Jessica Wilbanks – When I Spoke in Tongues

Jessica Wilbanks’ family life was drenched in the Pentecostal substream of Christianity when she grew up, recognizable from my own teenage and young adult years. Revival meetings, altar calls, speaking in tongues as proof the Holy Spirit lives in you, sheer numbers of converts, and a quest for rules and space to live your life and behave like a model citizen. At sixteen, Jessica stepped out, no longer able to accept certain faith tenets. Booze and drugs, same-sex relationship replaced the life within the boundaries of a religious family.

Her father maintains in contact. Eventually, Jessica also learned to respect her mother. The whole family is on a faith journey. Where her parents in their own way leave certain extreme denominations, Jessica wants to dig into the Yorùbá roots of the Pentecostal faith in Nigeria, since so many Africans immigrated to the U.S. and planted churches on every street corner. Promises of health and prosperity, gatherings attracted thousands and thousands.  After a terrifying car crash, Jessica could start forgiving herself for leaving the church and her family and finding her own way to practice faith and love.

When I Spoke in Tongues is a painful story with lots of insights in Pentecostalism, making it less accessible for nonbelievers. Who else but a former Pentecostalist would try whether or not she’s still able to speak in tongues? Money trails, pitfalls of sexual harassment and manipulation within a church setting are not interesting for any reader. For a true nonfiction work, the memoir is too polished. It leaves out many details on partners, rationale, travels and specific elements of faith. or of the painful and complicated process of losing one’s faith and moving across class divides. Where cynism or plain atheism would be the easy way out, love, in the end, binds the broken family together without casting out God.

About the author

Jessica Wilbanks is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize as well as creative nonfiction awards from Ninth Letter, Sycamore Review, Redivider, and Ruminate magazine. In 2014, she was selected as a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Journalism. Jessica received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Houston, where she served as nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast. She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son.

I received a free copy from the publisher Beacon Press through Edelweiss in exchange for my personal, unbiased review upon reading.