In the ninth grade, my school accused me of witchcraft.

On a Saturday, I had a sleepover to which a friend brought a Ouija board. The new girl said she felt sick to her stomach and called her father to pick her up. By second period Monday morning, the intercom insisted I leave Geometry and report to the office where, in more or less terms, the principal enjoined me to give up those sinful practices that opened up my soul to Satan!

Why was I even there?

My grandparents, the footers of bills wary of Tennessee public education, sent me to the cheapest private school in town for middle and high schools. A year earlier, another student and I had been called to the office because they knew we both attended, with our parents, St. Peter’s Episcopal that featured, on its lawn, an inverted cross, Peter’s cross. The fundamentalist school, however, identified the cross as perhaps Satanic.

I cried in the meeting, and the next. They let me off with a prayer and a warning.

A year or so later, when I began dating, I started keeping a fake journal. The idea was, I would write about overcoming temptations, sexual etcetera; the innocent day-to-day, however, was recorded as is, but I’d Trojan Horse Bible verses in lieu of confiding the blemishes. If I was ever accused of anything again–including sex, which had gotten several other students suspended for whole semesters–I would show them the journal: Look! I overcame temptation. I’ve been keeping this all along.

Who would lie in a journal?

I don’t know where I got the idea, but I’d been inundated with the notion of “evidence” for years; my father, then, was a forensics cop, head of the AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) unit of our local force. In writing this account of half-truths, however, the “evidence” in some way confused my motives. I wasn’t sure, deep down, if I believed in God and, yet, as I continued to have sex with my boyfriend and steal from my mother’s liquor cart, I began to experience intense bouts of guilt, like dizzy spells, that saw me awake whole nights, paranoid about what I told once-confidants, and, perhaps even more so, compelled to continue the behavior.

I wasn’t exactly a rebel, and no one will remember me as a wild child. All of my minor mutiny took place in extreme secrecy. I was never accused of anything ever again. I was never called to the office, never asked to explain myself. I made okay grades especially in music and, unsurprisingly, English where I had two truly wonderful teachers in the 11th-grade Advanced and 12th-grade AP, including one who slipped me a book deemed inappropriate by the school, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–still a favorite of mine–and another who led a quarter-long creative writing class where, for the first time, I felt some freedom of expression without fear of expulsion. Some would say I am, in some respects, unscathed by the lockdown, no-sex-no-dancing-no-nothing, hellfire-and-brimstone dystopian education.

That said, my motives for writing remain eerily similar to my first endeavor. I write in order to protect myself; it’s just the “what from” that’s changed. I no longer need to cloak my actions and desires (thanks, public universities!) or hide the fact that I’m happily agnostic with, if I may say, a fondness for the Episcopal church, at least the one in which I was raised. (Bingo night with a full bar! A priest who has a degree in literature from the University of the South! The denomination’s acceptance of gay clergymen! Their warmth and non-judgment.)

Now, writing protects me from misdirection, boredom, and anxiety. I may explore those worst parts of my imagination, perhaps after Anthony Burgess’s idea that the writer’s “innate cowardice . . . makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself,” as well as establish ideals of my own. Writing catches me in my missteps, accuses me, forgives me, betrays me, and defends me. It is outlet, inlet, spell, and caster. It listens to me, and knows before I tell.

Emilia Phillips
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