The image shows a middle aged white woman with brown hair smiling at the camera. She is wearing hoop earrings.

Diana Keough is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at The University of Georgia. She is currently working on a multimedia memoir project titled "Not From a Nice Family." 

Posts By This Author

Family Secrets

by Diana Keough 05-06-2024
When lies and AIDS brought my parents’ facade of superiority crashing down, I lost faith – but grace found us all.
The sepia-toned image shows a family of three standing in front of a fireplace. There is a rip in the image, with the mother on one side and the daughter and father on the other.

Author Diana Keough, center, with her mother, Christine, and father, Roger, in the den of their Milwaukee home, circa 1980. / Courtesy of author

“IN THE BEGINNING was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” I had no idea what the words I recited in front of the church meant. My Mary Janes hurt my feet and my dress was so tight it left angry red welts in my armpits. Mom looked so proud; Dad, too, sitting in the front row, smiling. I didn’t want to disappoint them, especially here.

As far back as I can remember, my parents started churches in our suburban Milwaukee home. They were nondenominational, Independent, Calvinist, Fundamentalist Baptist. Initially, just a few families gathered, with Dad leading the service in our living room. Before long, our house overflowed, and the adults started raising money to construct a church. Once the building was complete, dissension began and my parents would leave, claiming the church was now too liberal. They disapproved of so many things: changes to the prayer book, Black people joining their all-white communities, homosexuality, women in ministry, the Equal Rights Amendment, anyone who questioned the literal translation of the Bible, adding rhythm to traditional hymns, accepting Catholics as fellow Christians. We were the “Chosen.” Predestined and proud of it.

My parents were also active members of The John Birch Society (JBS), the extreme right political organization, founded in 1958, which is known to be racist and antisemitic. They hosted monthly JBS chapter meetings in our living room. It was hard to know which belief system drove them more: the conservative politics of the JBS or the fundamentalist Christian fear of the rise of the Antichrist. Either way, to them the possibility of a communist invasion was a real threat.

They hired a handyman to build a hidey-hole in the back of the closet in our basement, where our whole family could hunker down if communists invaded the United States. Because we were Christians, educated, and part of the ruling class, Mom told us our family would be among the first to be imprisoned, then executed. Most of my nightmares as a child involved communists finding us in our hiding place.

I grew up listening to Mom and her friends, drinking coffee around our kitchen table while they animatedly discussed which group of people was ruining our country and if former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was really a communist agent.

I never quite understood what all the fuss was about. All I knew was that I adored listening to my Dad talk about politics and preach. I loved memorizing the verses he gave me about fleeing evil and avoiding temptation. I believed the words he spoke to be true. For me, he embodied the Heavenly Father he taught me about.

I didn’t feel the same about my mother. After every church service, whenever I’d overhear her describe someone as a person who “loved the Lord,” the hair on the back of my neck would stand straight up. If she caught me rolling my eyes as she quoted scriptures, I knew I had it coming. As soon as we got in the car, she’d slap my face.

My mother hitting me wasn’t unusual. Quite often after one of the regular beatings she gave me, she’d make me kneel in front of her, as she reverently prayed, eyes closed, “Please forgive Diana, Lord. She doesn’t know how to respect or obey me.” Never knowing when she’d strike, I was constantly on guard.

I believed in God as a child and deeply felt Jesus was my friend, responding to an altar call when I was 6. But Mom smugly told me Jesus could never love a naughty, backsliding little girl like me. Because of that, I was never sure my salvation stuck, so I made at least half a dozen more trips down the aisle. My teenage years and early 20s did little to reassure me of God’s love. I didn’t want to go to hell. It seemed like a scary place. But when I was 25, hell found me anyway.