Throughout The Mothers, religion isolates Nadia Turner. This begins when her mother commits suicide, since Nadia subsequently discovers that Upper Room’s congregation—with its unyielding religious and moral values—is incapable of helping her deal with her grief. In fact, the church’s reaction to Elise Turner’s suicide not only fails to comfort Nadia, but actively turns her away from Upper Room altogether. As such, Nadia is isolated by her community’s strict religious ideals, which keep the congregants from fully empathizing with her. Bennett, in turn, points to the fact that faith communities can run the risk of estranging their own members by perpetuating feelings of shame and alienation—even though this goes against Christianity’s notion that humans should refrain from judging one another because only God can judge.
After her mother commits suicide, Nadia senses that the polite churchgoers are actually deeply disapproving of her mother’s actions. Bennett writes: “At her mother’s funeral, in the front pew, she’d felt pity radiating toward her, along with a quiet anger that everyone was too polite to express, though she’d felt its heat tickling the back of her neck.” The churchgoers can’t seem to stifle their anger toward Nadia’s mother for sinning by taking her own life. Although the congregants show Nadia their “pity,” they don’t treat her with empathy. The word “pity” implies condescension and even a slight sense of disappointment or judgment, as if Nadia’s mother is morally inferior for having killed herself. Because the members of the congregation think suicide is a sin, they find it difficult to see past what they believe is Elise Turner’s selfish, immoral decision. What they perhaps don’t consider, though, is that Nadia herself suffers as a result of this moralistic attitude. In response to the congregation’s moral outrage, she distances herself from Upper Room, ultimately cutting herself off from a network that should otherwise support her through this tumultuous period.
As Nadia distances herself from religion, her father devotes himself to the church. Although this is a way of distracting himself from his grief, his wholehearted commitment to the church also separates him from his daughter. “Her father flung himself into Upper Room. He went to both services on Sunday mornings, to Wednesday night Bible study, to Thursday night choir practice although he did not sing, although practices were closed but nobody had the heart to turn him away,” Bennett writes. By constantly visiting the church, Robert structures his life so that he hardly ever sees Nadia. He even runs errands for Upper Room in his beloved pickup truck, jumping at any excuse to leave the house. Robert doesn’t want to address difficult emotions, evidenced by his reaction to when Nadia crashes his truck: “Her father hadn’t even yelled at her,” Bennett notes. “She wished he would rage when he was angry—it’d be easier that way, quicker—but instead, he coiled up tight inside himself, moving silently around her in the kitchen or avoiding her altogether.” While Robert dodges confrontation and emotional discussions by throwing himself into the church, his daughter finds herself without any kind of genuine adult support. Robert’s obsession with the church and religion blinds him to his own daughter’s problems, revealing how religion ultimately isolates Nadia from the people who should otherwise come to her aid.
Nadia’s abortion further distances her from the church (and, thus, the adults in her life), since the Upper Room congregation strongly opposes abortion on moral grounds. In fact, they’ve even picketed the clinic Nadia goes to for the procedure. People like the Mothers see this clinic as an affront to their religious values and a manifestation of the evil they think is slowly making its way into their town. In a passage explaining how the congregation originally reacted to the clinic, the Mothers say, “Well, the [strip club] opened and even though it was a blight to the community, everyone agreed that the new abortion clinic was much worse. A sign of the times, really. An abortion clinic going up downtown just as easy as a donut shop.” The Mothers seem to be frightened by the idea that abortion might become something society approaches so casually that a clinic can arise “downtown just as easy as a donut shop.” Aware of the stigma surrounding abortion at Upper Room, Nadia keeps the news from her father, who has become so involved in the church. As a result, she faces the complex emotional consequences of having to make a mature decision on her own while being a mere teenager. Although the church should serve as a support network for her—especially since the congregation knows her mother isn’t there to help—its moralistic stance on abortion renders it unfit to help Nadia in what is the most fateful decision of her life.
There’s no doubt that Nadia knows the church would scorn her for having an abortion, considering how the congregation reacted to her mother’s suicide. “Who is in a position to condemn? Only God,” said the pastor during Elise’s funeral, but Bennett makes it clear that these words only highlight the community’s implicit judgment; “the fact that he’d led with that scripture only meant that the congregation had already condemned [Nadia’s] mother, or worse, that [the pastor] felt her mother had done something deserving of condemnation.” Having witnessed this kind of disapproval—in addition to knowing that the church has in the past picketed the abortion clinic—Nadia knows she can’t turn to her religious community for help when she gets pregnant. After all, she has felt the kind of angry condemnation religion inspires in the congregation. It is in this fashion that Bennett demonstrates the fact that religious communities can inadvertently alienate their own members, creating an atmosphere of judgment and isolation instead of acceptance and support.
Religion and Judgment ThemeTracker
Religion and Judgment Quotes in The Mothers
If you don’t become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words. […] That’s why it didn’t take us long to figure out what had happened to Robert Turner’s truck. Ordinarily waxed and gleaming, the truck hobbled into the Upper Room parking lot on Sunday with a dented front bumper and cracked headlight. In the lobby, we heard young folks joking about how drunk Nadia Turner had been at some beach party. Then we became young again, or that is to say, we became her. Dancing all night with a bottle of vodka in hand, staggering out the door. A careless drive home weaving between lanes. The crunch of metal. How, when Robert smelled the liquor, he must have hit her or maybe hugged her. How she was probably deserving of both.
At her mother’s funeral, in the front pew, she’d felt pity radiating toward her, along with a quiet anger that everyone was too polite to express, though she’d felt its heat tickling the back of her neck. “Who is in a position to condemn? Only God,” the pastor had said, opening his eulogy. But the fact that he’d led with that scripture only meant that the congregation had already condemned her mother, or worse, that he felt her mother had done something deserving of condemnation. […]
How dare anyone at the church judge her mother? No one knew why she’d wanted to die. The worst part was that Upper Room’s judgment had made Nadia start to judge her mother too.
“You did this thing?” he said. “You did this thing behind my back?”
He’d refused to name her sin, which shamed her even more. So she’d told him the truth. How she’d secretly dated Luke, and discovered that she was pregnant, and how the Sheppards had given her the money for the abortion. Her father had listened silently, head bowed, wringing his hands, and when she finished, he sat there a moment longer before standing up and walking out of her room. He was in shock, and she didn’t understand why. Didn’t he know by now that you could never truly know another person? Hadn’t her mother taught them both that?