Straus is a writer and speaker on adolescent self-esteem and spirituality.
Also a screenwriter, with over 150 top professional awards, she
lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and two daughters.
The author of the book, Prayers On my Pillow, Inspirations
for Girls on the Threshold of Change, and the spoken word
CD, "I'm More Than What I Seem", Celia continues to answer requests
for prayer-poems from girls and women of all ages who visit this
Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, July 6, 1999
Section: Southern California Living
Faith to Grow On;
A mother at her wits' end discovers that personalized prayers
help her daughter through the trials of adolescense
By: BETTIJANE LEVINE
LOS ANGELES TIMES STAFF WRITER
It was a plea she couldn't ignore, coming as it
did in the dead of night from a 13-year-old in deep despair:
"Mom, I need a new prayer."
The request from her older daughter shocked Celia
Straus, as did her attempts to comply.
"We were not a religious family," Straus says. "I'm
Episcopalian, my husband is Jewish. To avoid the issue of how
to raise our kids, we practiced neither. The children grew up
with nothing." That is, nothing except the little bedtime prayer
she'd taught them as toddlers:
Bless me, God, the whole night through.
Bless my mommy and daddy too. . . .
And thank you, God, I humbly pray
For all you did for me today.
It had managed very nicely, thank you, until Julia
"We were close until then," Straus recalls. "She
was a happy child."But then her behavior changed. She stopped
communicating, lost confidence, worried about her looks, her schoolwork,
her friendships. She decided she was ugly because she had braces,
pimples, her body was changing. She sat up worrying instead of
sleeping at night."When Julia's growing pains started, all bets
were off about their great mother-daughter relationship.
"I'd whine at her, 'Julia, why aren't we close?
Why don't we talk any more?'
"She'd say, 'Whatever, mom,' in that awful, sarcastic
voice. Then she'd throw me the stony cold stare that only a 13-year-old
can muster. Then she'd ignore me."
Straus perceived her daughter's midnight request
as a straw worth grabbing at. So she quickly wrote a prayer in
the form of a poem and left it on Julia's pillow the next day.
Then she wrote another and another--one a day for an entire year.
That collection of prayers has become a hit book,
now in its fourth printing: "Prayers on My Pillow: Inspiration
for Girls on the Threshold of Change" (Ballantine). The book also
has spawned a Web site (),
which receives up to 35,000 hits a month, some from girls who
have read the book and want Straus to send them prayers to help
ease their own problems.
In essence, Mama Straus now has a second career
with her online youth ministry, as prayer-meister to a legion
of girls seeking comfort for the inevitable changes that occur
as adulthood approaches.
All these changes in her own life are almost too
much to contemplate, Straus now says. She is still surprised that
her daughter sought solace in such an unexpected way--and that
she has been able to supply it, not just to her own child but
to thousands of others.
"I've been so humbled by this--by the fact that
Julie accepted the prayers on faith, that she shared them with
her sister Emily [who was 9 at the time], and then allowed me
to put them in a book to help others. I'm humbled that the prayers
worked. To me, it's a gift I didn't deserve."Until the book came
out, Straus' sole career was writing documentary films, working
from home in Washington, D.C. It may sound like a low-key lifestyle
to those who leave home each morning for work. But during phone
interviews, it is clear from Straus' frenetic tone of voice and
rapid-fire speech that she's probably just as stressed as mothers
who are away all day.
"I do work constantly," she says, "but for a long
time I felt proud that I was here when the children needed me."
Indeed, Straus felt her availability was one reason she and the
girls had been so close.
Forget about it.
Daughter Julia, now 16, says she saw no advantage
to her mother's physical proximity.
"Sure, she was around the house. But she was always
busy. We didn't discuss important things," Julia said in a separate
"I was in seventh grade, which is a tough year.
I had changes going on--with friends, with school, with me. I
often wanted to talk to my mom, but she never really had time.
We'd talk at dinner and again before bed. But it was never anything
personal or deep."
Then came the night when Julia, beset with undefined
agonies, sought her mother's comfort. Neither knew how to bridge
the gulf between them, Julia recalls. But during their talk, the
girl remembered the prayer she used to say when she was little.
It had brought her solace, made her feel safe. Now
it was insufficient. Without really thinking, Julia says, she
asked for a more grown-up replacement. She never expected her
mother to remember or respond.Straus recalls what happened next:
"I knew my daughter thought I didn't understand her. But I also
knew that her problems were exactly the same ones I'd suffered
at the same tormented age. I reached back and tapped into my own
unhappy memories. I went back to the time when everything I'd
counted on--my looks, my friends, my family--all suddenly seemed
to change. I couldn't trust anyone or anything."Straus wrote a
prayer and left it on Julia's pillow. It began:
I think I'm afraid to grow up, God,
For I see how much pain there could be.
I want to stay young and protected.
I'm scared that I'll lose what is me.
There was no big response from her daughter, Straus
recalls, but intuition told her to keep at it. So she left a new
prayer on Julia's pillow each night. Prayers about zits and other
body flaws, about fear of failure at school, about disloyal friends.
Straus says she tried to write each prayer as a direct response
to things happening right then in her daughter's life. When Julia's
best friend abandoned her for another girl, for example, Straus
wrote about that. At exam time, there were prayers to lessen anxiety
and bring a more calm perspective.
"I tried to show that I understood her feelings
and to give her tools to understand them herself, and to cope.
I wasn't trying to solve things for her, but to help her solve
them . . . through faith in herself and in God," with whom Straus
also was finding a renewed connection.
Once, early in the project, Straus was so busy with
work that she forgot to write that day's prayer. Her daughter
came around asking where it was, why wasn't it on her pillow.
"That's when I knew the prayers were really meaningful
to her," Straus recalls. So she continued the daily routine with
even more fervor.At first, Julia didn't say much to her mother
about the nightly gifts. But inside, her heart was singing.
"Those prayers were like a surprise every day. I
couldn't believe how much she really knew about me, even though
I hadn't told her. I'd just get this prayer, and I'd feel soothed.
It made my problems seem like not such a big deal. I would read
it over and over and over, and I always felt better."
It was and still is remarkable to Straus that this
child, who had seemed so rebellious and full of herself and remote,
actually was feeling empty, alone and unable to cope. Straus says
she could not have imagined that her daughter would clutch at
the prayers like a person holding on to a life raft.
Straus' husband, Richard, who writes a newsletter
called "Middle East Policy Survey" for universities, diplomats
and corporations, "was as surprised as I was. He was very supportive,"
Straus says, even though he did not participate in the prayer
Janine Bempechat, a specialist in the motivation
of children and assistant professor at the Harvard graduate school
of education, says she knows firsthand that this can be true.
Bempechat was raised in Quebec, where she attended
public school."I grew up saying the Lord's Prayer every morning,
followed by about 20 minutes of singing hymns," she says. "It
was so lovely and calming--it really prepared and inspired us
for the day ahead. It gave us a kind of perspective that allowed
us to gauge the relative importance of things, even though we
were only kids."
The fact that Bempechat was a Jewish child immersed
in daily doses of Christianity never troubled her or her parents,
"They understood the value of having faith and didn't
worry about which faith it was," she says.
Those early experiences have led Bempechat to "the
heretical point of view that there should be no separation of
church and state when it comes to school prayer," she says. Nowadays,
she says, she's "all for putting that kind of religion back in
W. George Scarlett, a specialist in childhood spiritual
development at Tufts University, says prayer is particularly helpful
to children approaching their teens.
"That's when they develop this incredible sense
that they are actually two people. There's the self that everyone
can see, and there's the one they think is totally hidden, that
only they know about. Of course we adults may know exactly what
they're feeling, but they don't think we know. So they've got
this dilemma. New feelings surging inside of them: angry, sexy,
depressed, inadequate--embarrassing and confusing feelings they
feel compelled to hide. And the very hiding of those feelings
is what makes the child feel isolated, cut off and disconnected."
Adolescence is when individuals begin the difficult
task of trying to bring those two selves together, Scarlett says.
"It's very lonely and frightening," he says. "Praying
has special advantages because God knows all of you. There's no
possibility of hiding parts of you, no way to keep yourself split
Julia recalls that her mother's prayers were sort
of liberating, because they touched upon certain feelings she'd
been too embarrassed to talk with her mother about. The prayers
"d a kind of pathway," Julia says. "We'd get to talking about
what she wrote, and that got me talking about what I was really
Julia didn't immediately tell her friends about
"I worried they'd think it was silly. I also thought
the prayers were so personal, so much about me, that no one else
would identify with them," she says.
But she was wrong. The prayers dealt with problems
of many her age. The friends with whom she eventually shared them
thought the prayers were "neat," Julia says. One friend showed
the prayers to her own mother, who is a literary agent. And that's
how the collection of 150 of Straus' prayers came to be published.
Nowadays, the author says she finds herself "getting
up earlier and earlier every morning" to read and answer her electronic
"Sometimes the letters are heart-wrenching. They
ask for prayers to help them get through anything from the first
day at a new school to divorcing parents, drug habits, the loss
of family or friends." The Web site was especially active after
the shootings in Littleton, Colo.Straus says she did not want
to call her work "poems" or "verses" because "a poem can be read
lightly and dismissed. But prayers are active. They force a thought
process, require you to think deeply about your yearnings and
problems, about what you are praying for."She has found that prayer
demands that children "listen to their own inner voices and to
believe that God is listening also. This helps children to know
themselves, to get comfort from the fact that they are not alone
or isolated. It makes them feel they can have all sorts of limitations
and yet be loved." Maybe prayer can't help solve all kids' problems,
Straus says. But she's certain there's no child it can hurt.