The first time I read Virgie Townsend’s debut short story collection, Because We Were Christian Girls, it took my breath away. I read it in one sitting. It’s technically a chapbook—the book is only 54 pages—but Townsend’s stories aren’t light or easily consumable. The stories submerged me back into the liminal space of religious girlhood, shot through with unsustainable transcendence and desperation. Beautiful and incriminating, this collection continues to haunt me.
Townsend writes for a generation of girls who grew up captive to belief and its attendant expectations. Suffused with religious imagery and the claustrophobia of barred exits, her descriptions are devastatingly accurate. The prose is spare and striking. From the very first line—“we start running when church lets out”—this collection shimmers with the intensity of devotional striving. The omnipresence of spiritual danger saturates the collection. The pressure is always on.
Each story is a crucible. Townsend seizes on precise moments when the demands of Christian conformity require a decision of the girls in question. In one piece, a pastor publicly shames a girl for a simple mistake. In “Instructions,” a girl fights to suppress feelings of “same-sex attraction,” which she’s been told is an aberration. While consumed by her struggle, she fails to notice her family’s casual racism toward her Black friend. The story “I Am” takes place during a slumber party when a burning bush—an allusion to the most famous appearance of God in the Old Testament—“erupts in the center of Meg’s bedroom. Flames…lick the popcorn ceiling.” The fabulist elements in Townsend’s stories are coherent with the supernaturalism of the Christian worldview, where a whale is believed to have swallowed a prophet, and a burning bush is believed to have held the voice of God.
These stories are rich and evocative, rendered in prose simultaneously vulnerable and removed: a voice characteristic of a narrator separated from her physical experience. When bodies appear in Townsend’s stories, they are veiled, stigmatized, and even weaponized against their inhabitants. “We wore our dads’ old, floppy T-shirts to the pool at our co-ed Christian camp,” one narrator recalls. The story “Heavenly Bodies” makes explicit the characters’ severed relationships to physicality: “Erin mostly thought about her body when she shopped for loose-fitting shirts to minimize the appearance of her breasts…or when she ate little slips of fresh white paper between meals.” Consideration of one’s figure is permitted only as a means to self-concealment.
The girls embrace belief with fervor. “When I pray, I feel the love of God running through me like a steel beam,” one character confesses, “and I know in my proud, defiant heart that my faith is real.” Yet the expression of that faith is legislated, surveilled, and contested by the adults. These girls are raised in church: the expectation of belief has accompanied them their entire lives. The adults in the stories, for the most part, came to faith later, in their twenties or thirties. Their experience of salvation involved being rescued from a broken world. The girls’ experience, however, was one of being exiled from the world before ever participating in it.
Townsend’s girls demonstrate compassion for the adults, even as those adults fail to recognize the demands their faith places on their children, who didn’t truly get to choose it for themselves. “Our parents are running, too, but we don’t know it yet,” says the narrator of the first story. This recognition bookends the collection. “Tonight, I see for the first time that Mom’s looking for something,” another narrator says. “She’s a seeker and she wants me to seek with her, but we’re not looking for the same thing.”
In the final story, “What Fundamentalists Do,” this one-sided empathy reaches its fullest flowering. When Sarah’s sincere questions about God during Sunday school prompt a stern phone call home from the pastor, her mom takes Sarah to a prayer night at a charismatic church. Sarah is marched like a sacrificial lamb to the front of the sanctuary and the charismatic pastor prays over her, oscillating between approval of her inquisitive nature and “something passive-aggressive about how that could be a problem.” Sarah narrates the tension of watching other congregants be “slain in the Spirit” while awaiting divine intervention.
This scene spurred a visceral reaction for me. As a former Christian girl, I’m intimately familiar with the protracted agony of waiting for God’s Spirit to show up in the expected way, while wondering if I’m at fault for the absence. Is it God’s responsibility to knock Sarah out—a violent and alarming possibility in its own right—or is it Sarah’s responsibility to quietly perform the charade? Which is a demonstration of true faith? What choice will serve the body of believers more?
“My arms begin to ache from holding them out,” Townsend writes. “The pastor’s voice begins to wear, but he continues. He and Mom are waiting for me to drop. All I have to do is fall back and lie on the ground with a dreamy smile.” Townsend illustrates that there is no good outcome. Sarah’s choice bears the burden of supporting or refuting her own faith and the expectations of her mother and the pastor. If she fails to fall, she will be blamed, not God. Without ever naming it, Townsend evokes the betrayal of growing up in these impossible settings: even though the adults wanted to provide salvation, these girls were damned from the start. These stories capture the fatalism of growing up in a context where your only options are conformity or exile. The collection pulses with grief for this intractable situation.
In each piece, Townsend’s girls are asking: what must we do to be saved? It turns out that growing up female and fundamentalist is its own form of damnation.
About the Reviewer
McKenzie Watson-Fore is a writer, artist, and liquor store cashier based in Boulder, Colorado. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Pacific University and her work has been published in Glasstire. She can be found online at mwatsonfore.com