What follows is a memoir of obsession, escapism, and the Lord of the Rings.
For the first two decades of my life, I was fanatically religious. My interests, opinions, and desires were all determined by the fundamentalist evangelical belief system that ordered my rural town in Alabama—until, when I was seventeen, my best friend died suddenly in her sleep. When no theological framework could support a tragedy of this scale, the foundation of my faith began to crack. Shortly afterward, I began a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies and theology, and as the pressures of formal study were applied over the next three years, my worldview eventually collapsed. Debilitated by grief and depression, I grasped for the thing that had been my most reliable source of escape since childhood: the Lord of the Rings. A film adaptation of The Hobbit was already in the works in New Zealand, so I dropped out of college, sold my car, used the money to buy a plane ticket, and moved 8,000 miles away to be a part of it. I arrived in Auckland deflated. For the first time in four years, I had enough free time to absorb the shock of everything I had endured—my friend’s mysterious death when I was seventeen; my parents’ divorce that same weekend; my family’s alcoholism and drug abuse; the dissolution of my faith. As I navigated life in a new country, forming new friendships, learning the ropes of a new culture, I also began to grasp the extent of the harm I’d suffered under a certain kind of Pentecostal Christianity. I was told I could heal sick people. I believed I could perform miracles. I alienated all manner of people who cared about me in my pursuit of radical separateness, which I called holiness. Of course, I experienced more than just grief during the year I spent in New Zealand. I also experienced deep care from people who barely knew me. I learned to accept help from others and, for the first time, felt the therapeutic effects of interdependence. And as I leaned head-first into my lifelong obsession with the Lord of the Rings, I had fun—making pilgrimages to filming sites, following the start-and-stop news of The Hobbit’s production, combing the internet for casting calls so that I could audition to be an extra. The first six chapters of this memoir are included here, and they alternate in time between my life before college and my year in New Zealand. The chapters from before college chart my friendship with Brittany, my childhood best friend and accomplice in religious extremism. After her mysterious death the summer before our senior year of high school, I spent the next three days plotting a way to raise her from the dead. In the chapters that take place in New Zealand, I chase my dream of being an extra in The Hobbit while navigating the difficulties of life in a new country, trying to find a job, and coping with the cargo of trauma I’d carried with me across the Pacific Ocean.
The Lord of the Rings is a lifeline throughout. My obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s movies developed when I was thirteen, and it sustained me through some genuine horrors in my life, both as a child in survival mode and a twenty-one-year-old who lost her grip on reality and tried to disappear into a world of fantasy. But despite my considerable efforts, I was not ultimately cast as an extra in The Hobbit. I was too tall to be a hobbit and too short to be an elf—the very picture of a woman straddling two extremes.