105 R Eric Thomas
Columnist at Elle.com
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): When I was writing my first memoir, I told my editor about having an autoimmune disorder from ages twelve to sixteen that caused my eyes to bulge out of my head so far that my eyelids were literally unable to close. I confided in her about the pain of my adolescence and unhelpfully, I thought, she suggested I write about it. To which I replied, yeah… no way in hell.
Because of all the inelegant things I wrote about myself in that book—publicly admitting to drug use, alcoholism, deceit, sexual indiscretion, misanthropy, and pretending to be a hero—the pain and alienation of my childhood was the one thing that made me think, if I tell this, I might die. If I start to show what’s under the tattoos, no one will again believe that I am cool.
But my editor pushed back saying, “Be brave, Nadia. You can tell the truth.” And so, reluctantly, I did.
There was a point early in the life of House for All Sinners and Saints, the church I founded, when I was frustrated and a little baffled by just how many socially awkward people were showing up. And at the same time, bloggers and church pundits (who had never visited House for All) began to claim online, based on the fact that the pastor was tattooed and pastors attract people like themselves, that House for All was obviously just a church for hipsters. Which has never, ever been the case.
So one day I started to think to myself, wait, why am I not attracting other cool people? I mean, why aren’t there people like me coming? Now, if you are thinking to yourself, What kind of person thinks this shit? You are not alone.
I didn’t realize for a couple of years why exactly it was that so many so-called “losers” were coming to House for All Sinners and Saints, the church with the supposedly cool pastor. See, some might think the funny, tattooed, sarcastic part of me attracts people to House for All. And that’s true for some people but they’re the ones who never seem to stick around.
The so-called “cool” parts of me were never what attracted the people who stayed. It was the bug-eyed kid with no friends who brought them in, the girl who ate all her lunches alone in middle school, the painfully skinny girl who learned to bandage her wounds with anger, cynicism, and eventually a lot of tattoos. It ends up, I had been attracting people like me all along. I was just too arrogant or too defensive to admit it.
But once I did, it honestly felt like my heart grew—my heart grew big enough for them and also big enough for 13 year old me as well.
It seems to me that as long as we can’t face the painful truth or the shame-filled truth, or the sad truth from our past, it seems that that truth doesn’t disappear—it just defines, often unfairly, how we react to other people.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. It’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets. My guest today is someone who was raised in a conservative church, just like me, but who carries that baggage in a way that is all his own. Stay with us.
NBW: Joining me in The Confessional today is R Eric Thomas, a playwright, social commentator, and columnist for Elle.com. Eric, welcome! What brings you into the Confessional today?
R Eric Thomas (RET): So I guess the story starts at a point where I had found a decent enough community in Philadelphia. I’m from Baltimore and I’d moved to Philadelphia probably 15 years ago and I found some connections in the queer community and some artistic connections, and one of the things of one of the parts of life that I thought that I was ready for was a long-term relationship, which I’d never had. I was very good at first dates and not that great at second dates, and there were no third dates. But, then I met Jay, who turned out to be my first long term boyfriend.
I guess the best way to frame it is to say that Jay and I were opposites. He’s white and I’m black. He worked at night. I worked during the day. And the way that we, like, appreciated art and the way that we expressed ourselves was wildly different. I’m a writer and I like to tell stories. And he’s a visual artist and he had gone to a special effects school to learn how to do monster makeup for the movies and that extended into his personal interest. His whole apartment was full of just various figurines and images from horror movies, and I’m not a horror movie person at all, I don’t like to be scared. I want movies with like no plot whatsoever, just two people having a good time, and then it ends.
NBW: That’s called a commercial.
RET: Yeah, oh my god, I love commercials. I love commercials. They want a car and then they get a car, and that’s great. And so, you know, when we started dating, I would walk into his apartment and I would see, he was also a painter and a sculptor and he would have these paintings of dead mermaids or werewolves or whatever. And I’d like, you know, you accept a lot of things when they are in somebody else’s house and you are a little bit desperate for a date. And so I’d just sort of approach these creepy images with like an artistic eye, because I took a couple classes in art history and so I was like, yes, or I can do this. And I’d be like, oh, the blood on that vampire’s tooth is really striking, the brushwork is excellent. But it was always a little bit unsettling to me because…
NBW: Because at the end of the day it’s still a painting of a dead mermaid in your boyfriend’s apartment.
RET: Yeah. And I was like, OK, you know, like he likes creepy stuff, that’s just not my jam. But there was always just something like in the pit of my stomach that was like, oh, this is not good. But I ignored it because people have their own interests and it’s whatever. And I didn’t want to be I didn’t want to be reactionary in the way that, like, I’d been, like, taught as a child, like we never celebrated Halloween at all in church. And, you know, we were always watching out for the devil. The devil is gonna come get you at any time. Like devil’s going to come through your, the CDs that you listen to or from the bad friend. We watched, oh my goodness, we watched the original Left Behind mini series and it like scarred me for life. I was like, oh, I’m gonna make the wrong choice. I’m not going to get raptured and I’m going to get decapitated so I can go to heaven, which is what happens in those movies. And I was like, this seems like a lot of work. So I was like, I gotta stay away from these dead mermaids in case the rapture occurs.
NBW: It’s such a great line because really in the end, everyone needs to stay away from dead mermaids in case the rapture occurs…
RET: You know, I feel like that should be a bumper sticker. Like in case of rapture, keep away from dead mermaids.
NBT: Well that’s just basic human wisdom.
RET: He didn’t seem to agree and he wasn’t really into like my whole, the rapture is occurring at any moment, so we better put this stuff away. He was not, he was not buying it. And it went on like that until we moved in together. And then, you know, this home that we shared filled up with like horror. It was like, it was like The Shining and I was Shelley Duvall, and it was like it was very, very distracting and it was a little bit nerve wracking. But I kept trying to tamp it down because I did like him, I did love him. And I knew that he was like a good person.
Anyway, Christmas came and I threw myself super hard into Christmas, like the gay aspects of Christmas. I had chose theme colors, which seemed to be like a gay relationship rite of passage, I was like our colors this year are cranberry and pewter and I bought them from Target already, so we’re good to go.
Right before Christmas, we went to a holiday party with a bunch of his friends, and at the end of the party, one of his friends presented him with a box, a gift, and he opened it up and inside was one of those Elf on the Shelf dolls. But it had been painted. The skin of the elf had been painted black, the eyes had been painted green, the lips were bright red, and then it had fangs painted white, and it had horns that they had attached to its head. And Jay was ecstatic. And he turned to me like, “Do you know what a Krampus is?” And I do know what a Krampus is because, again, it’s one of those things that will literally drag you to hell. Santa Claus has a friend who sometimes is just a regular black guy or a team of black guys, which is another thing to deconstruct at another point. And sometimes it’s this sort of werewolf demon looking figure who, if the child is bad, drags them to hell.
So he comes home, he plops the Krampus right on the Christmas tree. Even though it’s neither cranberry nor pewter. And I started to completely meltdown. I would sit at night and I’d watch TV and I’d just feel the doll’s eyes on me. I really start to think, oh, this is how it happens. And then my thoughts jumped from this little doll to my boyfriend. What if these two, the doll and my boyfriend, are working together to drag me to hell together? And so I was like, what do you do? What do you do when you live with somebody who is conspiring to steal your soul? So I started Googling “how to tell if your boyfriend is a Satan worshiper.” And oddly enough, nothing came up that was useful. Like there was maybe one forum or something where someone was like, I have a question, but like, nobody had any good answers.
NBW: There’s not a single Reddit.
NBW: Not one.
RET: Like, no BuzzFeed quizzes, nothing. And it got to be so intense, and I was withdrawing from him and I was like picking fights. And then finally, one night we are sitting and we’re watching TV and the Krampus is behind us and I couldn’t take it anymore, and I turned to him and I was like, “listen, this is going to sound crazy, but are you a Satan worshiper? Are you in league with Satan? Are you trying to drag my soul to hell?” And he was like, “you can’t be serious.” And I was like, “surprisingly, I am.” And so Jay was like, “no, I’m not a Satan worshiper.” And I was like, “OK, well, you just brought home this devil and you put it in our Christmas tree and you left me to go to work and I don’t know what to make of that.” And he was like, “well, fine, if you hate it so much I’ll just put it away.” And so he did. He took it off the tree and I never saw it again.
And for me that should be the end of the story. It should be like this weird thing that I did. And sometimes I tell the story like it’s a funny story and it is, you know, I do think it’s funny in retrospect, but that was the beginning. Maybe not the beginning, maybe that was the middle of the end of our relationship because the thing that had cracks between us, the thing, the wedge that I put in continued to widen. And the thing that I didn’t want, I didn’t want to become the representative of some of the zealotry that I grew up in. There were moments in the past in our church growing up where, you know, we went to this revival one time where they told us that we had to break and burn all these different musical artists if we had CDs by them or cassettes or whatever, and I went home and I went through my whole library and I destroyed all kinds of things thinking that, like, the devil was going to come and get me. And I really believed in that.
NBW: Do you remember which albums they were?
RET: I do, very clearly. So, one was The Velvet Rope by Janet Jackson because of sexual content. It was ridiculous, you know, and I didn’t want to be that person in my adult life and I certainly didn’t want to be the person to be using my faith as a cudgel on someone else. And to realize that I was manifesting that same sort of violence against this person that I love, it was, it was disgusting to me.
NBW: Eric, let’s dig a little deeper. Do you have a particular memory from the church you grew up in that helps you make sense of why you had this strong of a reaction to a doll?
RET: I remember there were, we would have these meetings in church when I was about 12 or 13 years old. The meetings were always about fighting off the evil that was trying to get into the congregation. It was like we were of a fortress and we had to be vigilant. And then one of the last meetings that we had, the pastor said that, you know, there had been a grave sin that had invaded the community and they had to take a vote of the congregation about whether or not to excommunicate the music minister. I didn’t know what we were voting about, I remember people sobbing around me as they raised their hands all around me to vote yes. And I never saw him again.
But I asked my mother a couple of years later, “so what was that about? Was that weird meeting?” And she was like, “well, you know, he had told the pastor that he was struggling with feelings of homosexuality and so the leadership of the church decided to excommunicate him.” And that was stunning to me. That was, um, and it was terrifying to me, because not only could you be dragged to hell through your soul, through your stereo, through whatever forces you let into your life, but you could also be thrown out of the heaven that was the church.
And if I had to like breakdown, psychoanalyze why I decided to have a nervous breakdown about this doll, I think that the fact that I was involved in my first relationship with a man probably had a lot to do with it. I really was afraid that because I was living openly as a gay person that I was going to go to hell. And the only way that I could really address that was by putting that energy into exterior things, into the doll, into the movies, into the dead mermaid and into him. And that’s what ended up ruining our relationship.
As much as I wanted to be with him and wanted to sort of move, to turn a phrase, heaven and hell to be together, I was too afraid. And I was too, I was too weak in my faith to actually make that work. I needed to have some sort of external action, whether it was as a child breaking CDs in half so that I could prove my devotion or as an adult…
NBW: Breaking your relationship in half.
RET: breaking my relationship in half, exactly, as a sacrifice. And I don’t know, God didn’t ask for that. So what did and what did it get me, you know? Nothing.
NBW: So, just say a little bit more about how you actually felt about him.
RET: I really loved him. I just thought he was a delight. I think there was a sadness in him that connected with the sadness in me, and it didn’t multiply it, but it sort of, the combined sadness sort of created a little shell around the two sadnesses and we got to be happy together.
NBW: Oh gosh, that’s beautiful. Have you been in contact with him, like, do you feel like you’ve made amends in some way?
RET: Well, yes and no. I think I made, I guess what I’ve been calling artistic amends, where I wrote a chapter about him in the memoir I have coming out and I changed his name because I was like, I don’t think he wants to be involved in this. But then randomly, he reached out randomly one night and sent me an email and was like, “hey, I’m just thinking of you. I hope you don’t hate me.” Which broke my heart that he would think that and that I would have put that out into the world. And so I reached back out and I was like, “no, obviously, no, I don’t hate you. I hope you don’t hate me. And actually, like, maybe you’ll read this thing that I wrote about us and how I felt about you and how I realized my mistake.” And so he read it. And he was like, “yeah, that, I didn’t know a lot of that was going on. But it reminds me of the good times and it also sort of brings a tear to my eye.”
NBW: You know, the interesting thing for me about your story is that you kept saying, I don’t like to be scared, I don’t want to watch scary movies, I don’t want to have scary paintings in my house. And yet, from what you said about your religious upbringing, a lot of it seemed to be about being scared, scared that the devil is going to enter into you from a Janet Jackson CD or through, you know, having the wrong people in the church, or whatever, there was so much fear that it kind of seems like a Möbius strip in your story.
RET: Well and like, you know, I think about as I get older, I’m like, I’m the age that my parents were, I guess… yeah. And so I think to myself, like, and at that time, they had a 10 year old and a 7 year old and a 4 year old and they had sick parents and all they wanted was to make sure that their children had a community and guidance in the Christian faith, which is a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful gift and they’re trying to search for something that was both inside of themselves and so outside of themselves that it was never going to be reached, and we would go into that church every Sunday and sometimes on Wednesdays and we would reach, reach, reach for it. And I am not cynical enough to think that it’s futile, the reach—and I just, I don’t know that I would live my life that way. You know, I don’t go to a church like that now but I also, I can’t blame anybody for trying.
NBW: You talked about the church that you were raised in, just now, as sort of reaching and that you respect that reaching even though you don’t go to that kind of church now. But what is the reaching looking like in your life for you right now though?
RET: I think it is, I don’t know. It is not as if you think with a gesture of reaching like I feel like we were arms shooting up through the ceiling, into the sky. And I think now it’s sort of, I feel very much like, oh, you know, Jodie Foster in Contact when she’s just sort of like floating in that little spaceship and her arms are just sort of out and they’re open to anything that might come in contact with them. I think that’s where I am now.
In, you know, sort of in more concrete terms, I think that I am less inclined to look for something that is a hard black or white, a hard in or out, saved or not saved. And that’s less comfortable because I want to be on one side and I’m learning that there is not necessarily sides. And so the reaching becomes sort of more of an embrace, which is less comfortable, but I think it makes for a it makes my life fuller.
NBW: That’s beautiful. I love that. Well, thank you so much for coming on and sort of like, I don’t know, I found it really lovely that you were willing to say, look, I’ve told this as a funny story. But how often the things that are the funny stories in our lives have something deeper to them or a sort of truth to them that doesn’t always come out in the funny telling of it. I mean, your willingness to sort of pull back the curtain and to go, you know, I sabotaged a relationship with somebody who I really loved and who I thought was wonderful because I was transferring my emotional shit from my religious upbringing onto these external things instead of really, you know, coming to terms with myself in a full way.
So I just think probably there are other people out there who have similar stories to that, so the fact that you were willing to speak honestly about it, I’m just really grateful.
RET: Well, thank you. Thank you for making this space, it’s a really beautiful act.
NBW: A blessing for Eric.
After we talked I watched Contact again. In that movie, Jodie Foster’s character decoded instructions from celestial beings, instructions for how to build a spaceship.
And you spoke about how her character floated in that ship and how that is what the reaching looks like for you now. The thing I forgot, Eric, is how when she’s in that ship, how much shaking and noise and chaos surrounds her, and how that shaking and noise and chaos wasn’t from the ship itself—it was from all the shit other people felt like they had to add to it. LIke a harness and a chair and a helmet. Because they were afraid and thought that extra shit would protect her.
But her arms didn’t reach out to the universe until she unbuckled herself from what she was told would keep her from harm—only then does she finally float.
Eric, Krampuses and paintings of dead mermaids can’t hurt you. The shaking, noise, and chaos that the fear of these things caused in your life was just from shit the church felt like it had to add to faith because they were afraid.
So Eric, as you continue to live into the biggest, fullest, most amazing expression of yourself, if you ever feel that shaking and noise and chaos, may you unbuckle from it, and float, arms reaching once again to all that is.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional I talk to a famous actress who manipulated a perfectly nice person many years ago and is now ready to talk about it.
Amy: So within, you know, who’s counting, three hours of meeting him we were having sex outside among the daffodils and it was so joyful.
NBW: In the meantime, enjoy this confession from a listener in a segment I like to call Shit I’m Not Proud Of:
Allie: My name is Allie I am from Chatangooga Tennassee and the first time I ever hotboxed was at a Baptist wedding with the groom’s family. That’s all, thanks Nadia!
NBW: Do you have some Shit You’re Not Proud Of? Call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message, I might play it on the show.
The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.