29: Maggie Rowe
writer and performer
Maggie and I talked going "too far," Patti Smith as a religious icon, stripping, and staging a Purity Ball.
Maggie Rowe is a writer/performer living in Los Angeles with her husband and dog. She has written screenplays for several films (including Bright Day! and Out West), for television shows (Flaked and Arrested Development,) created stage productions (Hollywood Hell House, Hollywood Purity Ball, Lawyer Cop Doctors, and Pretty Good Show), edited a book of personal essays (Dirty Laundry), and founded a religion (Pyrasphere).
She has produced and regularly performed in the spoken word show sit'nspin (created by Jill Soloway) at the Comedy Central stage for the last fourteen years. Her memoir, Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience, was published by Softskull Press in January 2017.
Amél Adrian is a director and photographer living in Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted over Skype by Sophia Richards on March 25, 2017. Amél Adrian photographed Maggie at her Los Angeles home.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
MAGGIE: Because I was raised with this biblical, literal tradition, I was always trying to be the good girl, the pleasing girl. I’m actually working on another book now which deals with the the difference between being a good and pleasing girl or woman, and being a kind girl or woman. They’re easy to confuse. I grew up unbelievably polite. My family always taught me never to brag —like we always joke that the second word I learned was “ostentatious.”
MAGGIE: You know, girls especially were not supposed to be braggy or ostentatious. Even how I dressed: I didn’t do bold colors. In [my] book, [Sin Bravely] I had that bright purple underwear that I felt ashamed of. It was too much, it was too loud. I work as a television writer, and now in writers’ rooms I still find that I have this tendency to not interrupt, not speak too loudly, not be too brazen, not offend. It’s a thing that I’ve worked on and struggled with my whole life, and I don’t think boys are given that direction [to be pleasing] in the way that girls are.
SOPHIA: In your book, you wrote that purity meant not having sex outside of marriage, but also not acting or dressing like someone who has sex outside of marriage. “So no high heels. No heavy makeup. No short skirts. All indicators of premarital sex.” You have a younger sister, a mother, all these other Evangelical Christian women in your life, as well as other female peers. How did women and girls around you interpret this ideal of socially visible purity as you were growing up?
MAGGIE: I desperately wanted not to be pure. I did not want to be a nice girl. And yet, specifically talking about virginity, we were taught that no man wants secondhand goods, and the most important thing that you could offer to your husband was essentially an unpopped hymen — the reduction of what purity meant to being a virgin.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of purity balls, but I created a show called “Hollywood Purity Ball.” I got the kit from Abstinence Clearinghouse, and they basically prescribe how to put one on, so I staged a purity ball in Los Angeles.
MAGGIE: They have young girls doing ballet routines, and like, an interpretive dance where a young girl is being led astray by the dark, evil gentleman that wants to take her chastity from her. And there’s a pledge, which is, “I pledge my virginity to my father to watch over until I am married,” at which point the purity has been transferred to the husband. We’d talk about how Muslim cultures have this idea of women being property, but we do, too, and I think especially regarding this idea of purity. There are no purity balls for boys. Even though, theoretically, boys aren’t supposed to have sex before marriage, it’s never emphasized in the way that it is for women. What was the question before I started to talk about purity balls?
SOPHIA: In my experience, for example, I was very confused about some girls being like, “This is like, the Christian, or 'pure' way to be cute or sexy,” and then others being like, “No, you have to be sexless.” So how did women and girls in your class, your church, or even in your home interpret purity as an ideal?
MAGGIE: I had a best friend, and she’s still my best friend. We met when we were seven. In my book I called her “Sophie.” I actually brought her to Christ. Her parents were not at all [Christians], so she would go to church with my parents. And we would debate about what was “too far,” what was inappropriate to wear…Like, could you wear one of those Flashdance shirts that showed your shoulder? Was that too much? We would go to school dances and be like, “is it okay to kiss the guy?” Afterwards, was tongue okay? Did that make it worse? We were sounding boards for each other. We had incredibly similar journeys. In both of our first years of college, we started having sex with our boyfriends. And then it was very exciting! We would compare notes, talk about what we were doing. I remember we asked, “Was a blowjob worse than sex?”
MAGGIE: I decided that [premarital sex] was okay in God’s eyes because my boyfriend and I were committed to being together forever. God didn’t need the approval of the government, you know? But it was like, is a blowjob dirtier? Is that worse? And asking myself, “Am I less respected if I do that?” The church’s kind of answer to everything was, “Save petting for the pets.”
MAGGIE: I remember I had a church camp counselor who had a fiancé, and she told us that she and her fiancé had only held hands. So I was like, “Oh no! I can’t even do that!?” I desperately wanted to be like the other girls who were doing things, you know? I remember I was dating this one guy, and I told him I couldn’t do anything more than kissing, and he broke up with me to go out with the girl that would have sex with him.
MAGGIE: And I was just devastated. I wanted to so badly, but not because I had some big physical desire to. I really didn’t experience that until I started having sex. I think a lot of women are probably like that, where you don’t quite know what it is until you have it. You have that feeling of attraction, but you don’t actually have that feeling of, “I want a penis inside me.”
MAGGIE: I would go to parties and everyone would have a beer and I would just sit there and have to… They just looked like they were so loose and free and I felt so stifled and contained, following this set of rules that wasn’t authentic to me.
SOPHIA: You said you didn’t want to be pure, and throughout your writing there's this thread of attraction to “bad women.” When you were younger it was the felt figures of Jezebel and Mary Magdalene that your Kindergarten teacher put up on the board, and when you were older, it was like, trying to find a way to make Patti Smith this Christian icon.
MAGGIE: I did recognize something in her. I was attracted to her kind of outrageous spirituality, you know? Like, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”? It still makes me feel…oh my gosh! There’s this Patti Smith song where she says the Lord’s prayer, Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thine” blah blah, all that, and then she says, “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn,” which is, like, the most outrageous thing, but then the song ends with, “Here I am.” So it’s this blasphemy and then opening herself to God at the end. It gives me chills now, thinking about it. But it was part of my journey; I needed to be able to say “Goddamn” before I could come up with my own authentic spirituality and say to whatever spirit there is, “Here I am.” And I loved that. I loved the boldness of her lyrics. I loved the explicit religiosity in it. It wasn’t a rejection of God; it was a kind of a wrestling with God, you know, there’s the thing in the Old Testament with Jacob, and I feel like that’s what was so inspiring to me about her. There was nothing retreating, there was nothing pure. She was not an innocent, she was just kind of raging. I remember writing in my journal one time, “I just want my real self to bleed through.” And I think “bleed” is an interesting word for it. I felt like I was wearing this mask that I didn’t want to be wearing, that I hadn’t chosen for myself, and I just wanted my actual essence to be able to come out in this kind of blood imagery, you know?
SOPHIA: And that’s also sacrificial imagery.
MAGGIE: Yes! Yeah, I want to bleed through, and it also had to do with being seen. I was acting as this pure, good-girl, contained role. I felt disconnected from everybody because it didn’t feel like it was my true, authentic self that I was relating with. And that’s kind of been my life journey, to find that authenticity and allow it to bleed through in some way.
SOPHIA: I wanted to ask you how you were affected by images of women in the church. At least from what you’ve written, it seems like most of your pastors and counselors were men, and you were taught that men were natural leaders. The woman that you wanted to be was at odds with the ideal of the good Christian woman that was being promoted to you. Were there any women in the church whom you admired? Did you feel like the kind of woman that you wanted to be was irreconcilable with the kind of Christian that you wanted to be?
MAGGIE: Yes. I mean, even when I think about how the women in my church dressed – ugh! It was just so unappealing.
MAGGIE: I remember we had to wear pantyhose. At church you had to have those itchy, horrible pantyhose on, you had to have those lame little horrible flats, those uncomfortable Laura Ashley dresses that went up to your neck.
In general, I found the women in my church extremely unappealing, except for one woman. She had married a non-Christian, which was a horror. But she had absolutely no apologies for it. When I was in college and had started dating this guy who was not a Christian, I went and talked to her, and I talked about the “unequal yoke” —that if you marry somebody that’s not a Christian, they can pull you down into hell. But she was bold and straightforward and said, “Absolutely not. Your fate is your own. You want to have someone that has similar values in terms of kindness and generosity and integrity and truthfulness,” like, those are the things that are important, not the theology. I remember being so relieved and comforted. And impressed with her, because that was definitely going against what the church said. That was inspiring to me, that you could still be a person of faith but have some disagreement with the institution of the church. That was one of the first times that I was ever introduced to that idea.
Picturing God as a woman was a really big thing for me. The idea of a male God, I just had associations with aggression. My dad was wonderful; it wasn’t from my father. But in general, picturing God as a man made me much more scared than picturing God as a woman, which would be sacrilegious, according to my church. But I started to think: what’s the most important thing? The most important thing is for me to believe that there is a loving force, and if for me, picturing God as a female helps create that in my mind, then I think that’s the way to go.
SOPHIA: Would you be willing to talk about your experience at Lookers?
MAGGIE: Oh yeah, totally. I had played this stripper in a Joyce Carol Oates play when I was in college. And I just loved it.
MAGGIE: I loved wearing that little dress that I would hike up, and I had these thigh-high boots. It was freeing, and like, ecstatic, almost, because I had just repressed all of this stuff for so long. So I would dance in front of the mirror…it was amazing. It was great. I just had it in my head that this was the thing that I wanted to do. I had this wonderful therapist who told me a quote from Martin Luther, which was, “Sin bravely, in order to know the forgiveness of God.” So I decided, “Okay, well this is something that I’ve wanted to do ever since I played that role, so maybe this is my sinning bravely thing.” So I called up this club called Lookers, whose slogan was “Girls you care to see naked.” Which was a pretty low bar, so I figured –
MAGGIE: All right, I could pass that. I had been sheltered from seeing portrayals of strip clubs in movies or television, so I didn’t even know what strippers wore, really. I had this bra and panty set from TJ Maxx that covered most of my torso. The bra had these enormous pads, but I thought it was sexy because it was hot pink. Again with the bold colors. So I went to this club, I danced to the Patti Smith song “Gloria,” which had the lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” and I mouthed it to the audience. In fact, I mouthed all the words, I was like, lip syncing, because I had no idea how to dance like a stripper. I’d never seen anybody [strip], so all I knew were these shuffle ball changes from doing theatre, and I’d seen Dirty Dancing, which had the kick, lay-back thing, and that seemed like a good idea at the time. I could do pirouettes, because I’d been taking ballet, so I just pirouetted around and around and around. I forgot about the pole, but obviously that was the center of the thing, so I was like, I gotta do something with this pole! So I just ended up doing this kind of do-si-do where I hooked my elbow and did a kind of hitch step, balanced up and down. I forgot to take off my bra and I saw the DJ in the back pantomiming, gesturing for me to take it off, take it off, and I was like oh yeah! Oh yeah, right. So I was just struggling with this clasp and trying to get it undone, and finally I threw it down, and because the bra was so padded, it made this loud thud on the floor. And then the song was over, and I had this kind of ecstatic feeling. It was an incredible rush; my heart was racing. And then in an instant, that energy of excitement turned into energy of anxiety. All this adrenaline coursing through me just switched qualities somehow, and I was like, “I’ve done a terrible thing. What was I thinking? This isn’t sinning bravely – I’ve doomed myself.” So I went home, back to Gracepoint [Evangelical Psychiatric Institute], and I got in the cab, and I experienced this release and sense of peace after I had done it. It didn’t last; it took years for me to really get over the anxiety, but I had a taste of feeling like I could do what I wanted to and that God wasn’t going to punish me or either in this life or the afterlife, or at least that moment. So it was a real feeling of grace, I would say.
SOPHIA: Do you want to talk more about the book you’re currently working on, and the difference between being good and being kind?
MAGGIE: The book will be called Easy Street. And this is hard to explain, but my husband and I take care of a 55-year-old autistic woman. Since her mother died, she has nobody else in the world. But the complicating comedic tidbit of this is that she’s in love with my husband, and would love if I were not around.
SOPHIA: [gasps] Oh my god!
MAGGIE: She always says to me, “You’re so lucky that you live on Easy Street with Handsome Jim. And anything could happen on Easy Street. You never know, Maggie, you never know.”
MAGGIE: I took her to get a makeover and bought her a bra, and I was like, “You really look great. You have those nice, big breasts. I always wanted big breasts like yours.” And she said, “Will you tell Jim? Will you tell Jim that my breasts are bigger and better than yours? Will you tell Jim? Will you tell him?”
MAGGIE: So the book kind of asks– okay, well why am I doing this? Why am I helping this woman who would probably like for me to be dead?
MAGGIE: That’s one example, and I’ll deal with it throughout the book. But more generally, what are my motivations as a woman? How much of this is genuine altruism? How much of this is needing to feel good about myself by doing some sort of charity? How much of this is a replacement for not having a child? How much of this is appealing to a God that I don’t necessarily believe in, to prove that I’m a good person?
SOPHIA: What do you think women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
MAGGIE: I bet a lot of people say this, but support each other. There is such a tendency for competition and I feel it. Like, if I’m in a writer’s room and there’s another woman, I really recognize my tendency to compete with her in a way that I would not with a man. And I feel like being aware of that tendency, trying to dampen it, and begin to come from a place of solidarity rather than competition is something we could all benefit from.
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