By Cameron Dezen Hammon*
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Lookout Books, 2019, 224 pp.
Years ago I coached a writer through his memoir on addiction and faith. He’d given his story a nice arc and was careening toward a tidy conclusion when his beloved mother died—and his meticulous theology got upended. The frame for his memoir was in shambles. He was ready to abandon the project.
Spiritual memoirs have the uncanny tendency to resist formula. The pat theologies and narrative tropes we cling to rarely hold up well in the face of love, loss, human brokenness, and the messiness of daily living. Luckily I convinced my client that a story which ends with more questions than answers is still worth writing. Perhaps it’s an even truer contribution to our collective conversation about what it means to be human. He finished the book.
Cameron Dezen Hammon’s memoir, This is My Body, does a marvelous job holding the questions. Raised by a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, Hammon remembers one Saturday morning standing in line with the other children preparing to carry the Torah into the service. She was anticipating touching the scrolls when a rabbi pulled her out of the line by her collar—he’d figured out that she wasn’t “a real Jew.” “I was hooked,” Hammon writes, “not on Judaism but on religion in general—on something so magical and important that I was forbidden from participating in it.”
Hammon wound up in a hip New York house church that practiced an improvised charismatic evangelicalism. She was baptized at Coney Island in a rain storm in a story-book conversion experience: When her friends pulled her from the water, the sky cleared, the sun broke through, and she was made new. Religious faith gave Hammon community, a direction to steer her increasingly successful singing career, and a way to navigate the “sexual and emotional minefield” of the New York arts scene. Eventually she and her guitarist husband left New York for Texas, where they found work in evangelical churches big enough to hire professional musicians. Much as the music scene was exhilarating, the gender stereotypes, misogyny, and sexual abuse eroded Hammond’s faith.
This “conversion” is ragged. God stays hidden behind the clouds.
This backstory unfolds against the excruciatingly honest account of sexual addiction. At the height of Hammon’s church music career, with her marriage on the line and a young daughter at home, Hammon gets entangled in a long-distance relationship comprised mostly of obsession. Despite her efforts in twelve step programs, only her lover’s withdrawal of affection ends the relationship. This “conversion” is ragged. God stays hidden behind the clouds.
Where does Hammon land regarding God? In a muddle of doubt. Like mystics traversing the dark night throughout Christian history, Hammon concludes her memoir by praying to what she doesn’t believe in to help her believe. It’s not a neat ending, and not especially satisfying—on the surface. But as I see it, this conclusion is a genuine act of faith, deeply gratifying in its truth. Sacred stories are strong enough to hold our brokenness.
*Cameron Dezen Hammon was a 2017 participant in Revision, Christian Spirituality, and the Writing Life: A Week with Lauren Winner at the Collegeville Institute.