Displays of Faith: On Anna Gazmarian’s “Devout”

By Courtney TenzMarch 18, 2024

Displays of Faith: On Anna Gazmarian’s “Devout”

Devout: A Memoir of Doubt by Anna Gazmarian

LATE ADOLESCENCE CAN be fraught—not least because, according to psychologists, it’s a period during which ties ought to be broken. Teenage and early college years are spent rebelling and returning, in preparation for early adulthood. However much we may love our families, our communities, and our lives, growth (and independence) typically demands a physical—and sometimes emotional—split. As in the old adage—a flight from the nest.

This process of separation undergirds Anna Gazmarian’s slim new debut memoir, Devout: A Memoir of Doubt. The book begins during the influential period in the author’s life when she made the decision to return to her parents’ home after a false start at college. Grappling with what will, ultimately, culminate in a mental health diagnosis extending well beyond normal late-adolescent growing pains, she details the loss of her job and a good deal of weight, and describes how she slept through final exams and failed to write any of the papers assigned by her professors. Gazmarian not only retraces her choice to take a leave of absence from her studies as she searches for emotional and psychological answers but also relays, in affecting detail, the story of her subsequent diagnosis and attempts to relocate a sense of community and purpose—examining the evangelical religion in which she was raised all the while.

Considered as the latest in a canon of evangelical memoirs, including Daniel Allen Cox’s I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness (2023), Jeanna Kadlec’s Heretic (2022), and Lyz Lenz’s God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America (2019), Devout is something of an outlier. The book is unusual in its author’s retention of the belief system in question. Despite Gazmarian’s exploration of and consequent qualms about certain facets of the church, her memoir reads as a testimonial to the enduring power of faith—a diarist’s pursuit of unanswerable yet no less vital questions: What does it mean to be “good” in this world? Where do we belong within it?


Gazmarian was baptized shortly after birth into a family of staunch believers in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, religion formed a central part of her upbringing: “My mom remained active as a youth group leader, my father led small groups, and we traveled on international mission trips together. The churches we attended always served as our home and community.” In notable contrast to many other published accounts of religious childhoods, the author characterizes life in her evangelical household as warm and comforting.

It’s in pursuit of these qualities that Gazmarian returns home following a brief, tumultuous period at nearby Salem College. Still, even safely ensconced in her childhood bedroom, the twentysomething continues to grapple with (and, increasingly, longs to understand) her psychological malaise. She consequently embarks on a six-month stint of Christian therapy: a form of counseling disengaged from psychology, which turns to the Bible—rather than, say, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—to interpret a person’s emotional state of being.

“Mental illness” goes unmentioned throughout these sessions. Instead, Gazmarian’s counselor urges scripture, psalms, and prayer as “salves to any hardship.” It would be flippant to refer to the therapy as a more formalized version of “What Would Jesus Do?”—and yet it seems equally as misguided to implore someone looking to “find some relief, any relief, from what felt like unending suffering” (as Gazmarian so clearly wants to do) to redirect their attention to biblical stories of great pain. Recognizing the ineffectiveness of this approach, Gazmarian seeks additional support from a secular psychiatrist, averring, “I didn’t know how to […] rejoice in the Lord and be glad, or be upright in heart, if my life seemed meaningless.”

Readers disconnected from the faith may struggle to appreciate the effort required in simply acknowledging the existence of mental illness. Gazmarian writes: “Whenever anyone in my church died by suicide, struggled with addiction, or got pregnant before marriage, Satan was responsible.” Rather than ascribe her woes to the devil, however, Gazmarian seeks a logical explanation, and she emerges from her psychiatry sessions with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The condition, she quickly learns, is one that she’ll have to manage—with the help of an impressive and evolving array of medications—for the rest of her life. “In general,” she notes, “mood stabilizers are designed to help prevent further manic episodes and keep depression from becoming debilitating.” In a tone so resigned that it reads almost like recitation, she goes on to explain that “[n]o cure for mental illness exists. Instead, working with doctors is a matter of finding the best combination possible that makes living life more bearable.”

“Logical” diagnosis in hand, Gazmarian begins the slow, often agonizing process of wending her way toward that bearable life. She moves two hours away, to the town of Raleigh; there, alone, she reenrolls at a university (this time, North Carolina State). It’s a testament to the author’s treatment that she succeeds there and, eventually, comes to write her memoir, especially since, following her diagnosis, she continues to struggle with intense depression. Occasionally, new places or other changes ramp up her anxiety to near-agoraphobic states.

Achievement aside, the book offers bracing truths about the limitations a condition like bipolar disorder can impose on an individual’s personal trajectory. “Doctors could not give me any assurances about the quality of life I could expect,” Gazmarian writes, adding:

They couldn’t tell me if I’d ever graduate college, hold a job, get married—anything that seemed worthwhile. When I looked at my peers, I saw people pursuing their dreams, making lifelong friends, doing what people their age are supposed to do. […] I felt frozen in time. When I did contemplate the future, all I foresaw was a series of health roadblocks that I’d be lucky to survive.

Struggling with reentry to ostensibly ordinary campus spaces and routines, the author sketches the alienating effect such a dim prognosis has for her future. Yet she manages to find not only friendships but also the supportive partner who later becomes her husband. Her description of their wedding and burgeoning life together, of the whimsical moments they share—she first got his attention by parking a garden gnome on his front porch—is itself nearly enough to make you believe in happy endings.

Of course, these lighter moments have their own ends. Repeatedly, Gazmarian’s doctors warn her against making drastic changes to her—and her partner’s—circumstances. She dreams of leaving North Carolina to obtain an MFA in writing; she’s also acutely aware of the high likelihood of a relapse in her symptoms (37 percent of those diagnosed with bipolar will relapse within a year of treatment; 60 percent relapse within two), and she and her husband decide to remain where the environment is familiar. This narrowing of a life is hard to witness. It’s especially painful to watch at an age when so many are only beginning to appreciate, for the first time, the multitude of doors open to them.


Interwoven within Gazmarian’s striking narrative of diagnosis, acceptance, and navigation of mental illness is the thread (and threat) of religion. As alluded to by the memoir’s title and subtitle, Devout: A Memoir of Doubt is as much a story of growing out of a specific relationship with the church as it is one of growing into adulthood. Though the author remains devoted to God—and, by the book’s end, still affiliates with the belief system of evangelical Christianity—her memoir dramatizes the highly individual and incredibly isolating process of wrestling with faith.

Evidently, the deeply embedded religious elements of her life imbue Gazmarian’s worldview from nearly every angle. Yet, compellingly, her on-page questioning indicates little doubt about the faith itself. Instead, the writer seems primarily conflicted about her fellow believers and the spaces where she encounters them. For example, in search of a new spiritual home after her diagnosis, Gazmarian listens to the testimony of a pastor who had recently sought help for addiction at a Christian rehab center—a man who wears “black Chuck Taylors, an oversize flannel shirt, and tight jeans,” and whose “hair stood up like porcupine quills from the amount of wax he used.”

This may not be your grandfather’s buttoned-up embrace of faith. Still, noting the pastor’s emphasis on sin in place of mental illness, Gazmarian realizes he can’t possibly have the answers she’s looking for, and she moves on. Thankfully for her, the specific evangelical belief system to which she subscribes retains significant fluidity. As Gazmarian writes, nondenominational churches welcome all and “appear to offer complete abandonment from the confines of a particular denomination and to focus solely on the pure teachings of Christ.”

The book’s retelling of those teachings animates the sheer complexity of Gazmarian’s thought processes. The writer cycles through scripture, comparing her own plight to that encountered by biblical figures. She transitions between her own modern-day trial of acceptance and belonging and the tribulations of prophets like Job and Moses, whose stories she recites familiarly, like anecdotes. Naturally, these forays into the Bible risk losing readers who are unfamiliar­ with—or who otherwise hold a complicated relationship to—scripture. Yet the inclusion of these sacred stories and texts attests to Gazmarian’s devotion to her faith. It also reveals the vital, twisted dichotomy at the heart of the author’s own narrative. Because, as she recites the story of Moses, a prophet who encounters a burning bush and possesses a staff that turns into a snake, it’s hard not to notice how, taken out of context, such tales might be mistaken for figments of a mentally ill imagination. Faith often requires suspending disbelief—and many biblical stories don’t sound all that distinctive from the kinds of “magical” or fabulist thinking symptomatic of some mental illnesses.


“What always confused me is how the demon got there to begin with and why God allowed the man to be possessed,” reflects Gazmarian, alluding to the belief, part and parcel of this specific branch of Christianity, that much of what transpires on earth is effectively the work of Satan. “I believed that a dark spirit world existed within our realm of existence. To avoid these forces of evil, I stayed clear of tarot cards, Harry Potter, and psychic readings. I feared being possessed by a demon and prayed every night, even in college, for God to protect me against the forces of evil.”

Assertions like these are vital in allowing readers (especially those less familiar with evangelicalism) to grasp the scope of the author’s struggle—especially since, as she acknowledges, it was difficult for her to parse out which behaviors could be understood as “just part of [her] personality” and what was done “because of an undiagnosed mental illness.” The sentiment might be expanded to include the triangulation of her faith: what role did her religious beliefs play in shaping the personality she herself describes as hard to dissect? As Gazmarian relates the challenge of separating creativity and spontaneity from the racing, obsessive thoughts that symptomize mania, she notes how, “for those with bipolar disorder […] these thoughts are unceasing and every coping skill imaginable, like breathing exercises or long walks, fail[s] to provide an end,” so that, eventually, “[y]ou become trapped in your own mind.”

Religion aside, this circular kind of interiority can prove profoundly claustrophobic. It’s certainly hard to make sense of for those who subscribe to a set of beliefs in which, as Gazmarian writes, the devil is everywhere. If you believe in an intangible and all-pervasive evil, how do you begin to navigate more immediate—yet similarly inexplicable—hardships? “[A]round the time of my diagnosis,” the author recalls, “I experienced vivid nightmares of my body falling through an abyss and landing in a pit of molten lava. Is it God communicating through my dreams, or is it Satan? The uncertainty scared me.” Imagine addressing concerns like these with a secular therapist. A person needs ample bravery to seek support for any debilitating depression—much less one with the potential to contradict their fundamental beliefs and ways of being.

Regardless of our personal relationships to religion, Gazmarian has done us all a service with the way she has shaped her memoir. She guides readers out of the difficult days of late adolescence, through the acceptance of a world-rending diagnosis, and past the problems of early adulthood, to a personal place and time where her bipolar disorder coexists with a faith that can be as rewarding as it is disconcerting. Along the way, she allows herself some much-needed grace—the kind that transcends any specific set of beliefs. “Caught up in tracing my shortcomings,” she writes, “I did not recognize the faith that I was displaying in getting myself the treatment that I needed.”

LARB Contributor

Courtney Tenz is a writer focusing on how climate change, class, and culture intersect and is especially interested in telling the stories of women and vulnerable populations. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, The Cut, The Guardian, and The Washington Post.


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