Brelinski’s debut novel, The Girl Who Slept with God, is about two sisters exiled to a small house outside Arco, Idaho, by their evangelical Christian parents when the elder sister becomes pregnant. Brelinski talks about blending fiction with her own fundamentalist Christian upbringing.
When I was a teenager in Idaho during the early 1970s, I envied the Amish, not only for their rumspringa (when Amish adolescents are encouraged to explore outside their culture), but also for their cozy communities, where everyone appeared to look and act exactly the same. This type of living was antithetical to my parents’ evangelical beliefs; we fundamentalist Christians had to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Unfortunately, my family lived in a neighborhood where the teenagers smoked Camels, listened to Led Zeppelin as they sunbathed in bikinis, and looked at me and my sisters sideways while we sat on our porch in our calf-length Bermudas, silently reading The Cross and the Switchblade and If the Devil Made You Do It, You Blew It.
In the era of the hippie and the disco queen, anything stylish and modern—bell-bottoms, miniskirts, dancing, drugs, sex, and rock and roll—was a sin. According to our church manual, so were circuses, bowling alleys, pool halls, movie theaters, card playing, and “mixed bathing.” These activities (and a litany of others) were strictly off-limits, which hindered the social lives of the teenage members in our church considerably. So, we either sneakily broke these rules and risked eternal damnation, or we made do. Making do involved attending pot luck dinners at our Sunday School teacher’s house, playing innumerable rounds of miniature golf, watching films about the Rapture in a darkened church sanctuary, and standing around throwing snowballs at one another. Somehow or other, my sisters and I still had a certain amount of fun, fell in and out of love, and received secondary educations of a sort.
Here, though, our paths began to diverge. Much like the devout older sister in my debut novel, my own real-life sister became a Christian missionary in Bolivia, while I, just like the rebellious middle sister in my book, began getting kicked out of things. I was expelled from both my school and my home: for having a boy’s hand on my knee, for wearing a dress that was two inches too short, for telling my Bible teacher that Jesus’s wine contained alcohol. And I realized then what I had previously ignored, that the Amish who disagreed with or disobeyed their own doctrines were often excommunicated for life.
I, too, after those initial expulsions, never quite came home again. Instead, I became a prodigal daughter who disappointed her pious parents time and again with her sinful worldliness. Even years later, after teaching at “liberal” Stanford University and writing fiction that revealed personal family details, my parents’ concern for my soul’s salvation never diminished. Regardless, I continue to honor them the best way I know how, by writing truthfully about the effects that religion had on our lives, both for good and for ill. And I try to portray my mother and father as they really were, and as we know parents all are: loving and flawed, wise and misguided, heavenly and human.