Bringing The World Home To You

© 2022 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Renounced: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
Betwixt and between. That is the most succinct way I can explain my experience of religion. My mom comes from a devout Catholic family, my dad, a devout Hindu one. Their aim: to raise us with exposure to both.

Hinduism didn't require me to prove my affinity. Unfortunately, Catholicism isn't so forgiving. In order to be fully embraced by the Catholic Church, you need to be baptized, which would have required my parents to choose one religion over the other. So, sans baptism, I trod my own path. I went through all the required religious ed, but I could never take communion. While others approach the altar, hands outstretched, I crossed my arms over my chest and received a special blessing. No wine or wafer for me.

I have no regrets about being exposed to both faiths. And I learned a ton about how to think critically about religion and spirituality. What I missed out on — in both Hindu spaces and Catholic ones — was a feeling of full belonging. But, as it turns out, that's something you can miss out on even if you're raised in a close knit religious community. This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

A strong religious identity can bring with it built-in community and strong networks of care and support. But what happens when you start to question your religion and the roles and identities it has set out for you? How do you figure out what you value and who you want to be?

Nicole Hardy
It's a slow roll into realizing that your life doesn't fit you anymore, and you don't know what else is out there. And there's a lot of fear of the unknown, because they instill that fear.

Anita Rao
Nicole Hardy has been interrogating her belief system for decades and writing about it. She's the author of "Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin," a memoir exploring her struggle with — and eventual break from — the Mormon church. In that faith, Nicole was taught that her purpose as a woman was to become a wife and mother. And that having sex before she was married was one of the worst sins she could possibly commit.

Nicole Hardy
And, I remember sitting in my Sunday school class at age 12, and being given, you know, the big lesson on the law of chastity. How, you know, saving yourself for marriage is the most beautiful gift, and marriage is the most beautiful covenant. I'm thinking, well, everyone gets married at, like, 18 or 20, or 22, and that's what? Six years from now? So, sure.

Anita Rao
I can wait till then!

Nicole Hardy
Yeah, I mean, like, no big deal. And, it didn't occur to me, even maybe until college, but I had literally never met a Mormon woman who was single in her 30s or 40s, or 50s — unless some terrible tragedy had befallen her. And so, there weren't any models, because it doesn't exist. And when I grew up, I started to feel like, oh wait, I don't exist. I just couldn't exist in that framework and also be the person I was.

Anita Rao
Well, yeah, I mean, you were really clear early on that you were pretty sure you didn't want children of your own. But you're in this faith where there is doctrine about the role of women and emphasis placed on the role — your role as a wife and as a mother. So, what did that mean for you in terms of how you thought about building relationships and dating within the Mormon faith community? Was it an option to date and be open about how you didn't necessarily want kids?

Nicole Hardy
You know, that's not necessarily true. I think I really felt like I would one day wake up, and I'll feel that, and I'll meet someone and everything will be great. And those things didn't happen. And that's when the foundation really started to crumble. And I thought, well, I can pretend that I want these things, and I can get trapped in a life that I don't really want. Or I can hold out a little bit longer and maybe find someone who would marry me knowing that I didn't have that desire — which would never happen in the church. And so that's where it started to get really scary because I'm — I started to think, well, if I'm not who they say I am — and I know I'm not because I would have felt it by now — then who am I really, and what else is not true?

Anita Rao
In the Mormon Church, unmarried adults attend worship services together in a separate congregation called the singles ward, where the goal is to meet your future spouse and start a family. Nicole was part of the singles ward until the cutoff age of 30. And during that time, it was hard for her to get past a first date. With Mormon men, the problem was she didn't want kids. And with non Mormon men, the sticking point: She wouldn't have sex before marriage. Nicole's questions about her faith and her expected role within the church continued to build during her 30s. And the tipping point came from a somewhat unlikely source: the 2005 film "Brokeback Mountain."

Nicole Hardy
I wanted to go even though I knew it was super rebellious of me — so funny, just to watch a movie — but watching gay people have desire and accepting that and identifying with that was super scandalous at the time. And I didn't expect to relate to them, but I just wept the entire way through. And I think it was just really the idea of like, finally understanding that I was never going to be able to change who I was. So I could pretend and be isolated and miserable and withdrawn — like one of the characters in that movie. Or I could embrace who I really am. And I knew I really — I had to make a change even though it took some time after that to actually do it. And then, right after "Brokeback Mountain," my friends took me into Babeland, which is Seattle's, sort of, very well known sex-positive toy store. And I just walked around like a kid in a candy store, because my sexuality was not available to me. Here I am in my mid 30s, with very little/zero sexual experience, but so much curiosity and so much openness and so little shame. I just kept walking around. I'm like: What's this for? What's this do? Where do you even put that, like, why? You know, and I think I was just mind blown by the idea of sex positivity. And, I thought: Oh, yeah, I want to live here.

Anita Rao
I too remember that exact feeling when I visited my first Babeland in New York City. Not only was everyone in the store so open and inviting, but the space is just beautiful and makes any internalized shame about visiting a sex store fall away pretty fast. As Nicole looks back on these experiences, she can see that she was building herself a life raft by identifying the friendships and values that would become part of her life outside the Mormon faith. But the act of definitively cutting ties was still a few years off. Largely because of what she had always been told were the consequences of leaving the Mormon Church.

Nicole Hardy
They tell you that you're gonna lose your family. And they tell you that you won't recognize yourself. And they tell you that — they tell you that you'll be overcome with guilt. Basically, you'll never have abundance in your life. You'll never have joy in your life. You'll never have love in your life, because those things are reserved for people who are worthy. And you have no reason not to believe them. But even if you don't believe them, you have this fear that — what if it really is true? And what if I step out there, and I can't get back to a place where I feel fulfilled? And of course, I did leave. And none of those things happened. But it's very impossible now even to convince my family that the choices I've made haven't deeply affected their lives. Like, they have this belief that they will be together in the afterlife, and I'm choosing not to be with them, because I'm weak. And they can't understand that, and they're devastated. You know, they came from backgrounds where they were both missing a loving family, and that's what they built. And, that's what they gave me, and I rejected that gift. And it has continued to be a source of deep pain.

Anita Rao
Questioning the belief systems you were raised in is an expected part of emerging adulthood. But for folks immersed in faith-based communities, challenging the tenets of religion can involve a lot of risk.

Anonymous Listener
The more I learned, the more I questioned, which was not really welcome in my family. So by the time I was about 14, I was like: This isn't really for me. I realized quickly that I needed to get out of my house as fast as possible. So I got a job when I was 16. I also met my now-husband when I was in high school, and I saw, at least, that there was another way to live, which was really helpful for me.

Taylor
I went deep into the evangelical church in college and left a few years later and now hold some pretty polar viewpoints to what I had believed back in college. I'm not really proud of who I was, or what I believed during that period. But I'm grateful, because it does help me empathize with people holding opposing viewpoints, which is particularly important now with the polarization of the U.S.

Stacy
When I realized I didn't believe the teachings of the religion, I knew I was going to need another community, because I would have to leave my friends and family behind. I had seen a poster and a TV show about roller derby. And after I'd been accepted by that community, I was able to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses. There are some people who fade away, but I told everyone I was leaving. I went from 100% to zero in a few weeks. In order to spare some feelings, I know I said that it was only temporary, and it might have been based on my feelings, but I'm never going back now.

Anita Rao
You just heard from an anonymous listener and from Taylor and Stacy. While leaving a close knit religious community can mean cutting ties with family and friends, not everyone who goes through this experience sees it as a loss.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
Now that I think about it, and now that I've been able to process it, you know — obviously, with a lot of therapy — a lot of it was control. And I always felt like I was controlled in some variation.

Anita Rao
Meet Dr. Jon Paul Higgins who grew up as a Jehovah's Witness. Jon holds a Ph.D. in education and educational justice. They're also the creator, executive producer and co-host of the "Black, Fat, Femme" podcast.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
I remember, you know, friends would invite me over: "Oh, we're having, you know, this little get together." "No, you can't hang out with them, because they're considered worldly." And so, I remember just growing up feeling very lonely, because I was very effeminate as a kid. And other kids in the organization didn't want to be affiliated with me, because they assumed at the time: Oh, they're queer, right? Or, they're different. And, you know, I was always getting in trouble for how feminine I was. And then, you know, obviously, you don't have — you can't hang out with the friends that you have in school. So, what do you do? You feel by yourself. And so, I think that's where the source of a lot of the loneliness that I had growing up came from. And then, you get to this point where you start, kind of, recognizing that you are different, and you want to embrace that difference. And you're being told that, you know, a lot of who you are, and you know, who you're becoming is wrong in the eyes of God.

Anita Rao
For Jon, knowing that their identity was fundamentally at odds with their religious community led them to feeling very isolated as a teen. And during this time, they were also balancing a lot at once: being an active participant in their faith community, schoolwork, building relationships with peers, and lots of questions about what would come next.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
I was putting in all these hours of what they call field work. I was going door to door. So I mean, I would go to school from, like, probably eight to three, and then I'd be in field service from, like, four to seven most days that we didn't have our meetings. And then, that means you have to study. That means you're reading the Bible. That means you're studying with other people trying to indoctrinate them. There's all these things that you're doing. And so, I was spending this insane amount of time being so busy. And then, I met a friend in my junior year who basically said: You know, you should start running track, and you should start hanging out. And as this friend that I had made — as she started to, like, apply to college, I started applying to college, because me and her were sharing this, you know, experience of — she was Catholic. I was, you know, Christian. And we were both in this mind of, like, we cannot wait to get away from this religion. So, you know, shout out to her. And we're actually still friends, which is really interesting. But I ultimately started applying to all of these different schools. And, initially when the brothers — and this is how they refer to them — the brothers, meaning the elders of the organization — they found out that I was applying to college, and that I had got accepted. One of them looked at me directly in the face and said: You know everything you're going to do is going to fail if you leave this organization, right? And so, for years, I was so, like: I have to finish college. I have to finish college, because if I don't finish college, you know, what that brother said to me is going to actually come to fruition.

Anita Rao
Jon was committed to finishing college, but the journey wasn't easy. Although Jon's mom was proud of the decision, she couldn't afford to support them financially. Luckily Jon made some really solid friends, folks who came through for them again and again for everything — from money to buy groceries to moral support. But as Jon soon began to find out, these friendships weren't viewed favorably by elders and the Jehovah's Witness community. Every so often, they would pull Jon into a meeting to inquire about how they were spending their time and ask questions about activities that didn't appear to align with the values of the religion. The tipping point for Jon was when this monitoring and questioning started to feel more like surveillance.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
On my Friendster I put that I was questioning my sexuality. And I guess someone on Friendster found me and pulled that and, again, I got pulled back into the room with the brothers — in the trouble room. And they were basically saying: Someone found your profile. What is this about? And, I was just like: Okay, this is getting really spooky. Like, to the point where I feel like everything I'm doing — whether it be online or off — is being surveilled. That makes me feel very uncomfortable. And, I think that was my real cue of, like, okay, you need to get your things and go, because this is not — like, at that point, I didn't feel safe. Like, that's what it really came down to, was that I felt like I was being watched, and it made me feel very, very unsafe.

Taylor
Leaving the church was really one of the harder things I've had to do. I was really angry at the church for who it had made me become, and I took it out on one friend in particular. I've since apologized to that person and mended that friendship, which I'm also quite grateful for. And most of my friends — my close friends during that period — even though a lot of them are still Christian, we can connect on other things and — and remain friends.

Anonymous Listener
After I finished college, I moved out of state. I really just distanced myself physically, mentally and emotionally as much as possible. And, that wasn't always successful. My parents called various congregations and had them contact me at my new addresses. And they called me on the phone and tried to contact me, even until about five years ago. So, despite the fact that I had, you know, removed myself from the religion, I was getting a lot of pressure to come back. It's taken a big toll on my relationship with my family. And it's something that I've only recently come to terms with through a lot of therapy and a slow removal from a very tricky situation.

Anita Rao
You just heard from Taylor, a listener in Durham, and an anonymous listener. Leaving your religious community can be a long and challenging process. There's the internal work of deciding if and when you're ready to extract yourself, the tough conversations with family, and, in many cases, and official process of formally resigning from the community. For Nicole, these stages didn't happen all at once. Although she broke ties with the Mormon Church in her mid 30s, she didn't complete the paperwork to formally resign for another eight years.

Nicole Hardy
I really have this very distinct memory of seeing the church building shrink in the rearview mirror, and feeling my body — the sensation of lightness in my body — just years of pressure dissipating into relief. But, I didn't realize how much it was weighing on me to go to a place every week and be told that I was broken and be told that I was wrong and be told that I was unworthy. And even though I didn't really believe them, that sticks with you. But I didn't officially resigned from the church, because a baptism in the Mormon Church is not just a ceremony. It's a covenant with God. And in order to reach the highest level of heaven — the celestial kingdom where people get to live eternally together — you have to have been baptized. S if you revoke your membership in the church, it nullifies your baptism, and this meant so much to my family. And then, after the big fight about marriage equality, sort of, was lost by religious groups — and including the Mormon Church who fought pretty vehemently against marriage equality. There was a moment where they put a little detail into the church handbook where they had decided to stop baptizing the children of same sex couples. And at that point, I was like: No. I will not be a part of this. If you just do a quick Google search of the suicide rates of queer LDS youth, you know that this isn't coming from a place of love. And there was nothing coming from that policy that isn't about destroying families. And coming from an organization that says they care about families more than anything, I just couldn't handle the hypocrisy. And I didn't want to be a part of that. So, I formally resigned just to be an ally for love, acceptance, equality. And all these people as part of my new family that I loved so much.

Anita Rao
Jon, you mentioned that the process of leaving also being, you know, one where you were building this community outside and figuring out the kind of supports that you were going to get. Tell me about those interactions with your family and the aftermath of breaking with the church and what that looked like.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
Yeah, so I'm so blessed that I still have a really good relationship with my mother and my brother. I would say, my most immediate family. My mom, we went through some ebbs and flows. But I will say that I did lose the relationship with my — my grandparents. And I think that was the thing that probably hurt the worst. There was a time where my grandfather and my mom both were really sick. And so, I was going to see them. And as I was going to see them, my mother called me and said: Hey, your grandfather wants you to stay home. And I said: Okay, well, what's that about? Because at this point, everyone in my family had known that I had left the organization, right. But I think it was — at this time, I had just really started seriously dating my husband now. And I think for them at that time, they were not okay with it. And I was very, just, at that time I was hurt. I was broken. Because I'm thinking to myself: How can family turn on family? And I think that's the thing about religion that really bugs me is that folks get so caught up in their beliefs that, for whatever reason, they want to have the power over someone else to tell them what they should do or how they should operate. And we didn't make peace before he passed away, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I was — I was at peace. Because I truly believe that me being who I was specifically at that moment in time, there was nothing wrong with it.

Anita Rao
I definitely don't know firsthand what it's like to abandon a worldview you've been taught to subscribe to your whole life. But I can imagine that it is a long process of renegotiating core pieces of how you move through the world. For both Jon and Nicole, there has been the setting and resetting of boundaries with family. And then the inner work of discovering and owning their sexuality and relationships to their bodies.

Nicole Hardy
I had to redefine my life's purpose, because it isn't to marry and be a mother. And I had to redefine the word woman even, because in the church that is synonymous with motherhood. So, what does it mean to be a woman if I'm not a mother? I had to redefine my entire belief system. And I got to — thank goodness — define my sexuality for the first time ever and embody that: become a sexual person. And so, a lot of that was tricky and painful and complicated, and weird and funny. And a lot of it was incredibly joyful. And I feel so lucky that I managed to escape without a lot of shame around my body and sexuality. I know a lot of people who leave really strict religions, and particularly at the Mormon Church, don't always get to be shame-free. The doctrine says that having sex outside of marriage relationships is literally the second worst thing you can do besides literally kill someone. And so, I don't know how I escaped without being burdened by a lot of guilt about that.

Anita Rao
Yeah, I mean — perfect segue to where I wanted to go with Jon, which is I mean, Jon, coming into your leaving the church, you had all of these really fixed notions about masculinity and what it meant to be a man, what your identity was supposed to be as a man. And then, you begin the process of claiming your sexuality and questioning how you wanted to identify, and what you wanted for yourself. Talk to me about the process of building an identity outside of your faith and what you were considering in those moments.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
I kind of had to grab on and hold on to the life that I wanted to have. And I knew for myself, I said: I deserve to have a happy life. And I think that's the thing that a lot of folks from religiously oppressive organizations want you to feel. They want you to be miserable in the notion that, your life can't be happy without them. And I wanted to, not necessarily prove to them but prove to myself, that yes, I can have a happier life. And so, owning the parts of me that I, for years, struggled to believe were beautiful or to love and embody. I genuinely started to kind of just say like: This is who I am, and this is who I will always be. If folks have issues with who I am, that's not my problem. And I think that's what has helped make my life so happy — or has made me happier — is really being able to, just, know that a lot of those ideologies and those concepts were put on to me in order to control me. And me breaking away from that is what ultimately allowed me the opportunity to love and have the life that I've always wanted to have.

Anita Rao
Jon has been building that life that they've always wanted alongside their husband — who does not come from a religious family — and helps Jon get a lot of clarity about what, if anything, they want to hold on to from their upbringing. And Nicole sees her Mormon upbringing as the source of her strong value system — even if the values themselves have changed since she left the faith. But neither Jon nor Nicole has any interest in the institutional aspects of religion. And today, they are continually evolving in their individual relationships to spirituality and God.

Nicole Hardy
As far as religion goes, I know for sure that I never ever need to sit in another room and have someone tell me about Jesus, like, ever again, as long as I live. I feel like I'm full, thank you. I don't know if I believe in God, and I love the not knowing. I do know that I believe in kindness, and love, and integrity and doing good for others. But, I'm done with systems. And, I also think that I'm very, very wary of any system who is trying to convince you that they have a monopoly on truth.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
I believe in the humanity of people being good to one another. Because I know what it makes me feel like when you find a good person, and you connect with a good person — whether it be romantically or whether it be in a friendship, or whether it be in a partnership in terms of work or whatever, right. I tell people all the time: I'm spiritual. I do believe in the universe — in the universe using people and things and different ways of interacting. I find religion to be extremely oppressive, and that's where things, kind of, split for me. So am I religious? No. But am I spiritual? Highly, yes.

Anita Rao
Both Nicole and Jon had been taught to believe that leaving their religious community would only result in loss: of their family and community, their experience in the afterlife, and their relationship to God. But part of building lives on their own terms has been about recognizing what they've gained. As Jon puts it in one of their essays, all that was lost is not necessarily a loss.

Dr. Jon Paul Higgins
Sometimes we get so caught up in being like: Oh, that opportunity missed me, or that person doesn't want to talk to me, or my family turned on me, and they want nothing to do with me. But sometimes that's a hidden blessing. Because that gives you the space and the opportunity to, kind of, go through what you need to go through, so you can learn about yourself without the interference. And I think that's the thing that has really, truly helped me become, like, such a strong — I wouldn't say strong, because I think we use strong as a connotation for having to deal with depression, etc., etc. But, I think what has made me so confident in who I am and made me so relentless in being this person that I stand before you as, is recognizing that sometimes removing things, or removing people, or removing, you know, situations out of your life is for the better. And it sometimes really helps you find the clarity that you need to be your authentic self in the ways that you've always wanted to be.

Anita Rao
Nicole, how about you? What have you gained since breaking away from your religious community?

Nicole Hardy
I feel like what I've really gained is the idea that I can go anywhere. I can do anything. I can be anyone. I get to make so many choices about my life, and that has been the biggest gift. I took off and sailed around the world for a year. I have lived abroad here and there, and sort of, plan to keep doing those kinds of things. I feel like they set out this very small and very specific and very narrow life for me and tried to shove me into it. And all I'm looking for is a chance to make my own choices. And some of them have been bad. Some of them been mistakes. And great, I'm here for that too. I feel like the biggest gift is, just, a larger avenue to walk down.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it.

You spreading the word about our show is how this community grows, and it means so much. This episode was produced by Audrey Smith, with editorial support from Kaia Findlay. Amanda Magnus is our editor, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music. Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

More Stories