Not That Kind of Girl
Carlene Bauer was a seven-year-old child when her mother became a born-again Christian, catapulting the family into a regimen that put avoiding devilish distraction front and center. Fear of imminent doom led to a morass of rules governing the Bauer sisters’ every move, rules that touched on modesty, piety, and propriety.
Bauer was born in 1973 and Not That Kind of Girl takes the reader from her early childhood, to her coming of age in 1980s New Jersey, to the present. Along the way she describes the implicit and explicit messages she received about what type of girl she was not to become. As she does this she reveals profound confusion about womanhood, autonomy, and integrity, the unraveling of which forms the crux of this intellectually stimulating, and often funny, memoir.
Not surprisingly, there are many questions. Is premarital sex really sinful? What about drinking and smoking pot? Is doubt always destructive? Can someone love language, literature, and rock music alongside the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? If so, how?
Four years at a Catholic college provide few answers, so not knowing what else to do, Bauer and a few friends move to Brooklyn, NY, post graduation. They’re hoping the city’s grit will help resolve these dilemmas, but distractions intrude—there’s the club scene, literary readings, parties, and a publishing job that gives Bauer a chance to hone her editing skills and wit, albeit for a pittance.
The years following the move are full of ups and downs, but it is Bauer’s continual search for meaning that keeps her from settling for less than she wants in relationships and employment. Still, confusion and guilt dominate.
“Christianity had taught me that reaching out your hand for what you wanted, since it might entail pushing someone else out of the way, was selfish and impolite,” she writes. “I could not reconcile my faith with my ambition—I could not stop thinking that one had to be suppressed for the other—and this left me too muddled to be shrewd.”
For a while, Bauer thinks that converting to Catholicism will provide clarity; it doesn’t. And then 9/11 happened. “I would be a fool if I opened my mouth to ask God to watch over us or give us peace after he had taken it away from thousands of people and might be preparing to end the happiness of everyone within the church and without. I could not seek consolation from him,” she admits.
Just like that, Bauer’s faith crumbles, at least temporarily; on the other hand, her quest for life’s purpose never waivers. It’s liberating, if hard, to shift gears into a more secular worldview, but the subtle change allows Bauer to find a satisfying job as a magazine fact checker, begin writing, and pursue a relationship that seems sustainable. As for God, who knows? Bauer’s odyssey is likely to be lifelong, and as her quest for divinity has broadened, she has begun to see, and write about, evidence of the spirit in music, poetry, nature, and city life.
Not That Kind of Girl is a revelatory and provocative work, a personal story that goes far beyond the boundaries of autobiography. Witty and deeply introspective, it shines a personal light on evangelism that proves 1960s feminists correct: The personal really is political.