Elevate Difference

Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying

How does an eleven-year-old girl cope with the trauma of losing both her favorite aunt and her beloved father in the span of one calendar year? She may pray to God daily to ask Him to protect her loved ones. But what happens when prayer becomes more than just a comfort? What happens when it becomes a compulsion? This question is at the heart of Abby Sher’s memoir Amen, Amen, Amen.

The power of prayer has been the subject of much debate and research, with studies claiming that prayer can help heal the sick, even when the sick person has no relation to the people offering the curative incantation, nor knowledge of being prayed for. There are other studies that show people who pray experience feelings of relief: it makes sense that prayer could benefit those for whom religion is personally significant. If it’s good for people, even if it’s not provably efficacious, what’s the harm?

Abby Sher’s compulsions began when she was a small child—from tearing up paper napkins at the dinner table to tracing the wallpaper on her bedroom walls until her finger bruised. The impulses grew more invasive as Sher got older and calamity became a fixture in her life. An emotionally fragile pre-adolescent, Abby identified herself as the one to blame for the unexpected deaths in her family, and turned to God for help. But her sense of consolation was quickly overshadowed by a consuming fear of causing death and danger. Abby became convinced that giving herself fully to God and doing His protective bidding was the only way to ensure that no one else would meet an untimely, tragic fate.

For all the benefits that prayer might offer, it does not guarantee safety from disaster. But Abby was certain the lives of others were her responsibility, and hinged on her pact with God. To Abby, the balance of the world rested squarely on her shoulders, and the slightest misstep on her part set in motion scenarios with disastrous consequences.

No doubt this manner of irrational thinking will sound strange to most people, religious or not, and Sher does a good job of allowing the reader an insider’s view of the logic behind her delusions. Much of her behavior fell within the bounds of what is normal, especially in a devoutly Jewish context. On the surface, Abby appeared to be a staunch, if somewhat peculiar, follower of God. It is only when we learn what was going on in her head that Sher’s actions read as bizarre instead of faithful.

Ascetics throughout history have gotten into trouble for exhibiting behaviors far more extreme than Sher’s; the difference between mystical devotion and mental illness can be hard to construe. It is primarily though a lens of psychoanalysis that compulsive ritual begins to be regarded as illegitimate or destructive. In Sher’s case, even when she began seeing a therapist, her faith served to reinforce some of her more ritualistic actions, like daily fasting—a behavior that, when decontextualized, was revealed as severe anorexia.

By the time Abby meets her savior—an atheist man who helped her see her conduct as the result of self-loathing and delusion—I was glad to let go of my knee-jerk feminist disapproval of the knight in shining armor fable. Amen, Amen, Amen is a painful yet revelatory read that had this nonbeliever sending a healing mantra into the universe for Sher and others like her who live with a form of obsessive compulsive disorder masked by religion. In another time or place, Sher might have entered a hermitage. Today she will have to settle for appearances on TV talk shows.

Excerpted from Religion Dispatches

Written by: Mandy Van Deven, October 5th 2010