Some of us would delight in taking a hammer to our questionable adolescent taste in music. It’s a completely different story when your father makes you obliterate your cassette collection with a hammer in order to save your tarnished soul from eternal damnation. Such is one of many did-that-just-happen scenarios in Rapture Practice, Aaron Hartzler’s sweet and salty young-adult memoir about growing up evangelical.

Hartzler is slim, trim and chic, appearing more like the polished GQ covers he once concealed from his parents and less like the preconceived notion of someone raised in a staunchly conservative household awaiting the rapture. Yet Hartzler is the product of just such an upbringing. Steadfast in the notion that only the righteous would be plucked heavenward, his parents resolved to lead their children toward salvation. This meant church several times a week, summers at Bible camp, an embargo on secular entertainment and the heartbreaking humiliation of having to wear socks with otherwise fashionable boat shoes.  

“My young life makes Footloose look like Fire Island,” Hartzler says, laughing. Laughing is easy now, but this humor wasn’t often part of his adolescent equation. Strict codes of conduct enforced by loving but watchful parents orchestrated his life. Now, maturity and perspective allow Hartzler to empathetically see why his parents were as draconian as they were. They honestly believed their eldest child’s troubled soul needed a spiritual realignment, so they resolved to do anything to protect him. Forbidding visits to the cinema and pulling him from a starring role in a school play after he defiantly purchased the soundtrack to Pretty Woman were par for the sober course. His father even archived files on one of Hartzler’s favorite performers, crossover Christian singer, Amy Grant, highlighting her questionable plunging necklines and leopard print. “The ideas that my parents wanted to protect me from in the movie Pretty Woman and the songs of Bon Jovi, they were afraid would lead me to ideas of a different way to see the rest of the world,” Hartzler says. “And they were right.”

When Hartzler began to realize how aggressively censored his life was, he reacted by seeking more information, ultimately questioning the validity of his parents’, and, by extension, his own, beliefs. The realization that he no longer shared the same ideals as his parents coincided with the intensification of their focus on steering him in the right direction. This led to them sometimes humbling him to the point of humiliation (imagine your father making you apologize to your entire senior class for drinking alcohol at a party).

If Hartzler used this debut book as a platform to vent lingering grudges, it would be understandable, but he doesn’t. “Whether they will ever see it as this or not,” he says, “this is a love note to my parents about where I came from.” Rapture Practice reads as the account of a teen trying to find the delicate balance between respecting his parents, understanding his past and looking forward to a life that will be right for his spirituality and sexHartzler Coveruality, even if it contradicts what he’s been taught. To date, he’s unsure if his parents have read his book or ever will. 

At times, Hartzler’s experiences read like fiction, and he even considered writing a fictional account of his upbringing. However, he wanted to respond to what he saw as just a handful of “four or five memoirs for teenagers that were all tragedy-based.” So he opted to write a narrative nonfiction of reflective humor and honesty in the vein of revered idols like Erma Bombeck and David Sedaris. Penning a memoir has given him the chance to re-evaluate what he didn’t realize as a teenager: He has an incredibly unique story. As he begins school visits, he’s focused on relaying a message encouraging his audience to embrace their own experiences. “You don’t have to have a vampire boyfriend to have an incredible story,” he says. “Look at the kid sitting at the desk next to you. He has an incredible story.”

As a young adult, Hartzler faced a field of obstacles in order to remain loyal to the unique journey that has led him to genuine adult happiness and pride. Finding balance as an adult “really pleased” in his own skin came only after he courageously diverted from a path that might have led him to the life of a Midwestern missionary with a wife and 2.5 kids. Today, as a Palm Springs–based writer and actor with a boyfriend and two canine rescues, it would appear there are still difficult choices to be made: namely, the age-old question of Wilson Phillips or Amy Grant. “I have to go with Amy Grant,” he says after growling at this near-impossible decision. “I have to go with Amy Grant."