Adrian Shirk, And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Stories From the Byways of American Women and Religion, Counterpoint, 2017

[Review Guidelines]

At one point in Adrian Shirk's debut book, And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, a nonfiction collection mixing memoir with the overlooked lives and contributions of American women of religion, the author mentions how the novelist Tom Robbins once lifted a passage written by her Aunt Robin and inserted it into one of his own novels. The passage in question is a cocktail list, both versions of which Shirk includes (Aunt Robin's version is better). Near the end of the chapter, Shirk writes of her aunt's struggle with mental illness and the "deeper, quieter fear about the particular kind of isolation I saw in her, the paralysis of a mystical impulse, creativity overtaxed by frenzy. Is this what happens when you know too much?"
     And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy is both concerned with what we know too much of —the age-old stories of patriarchal systems stifling the contributions and achievements of American female mystics, religious leaders, and thinkers—and with what we know too little of. Shirk's book is a tender, nuanced search not just for reliable biography, but for a depth of gaze into what those women did, felt, and thought. As Shirk writes of Maggie and Kate Fox, sisters central to the spread of Spiritualism but whose communications with ghosts were determined to be a hoax, "Veracity has little to do with it."
     In some of the book's finest essays—on Aimee Semple McPherson, pioneer of the megachurch, Marie Laveau, "the ostensible founder of American Voudou", and more unexpected subjects such as Flannery O'Connor and the aforementioned Aunt Robin—the stories of these women trace to the present day and reverberate in Shirk's own life. At the crux of Shirk's explorations is, as with many religious experiences, a sense of expectation. "I'm waiting, as I always am," she writes in her chapter on McPherson, "for a religious feminist to say that the moral framework of Christianity fundamentally compels her to support women, to dismantle the patriarchy as Christ did." She's looking for that intersection where "feminism became a spiritual journey of presence and transcendence both."
     The material is rich and perhaps because its connections run deep, moments of individual excellence can feel not yet fully webbed in. In an essay on Sojourner Truth, for example, Shirk parses the different ramifications of a phrase Truth used in a famed 1851 speech. Did she say "Ain't I a woman?" or "Aren't I a woman?" The difference is a crucial one, having everything to do with appropriation, and so relates back to, for example, Tom Robbins' plagiarism or Shirk's own complicated feelings towards a second wave feminist takeover of a New York City building in the early 1970s. Shirk, a subtle, sharp writer, knows these connections exist, yet at times it feels as if the book's structure—its adherence to the alternation of memoir and biography—does not allow these connections to peal out as fully as they want to.
     Why then choose to write this book in part as memoir? The subtitle—"Stories from the byways of American women and religion"—gives some clue. If these are stories of figures overlooked in one way or another, Shirk's chronicle of her own spiritual search within her family, as well as the stories about that family that can or can't be told, serves as both an alternative and a parallel to the untold or mistold stories that came before. This is not to say that Shirk does anything so forward as position herself in the same role as these prophets, leaders, and spiritualists, but the detailing of her own inquiries—her movements through faith and her attempt to balance a "moral Christian framework" with an intersectional feminism—gains significance as an act that is both redress and revelation. [TM]