Wilderness years … the author, aged eight, with her mother. Photo: courtesy of Mary-Lou Stephens
When seeking her mother’s attention, Mary-Lou Stephens had to compete with five siblings – as well as a higher power.
My mother was an early riser, out of necessity more than desire. With six demanding children, it was the only quiet time she could wrest from her noisy days. No wonder she turned to religion. Sometimes, as a child, I would shuffle sleepily down the hallway, in what seemed the dead of night, and watch her huddled by the heater, a cup of tea by her side and a book of Bible readings in her hand. Her early-morning study. Bathed in the glow of the heater and the shallow light of the standard lamp, it was as if she floated on an island of peace. I would creep back to bed, not wanting to shatter that illusion.
My mother wanted eight children, my father only four. Six was a compromise, I suppose – three boys, three girls – but my mother never liked to compromise. A miscarriage before I was born and another after meant she did conceive eight souls. Perhaps in her early-morning prayers she whispered to the unborn two, her other babies.
The older and more uncontrollable her brood grew, the more radical my mother’s religion became. Not content with the local parish church, Bible study and good works, she became involved with the Charismatic movement. Speaking in tongues, healing, being slain in the spirit – this became the new vocabulary of her religious life.
When I was a child, I told her how I’d dreamt I was on a beach with a group of people. The sea sucked back on itself, exposing miles of ocean floor. Everyone around me began praising the Lord, much like my mother did at any given opportunity. It was the end of the world and they knew it. They embraced it. They were the chosen ones. A huge rumble vibrated through the sand and, on the horizon, a massive wall of water headed towards us. The Lord-praisers danced and sang in happiness.
“That’s all I remember,” I said to my mum.
She stopped getting breakfast ready and, for the first time in a long time, I had her full attention.
“Praise the Lord,” she said. “You’re a prophet.”
It was a vision from God and He had chosen her child. She took me to her strange meetings and told her friends I was a prophet, but when no other dreams emerged and no further prophecies eventuated, she withdrew the bright light of her attention. I was left in the dark again.
One counsellor told me that growing up with a mother like mine was the same as growing up with an alcoholic parent. Never knowing what to expect, too ashamed to bring friends home, knowing that my mother was different but not knowing why.
And then there was my older brother, who spouted Adolf Hitler’s speeches off by heart and had a Nazi flag in his bedroom. He was 10 years older than me, a terrifying stranger. My next oldest brother once tried to hit my mother with a frying pan, and my oldest sister would often take to my mother with flailing hands and scratching nails. I tried to get my mother’s attention but to no avail.
My closest sister in age to me was a chronic asthmatic, and between disease and disarray, there was no time or space for me. But there was time for other people’s babies. My mother took them in and looked after them, even though she showed no interest in looking after me. Why did she stop loving me? Why did she lose all interest in me? I was only eight, I couldn’t work it out. And because I couldn’t work it out, I thought it must have been my fault. I must have been bad.
My mother was obsessed with strangers’ babies once she could have no more of her own, and I was too old to be treated like one. My siblings were totally uninterested in my welfare and battling to survive themselves in a madhouse. I survived the only way I could. Feral and filthy. Stealing and lying. My sister told me my scalp was yellow because my hair was never washed. My teeth were furry from lack of brushing. Food was my only comfort, my only company. I became obese and my parents either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
All the while my mother praised the Lord, babbling in languages no one understood, and reached her arms to the heavens, ignoring what was going on at her feet.
For his part, my father appeared to be the epitome of patience. In reality, however, he would avoid the awkward or confrontational in the hope it would pass by and resolve itself without him having to participate.
Eventually, he realised my mother’s religious zeal was not a temporary situation to be disregarded until it passed, so he went to a Billy Graham Crusade at the North Hobart Football Oval and got himself saved. He was never as enthusiastic about praising the Lord or breaking into tongues at unexpected moments as my mother, but he went with her to the meetings and rallies.
In our teenage years, my asthmatic sister, always Dad’s favourite, joined in, too. She discovered, as did I, that the best chance of any attention from our parents was to play on the same team. Our older brothers and sisters had fled the nest by this stage. That left the four of us, clapping our hands and singing in tongues. My mother would be swept away in religious ecstasy and my sister, father and I went along for the ride.
Naturally, I never told anyone at school that I sang in tongues with thousands of others at pep rallies. I never mentioned the bellowing preacher who put his hands on my head to slay me in the spirit. I fell down because I thought I should, and then lay on the floor, breathing in the dust and the smell of cheap carpet, feeling cheated. Why was everyone else around me feeling the rapture when all I felt was cranky?
I tried my best to fit in but I felt like a hypocrite. I was told to pray harder. If you’re miserable, pray harder. If you’re in pain, pray harder. If you’re sick, pray harder. If you’re unhappy, it’s your own fault – you’re not praying hard enough. There was no room for confusion or doubt. No room for the fat teenager I had become. Everyone was perfect. Everybody was deliriously happy. Praise the Lord.
When I tried to leave the Charismatic church in my late teens, my mother refused to acknowledge it. “You’re a Christian, darling, and you’ll always be a Christian.” She smiled her tight little smile. My mother owned my spirituality, or so she thought. And at the time I thought so, too. It was all I had ever known.
Edited extract from Sex, Drugs and Meditation, published by Pan Macmillan.