An Interview with Author Linda Kay Klein

By Janene Cates Putman

Linda Kay Klein
Linda Kay Klein, photo by Jami Saunders Photography

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing author Linda Kay Klein by phone on September 7, 2018, to support the release of her book PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. After initial greetings and securing Ms. Klein’s permission to record our conversation, we dove right in! You can listen in on our conversation below (lightly edited for clarity). 

Janene Cates Putnam (JCP): I’ve just finished reading your book and I cannot begin to tell you what a fan I am! I was a teenager in the early ‘80s so I didn’t get the purity “industry,” but I most certainly got the purity culture. My copy of PURE is filled with highlights and underlines. Will you please summarize the purity movement?

Linda Kay Klein (LKK): When I say “purity industry” I’m referring to this industry that came on in the early 90s. That’s when we start to see purity products come into vogue: the purity rings and the purity balls and the purity pledges and the purity curriculum and the purity videos—so much product. The products that I think really illustrate it the best are purity-themed Bibles. I talked about this in the book. You would have in your Bible 60 pages of non-biblical material about the importance of remaining sexually pure. I think that’s such a great illustration of what it was like growing up {in purity culture}. How do you separate yourself from your so-called sexual purity? Those things become one and the same in your mind.

JCP: Which leads me right into “Religious Trauma Syndrome” – how does it manifest in your interviewees in the book?

LKK: There are a bunch of different phrases people use to try to explain this. Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) was developed by Dr. Marlene Winell. What she talks about when she defines RTS is its mimicking of other disorders. It is mimicking PTSD, it’s mimicking anxiety disorders, it’s mimicking obsessive compulsive disorders—all kinds of different things. That came up a lot in my interviews.

The thing that I point to most often are people’s PTSD-like experiences that I have seen, particularly when I’m interviewing Jo. She keeps going to therapists and telling them what’s happening to her and her therapists keep saying, “Let’s look in our books and in our training, and we’re going to diagnose you with Dissociative Personality Disorder. You say you’re one person in church and you’re someone else when you’re at home.”

This interpretation indicates there’s so much more work to be done in training therapists, because it’s incredibly healthy and normal for Jo to put on her “shiny Jesus self,” as she phrased it, when she’s at church. And it’s not as though she is doing anything wildly different when she goes home. This is not a personality disorder. Rather, it is not feeling safe to bring her whole self.

JCP: You said in the book that one of your interviewees said sex (within purity culture) is this huge thing outside of myself that I must be on guard against; it’s not integrated into who I am. I’m not allowed to be a sexual being; that is wrong and sinful and evil. That has got to mess with one’s mental health.

LKK: Gosh, you know that’s such a good point. When we talk about sexuality we talk about the threat of it, and so it doesn’t feel like it is you. Although, of course, it becomes you once you’re deemed to be impure. When you’re pure, it is outside of you and it’s a threat that you have to guard against. Once you are considered impure it becomes you, and it takes over. That’s a really interesting point— that is definitely part of this larger picture of teaching people not to claim their whole selves; that we talk about sexuality as though it isn’t us. I think many people in the church believe that your sexual self is a temptation that’s put into your mind and put into your heart by evil forces and that it isn’t you.

JCP: It just makes my head spin around!  You say in the book, “We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies, our own sexual natures all under strict commandment of the church.” That’s exactly what we’re saying here – you’re prohibited from being all of who you are.

LKK: Yes, and so much of what I’m doing with Break Free Together, the new organization that I’m in the very early stages of founding, is about ending sexual shame and helping people claim their whole selves – spirits, minds, and their bodies. I really think that is just what it comes down to—something simple. It’s not about revolutionizing anything; it’s just about claiming yourself; about being able to say, you are mine, you are me, and I’m no longer going to reject parts of you; I’m going to hold you and embrace you and claim you.

JCP: You said that the purity movement resides in the “us versus them” narrative that we see so often in evangelicalism. Tell me about that.

LKK: The larger narrative that I was raised with in the evangelical church was based on a binary; everything was either good or bad. That was true when it came to people who were in the community and people who were out of the community: if you were in you were saved, if you were out you were unsaved; if you were in you were good, if you were out you were bad; if you were in, you were to be trusted, if you were out you were not trustworthy. And the purity narrative ends up slotting right into that. So if you’re one of us, you’re pure. And if you are impure, we’re not so sure you’re one of us, so you become a threat to us.

Particularly if you’re a girl or a woman, you are taught that you need to protect everyone else by your purity because men and boys are easily sexually tempted. So girls and women have to be responsible for the sexual purity of the whole community, essentially. So, if you are deemed impure, do you belong in this community? Should you belong in this community because now you stand as a threat to the community?

Pure Book CoverJCP: I was stopped in my tracks reading in the first part of the book where you talked about how you enjoyed having a relationship with God; praying and doing your Bible study were sources of joy and inspiration for you. And it might have stayed the same—and here’s your quote— “Had I not been a girl.” That made my heart drop out of my physical body. I have four granddaughters and I cannot imagine their having to say this. What you’re doing is changing this.

LKK: I hope so.

JCP: It absolutely is. We have to get this book out to everybody who has ever dealt with the sort of sexual shame that comes from the people who are supposed to love them and protect them.

LKK: That’s so well said. You know, I just want to underscore what you said because, 9.5 times out of 10, it doesn’t come from somebody who you hate or who hates you. It comes from somebody who you love and who you trust and who has sworn to protect you and to be responsible for your spiritual health and well-being. I think that’s one of the reasons why some of my interviewees talk about not being able to go into churches without breaking into tears. I think there really is a feeling of betrayal because these are people that we loved and that loved us, yet they embedded these ideas that led to a hatred of self.

JCP: I think for the most part the people who do this mean well.

LKK: I agree.

JCP: I don’t think the purity industry got together in 1990 and said, “Let’s ruin a bunch of girls.” I believe the people who still teach that want the best for girls and boys, and they believe the end justifies the means.

LKK: I completely agree.

JCP: And what your work is doing is showing that this, indeed, is not the case.

LKK: Right. It’s short-sighted. Because really, what they’re saying is, “Well, the logic makes sense to me. If I can just keep her from having sex, she won’t be hurt. Then we can marry her off to a good Christian man and she won’t be hurt there.” The logic seems sound in their minds.

As long as you don’t look at the reality of people’s lives, you can continue to swim in that circle of logic. That’s what I’m hoping to do with this book— to show people what’s really happening, to show the real consequences of these teachings for many, many people.

JCP: I think it’s interesting that we as women are expected to flip a switch. You may not be anything but virginal before you get married, but after you get married you for damn sure better be a hellcat in bed, or your husband’s going to stray— and it’s going to be your fault. I think that that is part of the harm. I’ve personally known many women that grew up with this thinking who have had sexual issues in their marriage.

LKK:  That comes up a lot for me as well. People share that with me all the time.

JCP: I want to talk about something fun for a minute— the Harry Potter dementors.*

LKK: It’s fun until you get to the dementors part— that is not fun!

JCP: No, but the Harry Potter part is fun. I started laughing and I needed a little laugh right then.

LKK: I agree; that’s one of the reasons I placed it there. Rosemary’s story really is so heartbreaking and that spoke to her and her spirit. She’s a survivor and she’s the one who took us there in that moment.

JCP: The dementors are coming to her and making her relive her shame, and she has found a way to come out on the other side of that.

LKK: Yes, definitely.

JCP: I love this quote in your book: “Surviving gives you a very unique set of skills. It costs a lot. But it also makes you powerful.”

LKK: Yes, that’s from Rosemary.

JCP: That was another goosebumps moment for me.

LKK: I just got goosebumps now hearing you repeat it.

JCP: I want to talk about how we get over it. How can we not pass this down, particularly for women who are raising children in the church? How do we, as mothers and grandmothers and aunts and mentors, get past this so we can lead the next generation into a better way?

LKK: I think the very first thing that has to happen is that we need to do our own personal work. There is so much that we inadvertently pass on from how we were raised and the messages we learned that we don’t mean to pass on. We know that they hurt us in many cases. Because we haven’t really deeply deconstructed them, they still show up in our language, in how we talk about someone, in what we don’t say, in what we don’t respond to, in how we live our own lives— these things that we were raised with show up. I think that’s the very first thing to remember.

You know, there was a study that I read that was really interesting; let’s see if I can remember exactly what the shape of it was. My memory is that they studied young people and their responses to their parents. They had the parents do one of three things: one set of parents told the young person to do something; the second set told the young person to do something and demonstrated doing it themselves; and the third set of parents only demonstrated it in their own lives.  They assessed what made the young people most likely and least likely to do the thing. And the young people were most likely to do something when they saw their parents do it and didn’t get told to do it themselves—in other words, when they just saw it modeled for them. The second most likely was when they saw it modeled and were also told. And, of course, they were the least likely to do it when they were just told.

The big takeaway from that, for me, is that we really need to do our own “shame work” and come into the story and talk about what we were raised with— and talk about the legacies of that way of being raised, from the standpoint of our own lives. [We need to talk] with our peers, with our friends, with people who don’t want to change us—people who really just want to listen.

In my experience, having spent 12 years putting myself through a form of narrative therapy essentially, that’s really how you heal. You tell your story often enough, and hear your story told back to you in the stories of others, and that helps you to start to give context to your experiences, and to start to say, “Oh, here’s something that was happening that’s affected a lot of us. Okay, maybe that isn’t part of my story because I’m so broken or bad like I was told; maybe it’s actually something else. And if it’s something else, then I can actually have the agency to address that thing.” That’s the first step and I think so many people want to skip this step. And I think the reason people want to skip this step is that it’s really hard.

JCP: And it’s really messy. And it’s really yucky.

LKK: And it brings up things that you want to stay down. That’s what shame does— it puts us into silence and puts us into hiding, So that’s the first step. I think even just doing your own work is something that young people are going to see. It can be a form of modeling. It doesn’t even have to happen in secret. I mean, you probably don’t want to do your deconstruction with young people, but I think it’s important for them to know that you were raised with certain things that you are now questioning. And I think that’s a healthy thing for people to be aware of.

JCP: I think that’s a healthy spirituality overall.

LKK: Yes, yes, I agree.

JCP: When he’s introducing a teaching series, one of my favorite pastors will say, “When we’re finished with these sermons we will have more questions than answers,” and I love that.

LKK: Me, too.

JCP: I was raised that everything has an answer. Everything is black or white. The Bible tells you everything you need to know. And that’s just not true. The ability to question is part of what set me free. I think it would be difficult to heal in a place where you feel alone. I think we need community, somebody outside ourselves to say, “You are not alone.”

LKK: I completely agree. The organization that I’m starting is called” Break Free Together” for a reason. I don’t think we break free alone.

JCP: After you do your personal work, or while you’re doing your personal work, what’s the next step?

LKK: I think we need to use values-based sexuality education. I find it kind of nonsensical that, in so many other areas of our life, we teach people to make values-based decisions. When it comes to spending money, we don’t tell people to never spend a dime or to spend every dime they make. We teach people to use values and to reflect on your future and all kinds of things to determine what healthy financial life looks like for you. And it might not look the same for you as for someone else. Your financial means might be different, or your financial goals might be different. And we trust people to make these values-based decisions, and we teach people to do that. But with sex we talk about it so completely differently in that we don’t talk.

JCP: Because the only value you need, according to purity culture, is to keep it zipped up until you get married. You don’t ever have to consider anything else.

LKK: That’s right. The purity ethic, as you know, is one man, one woman in marriage forever. I do this workshop sometimes where I’ll bring that ethic and then I’ll say, “Okay, so we’re going to split this phrase up into groups: we’re going to say, ‘One man, one woman’ here; we’re going to say, ‘In marriage’ here; and we’re going to say, ‘Forever’ in the third group. And in each of these categories, I want you to list actions or people who are ashamed because of this part of the equation.” We’ll put in things like same-sex couples, or people who are a man and a woman, but, the woman is the primary earner, and the man is the stay-at-home father, or whatever it is. Then I’ll say, “Now, I would like for you to list all the sexual realities in our world that do not show up in in any of these phrases that I put up, or in any of the shamed phrases that you put up underneath.” We get answers like sexual violence and all kinds of things. And then we look at each of those things and we see how each of those things in our society— and particularly in our churches that teach this purity notion— are judged by that purity ethic all the same. Did it happen between one man and one woman in marriage forever?  Well, then, it couldn’t possibly be rape, even though you told me that it was incredibly violent. Did it happen outside of one man and one woman in marriage forever? Well, then you have, clearly, both parties made impure, regardless of whether there was violence. We end up using that same ethic to assess everything because it’s the only thing we’ve got.

So yes, it is important to really teach people to get over their shame around sex and sexuality and about even talking about sex and sexuality, and to actually be able to discuss with young people how they can use their values to navigate relationships, friendships, romantic relationships and sexual relationships at developmentally appropriate stages. I really love the sex ed program called Our Whole Lives because, in this model, they look at it as sexuality education across the lifespan. You start talking with kindergarteners about these values and how they play out in their friendships. How should you be treating someone? How should you expect them to treat you? At the appropriate age, you begin to help people understand how these can play out in romantic relationships so that people actually have a wide set of tools to be able to use throughout their lifetime.

JCP: I can appreciate this because I got divorced at 39 and my ethics and values were drastically different than when I was 19. I got to navigate this in my 40s and, let me tell you, it was not a lot of fun.

LKK: Yeah, and when you have no tools, you have nothing to base it on. I use the metaphor of a Swiss Army knife – you’re trying to build your Swiss Army knife in real time and you’re building it by getting hurt.

JCP: A quote in the book about values-based sexual ethics said, “Love God, love neighbor, love self… is a touchstone for our sexuality…” That’s everything that Christ told us to do. Being able to integrate that into not only our spiritual lives and our mental lives and our emotional lives but also into our sexual lives—that is such a freeing concept.

LKK: I completely agree, and I love the way that Paula frames that quote [in the book]. She said, “It’s not about over 600 [Old Testament] laws; it is about two laws with three things embedded into them and Jesus says all the other laws are based on these three.” I just love that. It really made clear that all the other laws are just people trying to make those three things make sense in the context of our lives so if we can just really focus on those three things.  I agree that’s such a useful touchstone.

JCP: How can we get more information about Break Free Together?

LKK: At LindaKayKlein.com there’s a page for Break Free Together. We’re also putting out a hashtag right now, #BreakFreeTogether, for people who are ready to share their stories about the ways in which sexual shaming has impacted us, the broken sexual ethic that we were raised with and how that plays out in countless ways.

JCP: I cannot thank you enough for giving me this time. I know your time is valuable. Congratulations on the release of the book! I’m excited to see it soar up the best sellers list!

LKK: Thank you.

 

* Wondering what a “Harry Potter Dementor” is? Here’s a quote from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3) by J.K. Rowling:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. 

[go back to text]

 

Related:

Janene Cates Putman’s review of Pure (on Christian Feminism Today)

Author website 

Break Free Together

Purchase Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free on Amazon. (CFT will receive a small portion of your purchase price.)

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