Savior Complex

I learn the word crucifix when my father tells a funny story—or less a story, and more a scrap of dialogue—about the woman he overheard at the jewelry store. Over time, this scrap will be rubbed shiny smooth with each re-telling, like the nickel a magician pulls from behind your ear—delightful, but only the first time. This is how it goes:

“I’d like to buy a gold cross necklace,” the woman at the jewelry store says.

“Of course,” says the jeweler. He reaches inside the glass case and pulls out a display of various gold crosses, large and small. Some with diamonds on them, some plain. The woman inspects them, dissatisfied.

Finally, she asks: “Do you have any crosses with the little man on them?”

My father pauses here, then bursts out laughing. His laugh is like a small explosion: a rush of air, high pitched, then a downward cadence, like an arpeggio. His blue eyes crinkle, his moustache dances. I crave the sound of his laugh, his attention. For a few years, starting not long after Sam was born, my father lived in another house, then another state. He was a voice on the phone, a weekend visitor. In other words, he was once scarce, and perhaps this scarcity is what has made him even more precious to me. 

I hang on his words, I mirror his laugh with my own—haha!—even though I do not understand the funny part of the woman’s question. Like her, I have also noticed that some crosses have a little man on them. Some don’t. I am picturing my father in the jewelry store, listening with a sly smile on his face, recording the conversation for later. Was he there to buy something for my stepmother? I remember the time he took Sam and me with him to buy Krystal an amethyst tennis bracelet, and I learned that the bracelet had nothing to do with the sport. She’s wearing it now, the purple gems glinting when she moves her wrist.

“Krystie’s cross has a little man on it,” Sam says, pointing to our stepmother’s neck, where a slender gold cross dangles from a thin gold chain.

“That’s right,” she says, leaning closer so we can see it. “It’s not just any man. Do you know who that is on the cross?”

“Jesus,” I say, before Sam can beat me to it. I look to my father, who nods his approval. The gold Jesus is a miniature of the one that hangs on the wall near the front door, which is nowhere near as big as the one that hangs behind the altar at St. Thomas More Church. Seeing Jesus’ figure makes me woozy—ribs straining against his skin, blood oozing from his side, hip bones sharp as knives. My eyes sweep over his every bone, ligament, stringy muscle. Gruesome, is the word I’ve heard my mother use when she talks about the Catholic Church.

“Which means that this cross is a crucifix,” my father says. “Because Jesus was crucified on the cross.”

“And they put nails through his hands?” Sam asks, eagerly.

“Through his hands and his feet. He died for our sins,” my stepmother says. She rubs the crucifix between her forefinger and thumb, red nails glinting, before tucking it inside her sweater.

On my own neck hangs a gold necklace, a Star of David, which my mother gave me, only me. She doesn’t wear one, and Sam doesn’t either, I guess because he’s a boy. My stepfather Cecil doesn’t wear one, but that’s because he isn’t Jewish, though he goes to synagogue with us and doesn’t care about celebrating Christmas.

I like wearing the necklace because it shows I am different than most of my other classmates, that I am special in some way, like when I get to miss school for the High Holidays, or when my friends find out that I celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. There are other Jewish kids in my grade. We blend in with our mostly white Christian classmates, but we are different from them in subtle ways, different enough that we are the ones chosen to spin around like dreidels during the one Hanukkah song in the school’s holiday musical.

Identity is a concept that I don’t understand yet. My identity is just a collection of traits, a BINGO card of belonging and not belonging. I am a girl. A blonde, blue-eyed girl. A blonde, blue-eyed Jewish girl. A blonde, blue-eyed Jewish girl who celebrates Christmas. I pick up the pieces of myself that I have been given and put them together, puzzling out what they mean. Soon, I will begin to see the contradictions inherent in my self. I will learn to camouflage and contort, to become a mirror, reflecting back the girl that others think they want to see. But for now, I am wholly me. This is who I am.

I am wearing the Star of David necklace when Dr. Katz, the forensic family psychologist, conducts his home visits and interviews. He is dark-haired and middle-aged, with wire-rimmed glasses and a kind smile. He is unlike any adult I have ever met, in that he listens more than he talks, sitting cross-legged on the carpet while he asks me questions. He watches everything that I do, which is both thrilling and disconcerting. I can’t decide whether to perform and act silly, or to shrink down inside myself. Instead, I swing between these extremes like a pendulum.

Dr. Katz is observing us and talking to us in order to determine how much time Sam and I should spend at our father’s house. My father wants us at his house half the time, and my mother doesn’t want to give us up, plus she’s mad that he and Krystal have been taking us to church even though their divorce agreement says that the children would be raised Jewish. In his report, Dr. Katz writes that my mother is concerned by the things Sam and I have been saying, things that Jewish kids don’t say. Recently, Sam came home and asked why we don’t believe in the baby Jesus. “We don’t believe that Jesus was a messiah,” my mother answered, which left us all feeling confused. My father tells Dr. Katz that he wants his children to receive “exposure” to Catholicism, as though we are fragile seedlings that need to be moved from the greenhouse to the outdoors, hardened off.  He complains that his ex-wife coddles the children; she lacks discipline. “Sometimes,” he says, “you need to bring the hammer down.”

Dr. Katz talks to me about Hebrew school. He asks me about my Star of David necklace, and I tell him that my mother got it for me two weeks ago. He scribbles a little note on his yellow legal pad. He asks me about my religion, and I begin to withdraw. Religion is bigger than me, bigger than St. Thomas More Church and Temple Sinai, bigger than my mother and father, my stepmother and stepfather, bigger than Friday nights and Sunday mornings. It’s hard to keep straight the things I am supposed to believe, like who is or isn’t the messiah, or what a messiah is. But religion is small too. As small as the symbol that hangs around a neck. My stepmother and my father wear crucifixes. I wear a Star of David.

In his report, Dr. Katz records what I say:

“My mom is Jewish. I celebrate Christmas. I go to Dad’s house every Christmas.” [Lauren] indicated that her mother recently stopped letting her go to church anymore with her father. When asked how she felt about this, she said “I really don’t think I should go to church, because I’m not Catholic.”

As an adult, I wonder if the necklace was my mother’s attempt to claim me. Look, she was saying, this is my daughter. She may look like her father, but she is mine. She is Jewish. The Star of David on my neck was like the identification sewn into the inside of a child’s jacket. If lost, call this number, find this address. It was a visible reminder to my father, my stepmother, and to Dr. Katz that I belonged to her. But most of all, it was a reminder to me, her oldest child.

Did she intuit that I would be the child most likely to drift away from her, unmoored? My brother, who Dr. Katz described as “an energetic, affectionate boy, with few apparent problems,” clung tightly to our mother, couldn’t fall asleep unless she was lying on the floor beside his bed, cried easily when his feelings were hurt. His face was the spitting image of my mother’s face when she was his age. Even his name, Samuel, comes straight from the Hebrew bible. Samuel, a prophet, a ruler of Israel. My father’s name is equally biblical, plucked straight from the New Testament: Matthew. A solid, sturdy Christian name. The apostle whose name I heard echoed in mass. This is the gospel according to Matthew. . . But who is Lauren? Related to the laurel tree? The name of a famous actress? Maybe my roots have always been shallow, vulnerable to disturbances in the soil. Maybe this is why it has always been easy for me to pick up and go, to say goodbye without looking back. Or maybe that is another myth I tell myself.

Dr. Katz’s “Parenting Time Evaluation” reads like a prophecy that has already come to pass. The star on my neck would offer me scant protection against the onslaught of religious propaganda we would receive at our father’s house. Dr. Katz records this moment during his home visit:

Toward the end of the home visit, Sam asked that his father or Krystal bring down a crucifix. Sam wanted to show it to the evaluator. Krystal asked Sam what it said, and Sam didn’t know what Krystal was talking about. Krystal had wanted him to say ‘King of the Jews.’ Sam talked about what a terrible way it was to die. Krystal asked the names of Jesus’ mother and father, and Sam said ‘Mary and David.’ Matthew explained that it was Joseph. Matthew then went into some other Bible stories the family had been talking about, asking Sam who the good and bad guys were, and Sam said that the Philistines were the bad guys. Lauren said that Jesus did look like he was suffering.

Dr. Katz, himself a Jew, does not call my stepmother an anti-Semite. He tiptoes around the word, worried, perhaps, about appearing biased. He leans instead on observations: Krystal’s exaggerated ignorance, her dismissal of Jewish tradition and belief. I can’t help but wonder if the hairs on the back of his neck raised as the crucifix came off the wall. How did he feel when Krystal referred to Jesus as the King of the Jews in his presence? Did his body tell him that this was an act of hostility? Friends of mine would later tell me that my stepmother scared them. Something about her eyes. Perhaps she scared Dr. Katz, too. But his report is an exercise in restraint. He delicately proposes that my father and stepmother “might benefit from a meeting with the rabbi at Temple Sinai.”

The evaluator pointed out that one of the problems was that for the Jewish people, Jesus was not a king. Krystal indicated that she was finding it really hard to know what to do because she wasn’t Jewish, and didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish. She said it takes a concerted effort on her part to leave out Christianity in her interactions with the children.

To Dr. Katz, my stepmother claims she is Christian to her core, so Christian, in fact, that she couldn’t possibly understand any other way to move through the world. She and my father “lived their lives in a Catholic context.” The elephant in the room, of course, was us—my brother and me. Living proof that my father had chosen to live outside the Catholic context for years.

Now, years later, I yearn for an unfiltered version of the parenting report in which “the evaluator” tells us what he is really thinking. One where the “I” isn’t conspicuously missing. In this version, Dr. Katz is my golem, my Jewish monster and superhero, whose divine and single purpose is to save Sam and me from persecution. In this version he extracts us from the building before the spark is struck, diffuses what he predicts will be a “ticking time bomb.” But Dr. Katz was not a golem, just a man getting paid to do a job. He wasn’t there to act, but to observe. And what would it mean to be saved, anyways? I don’t believe in being saved anymore.

I don’t think Dr. Katz would be surprised to learn that the Christian indoctrination continued, that this would be one of the primary ways that my stepmother and father would begin to steadily to unravel the bond between mother and daughter. I don’t think he would even be surprised to learn that for years afterward, Krystal would refer to him as “that hebe doctor.” Three years after Dr. Katz submitted his reports, another family psychologist would sum up the continued custody battles as “a fight for the hearts and souls of the minor children.” He would lament that “the children have not had (and would developmentally would not be expected to have) the strength to resist the seductiveness of Mr. and Ms. Rhoades ‘teaching of Christianity’ to them.”

In 2019, I began writing about my childhood and remembered the child psychologists, remembered their curious, muted presence. I also remembered my parents referring often to the “Parenting Time Evaluation,” though I had never seen the document.

“What happened to those reports?” I asked my mother.

“Oh god, you don’t want to read those,” she said. I assured her that I did.  Dutifully, my stepfather went to the basement and rummaged through old boxes to find them. My mother had wanted to throw them away years ago—they were reminders of unhappy times—but Cecil had saved them. Somehow, they had survived three moves.  (“I wasn’t sure why I saved them, but I did,” he would later tell me.) He brought the reports to his office, scanned them, and emailed them to me. On the day after my thirtieth birthday, I opened the email while I was still at work, read the reports straight through, and then lay on the floor and cried.

Now as I descend into the deep well of memory, these reports are the wobbly rope ladders that I cling to. When I begin to doubt myself, to question who I was then and who I am now, when I find myself inside the cave, I reach for the ladder: fifty-five single-spaced, witness-bearing pages. Someone else listened to me and heard what I wasn’t able to say. Someone else saw me, not as a daughter or a stepdaughter, but as a child, suspended between worlds, looking for a savior. In finding her, I find myself.


Lauren Rhoades is an essayist and memoirist living in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Rooted Magazine, an online publication  dedicated to telling unfiltered stories about what it means to call Mississippi home. Lauren’s essays have been published in Southwest Review, Phoebe, Salvation South, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Mississippi University for Women. Her debut memoir Split the Baby is forthcoming from Belle Point Press in 2025.