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Coming Out as Me
Eight years ago, I had at best a partial idea of what I wanted to do with my life. My next step was finishing college. My next next step was grad school, probably. Whatever I did, unless I had a family first, I assumed it would be bound up with the academy in some way, because I knew that I wanted to teach. The problem was, I also wanted to write. Or, rather, I needed to write. Specifically, I needed to write while deeply Christian and deeply conservative. So, at the wise urging of my wise parents, I picked a pen name.
I spent a little time on this name. I wanted it to be catchy, certainly catchier than the one I had. I wanted it to convey a bit of my personality. And, just for my own private fun, I wanted it to have a hint or an echo of my real name. And so Esther O’Reilly was born: Jewish first, Irish last.
It had all begun with a WordPress blog, naturally. I used it to chatter away about music and movies and whatever else caught my interest. I wrote freely, earnestly and enthusiastically. I would hit on a topic and disappear down a rabbit hole for weeks on end before coming back to write something about it. On rare occasions, this would turn out to be of interest to more people than just me and my regular readers. My stats would spike for a few days. Then the views would trail off, and the graph would return to its comfortable hobby-blog shape. I didn’t mind the rarity of these spikes. It was like a surprise, like Christmas.
Meanwhile, I finished college. I started grad school. I settled on mathematics in the end. It was not my strongest suit, not my first choice. But it had the advantage of being an objective discipline, unspoiled by politics.
My mother knew something about academy politics. She had her English doctorate from Vanderbilt, in the 90s. Already then, she saw the cracks in the foundation. She saw what was coming. So she took her doctorate and went home, where my father initiated her into his field, analytic philosophy. It was love at first sight. She had found her blade. So I became the philosophers’ daughter, twice over.
Mom and Dad’s plan for me had been simple: From my first day of school to my last, they would teach me all they knew. We would go at my pace. We would explore roads less travelled. They would give me the books they wanted me to read, not the books I was “supposed” to read. When our time together was over, Mom told me, “Whatever you do, don’t go into literature. Just love it.” And I did.
Philosophy was a closer call. It felt like the family business. I grew up watching research take shape across the dinner table. I learned how to argue the way a sailor’s child learns how to swim—early and quickly. Some of the things Mom and Dad were working on took me a long time to understand, which sometimes made me furious, because I was a dramatic child, and because I desperately wanted to understand. I wanted to be exactly like them. That was the plan, when I grew up.
Then the economy crashed, and the philosophy job market with it. Really, the entire academic job market crashed, but especially philosophy. As I watched my dad worry for his students, I began worrying for myself. We all did. We wanted to be careful. We wanted me to be safe and secure. That was the main thing: safety. So I went with mathematics. I found safety in numbers.
Over time, I blogged less. I placed my first few freelance pieces. I began gradually learning how to assemble my thoughts into concise, cohesive packages. I binge-read writers I admired. I culture-watched. I found my voice as a film critic, as a music critic. I found new rabbit-holes to get lost in, part of me wondering what I was ever going to do with all this oddly specific knowledge, part of me having too much fun to care. I had a pen name. I was safe.
Then, three years ago, I was invited to join the Patheos blog network. Not long after this, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris staged their summer debate series. I had been watching Peterson closely ever since the Cathy Newman interview. I couldn’t understand why more Christian writers weren’t paying attention to him. As I got impatient waiting for the official debate tapes to be released, I began writing a take based on bootleg audio. Then I hit publish. It did very well. It reminded me of the old days when my stats would spike. Then, like the old days, the spikes grew less spiky. It was back to normal. Until Peterson himself tweeted it out a few days later. And everything changed.
More doors opened quickly from there. Initially, they were Peterson-specific doors. I placed more op-eds in more outlets. I contributed to an essay anthology. After some hesitation, I put my voice on air for the first time in a messy, scattershot Unbelievable? radio debate where I tried to explain that Peterson wasn’t an alt-right bogeyman, actually. Soon, I was writing about other figures in the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” trying to straddle the mainstream and Christian media worlds with fresh, accessible takes. In spring of 2019, I did another Unbelievable? episode on identity politics with James Lindsay and Neil Shenvi. That fall, I returned to the show with Douglas Murray, a deeply rewarding and refreshing exchange which in hindsight feels eerily prescient, recorded as it was in the calm before the storm none of us saw coming.
All the while, I kept tiptoeing around the math department, wrangling my undergrads, scribbling character tidbits about my professors in between taking notes on their lectures. All the while, I kept paying my dues, hoping nobody would realize I was an imposter. Amazingly, nobody did, right up to the day I took my doctorate and went home. By then, three things were clear to me: I was never going to be a mathematician. But I was always going to be a teacher. And I was always going to be a writer.
Would I always have the pen name, though? Would I always be safe? I had a close circle who knew. A few other people had put some clues together and sent polite private DMs to make me aware. But they were all friendly. I could trust their discretion.
As I kept my head down and honed my craft, something David Berlinski once said to me kept niggling in the back of my mind. In the one brief exchange I’d had with him, I mentioned my choice to be cloaked. He was understanding, but he also nudged me, in his slightly severe way: “Why not stick to who you really are and fight it out?”
It wasn’t the right moment. But it was a good question. It stayed with me. Like the story of a friend of a friend who was determined that once he had tenure, things would be different. Except they never were.
Then there was Twitter. Twitter had unlocked a whole new world, flooding my brain with endorphins, costing me hours upon hours of sleep, even as it also enriched and encouraged me through new friends and connections I never would have made otherwise. I’ve written some about this struggle here, apropos of a brush with Caitlin Flanagan that reminded me, joltingly, of what this app can do. Occasionally, there have been those who took aim at the fact that my account was anonymous. But I was always determined that it would never be a cover for me to be someone I wasn’t. At all times, I wanted to say what I meant, and mean what I said.
On graduating, I launched this Substack. I wanted a quiet, ad-free space to write about whatever I liked. I wanted a connection with readers. I knew you were supposed to claim the URL of your author name, so I claimed “Esther O’Reilly.” By then, “Esther” had enough bylines that it made sense. And yet, I hesitated.
Why not stick to who you really are? Why not fight it out?
Something Douglas Murray had said in an interview also stuck with me, a moment of impatience with people who lower their voices to say what they think: “Just speak. Don’t expect somebody else to do it for you. Don’t siphon it off like some wing of government, like the Free Speech Center. It’s for you to do. It’s for us to do. It’s for everyone.”
Murray understood too, of course. Over the last few years, we’ve all come to understand even better. I noticed his tone softening in subsequent interviews, saying he wanted to use his security to speak for those who couldn’t. And I hoped one day, I could join him.
Which brings me to today.
It hasn’t been just one thing. It’s been a convergence of several recent things, all pointing in the same direction, all leading me to the same conclusion: It’s time.
I have people to thank. I have a lot of people to thank. I have so many people to thank that I know I will forget someone if I try to list them all, so I won’t. I will just name a few that come to mind. First and foremost I want to thank my family, closest friends and mentors, who have watched me grow, fumble, fall, and hopefully grow some more. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the Internet age is that it can create the illusion that one knows a person when one really doesn’t. So I’m especially thankful for those people who have not just virtually but physically walked with me, and, in walking with me, loved me.
Among those friends and connections I’ve made through my work, it’s been a particular joy to meet men of the cloth who wear their calling well and have taken valuable time from their ministries to bless and encourage me. I’m especially thankful to Paul VanderKlay, Father Daniel French, Father Ben Kiely, and the Irreverend vicars Jamie and Thomas. Also, a special thanks to Father Bart Gingerich, who first invited me to join Patheos.
I’ve also been delighted to discover that the academy is not yet wholly empty of true freethinking scholars. I owe special thanks to Ron Dart, who has been unfailingly kind and gave me my first break in print for the above-mentioned Jordan Peterson anthology Myth and Meaning. I also thank John Mark Reynolds, Matthew Mehan, James Orr, and Stephen Blackwood for their warm and bracing encouragement. I’m certain Chesterton had men like these in mind when he wrote of those who “go gaily in the dark.”
In these times, it is a near-impossible challenge to bring people together in conversation on divisive topics, but two people uniquely gifted in this area are Unbelievable? host Justin Brierley and Braver Angels leader John Wood, Jr. I thank them both for their friendship and encouragement as I attempt to contribute to The Discourse. I owe Justin special thanks for giving me the opportunity not only to write but to speak my mind, in ways my nerdy WordPress-blogging self never would have dreamed. I hope we collaborate again.
I thank the jury of my peers, my fellow writers, whose generous readership and kind words have given me the confidence that this is something I can do well. Special thanks to my oldest and dearest writing friend, Hannah Long, who remembers the millennial homeschool blogging years with me and now has leverage to send me free books from HarperCollins. (Homeschoolers rule the world. This is known.) Speaking of the WordPress years, I owe a thanks to blogger Tim Challies, who gave me a few of those exciting first “spikes” and has kept in touch with my writing ever since. I owe another old thanks to friend and fellow film critic Tyler Smith, who noticed I had a knack for writing about cinema and whose site More Than One Lesson still hosts some of my best young work. For the past year, my thanks especially to Tom Holland, Douglas Murray, Paul Kingsnorth, Andrew Sullivan, Terry Teachout, Rod Dreher, and Meg Basham. I’m also grateful for the friendship of those writers who have patiently honed their craft under the radar, like J. Brandon Meeks, the nearest thing we have to a modern-day Chesterton (yes, he has a Substack, and also a podcast). Lastly, a special thanks to Ben Sixsmith, not only a fine writer but a kind friend, who has borne my obnoxious evangelistic poking with marvelous grace. (It is when, not if, Ben. When, not if.)
One of the joys of being a writer is the multiply repeated reminder that you are far from the most interesting person in the world. It’s been my great privilege to hold a few remarkable people’s stories in my hands and give them back to the world. My special thanks to P, for giving me his harrowing story of courage at the testing point, and to evangelist Hatun Tash, for the privilege of an hour in her company.
Though our paths have barely crossed, I thank Jordan Peterson, without whom it is likely none of these doors would ever have opened for me, and I would not be writing these words today. I take inspiration from Dr. Peterson in many things, but chiefly I am inspired by his compassionate heart, and his simple reminder that sometimes, people just need someone to talk to.
Finally, I will thank my parents by name: Tim and Lydia McGrew. For raising me. For shaping me. For giving me a zero-tolerance threshold for lies. For teaching me not to abide pompous fools. For teaching me to give a damn when it mattered, and not to give a damn when it didn’t. For teaching me how to be a Christian in the public square. For teaching me to love God, and neighbor, and stranger.
Out of considerations of propriety, and to protect the pen name, I have mainly limited my “plugs” of Mom and Dad’s work to those moments when I was asked outright to list my favorite Christian apologists/intellectuals, or when I was asked to point to resources specifically treating questions in philosophy or the history of ideas. In these moments, it has seemed artificial for me not to name them, since they are, by any objective standard, among the leading lights of their generation. I have a clear conscience about this. However, I have long anticipated the freedom of being able to introduce them more fully and properly to a new audience. I now commend their work to anyone who wants to expand his knowledge base on a very wide range of topics: from the foundations of knowledge, to Bayesian inference and its applications to the miraculous, to the history of the Deist controversy, to a short and easy explanation of why David Hume was wrong about miracles (or if you prefer, the Stanford Encyclopedia article on the same topic), to the reliability of the four gospels (or, the reliability of the four gospels), and much more. My mother maintains a YouTube channel here, and many of her technical articles in philosophy and New Testament studies are freely accessible from her CV here. Her books of New Testament scholarship can be purchased here. Tolle Lege.
By now, you have more than enough information to search me up. But to save you time, let me introduce myself properly: I’m Bethel McGrew. Dr. McGrew, if that matters, though I dream of a world where people are judged for the quality of their work rather than the number of letters after their name. I’m not at all famous, as you’ll quickly discover. If you didn’t happen to be among those people who already know my folks’ work and were expecting a “Wait, she’s SO-AND-SO?” moment, I’m sorry to disappoint. But, also, not sorry.
I don’t intend to get rid of “Esther,” in something like the way Anthony Daniels never got rid of Theodore Dalrymple. Esther has a life of her own now, and anyway her name is easier to pronounce right than Bethel (which is meant to be read in the Hebrew way, emphasis on the end). But she is a disguise no more. She is me, and I am her.
If I am honest, I am nervous. It’s in my nature. It’s in my nature to hesitate, to be cautious, to be safe. Which is exactly why I’m doing this. Not because I’m supremely confident, because I’m not. Not because I have gobs of disposable income, because I don’t. Not because I can say what tomorrow will hold, because I can’t. But, in the words of an old gospel tune, “I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.”