Chapter 2: My Own Story
By Dr. Marlene Winell
I was one serious kid. Despite my healthy sense of humor, I worried a lot about the Big Questions. When in bed with a severe cold, I pondered my death. Especially as I hit puberty, I had to understand everything thoroughly. I wanted to get it right and make it mine. No hand-me-down religion. I was going to feel it for myself and work it out intellectually too. At sixteen, I decided to chronicle my spiritual life.
Every child finds a way to meet basic needs, and from an early age I chose a religious path to find the satisfaction that I craved. I grew up a middle child in a missionary family of seven. Both of my parents were kept busy establishing churches and Bible schools in the Orient. The Christian view of life was the only one I knew. So when my family struggled with continuing conflicts, I deepened my involvement with faith and church. The semitropical climate of my childhood meant sundresses and bare feet, cicadas and lizards, and our own little aboveground swimming pool to survive the summer. My parents employed a Chinese couple to help with the house, and they stayed with the family for eighteen years. The wife was my nanny. She taught me to speak Cantonese before I learned English.
My sister and I played games with our dolls. Our favorites were “hospital” and “orphanage.” In bandaging the dolls perhaps we bandaged our own psychic hurts. We fought a lot as kids. Our parents had their own problems, and as missionary kids themselves, knew little about what to do beyond punishment and prayer. I have warm memories of family life too. Dad made wooden stilts for us. Mom sang with us at bedtime from a beautiful homemade scrapbook of Christian songs. One of them went “Mommy talks to God, Daddy talks to God, And so do I, And so do I.” We had fun filling in with other names of people we knew. The lullabies gave sweet assurance of God’s love and protection. A classic picture of a guardian angel helping children across a bridge in rough weather hung on the bedroom wall.
I began school in a Chinese kindergarten, where I was popular for my blonde hair and origami skills. My sister and I rode to school in a pedicab, past beggars on the street, and jostled by the crush of bicycle traffic. After kindergarten, though, we were largely sheltered by the American subculture in Taiwan and had little contact with the Asian culture around us. Our family was in a foreign, heathen land for the purpose of teaching, not learning. Sadly, I remember strong sights, sounds, and smells in the Buddhist temples, associated only with pity and disgust.
In spite of the inconsistency of our public and private family life, the core message of Christianity still made sense to me. It was my personal relationship with God that counted. I became infatuated with Jesus, in love with Him. It didn’t matter what anyone else did. I was determined to mature into an ideal Christian. I wanted to be part of God’s family with all my heart and soul. Only much later did I understand the acknowledgement I sought.
During a furlough back in the States, I was introduced to the charismatic style of worship in the Assemblies of God. I loved it. Since I had always been demonstrative myself, the emotional expressiveness felt so warm and real. I did not “receive the Baptism” until later, but I became more involved in my faith.
My family traveled to many supporting churches in California, reporting on missionary progress. We kids helped by dressing up in traditional Chinese clothes, saying a few words in Chinese, or singing a song. I felt uncomfortable, but I wanted to do what I could for “the Lord’s work.” When we headed back to the mission field, I shared my parents’ sense of purpose. In junior high, I was sent to the same private Christian boarding school intended to provide a good education to “missionary kids” in a Christian environment. Bible classes were taught daily, chapel was weekly, and church was required twice on Sunday. I became intensely religious and fairly outspoken about it. I wrote a paper for school entitled “My Beliefs” and turned it into a huge project. On my own, I wrote treatises on topics like, “Why dancing is wrong.”
The Second Coming was one of my major concerns. I wrote a paper discussing all the biblical evidence for the “tribulation” and the question of whether the Christians would be “raptured” (taken up to heaven) out of it beforehand. I studied and wrote about predestination and “eternal security,” scouring the Scriptures for hints about the theological problems of whether a Christian was “once saved always saved” or had to work at staying in a state of grace.
I made a great effort with all these study projects, but I continued to have emotional needs that were unfulfilled. The energy and time that went into my faith is actually rather amazing in retrospect. It is sad now to look back and understand the tension between my normal teenage need to belong in a peer group and my desire for spiritual acceptability. My faith taught me to glorify the idea of being different, which psychologically fostered a feeling of alienation that I tried to justify in my writing. Sometimes I also seemed to be fending off sexual interests. With awakening hormones I delved more deeply into my Christian faith.
I continued feeling discouraged and was struggling with the concerns of growing up. Finally, one weekend in eighth grade, I “received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit” – the experience Pentecostal Christians seek after being saved. It means that you are filled with the Spirit, and usually speak in tongues as evidence.
My “baptism” experience was an ecstatic forty-five minutes of speaking in tongues, which felt like ten minutes. Even now, I believe it was a very special mystical experience, one which I am not sure how to interpret. It certainly was an altered state, with overwhelming feelings of total love and acceptance comparable with the spiritual transcendence experienced by people in a variety of spiritual traditions.
I returned to school with a new confidence and contentment. My prayer life included speaking and singing “in the Spirit” (in tongues). I felt happy and loved. I had meaning and I belonged. For the rest of my adolescent years, my faith was central to my sense of well-being. At school I shared my enthusiasm for the “Spirit-filled” life. Some friends went with me to Pentecostal Fellowship meetings, and two of them also “received the Baptism” when praying with me in the dorm.
For a while I spent my Wednesdays fasting. I got special permission to miss meals so I could go to the dorm rooftop and pray. I was convinced that the Second Coming was very soon. This was frequently preached in Pentecostal circles along with ominous warnings about “the world.” I was keenly aware of an imminent end and the urgency to spread the word. This produced a seriousness in my communications with others and, at the same time, a thrill in my private longing to be with Jesus.
Other aspects of teenage life proceeded. I became involved in sports, grades, piano, dorm life, and plenty of the “good, clean fun” that comes with the camplike atmosphere of a boarding school. I worried about acne and agonized with the best of them about my latest crush. Flirting was always a bit of a mystery.
Dancing became a point of confusion for me. We were not allowed to dance at school, but I went home for weekends. My friend Laura invited me to a record hop at the American military teen center. I kept it a secret from my parents – and felt guilty about what I expected to be a sinful, sensuous grinding of bodies that would heat up lustful thoughts and lead directly to sex. So I was surprised to find out that it was mostly great fun. Rock and roll didn’t really seem like the devil’s music, and getting a little attention from boys felt pretty good too.
After that, I alternated between sneaking off to record hops and declaring to Laura that I did not want to be caught dancing when the Lord came back. She was pretty tolerant. Although she was also a Christian, since I had “led her to the Lord,” she suffered little guilt for having fun. At a slumber party with her non-Christian friends, we stayed up all night playing pinochle. I was developing little chinks in my armor against “the world.”
But I remained puzzled about ordinary human faults. My own failings were very disturbing. I desperately wanted the “fruits of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace) and not just the “gifts of the Spirit” (tongues, healing, prophecy). Speaking in tongues was wonderful, but to me the real miracle of Christianity was a transformed heart. I was more in awe of true love than any healing or fulfilled prophecy. But no matter how zealous I became, I did my share to contribute to the pain and conflict in my family. I felt guilty for my part and I blamed the others for theirs. How nice it would have been to have learned something about communication or how to express feelings! But nowhere in our belief system was there any help for working on these things – only hope that God would do miracles. Troubled relationships only meant lack of faith or submission to God. I remember sadness and unrelenting guilt for disappointing a God who had sent his son to die. I wrote in my diary:
I want to be perfect. I want Jesus Christ to control me completely – my thoughts, words, and actions. I want people to see Him in me and believe because they’ve seen what He can do for a person. I have a long way to go but with Jesus’ help I’ll be a blessing.My main trouble is at home. Oh God, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you for your healing spirit. I need you to mend me so many times.
At the end of tenth grade, at the age of sixteen, we moved to Southern California. I thought it was a year-long furlough but it turned out to be permanent and created much grief later. The good-byes at summer camp with my friends, were sad. For four years I had lived with them, playing pranks and saying prayers, singing songs and studying for exams, shouting at ballgames and whispering secrets. In my yearbook they wrote:
Thank you, Marlene for being the mirror through which Christ reflected Himself to bring me back to Him. Your witness has meant much to me.You’re about the best Christian I know.
You’ve been such a great friend to me this year. It was through your concern I as eventually filled with the Holy Spirit. Praise the Lord!
My religion at this time of my life met my many needs perfectly. Upon arriving in a strange country, I was able to fit in immediately with the youth group at church. We understood each other because of our common belief system. My faith also gave me a continued meaning in life. My huge high school was full of potential converts, and street witnessing was a dramatic addition to my Christian experience.
To top it off, I soon had a Christian boyfriend at the church. He demonstrated to me how to talk about Christ to “hippies,” emphasizing the natural high we could get from Jesus. Most of our relationship occurred over the telephone. He instructed me in ways of being Christian and cool at the same time. For this I was grateful. Coming from overseas, my clothes were wrong, and I had a lot of slang to learn. The adjustment wasn’t always easy; mood swings and low self-esteem became a problem for me, as they do for many teenagers.
I always sought a spiritual solution, so God filled in. My love relationship with Jesus eased the rough edges of those years. I rarely had a “steady,” but I always had Jesus. I remember feeling a serene calm inside, knowing at least one person that always found me totally acceptable.
Leaving my faith was a very slow process. It was in many ways a reluctant parting and it’s hard to say how many years it took. Some changes began when I was sixteen, but it was ten years before I stopped calling myself a Christian.
Overseas we were taught to feel lucky to be Americans, to be patriotic and anticommunist, and that our culture was superior to the one surrounding us. There was little discussion of the Vietnam War, even though it was right next door. We met GIs who were on leave, but they didn’t talk about the war. I didn’t give it much though, other than that it was a shame but somebody had to stop the Communists. From our Christian point of view, the turmoil of the war was simply another sign of the end times. It was inevitable. We thought that war protesters should get right with God instead of trying to change history.
Despite world travel, my life had been sheltered. High school in California was for me the beginning of provocative new information: existentialism, Eastern philosophy, Black literature, modern poetry. Studying Shakespeare taught me that profound thought wasn’t limited to Christians. I read Siddhartha, The Stranger, Catcher in the Rye, and Stranger in a Strange Land. I was both intrigued and upset, unwilling to simply screen out what I was learning. Sustaining my faith was taking more and more effort.
The “Jesus Movement” came into full swing in Southern California at about this time. We had the Christian version of flower children: going to Calvary Chapel in jeans and bare feet, baptisms in the surf, Christian rock and roll, and being different from our parents. There were converts by the hundreds, and I was excited. We had a sense of cosmic purpose.
A memorable highlight was a week of organized witnessing in San Francisco with “Youth With A Mission.” The group received continued training in evangelism and assorted topics. Walking into the hip subculture was for me like Dorothy in the Land of Oz – “Drugs and occult and sex, oh my!” I was treading carefully through Satan’s territory. Witnessing to a long-haired man in Golden Gate Park who said he was Jesus left me stumped! Every evening we tallied conversions, and compared notes about the challenges we had faced. We memorized more Scripture and refined our arguments to handle the tough cases. Of course, we interpreted objections to the Gospel as “darkness” rather than honest reasons people had for not being Christian. We prayed for the souls we had spoken with each day and asked God to “convict” them of sin and lead them to the light.
In June 1968, I graduated second in my high school class and made an evangelistic speech at graduation. For a basically shy girl, in front of a stadium full of people, it was quite a pitch. Evidently I had become more entrenched in my beliefs as a way of dealing with the new, discordant information. The school administration neglected to read my address beforehand, which I considered an act of God. I recall delivering my words with fearless enthusiasm because I was being “used”:
That we as graduates are now going into a confused, embittered, and violent world is a fact which no one can contest. Our goals must be above the all too common and somewhat glib rhetoric of graduation speeches of the past. Our goals must be to work for the genuine brotherhood of mankind – true peace – based on love and mutual respect of our fellow man. This can only be brought about by the transformation of individuals through the power of Christ.
I debated between Oral Roberts University or the University of California at Irvine and chose the latter – so that I could be a witness there! The Christian students there took evangelizing seriously. We met for Bible studies in the park on campus. For a while I even lived with them in a Christian commune, getting the family warmth I always craved.
I enjoyed college for the intellectual stimulation and challenge. My exposure to new ideas continued. In a multidisciplinary course, I learned about the history of Western culture from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present, covering major movements in philosophy, political science, literature, and art. We read St. Augustine, Descartes, Mill, Marx, Freud, Beckett, and many others. It was interesting to find out about religious assumptions that were challenged by Copernican astronomy, the rise of empirical science, and Darwinism. I was surprised at how many philosophers had tried to prove the existence of God.
Most of all, I was intrigued by analyses of core existential dilemmas. I wrote a paper about Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and “The Grand Inquisitor,” ending with, “The tragic grandeur of humanity is the struggle to be free in constant fear of freedom.” For me, the notion of free will had always been a problem in the contest of an omniscient and omnipotent God. How could we possibly choose our lives or choose salvation if God knows all and controls all? I felt increasingly compelled by notions of personal freedom.
In psychology I learned about behaviorism, which asserts the then mind-boggling thesis that everything is learned. This meant that, in theory, all human behavior is predictable. In response to B. F. Skinner’s book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I wrote a paper defending free choice. But the idea that behavior is learned was also liberating. It was revolutionary for me to think that personal problems or “bad habits” could be the result of environmental conditioning rather than sin. I noticed a growing softness in my judgment of human beings. We were all in the same boat, struggling to meet our needs.
From Eastern thought and existentialism, I soaked up ideas about awareness and responsibility. I fell in love with the notion of being fully present in every moment and thereby creating one’s life. This was personal and powerful. The individual was all important instead of “mankind.” Choices were not only available but were critical for identity and existence. I wrote about paying attention to small pleasures and participating in the dance of life:
Time moves on, in rhythmic step, relentless but not unpleasant. We can dance to the beat, weaving in and out, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, back and forth crisscrossing the steady advance. Always knowing however, that we must keep moving. There is no sitting down to rest. So try to enjoy the dance, baby. It can be beautiful at times as well as terrifying. We must savor those segments of beauty.
For a New Year’s resolution, I wrote “Enjoy the dance” but later “I weep for the struggle, longing to be set free yet wanting my fetters.” I read Ram Dass’s Be Here Now and tried to convince myself to give up desire and attachment. I wanted contentment and inner peace. “Extricate from desire,” I read, “the fire of internal struggle.”
Majoring in social ecology meant pursuing my interest in a multidisciplinary approach to social issues. Six quarters of field study got me out into the community and learning skills. In my preschool placements the children were wonderful – natural, curious, creative, affectionate, alive – which led me to question some of the Christian precepts I had accepted before, all based on original sin. Learning child development was quite the eye-opener. For example, a child’s behavior that appears “selfish” is often part of learning identity and self-worth.
In my desire to help people, I took courses in counseling. Early on, I thought that secular psychology had something to offer Christians, particularly in the skill of good listening. Christians don’t tend to concern themselves with this. And as I learned the art of facilitating a person’s personal change, I couldn’t help developing a respect for natural, intuitive growth processes. People are for the most part well-intentioned, I realized. A good therapist provides loving support the way a gardener tends her plants. A humanistic view of humans made sense to me. It seemed to work in practical ways, and it felt good to me emotionally.
Nevertheless for a long time I tried to integrate my new awareness and skills with my faith. For one of my field studies, I worked with another woman to start a 24-hour hotline and walk-in Christian counseling center. The experience brought my growing frustration with the church patriarchy into sharper focus. To my surprise, we were told we could only get support from Calvary Chapel if we had male leadership. So we prayed for a male director! The first one we were offered by Calvary soon created problems – he canceled our phone service and left town. We had the service reinstated and carried on. Finally one of our male counselors, a newly converted Christian, stepped into the director position. Saying he had been led by God. At the time that was enough for me. I had been taught well enough to repress my anger. Personal feeling and individual credit are of no importance compared to getting the Lord’s work done, I believed. In the end, the One Way Help Center (audacious name!) operated for four full years.
Just as I was disappointed with sexist and hypocritical Christians, I was soon influenced by non-Christians who impressed me. When I made friends with two people involved in an Eastern religion, I found they were just as enthusiastic about their religion as I was about mine. They were happy and loving and delighted with their marriage and I saw more “fruits of the Spirit” in them than I saw in most Christians.
I couldn’t simply dismiss this perception the way I had been taught, chalking it up to “Satan disguised as an angel of light.” These people were real. I was becoming tired of twisting everything to fit. But I tried to hang on. Jesus was still precious to me.
For an anthropology class, I wrote an extensive paper about the cultural context of sexism in the Bible. I maintained that the comments about women in the Scriptures were understandable by examining the times. I said that they were descriptive, not prescriptive for us. I wanted to think that our faith could be relevant, that Christianity could change with the modern world and still be the viable truth. But despite my effort, sermons at church about “women’s place” became more and more intolerable to me.
All through college, I worked as a waitress, meeting people and overcoming my shyness. This helped me leave my religious cocoon. The demands of the job first taught me to function more competently in the world. Then, as I learned to relate more openly to a variety of people (since everyone has to eat), I became more accepting and appreciative of human diversity. Gradually I stopped filtering and twisting information. I learned more and more and felt better and better. I didn’t want to see people only as potential converts. I wanted to love them for who they were and I wanted to love life here and now. Eventually I stopped categorizing people as sheep and goats, saved and damned. I was on my way out.
In the course of taking art classes in college, I thought the dada and surrealist movements were fascinating because they rebelled against the established order, exalted the irrational unconscious, and honored the absurd. Perhaps because of my mystical experiences, I was attracted to the surrealists’ interest in dreams. Weary from my efforts to understand everything, I became more accepting of my own dream life, my visual appreciation, and my enjoyment of the unusual.
A film history class introduced me to Truffaut, Bunuel, and Bergman and the beautiful innocence of children in “Small Change,” the agony of the personal decision in “The Exterminating Angel,” the terrible strangeness of humanity in “Un Chien Andalou,” the immense profundity and fragility of existence in “Cries and Whispers.”
One night I dreamed that I was in outer space at a space station that was trying to contact Earth for help. We were in danger of blowing up any minute, and I watched a technician calling desperately on a telephone. He did not know that the other end of his telephone line was not connected to anything. I remember the horror of realizing that no one was listening. The next day I knew the dream was about God. But rather than feeling terrified – or in addition to being terrified – I felt an incredible awareness of being alive. The dream had felt real; I had faced certain impending death. Being alive the next day felt like a wonder, as though I had woken up. I walked slowly that day and allowed myself to actually feel my footsteps. I can still remember the crisp air and the clear edges of the leaves on the trees. The day was long and full and I felt like I had learned something at a very deep level – something important that I wanted to always remember – to notice my life.
Journal entries and letters from my college years reveal swings between anguished frustration and renewed faith. I always heaped blame for the problems on myself, looked to God for help, and thanked him for any improvements in my life. Looking back, I can see that self-respect was a near impossibility:
There is a secret of being a Christian which I have not managed to master. Every time everything seems to be going fine, I lose control of myself in some way. Then I hate myself, feel estranged from God, and start despairing. It frustrates me so much that I can’t know the will of God. Or when I do know it and can’t fulfill it. But my hope is irrepressible. I’ll never stop trying.I think God speaks in a very soft voice. I think I’ve been hearing it but I’m not sure.
The Lord is becoming very real to me, and I’m finding out how very slow I am to learn things.
I was also becoming very confused about sex. My college boyfriend was not raised the way I was, even though my first success was to take him to church and see him converted. Our hormones ran high, and I had trouble with the usual female gatekeeper responsibility. Somehow we managed to avoid going “all the way,” but that was more of a technicality. My sexuality was a wonderful discovery, but the guilt was also tremendous. I broke off the relationship several times and suffered just as much guilt for hurting him. I was convinced on more than one occasion that God wanted me to let go. The effort to figure out God’s will was exhausting.
Finally after three years we got married. At that point, we felt led by God. I allowed myself to fall in love more deeply. I stopped debating and began enjoying the happiness of commitment with another human being. Very unintentionally, I prayed and studied the Bible less and less. I gradually realized that I no longer felt emotionally needy all the time. Being loved and held daily was wonderful. The closeness with a real live person had a profound effect: It broke my addiction to God.
I continued on to graduate school, pleased to be learning about domains of human interaction that we could work on – not everything was spiritual after all. My helplessness and shame and dependence on God were being replaced with real abilities.
I learned counseling and teaching skills, marriage and family therapy, and behavior change techniques with children. My husband and I ran a home for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed boys. Then we received a federal grant and worked together with the county to create a shelter for troubled teenagers. At the university I helped with programs on male-female relationships, assertiveness, sexuality, and empathy.
Retaining an existentialist regard for the power of choice and responsibility, my doctoral dissertation concerned self-direction. After graduate school I taught briefly on the university level and then began a private practice as a psychologist. In the course of my work and my own growth, I became interested in the long-lasting influence of religious involvement.
My personal growth has taken quantum leaps with the experience of parenting. With my first husband I had a son who has taught me immeasurably – about life, about myself. I am convinced that we all need to listen to the wisdom of our children.
My divorce and a move to Colorado made for a very challenging time. Being on my own with a child and working full time forced me to dig down and find the inner strength I needed. I also had a lot to learn about self-love and self-care.
A second marriage, a step-daughter, and a daughter have given me more to treasure in my life. I continue to be impressed with the options we have to create the kind of life we want to live. My family enables me to be myself within a nurturing environment. True love is quite possible, and families don’t have to be dysfunctional all the time.
Most recently, my work in California again involved teaching at the university level, this time focusing on issues of human diversity and skills to enhance communication. The need to learn tolerance and cooperation in the world today is obvious; it has been gratifying to continue toward this in some way and to watch students find that they can learn relationship skills to match the ideals of their rhetoric. I looked forward to more work in the domain of cross-cultural and personal understanding.
Along the way, it has also been fascinating to learn about the function of art in human expression and social statement. I recently curated an exhibit with sixteen artists and a group of art therapy clients, as well as work of my own. The show, called “Thou Shalt Not,” used a variety of media to express feelings about religious indoctrination and spirituality, offering both protest and hope.
I left the faith of my childhood because of old promises that were not fulfilled and new promises that were. The diaries I kept made it clear to me later that being a Christian did not solve my personal or interpersonal problems. I had mystical experiences which seemed to give me a glimpse of the divine, and I had the hope of future union with God. For these I am still grateful. But in my everyday life I lived with enormous guilt and frustration over not being the person I thought I should be. Good things were always due to God and failures were always mine.
Encountering other ideas gave me new options. As I became armed with alternatives, I was more willing to confront the problems in my religion, such as sexism, the notion of original sin, and the dichotomy of saved and damned. Allowing myself some intellectual integrity was an enormous relief. Then I allowed myself to be in the world. By letting go of judgment, I could participate in the joys and care about the problems, instead of focusing on the hereafter. I could be close to people and realize the warmth of human love. And very importantly, I developed a framework for thinking about myself that included self-esteem. With all of these developments, there was no turning back. the mental and emotional doors to the future had been opened. The honesty and gut-level confrontation with my humanness – the good, the bad, and the ugly – was delicious.
This is not to say that I haven’t had much pain and struggling. The loss of an all-encompassing belief system has profound consequences, including ambiguity and responsibility. Over the years I have dealt with all the issues addressed in this book. Family relationships have been forever changed. Like a lost child, I have had to reconstruct reality. I have had to examine and recreate a great many assumptions – about the meaning of life, the world, myself, others, the past, present, and future. Automatic thoughts and behaviors are difficult to change, and I continue to wrestle with old beliefs that are powerful and often unconscious.