My mother told me a story once about the angel who came to heal her in the middle of the night. He appeared at her bedside and said, “I’m going to fix your back.” He touched her, and then she felt a day’s worth of throbbing before it disappeared. After that, the lifelong ache above her tailbone never returned. In her forties, her body freed. My mother taught me the rawest form of pleasure comes from the absence of pain.
My earliest memory of her: the way my mother’s muscles seized while giving my younger brother a bath. I was four. She was twenty-nine. Friends were visiting; we ran in the sunny yard on an endless and warm afternoon. My brother had fallen in the dirt and ended up in the tub. My mother was on her knees when she realized she couldn’t move. Someone called the paramedics, and they carried her out of the house on a stretcher. It terrified me. My mother — who could open any jar, clean any stain, sing any tune — was never frail. Yet somehow she’d become fragile.
Thirty years ago, we attended a church where people were healed. Limps, aches, pains, gone. Healing was a primal act, like breathing. There was no language for it, except for those who could speak in tongues. The sound of it was like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, a mother shushing her baby to sleep. It might have been beautiful, if it hadn’t been a ghost story. All those hot-blooded men, praying the secret words of God. Women, hovering in the ether. Me, feeling like I was screaming at the top of my lungs, but no one could hear.
There’s a fault line where faith and trauma meet.
On one side of the line, this church stands in the fields of western Pennsylvania. It’s mostly empty now. The faithful followers there worked with their hands — roofers, quilters, farmers, hunters. They worshipped a God who spoke with His hands, just like they did.
I didn’t realize until I’d left home that I’d grown up in a faith-healing church in the Rust Belt region of Appalachia. Those terms — faith-healing, Rust Belt, Appalachia — were words I never heard while I lived there. All three are titles thrust on us, from the outside in. An unwanted embrace.
On the other side of the line is this. When I was ten years old, my piano teacher put his hands on…