Stories of leaving behind a religion or belief system, for whatever reason, have always fascinated me (more on that later), so when Amber Lea Starfire contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing Accidental Jesus Freak: One Woman’s Journey From Fundamentalism to Freedom, her memoir of moving beyond the 70’s version of hippie Christianity, I readily agreed, because that sounded right up my alley.
Amber Lea Starfire was born Linda Carr, and as she was Linda when the events of the story take place, that’s how she refers to herself throughout the book. Linda didn’t grow up in an especially religious household, only really encountering church through friends. As a 17 year-old junior college music major, she meets Eric, the long haired musician who would become her husband, and she falls head over heels. They marry young; it’s during the honeymoon (spent sleeping in their Suburban as they drive up the West Coast) that Eric reveals his status as a born-again Christian, asking Linda to join him ‘in Paradise,’ as he puts it. Saying yes shapes everything about Linda’s life for years to come.
What follows Linda’s honeymoon conversion is a life of harsh poverty, of moving from one mud-and-mold-filled, rat-infested hovel to the next, going without food for days at a time because God would provide (and thus no one in the commune where they live early on really needs a job). In one memorable scene, the members of their commune pray for three days straight for God to fill a vase with money. (Spoiler alert: the vase remains empty.) Interspersed with Linda’s (and sometimes Eric’s) hard work rehabbing barely livable shacks are details about Linda’s contentious relationship with her mother, who often helps the struggling couple, but whose aid comes with heavy strings attached.
There are good times: Linda and Eric continue with their music, forming different bands (including one dedicated to Irish music) and performing at church and in public. But their dedication to the charismatic churches they attend shape every aspect of their life together, including how their two sons are disciplined. There are multiple passages, laden with regret and sadness, about the strict physical discipline Linda visited upon the boys from an early age. This kind of discipline was expected by church elders and pushed by evangelical celebrities such as James Dobson (whom I’ve never liked), but Ms. Starfire painfully and honestly admits that not only would how she treated her sons be considered child abuse today, the way she punished them most likely contributed to some less-than-appealing components of their personalities as adults.
The beginning of the end starts when the family moves to Amsterdam to train as missionaries and Eric’s obstinacy nearly ruins it all; the family returns home with nothing to their name, having lost the money they earned from selling all their possessions in a fraud investment fund. Linda’s mother helps them get back on their feet, and through a different, gentler kind of pastoral counseling than she’d experienced in the past, Linda begins to find the answers she’d been seeking her entire life.
Not surprisingly, Accidental Jesus Freak reminded me a bit of This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs. Both take place in the 70’s (and onward) Jesus movement, both women struggle with turning themselves into the perfect submissive Christian wife, and if the two women had lived closer to each other, they definitely would have run in similar circles. Accidental Jesus Freak contains less theology, however; its focus lies more on the path Ms. Starfire’s life took because of her involvement with the man who became her husband and this particular faction of Christianity, rather than the daily, doctrinally-focused intricacies of a religiously-based life. It doesn’t suffer for that, but keep this in mind if you’re expecting to delve more fully into a memoir on spiritual matters.
This memoir is well-written, a cautionary tale of involving yourself to something you haven’t fully considered as being the right fit for you. I’d meant to get this review written yesterday, but our heat went out (super convenient on a day where the high was 39 degrees, with wind and rain!), and as it was only 58 degrees in the house during the day, I decided not to take my hands out from under my heated blanket to type and instead opted to consider this book a little longer. While Ms. Starfire’s memoir wasn’t deeply focused on theological issues, I still very much enjoyed it, and I’ve reached the conclusion that while I’m fascinated with religion, what appeals to me the most about memoirs like Ms. Starfire’s and Ms. Briggs’s is not solely the author leaving a religion- it’s making a leap from a place that doesn’t feel right into a place of greater authenticity, to a belief system or no belief system at all where one feels their truest self. Sometimes being honest with ourselves is the most difficult thing of all, and I very much enjoy reading the stories of authors who have learned to do this despite the obstacles they face. In that vein, Accidental Jesus Freak was absolutely a good read for me.
Huge thanks to Amber Lea Starfire for sending me a copy of Accidental Jesus Freak to read and review!
Visit Amber Lea Starfire’s website about writing here.