Becca Stevens, priest and chaplain at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel on the Vanderbilt University campus in Nashville, has spent the better part of her adult life trying to help women broken by rape, forced prostitution, homelessness, addiction and other physical and emotional trauma. In Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling, her new memoir, Stevens details her own sexual abuse and healing and how her ministry has led to the founding of Thistle Farms, a cottage enterprise run by women in the process of healing themselves.
There was a time when Stevens wasn’t sure her social ministry would ever get off the ground. She was a working mother and the wife of a musician who was frequently out of town (Marcus Hummon, a songwriter and playwright), and her days already seemed hopelessly full. Nevertheless, she dreamed of a place called Magdalene, a residential community for women wrecked by prostitution and addiction, though she thought she might have to put it off till her own life settled down a bit.
Then, as she made her way home from work downtown one day, her 4-year-old son asked, “Mommy, why is that lady smiling?” He had seen a sign on the Classic Cat strip club: a smiling woman wearing a bikini,
cat ears, and a tail. “What do I tell him?” Stevens remembers thinking. “Would I tell my son that it is just how the world is, and some people get paid for dressing up like cats? Would I tell him that some people use each other for their own gain? Would I tell him it’s close to Halloween and not to worry? I decided to tell him that some people don’t respect other people, especially women.” As she considered her son’s short-lived innocence, she felt a renewed call to try to help women damaged by prostitution, trafficking and addiction.
In fact, Stevens shares something fundamental with many of the women she has welcomed into the Magdalene community during the past nearly two decades: she, too, was sexually abused as a child, by a seemingly kind-hearted friend of the family. When she was 6 years old, her father — also an Episcopal priest — was killed by a drunk driver on his way home from counseling members of his parish. That’s when friend of Stevens’ father, a powerful member of the church, began making himself welcome in the family’s home. “This man was a snake oil salesman in the worst sense of the word,” Stevens writes, “the purveyor of concoctions made by people who gain power on the backs of the suffering. The abuse I endured was confusing to me. He showed generosity and kindness to my family. Then, when everyone was gone, he would hold me down or hold me in his lap. He was oily and so strong that he could hold me in any position so I couldn’t move. I didn’t know how to respond. In those moments, I felt as if concrete were being poured down the back of my throat. My body felt heavy and my mind would drift off.”
As Stevens opened the first Magdalene house — a place where women are welcomed to stay for two years without cost and are offered a full range of services, including medical and dental care, to help them become self-supportive — she began to recognize the way sexual abuse connected her to many of the women there. “Let me be clear: I am not comparing the abuse I went through to the terrifying stories I have heard over the years from women who have survived life on the streets,” Stevens writes. “Sometimes I don’t know how my friends at Magdalene survived their childhood. My experiences pale in comparison to the suffering I have heard about, but they allowed me to connect and develop a model that is a lavish, intimate testimony that, in the end, love and grace are the most powerful forces for social change in the world.”
As the Magdalene community grew — there are now six houses in Nashville — founding a business to support the program became a necessity. Magdalene women often have lengthy arrest records, a lack of work history and training, and little education. Finding employment for them was difficult, and Stevens wanted to start an entrepreneurial enterprise that would put them to meaningful work and help sustain the Magdalene program too. Soaking one night in the bathtub, the idea hit her: “The work needed to be something that walked hand in hand with healing body, mind, and spirit,” she writes. Thistle Farms — which makes and sells natural bath and beauty products sold in more than 200 retail outlets around the world — was born.
Equal parts journal, spiritual guide and snake-oil history lesson — which even includes recipes — Snake Oil is a stirring account of one woman’s vision for justice and healing on behalf of people whose problems seem nearly insurmountable. But Becca Stevens has opened her arms, heart and ministry to dozens of women who society believes are beyond hope, and has given them vision, work and health. It’s difficult to imagine a more inspirational journey.
As part of the Salon@615 series, Becca Stevens will discuss and sign Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling on Tuesday, March 12 at 6:15 p.m. Doors open at 5:45, and the event is free.
For more local book coverage — including an uncut version of this review — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.