, April 12, 2012
Tricia Gates Brown’s memoir, Jesus Loves Women, has only three words in the title, and any one of them alone could deter some readers (read: non-denominational, feminist, free-thinking individual) from picking up the book. “Jesus” scares some people. “Love” scares plenty of people. And “Women,” as a capital lettered word and a sex, let’s be honest here, scare lots of people, too. But put them all together, along with a subtitle that says, “a memoir of body and spirit,” and suddenly the book begs questions that makes readers want to open its pages.
I’m one of those people who scares easily upon hearing Jesus in a sentence because, for me, too many people (read: fundamentalist Christians) have used Jesus’ name while justifying unhelpful and, often, hurtful action. But in Brown’s memoir, Jesus is a not simply the son of God who bears the cross of our sins, but a mentor to study, a person to emulate, a helper to meditate upon, and a teacher who advocates self-love and self-respect.
Spanning from youth to middle age, Jesus Loves Women tells the story of one individual woman’s journey into spiritual authenticity. The memoir covers a lot of ground including: a childhood spent navigating a fundamentalist home and community, first love and sexual awakenings, an early marriage rife with stereotypical gender role expectations and emotional control, single motherhood, academic theological study and self-imposed pressure to achieve, a second marriage, a second divorce, and a few international peace keeping missions. Brown handles shifts in time and age without any major jolts; the narrative balances story and summary; it weaves both ideas and memories into a fine cloth. Additionally, although Brown’s book reveals several ill-advised decisions and wrong turns, the narrative voice is thoughtful, contemplative, and honest without being either a shame-a-log or overly self-absorbed. This memoir gives - as all good memoirs should give - its readers a chance to reconsider their own beliefs and paradigms; in this case those ideas we hold about womanhood, religion, war, sexuality, kindness, and what to do with our own hidden corners of secrecy and shame.
The book answers many of the questions the title begs, such as: how can women not know, in this day and age, that Jesus loves them? And, based on the tagline of the book, can a woman express true Christ-like love and still be a sexual being? How does one balance body and spirit anyway? Even though my upbringing wasn’t fundamentalist or even Christian, so much of what Brown meditates upon in her memoir, I related to as an every day woman, like mistakenly trying to find Christ-love through the approval of men, or trying to achieve academic and literary success in order to prove my worth as a person, or feeling confusion about my right as a woman to be a sensual being, or wondering what spiritual purpose my life holds.
Set primarily in the Pacific Northwest, Brown, writes about our lush area with memorable sensory detail. “Lively woods...hold their breath till morning, when birds burst into chorus and deer cut paths to the paltry streams sauntering through the hills.” (About my old haunt of Oceanside, she writes, “Oceanside is spellbinding....Light prances on the water. Cloudscapes part and converge, billowing gradations of white and basalt-gray with gossamer sideburns, layers of steely blue.” I wished all over again I still lived there). But with all the locations in the book, from the Willamette Valley’s influential abbey, to Scotland, to Canada, and back to the Oregon coast, Brown’s writing makes me feel as if I’ve been to those places, and offers metaphors for the narrator’s various emotional states, which, in turn, makes me feel like I’m getting to know a friend.
Jesus Loves Women is impressive in its scope of thought and its coverage of so many aspects of one woman’s life. To write about any individual life is hard enough, but to also manage to articulate truths about female sexuality and longing, violence and peace, and self-health and solitude, raises Brown’s memoir to the level of being a book one keeps close by on the shelf. The kind of book we can turn to again and again to learn from and to relate to and open in order to remember our spirits.