By her early twenties, actor Anna McGahan had tasted much of what the world has to offer: soulless sex, drug-induced highs, bisexuality, New Age spirituality and the giddy experience of being thrust into the television spotlight as a sexual icon. It was a wild journey – but also littered with brokenness and a yearning for more.
     Everything changed, though, when McGahan’s friend invited her to church. McGahan met God, and her new life began. Her book, Metanoia: A Memoir of a Body, Born Again (shortlisted for 2020 Australian Christian Book of the Year), is a moving - and at times, raw and confronting – reflection of that transformation. It tells McGahan’s story of finding redemption in Jesus through the contours of her body, tracing her personal journey from being a sexualised commodity to finding her true worth in God. 
     McGahan spoke to Sight from her family home in Victoria's Yarra Valley about how the book came into being...

What compelled you to write a book about your journey towards faith?
"I felt that God had given me a specific story about my conversion that I was supposed to steward: that the reason why it was so wild was because I needed to share it. It was almost like I felt the burden of sharing my story with other people – but also a real joy."

Anna McGahan

 Anna McGahan. PICTURE: Supplied.

You had to revisit your past to write some of your chapters, including moments of deep pain. What was that like?
"When I started writing, I didn’t really know how much stuff it would bring up, or how triggering it would be to go back to places in my life that I didn’t want to go back to. I rented a little studio, and I just forced myself to write every day. It became a ritual: a process of going to this space to meet with myself and my past. Even though some parts were really painful to revisit – there was shame associated with some aspects of my story – I just thought, 'OK, this is the journey I have to go on'.
     "I didn’t want writing the book to just to be an exercise for me, but I found it very healing. The nature of sin is that in the moment, you have an inkling, 'this is bitterness, or just selfishness', but there’s a degree of justification. You can kid yourself a little bit. A lot of this stuff needed the balm of time...and persistence for me to be honest with myself. I find this is true even now, as a woman of God wrestling to follow Christ in an authentic way."

   "I didn’t want writing the book to just to be an exercise for me, but I found it very healing. The nature of sin is that in the moment, you have an inkling, 'this is bitterness, or just selfishness', but there’s a degree of justification. You can kid yourself a little bit. A lot of this stuff needed the balm of time...and persistence for me to be honest with myself. I find this is true even now, as a woman of God wrestling to follow Christ in an authentic way."

- Anna McGahan

What was it like sharing your story with the people in your life?
"After I finished the manuscript, I had to go through the process of sending the chapters to people in my life to get their approval. In some situations, I’d send it and they’d say, 'I really don’t feel comfortable having this in there', and I’d have to accept that. Then there were these amazing situations where people in my life would come back with forgiveness and grace – engaging with these Christian ideas that, when they knew me, were certainly not part of my story. The reconciliation that came out of the process of writing Metanoia was just mind-blowing."

Finding redemption from sexual brokenness is a big part of your story. Looking back, what has God taught you about sexuality?
"What I’ve come back to, over and over again, is understanding that sex is not a weapon; it is something that God has created for good. If I follow Him, I’ll find where the beauty and healing is. But I’ve also learnt that it is a wrestle. You can’t have a story like mine, which involves a lot of sexual brokenness on many levels, and come out with a happy-go-lucky relationship with sexuality. It was always going to be a little bit complicated. What was so humbling to me is that I’m seeing God work in all of it. That’s the encouragement: you can be at any level of brokenness, and God is still going to get in there and do something."

You also had the unique situation of being sexualised by the TV industry early in your career. 
"At the time it was very confusing. I was struggling with my own sexual identity while simultaneously being thrust into an industry playing a 16-year-old prostitute [on Australian TV show Underbelly], thinking, 'this won’t impact me', and being genuinely surprised when it did. There was shame. I felt like people were judging me, and they were.
     "When I decided I wasn’t going to do nudity anymore, it made the news. There were really toxic comments from people on the internet. The beautiful part, though, was getting to the other side of the decision and thinking, 'I should have shame here, but I don’t have shame anymore'. At first, I thought it was liberating at first to take my clothes off on-screen – and it can be to some extent – but I think what is even more liberating is having the power to say, 'I don’t have to do that. I deserve more respect than that'. I have the power to make new decisions, and I don’t have to be defined by my decisions in the past."

Have you been able to help other actors in this situation?
"Yes, young female actors ask me, 'Do I need to do this? What if I’m not sure?' Having walked it out, I can resolutely say, 'You don’t have to do that'. I know what it’s like to say, 'I know you’ve got me in this role, but I won’t do nudity – will you still hire me?' and received both the answer 'yes' and 'no'."

Metanoia

In the opening page of your book, you write, “this is the safest place you have ever been. This is the most dangerous place you have ever been.” What does this line mean to you?
"It edges back to the first moment I walked into church. I had experienced so much New Age spirituality, but that was the first time I had a real sense of the Holy Spirit. I felt like I was safe, but I also had no idea what I was getting myself into, accepting the invitation of the wild and untamed God. I was met with a God who was far more outrageous and – dare I say it – ‘supernatural’ than I thought! He was beyond any drug I’d ever tried, any relationship high, any spiritual experience I ever had in any context.
     "When people think of religion, they often think of keeping everything tucked in, straight and narrow. But that line in my book encompasses this wonderful paradox: the wildness and the ferocity of God, and yet you are always held and restored."

Metanoia traces the story of your redemption through your body, starting with an eating disorder in your teenage years. How has your relationship to your body changed since becoming a Christian?
"When I was young, I really subscribed to the patriarchal idea of the female aesthetic and the male gaze. My own voice – what I might want to feel or do in my body – was obscured. The body just wasn’t presented to me as a beautiful thing.
     "Now, I can relate to my body in a way that is loving. My body has gone through extraordinary changes, especially since becoming a mum to two girls. I feel like it has agency. When I look at it, I see an extraordinary, functioning piece of living architecture, especially considering we can achieve on a minute-by-minute basis, how we serve, how we move our way through this world. I am genuinely in awe. I cannot believe that my body has the generosity that it does: to have children, feed those children, sustain and heal me, to forgive me on a daily basis, no matter what I put it through!"

What else is God teaching you today, as a wife and mum?
"Metanoia is a wonderfully distinct version of my journey. I feel like the season I’m living in right now has its own set of very specific lessons, and I’m learning a very different nature of God. 
     "The big lesson has been around my marriage to Jonathan. It’s been a journey of great awe, joy and two beautiful children, but also a fiery journey. From the outside, Christian marriages can often just look like, 'Oh, I married my Boaz and we lived happily after other'. But it’s been gnarly! Whether you call it spiritual attack, or the fact that we got married very quickly, fell pregnant very quickly and had to work out being married, we had to own the gnarls and accept we are just two people, learning how to love each other. It’s actually been a beautiful thing, writing the book then getting into the throes of marriage. It reminds me that our story is over many decades of time. God moves in short bursts, but also in slow motion. That’s been a very good lesson for me!"

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Australian Christian Book of the Year will be announced at the SparkLit Awards Night on 13th August.