I found Brenda Peterson by accident. I googled something about leaving religion on youtube to see if I could find an author talking about memoir and religion and lo and behold, I came across Peterson’s book trailer for I Want to Be Left Behind. I ordered her book right away and was delighted to find an author who wrote a a memoir that combined both a religious upbringing and a belief in the natural world.
What I particularly like about Peterson is that she doesn’t put on frills or try too hard. Also, she doesn’t use an angry reflection of her Southern Baptist roots, but reveals the disconnect between her devotion to nature and her growing detachment to religion.
There’s a scene where her persona, or character of self in a memoir, is forced to go to Baptist church camp, after attending high school in Berkeley, California. She sits in a pew next to a girl who is obviously devout and conservative but doesn’t judge. There are peace singers on the stage who make Brenda feel comfortable, and rouse the girl next to her. She could have written something like, “I sat next to a backwoods conservative gal who I knew at once hated me.” Instead, we see both of them with textured description:
“I’ve seen photos of hippies,” Mary Jo whispered, “In Life magazine.”
I had to wonder: if I had stayed in Virginia…instead of landing in the wilds of Berkeley, might I have looked a little more like this neighbor than I did at home in blue jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, braids and silver bracelets?…Mary Jo’s discomfort was almost contagious. I felt it the way an animal picks up the scent of human fear. I tried to see the folk group…through her eyes. Just as I wanted to escape home and seek my true tribe, so Mary Jo wanted to escape these disheveled strangers and return to her familiar seminary fold.”
Here we see the divide between her and her old faith. We also see through Mary Jo’s character a glimpse into the fears behind judgment rather than the simple view that judgment is wrong. Peterson nails down this scene with details that reveal motivation and behaviors. We could be preached to and talked down to, we could be presented with an angry tantrum, but we don’t find any of these. Throughout this sure and brave split with her roots, Peterson never goes into tirade. In fact, she honors her humble roots and makes strong connections between the church she grew up with and the earth she respects. She poses question after question for the reader to ponder and decide for her or himself. This approach to her ecology and earth awareness agenda is both informed and yet never preachy.
Brenda Peterson opens up her own life to hopefully save room on this earth for more life, rather than impending doom.