Meet ex-SDA Writer Melissa Duge Spiers - Part 2

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March 25, 2023
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Part 2 of Santiago's conversation with Melissa Duge Spiers, an award-winning memoirist, screenwriter, and essayist based in Silicon Valley, California. They cover Melissa's journey with therapy after leaving the church, her current projects, and more.

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Credits: Music: Hall of the Mountain King Kevin MacLeod ( • 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.

Welcome Back!

[00:00:16] Santiago: Hey everyone, welcome back to Haystacks and Hell. I'm your host Santiago and today, we're playing the second half of my conversation with Melissa Duge Spiers. If you haven't already heard part one, go back and listen to episode 10 first. You won't want to miss it. And if you've already heard it, we'll pick up right from where we left off.

Part 2 of speaking with Melissa Duge Spiers

[00:00:38] Santiago: Clearly for you and me, our morals and ethics have changed since leaving Adventism [laughing] and, you know, some people who are maybe on the fence or who maybe are a little bit still more sympathetic to Adventism than you and I might be, might argue that they've changed for the worse. Having grown up in this system and having been out of it for quite some time, how do you think your morals and ethics have changed, and how do you think that has changed your life?

[00:01:07] Melissa: You know, very, very much so. My ethics and moral compass have gotten more defined and clearer having been outside of the church, having to define it for myself. On Twitter, I'm always amazed when people say like, 'Well, where do you, where do you get your, what's right and wrong without the Bible?'

[00:01:32] And it's like, you know, my cat knows what's right and wrong! You know, I mean, it's not that, it's a, it's an innate thing of, and I mean, you know, there are people that are outside of the general construct of the human brain that don't know right and wrong, but that's very, very rare. You know, again, all of the hypocrisies and watching bad things happen in the church and people making excuses for it or hiding it, and all of that gave me a very uncentered moral compass.

[00:01:59] I would say when I left the church, I didn't have much of one. And it is truly my contact with non-Adventists, my college roommates, you know, one of my ex-husbands, that really kind of... Watching them go through the process of like, 'This is the right thing to do because it's right,' was really just amazing to me. Like, 'I feel it's right, I know it's right, and so of course I'm going to do it regardless of the consequences.' And that, it shook me, I guess, because I didn't get that from the Adventist church.

[00:02:40] Santiago: Interesting, okay. This is a topic I'm very interested in, in researching more. I've talked about before how I love the show The Good Place. And for anyone who's maybe a serious student of philosophy and ethics, you might be cringing right now. I've seen some people who are professionals in the, in the area who maybe look down on kind of popular cultural references to this.

[00:03:03] But I feel like it's a very helpful entry point to talk about this and to kind of make it a little bit more mainstream. I'm very interested in reading more about this because I have been asked before, you know, 'How do you know right from wrong without having a structure to refer to?' And so far, my, my default answer has been that morality rooted in empathy is better than morality based on an ancient group of texts.

[00:03:27] Melissa: Totally.

[00:03:28] Santiago: And how I personally believe that they encompass so much more than the 10 Commandments or the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. It used to be 27, I think, now it's 28, uh, of the Adventist Church. More than they could ever hope to encompass. And granted, like you said, not everybody understands that or follows it, but I feel like it is a more helpful guide and it's a better barometer, it's a better standard than maybe some of the ones we've had in the past.

[00:03:59] Melissa: I think so, and you bringing up empathy I think is absolutely key. Because my sister and I have talked about that a lot, how we feel like we were not taught to have genuine empathy. You know, that true thing that, that is, that Jesus does talk about in the Bible of like, love your brother as yourself or whatever it is.

[00:04:19] We were taught a superiority, a condescending desire to help others, right? But not a true 'How does it feel to be you, and how can I make your life just a little bit easier?' Or 'How can my behavior make, make things smoother in this process.' You know, we weren't taught that. We were taught judgment, judgment, judgment, and 'We know best.'

[00:04:51] And again, some of that may be family, some of that may be church, but there was a lot of church... I mean, there's a huge superiority complex in the Adventist system and every church I think thinks that they are the one true church. But Adventists tend to take it to a very extreme version, I think of we are, you know, 'We are the only true classy, you know, dignified know everything, educated church,' and you know...

[00:05:20] Santiago: Yeah, the remnant church, as they like to say.

[00:05:24] Melissa: Exactly.

[00:05:25] Santiago: Even within my own church, I remember that there were some members in particular who were very concerned about maintaining the appropriate level of conservative theology and conservative culture within the church. Because growing up on the West Coast, I talk about how my church was fundamentalist and conservative, and it absolutely was.

[00:05:51] But perhaps by, you know, by the standard of a church in the South, maybe it would've been considered a little bit more middle of the road. But we were comparing ourselves. I remember we would compare ourselves to churches in our area and how this church was too liberal and that church was too liberal. And yes, we need to be nice and inviting, but we cannot, you know, we cannot 'compromise on the truth' or, you know, what we thought was the truth.

[00:06:18] Melissa: Yep, absolutely. And, and just a very judging people for, oh, just their, their lifestyle or their whatever, you know? Instead of just true empathy. It's just, it's hard to, to really describe. But, um, I was, I was in a position when I, shortly after I got divorced, where I had absolutely, in my second divorce, I had absolutely no money.

[00:06:41] And I went to a free food thing. And it was in a church parking lot and, you know, I drove in and I was like, 'Argh!' You know, and all my hackles just like, 'Arghh!' And um, and then I went through the process and it was run by the county or whatever. And I remember leaving and just sobbing because it felt like maybe the first time I had actually experienced, like, true empathy.

[00:07:07] Like, and I, I compared it to the fact like if the church had actually been running it, I would've been looked down upon, I would've been judged for the earrings I was wearing or the, you know, makeup I was wearing. Or I would've gotten this, you know, I certainly would've gotten a Great Controversy stuffed in my food box, you know?

[00:07:21] And, um, there would've been this just kind of tight lipped, um, smile of, 'We're helping you, but why aren't you helping yourself?' Kind of, um, attitude, even though it wouldn't have been said. And here were these people who were helping in this food thing that looked like they had a rougher life than I did, you know?

[00:07:42] And they were so genuine, you know, a smile, a like, 'Have a good day.' Just like true empathy. And I remember thinking, 'Wow, wow, that's, that's different than anything I've experienced in my life in the church system.'

[00:07:59] Santiago: For me personally, I definitely feel like I became a more empathetic person as I started deconstructing and eventually deconverted. I've talked before about how I, in high school, you know, before then probably as well, but definitely in high school because it was a hot button topic during that time.

[00:08:22] I was against gay marriage and I was, I was steeped in this talk radio that my parents would play as they drove me to and from high school. And, you know, I got it at church as well. And all these years later, I'm on a first date with the woman who's now my partner, and she talks about how she's bi. And I felt like I had to tell her and apologize upfront, 'I'm so sorry that I used to hold these views. Just FYI, I used to, I don't anymore.'

[00:08:57] And she was totally cool about it, you know, very gracious. But it's just the, the transformation I've personally gone on and recognizing that there are so many good people out there. My, I love my mother to death. She is a very, very kind, very giving person. And if it wasn't for her theology, I think she would be even kinder...

[00:09:20] Melissa: Yeah, yeah.

[00:09:21] Santiago: ...more empathetic with even more people. And it saddens me that she's such a great person, but her theology is holding her back.

[00:09:30] Melissa: Yeah, yeah, it's true. And isn't it funny, because they think our opinions are holding us back. But it's, you know, I mean they truly, yeah. I mean, I was the same as you. I mean, I was in high school and, in college, you know, we would make the most awful gay jokes and it was, you know, just you... It was fair game to make fun of, to look down on, to whatever, judge and all that stuff.

[00:09:51] And you know, I'm bi. But it, it, you know, took a, a long time to figure that out and to come around. And makes me hopeful that a lot of hard line younger people may still have a growth, a growth trajectory toward our side. But [laughing]...

[00:10:10] Santiago: Yeah, I think it's interesting that people talk about how there's this explosion supposedly within Gen Z of all of these people coming out as other than straight. And a beautiful analogy I've seen that is close to home for me is about left-handedness and how being left-handed was so looked down upon and you would have your wrists slapped and you...

[00:10:35] Melissa: That's me, yep.

[00:10:36] Santiago: That happened to you?

[00:10:37] Melissa: You know, my parents were actually very, very supportive. And my mom, bless her, taught herself how to knit backwards and like crochet backwards and use the sciss... So that she could teach me left-handed stuff. It was really a beautiful thing she, she did. But at school, oh my goodness, yeah. They tried for, forever to try to get me to switch to right and, yeah.

[00:10:57] Santiago: Oh my goodness. Yeah, I know, I know my dad experienced some of that, but now that that stigma and that just kind of weird belief has been thrown out the window, we see now that there is a decent population that has stabilized of left-handed people. And I think we're starting to see that with people who are coming out as other than cis and other than straight. And I think it's so important that we recognize if you let people be people, you are going to see a shift in the population. It's not, because I think some people have said, 'Oh, it's social contagion.'

[00:11:31] Melissa: Right.

[00:11:32] Santiago: 'It's this indoctrination they're getting.' No, it's that they're not being pressured to fit inside your preconceived notions.

[00:11:39] Melissa: Pressure to pretend. The thing that always cracks me up about that is, you know, 'Oh, it's just trendy and oh, they're being,' you know, societal, whatever. But it's, it's like really? Do you think they think it's fun to come out in this society? Like, this is something fun they're gonna experience? Your harassment and your judgment and violence and threats and like, really? Do you think this is just something people are doing "trendy" because, I mean, how ridiculous.

[00:12:08] Santiago: Yeah, I remember watching a standup comic make a joke about that, where they, they, I think they fit in multiple categories of, you know, different minority identities and they're like, 'Do you think I would've chosen to make my life more challenging? By coming out as this and having these characteristics that I can't change?'

[00:12:30] Absolutely right, I don't think people would choose to make their lives more difficult. And not because of anything they have inherently, but because of the people around them. I feel like that's such another, like underappreciated point. People will talk about how 'Oh, gay people experience higher rates of depression and challenges with alcohol and this other stuff.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, why do you think that is? It's because you're making their life a living hell.'

[00:12:57] Melissa: Yeah, I know, I know.

[00:12:59] Santiago: If you don't mind me asking, when did you realize you were bi and what was that experience like? 'Cause I imagine you came to that realization later in life.

[00:13:08] Melissa: Yeah, much later in life. Which is very funny because, you know, when I went to Barnard, you know, Barnard is a traditionally women's college and there was a, there was a very healthy percentage of lesbians, bisexual, you know, I mean, it was not un it was out, out, and very much a proud part of, of Barnard's fabric of life.

[00:13:27] And I was still a little judgmental about it. Even then, you know, I, um, even though I wasn't in the church anymore, but... Not that I thought it was wrong, but I thought it was weird, right? Then it was a slow, a very gradual kind of realization for me. And, and the strange, and I mean we could do a whole, you know, gazillion hour conversation on this. But I think the part that took me the longest to accept was that truly, bisexual is something different than gay, you know?

[00:14:01] And I thought, I was like, 'But I'm not gay, 'cause I really don't wanna date women. I don't wanna marry women,' I, you know, I'm, I'm, I generally have always dated straight men, you know? So it was more of an attraction thing or just a purely sexual thing for me. And so it was a very like a kind of odd baby steps thing of like, 'And this is okay 'cause this is just who I am and you don't have to fit into a box,' right? And it was...

[00:14:26] Santiago: Mm-hmm.

[00:14:27] Melissa: I didn't really put all the pieces together until I was probably 40.

[00:14:31] Santiago: Well, I'm so happy for you that, that you were able to kind of work through that and, and recognize it. It's been a very interesting learning experience for me, having a partner who's bi, because she's talked about even within the LGBTQ+ community, biphobia is something that has existed. Being a bi person in a hetero presenting relationship is sometimes looked down upon.

[00:14:58] Melissa: Yes!

[00:14:59] Santiago: It's very interesting to me to see even today, how some people within this community, which I have to admit, sometimes community is a bit of a misnomer, and it's definitely not a monolith. But there are people who are very anti-trans and feeling like trans people are sort of bringing the movement down.

[00:15:21] Because there's this resurgence and this, there's, there's this kind of vitriolic hate, especially of trans people, that is now making people a little bit more willing to openly speak up against gay marriage. And so I'm starting to see that some gay people are saying, 'Hey, the trans people are ruining it for us.'

[00:15:40] Melissa: I have seen a bit of that, yeah.

[00:15:41] Santiago: Yeah, I genuinely hope that 10, 15, 25 years later we're able to look back and see that we made it through...

[00:15:50] Melissa: We made it through.

[00:15:51] Santiago: a society, okay. And that, you know, that it's easier for, for everyone growing up and just living their lives.

[00:16:00] Melissa: Yeah, I mean, I sure hope so. Right now it looks a little bleak, like I really can't see what the other side might look like, but we gotta hope.

[00:16:07] Santiago: Yeah. I'm curious, all these years later, have any of your loved ones tried to convince you to come back to Adventism?

[00:16:15] Melissa: You know, it's very, very interesting. For how controlled we were as kids, my family has been incredibly respectful of us as adults just choosing not to be in the church. And again, it, it, nobody's ever really talked about it. We don't talk about things. But, both my sister and I, and then my brother later, um, we're, we're not, not in the church at all.

[00:16:38] And it's very clear and we've raised our children, all of us, very, very not... Well, my sister and I married non-Adventists and um, when I had freshly left the church, when all of my grandparents were still alive, my grandfathers would send me, uh, what is that, Steps to Christ. Like, every fricking Christmas or something, with a very sweet little note like, 'Oh honey, I pray that you find God.'

[00:17:00] You know, but it would, there was never massive pressure and there was never ostracization. Like a lot of people I know, you know, like their families just won't see them or whatever, which is heartbreaking to me. And now that my parents are reaching that grandparental, like, 'Okay, we can see that there's limited time,' they have gotten ever so slightly...

[00:17:21] I was having a rough time, uh, like a year ago or so, and, and my dad very sweetly said, 'Oh, honey, maybe you should pray like you used to.' And I was thinking, first of all, I never prayed, but, uh, but you know, it was very sweet and I, I just said, 'Thanks, dad. You know, I do kind of pray in my own way. I just believe that the universe is gonna carry me over' type of thing.

[00:17:43] But um, I'm, I'm not gonna pray. But no one else, and I really haven't stayed in touch with too many ex-Adventists at all, or certainly any Adventists. I do have an uncle that sends me Jesus shit all the time on Facebook, but I'm just never on Facebook. So I just like, 'Pfft' so, and, and nobody else really has pressured me. But I think I've just made the, pulled my circle so tight outside the church that nobody really approaches [laughing].

[00:18:14] Santiago: Yeah, it's interesting to see, I think, how every group is a little bit different in this. I follow some of the ex-Mormons online and how you have to get a lawyer in some cases to get them to remove your name from the membership rolls. Or the Jehovah's Witnesses where shunning is actively taught and practiced and enforced.

[00:18:34] And pro tip for anyone, uh, who has Jehovah's Witnesses coming by your door. I heard from an ex-Jehovah's Witness on Reddit that if you tell them that you are an apostate, they will be afraid because they're not supposed to be speaking to you and they'll leave you alone. So, pro tip for...

[00:18:58] Melissa: Wonderful, yeah. Well, have, have you tried to get your name removed from the books?

[00:19:05] Santiago: Great question, I have not yet. Did you try that?

[00:19:10] Melissa: I tried for years after I left and I still, to this day, don't know if I, um, if I'm off or not. They just stopped... they just ignore you after a while and so you don't... Dwight Nelson was the pastor at Andrews forever and he was a friend of my dad. So, you know, when I would send a letter and say, 'Take my name off the books,' he would, he would just kind of ignore me and send me some letter saying, 'Happy birthday, we can't wait till you come back to the church.'

[00:19:36] Like, I was like, um, 'That's not what I was saying, Dwight!' Then I finally got told that I had to write to the General Conference, I think? So I did that. I don't think I ever heard from the General Conference. And then, I don't know, but it go, it bounced around a lot and I finally just gave up. And I figure once my book comes out, then they'll probably take me off the books, like with, they'll just like burn that whole page, so, um...

[00:19:59] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:20:01] Santiago: Yeah, we'll, we'll see. Yeah, I still haven't tried just because I've only told one person from my old church that I'm all the way out and that I consider myself an agnostic atheist. So there's, there's really only one person who knows. I'm not quite ready to tell other folks. If they find out, oh, well, sorry, mom, sorry dad, I have a podcast [laughing].

[00:20:26] But, but, uh, you know, until, until I reach the point where I'm ready to kind of be more public about it, I've decided that I'm just gonna leave it there, let it be, and, and it's really primarily for my parents. It's also partially for me because there is still, even though it's on the rise, there is a stigma with atheism or, or anything that does not follow some sort of organized religion.

[00:20:52] So just, I, I have a lot of other things going on in my life that I'm like, you know, it's one less thing that I don't necessarily have to deal with at this point. But at some point I definitely do intend to write a letter and ask for my name to be removed. Even though I know that at my old church, my parents would talk about how people who are longtime members of the church would still have the names of their children on the membership rolls.

[00:21:18] They just didn't wanna let them go. Not that they necessarily asked to be removed, but you would think if somebody hasn't attended in 10, 15 plus years, they're not an active member anymore. But, but they hold on, they cling to those names.

[00:21:32] Melissa: Yeah, that's, I think that, you know, the parents and the family cling to it just as a propriety thing, plus a hope thing. And of course the church clings to it because it makes their membership look big, so...

[00:21:44] Santiago: Absolutely, if I'm not mistaken, the amount of support you get for evangelistic outreach and whether or not you can have an associate pastor is definitely related to your membership size and I think also to the amount of tithe coming in. So that could also be, that could also be playing into that.

[00:22:03] Melissa: Yeah, of course.

[00:22:05] Santiago: So you've talked about how when you left the church, you thought you were all done with it. But then years later, you realized you still had a lot to unpack. So I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that, but also what would you tell someone who is leaving or recently left the church and is wondering what to do next?

[00:22:25] Melissa: It's been an incredibly difficult path of discovery to, yeah, 'cause I, when I left, there was no official deconstruction movement then, at all, of course. And, ex-Adventists were even harder to find than, I, I mean, I thought I was the only one, pretty much. So it was a very lonely and a very solo road. But also, partly, maybe because I was 18 and it's a teenage mentality, but also just the aloneness of it.

[00:22:53] I just thought, 'Well, I don't believe it and I'm out. I'm, I'm living a normal life. So I, I'm done, I'm, I'm good!' So I lived like that for 15 years or so, until I was in my mid thirties. Then, and this kind of covers one of the central tenets of my memoir. But in my mid thirties, I found out that not just one, but a few members of my family had been molesters in their jobs for the church.

[00:23:25] And that really threw me for a loop, even though I'd been out forever. So I actually tracked down and befriended one of the victims of that abuse. And she and I formed a friendship. And I think she had done a lot of healing by that point, but there were still some real points that were rough for her.

[00:23:50] And I spent a long time kind of dealing with what that meant to me in terms of family. But it ended up coming back, now you're probably talking 20 years after I left the church... really thinking about what had happened to her and so many other people I knew. And realizing how awful the church was, basically, you know? And it, it kind of started there and, you know, I couldn't even bear to look at an Ellen White book or, or anything.

[00:24:26] It just like, it just, ugh, you know, I tried to write the memoir then, and I couldn't deal with looking at the Adventist church because it just, it just brought hives. And so I knew that then I, I need, I had some work to do. I, I, , I was not healed [laughing] at all. So the past, you know, 10 years have been therapy, which I wish I had done at 20 and forever.

[00:24:51] That is the biggest regret in terms of all that. Therapy and reading deconstruction topics and healing topics, and then really identifying how the patterns that we were taught transferred over into my entire life, you know? Especially purity culture stuff, being subservient to men.

[00:25:18] Those had been how I'd lived my entire adult life and not realized that I was acting out really damaged bullshit that the church had handed me about who I was as a female in the world. So my advice to people leaving the church is first of all just simply don't think that leaving is the cure, because it's not. It's the first step in claiming yourself back.

[00:25:48] Therapy, I just cannot endorse enough. Particularly, people are now trained in religious trauma therapy, which is just amazing. Dr. Laura Anderson runs that whole group, which is where I found my therapist of religious recovery. And you know, Marlene Winell, who was the pioneer of religious trauma, was Adventist and did a lot of her research on Adventists.

[00:26:11] So I would certainly say therapy and, I would say instead of starting with the church and what you find wrong with the church, maybe start with what you feel are, I wouldn't say the broken parts of you, but the parts that have not served you well in your life. And even if you don't think they're related at all to the church or anything, start with those and start maybe connecting the dots.

[00:26:40] Santiago: That sounds like a very good piece of advice. Based off conversations I've heard with you and, and other folks, it sounds like even years later, people will think that things are totally unrelated. And in some cases maybe they might be, but in, I think in many cases, more often than not, they may be related.

[00:26:57] Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. One of my really big issues was that I was very easy prey to narcissistic abusers and controllers. And when you think about it, the church is one big narcissist, you know? And that abuse and gaslighting and all of that, you can transfer directly over into relationships and not even realize, you know? So there are just all kinds of bits and pieces that come through and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, that goes right back to, you know, cradle roll or whatever!'

[00:27:27] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:27:29] Santiago: Yeah, oh boy. So I'm, I'm glad you mentioned therapy and, and we definitely will post a link to their website. How did you personally go about finding a therapist, and did you have to try a couple different therapists before you landed on one? Like, for anyone who's like brand new to this idea and hasn't done any of their own research yet, what would you say to somebody like that?

[00:27:54] Melissa: I did try several, um, over the space of many years. I had one briefly in my twenties who was Adventist and that was a load of crap. And so I only went there like once or twice. And then, I of course did various marriage therapies. And then when I really decided to get serious about the church deconstruction and unloading of all the religious baggage, I did a lot of online research first.

[00:28:20] I read a lot of the books, the purity culture recovery books, which I can't remember the names right now, but You Are Your Own. And, mmm, can't remember but there are a couple other ones. And then I started just looking up online, you know, religious trauma recovery. Then I found Marlene Winell and she was not taking new clients at all, of course. But I kind of followed a little pebble trail from her to other people that had done research.

[00:28:48] And then I found Andrew Kerbs, the Deconstruct Everything guy, who's ex-Adventist. And I knew that he was a therapist with Laura Anderson's group. And so I contacted them and that's, that's where I found my therapist. But I definitely would say you can go to any therapist you want and they will probably all be useful if you have a good connection with them.

[00:29:13] But I find the religious trauma background that is given to those particular therapists is absolutely invaluable. I mean, it just, they, my therapist all the time points out connections that it would've taken me months and months to get to. But when she says it, it's like, 'Oh, right, that does go back to church, whatever, or high control, you know, psychology.

[00:29:44] Santiago: Yeah, definitely I think folks who are trauma informed, if somebody is looking to work through that, absolutely. I'm encouraged to see that that is becoming a bigger focus for some folks, that they're informing themselves about it. Because you're right. You can go to a Christian counselor, you can go to an Adventist therapist, but their lived experience or their educational background may not be what you need in that moment. So definitely, yeah, do your research and I'll definitely include some links in the show notes for some trauma-informed, religious trauma-informed therapy groups that I've come across.

[00:30:27] So I wanna bring it back to your memoir. I know you've done many other interviews on this, and I'm sure you're gonna do more. I'm very excited, by the way, I can't say how excited I am to see this come out. So where do you think your interest in writing came from?

[00:30:42] Melissa: It's funny, we had gazillions of books in our house, but they were all my dad's. He generally had an office and a library, and he is a compulsive reader. He is forever, our joke was that, you know, 'Where's dad? Well, you can find him on the couch falling asleep on a book.' But we had no children's books.

[00:31:01] We had like one little teeny shelf and we were allowed to read, um, because my mother was not a reader and she of course was the homemaker and the raiser of the children. And my dad was out working all the time. And so we had the Little House on the Prairie set, which I read like a thousand times. And we had Arch Books and Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.

[00:31:21] And then we had just some random books that were leftovers from my dad's childhood, which were just dry and awful. And most of 'em were missing pages. And nobody knew how I learned to read. I just learned to read very young. Like I was two, or three, or something.

[00:31:35] And I didn't, I wasn't taught, I think... I personally think it's just always been my need to independently verify things. I think even at that young, like I just needed to be able to inform myself by myself and not trust what other people were saying [laughing] so I needed to be able to read. So it, I was a writer from, from when I first joined school, which for me was third, the end of third grade. And I don't know, I don't know how that happened. I guess it just is, uh, it is for me. I've always been a reader and a writer.

[00:32:14] Santiago: Okay, so it's not that you didn't have that many books, but it was that not many of them were kids books and they were all, it sounds like Adventist books?

[00:32:24] Melissa: They were mostly all Adventist books, like theology research books in like a bunch of different languages. And then he's like a, he's a big military history buff and, you know, it had all his, his interests, which, um, were just not kid interests and, and again, overwhelmingly religious.

[00:32:39] Then when I got to be a teenager, you know, so I could like, appreciate his you know, Winston Churchill's the, The History of the English People or whatever, but still, pretty damn dry. You know, I was looking for, for literature but then it's that magic thing when you get your driver's license.

[00:32:56] I started hitting thrift stores and I would just like clear out their literature sections and haul them home and hope nobody would... my mom being not a reader, she really didn't look at books too carefully, so I could bring, as long as they didn't have like some salacious cover on, she really didn't care. And so, I could get away then with, uh, you know, grabbing more dicey, forbidden things.

[00:33:19] Santiago: [Laughing] Gotcha, yeah my brother and I have talked about how we, we were allowed to read some fiction and some literature, but definitely no Harry Potter. But that is nothing in comparison to what I've heard where somebody commented on the ex-Adventist subreddit that they were not allowed to read any non-Adventist books, and that is incredible to me.

[00:33:45] Melissa: Yeah.

[00:33:46] Santiago: You, you've talked before about how you, you can live and die within the Adventist bubble without ever stepping foot outside of it, and that is absolutely true for some people, even if it isn't as much today.

[00:33:59] Melissa: Oh, absolutely. And I think that was part of, that was probably most of the reason for our little half shelf was, you know, Ellen White has that whole thing about 'Fiction is bad. Fiction is, is a waste of time and it teaches unhealthy flights of imagination,' and blah, blah, blah. And so yeah, we had no fiction.

[00:34:15] I mean, little House on the Prairie of course was technically true, and the Arch Books were technically true. We could not have, and we were not allowed to read Dr. Seuss. We were not allowed to read Grimm's Fairy tales or anything. Oddly enough, fairy tales were considered too scary, but yet the Bible, hello? So yeah, I think there was a huge part of that, of the super Adventist no fiction until, you know, I could go get it for myself.

[00:34:37] Santiago: And you've also talked about how you weren't really allowed to keep a private diary, or at least that it was, you know, read and looked through. So can you tell us a little bit more about that, and if you found any other creative outlets for your early writing pursuits?

[00:34:52] Melissa: Basically, I channeled all of my writing into, you know, term papers and expository types of stuff because that was the only thing that was encouraged at school. And, um, I'd never heard of creative writing until I went to college. So writing papers about things was how I just, like, I loved, I loved when we were assigned to write a paper! I didn't care what it was about, um, I was just so excited.

[00:35:17] When I finally got to take research as a junior, I just felt like I had died and gone to heaven. So for a long time until actually fairly recently, I didn't think I had it in me to do creative writing, because I hadn't been raised reading that kind of stuff.

[00:35:31] And I had never taken, even at Barnard, I never took a, a creative writing class. I always just thought, 'Well, this is gonna be my forte. Like I'm, I'm good at critiquing other things or laying out,' you know, I never had learned how to, what did you, diagram your paragraph or whatever the topic sentence and then the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

[00:35:49] And I just, I had, I just somehow had that in my brain and could do that. So I thought this is, this is my talent, so this is what I'll end up doing. So that's why I ended up writing magazine articles and things like that. And then just five, six years ago, then I wrote a screenplay. Totally made up the story and I was like, 'Holy shit, I can, I can do creative writing and I actually have all kinds of ideas!'

[00:36:10] And so now I, I have a novel in the works. I have a, another screenplay in the works. I have a, um, a television pilot in the works. And, uh, and then of course the memoir, which is again, not creative writing, but I think it's called, the kind of memoir that I'm writing is called creative non-fiction. You know, so it's a little more literary than say like an autobiography where you just like lay out all the facts, you know.

[00:36:33] Santiago: Right.

[00:36:34] Melissa: So, it was a very strange self revelation period because it re, I really did have to stumble along it 'cause it was not ever formally, I never formally pursued it or thought I was capable.

[00:36:49] Santiago: That's so interesting. Well, first of all, congratulations on all of those projects. I am, I'm, I remember you mentioning last year that a TV producer had reached out to you. So I'm incredibly excited to see whatever comes from that in addition to, so, so the screenplay that you mentioned...

[00:37:07] Melissa: You know, I was an actor when I was young, but I have, I am, have not ever been on this side of it all. So I'm learning, I'm trying to scramble and play catchup very fast with that, you know, how the entertainment industry works. I wrote, it's a feature film, and it's not a documentary, it's all fiction.

[00:37:22] And it is about a young girl who rides Indian Relay, which is this incredibly, incredibly amazing sport that Native Americans engage in, horse racing. So I wrote that about five years ago or so, and, and generally the path, if you're not in Hollywood in some way, is you start entering your screenplays into contests.

[00:37:45] And so that's what I did. I entered it into various, and so Austin Film Festival runs a huge one. Sundance runs a big one. All these different, and so you end up, placing in, you know, if, if, if you can, if you're lucky, you get placing, you know, you get first runner up or second runner up as in your screen, just awards for your screenplay writing.

[00:38:05] So that's where I got all of the little awards that I did. And so then you get noticed, you get managers asking to see more work and you get, so I was working with a director for a while and then that fell through. My ex-partner, who was very instrumental in writing the story, he is Crow Cheyenne and he's a horse person. And so was just instrumental in crafting my story even though he is not really technically a writer, but he came on as a co-writer.

[00:38:31] So we now have a, a director producer who has optioned it and it is, I guess... I was calling it, see there are all these terms for Hollywood. I was calling it pre-production and it's not pre-production because that's when you're about to shoot. We are in development, that's the term. So we are in development, which basically means she's assembling, she's got some really cool cast members, which I'm just so excited about, but I can't say anything.

[00:38:59] And uh, she's getting all the financing, because obviously a, a horse racing movie has a lot of stunts and is a pretty expensive thing to do. So, so she's organizing all the money. We were hoping it was gonna shoot this summer. I don't know if that's true. That sounds like a very fast, again, I don't really know the business, but that seems like a really fast turnaround for me. So probably, we're still a year from shooting, I would think.

[00:39:22] And stuff falls through all the time. So I'm trying not to count all my eggs in that very pretty basket. But I will post all, all updates, of course, on my TikTok and on my Instagram and hopefully bring people along for the ride 'cause it's a, it's a fun process making a movie. It's a really cool thing.

[00:39:39] Santiago: Yeah, and I, I can imagine. Well, I remember the last time we talked about your memoir. You mentioned that you had just sent the first draft to your...

[00:39:50] Melissa: To my agent.

[00:39:50] Santiago: Can you share a little bit more about how that's going?

[00:39:53] Melissa: Yes! I'm so excited because big, big jump forward actually just this past week. So I had sent her the first draft in early December and she took the holidays and whatever, and then she read it toward the end of January. Sent it back with her notes. And again, this is all new to me, the publishing process too, so it's really fun to, to, be, uh, in the nuts and bolts part of it now.

[00:40:17] So she requested a bunch of changes and, and I had some stuff that I still knew I needed to do. There were some chapters that were just like, this is just like a brain dump and it needs to be redone. So she and I talked about what still needed to be done. And so that's the process I'm in right now.

[00:40:33] And my typical process was after she gave it back to me in the middle of January, I really just didn't do anything for about a month and just like, sat around and kicked at pebbles and thought, 'Ughh,' you know, 'Ugh, what am I gonna do?' And then just in the past week or so, I, it all of a sudden just clicked. Like there were some missing pieces that I really hadn't wanted to go there. And then I realized I really do have to go there because that's actually key in various ways.

[00:40:58] So there are about two or three chapters I, I need to either write fully or massage into, into being. And then I turn it back into her. So our, our plan is to have the second draft done by the end of May and then to pitch it to publishers in the fall. And then after that, I mean, the traditional publishing process is, I know a lot of people self-publish, but I, I really wanna do the full, like the full thing. I think I need the accountability of being accountable to an editor in a publishing house. And, um, because otherwise I'm a procrastinator.

[00:41:33] But, uh, and so hopefully it'll get sold this fall and then I think usually it's a year or two actually until it's actually published. 'Cause then I go through the whole process that I'm going through right now with my agent, uh, I go through that with a, with an editor. They ask for their changes and they, they say what they think it needs strengthening and, then it comes out is my understanding.

[00:41:57] Santiago: Amazing, okay, well I am very much looking forward to that. And if you're up for it, after I read it, I would absolutely love to have you on again. I'm sure I'll have a ton more questions.

[00:42:10] Melissa: I would love to come back, I really would. In fact, I may actually ask you to be a, a pre reader. I'm gonna need some Adventists to kind of at least pre-read sections of it, so I may be hitting you up.

[00:42:22] Santiago: Oh, amazing, I would, absolutely, sign me up [laughing]. So you've, you've been pretty outspoken on social media and some of your writing also includes topics that are kind of controversial, like sex work. So I'm curious to know how you've managed to deal with the negative comments, but also have you been pleasantly surprised by any of the responses?

[00:42:46] Melissa: As far as the religious stuff, I have been very pleasantly surprised by a few, and I can only account them on one hand, but a few current Adventists who have really... They follow my work very much, and they make thoughtful comments and they have said, 'I don't agree with you,' or, 'This is not my experience, but I'm really glad that you're speaking out.'

[00:43:11] And they, and they truly mean it. And you can tell when people don't mean it. And, and that is, that's very encouraging to me. And, um, I think it takes a lot of courage for them and a lot of open-mindedness, which is not necessarily... So I, that has been lovely to see. And yeah, so I, you know, I've talked about, uh, threesomes and sex work and, you know, all kinds of things in my, in Huffington Post article and then on other stuff.

[00:43:35] And, I was, I was shocked at the response to that because I really expected people to be not necessarily offended, but just like, 'Oh god, nobody wants to hear it, like, shut up,' you know? And I didn't, and I didn't get much of that. I got really strange arguments from people. A lot of people... Well, first of all, I didn't expect that article to blow up so much, but apparently Facebook put it on its front page newsfeed or something. I had people from like literally all over the world writing me and saying like, 'I saw you on Facebook!' I was like, 'Oh my gosh.'

[00:44:09] But there were two arguments that I thought were very, very strange. One was that nobody believed it was my choice to go have a threesome with a sex worker, which I thought was just totally bizarre. But again, it speaks to the deep layers of misogyny and, you know, like women just could not be choosing anything other than this narrow box that people think they should be, you know? And that, that was wild.

[00:44:37] And then sort of along with that, the other one was that people couldn't believe that I would choose a female as the third person. That if it was a woman, I would've chosen two men, which I, I don't even still understand that. I don't, I don't, understand. I was just like, 'Well, I didn't because that wasn't what I was interested in. So I don't know what to tell you,' you know [laughing].

[00:44:56] But, um, and, and some of the wonderful stuff that I really treasure was that I have now some very good friends actually, that I would consider, sex workers who wrote to me and said, 'Thank you so much for humanizing us and not making us look like victims,' or not judging, obviously. 'And, treating us and sex work and everything as a, just a natural, a natural thing, like out in the open.'

[00:45:29] And that, that meant a lot because sex workers are really given just a raft of shit in so many ways. And that meant a lot. I was, I was happy that that was a, a side effect. I don't know how many people took good meanings away from it, but, uh, certainly I guess at least a, a few.

[00:45:46] Santiago: Yeah, I, I wouldn't be surprised if there's some people listening to this podcast right now who are actively deconstructing or maybe just recently deconstructed who are a little bit surprised or maybe even taken aback to hear sex work being brought up.

[00:46:01] But I do think it is important that we keep in mind, part of deconstructing from purity culture can, and in my own personal opinion... I know people will disagree, but in my personal opinion, part of deconstructing from purity culture includes, kind of reevaluating preconceived notions about things like sex work. And like you said, they are humans. They're people just like us, and I think they are by and large misunderstood because there is such a stigma associated with it.

[00:46:35] Melissa: It's, it's very interesting to me, the whole shaming and vilifying. You know, because like we were talking about earlier, sex is purely a bodily human thing. And so in a way, how incredibly altruistic and giving is it to literally give of yourself, of your body to help someone else, you know, feel bodily better?

[00:46:58] You know, I mean, that's essentially what it is. You know, one of these brothels that we went to, we were there at like two o'clock in the afternoon on like a Wednesday or something, you know? It was not like the frat boy Saturday night bachelor party thing. So mostly other than us, there were these like four or five little old men, and they brought like their lunches in little styrofoam containers, and they sat in the bar and they ate their little lunch.

[00:47:25] And then they had women who came who obviously knew them, you know, and this was a kind of a regular thing, probably. And they would come up and they'd chat for a while and then they would go off and, and I just thought, you know... How, if somebody could sit here, how would they judge? You know, this little guy, who knows, lost his wife 10 years ago or something, and is lonely as fuck.

[00:47:49] And you know, this is probably the highlight of his week. He brings his styrofoam food, you know, to the brothel. And, you know, has an hour of someone paying attention to him. How beautiful. You know, I mean, truly. And, and the fact that it is so vilified is, and, and, and thus, when it's so vilified and shamed, it's also made very unsafe for sex workers. And I think it all goes back to that where, you know, when you learn true empathy and you learn, not, not judgmental compassion, but true empathy, you see things so much differently.

[00:48:25] Santiago: Yeah, absolutely. I remember reading a story about... now, this, this is probably a couple different stories that are starting to merge in my mind. But I do remember reading stories about sex workers talking about how they did meet with people who had lost their spouse and who had only been with their spouse for decades, they were so nervous about going out and dating and trying to find another partner.

[00:48:53] And to me, you know, being able to empathize this anxiety I had when I was like, 'Oh, this is so new to me. I don't know what I'm doing. I feel like I'm out of my depth,' because this was such a taboo topic... To be able to meet with somebody who is a professional who cares very much about hygiene and safety, I can only imagine that that is something that is helpful for people, whether it's their first time or whether it's their first time in a long time, or, you know, anywhere in between.

[00:49:26] So, yeah, I'm, I'm glad you're speaking out about that because again, if anyone who's listening to this right now feels offended or feels, you know, concerned that I'm talking about this or that we're talking about this right now, I wanna say that I understand because that would've been me a couple years ago. Where I would've been like, 'Well, that's a step too far.' But really think about why that is. Think, think about why that is.

[00:49:51] Melissa: Yeah, exactly, why, why? And again, I mean, I just have a fundamental hatred for people who try to control other people's behavior when it's consensual and it's safe and it's whatever, you know? Like, just, just shut up, you know? And don't give your opinion. But also it really, I think if it were a more accepted part of society, there could be a lot less angst and, and anxiety and anger and, you know, a lot of stuff, if this was given credit where credit is due.

[00:50:23] It's always fun to, to talk to the women and I've asked several times, you know, do you actually have, there's the old trope that like, people will just pay you to talk, you know. And, and they have all said, 'Absolutely, I have had people come and pay,' and you pay a lot of money. But, you know, that's how lonely some people are, is that they will come pay someone just to sit with them for an hour and talk, or hold their hand and talk. And, you know, that's beautiful. It's sad, but it's beautiful that that exists as a possibility for them.

[00:50:56] Santiago: Yeah, I, I agree. The fact that that is an option and that they're providing comfort in that moment, I think shouldn't be discounted. All right, well, I know we are probably over what we initially anticipated. I do have, I do have a couple last...

[00:51:12] Melissa: Yes, absolutely.

[00:51:13] Santiago: The time has just absolutely flown by but that's, I mean, I've really enjoyed our conversation, so I'm not complaining by any means. I wanna, I wanna know in what ways, if any, do Adventist beliefs or culture still affect your life today?

[00:51:33] Melissa: There've got to be many, many, many ways that I maybe still haven't even identified. Um, hmm, well, I, I, I do think, honestly, and I, there are a lot of people in my past who would agree that being judgmental and sanctimonious is, is the thing that I probably struggle with most.

[00:51:55] And it was, again, just touching back on therapy and finding someone who's trained with religious trauma and high control groups is, I had not, I just thought that was my personality. And it, it had created a lot of friction, uh, around me. And I thought it was because my mother was and my grandmother. And that's true, they both were, and I am.

[00:52:19] But it is a direct religious trauma generational thing of being judgemental first and even condescending, snide, like, just feeling like you know better as a, as a defense mechanism, because you're threatened, threatened, threatened. Everything is threatening first. And that comes also straight from the church of like, 'Everything's bad, everything's evil,' and you know, 'Everything's a threat' and you're just on constant defense mode. And for me, that comes across as very snarky, judgmental.

[00:52:58] I think that's about the only, I, I mean the only thing that I struggle with daily, that I directly correlate with the church and with religious upbringing. Like, I think some people would think that my parenting might be too permissive because I really, really just want them to be humans who experience life and I do not want to be controlling.

[00:53:23] And I was super controlling of them when they were children because I still, you know, I hadn't gone through the therapy process and I hadn't associated all this. And so even though I was technically not Adventist anymore, I was still rigid, rigid and controlling. And now I've gone certainly the other way, and I think that's good, but I, I do believe it leaves me open for criticism.

[00:53:43] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, well, I think there's no, there's no shortage of criticism and unsolicited advice around parenting. I mean, I, my brother and I talked about this before. Kids are gonna find out things whether you teach them or not. And my personal take is that it's better to give kids information as is age appropriate of course.

[00:54:08] But give them the information because if you're not giving it to them, the internet or their friends at school will. My brother talked about how our parents didn't sign a permission slip for him to get sex education at school, but then as soon as school was over, his classmates came up to him with the papers and he got sex education secondhand from middle schoolers. So, which would you rather have?

[00:54:30] Melissa: No kidding, that's a really perfect example and that, and it happens with everything, yeah.

[00:54:36] Santiago: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, but the last question I want to ask you is what advice would you give to someone who is actively going through deconstruction or deconversion and is maybe put off or scared at the prospect of going out into the world like you have?

[00:54:56] Melissa: That is huge, I think for people particularly who have their entire safety network within... You know, like at, at, at 18 it was slightly easier, right? 'Cause I went to college. So if I could just get to a non-Adventist college, then I had, then I could build my safety network there.

[00:55:11] But, um, when you're an adult and you're trying to leave and you possibly are employed in the church, and... That, I understand is just, um, terrifying. And, I would say take some time to plan. You know, nobody needs, you don't have a timeframe in which you need to separate yourself from the church. Start, building friendships, relationships outside of the system, outside of Adventism.

[00:55:40] You know, again, therapy will help. But like the practical stuff is, you know, just, just exposing yourself to other people. I, I, you know, if you can get to them, um, the people who are not Adventist is just key. And you don't have to go out and make friends. But just like putting yourself in situations where that is the normal, will start to help you feel like it's, it's not so scary out there, you know? Like you don't have to go to a bar.

[00:56:10] Santiago: Mm-hmm.

[00:56:11] Melissa: Yeah, I, I would say just exposure, mini exposure. People, situations, places. I didn't have a television, you know, when I was leaving, but I suppose that's one of the best, the gold mines is just obviously watching TV and TV shows that are, uh, normal people doing normal things.

[00:56:28] Santiago: Yeah, I can definitely relate. One of the things I'm so grateful for, this wasn't intentional back then, and I was still very much an Adventist back then, but just going to a non-Adventist school in high school, my principal was gay. And even though I was still against gay marriage back then, and even though I thought that was a little weird, and you know, I was kind of wary of that, being able to see that he was just a normal human being...

[00:56:52] Melissa: Exactly.

[00:56:53] Santiago: everyone else, that in and of itself was, was helpful and I think really helped set me up for success later on.

[00:57:02] Melissa: That, that's basically exactly what I mean by putting yourself in situations where you don't have to make friends or whatever. But the more you put yourself in whatever, a, a writing club or a reading a book club or a, or whatever, you know, where you're experiencing people that aren't like you. Yeah the woman with the million piercings and tattoos is actually very fragile in, inside and has, you know, beautiful stories to tell or whatever. Just humanizing what has been dehumanized for us so much in other people by the church. And then, then, all of a sudden it's not so scary.

[00:57:35] Santiago: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. All right well, Melissa, it has been absolutely fantastic speaking with you. I'm so glad we finally got to do this. We've been meaning...

[00:57:44] Melissa: I know, we've trying!

[00:57:46] Melissa and Santiago: [Laughing]

[00:57:48] Santiago: I'm absolutely looking forward to doing it again...

[00:57:51] Melissa: Yes.

[00:57:51] Santiago: ...and, I want to know if, if anyone wants to read more of your work or follow you online, where can people find you?

[00:57:57] Melissa: I have a website, where a lot of my old articles and things are, film work and whatever. And, I do update that occasionally, but I haven't been actually producing much new stuff since I'm working on the memoir. But, it is all updated there if people wanna go back and look.

[00:58:14] And then, I am active on TikTok as The Glory Whole and on Instagram and Twitter as The Glory Whole. So you can find me there. And there's that essay collection coming out sometime I, I think in the next few months or certainly the next six or eight.

[00:58:32] And as I get closer to memoir publishing, I think I will be posting snippets of it on Instagram. I still don't know what's allowable and what's not, but I really did like posting writing snippets 'cause I like getting the feedback and people's commentary. So hopefully I'll get to do that soon.

[00:58:47] Santiago: Fantastic, all right, well all those links will be in the show notes for anyone who's interested. Again, thank you so much, really...

[00:58:54] Melissa: This was fabulous, I can't wait to come back.

Haystacks & Hell Outro

[00:58:57] Santiago: Thanks for listening. If you have a story to share about your Adventist or fundamentalist experience, we'd love to hear it. You can submit stories on our website at (that's H E L L dot B I O) or leave us a voicemail at 301-750-8648 and we might feature it in a future episode. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you on the next one!

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