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Rochelle Siemienowicz: A tale of sex, religion and marrying too young

 Raised as devout Seventh-day Adventists, who believe that the end of the world is near and that premarital sex is a terrible sin, Rochelle and her husband marry young. Rebelling against their upbringing, and in an attempt to overcome problems in their relationship, they enter an agreement that has its own strict rules. Fallen is a frank, compelling and beautifully written memoir about sex, religion and marrying too young – and about what it feels like when you can’t keep the promises you once sincerely made. Here is Debrief Daily’s exclusive book extract.

So we had our big white wedding. We did it reluctantly – not the marriage, but the ceremony – for our parents and for the people at church. We had all the trimmings: the three-tiered fruitcake entombed in waxen royal icing; the white satin dress edged in feathers that brought out an allergic rash on my chest; the hired vintage cars and the historic church with stained-glass windows – the church where Ellen G White herself had preached in 1892.

There were five bridesmaids, including Esther and Claudia, and five groomsmen, including my brother. There were high heels, morning suits, red roses and multi-coloured paper confetti that stuck to our skin and left pink and blue trails when the raindrops fell that cold July day. It was perfect and horrible. I shocked myself with tears of happiness as I walked down the aisle knowing it would be forever; that Isaac would be the only man I’d ever love like this, and the last one I’d sleep with. We pledged to have and to hold, forsaking all others, till death do us part; we ditched the line about obedience because we’d both been reading Germaine Greer that year. Then we scratched our names on the watermarked parchment certificate with Isaac’s old calligraphy pen.

Author, Rochelle Siemienowicz.

Afterwards there was the sober lunchtime banquet with no alcohol, no meat and no dancing. A string quartet sawed away at Vivaldi and Mozart, and Isaac was busy with his hundreds of relatives, many of whom I’d only met at the engagement party. I clung to Esther and Claudia, who sat beside me at the bridal table picking at their food and longing for champagne. They knew few of the guests and made me laugh with their whispered observations of my prayer group friends. ‘They’re so daggy – do they know what you’re really like?’ asked Esther between mouthfuls of dry mushroom and nut loaf, and sips of fizzy grape juice served in white wine goblets.

‘I’m good now, remember?’ I said, and she looked at me with a wry, disbelieving smile. I stuck out my tongue at her.

The best man’s speech was interminable and unfunny, with jokes about ‘lucky Isaac later on tonight’. As the guests turned to stare at me, I felt like a child bride on display for ritual sacrifice. I imagined them picturing me being deflowered later on; the idea of my sex life being so sanctioned nauseated me. Esther took my hand under the table, squeezing it. ‘It’ll all be over soon,’ she whispered.

When Isaac and I finally fled the reception in the back seat of an old white Jaguar, his brother driving us to the hotel in Exhibition Street, I waved to the girls. I almost wished they could come with us; I saw them so rarely since I’d moved to Melbourne that it seemed a tragedy they’d be in town that night without me.

But then Isaac grabbed my hand and kissed it.‘Hello, wife,’ he said, and I looked up at him as if I hadn’t seen him properly all day.

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Hello, husband.’

We grinned. Not so much with happiness, as with relief. It was done.

~~~

The relief of being married. We knew we were still children, and we delighted in that. Like kids whose parents haven’t come home yet, we spent our money on toys and sometimes went hungry, but there was always more at the end of the fortnight and we had each other, so that was enough.

We promised ourselves that we would never, ever create new children – for that would make us parents, a horrible idea.‘The world is too full of babies,’ I’d said to our minister during a premarital counselling session. At uni I’d been reading about environmentalism and Zero Population Growth: there was no way I would add to the problems of a crowded world that could never feed everyone properly.

‘I just want to be a kid myself, forever,’ Isaac put in, obviously hoping this was controversial.

The minister looked at us dubiously across the table, where his wife had served decaf coffee and a plate of Anzac biscuits. ‘You can change your minds later,’ he said. ‘But as long as you both change your minds together, okay?’

Nobody else understood, but the two of us agreed it would be hideous to take up the roles of mother and father when we would always be so busily engaged in play with each other. We would be that legendary couple who married young and never parted. We were the clever children, we thought, the ones with the key to the Garden of Eden. Because our love was real, we could bypass the angel with the flaming sword, sneak in and out, and take the fruit whenever we wanted or needed it. Our own special pact, built on pure belief, would protect us from the creeping bourgeois boredom we saw in other couples.We imagined that they must yearn for what we had, longing for what they’d glimpsed in their own youthful romances. But ours would last. We had no doubt.

Rochelle's book, Fallen.

We envisaged our distant future and saw ourselves: a tall, thin old man, courtly and gentle, and a bird-boned lady, her hair in a bun and eyes still bright, walking hand in hand, and talking, always talking. Our passionate debates would drown out the creakings of decrepitude as we faded into the happy death of united souls. And when Jesus returned to earth to claim his own, we’d be drawn up from our graves into Heaven, made young again and reunited, and ‘the lamb would lay down with the lion’ – though we never spoke of it quite like that, because even then we knew it sounded ridiculous.

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While we were still children together in those first couple of years after the wedding, we ran and rushed and played until we were exhausted. We lived like we'd been let out of jail, which in a way we had been. Free from our parents’ houses, we listened to the music that was supposed to have devil possession written into it – especially if you played it backwards. We laughed at how innocent the Beatles, Stones and Eagles were, though they still formed the repertoire of many a minister’s warnings on the evils of rock and roll. We read the kinds of books we’d had to read in secret before – fantasy and horror and philosophy; books with sex and vampires, violence and nihilism. ‘Decadent’ was a word we finally came to understand as we swooned at the discovery of Wilde, Baudelaire and all those others who’d lived without limits and loved Art above morality and utility.

We went to the cinema whenever we could, and joked about Ellen G White’s admonishment that your guardian angel never sets foot in such places. Our eyes were greedy and uncritical. We borrowed huge unsteady piles of videos, trying to catch up on the classics we’d read about. The images, beautiful and shocking, drew us into the dark and we never wanted to leave. I wondered if it might be possible to craft a life around my newfound love for cinema.

‘Let us eat flesh,’ Isaac proclaimed one day at the supermarket.

And so we ate all the unclean meats: great feasts of mussels and prawns and oysters, those dirty creatures prohibited by Leviticus for their lack of fins and scales. We cooked sausages and bacon from the filthy pig, an animal that sports the necessary cloven hoof but doesn’t chew its cud. We drank it down with the demon liquor till we were sick, holding each other’s hair back as we retched into the toilet bowl with the rituals of first drunkenness.

Then we lay in bed reading for days, testing the limits of slothfulness. Brought up in the proud Protestant work ethic – where reading a book was a waste of time unless it was useful or spiritually uplifting – we knew that reading for pleasure was an act of defiance. So we set up our bed like a becalmed pleasure cruiser, stacking it with the tools of idleness: magazines, videos and books. When we grew tired of them, we kicked them onto the floor and dove under the covers to find each other’s bodies again, warm and alive and willing. And the constant surprise that this, this was allowed now.

Putting our heads together on the pillows, we let our long hair tangle into one dark mass and cried for the things we’d missed out on: the lovers, the share houses, the dope-smoking freedom we thought was supposed to come with youth and university. And we sighed with relief that it wasn’t too late. There would be no other lovers for us, but in everything else we’d be greedy and take what we wanted, taste those things that had been denied us. And we’d do it together.

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‘The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom,’ said Isaac, quoting Blake as he sloshed more red wine into his glass and pondered his chess move across the table from me.

‘Moderation is a fatal thing,’ I countered with Wilde.

‘Nothing succeeds like excess.’ I skipped my wooden knight into enemy territory, knowing I was going to be beaten very quickly.

We desperately wanted to believe these heresies, but whenever we indulged we were still amazed that no punishments fell upon our heads. We looked in the mirror for signs of our sin and found none. Our cheeks were as round and smooth as apples and our eyes were clear. We held up our wedding rings to the light and knew they held magic that would bind us together forever.
~~~
But the Bible, the Bible, it was still our book. And for a time after the wedding, perhaps two years, we still took ourselves, hungover, off to church each Saturday morning. We prayed with half-closed hearts, thighs pressed close on the cold pews, as we studied the scriptures. Isaac already knew them well: he loved their poetry and understood their complex logic as if they were his second language. He’d read aloud at church, dressed up in his suit and tie, and his booming voice would put in the pauses where they needed to be. Then he’d offer his own commentary, making salient points on how the New Testament related to the Old and what this meant for us in the twentieth century.

At home, Isaac and I searched for the gaps in the rules, spaces that might allow us to keep the faith of our fathers while living the way that we wanted. But there were no escape hatches, no air-pockets in that all-absorbing religion that had answers to every question and biblical references to back them up.

We enjoyed listening to our progressive friends, the ones who talked about Jesus being cool. We considered their arguments about how it didn’t really matter if you went to church on Saturday or Sunday, and how you could read the Bible as a metaphor and live its principles without believing that every word had been inspired by divine providence. You could believe in evolution and still believe in Jesus, they said. But we knew better; you either swallowed it whole or not at all – seven days of Creation, the Cross, Original Sin and the imminent Second Coming of Christ.

The famous domed church in Santorini, Greece.

And we were choking on the huge and literal bulk of it. ‘It’s just so ugly,’ I said to Isaac as we drove home from church. I kicked off my black stiletto high heels. ‘Bourgeois and suburban and … beige.’

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‘But does that mean it isn’t true?’ asked Isaac, pulling onto the freeway.

‘I just hate going there every week,’ I said sulkily. ‘The dreary hymns. The sermons I’ve heard a million times before and those little stories with the morals at the end of them.’

‘They’re called “homilies”, darling.’

‘Yes, I hate the homilies. And I hate the way the men speak and the women just listen.’ I glanced at him. ‘I don’t want to go there anymore.’

‘You want us to try another congregation?’ he asked, though I knew he loved his old church; the elderly ladies there had known him since he was a baby. ‘We could look for something younger, more progressive –’

‘The modern ones are even worse! They make me sick with their happy-clappy prayer meetings. Wearing jeans and sneakers to church and bragging about their “close personal relationships” with Jesus and how he helped them avoid a parking fine.’ I thought for a moment of my prayer group friends, the ones who’d been so kind to me when I first moved to Melbourne and knew nobody. I felt cruel and disloyal. But those sweet people were so far from understanding me now.

‘I know what you mean.’ Isaac twisted the radio dial until it stopped at Triple J, where The Cranberries were singing ‘Linger’. He turned it up loud and sang along, then stopped to say, ‘At least the old churches have theatre and tradition, and aren’t playing electric guitars from the pulpit.’

‘But I hate the old ways and the new ways,’ I said, turning the volume down so we could keep talking. ‘I dread every Friday night when the Sabbath comes in, and I’m tired of going out to prayer group on Wednesdays. It feels so fake.’

‘It is a bit ugly,’ he conceded. ‘Didn’t Einstein say that if something is true, it should be beautiful as well?’ Isaac sounded as though he suspected it was bullshit, inviting me to collaborate.

I gave him half a smile. I thought of Jesus and the way he’d died just for me, but also for every other person in the world. I’d used to think that was kind of beautiful, especially the way Dad told it. Beautiful and true. But going to uni and mixing with ‘non-Adventists’ for the first time, I’d been stunned to realise that they believed their own stories with just as much passion and conviction.

It hurt me to think the Bible mightn’t be true. It hurt even more to think Adventism, which had shaped every move my family had ever made, might be just another interpretation, mixed in with End Times hysteria that had sprouted from tacky American nineteenth-century revivalism.

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I couldn’t face these thoughts yet, so I turned up the music again and let us drift away into the afternoon, where we weren’t exactly keeping the Sabbath, but we weren’t forgetting it either.

The fact was, we were no longer living our beliefs; Adventism was just too plain and strict a meal to swallow. Whether or not we believed God’s Truth – and I think I still did then, in my secret heart – we didn’t like it and we wouldn’t have it. We’d spit it out and leave the table like disgusted children, to starve or find something else on our own.

So we left. With as little fuss as possible. We stopped going to church, and we stopped praying, and we put away the leather-bound Bibles so lovingly inscribed by our parents. We began to disengage from that vast network of people who’d known us since we were eggs – a network that extended across the country and around the world. We told white lies, pretending to be sick, to be busy, except when convention and parental expectation absolutely demanded that we attend: weddings, funerals, graduations and the dedications of newborn babies.

At such events, Isaac and I would arrive late and leave early, struggling to maintain our brittle performance as a good Adventist couple: temperate, modest and hard-working. Our smiles felt like hard work. We’d speed away as fast as we could, shedding masks and costumes in our wake. We couldn’t have done it on our own, but together we’d joined hands and jumped off the cliff, borrowing each other’s courage.

We were young and strong and curious and we had each other. Our essential innocence would protect us, we thought.

And then, one day, a couple of years down that path, when the thrill of each other was muted by familiarity, we lay like two tired children in the late afternoon sunshine of our bedroom. In the litter of cushions and weekend papers, our two soft-bodied cats dozed with abandon. The sound of winter’s sleeping buzzed warmly from the carpet as the central heating cranked on. I looked into Isaac’s honey-coloured eyes and saw that he loved me. But he no longer desired me. My world rippled and tore with the brutal, heart-bleeding shock of that.

This is an extract from Fallen a memoir by Rochelle Siemienowicz out now through Affirm Press $24.99.

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