Bleeding Ink: Chick Tracts and my Evangelical Childhood

It was the mid eighties. I lived in Flemingdon Park, a mostly immigrant-populated neighbourhood on the edge of Toronto. My family – and I mean my whole family, three generations of it – attended Flemingdon Park Pentecostal Church. Of the church, I remember every detail. I remember the hardwood pews I sometimes helped my grandmother polish. I remember the chandeliers with a hundred small lights that seemed opulent next to our rented boxes, each with the same bulk-bought light fixtures. I remember the washrooms where we watched women fix their lipstick in their Sunday best, two piece polyester suits and hats with lace and flowers and small craft store birds. Sometimes their eye would meet and they’d give a knowing nod as a mother brought Jesus to their child with hands and purse straps and coat hangers.


Pretty on the outside…

The Jesus freak movement of the seventies brought swaths of people (including my family) to religion, but it was the hard-nosed, cult-like, almost mythically weird evangelism of the eighties that kept them. Somewhere along the way, the idea that god is love gave way to the sure-fire knowledge that god was right. And as god’s chosen folks, we were right by proxy. Several times a week, we gathered in the red brick building on Grenoble Drive and listened to stories of hell, fire and redemption. My brain, always a little bit sideways, took it all in. I believed every word of it.

To explain it to someone who hasn’t been through it, imagine you were raised watching horror films every day from as early as you can remember. Only, instead of your parents assuring you it was all just a made up story, they told you it was real. All of it. They told you Freddy and Jason and Pinhead and Leatherface were real. They told you the only thing that was standing between you and them was constant prayer, never-ending obedience and diligent belief. Imagine that the judge who determined whether or not you were given over to them was always watching. Not a single moment was your own. One mistake and you would be theirs. To assure your safety, your salvation, you were hit whenever you strayed, even in thought. That was my childhood. That and potlucks, music and felt cut-outs of Noah’s ark.

An important part of our church was evangelism. We sent missionaries around the world. We rented buses to go protest women’s clinics. We delivered religious tracts door to door.

We delivered Chick tracts door to door. Jack Chick was the one man hate-machine behind the infamous comic books that still see distribution around the world. Filled with horrific racist, sexist and homophobic caricatures and oversimplified theology, Chick tracts were the preferred outreach tracts of evangelicals. The recipe was simple. Sin was shown, fear was instilled, redemption was promised and the then “sinners prayer” (which appears nowhere in the bible) was said. After that? Well, we were never given a very clear after picture, unless we were shown their ascension to heaven, the door prize for living the anti-social perfection of the Chick reality.


I’m the short one…

On occasion, my church would do a Chick tract delivery day. On that day, we would walk the neighbourhood in small groups, carrying shopping bags or pulling trundle buggies filled with small, black and white comics that invited people to join our cause – or else. Stamped on the back was the name and address of the church. The idea was they would read the book, find god and need a place to turn.

I was an anxious child. I’m an anxious adult. For me, the idea of going door to door sent nervous tingles through my whole system. I would get dizzy just thinking about it. Still, fear of hell won out, so off I went, eagerly dropping tracts in mail boxes or through apartment mail slots, joining my mother in preaching to the folks who opened their doors to us. I remember my mother and a person of another belief system having a debate as I stood clutching my Chick tracts. Behind them was their child, looking equally unsettled.
“You love your child,” My mother said, “But you’re condemning them to hell.”
“I could say the same to you.” They replied.
I met eyes with my fellow condemned soul and said nothing.

When the day of delivery was over, each of the children was given a “comic” to take home. A gift for sharing the spirit. I was given The Poor Little Witch, a comic that only really makes sense if you remember the Satanist panic of the eighties. In it, a girl named Mandy wishes in front of a candle that girls will stop picking on her in gym class. By the end, she’s drinking baby blood. I’m not exaggerating.


I re-read this comic often, praying the prayer at the back. Somewhere along the way I lost it, but I never forgot its heavy-handed message or the fear it set in my stomach.

You see, Chick tracts didn’t just serve the purpose of recruitment. Chick tracts were fear pamphlets. Each one served to create a massive them and a tiny righteous us. As children in our church, we were expected to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Obediently, we excused ourselves from school lessons, avoided making friends with sinners and closed our eyes if we passed an ad that might provoke sinful thoughts. These tracts confirmed that our isolation was not just right, but life-saving. What if I should talk to the wrong teacher and end up drinking baby blood at threat of knife point? What if I listen to the wrong music and let demons into my body? What if I forget for the smallest moment that I am a sinner and lose it all?

To most, the passing of Jack Chick is a cultural hiccup. It’s a chance to laugh at the funny books that tell such ludicrous lies that people wonder if they might be parody.

For me its a reminder of the weird horror movie I grew up in. One where demons were real and torture was promised as a punishment for reading the wrong book or thinking the wrong thought.

As they die, these men like Oral Roberts and Paul Crouch and Jack Chick, we children of their legacy keep on. We peel away the horror stories and find ourselves. We find a narrative that is not black and white, sketched in righteous fury. We revel in grey and ignore the nightmares that sometimes haunt us of blood and ink and fear.

We grow up and leave these comic books behind.

On My Back

As I write this, I have my leg through the strap of my backpack. I am in the computer commons at college and, surrounded by my peers of all ages, I am thinking – always just a little – of my bag. If I cannot see it, I must feel it. If it is not attached to me, it must be visually nearby, close enough to grab should an alarm go off or a thief pass by. I accept that I may lose what I have, but I do not accept that I must be passive about it.

This started when I was a teenager and homeless. In my bag was everything I valued. Everything I could not lose – my ID and my writing. I was those two things. Proof I was counted and proof I was not alone, even if words were my companion. Sometimes there was a paperback or some snacks. Sometimes extra clothes or a some change I’d scraped together. Always at least one scrap of paper with phone numbers of people I might call if things got worse (I did not contemplate how they could get worse.)

When I was homeless as a young adult, this time with my love, we both carried bags. We could share the burden. Still, I did not put it down. I clipped it to myself with a carabiner in case I should drowse off (which I almost never did.) Vigilance was my byword.

Still, almost 20 years on, I am attached to my bag. I hold it like a child, arms wrapped tight around it when I take the bus to school. It is both shield and storage. I hide treats in its deep pockets and reward myself for never letting go.

If you wonder how seriously I take it, I have left shops rather than surrender my bag. At friend’s parties, with strangers I don’t know, I tuck it safe, hidden away under a bed or in a closet. Even then, I wonder if it’s been disturbed, my black mesh holder of my identity and my ideas.

“For the test,” the teacher said, “you must all leave your bags at the front of the room.”

I had planned for it. I sat near the front. I sat where I could see it, should a moment of panic hit.

I put it down and waited, chewing painted nails. Then the test was passed out and I read the first question (something about library cataloguing that will likely not interest you.)

An hour later, the test was done. The test was done and not once had I looked to make sure my bag was still there. Panicked, I glanced to make sure it was where I had left it.

It was.

I scooped it up and left the classroom.

I wondered why this place, this event, could make me forget my fears. Was it because I was so immersed in the subject, I lost myself for just a moment? It was a dangerous and heady idea. I considered, though, that it might be something more. Maybe, as I learn this trade, my internal sense of value is shifting. Maybe I’m not just things in a bag that can be taken from me. I am ideas and thoughts and other abstractions that can not be housed in a bag on my back. I am a person who stores value in my home and the people I love and the ways I contribute.

I think of Rita Mae Brown who said in “Six of One”:

“Put your money in your head, that way no one can take it from you.”

There’s some truth in that. As I disperse my value out I find I am less attached to some things, less afraid of losing them.

I still sit with my leg through my bag, but I do it knowing that sometimes, in the right times, I may forget.



He is a scientist
What’s more
An engineer
And he can hear
The drum, the thrum,
The humming of the gears

And he can tell
(Like the top was popped)
What’s underneath
What’s buzzing in my ears

One time he told me
The line
Is not a line
It slips and slides
Like gears that grind
Until their teeth
Are powder fine
Until their teeth are gone

I know that song
My active head
I lie abed
I’m lost in time
Not powder fine
Not faded by
These years
These gears
My teeth, they grind
Until they’re flat
They make
A line
And all the points are gone

And now I ride a bus to school
A bus that takes me
Back in time
Past places that are not in line
Past buildings where I took up space
The place
They ground me down
The face that I have found
I’m bound
Lost in a sideways eight

I think on what he said
My bed
My teeth
My gears
My years
My head

I hope time is not linear

So she hears what I say to her
The girl trapped in the infinite
The halted time of being hit
I whisper to her not to quit

“You’ll be okay
You’ll be okay
You’ll be okay
I say

Until we pull away

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

Existing in the Disaster’s Wake

Content warning: Assault and abuse.

Yesterday I saw my assailant on the subway, for the second time in as many months. Previous to that, it had been years since I’d shared a space with him. I don’t believe in a higher power. I don’t believe in fate. Still, my mind is trying to make order out of the disorder that seeing him twice in so short a time has caused in my body.

Here is where I have landed:

He is real and he is out there, in my city and in my world. He goes home to what was my family. Every day they share a space with him, when, for me, those seconds were repugnant.

I think about this like a small, personal epicenter of a bigger reality: we, as a society, are okay with sexual assault. Our conviction rates are so low as to make the crime tacitly legal. Of the reported 460,000 Canadians assaulted every year, only around 7000 will see a conviction. When convictions do happen, people do more time for stealing a car than sexually assaulting a human. When someone is convicted, it’s often discovered that they had previous complaints that were dismissed by police. Most who speak to police report being unsatisfied with the process. The most common feeling selected by those surveyed? Devastated. It’s a word we use when a disaster destroys a city and leaves it rubble.

And after that devastation, comes the attempt to rebuild. In the case of a disaster, most can assume that the danger has passed. That the hurricane is over. That the wildfire has gone out. No one pities the disaster. No one brings the earthquake in to their home. We don’t fault the city for daring to exist in the disaster’s wake. My disaster walks around my city. He joins Ghomeshi and Cosby and Turner and all the other disasters that are given succor while we rebuild.

I wonder what it would mean if they turned the disaster away. I wonder what it would mean if I did not have to, in my casual daily travels, brace for the storm. I can’t know. I’ll never know. I can just rebuild again, stronger this time – like every time – and hope that what I’ve built survives.

Trigger Warning

“There are no warnings in real life.”
He said
Sipping from a cup marked CAUTION:HOT

“You just have to deal with what comes.”
He signaled right

“There are no warnings in real life.”

Beware of dog
Slippery when wet
Hidden corner
Alarm will sound

“There are no warnings in real life.”

Watch for falling rocks
Flashing lights may cause seizure
Edges are sharp
Handle with care

“You just have to deal with what comes.”

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here. To read my post on trigger warnings, click here.

If I Ever Liked The Night

If I ever liked the night
If it ever liked me back
That was so very long ago
So long ago
In fact
It may have been
Inside the womb
Ripe with the smell
I remember it well
Of his cigarettes
And her ice cream cones
The sound of their fights
The frenzied tones
Through the thin skin walls
I remember it all

If I ever liked the dark
When we lit sparklers
In the park
Enough, ablaze
To scare away
The nighttime
To convince the day
To stay (which was impossible)
At a festival in the early fall

If I ever liked the moon
When he visited my room
Cool like the fights
Inside the womb
An exploration of my
Thin, like hers
Afraid, like him

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

Thanks For The Ride

I’m going to college. It’s a done deal. Come September, I will be matriculating in the grand halls of Seneca College. How do I feel?

I’m grateful.

I’m grateful to the people who have helped out on my GoFundMe to raise my bus fare to get to school. I will be able to buy almost a full year of transit passes, thanks to the generosity of my friends and family and even a few folks I’ve never met. I haven’t the words.

It was my husband who recently offered insight in to why, specifically, I was worried about making it to classes, about affording transit, above anything else. As soon as he pointed it out, I felt almost doltish. How had I not seen it?

In a previous blog, I talked about my experiences with high school. What I didn’t talk about was why I didn’t graduate after my move to the group home.

I couldn’t afford transit.

It’s so obvious in retrospect. It was the mid nineties. I was in my last year of high school. I had taken my courses. I had done the work. We were coming up on exam time. Then a spot in my group home opened up and after a year, I was on top of the waiting list. I was moved half way across the city. I managed to continue in school for a while, then I ran out of money.

It was a transitional group home, which meant no live-in matron, no on-call care and no financial assistance. We were expected to work and pay rent. If I had been more resourceful, perhaps I would have figured out a way to do it all. But I had been running on leftover steam for quite a few years and, surrounded by my boxes of possessions, feeling absolutely alone, I gave up. Missing my exams because I couldn’t afford the fare? That was like a death knell. I’d gone to five high schools, survived abuse, homelessness, my neurodivergent brain, but it was a few dollars for the subway that did me in. I sat on my boxes and sobbed. I had no fight left. I upped my hours to full time and got to the business of being an adult.

20+ years later, when the opportunity came to go to college, all those old doubts resurfaced. Every exhausting fear came creeping back. Every negative inner whisper. Every worst case scenario

So I asked for help.

And you helped.

All of you helped me save up my bus fare so, no matter what, I’ll never be trapped with no way to get to my classes.

And in exciting news, Times Change Women’s Employment Centre helped me get a bursary to assist with my tuition. I can’t thank them enough. I went in looking for back to work tips, and instead they helped me find my way to go back to school.

I told my husband, the day my bursary came through, “I planned for every contingency, EXCEPT this all working out.”

Dudes – it’s all working out. I’m going to school. I’m really doing it. And everyone who has been there for me through rough times and great times, everyone who kicked a few bucks to my transit fund, everyone who send me a cheesy Facebook boost when I was blue, everyone who let me volunteer in their spaces to learn skills, everyone who read my work and told me my ideas were valuable – you all deserve a bigger THANK YOU than I can convey.

I wish I could go back to the girl crying on the boxes and say, “It’s not over. It’s just delayed. You’re going to school. You’ll get there. And you’ll do it with the help of your friends.”

I say thank you. That girl says thank you. Thank you with all my heart.