nonfiction

Book Review: Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis

Pretty sure I learned about Shunned: How I Lost My Religon and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis (She Writes Press, 2018) from a list of books about people leaving various religious groups and sects (Goodreads actually has a bunch of these lists! The number of boxes that say READ for me on these lists is almost a little embarrassing…). It can be a little tricky reading about Jehovah’s Witnesses. So many of the memoirs make its adherents’ lives seem so bleak, what with the no holiday or birthday celebrations. Quite a few of the memoir authors’ lives as children lacked any kind of joy, just slogging through life from meeting to door knocking to school, lather, rinse, repeat. Shunned wasn’t quite that heavy, fortunately.

Linda Curtis grew up a devout Jehovah’s Witness, beginning to knock on doors to bring others into the fold when she was just nine years old. Unable to participate in classroom celebrations with her friends or any of the regular teenage dating rituals in high school, she forgoes college (why bother, when Armageddon is surely around the corner?) and works part-time while full-time knocking on doors, and then marries young to a man about whom she already has serious doubts before the wedding. Career-wise, things take off for her; Linda begins to realize all that she’s capable of, all that she’s good at. When she meets a co-worker, one she likes and respects, on the other side of a door one afternoon, she hears what her practiced Witness speech must sound like to his ears for the very first time, and she begins to question a religion that would so willingly throw such a nice guy away.

The questions and doubts fly fast and furious after this, and before long, Linda has divorced her husband, gone inactive in the church, and moved away. Divorce is unacceptable to the Witnesses, however, and she and her husband are still considered married to them- he’s not allowed to date again unless she admits to finding someone else, thus committing what the church considers adultery (legal divorce doesn’t matter to them). And when she does, that’s grounds for her family to shun her. Linda understands that this is coming and accepts this as a consequence of living an honest life. It’s painful and difficult to create an entirely new life on her own, but she does, one that is beautiful and authentic, though the wounds from her family never truly heal.

This is a well-written memoir. I didn’t necessarily gain any new insights into the JW religion or culture, but it was an interesting look at what a Witness family looked like. (Her father didn’t join until Linda was mostly on the way out, which added an interesting perspective.) I can’t say this endeared me at all to the Jehovah’s Witness sect, though- I understand having faith and it being deeply important to your life. I don’t understand it taking precedence over any kind of a relationship with one’s children. I’m deeply committed to my Judaism, but my kids are free to be whatever it is they need to be, whatever it is they feel is right for them and their outlook on the world. I cannot imagine looking at them and saying, “If you don’t believe exactly like me, I don’t want you in my life.” I’m actually really appalled that there are parents out there who do that, in any group. (That’s not to say I don’t understand why some families cut off contact with each other- it happens; not all relationships are successful or healthy, and sometimes you need to put some distance between each other when things get toxic. This, however, I feel is in an entirely different category, and it breaks my heart that kids are left high and dry because of religious beliefs, or lack thereof.)

It impressed me how Linda didn’t maintain a sense of bitterness or anger at her family (or if she did, it didn’t come through in her writing). I don’t know that I could have been so kind- I feel like if my parents no longer wanted to talk to me, I’d just shrug and be like, “For that? Wow, your loss, then,” and wouldn’t necessarily be open to them reaching out in any capacity. Because if I’m not good enough for you to keep around in your daily life, why would you expect me to come running for…anything? Maybe that’s just me, but I couldn’t live holding out hope that maybe, maybe one day my family would beg me to come crawling back. Nah. If you don’t want me around, that’s fine. Too bad for you, but I’m staying gone, then. I’m curious as to what makes Linda as gracious and forgiving as she was with her family during the brief respite she got upon returning home for her grandmother’s death. I wouldn’t have been so forgiving. (I was also seriously impressed at her career trajectory. She made a place for herself in the finance world with no secondary education and reached seriously impressive levels of success. GO LINDA!)

This book did seem to drag a bit at the end, but otherwise, it’s an enjoyable read and a look at what happens when parents decide that allegiance to a religious group, or religious ideals, trumps any relationship with their children. It’s depressing at times, but ultimately, it’s more of an inspiration, of having the courage to find the path in life that’s authentic to who you are.

Visit Linda A. Curtis’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media by Julia C. Duin

Back in the Age of Antiquity, when everyone actually had cable television with a ton of channels and Netflix was still known as a company that sent DVDs by mail, the Nat Geo channel offered up a one-season show called Snake Salvation. Snake Salvation was a reality show that followed two pastors from snake-handling Pentecostal churches in Eastern Tennessee. We lived in Tennessee at the time, so if you combine that with my intense fascination with all things religion, especially minority religious sects- yeah, we watched the heck out of that show at my house. And when I learned that a book had been written about the people featured on the show, onto my TBR it went. I picked up In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media by Julia C. Duin (University of Tennessee Press, 2017) at my library last week, courtesy of interlibrary loan. It was every bit as fascinating as Snake Salvation had been.

In the House of the Serpent Handler follows the two pastors from Snake Salvation, Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, whose Pentecostal churches engage in the practice of snake handling (according to the verse in Mark 16 about how people should take up snakes and drink deadly things and won’t be hurt by them- yes, the churches will, on occasion, also offer various poisonous substances to drink, along with fire to pass a hand over). Ms. Duin highlights their lives before the show, desperate as they were- the area is rife with high unemployment levels and massive poverty- and the drama that ensued afterwards. It’s messy, tragic, and intriguing on so many different levels.

Andrew Hamblin is the major focus of this story, and it’s clear that Ms. Duin worked hard to try to understand what makes him tick, with the varying amounts of access she was allowed into his and Jamie Coots’s lives. Jamie Coots died from a snakebite a year after the Nat Geo show ended; this upended everything for Hamblin, whose life seemed to go off the rails in ways that may have seemed unexpected to outsiders, but which likely had been waiting for a triggering event such as this. Ms. Duin follows the fallout as best she can, using social media to track her subjects and show that while these people may be objects of fascination, being the snake handling, holiness-adhering Pentecostals that they are, they’re still people, subject to the major stressors of living in an area worn down by poverty, in a country that does little to ensure its citizens have full access to the services everyone needs to live a full, healthy life.

This is a tough book for me to sum up. On one hand, I found it utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the Nat Geo show and really appreciated knowing what had happened to the people it followed after the show ended. Apart from the articles released upon Jamie Coots’s death in 2014, I hadn’t heard much about this community, and I’d always wondered how they were doing. The area they live in is one of the poorest in the US, with one of the highest rates of unemployment, and everyday life is a struggle in so many ways for a lot of the people who live there, so not knowing how they were faring bothered me. (As it turns out, another one of the people featured on the show has since died- not from a snakebite, but a car accident. I had really liked this person, so this saddened me deeply.) The fallout from Jamie’s death stretched far and wide for Andrew Hamblin and his family, and it can still be felt today. Ms. Duin emphasizes that his choices may have seemed rash and ill-considered, but that they were also part and parcel of marrying so young, so quickly, being impulsive and not yet fully mature, and living in a place where poverty is rife and opportunities are few. So many factors go into the decisions we make and who we are, and the picture she paints of Andrew is a full one, not a mere caricature. He’s a flawed person, though an intelligent one with many gifts, and one who leaves a wake of drama in the path he blazes forward.

On the other hand, a lot of this book left me feeling like a voyeur in a kind of an icky way, and that’s not a criticism of the author. Ms. Duin used social media to study her subjects, and there are many Facebook posts included in the text, word-for-word with all the original misspellings and grammar flubs. So much drama and fighting and what feels like to me the airing of dirty laundry (but what is more likely a generational difference in how we use social media for support!) takes place on Facebook between the people in this work, and it left me feeling desperately sad- over the lack of education these folks have, over the poverty we deem acceptable for them to live in, over how they treat one another, over what their religion (and also their lack of education) deems proper for them. Reading Andrew Hamblin’s first wife Elizabeth’s posts broke my heart a thousand different ways. The book ends with things on an upswing for her, but I can’t help but continue to worry, because so many cards are stacked against her. I truly hope she’s found some peace and success in her life.

There were a few times I felt that Ms. Duin got a little too close to her subjects- not anywhere nearly as close as Dennis Covington did when he was researching his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, but close enough to state she was irritated when family members closed the church to media during a funeral. Her sense of entitlement to be there to witness their grief because the media had ‘made’ them bothered me; in my opinion, all bets are off when there’s been a death, and respecting the family’s wishes comes first, no matter how it inconveniences you, because at that point, it’s not about you, not in the slightest. But overall, this entire book works really, really well.

If you found yourself glued to the television when Snake Salvation was on in 2013, you’ll definitely enjoy the fuller look at the people that this program featured, at how they live and struggle to survive, and what happened after the cameras turned off and the producers packed up and left. And if you didn’t watch the show, this is a deeply fascinating look at a culture and a way of life that you may not be familiar with. You’ll still be left with questions and a nagging sense of worry, though, and a deep sense that no matter how other folks believe or worship or live, we’re truly all in this together and this country *needs* to do a better job of taking care of and educating its citizens.

Visit Julia C. Duin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Hand Made: The Modern Woman’s Guide to Made-from-Scratch Living by Melissa K. Norris

I’m a homemaker- not necessarily by choice, but that’s just kind of how things ended up, so I do my best to lean into my role. I cook almost everything we eat from scratch, I clean constantly (and make my own cleaning products), I craft (for myself, as gifts, and for charity), and I try to do everything I can in the most frugal and most earth-friendly ways. But I get burned out from time to time, as we all do, and a little inspiration is nice. Sometimes that comes in the form of blogs; other times, I pick up a homemaking book. That’s how Hand Made: The Modern Woman’s Guide to Made-from-Scratch Living by Melissa K. Norris (Ten Peaks Press, 2017) ended up on my TBR. We all need a little boost now and then, right?

Home Made focuses mainly on the kitchen, taking inspiration from the pluck and grit of those who weathered the Great Depression, cooking from scratch with the basic ingredients that most of us have on hand and making use of leftovers, ensuring that nothing goes to waste. If you’ve ever felt intimidated by making your own fermented foods, such as fermented veggies, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, this book has a great section with clear instructions on getting started. And there are recipes- comfort foods, such as chicken and dumplings; homemade cakes and pies; pizzas and pastas; and plenty more. There’s a shorter section on medicinal herbs, and a brief primer on two different kinds of soap-making. This is a decent homemaking book.

What I didn’t love about it was the unexpected Christian content. I’m all for people participating in whatever faith they want as they choose- if you find what works for you, that’s awesome, and I’m truly happy for you. But in terms of this book, I just wanted some inspiration to wash my floors a little more often; I wasn’t looking for a diatribe on how I needed Jesus (I’m good, thanks). There were occasionally several pages at a time with nothing but the author’s particular take on Christianity (which I flipped past; I almost never do this in books. I will occasionally read books marked as Christian, though I’m Jewish- Rachel Held Evans, may her memory be a blessing, was a wonderful author and advocate for her faith, and I’ve even read a few Christian novels that were just fine. I’m truly not opposed to wading through some Christian content; I can even find inspiration in others’ heartfelt commitment to their faith- Mister Rogers, anyone???). I enjoyed the stories about her life, but I absolutely wasn’t expecting and didn’t enjoy the leap from reading about Christmas lights to a multiple-page musing about how Jesus is the light of the world, and how Jesus makes us better homemakers. This Jewish woman isn’t interested, but thanks anyway.

You’ll probably enjoy this book more if you’re Christian and are looking for a faith-based book to inspire your homemaking. If you’re not Ms. Norris’s particular brand of religious, know that this isn’t at all a bad book; just be prepared to flip past a lot of pages. The recipes are really good, however. I wrote down quite a few of them and used Friday’s leftover challah (my Jewish readers are probably going, ‘What’s leftover challah???’) to make chocolate bread pudding from this book, which was absolutely delicious, and I’ll be making this on a regular basis. There’s also a Pumpkin Bread Pudding recipe that looked incredible, so I’m looking forward to trying that as well.

To sum it up- this book is probably more fully enjoyable for Christian readers, but it does contain some great recipes.

Visit Melissa K. Norris’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings by Joel M. Hoffman

Language is complicated. Translation is often far more of an art than a science, and it’s easy to get things wrong- wayyyyyyyyyy wrong- and even more so with documents that are ancient and don’t conform to today’s standards of grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Nowhere is this more evident than in matters of Biblical translation, and when I learned about the existence of The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016), my curiosity was piqued. What else could I learn about the foibles of improper translation and the misconceptions that have become canon?

In the tradition of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, though written in a much less academic style, Dr. Hoffman shines light on forty separate biblical ideas that aren’t quite what the general public (and often the very religious) think they are. Sometimes the translations are wrong. Sometimes there’s no direct translation, so something gets a little lost and the meaning is vague or unclear. Occasionally, ideas have been twisted (sometimes to fit an agenda, sometimes due to being passed down the line like a game of Telephone- remember that one?). The most famous Psalm paints a picture of God as a shepherd, but it’s not quite the gentle minder that we think of today. Mistranslations of the Ten Commandments hang in public spaces across the US. Most Jews know that the complete laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) don’t come from the Bible, but a lot of Christians are apparently unaware of that. Forty separate chapters illustrate how difficult and contentious parsing out the true textual meaning can be, and how easy it is to get things wrong.

Never stooping to talk down to his audience, Dr. Hoffman explains the hows and whys of Biblical translation and the shortcomings of language in a way that will have readers questioning what else they’ve misunderstood or been misinformed about. While some of his examples may seem just this side of nitpicking in terms of translation, most chapters show more serious transgressions. Both Hebrew and Greek contain concepts that English doesn’t necessarily have easy translations for, and time and time again, the best attempts of multiple translators have led to serious misunderstandings. This is nothing if not a fascinating study in how mistranslations can shape civilizations and cause others to shape their own lives in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise.

If you’re interested in the subject of Biblical translation, The Bible Doesn’t Say That is likely right up your alley. On a personal level, there wasn’t a *ton* I hadn’t come across in my previous reading, but his style is open and friendly and presents the information in a way that challenges the reader to think, which is something I appreciate in an author. He’s never confrontational in tone, merely informative- hey, when we’ve been wrong, we’ve been wrong, and it’s important to admit that!- and that makes this a really enjoyable read.

Visit Dr. Joel M. Hoffman’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

I don’t quite remember how Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (Quill Tree Books, 2020) came to be on my reading list (or at least where I found it), but I know WHY, because it ticks so many of my boxes:  

*YA

*diverse book

*characters grappling with religious and social issues

*contemporary as heck

*amazing voice

In fact, Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and serves on the Honorary Advisory Board! How cool is that?!?!? (Thank you to the founders and members for this group, for the work you do to keep our shelves stocked with books that represent everyone! It never ceases to amaze me how much better YA now is than when I was young.). By whatever means I discovered this book, I’m glad I did; this is some fabulous YA.

Del’s been in love with Kiera since their kindergarten production of The Wizard of Oz, but she’s always been attached to someone else. Now that she’s finally single, Del’s ready to swoop in and make his move, but he never expected to follow her into his church’s program for pledging purity. *record scratch* Kiera’s not thrilled with Del or his reputation (which he hasn’t exactly earned), but he’s determined to game the system with the help of Jameer, another student in the program with whom Del has made a bargain: he’ll get Jameer answers to his sex questions from the Healthy Living class at school that Jameer isn’t allowed to take, and Jameer will aid Del in his quest to finally get together with Kiera.

But things are always a little more complicated than they may seem. Del’s town has had a rash of teen pregnancies and the community is still reeling from that. His college-age sister has some mysterious new gig. His job stinks. But the friend’s he’s making at the Purity group are turning out to be solid. Del has a lot to learn: about life, about purity and sexual expectations, about what it means to be a good man and how to treat women. The Purity Pledge may not be what he expected, but getting involved leads to everything he needs to move forward in life.

Whew, this is a great book. It’s my first Lamar Giles novel, but already I can tell he’s a master of voice. Not one time during the reading of this book did I go, “Wow, this is absolutely an adult writing for teens;” Mr. Giles is right up there with Angie Thomas, nailing the voice of a Black teenager searching for answers, identity, and his place in the world. Del is a flawed but solid character, and his growth throughout the novel is admirable. He sometimes needs to be shoved there a little, but he readily absorbs the lessons he’s taught by the people who surround him, and he’s not afraid to admit when he was wrong, and to rewrite his life goals when he needs to.

The supporting characters are fabulous; they’re all distinct characters with distinct personalities and goals and character arcs (have you ever read a book where the other characters are kind of interchangeable? Absolutely none of this going on here!). There’s religious and social commentary here, stated in a way that makes sense to teenagers (who will absolutely call you on your crap if it doesn’t add up, something that Mr. Giles seems to understand well!), but never, ever in a preachy way. This isn’t a faith-based novel whatsoever, but it’s a story set in a family whose members are searching for various things, and those things are occasionally conflicting, which adds extremely readable drama.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Lamar Giles, because this was just a super solid, thought-provoking, entertaining YA that deserves to be read far and wide.

Visit Lamar Giles’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart

My fascination with strict, cult-like (or straight up cult) religious movements extends to the Christian Nationalist religious right that has taken over much of American politics (and boy, is there a lot of overlap between the cultier groups and this political movement), so I was excited in a kind of want-to-read-it-but-dreading-it-at-the-same-time kind of way to learn about Katherine Stewart’s latest offering, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020). Along the same vein, I deeply enjoyed her The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children and highly recommend that one as well. I had to wait to read this one, though, until I was in a better place, mentally-speaking. It’s difficult to read about the power-seeking people who think my friends and I are close to the pinnacle of evil and everything wrong about this country, especially when these people are the ones in charge.

Katherine Stewart has once again penned a deep dive into the members of the far religious right who want nothing more than power, power that includes the ability to force everyone to live the way they think is right, according to their extremist interpretation of their religious scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you’re a different religion or of no religion at all; you still need to follow their precepts because that’s what their religion says, and according to their interpretation, they and no one else should be in charge of the government.

Her calm, measured style exposes the lengths to which they’ll go in order to achieve their goals; nearly everything they do is based on lies- easily disproven ones about the founding of the United States and the goals of the Founding Fathers, but they’ve twisted the meanings of these original sources to fit their warped ideas of how American society should function. Women should have little to no place in public life. Gay people should be executed, rape and slavery are totally cool (to be fair, these views are somewhat more of a fringe belief even in their groups, but I’m well acquainted, through my years of cult-watching, with the awfulness of one of the men who has publicly stated these things. He was ousted from his now-defunct ministry after being sexually inappropriate with a nanny. So Christlike and God-fearing, amirite?). Our nation has become ‘pussified,’ as one of these pastors has claimed, and he goes on to say that when Jesus returns, his sword will be an AR-15. I wish I were making this up, but it’s all in the book, and all documented.

The content in this book is deeply disturbing, but it’s important that people realize what’s been going on in this country, what these groups have been working towards, and how much progress they’ve already made. I don’t want my daughter’s only option for a future to be a wife and mother (and I say that as someone who is a full-time wife and mother and have been for pretty much the entirety of my adult life). I hope my son, should he choose to get married, can marry someone who has been raised to be a full partner in marriage. I don’t think everyone marching in lockstep in terms of beliefs, ideals, and actions is ever a good thing, and I fully believe that, should these people ever manage to force our society into the one they want, the infighting would start immediately, with certain denominations who helped them achieve their goals getting thrown under the bus right from the start (they team up with certain factions of Catholics when it comes to things like banning abortion, but as soon as they got into power, the Catholics- whom they don’t see as real Christians- would be one of their targets. I was raised Catholic and ran into some of this as a teenager; it took me a few years to discover exactly why that woman treated me the way she did). It would be messy and not at all the complete restructuring they want to imagine it would be; with so much power at stake, I can’t help but believe that these people would begin tearing each other down in order to grab as much power for themselves as possible.

I was pleased to see Ms. Stewart’s takedown of David Barton, who remains a champion of the Christian Nationalist movement even as his work has been debunked time and time again by nearly every history department who has taken up the task. If the only way you can make your point is by lying (which goes directly against those Ten Commandments they claim to live by), you don’t have a point, and David Barton seems like the biggest liar of all.

This is a great book, but it’s dense and packed full of information, so read it when your 2020 brain isn’t too exhausted to handle it all.

Visit Katherine Stewart’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Broken Faith: Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr

Cults! Cults, cults, cults! This is probably my longest-running fascination. I put in for Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square Press, 2020) on NetGalley but was rejected (no biggie; you win some, you lose some!), but it went onto my TBR anyway. I hadn’t heard of Word of Faith Fellowship before, so immediately I was deeply intrigued and neeeeeeeeeeeeeeded to know more!

Journalist Mitch Weiss has written a stunning exposé on the Word of Faith Fellowship, a church out of Spindale, North Carolina, that consumes every last moment of its members’ lives. You can’t just show up for a church service; you have to be invited (that alone should tip people off). WOFF is run by Jane Whaley, a charismatic, power-hungry woman who seeks to control the lives of her church members and live high on the hog on their tithes, while they struggle to give more and more. Church tactics include screaming in the faces of and beating members, even infants and small children, to release all the demons that plague them, tying them to chairs, locking them away for months at a time in what amounts to prisons on the church property, stealing members’ children, and making it nearly impossible for members to leave.

What’s worse is the local government is fully involved in protecting the church and has, for decades, turned a blind eye to the abuse of the children in the cult. Members have tried for years to get justice for the many, many ways the cult has wronged them, only to be given the runaround by the police and the local court system. Hopefully with the publication of this book, more people will be aware of the shocking manipulations of this cult and the way it controls its members and the county it’s located in.

This is an absolutely shocking book. Mitch Weiss interviewed over 100 former church members to construct this narrative, as well as seeking out court documents, including a 300+ page document that had never before been released prior to his research. Despite damning evidence of the abuse of the members children (including sexual abuse- the mentions are brief, but they’re in here, so be alert if this is a difficult subject for you to read about), the county opted to tie the hands of social services and leave the children there to be further abused. I’m not going to lie; reading this is chilling. It’s yet another account of how cheap life is here in the United States and how little the lives of everyday people matter. The odds are stacked against us all, and if you’ve got money, you’re free to do as much harm as you want to anyone you want, because money is power.

Multiple times, Weiss and Mohr illustrate, usually through the words of authorities, how difficult it is for former cult members to receive justice: cults keep such tight control over their members that when they do manage to escape, they’re often ill-prepared to live in the outside world, plagued with anxiety and PTSD, and they end up homeless and addicted to various substances as a means of coping- rending them, in the eyes of legal authorities and juries, unreliable as witnesses. And thus cults such as WOFF are allowed to carry on their dangerous, abusive tactics. Members of the church have been convicted of various forms of fraud on the church’s behalf (including unemployment fraud and mail fraud), but Jane Whaley has never been brought up on charges herself.

If reading about cults interests you, you won’t want to miss this. Jane Whaley and her sycophants are dangerous and I’m glad the floodlights are being turned onto the church. I hope this helps its victims receive justice and that more people are sympathetic to what they’ve suffered at the hands of this evil, evil institution.

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope- Megan Phelps-Roper

The second I learned about Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper (riverrun 2019), I went running to Goodreads and smashed that Want to Read button. I’ve been a rubbernecker at the nightmare that is the Westboro Baptist Church for years, and I’ve also read and enjoyed both Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church by Libby Phelps with Sara Stewart, and Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain. So it was only natural that I read what Megan had to say, and as luck would have it, Unfollow appeared the next day on my library’s “These books are coming out next week, reserve them now!” shelf. I did indeed reserve it immediately, and I was the second person on the list (who ARE you, other cool local person??? We could be such good friends!).

Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the Westboro Baptist church, famous for their signs with foul statements about who or what God is currently hating, used to picket such occasions as funerals of dead soldiers. Despite the family’s constant spewing of hatred making international news, Megan’s upbringing seemed this side of normal. Her extended family lived mostly on the same block, she and her siblings were pushed to excel in school, and she never longed for company, as she was one of many children. And Megan had no reason to question her family’s aggressively hateful messages: she loved and trusted her parents and grandparents. Why wouldn’t they be telling her the truth about God? She happily and eagerly participated in their protests that caused so many others such pain.

Her story of growth and escape aren’t an immediate one. Through her use of social media to spread the church’s message, she gets to know her followers on Twitter and several of them plant seeds of logic that begin to germinate in her mind. Things begin not sitting quite right over a period of time, and eventually, Megan and her sister find their way out, striking out on their own in a world they’ve never really lived in. It takes time, but eventually she finds what she truly believes and how wrong her church was. Through it all, though, she never loses sight of how much her parents loved her, and how difficult this very necessary break is for everyone.

Megan Phelps-Roper has written what I think is the strongest so far of the post-Westboro memoirs. She shies away from nothing, including the more hideous parts of Westboro’s protests and her eagerness to take part in them, and for that, I give her a lot of credit. It’s really not easy to admit when you’ve been so wrong about something that has hurt so many people, and she makes it obvious that she’s done the work to extricate herself from the hurtful beliefs she grew up with (also something that’s not easy). Her pain at losing almost her entire family is obvious, and it was easy to feel compassion for her. Her writing really does an amazing job of separating the parents we know from TV interviews and footage (her mother is Shirley Phelps-Roper), and the mother who cared for her when she was sick and lovingly answered her many questions. That takes some serious writing skill to pull that off, as I’m obviously no fan of Shirley’s.

Her exit from the church and from her family is really the most intriguing part of this. The relationships she developed over Twitter and the thoughtful replies from these people were the beginning of the end for her, although she never would have thought of it that way when she first began connecting with them. It made me think about how I respond to those with whom I disagree on social media (usually with facts and pointing out the gaps in their logic; sometimes snark leaks through…), because without these people (and no spoilers, but there are two really interesting ones!), Megan might never have left. That’s pretty huge.

What a fascinating book. Is it okay to say you’re proud of someone you’ve never met? Megan Phelps-Roper seems like a genuinely decent person who was born into a bad situation and never had any reason to question it until just the right people came along and threw up some flashing neon signs that her brain wouldn’t let her forget. I’m proud of her for having the courage to be true to who her heart and soul told her she really was, and for taking the time to learn all that she has once she left. Leaving the majority of her family behind was no easy choice, and I’m proud of her for choosing truth and integrity despite the cost.

Follow Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult- Susan Ashline

Cult books! Cult books everywhere!

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (Pegasus Books, 2019) was a new one for me. I made a trip to another local branch of the library in order to pick up a DVD for my son’s Oceanography and Meteorology class (seriously, when did high schools get such interesting classes? It was huge deal that my high school got Psychology my senior year. My son is also taking Sports and Entertainment Marketing, and a class called Incubator, which is basically Shark Tank for teenagers, it’s wild), and of course I trucked in with my list of books from my TBR that were on their shelves. This was on the New Books shelf (because you know I had to stop and browse that!), and I grabbed it right away, because, well, cults.

Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York seemed like a fairly normal church when it first started out, but after a while, neighbors noticed that it had become more secluded, more secretive: a gate went up, church members went in early mornings and didn’t come out until late in the night. What was going on behind those gates and the closed doors was a long, drawn-out indoctrination of its members, over whom control would be passed down from pastor father to pastor daughter, and which would directly lead to the members and leaders beating a teenager to death, along with prison time for many of the members and leaders.

While the recounting of the recordings and texts does occasionally become repetitious and wearying, Ms. Ashline has written a chilling work that shows exactly how people get involved with groups that eventually morph into something entirely different. There’s a LOT of weird stuff going on in this book, including moving a dead body across state lines and attempting to revive it, squalor (some of it involving animals and animal hoarding), demons (SO much talk of demons. I didn’t know I could get sick of hearing about demons, but hooooooboy, can I ever) and the constant verbal abuse of a flock by its pastors. If you’re at all interested in cults and secluded religious (or otherwise!) groups, this strange tale is one you won’t want to miss.

I was really struck by Bruce Leonard, the father of Lucas Leonard, and how weak-willed he was. He’s probably the stereotypical sheep-like cult member that everyone thinks of as being most likely to join a group like Word of Life, as opposed to the more firebrand people who are all in, lock, stock, and barrel from the get-go in a big and vocal way (although no one ever really joins a cult, so to speak; they join a church or a self-help group, something they think is going to meet their needs and improve their life. It’s the manipulation of the leader or leaders that turn it into a cult, and far too often, the members don’t realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late), being entirely unable to make decisions on his own or think for himself, and thus he turned to a stronger, more powerful leader to make those decisions for him, and his wife was only too happy to follow. He’s also an excellent example of people who stay in cults despite the terrible mistreatment they receive from the leaders. Bruce and his wife and children were insulted and ostracized from the small group on a regular basis, and still they stayed, and it’s deeply fascinating to see them constantly come back for more. There’s a bit at the end where another local religious leader talks with Bruce, who eventually figures it out, and the way that religious leader’s help affected Bruce intrigued me.

Content warning: there are quite a few mentions of child molestation. During the ‘counseling’ session that lead to Lucas Leonard’s death, he and his brother Chris admitted to molesting some of the children in the church. Investigations showed no evidence of this, and I believe Chris admitted that he only said it to get the beatings to stop, and because he thought that’s what the other church members wanted to hear. Ms. Ashline also mentions that, as in many cults, some words have definitions peculiar to that particular group, and in this group, it seemed that even changing the diaper of an opposite sex child counted as molestation. So while there’s never anything graphic mentioned that isn’t confessed under extreme duress, beware that this is a topic of frequent mention in the latter parts of this book.

I hadn’t heard of this story before (I seem to miss a LOT of stuff like this!!!), so I’m glad i stumbled across this book. All this constant reading and learning about different cults has made me start feeling like everything has the potential to become a cult (much like listening to Dateline via podcast makes me feel like murder is everywhere! Egads, I need to go read something about fluffy kittens and puppies frolicking in a sunshiny meadow…).

Are you or were you familiar with this story? If you learned about this on the news, I’d love to hear your take on it.

Visit Susan Ashline’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming- Kerri Rawson

I’m not hugely into true crime, but I’ll pick up a book from that genre now and then. I am interested, however, in unique experiences and the people behind them, and the second I heard about A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming by Kerri Rawson (Thomas Nelson, 2019), I added it to my TBR. Kerri Rawson is the daughter of Dennis Rader, the serial killer known as BTK who terrorized the people of Wichita for seventeen years.

The memoir begins on the day when an FBI agent knocks at Kerri’s door to inform her that her father has been arrested under suspicion of being the serial killer who called himself BTK, short for Bind, Torture, Kill. Between 1974 through 1991, Rader murdered ten people. By the time Kerri was born, her father had already murdered seven of those people (as far as I can calculate, not having the book in front of me). He was a moody man who, Rawson later realized, emotionally abused his family and physically abused Rawson’s brother, but there were many good times together as a family as well, hiking and fishing in both Kansas and vacation destinations such as the Grand Canyon. Her father being a serial killer certainly wasn’t what she expected to learn when she opened the door that day.

The news is almost unbearable to Kerri, who feels a mixture of helplessness, revulsion, anger, panic, grief, and more; there’s no manual on how to deal with news like this, no instructions on how to heal or dodge the public’s accusations that you must’ve known all along or were party to it. Along with developing a terrible case of PTSD, Kerri both clams up about who her father is (no longer living in Kansas and having taken her husband’s last name, anonymity isn’t difficult) and finds what strength she can in her Christian faith. There’s no major breakthrough for her, no moment where suddenly, everything is okay; what Kerri realizes is that her grief and anger and survivor’s guilt will be ongoing, but she can learn to manage it and live alongside it, thanks to therapy, the support of her husband, and her faith.

Ms. Rawson’s PTSD plays a massive part in this book; she constantly relives the agonizing moments in which she learned her father is a serial killer. Her justified anguish over her entire childhood being a lie overflows each page and is at times painful to read, so if you’re not in the mindset to stand there with her and carry some of her pain, maybe wait a little while until you’re ready for this book.

She writes of her father occasionally getting moody and everyone else in the family learning to walk on eggshells until he calmed down; while he absolutely strayed into emotionally abusive territory, I don’t think his behavior was all that uncommon for men of that era who had no outlet for their emotions, no way to discuss how they were feeling, and instead took out their stress and anger on their families. It’s not at all healthy, but not indicative of a serial killer, and Kerri was utterly stunned, as was everyone else in her family, to find out that the man who had taken her camping and always checked to make sure her car was safe had orphaned a few children and murdered others.

Books published by Thomas Nelson tend to vary wildly on how heavily Christian their content is, and this is one of their heavier books. Kerri attended church as a young girl, but didn’t truly become serious about her faith until a nearly disastrous hiking trip to the Grand Canyon. It helps to pull her through some extremely dark times after the news breaks about her father, but in terms of this book, the amount of real estate that it takes up in the pages bogs the book down more than a bit. I wasn’t in love with the writing style to begin with, and while I’m glad Ms. Rawson’s faith carried her through such a life-shattering tragedy, I felt there was too much repetition of similar content when it came to her beliefs.

I found it intriguing that she does come to forgive her father for what he did to her and her family. I understand that her faith helped her come to that decision, and that she did it in order to move on with her life (while she does occasionally write to her father, she no longer speaks to him and does not visit him in prison). I…am honestly not sure I could have done that; that may make her a better person than me, and I’m okay with that! I’m glad she’s found what she needed to move forward; I assume that whatever that is would be different for everyone, and there’s no simple solution to how to live with this kind of knowledge about a parent or close family member.

If you’re looking for insight on serial killers in general or on Dennis Rader, this probably isn’t the book you’re looking for. I didn’t feel as though it offered anything of particular interest in those areas, but it does highlight the struggle that family members go through when one of their own turns out to be a monster. While Ms. Rawson wasn’t the kind of victim most people think of when they hear the words ‘serial killer,’ she and family absolutely are victims of his behavior; their trauma deserves to be heard as well. My heart goes out to them, and to the families of the people Dennis Rader murdered. May they all find peace and healing.

Visit Kerri Rawson’s Facebook page here.

Follow her on Twitter here.