“Jesus can always reject his father, but he cannot escape his mother’s blood, he’ll scream and try to wash it off his fingers, but he’ll never escape what he’s made up of”
It is with an eerie warning that the debut album of singer-songwriter Hayden Silas Anhedönia, better known by her stage name Ethel Cain, introduces itself to the listener. Dripping in Southern gothic motifs and permeated by somewhat disturbing spiritual references, Preacher’s Daughter is a cautionary tale, the distant echo of the doomed journey of a teenager desperately trying to escape religious trauma, violence and abuse. The album, which recently celebrated its first birthday, dissects the most intimate aspects of societal marginalization and of the subsequent search for belonging by the protagonist, which tragically leads her to perdition and to a gruesome death. The themes touched by Anhedönia in Preacher’s Daughter have, since the release, found particular resonance in the lives of millions of LGBTQIA+ listeners, whose experiences are more often than not tinted by the same sense of emotional abandonment and social seclusion that the protagonist attempts to escape. Growing up trans in a rural Southern Baptist town of Florida, Anhedönia seems to share a lot with her alter ego: homeschooled and tightly-connected to the religious community, she quickly became acquainted with the feelings of estrangement, shame and guilt, eventually transposing them in the odyssey that the protagonist of her debut album finds herself entangled in.
“The neighborhood keeps getting smaller, all starved out when the money’s paper thin, all that’s left are your walls and you’ll die there”
At the opening of Preacher’s Daughter the listener meets Anhedönia’s character in her hometown, about a decade after her father’s death and on the brink of a journey that would change her life forever. Through the 13 tracks featured in the project, the protagonist can be pictured in a hopeless race from destiny, experiencing the highs and lows of a deteriorating relationship with faith, the abuse she suffered in the Church and the cruelty of human nature. Nonetheless, although trying to escape some form of otherworldly punishment, it is instead precisely at the hands of the most earthly of evils that Cain’s character ends up succumbing. On the album, such a juxtaposition between earthly and over wordly exists in its most concrete forms: from the toxic idealization of abusive partners, to the purely-human tendency to search for some underlying lesson in pain, it is at the intersection of these antithetical worlds that the character depicted by Anhedönia comes alive. The estranged daughter of an abusive priest, the personification of religious purity, ends up losing herself and her life searching for home away from the community that rejected her, becoming an entity tiptoeing between life and death, between the presumed need to repent and the desperate urgency to survive.
“What I wouldn’t give to be in Church this Sunday, listening to the choir, so heartfelt, all singing – God loves you, but not enough to save you – ”
The American countryside, initially bustling in some vain promise of freedom, salvation and acceptance, throughout the album seems to progressively transform into some twisted representation of the discrepancies and contradictions of deeply-religious and conservative world-views. The all-American dream dissipates leaving room for the horrors of human nature and by the closing track, the critically-acclaimed ‘Strangers’, the American teenager that the listener got acquainted with, finds herself dead at the bottom of a freezer, helplessly watching the only person who had ever shown her love consume her body for his twisted pleasure. The deeply disturbing metaphor of cannibalization, although not novel in art and literature, is masterfully employed by Anhedönia to convey the immense suffering coming from losing oneself for the pleasure and well-being of others. Cain’s character is devoured both physically and emotionally by the weight of the expectations put upon her by society, eventually disappearing into an echo that, even after death, only wishes to be ‘good’.
“ Am I no good? With my memory restricted to a Polaroid in evidence, I just wanted to be yours”
The epic of Ethel Cain is a doomed tragedy from the very beginning, in which the ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality takes a toll on the innocence of the weak. Still, Preacher’s Daughter is not only a narrative tool for its own sake: millions of listeners quickly started to identify the interlinkages between the album’s themes and the struggles of minorities worldwide but, in particular, in the context of American society. The sense of alienation that looms over the character throughout the narration has been identified by many as an extension of the societal marginalization experienced by millions of LGBTQIA+ Americans that, every day, are forced to witness the approval of legislation that actively curtails their fundamental rights. In a context in which minorities are progressively pushed to the margins of society, forced into some form of emotional exile to avoid persecution, the cautionary tale of Cain’s character serves as a plea for communities to promote hospitality rather than ostracism.
“And Jesus, if you’re there, why do I feel alone in this room with you?”