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Ethel Cain. Preacher’s Daughter. Daughters of Cain, 2022.

Alec Berg and Bill Hader. Barry. HBO, 2018–23.

Ingmar Bergman. Winter Light. Janus Films, 1963.


A WOMAN, A MOTHER, a mother is a very special thing,” begins the static-trimmed voice of the preacher on Ethel Cain’s “Family Tree (Intro).”

“Other than the Lord Jesus Christ, I think that a mother is one of the most precious gifts that God gives to this world, ’cause a mother is the one who loves and has the warmth and always seems to be there when we need it. A mother is a very special thing. A mother is a very special thing.” Following this proclamation of female purpose, this sermon in which woman and mother are seemingly interchangeable, the song’s protagonist speaks up, using her first words to lament her failure to hide how she’s changed, to ask forgiveness:

These crosses all over my body
Remind me of who I used to be
And Christ forgive these bones I’m hiding
From no one successfully

Though she does not explicitly name her sins, she cannot escape the image of her mother, of what a good woman is supposed to be. In the second verse, she goes on:

Jesus can always reject his father
But he cannot escape his mother’s blood
He’ll scream and try to wash it off of his fingers
But he’ll never escape what he’s made up of

To be descended from someone pious, someone faithful to God and husband and children and responsibilities, is to be expected to do the same. Success looks nothing like progress and everything like repetition, the same scenes playing out again and again: a spouse, a home, a baby, another, Sundays singing hymns and receiving Christ’s blood at the altar. To fall short of such expectations, to lack the desire to fulfill them, is to be lost, misguided, no good:

The Fates already fucked me sideways
Swinging by my neck from the family tree
He’ll laugh and say, “You know I raised you better than this”
Then leave me hanging so they all can laugh at me

The song ends on this image of ridicule, a snapshot of a woman hanged by that which created her. I suppose the only way to escape such a fate is to remain connected to the tree securely, to grow into another branch from which the unfaithful can swing. To behave for God and your father and mother and pastor, for the eyes of everyone looking upon you.

Preacher’s Daughter, Cain’s full-length debut album, was released in 2022. Its songs trace the story of a young woman fleeing her religious upbringing and encountering the sweetness and gore of the world she’d been shielded from all her life. Cain weaves a variety of styles and influences, somehow successfully twisting together threads of folk, slowcore, heartland rock, and electronica, with a little arena rock and horror for good measure. After the somber opening track, the album quickly turns to a more detailed image of its protagonist: a teenage girl hailing from the southern United States, the daughter of a church official. Disillusioned with patriotic and nostalgic articulations of the American dream (“The neighbor’s brother came home in a box, but he wanted to go, so maybe it was his fault,” she sings on “American Teenager”) and mourning a lost love (on the torch song “House in Nebraska”), our narrator takes up with a new partner and begins to reflect on the abuses of her childhood. Finally deciding to run away from home, she is thrilled with the novelty at first, jumps into the unknown and heads toward Texas, where her boyfriend meets a bloody end. Through all this, she feels the eyes of God and those she left behind upon her.

In an interview with Hero magazine under her non-stage name, Hayden Silas Anhedönia, Cain said: “Whether I like it or not, God always has and always will be a huge part of my life. Whether he’s being used as a comforting figure or a threat, I’ve always been surrounded by it. It’s not really something you can walk away from.” For many sincere childhood believers, God’s omniscience is a helicopter searchlight beam from which it is impossible to separate oneself. It is unsettling never to experience true privacy, to swear and smoke and masturbate in front of the one you worship. Cain refuses to balk at this surveillance. She is not afraid to speak to the invisible, to the immaterial body in the room.


In middle school, my classmates and I were forced to sign celibacy pledges, small squares of blue cardstock handed to us by the woman charged with leading our sexual education over the course of a single afternoon. After watching a video that stressed the dangers of premarital sex—the immediate undesirability that would permeate our essence and drive away all future partners, HIV/AIDS and other less deadly yet graphic diseases, colicky babies with always-full diapers—we were asked to read a short statement aloud. Together, we proclaimed that we knew waiting for marriage was the best thing for our physical and emotional health and that we would remain virgins for our spouses in recognition of this truth. Then we signed on the line, some of us still unable to write our names in cursive.

In rural Michigan, little was more humiliating than becoming one of the girls my mother called sluts, who her mother’s generation called easy. We were trained in church and school to be good girls, the sort God-fearing young men would one day make their wives. Of the seventy students in my graduating class, I have no idea how many waited until their wedding night to sleep with their partner. I do know that a friend reasonably concluded that something as precious as sex could be a powerful bargaining chip, that she attempted to fuck her way into the steady stream of affection and security her childhood lacked. I know another could not bear to wear her purity ring after she was raped by her boyfriend, that its absence from her finger was noted.

I knew I would not marry the first man I had sex with. I knew it as I kissed his neck and slipped a hand under his waistband, as I peeled off my cotton underwear and watched him pull a condom and bottle of lube from his bedside drawer. I feel now, as I did then, no guilt for what I did to him and for what I asked him to do to me. But it would be a lie to say that I did not feel the eyes of God upon me as I felt him ease into me, as I ran my hands across his body and felt his semen cool on my chest.


Unfamiliar places bring new people, and a new lover, into the life of Cain’s protagonist. At first sweet, her new man soon begins to bully her into risky behavior: suggestions of drug use, violence, and anonymous sex saturate the run from “Gibson Girl” into “Ptolomaea,” the latter featuring the narrator’s screams as she begs for the abuse to end. Her cries are drowned in heavy guitar riffs overlaid with audio of the preacher from the first track, prayers sent up for the “daughters of Cain” and their “whore mothers.”

On the run again, the protagonist is captured and murdered, her death represented through the shocking absence of speech on the instrumental tracks “August Underground” and “Televangelism.” The first begins with sustained moans and slowly builds into a horrifying, heavy cloud of distortion, capped by the sounds of hard objects slamming against one another, footsteps, heavy breathing, and the dragging of a weight across a floor. The latter begins as a sorrowful piano piece but quickly picks up tempo, exuding elation and lightness punctuated by joyful background vocals. It then settles back into its initial somber pattern; it’s as if the girl makes her way to heaven and then remembers what brought her there.

Cain’s narrator is literally consumed by her desires, cannibalized by the killer she would never have met had she stayed home and lived a quiet, pious life. In the final two songs, “Sun Bleached Flies” and “Strangers,” the lightness of the music and the hopeful tone of the lyrics seem to indicate that the girl has ascended to heaven and now looks back on her old life for comfort: “What I wouldn’t give to be in church this Sunday,” she sings, “listening to the choir all heartfelt singing: God loves you, but not enough to save you.” Yet God has saved her, in a way—she is conscious and comfortable. She is dead, but she is neither spiritually comatose nor burning in hell.

And she must, at least in part, believe in her own redemption: she ends with a promise to her mother that she will see her when she gets there. The message is one of absolution, redemption, vindication. Despite her flight from the church, our protagonist has been welcomed back into the fold, has received the eternal rest she believes her churchgoing mother will also deserve. The prodigal child has returned.


My own faith is inextricable from the landscape in which I was taught to believe. My childhood Lutheranism is still projected against the muted lush green of agriculture and the blinding white of winter in southeastern Michigan. The Midwest is often characterized through Rockwell-esque images of hard-earned plenty: fields tended by muscled men in denim, clean-cut autoworkers and linemen with sweat on their brows, modestly dressed wives laboring in the home with babies on their hips and casserole dishes tucked into their ovens. I was raised in a suburb nestled between a working-class city that housed the state prison and rural villages where the first days of both gun- and bow-hunting seasons were excused school absences. I grew up watching people do what they had to do to survive—and hearing those who were unable or unwilling to do so dismissed as lazy and no good.

Heroes, in my upbringing, were those who worked hard to fulfill their duties while maintaining a reputation for decency: athletes who spent their first big checks on homes for their mothers, underpaid teachers who provided winter coats to students who arrived at school shivering, wives who wore crisp dresses and smiled at Easter pageants despite the bruises running up their arms. These were people who submitted themselves to the expectations of the roles they had inherited, who arrived at church each Sunday and prayed for their neighbors—peace be with them—while the choir’s songs echoed through their chests. These were good people, good stock, the type of adults we were expected to grow into: tools polished and fitted to the hand of God.


Geography is central to the narrative of Preacher’s Daughter—the album sees Cain’s hero through the Midwest, South, and West, twisting through cultures and habitats so quickly that the transitions between songs feel effectively disorienting. The girl is running, and we run alongside her: from a religious community in Alabama she travels west through Texas and into California; we watch out the window as she moves toward more dangers. The only region not scarred by abuse, visited only in memory, is the Midwest, that house in Nebraska where she lay with her lover on a dirty mattress. Where she laughed and cried and felt safe, where corn grows knee-high by July and soybeans dot wide-open spaces with specks of firm green.


Ohio, a notch in the Rust Belt that passes by as flat, yellow fields and smoke-stacked steel mills slide past car windows, is the homeland of Barry Berkman, the eponymous main character of HBO’s Barry. The Alec Berg and Bill Hader–created dark comedy pulls viewers through the wake of the hitman-turned-actor’s adventures across the United States. After moving from Ohio to Los Angeles to complete a hit for Chechen mobsters, Barry finds himself enmeshed in the mob, as well as in circles of law enforcement, the military, and a community of actors led by the infamous teacher Gene Cousineau.

After escaping from prison, where he was being held on murder charges, and disappearing into hiding with his partner Sally, Barry plunges himself, Sally, and their son into evangelical Christianity. Twisting the words of televangelists-turned-podcasters to excuse his actions and parroting the prayers of livestreamed church services in his living room, he creates a system of belief under which he can convince himself he is a good person. His faith is not in God but in the idea that he can make God into something that serves him. Barry’s Christianity is strongly infused with the essence of the Bible Belt: the bright shiny promises of televangelism, the physical space for echo, for believers to fill in the blanks with what they want God to be.

Though we are never told exactly where Barry, Sally, and their son hunker down, the landscape seems to point to the West or lower Midwest, with wide-open spaces painted in broad, earthy strokes. In one scene, Barry walks with his son outdoors, urging the boy to “Look at everything God’s given us.” The wide shot reveals nothing but open air and flat land for miles, an abundance of space and a lack of material.


Obligation necessitates oversight: God as supervisor taking notes on the performance of each individual in his pews. A central tenet of my faith is the belief that judgment will eventually be rained down upon me. The watchful eye of a higher power must mete out punishment or reward for the acts I undertake. Of course, every threat of righteous violence, of accountability, is underwritten with the promise of benefit for the pious, the possibility of whatever hell’s opposite must be: life everlasting or the reunion of souls or some other pleasing iteration of warmth.

In my Lutheran elementary school, that gleaming image of heaven was what we were encouraged to run toward, breadcrumbs of promise meant to pull us toward purity. During Christmastime we carefully crafted angels out of foam and imitation lace, pasting tissue-paper wings and golden pipe-cleaner halos onto bodies we labeled with our own names. Vacation Bible School themes included a week when we were encouraged to act as pirates, following a Scripture-filled map to the buried treasure (cellophane bags of chocolate coins and Ring Pops) meant to represent the bounty of never-ending life. Anyone can be good, we were taught; those who are not good have made the choice to forsake that which created and nourished them. We spent little time wondering about the fate of these people, avoided almost completely the fire-and-brimstone images that have scarred many of my friends who grew up in other denominations. We had the sense that the faithless got what they deserved, that they had been warned and continued on their path anyway.


In the second season, Barry learns that Cousineau is in possession of a gun—a gift from actor Rip Torn—and is considering using it to kill himself. Two seasons later, in the series finale, the gun goes off. There are things we cannot outrun, no matter how much advance notice we have or how aware we are of impending consequences. We can only hope we might be redeemed before it’s our time to look down the barrel.

Barry’s opportunistic turn to Christ never gave him a sense of earnest redemption. That comes only at the end, when he finally accepts that he has been responsible for innumerable deaths. He admits to himself that he must go to the police, come clean, purge his soul of his deeds and misdeeds as a soldier, hitman, partner, and father. He never fully enters into his redemption—events intervene—but he sees it gleaming in the distance.


Redemption feels like a remote possibility for Tomas, the protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light, as he encounters challenge after challenge to his faith. The preacher of a small, rural church in Sweden, Tomas arrives one day to find the noon service sparsely populated—among those present are his atheistic ex-lover, Märta, and the Perssons: Jonas and his wife Karin. After the service concludes, Jonas approaches Tomas and confesses that he has become depressed by the news that an atom bomb is under development; Tomas asks him to escort his wife home and come back later to speak with him. While Jonas is away, Tomas reads a letter from Märta in which she confesses her love and laments that his prayers were of no help when she was dealing with heartbreak and the disfigurement caused by an illness.

Upon Jonas’s return, Tomas attempts to provide hope through counsel but quickly admits that he has lost faith himself. He cannot reconcile what he saw while serving in the military with the existence of a benevolent, loving God. Jonas leaves, and Tomas stands before a crucifix, declaring that he has finally been freed from the weight of faith. He is quickly informed that Jonas has committed suicide. At the scene, he makes the expected offer of help to Jonas’s widow, then departs. There is a startling cleanness to it all: his reaction, his offer. “This is the way of the world,” his expression and reaction seem to say. “Who could live in a world like yours?” beg the faces of Märta and the new widow.

The spiritual chill of Winter Light is mirrored by its setting. In the few exterior shots, the town is dotted with snow. I always found church to be a more affecting experience during the winter months, when temperatures dipped so far below zero that some would keep their coats on in the sanctuary. The dreariness of it all made me want to burrow further into the physical and emotional heat of the place, of fellowship and Scripture. I see how the repeated sting of such conditions could convince a person that these sources of warmth are meaningless, temporary.

In the final scene of Winter Light, we see Tomas begin a service, his congregation almost completely absent. The sanctuary is inhabited only by him, Märta, the organist, and the sexton. He begins to recite the Sanctus: “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; heaven and earth are full of your glory.” I do not think that Tomas believes in anything but duty, that he finds it in himself to believe that God exists or cares to hear what he has to say. Still, his voice cuts through the air so decisively that I am awed by it upon every viewing of the film: his sense of duty refuses to die alongside the faith that spawned it.

I have joked to one of my dearest friends that Winter Light is simply a film about being a Lutheran, about stoic acceptance of the bleak and dedicated submission to that to which we have been told we must bow. I am often advised that faith should feel like the opposite of a burden. When this comes up, I am quick to confirm that I find comfort in commanding the attention of God, in feeling heard when I address him.


I often wonder if I would choose the duties of faith and worship for myself. If I would elect to be under constant supervision, ever-present pressure to be holy. Though I often feel I am failing to uphold the standards of my faith, I imagine it is uncomfortable at best to feel completely adrift: to know that no matter what you say or scream no one is going to hear you, that when your heart stops, you will be left without even the consciousness necessary to fear the dark.

Redemption is not something that can be discretely defined, nor found in the same place for every person. Some find it on altars and in sanctuaries, by chasing the footsteps of saints and martyrs in hopes of absorbing crumbs of godliness along the way. For others, the landscape is just as important as the journey, a place from which their practice and beliefs can spring. I am not an anthropologist or a theologian. I cannot offer any kind of map to redemption. I can only provide the anecdotal evidence from my own life, the lines jotted down in my notebook when a director or songwriter or showrunner decides to tilt the lens toward the pulpit.


In the final song on Preacher’s Daughter, Cain speaks to herself, to the listener, to God, and to the man who killed her: “I tried to be good. Am I no good? Am I no good? Am I no good?” Even in death, she longs for the approval of the God who looks down on her, the family who brought her into the faith, the prior versions of herself that dedicated themselves to piety.


I have tried so hard to be good.



Annaka Saari is a writer currently residing in Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Review, Cleveland Review of Books, Plume, Maine Review, and other publications.




Photo by Jeffrey Dungen on Unsplash

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