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Ali Millar, March 27, 2024

Changing My Mind

Filed under: Brewing Folk / My Life In Beer
Changing My Mind

I recently converted to beer. Until late last year, I’d always preferred spirits; I like feeling fast and half empty. I was 16 when I read somewhere that drinking a pint was the equivalent of eating a sandwich and since I didn’t eat sandwiches or anything else much, beer was off limits after that. It wasn’t difficult to give up. Early explorations had largely proven that beer wasn’t very nice. I started young, I must’ve been around about twelve when I began drinking but there’s nothing else to do in the countryside if you’re not much taken with hills and rivers or rugby and football. It’s the girls especially you need to worry about or the arty ones, clutching their portfolios and guitar cases for dear life, and they’re onto something even then, because it’s precisely that that in a few years will propel them away from where they are.

We started with Newcastle Brown Ale – always warm - on the banks of the river, and always a precursor to kissing some boy I was too shy to talk to unless I was a tiny bit mortal. Although the mortal bit usually came later when we were in the park, cleared by then of the little kids, how wild really that we’d stopped thinking of ourselves as children by twelve. The first year of high school leant us a certain sophistication, or so we thought. We’d sit on the swings passing a coke bottle filled with vodka or Southern Comfort or Famous Grouse or Malibu or a combination of all four. Anything we could scavenge from our parent’s drink cabinets. I say we when I really I was excluded from this foraging work, my mother barely drank, the only bottle in our house a solitary one of Canadian Club I came to believe was leftover from my father’s time, and one she’d add to homemade ice cream when people came up for dinner. She didn’t call them dinner parties, a party perhaps too extravagant way to describe the gathering it was.

We called it a mixie and didn’t mind if we threw up after. No shame in any of it. Or for them at least. The mortifying shame came for me the next morning. I was not a normal kid. I was saved. I was chosen by God. And my friends were all dying, and I was meant to save them. All because a decade earlier, my mother underwent a conversion of her own, one you might argue took her on a more wholesome trajectory than my subsequent one.

When my mother became a Jehovah’s Witness, she took me along with her, ensuring both of us were saved and set apart from the World. But salvation’s a burden for a child, the provisional nature of it a type of torture of its own and especially so given how capricious God was, prone to changing His mind. I was never good enough for Him, even when I swapped spirits for purity, even when I starved myself in the desire to become more spirit than flesh. I stopped drinking and instead became obsessed with the feeling of emptiness and the high of not needing anything other than my own flesh. I did not think of it as crazed. Or initially, as an illness. I did not think of it as an addiction in the same way I did not think of my mother’s devotion as similar. I also did not think that in becoming Anorexic I was locked in an embodied war, one that was as much about God and my mother as it was about my body. Perhaps it and I were allies against a greater force.

I never went back to beer after that. Or, hardly surprisingly, Famous Grouse. I did find my way to spirits, gravitating I can’t say naturally to clear ones, the ones I read were low on calories and purer to digest. I lost years to starving myself. I still insist there’s an art to starvation, in the way you make yourself into a new form, all that carving to bone. I realise now I was denying my self. The spacing here is deliberate. I did not want to exist although I didn’t want to die, but what I wanted most was for my desires to go away. I no longer wanted to be fleshly.

I was studious, I knew my Bible. I knew the warning in Galatians that the flesh is against the spirit in its desire, and the spirit against the flesh; these two are at war with one and other. And I knew that John took it to a further extreme because everything in the world – the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes…does not originate with the Father but originates in the world. Furthermore, the world is passing away and so is its desire. It’s not hard to extrapolate why I came to equate this triune war between flesh, spirit, and desire with death. The enemy very literally was within. The worst outcome could’ve been to submit to my flesh and the things it desired and become Worldy. The World, as I was told in the myopic linguistic system invented by the religion, was everything outside The Truth of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But try as I did to keep the doubting self under control, some things lie in ambush, just waiting to sabotage you. For me, it was a poor reproduction, I wasn’t even led astray by the real thing. I was just flicking through a book and suddenly there was Jesus with Thomas poking his side.

It wasn’t the flesh on show in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Thomas, nor was it Jesus’s expression or even the suspiciously shaped gash in his side, instead it was the detail of the hands, specifically Thomas’s fingers with the dirt under his nails. Jesus was welcoming Thomas’s earthly filth into his body, only just made spirit again. It is not often we think of Jesus undergoing a conversion, but Jesus experiences two. The first when he goes from spirit to flesh and the second when he’s resurrected as a spirit three days after his death.

It is the totality of this conversion Thomas doubts. He unable to believe that Jesus, once dead, is risen. It is possible to forgive Thomas for this, since in the account, spirit Jesus does not resemble fleshly Jesus, undoubtably this complicated matters. Jesus, although not exactly sympathetic in his response, helpfully rematerialises his wounds for Thomas. This event forms the basis of Caravaggio’s painting, one I find to be a near perfect evocation of doubt and reconciliation. I have often looked at it and remembered how I used to pray for a similar miracle, just a single one to make belief possible again.

And yet Jesus would argue this is precisely what rendered me unworthy of a miracle. Although in the painting he guides Thomas’s finger to his wound, seeming to welcome the insertion of this imperfect flesh, in the account he condemns Thomas saying, happy is he who has not seen and yet believes. Jesus demands blind faith, which is perhaps what belief is, and Thomas defiles this ideal, not just with his need to see to believe, but also with his need to feel and contaminate the evidence.

For me, the most arresting part of Caravaggio’s painting is the dirt under Thomas’s nails which reveals the reason Jesus was being unreasonable in his demands. In Aftermath, Rachel Cusk writes that ‘unclothed, the truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking’, perhaps the best way to unclothe a word is to go back to its roots. The Latin use of human or humanus is a hybrid of man and earth, and so linguistically we come from a combination of both. This presents an insight into the human condition, one Caravaggio is communicating through his Thomas. With the earth under his nails, he is only ever human. Jesus, as spirit was making unreasonable demands in his expectation that Thomas might transcend his fleshly, earthly, dirty, leanings. There can be no lofty heights for a fleshly human, in the Common English Bible Genesis 3v19 renders the more common funeral version of from dust you are as you are soil, to the soil you will return.

I knew then there was no point in fighting my flesh. And more, I wanted to be human. It felt more urgent to find a shared humanity in my earthly nature than trying to evade what I was. The hope of becoming Godly was a vain one. But this reverse Damascene conversion was less instant that it sounds. It is hard to go in the opposite direction when you’re surrounded by self-improvement. I went from what I believed was the best version of myself towards the worst. A strange undertaking to embrace. When I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I had no idea how long the conversion would take.

I entered a sort of purgatory. I mean this is the truest sense. I purged my old self to become myself. This time no space is needed. The most difficult thing to expel was the shame I felt any time I did anything vaguely worldly. I could leave, but I couldn’t become that. Often, I’d wake up around 3am, suffused with a guilt so complete I could hardly breathe.

Then something switched. I say switched to make it sound easy. It wasn’t. I wrote a book about who I’d been, the same summer, I wrote the second draft of what became my first novel, Ava Anna Ada. The first book, The Last Days, rendered me an apostate for speaking out against the religion. To become an apostate means you’ve lost any right to redemption, my mortality was now guaranteed, any hope of an afterlife, impossible, this made me only ever able to be human.

As my face leered at me from the front of The Sunday Times and later, Channel Four, I doubted what I’d done. I was not ready to be worldly, and yet, there I was. Ava Anna Ada threw me further into worldly territory, it is a horror story leaning strongly towards the occult. In it the apocalypse has been and gone and yet God is sorely absent. When it was released this year, I felt no guilt, there were no nightmares, no 3am wake ups.

What changed was that I was that I am ready to be human, essentially to only ever be flawed, effectively to have dirt under my nails and keep it there. This change manifests in tiny things as evidenced by my recent conversion to beer.

This happens at a Christmas Market. Early afternoon and the lights are on, there’s a giant glitter ball casting tiny silver squares across the yard as it turns, kids dancing in front of a DJ in a caravan, trying to jump on the ball’s fragmented reflection. It’s beautiful even though it looks like it’ll rain soon. Likely none of the children will remember any of it. A stall selling craft beer, I order one for someone else and ask what else they have. They laugh, they’re a beer stall, they sell beer. Split second and fine, I order half a pint for me but the guy hands over a pint glass, the half a rough and generous approximation.

It’s a strong beer, tastes like summer smells, tastes like the scent of the fields coming in the window when I was a child which is more prosaic than it sounds here, of barley, almost like Robinson’s squash made hard. The thought that I have been missing out on this for the fear it’s not pure enough or that it equates to the calories of a sandwich becomes laughable after the first giddying half pint quickly turns to a full one.

Fuck sandwiches, fuck purity, this is what living’s about: the dirt, the doubt, the filth. In Paris once, I was laughed at after for saying I was full at the end of a meal. Instead, in French it is I am complete. I am, in that moment, completely converted. I am worldly and wanting and wanting more.



Ali Millar is an author and journalist. Born in Edinburgh and raised in the Scottish Borders, she now lives in London.

​Her debut, THE LAST DAYS: a memoir of faith, desire and freedom was published by Penguin Random House in 2022. Heralded as 'a dam burst of a book marking the arrival of a major literary talent', THE LAST DAYS was a Guardian Book of the Year, a Bookseller Editor's Choice and a Scotsman One to Watch. Released to widespread critical acclaim across five continents, THE LAST DAYS tells the story of life inside the Jehovah's Witnesses; called a 'real life handmaid's tale' it was released on paperback in July 2023.

​January 2024 will see the release of her debut novel, AVA ANNA ADA (White Rabbit Books/W&N).

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