An interest in God, meta-physics, and religion dominated Tessa's life for half a century. A decade ago she walked away to become an atheist.
You don’t know me.
Like some others, I have been, for most of my life, one pay check away from homelessness, battling on a limited income, and during the past decade, two cents away from homelessness. I, therefore, live in a state of perpetual stress.
As a consequence of the birth lottery, I have been labelled ‘odd,’ ‘weird,’ ‘rude,’ ‘mean-spirited,’ ‘stupid,’ and accused of lying, having a bad attitude, and various other negative attributes. I have had people take advantage of me because they could, plus they have done terrible things to me as a result of their ‘revenge’ on me for things I have said.
All of this backblow came to me despite my living an ethical life. I have never been drunk, nor ever a taken a recreational drug, have been virtually celibate my entire life, once had a boyfriend for two months, and another time for a weekend.
I didn’t realize people lied until I was in my mid-forties when some people did some very bad things to me. At that point, I realized that the people involved had been less than truthful. You see, when part of your brain doesn’t work, it doesn’t occur to you to lie. So you don’t realize other people do.
It was also at that point that I realized men asked me out because they were interested in me. I thought they were asking me out as part of their code of honour – they didn’t want me to sit at home alone. I had no clue about sex.
Workwise, until my mid-fortes, I was often told that I was ‘the-best-in-the-company.’ Yet I never saw any reward for that. Why? Today I know that my people-skills, plus the jealousy and general competitiveness ensured that I never got a raise and I was never promoted. I also suspect that people thought my parents were multi-millionaires and therefore I didn't need to earn much.
In fact, the office politics invariably got so nasty that I eventually left. I did a lot of job-hopping and I could never understand why, when I worked so hard, I never received a raise, and why, if I was training everybody else, I was never promoted.
I did ask a boss when I was in my late twenties. He said, “You are a very beautiful woman and you will get married. There is no point in promoting you. I will lose you.”
Even then, I knew I would never find someone.
The Day I Became a Christian
In my mid-twenties, unable to understand why everybody else had a boyfriend and I didn’t, plus frustrated that no matter how hard I worked or educated myself, I still never got a promotion or a raise, I spoke to someone who was at school with me.
She said, “If you give your life to Christ, this will all change.”
I responded, “But how can you believe in God? There aren’t any miracles.”
She replied, “I saw great miracles in Canada. Miracles happen today.”
So off I went to the local Anglican cathedral and gave my life to Christ
That was the start of the worst, most traumatic decade of my life. It destroyed everything in me, left me with PTSD, and resulted in my marrying someone who, in the normal course of things, I would never even have spoken to.
My Life as a Christian
I loved God.
I truly did.
In fact, I was thrilled to become a Christian. At last, I could give in to a sense of connection to all that surrounded me. I had always been able to feel the deep life-force around me, and I interpreted this to be God. I could feel ‘him’ and I prayed constantly.
When the church informed me that I couldn’t train to become a TV continuity announcer because this was a ‘sin of the flesh,’ I gave it up. The trainer was angry with me, “You have what it takes to go far,” she said.
When I gave up ballroom dancing because the church told me it was a ‘sin of the flesh,’ my teacher was distressed, “You’re giving up the possibility of being a champion. You’re mad. You have a rare talent, the looks, the carriage, everything. Why would you give this up?”
I told him I would give up anything for God. “Yea, though he slay me, I will adore him.”
If God told me to tithe 10% of my salary, I tithed 25%. I paid for my rent and my food, a few clothes, and the rest I gave away to those who needed it. Beggars on the street who asked me for money got given whatever I had to give.
Once I was approached by a young African boy who told me he had to pay for his school books for the year. I didn’t have that much money on me. I told him to meet me the next day. I gave him what amounted to 20% of that month’s income.
I did without things so that I could be ‘obedient’ to my Lord.
I studied the bible for two or three hours every day. Once, I read the bible from beginning to end 18 times in 18 months. Yes, it took me a month to read the entire thing. In addition, I studied each verse, prayed for a further three or four hours each day, plus attended bible studies twice a week and church twice on Sundays.
I regularly went out with groups witnessing on the streets. Once a guy asked me if I could speak about anything other than Christ. I found it an odd question. Why would anyone want to speak about anything else? And why wasn’t South Africa a theocracy? Wouldn’t the country be a much better place if God ruled it?
You could say I was a heavy evangelical born-again nutcase.
Early Days in the Church
I attended a church called the Assemblies of God.
The first time I heard tongues – the practice of speaking gibberish - I got the creeps. I asked someone what it was, and he told me it was God giving people the gift of languages. I asked him if it was a recognized language. He said yes. Certainly, I was delighted to be able to learn that God would instantaneously give me the ability to speak in German or French. I didn’t for a moment doubt him.
Then the pastor spoke about the devil.
I was flabbergasted.
Afterwards I asked someone if the devil really existed.
“Yes,” he said.
To be honest, I accepted it all at face value, but I never really developed any relationship with the devil. The devil was of no concern to me. I was too much in love with God.
Then there was the time that someone ‘reported’ me to the pastor because I couldn’t possibly be a Christian. To this day, I have no idea why someone would think I wasn’t a Christian. The pastor asked me to repeat the sinner’s prayer after him, so once more I committed my life to God.
In those days, while people’s behaviour puzzled me, I didn’t think too deeply about it.
Then there was the time that the wife of an ‘elder’ invited me home after the church meeting on a Sunday. All the wives of the elders were there. I was horrified to hear them discussing other members of the congregation in a most disparaging way. I had never heard gossip before, and I was bewildered. Didn’t the bible forbid gossip?
Jealousy, Gossip, Ignorance,and Malice
While I attended the church in Cape Town, I started going to many other churches and meetings with other members of the congregation. I absorbed all that was said.
We were not permitted to read the ‘literature of the ungodly.’ Out went my first editions of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazney, and many more. I stopped reading Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Fair Lady, newspapers, and lost track of the real world.
The pastor asked for everybody in the congregation to give up their jewellery because he wanted to build a new and bigger church.
It broke my heart, but if God wanted the pieces my mother and grandmother had given me, then so be it. I gave up diamond rings, emeralds, and the most exquisite 10 carat garnet ring surrounded by smaller garnets. It was an inheritance from my paternal grandmother. It never occurred to me that other members in the congregation wouldn’t give up what was precious to them.
One day, Noel (the pastor) asked me to see a psychologist. So I went. When I went to see Noel afterwards, he told me that the psychologist had told him that she had never met a more self-absorbed person than me in her life.
I cannot explain my reactions to you very well because I didn’t really have any responses. I sort of absorbed everything intellectually but my feelings were heavily suppressed, if they operated at all.
To this day, I don’t know if that was the result of extreme abuse from my mother and bullying at school, or whether it is the result of autism and various learning disabilities.
I knew that I wasn’t self-absorbed, but I didn’t say so. In those days, when people told me something about myself, I didn’t defend myself because it never occurred to me to do so.
One day, the pastor’s wife called me in. She said to me, “I want to stop hearing that Tessa is beautiful. I want to start hearing that Tessa is a nice person. You are like a whore walking around the church beckoning married men to sleep with you.”
I was asked to buy a car so that I didn’t have to walk home from the church. Why? I didn’t ask. In those days, I was a blindly obedient person.
Based on conversations through the next few months, I put it together years later. The women in the church were jealous because their husbands volunteered to walk me home. I didn’t need people to walk me home because the church was only five or six blocks from where I lived. It was a quick and easy walk. I just said yes out of politeness. I’m also extremely sure now that they weren’t concerned about my safety either. The ‘married men’ just wanted to be with me.
I didn’t know that then, of course. And, of course, the pastor who asked me to buy a car didn't offer to pay for it. Where he thought I would get the money to buy a car, I don't know. Maybe he, too, thought I was related to a multi-millionaire.
Later, Noel said something to me. I responded “But they’re jealous.”
“Yes, I know,” he said, “But I don’t want to live with it.”
It all got too much for me, and I decided to leave.
I told someone that I was going to leave the church and that it was my last attendance that day.
The following day the pastor called me. He said he wanted to speak to me.
I thought I was done with the church, but out of politeness, I said yes. He indicated that there would be others there. I asked how many. He said two or three.
When I arrived, there were about seven elders, plus the other pastor – John.
I once went to John for counselling because I was so upset with the things men said to me (I didn’t know at the time it was sexual harassment). John said that I must expect it because I was a beautiful woman.
Noel then said he had heard that I wanted to leave. I said yes, that was correct.
He then proceeded to read to me from Jude, told me I was a child of the devil, a cloud without rain, etc.
I was shattered.
I sat there.
Why would these people do this to me?
I asked if I could take this in front of the church as the New Testament instructed one. He said no.
Then John turned to me and told me I was extremely evil because I wasn’t even crying.
The sheer irony of that makes me laugh now.
Previously I had been told by these same people that I was always crying and that I had to stop crying. So I used every ounce of my self-control not to cry, and I got told I was evil because I wasn’t crying.
I was 29 years old that week. It was a Friday – the end of the most horrific week I have ever had in my life. My step-mother tried to poison my father and myself. I lost my job because I told a client the truth – that Heritage Collection was, indeed, selling Chinese rip-offs, and they weren’t actual collector’s pieces, and I got a notice from the landlord saying that my apartment was being sold and I needed to move out.
That’s the week I probably had a nervous breakdown and started developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was emotionally numb. I wore my clothes inside out. I could hardly speak.
Seriously? I could write a book about the things Christians did to me...
Making Things Right with God
If God was upset with me (and I couldn’t imagine why), I wanted to put it right.
So the church had an issue with my looks and because I pointed out errors in the bible. It takes a special kind of stupidity not to put it all together, but then I had the social understanding of a four or five year old, plus an auditory processing disorder (unable to learn from auditory information).
So I decided to get married.
I found a guy who had a Grade 6 education, was a labourer on the railways, and who was mentally retarded. I persuaded him to marry me. His mother advised him to ‘marry the Jewess,’ because the parents had money.
I had switched churches to St James in Cape Town. It was a Church of England denomination and its congregants were ‘born-again.’
I prayed to God that if I wasn’t supposed to marry Stephen that Frank Retief (the pastor) would tell me so. So I went to see Frank to ask him if he would marry me. He said yes. So I took it that God wanted me to marry Stephen.
Stephen wanted to have sex with me before we married. I told him that was wrong. He didn’t believe me but went to ask someone else. Then he told me I was right.
At the time I didn’t know it, but I didn’t like or enjoy sex. I am probably asexual. Either that, or the abuse from my mother was so bad that I developed a holy fear of sex which affected me for the rest of my life. In any event, I was sexually ignorant.
So, shortly before my 30th birthday, I married Stephen.
I still didn’t want to have sex with the man. He felt like my brother. I didn’t even like him very much.
Stephen didn’t want to earn a living. He was incredibly slow. I called the South African Department of Education. I explained the situation. Under duress, the guy told me that Stephen’s IQ was 84. Mine was 165 (My mother told me that, but I have had repeated tests by doctors and have always been told that I am gifted).
After four years of marriage, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy and why my life hadn’t improved. I prayed constantly to God. I spoke to God all the time. I read about God. I studied my bible. I went to church. I was in a relationship with God (I thought).
So I went to Beulah Retief, Frank Retief’s wife, and asked her why I was still struggling. She said, “God wants you to be fruitful and multiply. You must have a child.”
So I slept with my husband, and two weeks later my father died. Two weeks after that, I discovered I was pregnant.
When I told my mother, she said to me, “No child of yours will make me a grandmother.” My husband’s family called me and told me I was a whore. I had several vicious anonymous phone calls from several people calling me terrible names, all telling me that my child would be a whore and more.
Again, I didn’t think of questioning any of this. I had always lived in a state of blind acceptance and I was so accustomed to abuse that I just accepted it. That is what happens to people who are a) autistic b) badly traumatised and c) who have constantly been bullied and abused.
My husband didn’t believe me when I told him I was pregnant either. He said “I’ll wait and see.” Instead, he wanted to buy a bicycle because my father had passed and I had inherited some money.
It’s too much to tell you how many ‘Christians’ over the next year cheated me out of money one way or another. They all thought I now had to be rich. I inherited R5000 – today, taking inflation into account, that’s worth about $2,000. The reason they assumed I was rich was because they thought I was related to John Schlesinger, a multi-millionaire who lived in South Africa at that time.
I decided to get divorced.
I went to Frank Retief and told him that my husband didn’t want to work. Frank told me to tell him to get a job or else I must divorce him.
So I divorced my husband. I paid all costs, didn’t take alimony or child support, and moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
I was done with the church. I was also done with religion and, to some extent, with god.
Spirituality, the Law of Attraction, Judaism, and More
During the next ten years, I converted to Judaism, explaining to the rabbi that it was more cultural than religious, and that I had no religious belief. He said that was fine.
In the Jewish religion, you are only Jewish if your mother is Jewish. If your father is Jewish (as mine was), then you still have to convert.
The rabbi asked me how much I earned. It was an unexpected question. I didn’t know how much I earned because I worked on commission only. I did know that I had sales for R10,000 that month of which I earned a small percentage But my brain doesn’t process verbal information very quickly and it took me about two years to process that question. I told the Rabbi that I earned R10,000, which, of course, I didn’t.
He told me that I earned more than he did.
Based on my income, he then told me what I would have to pay the shul for the conversion.
It crippled me financially, but I paid it.
In those days, I never questioned anything.
I was highly respected by the members of the committee and other leading members of the shul for my knowledge and understanding of Torah, religion, spirituality, ethics, etc. At the end of my conversion, I was elected to the committee of Bet David in Sandton, Johannesburg.
It was short-lived.
Autism is Difficult Because Nobody Knows What's Going on Inside
The committee told me I was responsible for public relations. Well, you don’t make someone with Aspergers Syndrome responsible for public relations. Of course, I didn’t know that then.
So when the rabbi threatened that he would remove me from the committee if I didn’t do or say something, I called the chairman, resigned, and then called the rabbi back and told him I had resigned.
Even then, I was not the kind of person you threaten. When you have been told all your life that you aren’t entitled to anything, you accept it (if you’re autistic, anyway). So it’s difficult to threaten me by telling me I won’t get something if I won’t do something. I have no greed or ambition or lust for power or love of status.
Oh, yes, and I didn’t like the rabbi much because he kept coming on to me. He told me that if he were single I would be his type of woman, and he spoke to me about sex every now and then. I loathed speaking about sex. It gave me the creeps.
I was still trying to find out what was wrong with me. I studied the law of attraction, shamanism, Hinduism, and all sorts of other things. During that time, I read about 600 psychology books. I read an endless number of self-help books. I prayed, mediated, you name it.’
Nothing changed my situation.
Somehow people always hated me, and they did terrible things to me.
If you look at photos of me, you will see that my face was always contorted by stress.
Getting Diagnosed and Becoming an Atheist
In my mid-50s, I finally let all the mumbo jumbo go.
None of it had, in any way, changed my situation.
I had been the victim of abuse and bulling by so many people over such a long period of time, I just couldn’t figure it.
When I was living in London, I went to the Royal Free Hospital to see a psychiatrist
I told her that I had being very beautiful at one point (even at that point, I still was), that I had attended one of South Africa’s more exclusive schools, that I was intellectually gifted, and that I came from a well-known family. I told her that I couldn’t understand why I was struggling so much.
I asked her what my problem was.
She said, “You are suffering from delusions of grandeur.” This after ten minutes of speaking to me. She didn’t bother to ask me for evidence.
I knew that when I went back she would want to put me on Lithium, so my opening words to her in my next session were ‘I’m not going on medication.”
“Oh,” she replied, “I was going to put you on Lithium.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “You told me I had delusions of grandeur. Did it occur to you to ask me for validation of what I said?”
She asked me if I had any evidence of what I had said. I said yes. She asked me to bring it.
I spent ten quid photocopying and delivered it the next week. Fortunately, I had a gazillion press photos of my parents, proof of my schooling, a letter from Dr. Mariette Prinsloo in Johannesburg, South Africa, saying I was gifted and 100% sane.
Dr. Prinsloo did note that I was very intense when speaking and came across in a strange way.
In any event, the psychiatrist apologized, as did the consultant (head of psychiatry for the Royal Free Hospital). When I asked the consultant what was wrong with me, she said, “I don’t know. Some people are just like that.” I never went back.
In America, while at college in San Diego, California, I discovered I had a learning disability. Years later, I found out that I had an auditory processing disorder. Ironically, my daughter had been diagnosed with that during her first year of schooling in South Africa. Later, when my daughter taught behaviour modification at a school for autistic kids, she told me I had Aspergers Syndrome.
From that time on, things started falling into place.
By then, I knew that there was no god and no help from anything supernatural. If people chose not to help me (and very few did), then I was totally on my own. For the first time, I began to understand many things. By now, I was an out-and-out atheist. And I had not one ounce of trust in humanity. They had screwed me in every way possible, and the more they professed a belief in God, the more guilty they were of injury to me.
During all the years of praying, searching, meditating, I developed as a human being. I had always lived in a highly ethical manner, but the constant effort to touch god and to still my mind led to some sort of connection with a world we cannot see. I think it is the life-force.
When one touches this, nothing worldly really matters. There is a peace I cannot explain. One becomes a ‘oneness’ with all that is. From it comes a deep sense of humility. It doesn’t really matter what people say to you anymore. They can call you every name under the sun. They can accuse you of a multiplicity of things. They can hit you, beat you, kick you out into the street, do whatever they like. It doesn’t matter. The sense of connection to all-that-is remains strong. It is the source of all my strength.
No. You're NOT spiritual.
So let me say this to Christians and all who call themselves spiritual.
No, you are not spiritual.
You would not be offended by what I say to you if you had any form of spirituality. True spirituality comes from humility. It comes from knowing how small and insignificant you are. When you are connected to the life-force, that knowledge sinks deeply into you. When you look at the stars at night and you comprehend the vastness of the universe, you understand just how unimportant you are.
Does it truly matter that someone said you were fat? Of course, you’re fat. Can’t you deal with reality? No, you don’t have a talent for writing. You can’t even write a grammatical sentence. How on earth can you have a talent for writing? No, you’re not particularly bright. You don’t understand math. How does that make you bright? And no, sucking up to people and making them like you does not make you a nice person or give you high emotional intelligence. Nor does believing in a god make you a good person.
If you honestly think that your hurt feelings (which occur because you’re operating from a state of vanity and ego) justify your cruelty, vengeance, theft, and general vindictiveness and nastiness towards me, you have no understanding whatsoever of what goodness is. So don’t tell me about your god and how spiritual you are. Your words and actions demonstrate who you really are.
I do not fully comprehend it all.
I was always able to write, to do math, and by the time I was fourteen, I could easily read 500 pages an hour. I do not mean scan. I mean read every single word. At the same time, I had no idea how to wash my hair, walked into everything, was completely uncoordinated, dropped crockery, and couldn’t catch a ball. I never absorbed social rituals and for most of my life I lived with the social understanding of a four or five year old.
I am now sixty-six. I am back in South Africa, and as is usual, I have offended people because I didn’t say hello, didn’t want to be part of the group, don’t gossip, and I spoke about geeky, intellectual things which, according to the residents of Abbeyfield Homes ‘made them feel inadequate.’ So I was asked to leave. I also told people I was gifted. (They asked me to tell them about myself.)
Until I was about forty, when people asked me to tell them about myself, I would say “I am beautiful.”
It wasn’t vanity saying that. I honestly didn’t know anything else about myself. The only thing I knew was that I was beautiful, and the reason I knew that was because I was told me that twenty or thirty times a day. People came up to me on the streets and told me that. Once, when I was on a bus in Los Angeles, a lady came up to me and said, “You look like Elizabeth Taylor when she was young.” I was in my mid-50s at the time.
I no longer tell people I am beautiful. Firstly, it finally twigged that this is not what people wanted to know when they asked me to tell them about myself. Secondly, people were really upset with me and accused me of thinking myself better than they were. I didn’t. And lastly, I guess I’m now old and ugly. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I’m actually pleased all the attention has gone away.
Instead, when I get onto the bus, the Africans say, “You can have my seat, Mama.”
And for that small kindness, I am truly thankful. There has been some joy in returning to South Africa, even if I’m still two pennies away from homelessness.
Life as a disabled person is neither easy nor kind. That’s when you discover just how ‘spiritual’ people truly are.
© 2018 Tessa Schlesinger
Beata Stasak from Western Australia on August 23, 2018:
My dear fellow huber I read your beautiful life story and I can relate in many ways and I agree with you 100 percent about your final statement about religion and spirituality and HUMILITY:) Let us all be just humble human beings first and foremost before you attach any labelling to each other because whoever we are and whatever we believe in, labelling is not truly necessary...THANK YOU FOR YOUR STORY:)
Evelyn from Wisconsin on August 20, 2018:
What someone labels themselves as doesn't matter. It's their actions and how they treat other people.
I am sorry this happened to you. I am glad you have found some kind of peace.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on February 20, 2018:
What a story! I can see why you left the church and all those "spiritual" people behind. I've worked with people, who I could tell by things they said, were abused by their churches. I can relate to not making sense of the Bible and have written about this in my own life.
Autism and Asperger's Syndrome have come to light in the last 20 or 25 years, and we are just now becoming educated on this subject. We recently realized that one of my sons was a textbook case of Asperger's. All his life everyone had considered him odd, and quiet frankly, our family didn't like to be around him because he is so arrogantly one-sided and boring. He is just now coming to realize this also, but I'm not sure he will be able to change anything. He's in his 50s.
I appreciate reading about your ordeal, and I wish you a very happy rest of your life.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 11, 2018:
First, I love your poem! It is very true. I have PTSD about going to church. I was told some very mean things by the pastor when I was a teenager. I know I should be over it by now, but I guess I'm not. I want to give you a big hug. I know what it is like to be misunderstood. I also have Asperger's. I too didn't know people would lie to me, or about me, until I was in my mid 30's. So much of your story rings true to me. I'm very sorry you had to go through all of this!
McKenna Meyers on January 09, 2018:
Tessa, thanks for keeping it real. Since I have a son with autism, I enjoy reading what others have experienced so I can understand him better. Each story is so unique because the autism label is used for such a wide range of traits. I'm glad I had this chance to get to know you better through your beautiful writing and photos. I heard a quote recently that hit me hard: "There's something about brokenness that makes us more whole." When we share our journey in an honest way, we really help others and you helped me today.
threekeys on January 09, 2018:
T ess...I don't know what to say. I just want to give you a BIG HUG.
What a moving story.
What a roller coaster of a life.
I am so sorry for how you have been treated and misunderstood.The more I get older, the less I can figure things out. I, too, don't understand people's intentional harmfulness. I still keep trying to work out how life works. I know my life has turned out so completely diferent to anything I could have imagined. And I don't think its due to making poor decisions - all the time.
With gifted people, and when you haven't met them, you do form a certain set of expectations. In my life time, I have knowningly met two gifted females who were like chalk and cheese. One was very doubtul and uncertain. The other was in corporate sales and very business like. Both didn't fit my media informed perception of what constitutes a gifted person. But to me, they were both human with human needs and they both excelled in one particular area.
I agree with you. Because you are "Christian" doesn't mean anything. Its how you live you life 24/7. You don't need religion per se to find your own heart centre.
You showed great courage in writing this article. You are brave and so upfront.
Just keep being you, Tess. BIG HUG!
Roy Manterfield on January 09, 2018:
An incredible essay Tessa, fascinating and thoughtful, thank you so much for sharing it.