"I Did Not Cook, I Did Not Clean, I Did Not Run Errands"
A Conversation with Alison Wisdom
It’s tricky to write about religion, especially in its more fundamentalist iterations. For last week’s Times Literary Supplement, I reviewed a debut novel about a Hasidic woman who is addicted to internet porn. I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the way women experience their own desire in a religious tradition that mostly ignores it and that sees men as authoritative on matters of sex and the body. I thought this book would have something important to say about all of that but…it just didn’t. I could tell that readers were supposed to understand the simultaneous pull of ritual and porn on poor Raizl but none of it felt particularly rooted in character or earned in any meaningful sense.
While I was trying to work out why, exactly, the book couldn’t pull off any of the things it was trying to do, I started reading Alison Wisdom’s second book, The Burning Season. The timing was purely coincidental but the juxtaposition was clarifying. This, I remember thinking, is how you do it. The book’s protagonist is Rosemary, a thirty-something year old woman with a life and an Instagram account who ends up in the Church of Dawes, a separatist Christian community where women are not allowed to have cell phones and are expected to dedicate themselves to motherhood. The book could have easily leaned into a demonization of the church community but instead it explores what holds it up and whom it serves, why a person might freely choose that kind of life and why it would be hard to leave. It shines a light on the comforts offered, and contortions demanded, by religion more broadly, prompting readers to think about their own comforts and contortions and communities. The book is so compelling that I actually stayed up past my bedtime to finish it which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a tired parent’s highest compliment. Read on for a conversation that got so into the weeds on character development and patriarchal religion that we barely even talked about Alison’s childcare situation.
You’ve published two books in two years and you have two children. What kind of sorcery do you practice?
I initially started writing this book and it was a cult book and I was going to weave together these three separate storylines and they were going to be not related by plot but thematically related. And I was like, ooh, it's going to be so gorgeous, it's gonna be this beautiful tapestry. And so each storyline is about a woman in a different cult and I finished it and it was really bad, just objectively bad, but I liked the characters. And so I was like, okay, I'm going to just try to give each storyline its own novel and then maybe by the time I write the third novel, I will know how to write a novel. And one of these things will not be terrible. I had a hundred pages really of each storyline. I did We Can Only Save Ourselves first, which ended up being my debut, and then I did The Burning Season. While I was waiting for edits from We Can Only Save Ourselves, I started working on fleshing out The Burning Season. My son was born right around the time I started really working on We Can Only Save Ourselves and he was a pretty good sleeper and my daughter was not, she was very, very bad. She was always awake. She's still actually always awake and she's seven.
Isn’t it funny how they keep their things? You look at them and remember them as babies and you’re like, ‘oh, you've always been you.’
Yes, and she was born a month early, which also is just like, yep, that tracks, that is who she is. She was ready to go. And so when my daughter was in preschool for a few days a week, I did not cook, I did not clean, I did not run errands, I did not go to the grocery store. I only worked on the novel. And then my son would sleep while she was at school. It just happened like magic timing, worked out that his nap time coincided with the morning hours that she was at preschool and so that's how I wrote We Can Only Save Ourselves, in those little slivers of nap time.
And then you did all of those other things with the kids, all your errands, all your cooking.
Because that’s not easy.
No. Now it's so great with curbside pickup.
It has changed my life.
Yes, never go back. My son was not quite two when the pandemic started and so he doesn't remember going to the grocery store or anything. And when he realized that you could go inside the grocery store, his mind was blown. Like, all this time we could have gone inside here?
Does he know about carts because…
Carts, man. I had to hunt all over for the cart that had the little car attached to it. He saw it and he was just like, this is all that I want in my life.
‘I will not settle for anything less than the most giant cart that you then have to maneuver around corners.’
Oh, I know, they do not have a good turn radius.
No, it’s very difficult. Ok, so I love that this was supposed to be one novel and you turned it into- are you working on the third one?
I decided to keep part of it and then revisit it from a different perspective. And I started and I just could not get into it. I think it's just not the right time. I do want to come back to it eventually because I feel like having two cult novels is weird, having three cult novels is like, ok, she did this on purpose.
You’re the cult lady.
She’s got a weird cult thing.
A great hack though, right? One novel, turn it into three, and there you go, you're prolific.
Yes, yes. Now I'm trying to write this new novel from scratch, unrelated to cults, and I'm like, this is really daunting. It's been so long since I've started with a blank page. It’s hard.
But let’s talk about cults because you’re the cult lady. You’re into them. Was this one always going to be religious?
With We Can Only Save Ourselves, it is a non-religious cult and for The Burning Season, with Rosemary, I grew up in a Christian family and I'm still a Christian to this day. And so, because of that, I've been very attracted to fundamentalist religious groups because it's like looking in a fun house mirror where you're like, oh, I can recognize enough that it's familiar but what you're seeing is so distorted that it's frightening, it's a scary image to look at. And so I think that's just always been something that's very interesting to me. And I live down here in Texas and I went to school at a Christian college and I was just kind of blown away by the different ways that people- you know, theoretically we practiced the same faith and it looked very, very different. And I'm not saying I have all the answers or have it figured out but I could look at other people and be like, ‘huh, that's not it.’ And so that has always been really fascinating to me. But apart from the religious side of it, with just kind of groupthink in general and cults in general, I’ve always been very interested in kind of alternative lifestyles, you know, communes, things like that and how so much of it seems so utopian. It’s often started by people with good intentions and it just goes bad. And then you've got it started by people who have terrible intentions-
But for people who think they're getting something good out of it. It's not like people join to be like, ‘we're going to ruin people's lives.’
Yes, right, it’s, you know, the bad guy at the top and then everyone else is like genuinely looking for something.
Looking for something, right.
And that is so tragic, and so human.
And that’s not all that religion is but what they have in common is the looking for something and I'm really interested in writers who are religious or practice religion in some way and then write about more extreme versions of their own faith because I think it can feel difficult or tricky to draw the line between like, ‘oh, this is my normal thing and this other form of it is crazy,’ because, really, when you look at any religion as an outsider, it looks insane.
Right, oh, totally.
Was that hard for you in writing this book? Or were you able to be like, this is me and that's the story?
I think any religious person who is thinking deeply about things is already wrestling with the way that their religion is performed by all kinds of people and the way that they perform it themselves. And so, for me, with writing Rosemary specifically and for writing the Church of Dawes in general, I wanted it to be clear that it was not what I think is okay. I did think, as I was writing it, there are plenty of people I know who believe in, not that extreme version of things, but a slightly dialed back version of those things. And I think a lot of them are damaging practices. And so I did just want to turn the dial back up. Again, going back to the mirror, looking into it and seeing something about yourself and the way that you are carrying out or following your religion. But yeah, once it was being published and going out there, I was like, oh boy, there are gonna be people that I know who might read this book and be like deeply insulted. And we'll just see what happens with that. We’ll have some conversations, I guess.
Have you heard from anybody who's been offended?
Not really. I think a lot of the friends that I have who might believe some version of those things are not huge readers
That’s always helpful.
Oh yeah. But it's one of those things where I'm like, I'm just gonna have to hold that loosely and we'll see what happens with that. I'm happy to talk with people about what I believe about things and clearly it's very close to my heart, I wrote a whole book about it.
And what a book. I do want to say that I stayed up late finishing it, which I never do anymore because sleep is so precious. But I couldn't stop reading this book. And part of that is the pacing and – and I mean this positively – the creepiness and the calibrating all of that just so. Was it hard to get the pacing down or did that kind of come naturally to you?
No, it was so hard. I'm not very good at plots. I have to push myself to make things happen.
You did so good with this one. I would not have guessed.
That is so nice to hear because it is something that I have been self-conscious about always in my writing. I'm like, no, but conversation is a plot and apparently it's not. With my agent, before we were even sending it to my editor, she was like, ‘okay, now I think it's not clear enough what's happening.’ ‘Okay, now I think it's too clear what's happening.’ ‘What if you add in something here?’ ‘No, no, take that out.’
It turned out great. And I think another part of what kept me turning those pages was that there's so much in it that is familiar in terms of groups and charismatic figures, the way that religious leaders sometimes operate. You wrote it in such a way that even I, a Jewish person, could be like, yes, this. There are a bunch of examples but right now I’m thinking of the character of Papa Jake, the leader of the Church of Dawes.
Where I went to school there was this guy who was in my boyfriend's dorm who was kind of in our larger friend group and he eventually got super religious, which is saying something because I was at a religious school. But, you know, he would be in front of the Bible building on a milk crate with a bull horn preaching at people walking by, things like that. Years after we graduated, my college boyfriend reached out to me on Facebook. We had broken up and it was a very long, very messy breakup so this was a real blast from the past. And he was like, ‘hey, do you remember this guy? He started a cult.’ I was like, ‘I'm sorry, what?’ It's a “church” and I use quotes around it because it is absolutely a cult. And so, personality wise, Papa Jake is not the way I remember this guy, he is kind of an amalgamation of other bad pastors that I have been a part of their churches or observed from afar or whatever. I think one thing that is a little noteworthy about the Church of Dawes in the book is that it is people who are, you know, our age, they're in their thirties. And so the age and the particular demographic is kind of based off of this particular group that's in Texas. And then the actual character of him is an amalgamation and just kind of thinking about like, who would have charisma but in an off-putting way to certain people. For Rosemary, her husband Paul very much buys into the allure of Papa Jake but she does not.
I found that a really fascinating part of the book. Who does his whole thing work on and who does it not? Which is very much a thing in religious groups. There are charismatic figures certain people are very much attracted to and then other people are like, yeah, that’s kind of weird.
I feel like cult leaders have a big, like ‘that guy?’ vibe. I remember watching the documentary series about NXIVM and the leader, that Keith Raniere guy, that scene where he's playing volleyball? Oh my gosh, I just was like, I cannot with this guy. I mean, hopefully I could not with any cult leader but I was like, this guy with the volleyball, the knee pads and the sweat band?
And yet he's having sex with everyone and they're lining up to help him do whatever it is he does when he’s not having sex.
And, you know, obviously something about him is appealing to men as well. It is very much like, ‘oh, him?’ I don't see it. I would be right out with the volleyball. I'd be like, this is too embarrassing for me to continue. I cannot take you seriously.
Right, and I would imagine that one of the challenges of writing this book is that balancing act of making it a community where someone like Rosemary would realistically end up and where she would think about staying, which I think is another way of thinking about fundamentalist forms of religion and what their draw is for people who- I mean, also for people who grew up in them, but it takes a lot more to get involved if you weren't born into it. What kind of thinking did you do about that? Was it mostly that Rosemary doesn't really have anywhere else to go or she feels like she needs to do this to save her marriage? Or is there also a part of it where she's hoping she can fit in. And how did you balance those things?
It was really hard. When I was starting out, I was like, I can understand why she'd want to leave, like, duh, but why would she get there? To save her marriage? Okay, but that seems like there has to be some other reason and I did not have it. I couldn't really quite figure it out. And then my daughter started gymnastics and she immediately got picked to be on the little team route. And it's been one of those things where I was like, ‘oh, my daughter is going to gymnastics once a week.’ And now I'm like, ‘we are at gymnastics literally all the time.’ And so the farther I got into that world, I was like, oh my gosh, I have figured out what Rosemary's background is that would kind of help explain why she would end up in this situation because gymnastics-
Another intense group.
It's way culty. It is super culty. And I say that as someone whose daughter is very active in it and I am up at the gym all the time with her. And with Rosemary, I had to figure out what it was about her that would explain how she could stay, more than just ‘I'm desperate to save my marriage.’ And with gymnastics, the farther you get into it, the more of an insular world it becomes. My daughter is seven. She is at the gym at least seven hours a week. It's a lot for a seven-year-old.
And that's devotion, too, right?
Yes, exactly. And you're performing for people and you're holding yourself up for criticism. You've got the coaches who are constantly correcting you and the judges who are watching you and everything you do is being evaluated for how beautiful it is, how perfect it is, how well you've done it. And it's very, very rigid. There's a lot of rules, there's a lot of regulations. My daughter is starting to figure out the deduction system. She's like, ‘oh, that's a deduction. Your leotard is too baggy, that's a deduction.’
Oh my gosh, it’s a fun house mirror for fundamentalist religion.
Yes, totally. And so I was like, okay, that is how somebody like Rosemary could end up in a situation like she's in. She’s used to listening to outside voices her whole life telling her what's okay to do, what's not okay to do. Here's how you stay safe. Because the rules are not just for beauty, paying attention to the rules is how you don't break your neck. And she is suffering in Dawes. It is not pleasant or enjoyable for her to be there. But gymnastics is a sport that is about suffering for the sake of beauty and perfection. My daughter is at camp this week and she came home with a rip on her palm. You get it from bars and it's where literally a layer of your skin has ripped off. And she was like, ‘that's okay, that's just part of what it is. And so Rosemary is in Dawes and it's like, okay, this is terrible and miserable, but this is what it takes.
That's how it goes.
Part of how she's grown up and she was a gymnast until she's 15 or whatever, that's a really, really crucial developmental time and it shapes the way you see the world and the way you see yourself and your body and your relation to your body. And my daughter is very close with her little team. I can only imagine the farther you get into it, that community is so important. And I think that Rosemary is really hoping that Dawes could fix her marriage and to be like a community for her, and it just is not.
It seemed to me like she is really taken by Caroline, who is Papa Jake's wife, and I was also fascinated by that character for what she represents. She’s the helper to the man and there to facilitate his vision and all that. But she also has this kind of secret life, which I think is a thing that exists in real life: the woman who works to hold the whole thing up but isn't entirely subject to the same rules as the other women.
I really love that character too. She was more minor and then I kind of built her up a little bit and part of that was creating her Instagram page. I think about the Momfluencers who are performing femininity and the beauty of domesticity, and Caroline is definitely- I feel like she uses that Instagram the way these Momfluencers do, if they were really gonna like peel back some layers, as a way to kind of justify the life that she has. You know, ‘it's not all the way you think it is. Look, this can be beautiful too.’ But it's very carefully curated. And I feel that you get to see little glimpses of Caroline, who she really is, especially in her dealings with Julie, who she really does love and care for. And they have a genuine friendship and a past relationship.
So why does a woman like Caroline not leave?
I think it's a lot of reasons. What's that saying, it’s better to be a king somewhere, than like a peasant somewhere else?
So it’s status?
I feel like Caroline is actually really astute and I feel she can understand the way that the world works and to be a woman in the world. And, you know, it is obviously different in Dawes than it is in the real world but there are parallels and similarities. And I think that Caroline can see that. And it's like, ‘well, here I have a place of power and status that I would not have. I would just be a regular woman out in the world and who cares about that?’ And also, I think a lot about women who have children in a place like Dawes, or, you know, when I was writing We Can Only Save Ourselves and I was thinking about the Manson family, the girls who had babies there. That's your child's father forever and how hard it is to get them away from that world when they're entrenched in that particular community. You know, with Jonestown, that was part of the whole reason that things really got bad was that one of Jim Jones' wives or, you know, not wives, but baby mamas, so to speak, she wanted to take the child away. And he was so panicked about that. And that was part of the reason why they went into like serious lockdown. And so thinking about children as a way to keep somebody in a situation they should not be in.
Motherhood and fertility, all that stuff is such a huge part of this book and it's very closely intertwined with the way a patriarchal cult like this operates. I was reading the book just after Roe fell which was rightly seen as this huge tragedy but the truth is that, in both of our states, reproductive freedom has been under assault for a very long time. The fall of Roe is terrible but we both effectively lost legal abortion a long time ago. So I was wondering how much you were thinking about stuff like that as you wrote this book about religion and patriarchy and control. Rosemary and her husband have an actual calendar where they keep track of her period. It must be tricky, right? When your dystopian novel reflects your actual life more than it warns against a frightening future?
The timing is very surreal. Like you said, these things have been around us forever. Was I consciously trying to write about it? I mean, no, but it's a part of the world we live in and it's in the air you breathe and it's going to come out one way or the other. And it ended up being much more timely than I had hoped or planned on it being. And as far as the fertility aspect of it, my husband and I did IVF. I was able to get pregnant once and then never again. And the doctors were like, we don't know how you were able to get pregnant. And talking to this doctor, who was great, you know, I have no complaints about him, but it was one of those things where he was like, there's still a lot about women's reproductive systems that we just totally, we don't totally understand or know yet. And I was like, oh my gosh, it's deep space, you know? And so I was really grappling with that, having one baby and then wanting to have another baby and not being able to do it and just feeling like my body was not doing what it was supposed to do. And so a lot of that anxiety, I think, is in the book. And just thinking, too, about, you know, certain segments of Christianity are very, very focused on babies and growing your family and childbirth and motherhood as, that's what we are created to do. And not everyone needs to be a mom, not everyone wants to be a mom and how hard that is if you are a person who does not want to be a mom. In this world, there's a lot of shame and judgment around it, and imagine if you were in a community that will outright say you don't belong here, then.
At one point Papa Jake says something like ‘this is why mothers must be strong, the strongest of us all.’ And I quickly folded down the page because it just felt so familiar to me as a religious talking point where the power that people experience in birth or in parenting a child is then put to use by people who actually hold power to further disempower them. It’s lip service, this ‘you're so strong, you're so powerful, you're so important and that's why we can't let you do anything.’ And I think that I have had to, and I still have to, kind of disentangle those messages from my actual experience of motherhood. Because sometimes they can feel true and sometimes they are true, but they're used to take power away from us.
Yeah, my own angst over the role of mothers and my own experience with motherhood, it's like, you know, no matter what you do as a mom, you're wrong. And everyone is like, oh, Moms! But then you’re…just a mom. And so when I became a mom, I was just like, wow, this is in some ways really terrible. I just could not get over it. Granted my daughter was super hard. I mean, all babies are hard, even the easy babies throw you for a loop. But I was just like, everything is so unfamiliar. This baby, I don't know her, she's a stranger. My body, it's all different and strange. And my brain, do I even have one anymore? Who knows? And part of it is so boring. I wanted that to be in there with Rosemary, like, oh, this sucks.
It's not like the sun-dappled Instagram.
No, there is no sun dappling over this house. Being a mom is so great in so many ways but a lot of it is just really hard and no one is preparing you for how hard it is. With Rosemary, it's hard and it's boring and it's not what she wants to be doing. And everyone around her has put so much emphasis on this. Paul has wanted this so badly and it’s like, what's Paul doing? He hands her a diaper. It's just one of those things- the religious stuff, it is something that I think I'm constantly reckoning with. Both of my books have been a lot about being a mom and what it means to be a mom and when you stop being a mom and just all the mom stuff.
I loved the line, “being a mother is an endless series of goodbyes.” Isn't that the truth?
I know, my mom the other day was like, you know, one time it's gonna be the last time that your child crawls into your bed.
Right, and you never know that it is the last time when it’s happening.
Awful. It's so awful. I could cry thinking about it just as I've finished talking about how boring and hard it is to be a mom.
Well, that's the whole thing of it, right? It's terrible and then at a certain point you're like, god, I miss those very boring times where I was just sitting on the playroom floor.
The highs are high and the lows are low. It’s a kind of ecstasy to be with your children and it's also just extremely brutal. Like, if I have to be this talking fish, one more time, I'm gonna lose it.
Just the phrase ‘mom, look’ is so triggering to me. Don't make me look at things anymore. No more demanding than I look at things. I want to control my own eyeballs.
No, no, we gotta look.
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