This is the first time that I have ever reviewed a memoir. I’ve joked with my husband about it: how do you critique a book recounting someone’s life story? “Good job having a life, it was really interesting”? However, there is a lot to reflect on in On Her Knees. Before I get into it, as a graphic designer, I have to applaud this book’s incredible cover art. I love to pick apart designs and think of how they could be improved, but as for On Her Knees‘ final cover, I came up empty. It’s perfect.
So did the book live up to the cover? I say yes.
I laugh now about just how wrong I was about what this book would be when I discussed it only two weeks ago. I had said, “I can’t wait to learn the full backstory of how she was raised in purity culture-ridden Evangelicalism, left on a self-described ‘trampage’, got out of an abusive marriage, and finally found her peace on the progressive side of Christianity.” The general idea of her story is close enough, but the details were all wrong. (Spoilers of these details ahead!)
Perhaps the biggest difference between what I had always thought to be true and what actually happened in Brenda’s life is her Evangelical Christian upbringing. To be blunt, well, it didn’t happen. Like I said, I can’t really judge someone for what their life story is, but I can be confused about it. I’ve heard many deconstruction (conservative to progressive Christian) and deconversion (Christian to atheist, usually) stories, which typically involve someone being raised conservative Christian, believing the harmful things that were indoctrinated onto them, having an epiphany that God either doesn’t endorse hate or doesn’t exist, and finally leaving conservative Christianity. Not every story is the same (mine doesn’t even follow that formula perfectly), but Brenda’s is unlike any that I had heard thus far.
Brenda was not raised in an Evangelical Christian household at all. This was my first misconception. It’s unclear whether her household was secular or sort of Catholic, but the most that we know is that sex was never discussed. Instead, Brenda discovered the Evangelical church on her own and got totally sucked in in her teen years. Rather than forcing it on her, her parents were actually cautious of Brenda’s immersion in purity culture.
Then, when she was 19, Brenda moved to LA. I don’t know why she moved there, but her being in the 2000’s LA party scene is central to the story. And the being Evangelical, the being immersed in purity culture, and the being sexually active were not happening one after the other like I had thought. Like real life is, it was messy. They were all happening at the same time. Brenda set out on the LA party scene with the intention of evangelizing to sinners, meanwhile feeling sexually ravenous but repressing her own needs for God’s sake, as if God cared about that. She eventually gave in and had sex with her first boyfriend.
Being absolutely overcome with shame and guilt, Brenda essentially spent the rest of the story trying to “right” herself in God’s eyes after this first sin. Her solution was to marry her boyfriend. This leads me to correct my second misconception: her husband was not abusive (hooray!), but they simply never should have gotten married. They didn’t like each other very much, and they didn’t have a very good reason for getting married. (On my first Zoom call with Brenda as one of her YouTube patrons, I accidentally may have somehow given her the impression that my story of getting married young resembled hers, but I can assure you these two marriages are not alike. I promise!)
Their marriage was grounded mainly in a sexual relationship that did not really have any ethical foundation. While sad to read because it is a true story, it acted as a testament to the fact that sexual morality is not a simple issue of straight married sex being right and any other sex being wrong. Every experience is different. Brenda told the tales of various sexual partners after her marriage, some of which were healing experiences with kind men (whether they were emotionally/romantically invested or not, which isn’t always necessary) and some of which were extremely damaging, even abusive.
Reading Brenda’s memoir puts into perspective much of what she talks about on her YouTube channel, God is Grey. Her problem in her twenties was that she had to learn through experience the difference between Purity god’s (as she calls it) sexual ethic and a real, practical sexual ethic. She believed the lies of purity culture, that sex outside of marriage is wrong, until she came face to face with real life experiences exemplifying that it’s not that simple. What about if you already had sex before marriage? Is it okay if you marry him? What about when he cheats? Can you fix that if you cheat back? What about after divorce? Does that make you a whore? Why even bother? Why didn’t purity culture prepare her for any of this?
Many of Brenda’s experiences after her divorce left her feeling broken, but it’s not because she was a dirty rotten sinner who should have just stayed with her cheating husband. It was because she didn’t have good sex education growing up; she didn’t know about the importance of sexual integrity, listening to and honoring your body, or enthusiastic consent. I thought multiple times throughout the book how much her younger self could have benefited from the wisdom shared online by her current self. I am certain that her lack of guidance in her younger days is what motivates her to do what she does on YouTube, her podcast, and even in this insightful book. Brenda has the power to rescue so many young Christian woman from the Antagonist of purity culture—and for her, it’s personal.