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Book Review: “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”

The Library | Photo by Rose Taylor | The Wright State Guardian

Deesha Philyaw’s short story collection, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” explores the internal and external struggles that these strong, independent Black women narrators are challenged with. 


Issues of the past are now of the present and worries of pleasing God and others lingers to the forefront. How can one truly be themself if they are in constant fear of disappointing loved ones and being sent to Hell? 

This is especially true for Eula, Caroletta, Arletha, Rhonda and Jael. These are women who love and are interested in other women, although they are told that in the eyes of the Lord, homosexuality is considered “unnatural” and a sin. 

Eula has internalized this notion as she tells Caroletta: “‘I just want to be happy,’ she sobs. ‘And normal.’”

She does not consider herself as being “normal,” as she is sexually attracted to her female best friend, Caroletta. Jael’s grandmother does not consider her granddaughter “normal” either, as Jael writes improper thoughts about the pastor’s wife in her diary. 

Sexuality is not the only controversial subject that Philyaw touches on. She also discusses adultery and its impact on others outside of the affair with “Peach Cobbler” and “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands.” Adultery is also considered a sin within various religions, but how seriously can it be taken when those of the faith are actively participating in it? 

Philyaw does an incredible job of raising these questions and more as she takes on the many controversial subjects that surround the Christian faith and beyond. Her bravery for discussing the things that many would rather keep quiet is duly noted and highly respected. 

Each of the Black women narrators that she brings to life act as inspiration to many, as they are more than capable of overcoming their hardships and fears and accomplish just that, as shown with “Snowfall” and “How to Make Love to a Physicist.” Growing into and becoming who you are meant to be without the opinions and influence of family, friends and the religious faith taught to one growing up is no easy feat. One is never alone in their hidden desires and unholy thoughts, and “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” is proof of that. 

Just as Caroletta states, we often think we “… have to choose between pleasing God and something so basic, so human as being held and known in the most intimate way.” She continues by asking, “Why would He make rules that force such a painful choice?”

 That is definitely a question worth pondering over.

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