Cameron Dezen Hammon’s hauntingly reflective, philosophical and spectacular memoir This Is My Body takes us into her religious world in a megachurch in Texas from the first chapter. A half-Jewish New Yorker, Cameron is baptized by friends during a storm off the Atlantic Ocean waters near Coney Island. Faith and the relentless question of it is the essence of this debut—faith in religion, relationships, and feminism.
What struck me in Cameron’s words were the sparseness and the exactness of the language used to described the megachurch world she entered, following a man she loved—a musician, Matt—to Texas. The world she inhabited, the casual manner in which she was expected to go along with the customs and norm of the church life—including the minimizing of women, the question of equal pay, the automatic reverence for the church leaders—gives us a deep insight into a world not familiar to those outside of it. A gifted musician and singer, Cameron looks to take her career within this evangelical church world to the next level. She immerses herself in this life—speaking in tongues, traveling to Budapest on a missionary journey, leading the band as their singer, making her career within the religious organization as a worship pastor—while being acutely aware of how she is minimized as a woman. After a harrowing assault by a pastor of the church, Cameron questions her belief, as she tries to make sense of her faith as it aligns with her feminism.
Throughout the memoir, Cameron questions herself willingly and incessantly about what would make her faith stronger—faith in God, in her relationship with her husband, and in herself. Cameron eventually leaves the church, and highlights what faith means to her now as she continues to focus on herself, her convictions, and goodness.
I spoke recently with Cameron about her life in a megachurch, misogyny, her questions on faith, and the art of memoir.
The Rumpus: This Is My Body is a mesmerizing study of longing and what-if moments. There is a self-awareness of not belonging, and a yearning to stay. You explore the fine line between obsession and love, both the spiritual and the romantic kind, throughout this memoir. What was your thought behind starting the memoir where you did—exploring the text messages and linking them to where you were at that time?
Cameron Dezen Hammon: Using the text messages felt dangerous and it brought the paradox of that scene into sharp focus. Text messaging, how the iPhone and smartphones in general have changed the way we communicate and the way we love, is interesting to me.
Rumpus: You have multiple references to authors like Maggie Nelson, and Adrienne Rich sprinkled throughout the memoir, as well as in text/email exchanges. For instance, Rich’s words: “it is easy to forget / what I came for … the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” Tell us about the authors who have influenced you and how their words have made your inner reflection more nuanced.
Hammon: I’ve always struggled to really connect with male writers because so often I go to books to understand my life, to see who I am, or who I could be. Maybe because we live in such a gendered world, or better said, I have, as a religious person,, women writing their experiences is what I’m drawn to. I also often read to understand how smarter writers have dealt with things that confound me—and not just life things but writing things. The way a writer structures work, the voice, the arc, it’s as important to me as what the work is about—or at least it is when I’m actively trying to solve the problems of my own writing. Melissa Febos, Claire Dederer, Camille Dungy, Lacy M. Johnson—these are a few contemporary writers I adore, but the list goes on.
Rumpus: You write, “We practice a nondenominational version of charismatic evangelicalism that favors contemporary music, praying in tongues, and belief in miraculous healings… Trying to live for something bigger than art, bigger than New York. We attend Bible studies and worship services together in bars, homes, and coffee shops.” Tell us more about what it was about evangelicalism that made you give up your Jewish faith and whether this was a sign of the times then? Was there a mysticism and a mystery (as you note in your final chapter) that was mesmerizing?
Hammon: I was always drawn to mysticism. As a kid, I was reading tarot cards and putting on mini-seances. The Christians I met in New York were what one would call “charismatic,” they believed in the “gifts of the Spirit”—prophecy, miraculous healings, praying in tongues—all of which I thought wasn’t that different than the New Age spirituality I was drawn to when I was younger. It was different in one crucial way, though, in that my Christian friends had a strong delineation between what was good in the spiritual realm (what was “of God”) and what was not good, or somehow connected to darkness, and evil. There was a lot of darkness in my life at the time, or so it felt, and I craved a sense of protection, and a way to understand spirituality that promised me safety, and the church did that. I was never Bat Mitvah’d, and we never belonged to a temple, so I didn’t see my conversion as “giving up” my Judaism—Judaism wasn’t a choice I made, it was part of me. It’s still part of me, of course. But it’s only now that I can really see what I gave up. I could have chosen to become Jewish, to become a practicing Jewish person. But I didn’t, of course. I sometimes think of how different my life would’ve been.
Rumpus: In an excerpt published at Longreads, you write about Hannah, the girl you couldn’t save. There is an almost rigid view in the perception that prayer cures, even in death. Later you try for patience and love with your sick father. Describe to us the conflicts that accompany belief.
Hammon: When one takes religion and religious teachings literally—and I mean, for example, the miracles depicted in the New Testament—as I did, life becomes very complicated when experience diverges from expectation. By the time my friend was dying of cancer, I’d begun to understand that belief in a literal, bodily healing for someone who has been given a terminal diagnosis is sort of cruel. It’s a form of denial. I wanted to believe my friend could be healed, but the experience of praying for her, and losing her, was one that really shifted things for me. I didn’t lose my faith entirely, but I began to see that metaphor and poetry and hope can co-exist. Religious belief doesn’t have to be literal. I choose metaphor and poetry and hope. Denying reality doesn’t benefit anyone. But offering hope and comfort does.
Rumpus: #MeToo affected you in a religious setting, enmeshed with what ifs, and how it could affect your financial, social, and religious standing. Without naming names, or making a direct accusation, you’ve shown us how desperately harrowing such sexual assaults in the megachurch world can be for women. How are you reconciling yourself with what happened and the (non-)aftermath of it?
Hammon: Non-aftermath is a great way to say it. What I experienced was traumatizing, but I think of people who have experienced worse and I just hope that my work is somehow helpful to them. That it opens opportunities for conversation around sexual assault in the church.
Rumpus: About homosexuality in the evangelical churches in Houston, you write, “Many evangelical leaders and pastors have made it their life’s work to push gay Christians out of the church… as is the long-held and asinine belief that the right amount of prayer and willpower could simply reverse a person’s sexual orientation. I don’t ascribe to this prejudice and never have, but I also don’t openly challenge it.” There is a lot of information in this silence and non-challenge. How difficult is it in this world to challenge the status quo? How do you (now) navigate this?
Hammon: There is profound cost both in challenging it and in speaking out, but there is even greater cost in not speaking out. Gay Christians are dying because churches choose to remain silent or reject them. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study in 2018 linking suicide and suicidal ideation among queer youth with religion that doesn’t affirm their identities. As far as how I navigate this now, I choose to speak out. I affirm queer Christians, and I choose to serve a church that does the same. I think queer and non-binary identity mirrors God in a profoundly beautiful way. In Genesis, the earliest chapter of the (Hebrew) bible, God refers to Gods-self using the plural pronoun, “us.” And even earlier in that chapter God is the “Ruach Elohim,” the breath of God, and “Ruach” is a feminine Hebrew word. This fascinates me! It’s not something you’re taught in Sunday school. You have to look for it, but it’s there.
Rumpus: In your book tour, what were the surprises that came to you from the readers? And what did you learn about yourself as you progressed through this tour?
Hammon: Religion, and the impact of it on American lives, is not just a Southern thing. Audiences and readers all over the country have written to me about the impact religion has had on their lives—both positive as well as negative. That surprised me a little bit.
What I learned about myself? It’s one thing to write about difficult and complicated things, it’s entirely another to talk about it in public. Even doing interviews like this one—I had no idea how challenging it would be to try to talk about the book. Writing is a safer place for me, for sure.
Rumpus: What is the biggest misconception you think readers have about the memoir, and about the megachurch world you inhabited?
Hammon: I don’t inhabit that world anymore, but the misconceptions I’ve seen about the book have come mostly from religious people who think criticizing the church in any way is an attack on the church. I disagree. I think that’s absurd. I told the truth. People can do what they want with that truth, but if the church isn’t strong enough to sustain my truth-telling, its problems are far bigger than any book.
Rumpus: Your relationship with your father was heartbreaking, torturous, and so complicated. You write, “After my father died, I asked the priest at St. Mark’s to insert his name into the prayers… I stood up in a pew and wept while his name was called, and I felt a deep and abiding gratitude for this faith tradition that I’m a part of, even though I wrestle with every aspect of it, still.” How is it for you now?
Hammon: It’s still painful, but I also have some peace. Writing isn’t catharsis, but it is the way I process. Writing about my father is a way I can continue to love him, and struggle with him, even though he’s gone. One religious idea I have never stopped believing is that love can conquer death. Death cannot stop love, even complicated love. I believe that.
Rumpus: “Belief is mercurial; faith is something deeper.” You write this in your epilogue. This speaks to your search for love, in life and in the spiritual world. Where is this headed? Where is this taking you?
Hammon: Faith is a gift, and it’s still something I hope for, something I’m working on. Faith in goodness, in myself, in something greater than myself. It’s a work in progress.
Rumpus: The use of therapy in This Is My Body—could you comment on the sections where you’ve used your conversations with your therapist to lead into your quest within the faith? How strong of a role does therapy, in your opinion, play in memoir and life?
Hammon: Putting a therapy session in scene in a memoir is certainly a literary device; it allows the writer, in this case me, to avoid a lot of expository explanation. I had a session with a therapist, whom I’d only been working with for a short time, in which she told me that because I had sexual fantasies about a man I wasn’t married to, it meant I was a sex and love addict. This seems like an extreme reaction from a therapist, and it was, but everything happening at the time in my life was extreme. That session determined what happened next, so it made sense for it to be in the memoir. Therapy is a privilege in this country, and I’ve always struggled to pay for it. As far as the role it plays in my life, I go when I can afford to go. I try budget for it when I know I will need the extra support.
Rumpus: You’ve left the megachurch world. Faith plays a different and satisfying role in your life now. Any regrets or what do you miss of that world, if anything?
Hammon: I don’t miss anything about that world, no. I don’t have any regrets. I was looking for something and that search took me inside a world I never thought I’d be a part of. Life can be strange like that.
Rumpus: This year has seen a lot of spectacular memoirs published. Which ones do you admire and what’s the thread in them that attracts you?
Hammon: There have been so many! I loved Lyz Lenz’s Godland which is a query on where faith went post-2016. I also liked Jeannie Vanasco’s memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl—an examination of victimhood and an exacting investigation of trauma, rape, and sexual violence. Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance is of course, spectacular. Liz Scott’s This Never Happened is a wonderful examination of truth, and how to clear pain to enable compassion to come through.
Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know came out last year but it’s such an amazing memoir questioning where we belong and how. Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody with a Little Hammer came out in 2017 and I read it while on book tour. I’d never read her before and was riveted. The first essay is about when she became a born-again Christian (she calls her conversion “pretty desultory,” LOL) while selling jewelry on the streets of Toronto at twenty-one. A concise and brutal writer—my favorite qualities.
For 2020, I am looking forward to Sejal Shah’s This is One Way to Dance. I was on a panel at AWP this year and loved her work, and can’t wait for this one!
Rumpus: Any advice for memoirists who may be tackling big issues like faith, religion, or sense of self and belonging in their work? What are the pitfalls and things to watch out for?
Hammon: Keep the audience out of the room as long as possible. The most important thing a first draft does is exist, and it’s very hard to tell the truth when you’ve got one eye on the door, when you’re fantasizing about how others will react to it. Once the book is written, and the process of trying to get it published begins (if that’s the route you take,) it’s wise to consider how you will handle your relationships to the other people who appear in the memoir. Which of those relationships are important enough that you want to be sure your work won’t alienate them from you, and which are not. (And some are not.)
Rumpus: What’s next and why?
Hammon: Next is being where I am, which right now is at my dining table/desk, and being present with my family as my daughter grows up and we try to reestablish our routines post book-launch. Writing this book has consumed the last several years of all our lives, so I’m trying to just take a breath and be present before launching into something new.
Photograph of Cameron Dezen Hammon by Anna Sneed.