Girl At the End of the World: A Review

Girl-at-the-End-of-the-World2-624x469“The most detrimental aspect of my childhood was our preoccupation with End of the World theology.”
— Elizabeth Esther

*        *         *

 

Elizabeth Esther’s new memoir, Girl At the End of the World (Convergent, 2014) is an important book. But it’s also a hard book.

Hard for anyone still recovering from the trauma of being trapped in a fundamentalist cult.

For anyone who has lost loved ones to a twisted ideology masquerading as the one true religion.

For anyone who has ever tried to convince her fellow believers that yes, Christians can be sadistic and abusive and scary and cultish, only to be met with confusion and anger.

* * *

Near the beginning, Elizabeth likens her youth in a Christian end-times cult known as The Assembly to the experience of growing up in a mob family. “Except instead of killing people if they stopped cooperating, we just excommunicated them from our training homes. Religious fervor was all I knew, so my holy mob family felt normal.”

A mob family. I’d never thought about it, but that really is what it feels like.

Just as a thought experiment, I sometimes like to imagine how a cult member would react when shown a movie about a group of people doing the exact same horrible things that are being done in his group. Nine times out of ten I think the comparison would fly over his head, because the movie is about the evil World while the cult is about loving Jesus.

Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone in Goodfellas being as cruel to their family as Elizabeth’s family is to her in the course of this book.

Yes, fundamentalism really does erase people. And when it finds a perceptive, artistic, and free-spirited young woman with a passion for truth, beauty, and justice, a woman like Elizabeth Esther, it erases them harder. It can’t allow them to be themselves, because who they are is dangerous.

It’s true, no one was murdered in Elizabeth’s community, but in a way it doesn’t even matter. When you’re in a cult, everything you are is invalidated.

Your body. The women in her community are strictly policed to ensure that not a hint of curves is ever seen through their clothing. “Better to wear a shapeless sack,” she writes, “than risk clothing that suggests any shape whatsoever.”

Your gender and sexuality. In The Assembly, women have no say in how their own lives are directed. A woman belongs to her dad until she gets married, at which point she belongs to her husband.

Your faith. All forms of Christianity other than the kind practiced by The Assembly are viewed as illegitimate. Elizabeth’s dad sneers at the idea of “good Christians” in other denominations, calling them Pharisees. Anyone who begins to explore other traditions of faith is expelled from the community.

Your talents and passions. Elizabeth’s dad is unable to attend her swim meets because he’s too preoccupied with “issues of Eternal Significance.”

Your dreams for your life. For me the saddest moment in the whole book is when her parents force her to give up her dream job on the high school newspaper staff, effectively destroying her chances of going to a private college. Why? Because she’s not spending enough time doing chores around the house. You see, writing and getting an education and being fulfilled as a human aren’t nearly as important as “doing the Lord’s will.”

This is what it looks like when people are erased.

Yet the group continues to congratulate itself on its holiness. No one listens to secular music. No one drinks alcohol.

As the story winds on, as the catalogue of horrors and abuses grows ever longer, I begin to wonder what any of this has to do with being a Christian.

Take away the superficial religious trappings, and this becomes the story of a sick, twisted system where people were controlled and their personalities quenched of all light, all passion.

I begin to suspect that this is all it ever was: a predatory structure for the enslavement of other human beings. That’s its purpose, the thing it was designed to do.

And people submitted to it without question because they thought it was Jesus.

* * *

In an interview with my friend Teryn at the back of the book, Elizabeth elaborates on her eventual decision to become Catholic. Teryn asks her, “Do you see the Catholic Church as less abusive than Protestantism? . . . Do you feel safer now that you’re Catholic?”

Elizabeth says, “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who said that, because I attract enough controversy as it is! But yes, that is a great insight and I absolutely agree. In fact, this was a huge reason why I joined the Catholic Church. I felt absolutely safe there.”

And no wonder. For the first time in her life, she’s in a spiritual environment where the voice of God isn’t being mediated by some renowned pastor; where she can read the Bible on her own without the interpreting voices of authoritarian fundamentalism; where she can seek the wisdom and solace of Mother Mary without fear of rebuke.

This book affected me on a profound level. I read it in a single day, and for days afterwards I felt sick.

You see, I was in a group similar to Elizabeth’s, a group that was going to pray in the End Times and battle the forces of darkness. My best friend was allegedly murdered by the leader of our cult, a man we all trusted and revered as a spiritual leader. For five years he had been the primary authority interpreting the Scriptures for us. We were sincerely convinced that when we opened the Bible, we were seeing the “plain meaning of Scripture.” He had so colored our perceptions that we read his ideas back into the Bible and thought they were the words of God.

And so when Elizabeth says, “I’m going to the Catholic Church because I don’t know where else to find a way to God that feels safe,” I get that. More than anything else, I think that’s the reason I became Catholic.

Because the Church is a place where the voices of writers and artists and intellectuals and, yes, women, are welcomed and not stifled.

Because Jesus offers himself to us in the Eucharist and I can’t think of a more beautiful demonstration of love than to give us his physical presence.

Because for the first time in my life I’m in a place where mystery and mysticism and beauty and questions are encouraged and accepted. Where I am accepted, for who I am.

Because the beautiful crucified God, the God on a cross, the weak, suffering Messiah, gazes down at me from the crucifix at the front of the church, and I know that the mechanisms of power and control that enslaved me for years are brought to nothing in the presence of the God who became powerless.

And I’m so grateful to Elizabeth for putting words to that, for taking us on her journey out of the darkness of toxic religion and into the light of a faith that is warm and welcoming and stable and biblical and traditional and safe.

This is a brave book. Not an easy book to finish, but it’s worth it, because the hope at the end is brighter than the blackness of darkness that scarred her youth.

It’s a necessary book.

For anyone suffering under the shackles of dangerous Christianity.

For anyone who has a friend who’s enslaved and doesn’t know what to do about it.

For anyone who’s ever fled from a cult into the safe, warm arms of Catholicism.

A harrowing, disturbing, tremendously sad, yet ultimately redemptive book, illuminating, timely, and prophetic. The kind of book the Church needs to read, now more than ever. A true godsend.

 

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Song Friday: “Alaska” (The Silver Seas)

Silver-Seas_Alaska_coverI ran across these guys after one of their songs was used as the final song of the first season of Breaking Bad. I was inspired to listen to their whole discography, and I have to say, of all the songs I’ve heard this year, this one is probably my favorite. It’s gorgeous, sad, nostalgic, hopeful, and swooningly romantic.

And I have no idea what it’s about. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

How Reading C. S. Lewis Changed My Mind About Hell

FrankcoronationI’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.

And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.

Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.

But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.

And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.

*          *          *

But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.

“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”

But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.

Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.

But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?

And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.

We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.

On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.

The Secret of Good Fantasy is to Write Honestly

ainePhoto Credit: Aine McVey

One of my goals for this year is to journal every day, which means I’ll probably be doing a lot more free-writing.

            I spent most of my Christmas break rewriting the first chapter of my book, just because I wanted to have a truly stunning first chapter. I finished it yesterday and sent it to three different people, seeking their opinions. It may need some revisions, but for the most part I actually really like it.

Some strange things happened as I was writing it. A few paragraphs into the chapter I realized that the only way forward was to talk about the fantasy stories I was dreaming up at around the time the novel begins. (Because the two main characters in these fantasies were fictional versions of me and *Rebecca, the fantasizing provides a commentary on the very real situations I’m describing).

Previously I had always been afraid to bring my imagination into the story because I felt it would alienate readers. (And also, I think, because *Timothy and Rebecca tried to tell me that my fantasies were evil and anti-social. Only in the last year have I begun rejecting the shame they spoke over me and embracing my calling as a storyteller).

What I found, though, was that being open about how much I used to fantasize actually made the story more realistic and grounded. Because the narrator is constantly explaining how he expects things to play out, watching them unfold in a much less dramatic way than he was anticipating creates a sense of realism. For example, there’s one moment in the first chapter where Rebecca has just finished giving a long speech about how reality is not a book, and I want so much to shake her hand and thank her for saying that, but I don’t. Instead, she goes into her room and shuts the door.

In earlier drafts of the novel, I would have been tempted to try and turn that into a big scene. But somehow, because it’s NOT a big scene (no matter how much I, the narrator, want it to be), it has more of an impact.

What surprised me even more is that, as the chapter was winding down, I found myself becoming obsessed with the most boring, minute, mundane aspects of the story. Reading back over it, my favorite moments are the dozens of small and apparently insignificant details, like the way Rebecca walks through the Cove with her hands in her back pockets, or how I say, “Hey,” and she doesn’t immediately respond, or how when we finish praying together I’m suddenly depressed because I’m afraid she’s going to admire me when all I wanted to do was to help her.

And yet the two BIG paragraphs that at first I was most excited about, the most poetic and “important” paragraphs in the chapter, fill me with an unsuppressed nausea. They don’t feel “real” to me in the way the smaller passages do.

And perhaps it’s just emblematic of a bigger change going on in my life. Because I grew up on Peter Jackson’s brilliant, amazing Lord of the Rings films, because those were my reality, I thought life would be full of grand gestures and vivid, emotional flourishes. I tried to shape reality to fit my preconceptions.

But over the last few months I’ve started to realize that reality is what it is, that there IS a real battle between good and evil but it takes place at the level of our mundane interactions. People have to eat and shower and do laundry and comb their hair and get their oil changed, pack their lunch in the morning and go to work each day. And for the most part we stand around looking bored and clueless, and there’s a lot of dead air in our conversations, and we accidentally talk over each other, and sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say and have to repeat ourselves, and we all spend twelve hours a day on Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes terrible things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and that’s how life is, even if it’s not how it should be. But somehow God is gracious and we get to be heroes anyway.

And maybe in real life, being a hero is better than how it is in the movies, better and worse, because instead of battling sorcerers and Balrogs you have to fight REAL monsters, and that takes even more courage. I think I could stand up to a dragon; but after what I’ve been through in the last four or five years, no mythical creature will ever be quite as scary again. I’ve seen the face of true evil, and I think that smile will haunt my nightmares for a long time to come.

And I’m not giving up my love for fantasy, but as I get older the stories that continue to enchant me are the true ones: either those, like the novels of Tolkien, that radiate elemental truths about the nature of reality, or those like Harry Potter that take into account how people actually talk and think and feel and behave, so that I feel like I’m reading a real story about real people. Lousy case-of-the-week dramas, cheap end-times thrillers, and overblown Hollywood epics no longer interest me because they seem to be operating on an exaggerated and romantic notion of how the world should be rather than how the world is, and when I’m watching a movie the last thing I want to feel is concern for the writers, wondering whether they’ve ever had a real experience, whether they know anything about what life is like.

In the first chapter of my book I describe how Rebecca implored me to come out of my books and really experience reality instead of just reading about it. She taught me so much about how to live life, how to feel feelings, how to interact with real people. And to the extent that I didn’t figure out how to do that while she was living, I had to learn it in the aftermath of her death when every remaining illusion I had was shattered and I had to face the bitterness of mortality. She seemed to be fading into a fantasy more and more during our last years together, but because of her encouragement and example I was able to find my way back to reality. And I think I’ve “inherited” some of the pragmatism and realism she was always trying to pour into me (without a lot of success). That’s how I intend to live my life now. And when I finally sit down and write my fantasy novels, they’ll be weird and creative and surprising, of course, because I don’t think I can help being weird, but I want them to be true more than anything else, alive with the complexity and brokenness of ordinary life. And I think now they will be.

The Riddles of Tom Bombadil

[ Because The Hobbit comes out this week and I can’t think about anything else, all week long on my blog I’ll be posting meditations on some of my favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings, both novel and film. Today we venture into the Old Forest. ]

In September 2002, as I was beginning my junior year of high school, my best friend called me up on the phone.

“Boze, I have the most amazing movie,” he said. “You have to see it.”

I was immediately skeptical. Eric Booth and I had vastly different taste in movies. I preferred mystery-thrillers from the 1950s and ‘60s, which put him to sleep. And his one attempt to show me The Matrix hadn’t gone over well.

“What’s it called?” I asked, more out of politeness than genuine curiosity.

Fellowship of the Ring,” he said in a tone of wonder. Continue reading

Nine Totally Random Facts about Me

Soenhanced-buzz-10685-1340208663-7 this meme has been going around on Facebook, and at first I wasn’t really planning on participating, but I realize a bunch of new people have been reading and subscribing to my blog who might not know anything about me. So for the sake of introducing myself, here are nine (I think) interesting facts about me: Continue reading