Jackie Gronlund has been on a journey. She has been a YouTuber, an author, and a podcast host. Throughout her life, she has discovered herself time and time again, from dealing with past trauma, moving thirteen times since the age of 19, to offering a space in her podcast to speak of issues regarding mental health, feminism, queerness, vulnerability, and our bodies. It is that last point that is a priority for Jackie, who is vocal about how important it is to be comfortable in our bodies. She is an outspoken advocate of reclaiming control of your own body, which should belong to you and you alone.
I first heard of Jackie through her YouTube videos around 2015 when she still went under the name “Jackie G.” I was fortunate enough to meet her during a talk she gave for her first book “Be Free.” As we got to connect more, later on, I was amazed at Jackie’s willingness to learn and grow as a person. She is consistent in being the best version of herself, which includes acknowledging the messiest parts of yourself, learning to be vulnerable, and loving yourself anyway. Through her platforms, whether it be her YouTube videos, her writing, or most recently her podcast, she has been an inspiration for many, including myself.
Currently, Jackie Gronlund has found a home with her fiancé Kailey and their three dogs. I was fortunate enough to reach out and interview Jackie for Reclamation Magazine through a series of emails about her journey, The Unity Project, her books, and where she is in life today.
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Why don’t you introduce yourself to your readers? Who is Jackie Gronlund?
Hello, lovely person out there reading this interview! I’m Jackie, a queer 27-year-old author, podcaster, and speaker. Currently, I live in St. Louis with my partner Kailey and our three very opinionated dogs. I’m extremely passionate about discussions around bodies and how society has shaped how we view them. My hope is to expand the conversations out there about the relationships we have with our bodies and find collective healing in the process. I’m a total book nerd and have a sweet tooth I am very proud of. Nice to meet you!
Let’s start with your personal journey. You started out posting YouTube videos around 2010. Then you wrote two books, Be Free and Finding Home. And after that, you founded a podcast called The Unity Project. That’s quite a journey. Why don’t you tell us how that all came about?
Oh wow! That was quite the journey, and it’s definitely been one that I’m proud of. When I started posting YouTube videos, I was 19 and desperately seeking a place in the world that I felt I belonged to. I wasn’t entirely sure who I was, as most people at that age, so my videos started off as trying on some new hats. Later on, in 2014, I became extremely invested and attached to the evangelical church. For reasons longer than I can answer here, a group of people telling me that I belonged and was loved and accepted no matter what seemed to answer all of my problems. Thinking I had found the answers to life, it seemed strange not to make that the whole focus of my channel. That was when I wrote my first book, Be Free, as a testimony to that. But after years of consuming myself into that life, it didn’t take long for me to realize the conditions I was being held to. Long story short, I ended up leaving the church behind, and finding a whole lot more love and belonging on the other side of it.
That was when I wrote and published my second book, Finding Home. I came out as queer in the middle of that writing process, which was incredibly fun to add to the story.
I started The Unity Project podcast in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. I was barely a couple of weeks out of treatment for my eating disorder and found myself obsessed with the conversations we had been having around bodies. Everything seemed to weave back to that discussion, one way or another. I decided to start a podcast to talk with others about it, too.
My most recent project is my upcoming book. I don’t have a final name for it yet, so I’ll just call it The Unity Project Book till I do. It’s my favorite piece of work I’ve done so far, and is my own personal story about my relationship with my body. It’s about eating disorders, sexual assault, trauma therapy, treatment, sexuality, sobriety, and so on. I’m working with an incredible editor in the revision process right now, and can’t wait to share it all with you.
Your earlier videos dealt with your faith in Christianity, though recently you’ve posted on your Instagram page about exploring your Jewish background. You’ve mentioned in your videos and your books the trauma and abuse you went through while being a Christian. What is your relationship with faith right now, and how has it evolved through the years?
Oh boy. My relationship with faith has been, honestly, the most complicated, nuanced, heartbreaking, exciting, messy, confusing thing in my life. I was raised evangelical Christian by a man who was very angry and didn’t trust people or the church. That being said, he had us start our own Bible studies from home, which was where my early memories of faith came from. It was a very 2000 Left Behind-esque if you know what I mean. I was terrified of God and terrified of doing something wrong and being sent to hell.
In my mid to late teen years, I was trying really hard to find where I belonged in the world. I tried on a bunch of different hats, got myself into my fair share of trouble, and just dreamed of being accepted. I was offered a job by a YouTube musician I had known for a while after moving to LA, who ended up mentally, emotionally, and sexually abusing me. In the middle of that abuse, he claimed to have found Jesus, so I tried to do that as well. My boss claimed that what was happening between us (the abuse) was maybe all part of God’s plan *eye-roll*. Then came the very evangelical Christian Jackie days.
To put it bluntly, I was deeply afraid that I was a bad person and going to hell. To circumvent those fears, I dove headfirst into Jesus-land. I became incredibly religious, legalistic, and a bit robotic. Looking back now, it all makes perfect sense why that happened. But it’s taken me a long time and a lot of therapy to not be ashamed of myself and how I was during those days.
It all started to unravel about a year before I came out as bisexual. I started to not just ask questions about God or the Bible that were scary, but I did work in finding answers, as many as I could at least. Everything came apart for me to look at, and I got to decide what I wanted to keep from it all and what I didn’t. I got to figure out why I believed what I did, and how I wanted to live because of it.
The more I learned about myself and the world around me, Christianity just felt like too small of a box to live inside. I tried so hard to stay put in that world, for many reasons, but letting myself be free not to was one of the best decisions of my life.
Judaism has been a big part of my life recently. I am 50% Ashkenazic Jew and lately have found it incredibly life-giving to learn more about what that means. Right now, that looks like reading a ton of books, looking for a Jewish community online, and writing about what I’m learning. So far, I am insanely fascinated and excited to be a part of such a resilient and powerful people.
You are very outspoken about the need for us, individually and collectively, to be vulnerable, especially given the experiences you’ve mentioned in your videos, books, and podcast. Fittingly, the slogan for Reclamation Magazine is “reclaim your voice.” Do you feel you are reclaiming your voice?
Oh, I love this question. My answer is a big and loud sign that says “YES!” (with flashing lights and confetti). Reclaiming my voice has been a monumental part of my journey. It took me a while to figure out what exactly my voice sounded like. Along with that, learning that my voice mattered changed everything. Living as a queer woman in a patriarchal society has taught me in various ways that nobody cares what I have to say. That nobody would believe me, take my side, or care about what I cared about. The decisions I made were fueled by my desire for safety and acceptance. I learned that that looked like keeping quiet, staying small, and keeping the men in my life happy.
It was when I started using my voice, however, that I found that wasn’t true. Not at all. The more I have spoken up, the more I’ve realized how much people don’t just care about what I have to say, but how much they need to hear it. The more I’ve refused to stay small, the more things make sense. Don’t stay small, ever.
Let’s talk about your podcast now. The Unity Project is your most recent (no pun intended) project, where you interview people to speak about subjects such as queerness, mental health, trauma, and so on. Tell our readers about your podcast. What is the Unity Project and what is it trying to accomplish?
The Unity Project is something that has been brewing inside of me for so long now, the fact that this is even a question makes me smile so big.
I’ve wanted to start a podcast for a long time, knowing it would be called the Unity Project, but didn’t have a clear idea about what that meant until I left treatment for my eating disorder. In treatment, it became clear that most, if not all, of my questions went back to the relationship that I had with my body. I hated that at first because I had no idea how to answer it. It wasn’t a question I was used to, and definitely not one I was comfortable with. But the farther I went into healing, the more important it was proven to be.
After I left treatment, I realized how much I loved the conversations that came from that question about our bodies. It became so clear to me how vital they were to my healing, and also those around me. I thought a lot about the analogy Glennon Doyle talks about, the canaries in the coal mine, and how people who struggle with eating disorders or addictions, etc are those canaries for the rest of the world. They are proof that something is not right. She goes on to talk about how we have it wrong when we say the sickness is in the people when in reality, the sickness is in the world.
I was desperate to continue having conversations around this, which led to my light bulb moment. I decided to start The Unity Project podcast and make it about the relationships that we have with our bodies. The interview starts out by asking my guest to describe the relationship that they have with their bodies to give us a jumping-off point for the conversation. It’s wild to me the answers that I’ve been given, and the stories that have followed. They are all so different yet so connected at the same time. Topics tend to range anywhere from addiction, sexual assault, trauma, eating disorders, diet culture, gender and sexuality, religion, etc.
My hope for my podcast is that it will continue to spark these conversations in everyday life for my listeners and myself, paving paths for us to continue to untangle the messes that lead to disconnection in the first place. I believe that when we are living a life with the goal of connection to our bodies, true connectedness to each other will be inevitable.
Speaking of queerness, you came out around the time you had published your second book, Finding Home, and are now engaged to your fiancé Kailey. Though there is more of an open discussion regarding gender and sexualities, there continues to be a struggle for acceptance from both societies and in oneself. How did you manage to overcome your personal fears with coming out? How is your life now that you’ve accepted your queerness?
Coming out was the greatest decision I have ever made. Growing up in a very homophobic, evangelical, conservative household, my sexuality was something I was terrified of and angry about.
My journeys of deconstructing Christianity and coming out actually intertwined a lot. Someone very close to me came out about a year before I did. When they came out, I found that I couldn’t just avoid and ignore the conversation around sexuality anymore. That was horrifying because it meant that I was eventually going to have to face whatever it was inside of me that I had been so ashamed and scared of. When they came out, I was by no means affirming. Deeply I wanted to be, but homophobia had been engrained so hard into me for my whole life, especially from a religious standpoint, so that took a lot of work and a willingness to undo.
I cared a lot about this person, so I decided to do that work. I found that, pretty easily, every argument from a Christian standpoint about queerness being wrong was very, very easy to untangle. As soon as I did, I was even angrier because I felt like I had been lied to and manipulated for my whole life about something so personal and important about myself. I had been made to feel disgusting and evil with no choice but to banish that part of myself away.
Loudly, I became an ally for the queer community. But the more involved I got, the more relationships I developed within the queer community, I finally asked myself the question: If you are so happy and celebratory and protective of these people that you love so much, and you think they deserve happiness, why aren’t you giving that same opportunity to live to yourself?
I came out, slowly at first but then really fast because I was so excited. I had a fortunate experience at the beginning because I was already so involved in a queer community, and had that year before to have the hard conversations and find out who was going to leave me because of this. That being said, it was still incredibly hard, but nowhere near where it could have been.
Today, queerness is so much a part of who I am, I really don’t know how I lived so long avoiding it. I found out that coming out was honestly so much more about who I am as a person than what gender I’m attracted to or what my sexual preferences are. That’s something I didn’t expect, and something I wish I could tell every person out there braving these scary and important and beautiful steps of coming out.
I found that with coming out, I finally got to step into my own shoes. By finally not banishing this perfect and vital part of me, I finally got to meet myself. And she’s pretty damn great. That opened the door to more healing and life than I knew existed.
I’m engaged to the love of my life, Kailey, who is more than I could have ever dreamed for. We have a beautiful house, a work-in-progress RV, and three of the most opinionated dogs I’ve ever met. I have never felt more safe and known and free and loved in my life. And we’re incredibly happy.
Let’s talk books now! As mentioned, you have written and published two books and are now working on your third. How did you become a writer? When did you decide that you wanted to make a career with your writing?
It’s funny, my mom always told me I was going to be a writer when I was little and I never believed her. I was too set on becoming a dolphin trainer. I wrote little chapter books when I was little that my sister and friend and I turned into *feature films* (home video edited with iMovie). But I truly had no idea what was to come. After all, I just wanted to train dolphins.
Around the time I was experiencing the sexual abuse from my boss, I realized how desperately I needed an outlet. He was pressuring me not to tell anyone what was happening, and I was ashamed and scared and needed somewhere to process that wasn’t to him. That’s when I started journaling.
Journaling became such an essential part of my life after that. I found so much freedom in getting to write it all out, everything that had happened, and everything I thought about it. It was where I heard the first whispers of my own voice. Eventually, I began journaling every single day, throughout my experience in Evangelical Christianity, through my wrestling my way out of it, through coming out, all of it.
It was in the middle of all of that, combined with the YouTube videos I was making, when I was asked if I had ever considered writing a book. That question changed everything. That night I rushed home to open up my laptop to a fresh Google Doc and typed the first sentence of my first book, Be Free.
I truly had no idea what I was doing when I was writing my first book, but I was in love with it. Having a place to speak, to be the narrator of my story, to have control over my own voice, felt like taking my power back.
Over the years, I became obsessed with learning how to be a better writer. I grew so much as an author during my second book, Finding Home, and am so proud of myself and grateful for the ways I have grown during my third.
Finding Home was a memoir about moving thirteen times since the age of 19 that was published in 2019. It is now 2022. How do you feel about the idea of home now? Have you finally found your home? How do you feel about where you are in your life right now?
Finding Home will always be so near and dear to my heart. That book really changed me and grew me as both a person and a writer. Honestly, home has continued to be an ever-changing concept to me. I ended that book with the realization that the home I had been looking for the whole time was never a place, but was in my own body. I was very new to that concept and didn’t expand on it as much as I want to now. But I believe that that is what I was needing all along. It’s impossible to feel at home anywhere unless I feel at home inside of my skin.
A major theme in the book is about home being a place where you belong no matter what. It’s supposed to be messy. There are supposed to be signs that a house is lived in to truly be a home. But you don’t get kicked out or banished if you spilled coffee on the rug. You belong no matter what. I wholeheartedly agree with that idea and am proud to have it as a part of my book. But what I have learned lately is it’s not so much about other people or outside things making me feel like I belong or not banishing me for making a mistake, it’s about feeling that for myself. That is where true hominess comes out anywhere you are.
I would say I’ve found my home. Both in the literal and figurative sense. I mean I’ll always be in the process of coming home to my body. But I recognize that journey now. I know what it feels like. But I have also found home inside of my partner, Kailey. We recently bought our first house together, which will be the first actual literal home I’ve had since moving out at 19. Home is so many things in so many ways, and I am so grateful to recognize it.
Last question on books: who are your favorite authors and books? If you were to recommend three authors, who would they be?
Oh my goodness this is the question of the decade for me. I have become actively more obsessed with reading every single day. The number one author who will always and forever be my favorite is V.E. Schwab. They have changed my life with their words. Whoever is reading this, go read everything they’ve written right now. Other than her, I have grown really fond of Neal Shusterman, specifically his series, The Arc of a Scythe and The Unwind Dystology. And after them, I have recently picked up a couple of Chaim Potok books and have been extremely impressed. I have both learned so much about what it means to be Jewish and found so much healing from religious trauma by the stories he tells.
And obviously, this goes without saying, Glennon Doyle. Duh.
As we near the end of the interview, I was wondering what you would like to tell our readers. Is there anything else you’d like to tell them? What’s next for Jackie Gronlund?
Well first off, THANK YOU for reading this. It means so much that you care about what I have to say. Secondly, and this has nothing to do with anything else here but is equally as important, you have the freedom to eat as many oreo cookies as you want.
Any shoutouts you want to give? Who would you like to thank for being on this journey with you?
I owe most of my thank yous to my partner Kailey. She has brought so much love and freedom to my life, I wouldn’t ever want to be on this journey without her. I’d also love to thank my therapist. She helped me see that I have everything I need, which brought me here. Also, my sweet friend Megan. She has believed in me and supported me for so many of the years I have been here, in front of a blank page, trying to form words that matter.
And Chris, so much gratitude to you. You have had my back since the beginning, and I am so grateful to call you my friend.
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Featured photographs by Jackie Gronlund.