The Girl Who Slept with Godis Val Brelinski's stunning debut. A highly autobiographical novel about her devout, evangelical family, it features three sisters with very different relationships to religion. When we asked Brelinski what she wanted to write about it, she sent us this essay, about her sister's experience of reading the book, which is, of course, partly about her.
My older sister has always been a mystery to me, a stranger with whom I shared a childhood home and very little else. Only four years separate us in age, but they may as well have been decades. From the time we were small, Gail and I had always been at odds. She was calm and serious and secretive, while I was excitable and outgoing and overly dramatic. More divisive still were our differing responses to the extreme religious atmosphere of our household. Our parents were strict evangelical Christians, and we were expected to adhere to our church's many rigid rules and dictates. Gail had no problem with this, in fact, her faithfulness to fundamentalist beliefs outstripped even our parent's, a fact that grew ever more shocking and embarrassing to me as I neared puberty. While she spent her teenaged summers on proselytizing missions, witnessing about her faith to native peoples in South and Central America, I drove around in cars with my friends, blasting rock and roll and looking for boys who didn't belong to our church. When Gail came home from her missionary work, I would deliberately provoke her, accuse her of hypocrisy (her worst fear) and of acting like a martyr. Her peaceful non-response only incensed me further, which perhaps was her intention. We were as unalike as two sisters could be, and I insisted on seeing her extreme "holiness" and saint-like behavior as a way of currying my parents' favor, while she viewed my rebelliousness as an immature and highly sinful response to our family's dearly cherished beliefs.
After college, Gail left home to become a full-time missionary in Bolivia, and was gone for the next fifteen years, while I continued my reckless spree of unchristian-like behavior. Because of her absence and our oppositional lifestyles, my sister seemed as distant from me as the moon or the stars, and just as mystifying. I had no idea what truly motivated her, nor did I know anything about her fears or frustrations. When her three year old daughter died of viral encephalitis, Gail and her husband came home to grieve, but I learned no more then about my sister's internal world than before. She kept her vulnerable, innermost self safely hidden away, and I was too young or foolish or afraid to seek it out. The gap between us had hardened into an unbroachable chasm.
Gail returned to the states once her missionary-tenure was over, but our lives continued to part ways. She stayed in our hometown in Idaho and retained her faith-filled lifestyle, while I moved to San Francisco and became a "worldy" writer. And because I was incapable of truly knowing my sister, and because I desperately wanted to, I did the thing that many writers d I wrote about her. I wrote an entire novel devoted to uncovering the mystery that was my older sister, titled The Girl Who Slept with God. In it, her name is Grace and she does a few things that she didn't in real life, but the majority of the novel is a direct expression of my desire to dissect her, to peel back the careful carapace that she built around herself in order to see what was beneath. Naked, unshelled insects are terrible things to behold, and even worse things to be, and as the publication date of my novel approached, I began to worry.
Gail had not read the book, nor did she know anything about its contents. This wasn't her fault, but mine. I deliberately hadn't told her anything about the novel and I hadn't sent her an advanced copy of it either. Avoiding trouble until the last possible moment has always been my shameful m.o. An absurd and fanciful part of me even imagined that she might never read the book at all.
Thanks to the broad spectrum newscast that is Facebook, Gail caught wind this July of my first reading and book party and asked if she could (or should) attend. I was as equally pleased by her interest and willingness to fly from Idaho to California just for this event as I was afraid of her response. We decided, nonetheless, that she would stay at my house for a few days afterward. This would be the first time we had seen each other since the funerals of our parents five years previous.
Once here, for the next two days Gail did little but sit in my backyard reading the novel, while I attempted (or pretended) to get some writing done on my laptop. Occasionally I crept toward the back window and watched as she turned a page or two in the book.
Late on the second evening, she came inside and sank down in my blue overstuffed chair, novel still in hand. "Did I actually quote Bible verses at you?"
Gail leaned forward and took hold of my hand. Something neither she nor I had ever done in the history of our sisterhood. "It's a beautiful book," she said, continuing to squeeze my hand. "And that's our family right there. Exactly. Never talking to each other, or saying what we really thought. Keeping everything in and then suddenly striking out in a horrible way." She shook her head. "I'd forgotten some of that."
"Well, you had it worse. I took off the first second I could. 'Bye now"”I'm off to Bolivia, Mom and Dad"”see you in twenty years!' Plus, Mom treated you terribly. She never said boo to me."
"That's because she was scared of you. She knew you were a way better Christian than she was."
Gail looked down at our linked hands. "I wasn't such a great Christian."
"You were always amazingly kind to everyone. Even to me when I treated you like a jerk!"
"No, you were just brave and said what you meant. I admired that."
My eyes began to fill embarrassingly with tears. "It was good therapy," I finally said. "Writing the book, I mean."
For a moment she was quiet. "This is too," she said.
"I haven't finished it though." She smiled. "I've got a couple chapters left to go."
"Uh oh," I said, detaching my hand and wiping furiously at my eyes. "You might hate the ending. It's not very happy."
"That's all right," she said. "Neither is life."
We looked at each other for a moment, and then she got up and took her book back outside.
I followed closely behind her, turning off the inside lights one by one. Then I switched on the big back porch light that shone out over the patio, just to make sure that she could see.