I’m suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper fascinated by cults and insular religious groups. There’s something deeply intriguing to me about people with secretive rituals and beliefs, turning their backs to outsiders. A few months ago, based on a suggestion from someone on Facebook, I put the documentary Gloriavale (available through Amazon Prime) on my watch list, and my husband and I finally got around to watching it a few weeks ago.
Now, when it comes to different beliefs and practices, I’m usually cool as a cucumber. I have zero problem with other people believing in things I don’t, participating in things that don’t resonate with me, etc. Variety is indeed the spice of life, and I enjoy my life pretty darn spicy. But Gloriavale Christian Community is straight-up bananapants in a way that extends far beyond their religious beliefs. If you haven’t watched this documentary, drop everything and watch it YESTERDAY, because they’ve got people named Hopeful and Courage, schooling that ends at 15, arranged marriages for teenagers who touch each other for the first time at the wedding ceremony (those first kisses, GACK! Those VOWS! Holy squirmfest watching that, Batman!), immediate consummation of the marriage offscreen while everyone waits for the teenage couple to get the job done, families with 16+ kids, the list goes on and on. It’s quite possibly one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever watched (and I say that having watched Abducted in Plain Sight this past weekend…), and so of course I was thrilled to find that Lilia Tarawa, who was born at and grew up in Gloriavale, wrote a book after her family had left, titled Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult. And lucky for me, my library had an e-copy. It took a few weeks for it to finally be available, but I actually shrieked with joy when I received the email that it was finally MINE. (You’ve done this too, admit it!)
Daughter of Gloriavale doesn’t disappoint, starting with its foreward from Fleur Beale, whose name I immediately recognized from having read I Am Not Esther years ago (if you can get your hands on a copy of this, I highly recommend it. It was one of the best books I’d read that year), which is a middle grade/early YA novel that deals with a young woman who becomes unwillingly involved in a strict religious cult. Lilia Tarawa, however, was born in Gloriavale, the granddaughter of its founder (a man who changed his name to Hopeful Christian and who was both an obvious narcissist and a sex offender who served time in prison. I’m sure you’re shocked). Lilia was the third eldest of what would eventually be ten children, the last of whom was born after her family had left the group.
Gloriavale (you can see their website here) is an intentional, fundamentalist Christian community. Everyone wears the same things; they all work at church-owned industries (where no one earns a salary) or, in the case of the women, labor away at domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning, or childcare on a massive scale for the community; there’s no access to the outside world and things like books and the internet are highly censored. Parents and children sleep in one big room, as Hopeful Christian preached that it was just fine and dandy for children to see their own parents having sex. There are communal showers with shared bars of soap; women must remain submissive at all times to all men; children’s school reports are read out loud at the communal meals where everyone eats at the same time. Women are discouraged from showing any affection or emotion; men are responsible for everything and will be harshly rebuked in front of the community if a member of their family commits a transgression. Children are punched and beaten with leather straps as discipline. Families change their last names in order to strengthen their Christian walk (Lilia’s family’s last name in Gloriavale was ‘Just’) and give their children names of virtues or qualities they want their children to have; when mixed with their last name, the effect can be…striking. Willing Disciple, Steadfast Joy, Dove Love, Watchful Steadfast, these are all members of Gloriavale. And at age eleven, Lilia assisted in the birth of her cousin, a sweet baby girl named..Submissive. Yikes.
It’s no surprise when Lilia’s siblings start running away, and while Lilia is adamant about not hurting her parents in that way, she’s got questions. And it’s the beginning of the end when her family receives permission to live outside the commune, because Lilia gets a taste of what freedom truly means.
It wasn’t all horror and sack dresses. Music, parties, community shows, and days of fun were part of life at Gloriavale. Families gathered for (highly censored) movie night in the big hall. The community would erect waterslides for the children to go down (the girls still wearing their regular clothing, of course, because nothing says fun like swimming in an ankle-length dress), and the children would gather for soccer games and instrument lessons. But it wasn’t enough. It never is, when you can’t truly be who you really are.
Phew. Reading stories like this make me grateful that I never had to escape from such an insular community. Lilia was luckier than most; she had taught herself website coding and design and had skills that could translate to the outside world (and even then she still struggled. It’s terribly difficult to throw off the yoke of oppression, and Lilia was extremely lucky that she had such a great support system. Others, such as the Lost Boys of the FLDS or people who leave Hasidic sects, aren’t always as fortunate. Far too many succumb to addiction to help them cope with the loss of their families and community). Most people who leave Gloriavale do so with little in the way of life skills and possessions; fortunately, it seems there are people helping those who leave. And people are leaving- one article from 2015 claims that at that point, 65 people had left in the eight years prior. In a community of somewhere over 500 people, that’s not an insubstantial number, and I can only imagine that the numbers have grown since then.
Daughter of Gloriavale is an personal look into a tiny, heavily restricted community that few will ever have the chance to venture. I’m so thrilled that Lilia made it out and has been able to forge the kind of life that feels authentic to her. I watched her TED talk yesterday and you should too, because it’s deeply moving and gives yet another glimpse into what life in Gloriavale is like. Lilia Tarawa is a woman of fire, strength, and conviction. I can’t get enough of stories like these, and I’m so glad Lilia decided to share hers.
Visit Lilia Tarawa’s website here.