Escape from the Woo ZooReligion and SpiritualitySkepticism

Escape from the Woo Zoo: One Spoonful at a Time

My escape from the Woo Zoo didn’t happen overnight. It did not involve a quick lock pick and zip line from the giraffe feeding trough over the wall to freedom. Instead, my escape was more of a slow digging process that took years. I tunneled out one spoonful at a time.

My parents divorced when I was 6, and both remarried when I was 7. Their weddings were within a week of each other. I was raised Catholic by my mom and stepdad, but every other weekend, I went to the church du jour with my dad and stepmom—everything from staid Methodist to crazy skipping-around, holding-hands, speaking-in-tongues evangelical.

Catholic church was casual. I liked the Saturday evening mass, where the hymns were set to guitars and everyone wore jeans. Even to Sunday morning mass, I was allowed to wear pants or even shorts. I wasn’t a girly girl, so I felt comfortable in this place.

Not thinking a thing of it, I brought what I thought was a nice outfit, pants and blouse, to wear to church with my Dad one winter weekend. I came out of my room thinking I looked pretty only to be met with my Dad’s horrified expression at my apparently slovenly outfit. Girls wear dresses to church! I glanced at my older brother, comfortable in his khakis and button-down, and was conscious for the first time that there were special rules for me. Rules that even then seemed arbitrary and unfair and, in the middle of a Minnesota winter, completely impractical.

Ashamed and feeling ugly in my father’s eyes, I changed clothes. I didn’t know to call this sexism, but I knew that in my father’s religion (and to my father, although I wouldn’t let my mind go there), the person I was comfortable being was not OK.

Spoonful #1: Not all religions had the same rules and beliefs, and they couldn’t all be right. Therefore some were wrong—at least about some things, and if wrong about some things . . .

So I threw myself into Catholicism, which had to be the right religion because everyone was welcome as they were, or so I thought. I listened intently in church, joined the children’s choir, and went through catechism.

The anxiety and depression I would struggle with for years was just beginning to unfurl, and the OCD that would remain undiagnosed for decades found a perfect complement in the church. After all, what was the difference between my personal compulsions and the rituals of my religion?

If a few Hail Marys could absolve me of the sins that were clearly causing my darkest days, then making it to the top of the stairs before the basement door closed behind me could certainly ensure that the day ahead would go well. Not making it to the top of the stairs before I heard that door click shut was of course good reason to fake being sick and hide out at home, averting the certain disaster that would await me at school.

I waited eagerly for my first confession, which I saw as yet another tool to save me from my sinful self, this person who couldn’t do anything right, this person I was growing to hate more and more each day. I went into the booth rather excited, until the priest asked me if I went to mass each weekend.

“Well, every other. I go to a different church with my dad and stepmom on some weekends.”

“Your parents are divorced?”

“Yes. And remarried.”

“Divorce is a sin in the eyes of god. Your parents are committing adultery.”

Adultery? My parents were going to hell?

I ran out of the booth, sobbing, to where my mom was waiting in the car. She tried unsuccessfully to explain that the priest was wrong, that their divorce and remarriages were really OK in God’s eyes.

So my father’s churches did not accept me, and my mother’s church did not accept my parents.

Spoonful #2: Christian denominations were all flawed. They limited who God really was, twisting him into this hateful, judgmental, capricious asshole.

So I continued to go to church, but I would sit there acutely aware of its flaws, smirking and mentally elbowing God: “Can you believe this, God? They just have no idea who you are, do they?”

I set out to find God on my own, the God I wanted to believe in: loving, accepting, nonjudgmental—everything the people around me weren’t, at least not consistently. Everything I wasn’t.

When I started the Catholic confirmation classes, my dad gave me a non-Catholic Bible study book that would guide me through reading the entire Bible. I read every single word. I filled notebook after notebook with my thoughts and questions. The more I read, the more my notebooks seemed to hold far more questions than thoughts. I was running out of rationalizations to make sense of what I was reading.

I began asking some of these questions at my youth group meetings, which were held by a couple from my church in their home. They tried to answer my questions, but their answers only led to more questions. Finally, at one of the last meetings, the woman stood up and screamed at me. I don’t really remember what she said exactly. Something along the lines of it just being the way it was, and how dare I question God, and that I was this horrible person ruining the group for everyone. Her husband tried to talk her down, but I was already on my way out the door.

And that clinched it. After fulfilling nearly all of my confirmation requirements, including youth group and countless hours of “community service” (lots of free babysitting among other things), and despite the promise of a ton of cash from relatives at my confirmation party, I decided just before the ceremony not to get confirmed. I told my mom it would be dishonest. I did not believe in Catholicism.

In fact, after reading the Bible, I could no longer call myself a Christian.

Spoonful #3: The Christian God really was a hateful, judgmental, capricious asshole. And completely, ridiculously unbelievable.

Of course, there were other subtle moments, many more spoonfuls, that helped me tunnel out, but these are the ones that stand out in my memory.

I finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel, but I wasn’t out of the zoo yet. As I emerged, I could hear quacking. I was simply in another cage, trapped by my beliefs in the paranormal, alternative medicine, and nearly every kind of pseudoscience you can imagine. I would remain here for many years, and that spoon wasn’t going to cut it. To truly escape from the zoo altogether, I would need a shovel.

But that is a story for another time.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.


  1. March 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm —

    I want to thank the author of this – how brave and honest of you to share this piece of your journey. It reminds me again and again how much Atheists and Queer teens have in common – holding this “hidden” truth of who you are and what your heart and mind are saying until we all finally come out and live authenically. Thank you.

  2. March 25, 2011 at 6:03 pm —

    Thanks for writing this. My process was similar, and I really identified with your “one spoonful at a time” analogy. It’s been a few years now since I had to work through this all on my own, and reading your story brought those feelings back again. Looking forward to the next chapter!

  3. April 10, 2011 at 12:12 am —

    I set out to find God on my own, the God I wanted to believe in

    There is none who understands;There is none who seeks after God Rom3:11 .

    Our natural tendency is to seek our own interests
    trying to mold God into whatever suits us.Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Praying God will seek you

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