[trigger warning: child abuse, religious trauma]
If you were to ask my childhood church about it, they would tell you that I loved being exploited by them.
Despite the fact that I was always very stiff (even my face was stiff, to the point where, post-performance, I was frequently told to “sing with some feeling” or “at least try to look like you’re enjoying yourself”), they still believe to this day that “Little Sister Cailen Rose loved singing for Jesus!”
And despite the fact that I was always coerced to sing (threatened once physically, with a kitchen knife — but more often threatened existentially, with eternal hellfire) — and I was not allowed to say no (not even if I had a sore throat — nope, still gotta sing, or else God will be very very mad) — they still use the frequency of my performances (at least monthly, if not weekly or daily, for 13 years of my life) as “evidence” of how much I loved singing.
They have a remarkable ability to hold contradictory perceptions in their head at once: They knew I was miserable because they told me not to look so miserable… and they knew I didn’t want to do it, because they had to threaten me to do it… but, somehow, at the same time, they’re convinced that I “loved” it.
Denial is to be expected when you’re a “Christian” church exploiting a little girl for money.
If you were to ask my childhood church what they’d call this operation of show-ponying me around for profit, they certainly wouldn’t call it “exploitation.” Heavens, no! They’re Christians! Real Christians would never exploit a little girl!
As Christians, they had devoted their lives to the purification of their souls — or at least, the performance of purification. But sadly, their sincere attempts to scrub all signs of darkness from their psyche, instead became a collective self-deception where their evil tendencies were simply denied rather than genuinely transmuted.
So as far as they were concerned, my “gift of singing” was “given by God” specifically so that they could alleviate their financial issues with it. They weren’t using me — they were receiving blessings through me.
And this line of ill-logic, I believe, is how an entire church — later, an entire church network — psychologically abused and exploited me for 13 years, making money from my singing voice, knowing fully well that I only “consented” out of fear of God’s wrath… and still managed to convince themselves that they were innocent. Blameless. Saving souls. Doing God’s Work.
For this reason, I can’t blame a particular person for exploiting me, or for passively observing the exploitation (which they perceived as”entertainment”).
Maybe my mother takes the bulk of the blame, for handing me over to them — outwardly dolled up but inwardly run ragged by a life of constant rehearsals (of songs she always picked, of course, because my individual preferences were a nuisance to her).
But would there be a mother to blame for making a commodity of me, if there were no buyers? Maybe I could equally blame the pastor, my godfather. It was his church, after all. I never did see where the buckets of cash went after my performances — I was simply told that I was “helping to pay the church’s bills.” Was that true? Was somebody personally pocketing the money? If so, who? I only know it wasn’t me. I never saw a penny of it.
And if he’s to blame, so are his network of underlings: the deacons, the bishops, the church elders, all of whom collaborated on event planning and made absolutely sure that I was the star of every show. I was the Golden Child in that church. The pastor’s goddaughter and their best singer? The pressure was ON. None of the other kids had it like I did. I had to be perfect. Fucking, bloody, god-damned PERFECT. The other kids envied me, believe it or not. They didn’t see it as exploitation either — no, they only saw me getting “attention” and “praise” that they wanted for themselves.
To illustrate this: The one best friend I had in church, only got close to me with the intent of learning things about me that she could then twist into rumors and gossip. Her goal was to destroy my image, so that (in my teen years) she became the Golden Child, preaching sermons from the pulpit to condemn my sinful love of Christian rock music (it may sound comical, but that’s what actually happened). My golden era had ended. So had my only close “friendship” in the church. She was the Chosen One now.
And me? Well, I got dragged to the front of the church for an attempted exorcism. Three deacons put their hands all over my body and passionately screamed for God to remove the demons from my mind, for what felt like an hour. It didn’t work, of course, because there was no demon in me. But the former friend had done such a damn good job of demonizing me, that even after the exorcism ritual failed to produce so much as a hiss from my mouth, and all the stupid ego-driven deacons awkwardly returned to their seats (without apologizing to me for their traumatizing misjudgment), and I (red in the face with anger and humiliation) had to continue attending church with all the people who had happily watched a bunch of adults try to molest the imaginary demons out of me… I was still perceived as “demonic” until I left the church immediately upon turning 18 — a legal adult, who could finally say “no” in a way that meant anything.
So the congregation shoulders some blame here too. They were so bloody passive. Seeing everything, but understanding nothing. If anyone in that big crowd of eyes and ears knew I was being exploited, they failed to speak up on my behalf. They were too enthralled with my voice to forfeit the passive, consumptive pleasure of being entertained. That’s what they valued. More than my innocence, or my sanity, or my personhood. They wanted me to make them feel good. And I had to please them, or else I would go to Hell.
Maybe I am to blame.
Maybe I could’ve said “no” more insistently. I could’ve protested harder. I could’ve faked sick more convincingly. I could’ve stood on stage and refused to sing until they got the point and stopped asking me to. What was I so afraid of, anyway? Would an eternity burning in hell for my disobedience really be that bad?
There was no individual who hurt me. Rather, it was The Church as an entity, like a legion of many minds acting as one hivemind. This entity, The Church, was a much more powerful abuser than one individual could be. It was a building, and all the people in it. But it was also a force — a force that eclipsed my psyche with existential dread; a force that made singing itself a trigger that could cause my entire body to stiffen, having been Pavlov’ed by years of associating “singing” with “pacifying a wrathful God.”
From age 5 when they discovered my voice and immediately began banking on it, to my departure at 18, they splintered and mangled me, sucked me dry, traumatized me and deeply, grossly, gutturally violated my Voice.
My voice. THE voice. The voice that, on a few occasions, caused church elders to convulse and speak in tongues, apparently filled with the Holy Spirit. The voice that would save souls one day, or so they prophesied. The voice that I was repeatedly told was my entire reason for being alive. The voice that, at one point, had made me the Chosen One.
It was quite deranged, how they exalted me to Child Prophet/Savior status, while simultaneously demeaning and belittling me into submission to their will.
So despite my Voice being viscerally central to my formative years, it was also something un-felt and un-real. I experienced singing out-of-body, because it was too painful and confusing to be present with this Voice which had been woven into The Church’s schizophrenic mythology, resulting in nebulous trauma. To survive these senseless conditions, I came to perceive my Voice as merely a symbol, an idea, a concept beyond me. A Force.
And the cherry on top of this surreal saga
is that despite growing up in the spotlight, enduring years of this grandiose grooming,
I only have
I don’t know why, but my performances weren’t often recorded. Social media wasn’t as much of a thing then as it is now, least of all for the church elders who didn’t even have computers growing up. So I guess documenting my abuse (oops, I mean “the entertainment”) didn’t cross anyone’s mind. I never asked anyone to photograph or videotape my exploitation, obviously.
But now, due to the lack of photos/videos of my cash-cowed childhood, there is a part of me that fears being disbelieved. “ALL that time onstage and you never even got a video?!”
I am making extraordinary claims, with no evidence.
I know how this looks.
It looks how any abused childhood looks: Unbelievable.
People don’t believe this shit actually happens. Even if I did have photos and videos, what would that prove? The entire church watched me fucking dissociate onstage for over a decade and still convinced themselves I liked it, loved it, wanted it, I was asking for it, begging for it.
People see what they want to see.
So fuck evidence.
I am my only witness.
And I am okay with that.
I am okay being The Sole Keeper of the Sacred Memory of What Really Happened. I am okay with being the only one who remembers what it was like to look out through the eyes of my child-self and see a whole congregation of adults ignoring the way my shaking voice and resistant body language were screaming NO, NO, NO. All those ears and not a single one truly heard me. I remember being alone under a light, scrutinized at every angle, remaining painfully invisible somehow. I remember feeling God’s judgmental eyes on me, and how I internalized that invasive gaze and became a surveillance state unto myself.
But I also remember how, despite how powerless I felt, I maintained an indescribable awareness of how power-full my Voice was — powerful enough to make an entire church do everything they could to control it for their own gain.
What was this Force within me that rivaled — nay, dwarfed — the Force of the church? What was this Art, this Gift, this Shakti power coming out of my mouth — and why did it make the elders speak in tongues? Why did it make them want to put me on a pedestal, but also want to exorcize me? I remember being perhaps just as confused as they were, about my power. I remember knowing all these things before my little-girl brain could comprehend the gravity of what I had been endowed with, initiated-into. I remember feeling so small on that big stage, and realizing (with horror, with wonder) that the sound coming out of me was many dimensions larger than I.
It was beyond me.
It was more than “me.”
It was God.
I am okay being The Only One Who Remembers, because there’s nothing to “remember,” because there is no past. There’s only a narrative we call the past, which I can change at will.
So I will.
With my first album coming out next week (!!!), I have been reconsidering my attachment to this sob story altogether.
Yes, it is true that I was deeply impacted by the church childhood described above.
But what if I wasn’t?
What if the past never happened?
(To be continued…)
2 responses to “I am my only witness.”
Church? What church? 😇 As I read your painful yet beautiful articulation, I bear witness to your experiences…and your transmutation. Here’s to your4 first album!!!!
Thinking of you and so very happy to hear about your new album. I’m really looking forward to it. This story resonates so much with me.
Although I don’t think my gift is singing, I do have a voice that is a gift. In my own journey I’m still learn how that moves me authentically.
Blessings to you, and as always, thanks for sharing