- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009


By Joe Queenan

Viking, $26.95, 338 pages


By Kyria Abrahams

Simon & Schuster, $25, 352 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

How does religious faith die? Faith dies in a thousand different ways. It dies suddenly, in reverse-Damascus experiences. It dies cut by cut, drip by drip, until the prophets and shades fall silent. It dies in ways comprehensible and ways mysterious.

Two new memoirs, however, suggest a surprisingly common, brutal calculus employed by former fervent believers. When religion ceases to be useful to us, apostasy is almost a given.

“Useful” should not be mistaken for “relevant,” or what passes for relevant in many churches. A lot of happy clapping doesn’t help. Kyria Abrahams grew up a poor Jehovah’s Witness in Pawtucket, R.I. Joe Queenan sprang from an even poorer Irish and Catholic family in Philadelphia.

Ms. Abrahams’ religion is a cultish “fundamentalist” one that shaped her family’s life and limited her associations. In her memoir and first book, “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed,” she writes that she once fled a friend’s house over the presence of a Ouija board.

How did her pursuits differ from her friends from school? She explains, “At bedtime, I’d lie in my canopy bed and thumb through Jehovah’s Witness literature, reading aloud stories of the coming paradise interspersed with pictures of the wicked being swallowed by pits of lava. My children’s books alternated between Dr. Seuss rhymes and tales of how sinners would scream and gnash their teeth at Armageddon.”

Mr. Queenan as a child won a writing competition with an essay calling for the retention of the Latin Mass. In his 10th book, “Closing Time,” he confesses that he prayed fervently, requesting of the Almighty that the old pastor of the local parish would be granted a long life so that the younger priest with new ideas wouldn’t be allowed to wreck the place.

Somehow, one doubts more “Kumbayas” would have done much good in either case.

Superficially, our memoirists have a lot in common. Their parents held together bad marriages for years, their fathers found it hard to hold down jobs, their mothers ended up the real breadwinners who finally called it quits.

But Mr. Queenan had it much worse and managed to make it through less scarred. The Abrahams scrimped and had to rent. The Queenans lived in the projects for years, and the children too often went to bed hungry. Ms. Abrahams’ family used corporal punishment but her parents were not, for the most part, cruel. Mr. Queenan’s father beat his children “often” and “savagely,” especially when he was drunk.

The younger Mr. Queenan made one attempt to kill himself. Ms. Abrahams constantly threatened to snuff it, and one gets the sense she still might. At the end of their memoirs, he is content, she is not.

Perhaps the different ways they lost their religions account for the difference. Mr. Queenan drifted away gradually. He spent a year in a seminary prep school and discovered that it wasn’t for him. As he grew older, he grew less pious and more horny. He credits the Catholic Church for helping his family to survive tough times, and he still has some sense of residual “Christian duty,” even though he is no longer a Christian.

Ms. Abrahams’ break was more sudden and more intentional. She left her husband and took up with a slam poet, which led to her being “disfellowshipped” (shunned) by the local Kingdom Hall. She then proceeded to sleep with the poetic equivalent of the whole junior varsity team.

In a perverse way, she blames her old faith for her newfound promiscuity. “It didn’t feel wrong to have sex with my friend’s boyfriend because I couldn’t fathom anything being wrong anymore,” she writes. “I’d been told that murder was as wrong as eating birthday cake was as wrong as smoking, as wrong as reading books, as wrong as having sex with your best friend’s boyfriend.” You don’t have to be a Jehovah’s Witness (this reviewer is not) to think her blame-shifting monstrously unfair.

Religious faith ceased to be useful to Mr. Queenan, first, because it failed to bring order to his family; second, because it failed to get him out of the house; and third, because it didn’t help him make his way in the world. It ceased to be useful to Ms. Abrahams because it trapped her in an early “loveless marriage” that she wanted to escape.

Her divorced parents came together and tried to talk her out of that. She describes them as being like “a tumultuous rock band who had put aside their differences to reunite for one final benefit concert. One night only. Don’t miss this final chance to see your parents as they Rock Against Divorce!” The passage is good for a chuckle, as is much of “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed.”

Ms. Abrahams has written the funnier memoir, Mr. Queenan the better one.

Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”

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