Who is Shannon Harris? This is the question that Harris herself was asking as she began to untangle her life from the fundamentalist, conservative evangelical faith she had married into.
Harris is a musician and playwright, and author of a recent memoir, The Woman They Wanted, about her childhood and eventual introduction to the world of Sovereign Grace Ministries (now known as Sovereign Grace Churches). Harris writes intimately about meeting and marrying Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (1997), which acted as a purity-culture guidebook. Most significantly, she outlines how her church and marriage (the Harrises divorced in 2019) suppressed her own goals and personhood.
Harris spoke with Sojourners associate news editor Mitchell Atencio about her story of encountering and leaving patriarchy, complementarianism, and fundamentalist faith.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio: I read that this book was originally going to be a musical, how did you end up writing a memoir?
Shannon Harris: I knew I wanted to tell my story in some way. Just even for myself, I felt like I needed to process it out loud. Having come from a place where I didn’t really have a voice, I felt like that was going to be really important to me. My most natural mode of communication is music, and I love musicals.
I had mentioned [writing a musical] on Instagram. I had a playwright reach out to me, and she had experienced very similar things to me, and she was really interested. And so, we signed a contract — we still have a signed contract; we have up to 10 years to write this musical. But such a random thing happened, and she got stuck [in] a very remote area [during the pandemic] … and we couldn’t work on it. And I was really ready to do this project and get it done with.
We were all just sitting around, and we couldn’t go out of our houses, so I thought, “The time is now; I guess I’ll just I’ll write it as a book.” Since Josh knew publishers — I absolutely used the connections that Josh had — I called [a book agent] and said, “I think I’m going to write this as a book. Can I talk to you?”
When you’re writing a memoir, it’s your story but it interweaves with other people’s story. How did you think about the responsibility of telling other people’s stories? Did you reach out to some people in advance?
Yeah, definitely. There were a number of stories where I asked for permission. I sometimes would write the story and then share it with the person and say, “Are you comfortable with this?” And then there were other people where, I couldn’t tell my story without sharing some of these details. Those stories were so key to my story. It wasn’t easy for me. I don’t actually enjoy telling negative stories about anyone, even people who I think were really wrong. There was tension for me the whole time.
And I’m a private person, too. If I could have told my story without ever talking about my marriage, I probably would have loved to. I’m a “move on and be cool” kind of person. I’m not just going to slam everyone. And yes, I had a lot of anger and issues to deal with certain people, but my story was caught in a much bigger story — multiple bigger stories.
What are some of your hopes for the book? What do you hope people will take away?
I really didn’t want to prescribe what someone would get from it. I just knew that my story — as someone else interpreted it — was used in a very public way. And I felt like what people knew about me wasn’t real.
There are so many people that are healing from the purity movement, and it’s not like I felt like I could save anyone, but I felt like I could at least leave the church better than I found it. I felt like I could leave a message that maybe would undo some of the damage that had been done.
I used a mannequin on the front cover because that’s how I felt. I felt like I was used as a mannequin. I heard just a couple of years ago that women in my ministry, in churches in other states, were being told to be like me, and I didn’t know this was going on. That really upset me.
I wanted women who feel trapped in oppressive religious environments to feel the freedom and be encouraged to say, “Okay, this was really wrong.” I wanted them to be encouraged to trust themselves and have a voice in their life. Women in very conservative spaces, evangelical spaces, or religiously controlled spaces are buried under layers that are “ordained by God,” and it’s really difficult to see. So, for those people, maybe a few will hear my story and feel encouraged to make a change in their lives.
I hope that churches, even male pastors, would hear my story and read it. A lot of pastors preaching complementarianism are just barreling forward with their message. They’re not taking the time to look back and actually see what the impact of their work is. And I think we need to hear those voices. I know that many people who are deconstructing get so easily dismissed on the grounds of “They weren’t a real Christian,” or “She’s divorced now, she’s not going to church every Sunday.”
There are a million reasons why people who are changing are getting dismissed. The reality is these preachers and teachers really need to listen to those stories.
Your music has been published as Shannon Bonne, but the book is published under the name Shannon Harris, and I was curious about that.
It was my decision. [The publisher] would have loved me to do a combination of both of those names, but the truth is that isn’t my name. I didn’t want my name to be Shannon Harris-Bonne, and I was really undecided. My legal name is still Harris, and Bonne, a made-up name, has never really felt quite right. So, it was really awkward actually. I literally do not know what name [I’ll use going forward.] So, I just said, you know what, we’re just going to do Harris and … I left the door open for whatever I decide.
But it’s not ideal to write a book and not know what you want to be called, so, classic me!
I wanted to ask about Christiane Northrup, an author who is cited several times in the book. She has been promoting several false COVID-19 conspiracy theories, among other pseudo-scientific teachings. What was it about her work that you wanted to include? Did you know about these when you included her?
I knew that there were more questions about what she was teaching these days, but I still like the book, [Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom]. Especially the first couple chapters. I saw that people had mixed feelings about her these days.
But I feel like these first couple chapters are very valuable. She’s talking about the effect of patriarchy and how intellect has been valued over more feminine ways of being like emotions and the body. To me, these were just really straightforward concepts I thought were helpful.
She has a section on inner guidance, which is basically giving support for trusting your inner guidance system. And that is the thing I denied myself all throughout my early church experience and basically shut off. Looking back, the sirens and the alarms of my fight/flight/freeze were going off left and right. And I just kept stuffing it because religious reasons overrode it. For me, it was really encouraging to hear someone say, “No, you knew what you knew.”
What does womanhood mean to you? What are some of the values and traits of womanhood that you feel like you live into and embody?
Coming from this experience where I was told who to be, [womanhood is] very much all about knowing myself and learning who I am. People are all different, and there are masculine and feminine traits that have been held up in our society as more valuable than others. But for me, it’s about learning who I am: What do I have? What are my strengths? What am I here for? What do I have to offer? What makes me feel alive?
To be told how you have to live [as a woman] is so oppressive. To me, [womanhood] is just about being a human being.
What are the next few projects you’re working on? Do you want to write more books?
I don’t know if I’ll write another book. I really enjoyed it. I think it came really quite naturally to me, but I think music is my love. I literally came out of the womb singing and writing music. So, I’m looking forward to writing and recording more music. And I’d love to get on stage again. I really missed being on stage. I did it at my book launch, and I had such a good time.
Can you describe what you did on stage in your book launch?
At the very last minute I decided to do a little bit of a comedy routine. I opened my book launch with a little skit where I made fun of my past — I just had so much fun with it. I hadn’t had a lot of fun in a really long time. It was really powerful for me [to make] people laugh, and it just felt right.
If the musical version of your story ever comes to be, I’d watch it.
I have much of the musical already written! And I have several songs I really like. I have the synopsis. I have the acts settled. If I decide to do it, I hope it comes through.
Editor’s note: The first answer in this article was updated on Oct. 4 to clarify that Shannon spoke with a book agent, not Josh, about writing the memoir.