When We Were on Fire is a raw, intense, very personal memoir about growing up in the thick of 1990s American conservative Christian culture. Many of the cultural details of the world in which Addie Zierman came of age will resonate with those who lived through it — “See You At the Pole” prayer gatherings, WWJD bracelets, Christian rock concerts, and the obsessive focus on finding a path in life — including a partner — that fit “God’s will for your life.” Essentially, this is a young woman’s story of how she grew up in that culture and discovered as a young adult that she no longer believed in much of what she had been taught and was ill-equipped for marriage and maturity. It’s about a journey out of fundamentalism into an adult appreciation of life and faith.
While Zierman doesn’t reject every aspect of her Christian faith, or blame the church for every bad thing that happened to her, she is unflinching (and sometimes quite funny) in pointing out the limits of that worldview and the ways in which she failed — at least partly as a result of her religious environment — to develop an adult approach to life and relationships. She’s a good writer and the book is compelling and very readable. If I have one critique it’s the same one I’ve levelled against some other memoirs (Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox is a prime example) in that Zierman still seems to be very close, both chronologically and emotionally, to the events she’s writing about. Allowing a few years to pass might have made the book a little richer and deeper by giving a greater sense of perspective on her young-adult struggles, but on the other hand there’s a raw immediacy here that might have been lost if that were the case. That concern aside, When We Were on Fire is a memoir that will probably be interesting to most people who’ve grown up in a conservative religious world and come to question the faith that shaped them.