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.

nonfiction · religion

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others- Barbara Brown Taylor

I’m so busy hunting for books from my TBR most of the time that I’ve been neglecting the New Books shelf at my library, but just before we went on vacation to Branson, Missouri with my mother this year, I stopped by that shelf to see what I could find to take with me on our trip. A good, relaxing vacation read should probably have a beach on the cover, maybe a fancy drink with a little umbrella in it or a pair of sunglasses, but I can’t do anything normally, so I leaped at the copy of Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne, 2019). I often say I’m not hugely religious, but this book sums up where I sit religiously: I may not have all the answers, or any of them, but I relish the opportunity to observe and appreciate what is sacred in the beliefs of others.

Barbara Brown Taylor was, for many years, an ordained Episcopalian minister. After leaving her position as minister, she taught World Religions at Piedmont College in Georgia. As Piedmont is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (and also located in a very religious part of the south!), the vast majority of her students were Christian, and most of them were encountering religions other than their own for the first time in their lives. Some of them couldn’t handle this and dropped the class early on or after a single field trip to another house of worship (one left a Hindu temple in tears, so upset that the worshipers could be so very wrong in their beliefs); others opened their minds and hearts and learned to experience what Ms. Brown Taylor termed ‘holy envy’: appreciating parts of these other faiths and using what they learned to make them a better practitioner of their own faith.

The leaps and bounds some of her students make are incredible, but it’s the insights that Ms. Brown Taylor experiences while teaching and the glimpses into houses of worship of non-Christian faiths that make this book explode with life and color and light. If you’re at all interested in religion or faith or the practice thereof, or the beauty that comes from education and growth and deep respect and appreciation for the many facets of humanity, this is a book you can’t afford to miss.

Holy Envy called to me from the very first page. I love reading about religion, the facts and the hows and whys, and I especially love reading how people experience and live out their own faiths. The concept of holy envy wasn’t one that I’ve ever realized had a name before this, but it’s definitely one I’ve felt over and over again as I’ve studied Judaism and its weekly Shabbat celebration and its relentless pursuit of social justice, both the Muslim and LDS sense of community, the Mennonite commitment to creating a sustainable lifestyle, the Catholic commitment to maintaining tradition, the list could go on and on. It was in reading through my Goodreads TBR list when it was up to 332 books that I came across the books of Rachel Held Evans, may her beautiful soul rest in peace, and I understood that another person’s faith doesn’t need to be my own for me to appreciate it and learn from it. And since then, I’ve never looked back, and that is why Holy Envy felt like home right from the start.

Ms. Brown Taylor speaks of many things in these pages that hit home for me; I constantly found myself reading a paragraph, staring at the wall or out the window as I considered what I’d just read, then reading the paragraph again, and nodding. Her reminder of the best way to learn about another faith being to talk to a practitioner of that faith felt pointed a bit in my direction; while I do enjoy a good memoir about a person’s experience of leaving a faith, I do need to keep in mind that that’s not always the best way to learn about the tenets of that particular religion, or what its best practice looks like. I’m always glad for such a gentle prod in the right direction. 🙂

Her notion on suffering gave me pause, and I wrote it down in my reading binder because I found it so very poignant:

The sooner they learned to accept the human condition with equanimity, the sooner their suffering would end- not their pain, but their suffering- since suffering is so often a measure of how much we want things to be different from the way they are.

That rang so true to me. Far too often, I fight against how things are in my own life, when instead I could accept it, incorporate it- still work to change it, yes, but with grace and peace in my heart. I need to spend more time considering this…maybe I should cross-stitch it on a pillow or sampler, or paint it on my living room wall.

The other quote that stuck with me was the following:

Eventually all people of faith must decide how they will think about and respond to people of other (and no) faiths. Otherwise they will be left at the mercy of their worst impulses when push comes to shove and their fear deadens them to the best teachings of their religions.

The above goes for people of no faith as well, I think. Some nonbelievers are nonbelievers solely because they don’t believe; others have had poor experiences with religion in the past and no longer believe. No matter one’s belief status, it’s crucial that we learn to understand and appreciate what makes us unique; it’s not necessary to incorporate each other’s beliefs, but to acknowledge it, find what speaks to us, and use it to become better people, better human beings, so that we can better take care of each other. Because loving each other is everyone’s sacred duty, and we’ll never accomplish that goal without first understanding each other.

Holy Envy is a beautiful book full of love and wonder and awe, not only at the divine, but at the people who practice so many forms of faith, and it’s absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Barbara Brown Taylor has made me a fan for life with this one book and I’m very much looking forward to reading everything else she’s written.

Visit Barbara Brown Taylor’s website here.

nonfiction · religion

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life- Amber Scorah

Sometimes I learn about a book that I know I’d enjoy reading, and I add it to my TBR list, and there it sits for…well, a long time (years, sometimes *hides in shame*). Not so with Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah (Viking, 2019). I learned about this book only weeks ago, and as soon as a copy turned up at one of my local libraries, I was there, practically hissing at other patrons in order to keep this book all to myself.

Amber Scorah was a lifelong member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that door-knocking, proselytizing religious group known for not celebrating birthdays or holidays in any fashion. While her family wasn’t hugely devout during her youth, Amber grew more zealous as a young adult. After her marriage had grown stagnant, she and her husband moved to China in order to take the Witness religion to the Chinese. As this sort of proselytizing is illegal in China (some groups are allowed and heavily monitored; the Witnesses are not one of them), Amber and her husband had to resort to code words with the handful of other Witnesses, secretive worship services, and only bringing up religion to potential converts after first taking the time to establish a friendship and ensuring that these people could be trusted (a process that could take months and even years).

Culture shock and the language barrier were obviously an issue, but Ms. Scorah seemed to adapt better than most, eventually working for ChinesePod, a podcast dedicated to Chinese language learners. But this new culture, with its different values and ways of viewing the world, its language and its history, forced Amber to question the discrepancies in what she’d been taught her entire life, until she could no longer deny to herself that what she’d grown up believing no longer held any truth. Exiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses means being shunned by all friends and family members still in the sect, and thus began the long, lonely road of building a life outside of the only group, the only way of being, that Amber had ever known.

Odds are good that even if you don’t recognize her name, you know of Amber Scorah, and this goes along with a content warning for the book. A few years back, Ms. Scorah and her partner lost a young child in a tragic way that made the news, and as I read this section with shock and sorrow, I realized I remembered reading the articles when it happened. If reading this is too heavy for you to bear right now, please keep this in mind and maybe put the book on hold for a bit.

While I deeply enjoy delving into what makes a person leave a religion or a religious group, what really drew me in about the premise of this book was Ms. Scorah’s move to China. The linguistic challenge alone seems daunting to me, but she tackled it head-on, with admirable passion and fire. When immersion in Chinese culture and tradition, with its thousands of years of history and different perspectives, forced Amber to confront disparities between reality and what she’d been taught, instead of refusing to consider this new evidence, Amber realized that she had to change her mind and the way she thought about certain things. That’s not an easy thing to do and requires not only emotional intelligence, but strength and humility, and, in Ms. Scorah’s case, a well of courage to rebuild one’s life. I deeply admire her for that.

She doesn’t hold back when it comes to dissecting her ill-fated marriage to the husband who accompanied her to China. While always respectful of him (to the point of honoring his privacy and never sharing his name), she admits that their marriage was more due to Witness ideals and less because of love, even going so far as to confess that she realized she shouldn’t be marrying him the night before the wedding (community pressure can be a terrible thing). Plenty of groups and cultures view marriage as more of an arrangement where love will grow after the wedding, and obviously that works for many people, but in Ms. Scorah’s case, it led only to pain and heartbreak for both parties. While obviously not the most sorrowful part of the book, the descriptions of her marriage are forlorn and lonely and make me wonder how many other couples are stuck in similar relationships, neither one feeling free to leave and pursue something more emotionally fulfilling .

Leaving the Witness is a new take on exiting a religious group, and Ms. Scorah’s writing is strong and intense, placing you in her shoes as she takes on the Chinese language, her long-standing beliefs, and the wild, wide-open world. Her storytelling abilities are so tightly honed that I think we’ll be seeing her name on the shelves for years to come, and I look forward to reading whatever comes next from her.

Have you ever learned something from or spent time in another culture that made you view something in your own life differently? I found this one of the most fascinating aspects of this book, and I wish this were something more people were open to (not necessarily for religious reasons, but more in a way that we should always be open to considering that maybe we don’t have a monopoly on truth or perfection; maybe there’s a better way to go about even the simplest things in life. I try to keep this in mind and incorporate better ideas into how I live, and it can be frustrating when people around me insist on doing things in a less efficient or more difficult way simply due to tradition or stubbornness!).

Follow Amber Scorah on Twitter here.

nonfiction · religion

Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares- Kristin Ohlson

Another one bites the dust!

Another book that’s had a longtime place on my TBR list, that is. Fitting right in with my fascination with cults and closed groups is a fascination with nuns. I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade school. We were taught by regular teachers, but our school librarian was, until she retired after my third grade year, a nun (Sister Grace!), whom I loved- I even wrote her a goodbye letter and cried a little when she left. She was a dear, sweet lady. The only other nun we had at school worked in what I think was the religious education office, and she was…not so sweet. I was never, ever interested in becoming a nun, but as an adult, I’ve definitely been interested in their lives, and thus Stalking the Divine by Kristin Ohlson (Plume Books, 2003) ended up on my TBR list (and, uh, stayed there, for far too long).

One Christmas, when her children were visiting their father, Kristin Ohlson finds herself longing for…something. Something she can’t quite name. A lapsed Catholic, she decides to attend Christmas mass and ends up at St. Paul’s in downtown Cleveland, home of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, an order of cloistered nuns whose mission it is to pray around the clock. She develops a deep fascination with the sisters, and though it takes some time, she’s able to gain access in order to write a newspaper magazine article on them, which becomes the basis of this book,

One by one, Ms. Ohlson interviews the aging sisters, whose order is shrinking. The sisters have faith, though; the Poor Clares have seen tough times before, and they know they’ll bounce back. Alongside her interview and writing, Ms. Ohlson involves herself in the life of St. Paul’s, attending mass, volunteering for different events and happenings in the parish, and contemplating her own faith- or lack thereof- the whole time. Ms. Ohlson isn’t quite a believer: she’s trying, and she hopes that her involvement with the sisters will help. Although she never quite reaches the level of true believer, the message from the sisters rings loud and clear to her: sometimes, you just have to keep showing up, even when the faith isn’t there.

Boy, this was captivating. It’s been a while since I read anything about nuns, and though I was a little nervous at the beginning about this being the right book at the right time (have you ever just not been able to read a book you really wanted to read, and it sent you into a reading slump? My brain’s been a little wonky lately, so I’ve been living in fear of this), but Ms. Ohlson’s light, yet informative style was exactly what I needed. Being able to slip behind the grates and listen to what life is like as a cloistered sister, living communally with vows of poverty and chastity, hearing about their struggles, their crises of faith, their difficulties living with one another, how they spend the majority of their days in silence, all of this had me absolutely riveted, and I blew through the book in less than two days.

Ms. Ohlson is honest about her struggles to believe; as someone who is fascinated by and drawn to religion as a whole without fully believing either, I found this refreshing and honest. She comes to a slightly different conclusion than I have in regards to the practice of faith (so far, that is; who knows what the future will bring?), but I enjoyed reading her journey and how she reached this place. I don’t have to share someone’s faith journey to appreciate and respect what they believe and how they come to believe it; reading about different beliefs never fails to keep me in a state of awe at what a wondrous place the world is. 🙂

If you’re interested in closed-off groups, this is a great read, and along these same lines, I highly recommend Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed. This book covers many different orders of nuns, from the ones so service-oriented that they hardly find time to sleep or eat, to those who are so cloistered that they can barely manage to refuse an interview. I read this book back in…somewhere around 2005 and still think of it often.

Are you interested in closed-off, secretive groups? Do nuns fit into that category for you? As a child, I wouldn’t have believed that this would be a subject of interest for me as an adult, but, well, here I am. 🙂

Visit Kristin Ohlson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

The Solace of Water-Elizabeth Byler Younts

After finishing (and loving!) a novel about an older woman having a relationship with a mega-famous boy bander, I turned around and fell into a multiple narrative historical fiction about grief and an unlikely friendship between three hurting women, two black (one a teenager), one Amish, in the 1950’s.

Is literary whiplash a thing? It should be. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m a big fan of reading widely, reading weirdly, reading all sorts of stories, fiction and non, and there’s nothing I like more than reading stories by people who are different from me, or who live differently than I do. The world is such a fascinating place. The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson, 2018) ended up on my TBR list thanks to another blogger’s review, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a lovely read.

Dee Evans is grieving hard after the accidental drowning of her four year old son Carver. Her older daughter, Sparrow, was tasked with watching him that day and got distracted by a boy; now Carver’s gone, Dee is nearly paralyzed with grief and barely able to tolerate being near Sparrow, and the whole family is moving to Pennsylvania, where Dee’s husband will take over preaching at his childhood church. Things are different in Sinking Creek: not necessarily better, but different, and Dee isn’t sure how to relate to the white townsfolk when there are no signs telling her what she can and can’t do.

Her Amish neighbor Emma is another mystery. While Emma’s church’s stance is to not get involved in the racial tension amongst the English, Emma can’t help but find herself drawn first to Sparrow, then Dee. Emma carries multiple heavy burdens of her own and recognizes the pain that her new neighbors carry. Sparrow, however, is carrying more pain and stress than she lets on. While she strikes up an innocent but secret romance with Emma’s son Johnny, she also copes with other, more unhealthy measures, ones that will almost cost her everything when her pain, Dee’s grief, Emma’s desperation, and the town’s racial tension come to a head.

First off, major content warnings for this book. Child death via drowning, stillbirth, alcoholism, self harm, and racial tension and violence are all front and center in this book. If now is not a good time for you to read about these subjects, be gentle with yourself and choose something easier on your soul.

Dee’s grief is a terrible burden, and her anger at Sparrow is perhaps even worse. Because Carver’s death happened on Sparrow’s watch, Dee’s inability to forgive her daughter and Sparrow’s guilt combine to make an absolutely gut-wrenching maelstrom of emotion. At times, each woman’s anguish and desperation are tough to read, but Ms. Younts handles it with aplomb. Also carefully treated is the tension between blacks and whites that simmers in the town; it hadn’t occurred to me that black people who moved from the overtly racist, pre-civil-rights-era south, might be confused and apprehensive about the rules of the not-as-overtly-racist-but-still-very-racist north, and I appreciate the perspective on that that this gave me. I still have so, so much to learn.

Emma’s burden, while different, is no less. Her pain over the loss of her infant daughter, combined with so many years of keeping both her husband’s and her own secret, alienated her from her family, her community, and what she truly wanted in life, and it was easy to both sympathize with her pain and feel her joy at the connection she made with Sparrow and so desperately wanted to make with Dee. While I have no desire to be Amish, reading the descriptions of Emma’s simple ways resonated with me and ended up affecting my next book choice! I love when that happens.

With Emma being Amish and Dee being a preacher’s wife, The Solace of Water is heavy on Christianity and Christian themes like forgiveness, but without being heavy-handed. Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher, yet I didn’t find this to be overly preachy or even overly religious; the religion and beliefs of the characters are merely part of their lives and not something the author is trying to sell to her readers, which was something I very much appreciated.

The Solace of Water is a cathartic novel, full of pain, desolation, secrecy, and the capacity for suffering and loneliness, but ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship, forged connections, redemption, and forgiveness of self and others. I’m so happy that it ended up on my TBR list, because despite its heavy subject matter, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend read.

Visit Elizabeth Byler Younts’s website here.

memoir

Accidental Jesus Freak: One Woman’s Journey From Fundamentalism to Freedom- Amber Lea Starfire

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.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Quiver- Julia Watts

Religion can be a touchy subject in fiction, but it’s also one of my favorites to read about, and when I spotted Quiver by Julia Watts on another blog (whose name I neglected to write down, I’m sorry! If I freaked out about this book in the comments of your review, let me know it was you and I’ll credit you here!!! I really need to start writing this stuff down!), not only did I immediately know what it would be about based on the title, I checked right away to see how quickly I could grab a copy. A local library branch had it in stock and I had to fight to not jump in the car at that moment. (I waited two days, until we were there anyway. Is that not some serious self-control???) I may have done a happy dance when this was finally in my hands.

Libby (short for Liberty) is the oldest of six- soon to be seven!- homeschooled kids. Her fundamentalist Christian family is reminiscent of some of those famous mega-huge religious families, where the men work to support the family and the women stay home and give birth to as many babies as biology God allows. Libby and her siblings are extremely isolated; they have no friends outside their own family unit (friends at church are never mentioned), they live far out in the country, and the only time they ever seem to leave their house is to go to church. Even Mama doesn’t go to the doctor, though this pregnancy seems to be wearing harder on her than any other; Daddy catches all her babies at home, and there’s no need for outside medical care. It’s not always easy for Libby to submit and obey, but she’s doing her best to be the kind of daughter her parents demand.

Enter Zo, the gender-fluid David Bowie superfan daughter of the family who moves in next door to Libby. Zo’s homeschooled this year as well. Along with her little brother Owen, she befriends Libby and her siblings, and the two mothers forge a tentative friendship as well. It’s only when the dads get involved that things go awry, forcing the new friends apart. But when an emergency happens, true friendship comes through, and some characters will have to examine everything they thought they knew about life.

Quiver is a fabulous dual narrative YA that will make you think and will infuriate you in times. Straightaway, I was grinding my teeth when Libby, who is 16, began a game of Scrabble with her 14 year-old brother and thinks, ‘…I know that since he’s a boy I should never make him feel like he’s not strong or in charge.’ Dude, younger brother. Win on your own merits or get out of the game. And when Zo’s family moves in, Libby’s mother doesn’t just go over to say hello, she asks her husband for permission first. EW EW EW. The thought of being married to someone who acts as my prison warden is nauseating at best.

There’s a really lovely scene where the mothers are chatting about crafting and children and the school system that drives home the point that families like Libby’s and Zo’s have so much more in common than not, a point that’s also brought up in Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (which is SUCH a fabulous book). The women are able to look past their differences and see only what unites them, but enter the men and suddenly everything’s a theological pissing contest, and it’s all downhill from there.

Over on Goodreads, I gave this four out of five stars. While nearly every scene rings true to everything I’ve read and noted about patriarchal, quiverfull families (the clothing, the strict routines, the financial struggles, the physical discipline, the single-minded adherence to the more legalistic aspects of religion as a self-identifier above everything else), the final scene with Libby’s father seemed a bit over the top and forced. While I do think there was plenty of room for him to act unreasonably, the extent of his actions were a bit too much for me without evidence of that kind of behavior towards his wife beforehand (the children, yes; the wife, no, and we never had the chance to see how he treated people outside his family other than Zo’s parents, never anyone with authority over him). That was the only scene that I felt rang a tad bit hollow; otherwise, this was fantastic. Ms. Watts gives a balanced look at the realities of growing up in a family with more children than money, one whose tight confines might not always be a good fit, and Zo’s confidence and determination to both be and celebrate every aspect of herself provide both a wonderful contrast and a deeply necessary breath of fresh air.

I very much enjoyed this and am looking forward to checking out more of Ms. Watts’s books. Have you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts if you did.

Visit Julia Watts’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.