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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Book Review: ‘Devout,’ by Anna Gazmarian - The New York Times

She Trusted God and Science. They Both Failed Her.

"In “Devout,” an author who grew up in the evangelical church recounts her struggle to find spiritual and psychological well-being after a mental health challenge.

By Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer’s most recent book is the novel “Girls They Write Songs About.”

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DEVOUT: A Memoir of Doubt, by Anna Gazmarian

The photo portrays a woman with short brown hair, seated, wearing a green-and-black flocked velvet top, with hands folded over her knees. She is wearing green nail polish.
Anna Gazmarian did everything that millennial evangelicals were supposed to do: She wore a purity ring, listened to sanctioned bands and avoided Harry Potter. And yet, she believed, her faith was inadequate.Jo Lindsay Co

In “Devout,” Anna Gazmarian writes of being given a Christmas present she found impossible to keep: a pendant necklace holding a tiny seed. It was a reference to the passage in Matthew where Jesus tells his apostles that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.

Gazmarian, struggling with bipolar disorder and an accompanying affliction of doubt, threw the necklace into the trash. It didn’t matter that it had been a gift from her well-meaning mother — what it symbolized was of no use to her. “I wanted a faith as large as a deeply rooted oak tree,” she writes, “the kind where you had to lean back to see the highest branches in the sky.”

The evangelical Christianity Gazmarian had been raised in, which had taught her to see depression as a symptom of spiritual weakness — possibly even the work of the Devil — could not help her realize this vision, and in “Devout” she tells of how she eventually found healing for both mind and soul.

In this, her first book, she does not condemn what wounds her. “I’ve been breaking down and rebuilding my concept of faith, searching for a faith that can exist alongside doubt, a faith that is built on trust rather than fear,” she writes in the preface. “A faith with room for prayer and lament.” “Devout” is both of these, “offered in the hope of restoration.”

The memoir begins shortly after Gazmarian, having started college in her native North Carolina, receives a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. She takes this as yet another sign that her faith is at fault — despite having done all the things that millennial evangelicals were told to do. She’d worn a purity ring, listened to the sanctioned bands and stayed away from the supposedly occult- glorifying Harry Potter books.

But obedience does not stop her mind from turning against itself. Her daily prayer journals contain lists of all the ways she hopes to die. The next years contain five different psychiatrists’ offices, eight different mood stabilizers and two kinds of A.D.H.D. medication. Throughout, she tries desperately to hang onto her faith.

Pastors are patronizing, and her friends are no better. She’s prayed over, told to pray more herself, quoted to from Scripture and referred to a book titled “Praying for Your Future Husband: Preparing Your Heart for His.”

That all of this does not lead to a complete renunciation of her faith might be hard to fathom — even for those who mourn the loss of their own. It’s especially hard when the author reveals that, before the diagnosis, her pastor had removed her from a leadership team because he worried she’d be a distraction to the boy appointed church intern.

But Gazmarian isn’t failed only by a Christianity that, when it’s not teaching her that men and their sexual purity matter more than any woman ever will, teaches her to be skeptical of science. She’s also failed, again and again, by science itself. This is perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the story: watching a young woman desperate to be well hand over her hope to a medical-industrial complex that shows itself to be no more deserving of her credulity than the evangelicalism that broke her spirit.

Nearly every drug she’s prescribed leaves her reeling from side effects, and nearly every psychiatrist she sees seems to be just as clueless and unsympathetic as the Christians who surround her. Until, that is, a compassionate doctor suggests she try ketamine. That, a liberating poetry class, marriage and motherhood all converge to bring her stability and even joy.

This is perhaps the real story she’s telling. It’s tempting to say that you don’t need to be religious and suffering from a mood disorder to relate to such a narrative — you just need to be American and suffering from one.

That said, those raised in a restrictive religious tradition themselves may well relate to “Devout.” But while Gazmarian’s writing is marked by an elegant clarity that suggests a close communion with Scripture’s commanding simplicity, there’s not much insight offered into what makes faith worth holding onto — especially when it’s so often weaponized.

Some who have read widely to heal a religiously traumatized self or an unquiet mind could wish that the author engaged with the long history of Christian thinkers who have grappled with despair. This recovering evangelical (Gen X edition) kept fervently hoping that someone was going to show up and prescribe Gazmarian some Kierkegaard.

The most receptive readers, ultimately, might be those who believe relatability is the primary gift authors owe their audience. And if such readers feel seen by this book and thus saved from the stigma they, like Gazmarian, might have carried like a cross, that’s no small accomplishment.

DEVOUT: A Memoir of Doubt | By Anna Gazmarian | Simon & Schuster | 192 pp. | $27.99"

Book Review: ‘Devout,’ by Anna Gazmarian - The New York Times

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