Anna McGahan is an Australian actor and writer. A few years back she published Metanoia, “A memoir of a body born again”. This brief account is taken from the information in the book and updated in 2023 from her blog and instagram.
Anna’s life (about 35 years so far) could almost be a script for a film. Gifted child in a creative family, but tortured by her perceived inadequacies and poor body image. Overcomes those obstacles to become a successful actor, but is dissatisfied with her life. A winding path to deeper spirituality, and eventually purpose and contentment.
But it turns out it wasn’t that simple.
It was a winding path and the end result wasn’t as permanent as she might have hoped. But even after her rejection of the christian faith, I think her story is worth telling.
A gifted child struggles
Anna tells of several incidents in her childhood that had a big impact on her. Raised Catholic, at 8 years old she wanted to test if God was real, so she left a letter by her bed one night posing that question and asking God to take it in the night to show he was there. It was still there in the morning, and the disappointed 8 year old thought: “How could you have been such a child?”
She learnt ballet, and performed with more passion than precision, which won people over.
She was diagnosed as epileptic, but medication resolved the occasional “absence seizures” (which had previously led to her having moments whn she would simply freeze, for a short time unaware of her surroundings).
Most telling of all was her obsession with her body. Was she too scrawny? When would she grow breasts like the other girls? This obsession grew into a serious eating disorder which hospitalised her at sixteen. She recovered, sort of, but it was years before she was free of the problem.
Through it all, Anna seemed to have her own magic, her own perspective on life. She was eccentric, weird even, and wasn’t really like the other girls. But she finished high school successfully, and went to university to study psychology.
But she says she harboured this hidden ambition to act, so she joined the student theatre company. She also took a creative writing elective.
And so her creative and radical self began to blossom. She explored causes like animal cruelty and became vegetarian. She explored spirituality, took up yoga and declared herself to be Buddhist. She explored her sexuality, finding herself attracted to both men and women, and struggled to make sense of what and who she wanted. And she acted in some small films.
On the set
After graduating, Anna moved to Sydney, a much larger city and started auditioning for TV roles. Her first major role was that of a prostitute and required her to perform nude, to perform in sex scenes. It was only later she found that nude photos were being posted on the internet, even on porn websites.
She told herself she was liberated, she explored bisexuality and came out as gay, she explored Buddhism until she found some of it didn’t ring true for her, she entered relationships and then ended them painfully. On her own admission, she wasn’t satisfied and she wasn’t comfortable with herself. She felt her life wasn’t real, she was always acting.
She felt she was being type-cast as “the sex girl”, creating “sexual content for men”, when she wanted to play strong thoughtful women. Finally, she found herself rebelling against all she had become, and rejecting another sex girl role. She wanted to choose another path.
Along the way, she had many small brushes with christianity. A friend who had been a “born again christian” for a short time. A christian landlady. A christian neighbour who Anna expected would be critical of noisy parties and her TV role as a prostitute, but who instead wrote her a letter of congratulation and blessing.
And then a musician, a singer-songwriter who also happened to be a christian who became a good friend. She waited for him to behave like a conservative christian and she could argue with him, but he never even mentioned God. Eventually she pushed him into a discussion and what he said was quite unexpected to her. He talked about how the Spirit of God was like a muse, inspiring him when he wrote songs. She had had that feeling when writing – could that really be God?
Then she found another musician friend who was also a christian, but otherwise perfectly normal, not what Anna expected. Not only that, but when Anna described her own spirituality, a mix of Reiki, Buddhism, meditation and inner peace, her friend didn’t dispute but said that they had a lot in common. Anna visited her church and found it had palpable spiritual energy.
She went back next week. Visited another church and a Bible study group. Told her friends she wasn’t converting. Christianity wasn’t attractive to her, for it looked neither easy not comforting.
Jesus and the old Gideon’s Bible trick
Anna wasn’t about to give in easily, she was still worried the Bible might be too “bigoted, unbelievable or a mere fairytale”. She was staying in a hotel, interstate, for a job. She got out the Gideon’s Bible and began to read. First Genesis, and then when it didn’t help her, the Gospels.
In her book, Anna stops at this point, to warn us that up til now, everything in her story is understandable. But here, things get strange, perhaps unbelievable to the sceptical reader. But she asks us to believe that her account is true. I believe her, and I am simply reporting what she describes.
She read the New Testament for the next two weeks, in the hotel, on the trams, in wine bars, on the make-up chair at work. She expected to feel put down, but instead she felt lifted up.
She expected to find legalism that restricted her, instead she found an “invitation to freedom, grace and love”.
She expected to find religion that condemned. Instead she found Jesus. A Jesus that was on her side. The light of the world.
She met him. He spoke to her, and invited her to “come and rest”.
I received Jesus without choosing to. …. I read the words, and I believed them, where I had always assumed I would not.
The new reality of God
Anna’s story goes on, as she began to experience God in ways that many christians never do, I guess because her gifts, sensitivity and spirituality which enabled her to act and write, but also had caused so much havoc in her life, were now open to the Spirit of God.
And so God spoke to her:
- simple answers to prayers for healing from a cold and ideas for a play she was writing,
- through a girl at church who, blindfolded so she would have to rely on God rather than her eyes, told Anna enough about her life, her questions and her spiritual state to convince her that God was indeed guiding her words, and then gave her God’s promise that everything was about to change,
- telling her to give money away to random people that God would clearly point out to her, in one case giving hope again to a woman who had asked God for a sign or she was about to take her life,
- seeing visions that revealed truths about Jesus or herself,
- using a gift of healing to pray for people, and seeing them actually healed, and
- giving her very clear and specific instructions about resolving a difficulty in finding a place to live, even to the time and day when she would receive an unexpected offer – which happened just as she had been told in advance.
And through all this, Anna changed. She started to see her body as a precious temple rather than a slave she could abuse or a marketplace. Her bodily health improved immediately: “after ten years of utter hell, I was healed.” She knew she no longer needed to use sex as a prop for her self esteem.
The story goes on ….
There is so much more to tell, about God changing her life and motivations in firm but loving ways, about her relationships and eventually her marriage, about the birth of their first child who almost died, but this is surely enough for here.
Anna has experienced God in a very real and unusual way, it has changed her and changed her life, and her story stands as a living example of God’s unexpected and idiosyncratic way of meeting people.
As she says, with God: “This is the safest place you have ever been. This is the most dangerous place you have ever been.”
…. and on.
In January 2023, Anna recorded on her blog, A Forbidden Room, that she no longer identified as a christian. Her words are far more expressive than mine, but in short, the loss of her dad to cancer (after losing several other family members the same way), the breakup of her marriage after only 4 years, and a sense of alienation from both the church and the God she once believed in, combined to lead her to reject christianity.
Then in this interview she makes clearer that her queerness was more fundamental to who she is than she admitted to herself or in the book, and that was a significant factor in her leaving the church and her marriage.
She says she didn’t marry for love and passion but because they both felt it and her body. She tried to live within the values of her church, but ended up feeling that she was valued more for her role as a mother, wife and support to her husband than for who God had made her to be.
And when her dad died, she could no longer believe what her church had taught her that she should pray and believe for healing. Nor that he would go to hell if he didn’t convert before he died. And her church seemed to be more concerned about her sexuality and her marriage than about her father’s death and her grief.
These issues were simmering during her time as a Christian, and when they all came to a head, she recognised she could no longer be part of the church and believe in the God they believed in.
In a way, the book was her trying to live within the Christian values of the church and hoping it would all work out. When it didn’t work out, she felt she had to leave.
She is ambivalent about what she does believe now, but the straightjacket of Christian belief is not believable or attractive to her. She still talks to God, still rejoices in Spirit, but she now embaces the uncertainty of “maybe”. She says of her first book, “I am not sorry for Metanoia. I still stand by every word – it all happened, and it was all truth, even if my perception of that truth has had to change in ways. I am not sorry for it changing.”
Photos from Anna’s Instagram.