In Conversation With
Adrian Shirk, who teaches in the BFA Creative Writing program at Pratt Institute, is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Stories from the Byways of American Women and Religion (Counterpoint Press). It's a finely textured, wide-ranging “hybrid memoir” that NPR called one of the best books of 2017. She is a columnist for Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic. This is her first book.
Tom Simpson: What made you want to craft the book as a “hybrid memoir”? How do you see your own eclectic spiritual and religious heritages, and quests, intersecting with those of women who lived generations, even centuries, ago?
Adrian Shirk: Personal narrative is just the way I write, the way I sort through and develop ideas and information. So, I really didn’t think of it as a memoir, at least not a memoir with a complete story or arc at its center, but rather a haphazard collection of personal essays where I was present as a kind of fellow traveler with these women through their lives, their theologies, but I did not think of myself as central. But the thing is, there was a fairly coherent story about myself at the center. It just took a while to work it out.
It’s interesting—memoir was not a word that came up until after the book was acquired by a publisher, and it had to be sold to people, and we had to come up with language that made it recognizable and enticing to readers. It was really hard for me to accept that label—even though it was obviously, deeply autobiographical. And I think what it made it difficult to call it a memoir was that there was a long tradition of memoir as a genre being relegated to the category of ‘less important’ or ‘less serious,’ and memoirs specifically produced by women. And I had internalized that.
So, it was a journey in itself to kind of claim the genre, because I started to realize that all of these theologians and religion makers that I was studying and thinking about—they all wrote spiritual autobiography. In fact, spiritual autobiography has been the primary way people do theology for ages. I once heard the public theologian Diana Butler Bass make this point—that for men, when men write memoir, it ends up being called Calvinism or Lutheranism. Or Augustinian duality, or, hell, as far as I'm concerned, the gospels.
Yet, even as I was finishing the book, I still felt like ‘I’m not an expert, I’m not trained to think about these subjects, I’m an imposter!’ I’m a writer, not a historian—am I even qualified to be handling this material? Can I speak articulately about theology, and do I even know mine? Could I talk my way out of a theological box if pressed? Where do I belong, and who is my audience, and who am I in conversation with?
Something about the book having to come out, having a ‘delivery date,’ having to become clear, right at the end, gave me some quick (but late) clarity—by its release, I finally understood the value of its hybridity. Suddenly that it was a social history / memoir was not something that caused agony, but something I understood as an endemic part of the book, because part of the history of feminist scholarship and thought is breaking down disciplines, merging borders, making the personal political, etc.
TS: Did an inner voice tell you early on that you had a killer book on your hands, or did you need some convincing?
AS: I wish I could say it came to me clearly, a clarion call: the world needs, and is ready for, a book about badass American female mystics! I’m going to write it! But no. And it wasn’t that I doubted the value of such a book—I just literally didn’t understand what kind of book I was writing for quite a while.
It came together, piece by piece, historical character by character. It didn’t hatch as a coherent overarching idea. I thought, at first, I was writing a book more generally about the wide, wild range of American Protestantism, all the ways in which people had taken up the project of reinterpreting the resurrection again and again. I loved that shit. There was something freeing in that. I needed some freeing at the time. And the women I was encountering—Mary Baker Eddy, Sojourner Truth, Aimee Semple McPherson, Marie Laveau—seemed to consistently be at the Christian vanguard.
I was feeling so much unrest in my traveling through a lot of Christian communities and theologies. I’d converted as an adult, after a secular-humanist “spiritual but not religious” upbringing. I’d learned a lot on my travels, but I also started to feel compromised by what seemed to me like a choice, in terms of community, between theological rigor and conservatism or a kind of vaguely spiritual humanism. By the time I was deep into the book, I’d withdrawn from religious community, and was just whacking around in the woods. So, I guess, these women were, in a way, my religious community for a time?
This was going on for many years. If anyone asked me what I was working on I’d say, I’m working on a book about American women prophetesses.” And they’d say, “What the hell is a prophetess,” or they’d say, “Like who?” And I’d name some—oh, ya know, er, Linda Goodman, Eliza Snow, Flannery O’Connor… and they’d screw up their face a bit, either because they weren’t sure who most of these people were, or because, like, “Flannery O’Connor’s a short story writer, though! Why not Dorothy Day? Mother Ann?” The list was so idiosyncratic and messy and so specific to the encounters I was having. I was so “in” the story, it was hard to describe.
So, in this way, I think the book came up with the ages, came up with me. I started it when I was a wee lass of 23, in 2012, and it came out eight months after Donald Trump was elected, in 2017, when I was 28. I couldn’t have predicted all that, and the book was shaped by everything that happened, everything that was happening. My own feminism and politics and theology sharpened as I worked on the book, and lived—rather than having a clear thesis or platform. It really wasn’t until right before the book came out that I thought, “Ah, yeah, this book really does need to come out right now.” Because I was like, Oh my God, this book is about women wresting interpretive authority! This book is about the magical, wild, crazy, liberating things what happens when women talk back to a tradition that has been talking to them for millennia.
TS: The book has such a rich cast of historical characters. You devote essays to Mary Baker Eddy, Sojourner Truth, Flannery O’Connor, the astrologer Linda Goodman, the Voudou priestess Marie Laveau, the teen spiritualist mediums the Fox Sisters, Lakota healers, and more. What drew you to these women, and what made you want to write about religious women in particular?
AS: I wanted to write about religious women because I needed some freeing at the time, from what felt like a zero-sum game: bow down to the conservative religious orthodoxy or be doomed forever to be a “cherry picker,” keeping only the parts you like. The women, the prophetesses, the mystics, showed me an alternative that was always there, and that I really needed to be shaken into—they were like: we’re not cherry picking. We’re reinterpreting the whole thing. And we’re right, dammit.
How did I find them? Hmm. I sort of “ran into” each of them by accident—i.e., I heard about Lily Dale from a local medium, found Aimee Semple McPherson on the radio, read Nell Irvin Painter’s book on Sojourner Truth in a graduate seminar on religion and American women writing. I certainly did not “run into” them in church spaces I was in, and that made me want to write about them more. Because—here they were! Taking over the Christian narrative. Prophetess begetting prophetess. These women who were at fore of religious innovation, encountering a theology and saying, “I am the interpreter now!” And some of the characters came to me as I started to re-evaluate the prophets who were already in my midst, had always been there, who had seemingly little to do with church: Flannery O’Conner, Linda Goodman, the radical feminists of the 5th Street Women’s Building takeover, my aunt Robin.
And it wasn’t that they were all women I admired—or, at least, my admiration was complex. It’s not that I thought each of theirs was the “right” theology. It’s more like—I was just endlessly moved by their powers of vision and interpretation, and it moved something in me. As I began to travel through their stories, and their own process and prophecies, they taught me something about what it might mean to be theologically literate, and showed me that I can be an interpreter, that we all can, that we all are.
TS: Absolutely. Throughout the book, women are claiming spiritual and religious authority, often wresting it from men. Is this, at least in some way, a book for the “me too” and “believe women” era?
AS: I think it resonates with the “me too” movement because the “me too” isn’t identifying novel or unusual or recent abuses. The idea is that it’s a reckoning, a talking back to a tradition—whether that’s a legal tradition, a cultural tradition, social tradition, or a religious tradition—that’s been talking TO them and silencing them or describing their experience to them or categorizing their experience for them forever and ever and ever. And it’s a moment where in all these messy, complicated ways, women are saying: you’ve had your goddamn chance. I am now going to tell this story, I am now going to tell you what this means, I am now going to tell you what happened.
TS: After such extensive introspection and research, have you come to a conclusion about whether religion is, on balance, good or bad for women? Is it life-giving or death-dealing?
AS: I don’t think that religion is death-dealing for women by nature. But something that came up through the writing (and the living, too, I guess), was coming to understand the difference between theology, religion, and the institutions that control that theology, the administration of the theology. So, I started to think of religion as this thing over here, and the institutional powers that be—as this other thing, over there.
I guess, I think of religion as this pure idea, this raw material, and that that raw material of religion is a story of liberation, and is therefore good. I mean, my answer here is ridiculously broad. But that’s basically what I think. Religion is good. Institutions are, generally, very bad—mostly because they are just containers for a certain kind of accretion of power, which will almost always be used to control women.
Thinking about this stuff, though, allowed me to re-enter the project of theology and religion-making and faith community in a way that was really hard when I associated religion with being inextricable from the sinister institutions. But here was example after example, however disparate, where I’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, here’s another woman who is sort of taking on the project of theological interpretation and she’s doing something amazing or strange with it!’ Like, Mary Baker Eddy, here she is, creating a strange, egalitarian religion under the incredibly restrictive Victorian period! Or Sojourner Truth who’s wresting interpretive authority and saying, “Oh you wanna know Christ, then you have to have an encounter with me, a survivor of slavery, rape, poverty, separation.” A theology, a religion, like Sojourner Truth’s is a source of ultimate, paradigm-shifting liberation, in this life and the next, and it’s a theology that places her at the front, in a society that would never have been able to do that.
TS: What’s next for you?
AS: I’m working on a book about American utopian communities! There are lots of overlaps here with And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, in that a lot of the people and movements I’m looking at are also reinterpreting doctrine—some religious, some political, most both. Divine socialism and queer / feminist separatists reign supreme in my interests. But who knows what the scope will be. Right now, everything’s fair game—I’m just writing and reading broadly. Everything from radical communitarian Christian groups like the Shakers to Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, to the formation of the Oregon Women’s Land Trust and the radical faery communities of middle Tennessee—and finally, yes, finally getting to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers.