a scientific or medical term. But still, growing up within purity culture, growing up, even with an American culture, which is still kind of puritanical in and of itself.

[00:53:23] As a guy, I had all this, all of this anxiety about it and kind of this, this stigma of being in my mid twenties and still not having had sex. And come to find out that it wasn't as big of a deal as I made it out to be, at least not in my personal experience. And now kind of being in a relationship and having a partner where we have open communication, we love each other, and we're not so rigid that we'll say, 'Oh no, we're not gonna try that, we're not gonna do this or that.' That for me has been such a healthy kind of learning experience. And so, so far removed from the fear and kind of like you mentioned, being able to smell the fear on the adults where they wouldn't even talk about it in open terms.

[00:54:11] Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. They made it, they took, I mean, it is such a human... Just, I mean, it's like eating or something, you know, like it is a, it is part of our humanity and our bodily everything, and part of our animality. And the fact that they took it like, out of human experience and out of our bodies and made it this thing over here that just had freaking layers and meanings and, you know, repercussions and blah, blah, blah. I mean, they created this monster out of what is just the most natural thing, you know, it's basically falling out of a boat, right? And they made it so huge and I find that really unforgiveable. There's just no reason for that, and it has messed up countless people.

[00:54:58] Santiago: Absolutely, if I'm remembering correctly, on the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, under B which is for behavior control, sex is I think number three on the list of ways that high control groups control people. And it makes sense 'cause like you said, it is such an innate part of our humanity. I also wanna acknowledge though, not everybody has that drive. Some people are asexual, right? And asexuality in and of itself is a spectrum. But just as a, just as an illustration of how out of touch SDA leadership is on this, I follow, I think his name is Floyd Pönitz...

[00:55:40] Melissa: Pönitz, yes, I do too.

[00:55:41] Santiago: Yeah, so I follow him on Twitter and he's talked about how Ted Wilson in a sermon called out LGBTQIA+ people as being sinful. And how, you know that lifestyle is just so, so negative. And he pointed out being intersex or being asexual is not a lifestyle, first of all. And if you're asexual, you don't have those desires or you're not sexually active in many cases with a partner. So what in the world is Ted Wilson talking about? It either goes to show that he didn't bother to look up what the acronym actually means, or even if he did, anything outside of heterosexuality is seen as sinful and that is so damaging.

[00:56:32] Melissa: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it's so true. I think you were right there that he probably just didn't bother to look it up and it's just, you know, he thinks that everything that issues forth from his mouth is blessed. And so he probably doesn't even think too much about it. And I think you're right. Anything outside of heterosexual missionary position sex, probably, is absolutely sinful. And that's just full stop for him, you know? Which is so odd because last night, we were having such a bad storm here that I was laying awake listening to the storm and I was actually thinking sorta about that. And like, there is nothing normal about the sex in the Bible.

[00:57:08] There is no normal se... "normal sex" in the Bible. You know, like, so Mary was a teenager and she got impregnated by a sky being without her consent. Okay, that was not normal sex, you know? And then there are all these polygamists and everything, and there are people like selling their daughters and buying their, buying their, you know, and, and giving their daughters to crowds of men to rape. And I mean, and then all of a sudden we're supposed to believe that like heterosexual, monogamous, like missionary sex is... Like where does it say that? 'Cause I don't see it.

[00:57:45] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:57:46] Santiago: No yeah, absolutely. I mean, if, if you just look at Solomon with all of the concubines, right? Like where, where are the quote unquote family values in

[00:57:57] that?

[00:57:57] Melissa: We don't see any in the, I mean, none at all. It's amazing.

[00:58:04] Santiago: Yeah, yeah. Even if you, even if you think about Adam and Eve, uh, where did we get their grandkids from?

[00:58:14] Melissa: Exactly.

[00:58:15] Santiago: I need to read more about that to be a little bit better informed. But as far as I can tell, there must have been some incest going on.

[00:58:22] Melissa: Seems like it had to be. I mean, if, unless there was some miracle that wasn't mentioned, but why would they leave out that miracle?

[00:58:31] Santiago: Yeah, or, or other, other beings that had been created that just aren't mentioned.

[00:58:36] Melissa: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, it had to be some... But yeah, and, you know, and Lot's daughters sleeping with him. I mean, there is nothing normal about the sex in the Bible, period.

[00:58:46] Santiago: It's, it's so funny 'cause I've seen people talk about how, you know, in Florida there is this whole debate about books being banned but it's funny how we would make an exception for the Bible and insist that the Bible should be taught in schools what it contains so many highly, highly inappropriate stories for kids.

[00:59:06] Melissa: Oh my gosh, yes. It's a, well, look, I mean, it's messed all of us up, you know? I mean, it's just, it's amazing, you know, not only sexually of course, but everybody talks about the violence and the, you know, and the genocides and, you know, and right now, of course, the hot button topic with all of the reproductive rights stuff, and it's like, well, God killed off whole nations of babies whenever he felt like it. But oh, 'We're so pro-life.' And, um, it just, none of it makes sense, and it's all just, ugh!

[00:59:35] Santiago: Yeah, no, agreed. So speaking of that, clearly for you and me, our morals and ethics have changed since leaving Adventism...

Tune in Next Time...

[00:59:46] Santiago: And on that note, we're going to pause here. I didn't realize that Melissa and I spoke for about two hours. So of course, it made sense to split this episode up. Tune in next week to hear the last half of our conversation where we talk about morality rooted in empathy, deconstructing from purity culture, finding a therapist, the latest updates on Melissa's projects, and more.

[01:00:12] Also, if you haven't already, please give the show a rating on Apple Podcasts and Spotify as that helps us reach more people. And if you couldn't already tell by the improved audio quality in this interview, I followed up on my promise from the last episode, did some research, and invested in a better platform for interviews. So if you can, please consider donating to help offset that cost.

[01:00:37] You can go to hell.bio/coffee to make a one-time or recurring donation. And if you want to become a patron on Patreon, you can go to hell.bio/patreon. Links are also in the show notes. And with that, we'll see you on the next one.

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