Illustration by Emma D.

I used to be a devout member of the Weirdo Religion. I founded it with my best friend Juliet* and my little brother, Sam, when Juliet and I were in fifth grade. We made a bunch of “lost” scrolls out of construction paper and used calligraphy markers to draw symbols on them—our version of Egyptian hieroglyphics. We “worshipped” our gods by listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. There was a candle ceremony, because why not? They worked for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.

The Weirdo Religion needed to exist because other people had scared me into thinking I was going to hell. A few weeks earlier, Juliet and I had gone to a sleepover at the house of the most popular girl in our school, and she turned on a show about an exorcism. The other girls were really into horror and using the Ouija board, but I wasn’t even allowed to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street and had yet to discover Stephen King, so I scared pretty easily. The possessed girl vomited feathers. Feathers!

When the host, whom I’ll call Liza, saw how freaked I was, she claimed that the girl had been possessed because she didn’t love God enough. She said: “That could totally happen to you, since you weren’t baptized.” Most of my classmates went to CCD or Hebrew school. I didn’t, and I considered myself lucky—I mean, really, who wants to go to extra school? My father had been raised Lutheran, but in the course of protesting the Vietnam War, he decided he was an atheist. My mother had been raised Catholic, but after marrying an atheist, she cut ties with the church. Plus, being a nurse and a feminist, she had a lot of issues with the church’s stances on birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.

As a result, my brother and I were never baptized, taught to pray, or given a Bible, but I do recall attending an excruciatingly long Catholic service with my mom’s family once. That was probably the first time I felt left out when it came to religion, because my aunts, uncles, and cousins got to go up and eat a wafer, but I couldn’t leave the uncomfortable pew, even though I was starving. My mom attempted to explain to me baptism, communion, and the “body of Christ” host, which she said wasn’t very tasty anyway. Regardless, I was still frustrated and confused (and hungry).

In fourth grade, my dad developed a close friendship with a neighbor who was a Mennonite minister. The Mennonites are known for their commitment to pacifism, which appealed to both of my parents, so eventually we started going to his church. Even though I was allowed to eat the bread and drink the grape juice (my mom was right, I hadn’t really been missing out), this change to our Sunday routine annoyed me. I had to listen to our neighbor talk for an hour, then sit in a group with six to eight other kids learning about the Bible for another hour before the one tolerable thing finally happened: we went out for lunch. The Bible stories didn’t interest me. In fact, they bothered me, because it seemed like the woman was always at fault—Eve ate the apple, Delilah cut Samson’s hair. So to avoid Sunday school, I often snuck down to the church basement after the service and hid out in the bathroom. I’d buy the extra-large maxi-pads from the machine and try them on, pondering how the hell I’d deal with wearing one of those enormous diapers when my period came—because unlike Margaret, I wouldn’t be able to ask for God’s help.

By the time I went to that sleepover, my parents, while still involved with the church, weren’t dragging me there that often. I was relieved—until I was suddenly faced with the possibility of being possessed by the devil. There had never been talk of hell in my house or at Sunday service. Loving God and Jesus was pitched to me as a nice, happy thing, but I didn’t relate, and my parents let it go. No one had told me there might be horrific consequences! I was seriously worried. I couldn’t sleep that night, because sleeping meant I wouldn’t be focusing on God, and the devil might be able to sneak into my thoughts and possess me. I spent most of the night in the bathroom, mentally reciting “hate the devil, love God” over and over.

If the idea of possession upset Juliet, she didn’t show it, but after a couple weeks of obsessive-compulsively doing my hate-the-devil mantra, I admitted that the not-being-baptized thing was bothering me. Together we determined that we were weirdos and should baptize ourselves (and my little brother) into our own religion. I’d stopped playing with Barbies and doing roller-skate routines with Juliet, so the Weirdo Religion was something we could “play” when we were bored, but we told ourselves that it was a real grown-up thing—and my motivations for playing were grown-up. I didn’t have to feel different or scared about not going to CCD or Hebrew School with everyone else. And when my parents bugged me to go to church with them, I could point out that I had a religion—one that didn’t require waking up early on the weekend or restrict the wearing of funky hats.

By junior high, I had gotten past my fears about puking feathers, and I didn’t practice the Weirdo Religion anymore, but I’d developed new fears, namely about my future. I’d become thoroughly obsessed with reading my horoscope and using the Ouija board in the hopes that a ghost or the stars or something would be able to tell me when I’d start dating and going to parties and basically having a life like the characters in teen movies do.

I found a New Age/occult bookstore, where I bought incense that would attract love and luck, and a book called Secrets of Gypsy Love Magick. I decided I needed to develop psychic powers so I could foresee if the cute, shaggy-haired guy in my gym class whom I was “just friends” with would ask me to our eighth-grade graduation dance. Despite not belonging to an organized religion, I wanted to believe that something powerful and magical was out there, guiding me toward a cool destiny that would make surviving the awfulness of junior high worthwhile. I didn’t necessarily think that this was God, but I thought that at the very least there were unknowable energies at work, and I wanted to find a way to get in touch with those energies, mostly so I could bend them to my will and control my own fate.