Ingrained from an evangelical upbringing in New Jersey, Carlene Bauer’s religious leanings kept her from living an unexamined life of artistic debauchery in New York City. Not That Kind of Girl isn’t simply a tale of how the “good girl” lost her faith through drinking at raucous parties and romps with unfamiliar men, though you will find a bit of that here. Instead, it’s a thoughtful memoir about a young woman’s slow and arduous attempts to break up with God, a task at which she finally succeeds with a little help from the city.
While The Smiths, Jane Austin, and Søren Kierkegaard provide Bauer with much fodder for questioning the righteousness of the Lord, the final, ahem, nail in His coffin actually comes from the Bible itself. (How Marx!) Unable to resolve the Good Book’s many irreconcilable contradictions, in the end Bauer chooses to opt out of the flock and join her fellow city dwellers in the realm of the spiritually unknown.
Flavorpill: You have a knack for making mention of quirky things — like inept rock music rip offs and the dogmatism of the newly converted — in succinct ways that may be lost on those raised outside of fundamentalist Christianity. Are these intended to be a sort of shout out to other lapsed Christians?
Carlene Bauer: Yes. I wrote of evangelical culture for those who had been through it and laid it aside, and also for Christians who believe but struggle with the culture of the church. Growing up I felt I must have been the only person in whatever situation I was in — youth group, Bible study, retreat van — who believed but did not think we had to believe everything. I felt I was the only person having these critical thoughts. So I wrote the book in part for others who might have felt or feel those tensions. For those who might not have gone to a Jesus Camp or Patrick Henry College, but felt as shaken, or as confused, by trying to reconcile the demands of religion with one’s desire to belong to the world.
FP: This memoir’s title is an obvious reference to religion’s influence on morality, but my sense is that it also speaks to your feeling as though you never fit in anywhere. Did you intend it to be multi-layered?
CB: I say the phrase to someone in the book — I blurt “I’m not that kind of girl!” to a perfectly nice young man who’s taken me on a date. So when it came time to choose a title, I liked the idea of it coming from somewhere in the text. And yes, I liked that there was a more layered meaning if you looked at the book as a whole. I’m not exactly a libertine, but I’m not exactly a blameless sinner.
FP: Desire for perfection, particularly from God and yourself, is a prominent theme in Not That Kind of Girl. Did this spring from your rigidly religious upbringing?
CB: I think the desire for perfection was congenital — something that would have informed me whether or not I’d gone to church. Religion gave me a framework in which to practice that perfectionism.
FP: Your departure from Christianity was, in part, prompted by your inability to reconcile things you believe are important — a progressive political stance, for example — with the contradictory teachings of the religion. How did these ever-present contradictions factor into losing your faith?
CB: I think they were what finally led me to leave off believing, although I have been chastened recently by Flannery O’Connor. In her letters she says to a friend who is dismayed by the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church that “you do not have any real imaginative vision of what the Church is.” So I’ve been wondering occasionally whether I gave up too soon because I couldn’t see past the hypocrisies and contradictions. Only occasionally.
FP: Rapture anxiety is common in those who grew up in evangelical traditions and you mention throughout the book a feeling of not being able to shake the looming threat of apocalypse. Is this something you still experience?
CB: No, although my sister and I still wonder if someone has gotten raptured if they go missing for a few minutes in stadiums, Target, or our parents’ house. We laugh about it, but it’s pretty frightening how ready we are to think it, even for a few seconds, these many years later. Sometimes I think that for a certain sort of person, raised with a certain sort of Christianity, one may never fully cede one’s mind to reason. There might always be a tiny, fearful corner of the mind given to wondering if the imaginary isn’t in fact the real and the true after all.
FP: You are obviously a bibliophile and a music lover. Can you talk about how you came to the decision to structure this memoir around classic works of literature, indie music, and German philosophy?
CB: Well, I guess it wasn’t a decision as much as an inevitability. Books and music were as important to me as religion, and I couldn’t write the book without discussing them.
FP: I see this book as a love story. The bulk of the book is about your falling out of love with God, so it’s suiting that when you finally do break up with Him, it’s on the cusp of finding a more practical kind of human love that’s not at all flawless, but meets your needs. What did you learn about yourself while writing this memoir?
CB: Thank you. I saw it that way, too. It may sound strange for someone who has written an account of one’s own life, but it’s hard for me to say what I learned about myself through the writing. Being afflicted with crippling introspection, when it’s not clouding your vision, can keep you cruelly intimate with your feelings-slash-failings, and the book allowed me to shape those feelings (I hope) rather than access any new ones. I definitely shook my head at myself a lot while writing, but I tried to turn that into comedy. I did learn, however, that there is such a thing as too much NPR (the reclusive writer’s home companion) and too much coffee.