memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

I first learned of Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett (Celadon Books, 2020) from my friend Sibyl, who came to my parenting group’s book forum to tell us all about a new memoir written about a man’s aftermath of being raised in a cult. I was intrigued, but kind of forgot about it for a bit (I think there was a lot going on at the time) until I started seeing it pop up on Twitter, and that’s when I added it to my TBR. And since one of the challenges from my parenting group’s reading challenge this year is to read a book recommended by another member, I turned to Hollywood Park. Whew, this is a sad one.

Mikel Jollett and his brother Tony were born into the Synanon cult, which started as a drug rehab and was good until it wasn’t, as everyone in the book said. (Big shout-out here to the podcast Cults, on Parcast; this is where I had learned about Synanon a few years back. I hadn’t heard of it before. If you’re not familiar with Synanon and you want to read this book, I highly suggest you listen to their episodes on this cult before diving in.) His parents, who were no longer together, escaped when Mikkel was five and Tony was about six. You may wonder why the cult affected them so deeply the rest of their lives, since they were so young, and this is because by the time Mikel and Tony were infants, Synanon had a policy of separating children and parents, because in the cult’s way of thinking, children shouldn’t have parents, they should be ‘children of the Universe.’ Thus, Mikel and Tony grew up, like other kids in Synanon, being raised in what seemed like those awful Romanian orphanages of the 1990’s under Nicolae Ceaușescu, unable to form attachments to other people. It gets worse from there.

Their mother has either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder and spends their childhood gaslighting them, denying their feelings and experiences, and making everything about herself. Poverty abounds in their household, and their mother brings a parade of men through the house, trying to form the family of her dreams. Both boys turn to substance abuse to cope with the dysfunction; Mikel manages to escape this early on, but Tony falls into full-blown addiction. With a massive amount of hard work and therapy, Mikel and Tony manage to forge healthy lives, but the drama along the way is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

My goodness. This isn’t *quite* at the levels of dysfunction seen in The Glass Castle or Educated, but it’s just as raw and painful. Mikel’s father, though rough around the edges, had his heart in the right place and was an effective parent, and his stepmother Bonnie is an absolute gem, so it’s not all tension and pain, but the chapters with his mother are…they’re rough reads. She’s dismissive of everything Mikel and Tony feel, everything they experience, and won’t anyone think of how hard this (this being anything from leaving Synanon to the death of someone Mikel loves) is on HER??? She’s the kind of person you just want to grab by the shoulders and shake in order to force some sense into her and get her out of her own head. I have a feeling she’s going around these days, talking about how hard the publication of this book has been on her, and I can’t say I have any sympathy.

This is also a story of addiction and the toll it takes, and how it’s passed down the line, how we continue to act out our family traumas so that the next generation repeats them. Both Mikel and his brother have taken the steps to break this chain, but not without some damage already caused. It’s a painful read and may be even more painful if you’re struggling with addiction or you love someone who is or has struggled. It might also be a tough read for anyone who has lived with a narcissistic parent. But it might also be enlightening, seeing what Mikel and Tony go through, and how hard they work to rebuild healthy lives for themselves. Take into account what you’re ready for before you read, and be kind to yourself. Recovery of any sorts is a long, difficult process.

Hollywood Park is a painful story of growing up amongst massive dysfunction coming at the author from nearly every direction, but it’s also one of growth and triumph for those who are willing to put in the work, arduous and challenging and daunting though it may be. I flew through this one, but I’ve heard from others that they didn’t care for Mikel Jollett’s style. It’s not an easy read, emotionally-speaking, but it’s worth it. His life is a fascinating story, and I flew through this book. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Follow Mikel Jollett on Twitter.


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

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.


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.

fiction · YA

Gated- Amy Christine Parker

Yikes, I’ve been hitting the cult books kind of hard lately, haven’t I??? I’ve got another one coming up as well. I mean, I guess it’s a great time of year to read creepy things, but yeesh, maybe I should throw a ghost or a demon in there along with all the manipulative cult leaders, eh? Gated by Amy Christine Parker (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2013) ended up on my TBR after I read another book blogger’s review; I was lucky that my library had an ebook copy, and so onto my Kindle it went!

Lyla’s family has been hurting badly ever since the disappearance of her older sister when Lyla was young. One moment the girls were playing together happily; the next moment, Lyla’s sister was gone forever, and just a few days later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 pushed the story of the missing girl out of the news. Enter Pioneer, a charismatic young man who convinces the family to leave everything behind and follow him to live in a community where everything will be safe and there will be no more worries.

But the visions Pioneer sees, visions that Lyla’s parents and other adults who make up the community entirely buy into, grow dark, and the community ramps up their preparations for the end of the world, where their community will hunker down in their specially constructed underground bunker. Their reclusive community hasn’t escaped the attention of the local law enforcement community, however, and after a visit from the chief of police and his son, Cody, Lyla, who is promised to her childhood best friend Will, finds herself with a major crush. It’s Cody who prompts Lyla to begin questioning everything she’s ever believed to be true, and after a near-deadly accident, her eyes are fully opened to the reality of Pioneer and the place she lives. But can she convince everyone else before it’s too late?

Gated is a really great example of how easily it is for even fully grown adults to be manipulated. Pioneer is obviously a smooth talker with enough charisma to convince an entire community of families to sell their homes, turn the money over to him, and spend their lives secluded from the rest of the world. He found Lyla’s family via the news about the disappearance of their older daughter, and he absolutely preyed on them during the worst time of their lives. (What is never covered and is something that I wondered throughout the entirety of the book, is if he was responsible for the older daughter’s disappearance. I would have liked to have seen this questioned, because it was entirely in the realm of possibility for his uber-creepiness.)

There’s some insta-love going on between Lyla and Cody, and I found the whole process of Pioneer matching the teenagers up so early on in order to marry them off when they’re adults to be super creepy, along with the parents’ easy acceptance of this! Ms. Parker has really set up a creepy mini-society where the parents have blindly accepted a stranger’s proclamations of what the future will hold and on which they’re willing to bet their children’s entire lives. There’s a good sense of balance, though; she’s also taken great pains to show the best parts of living the way Lyla and her family do: fresh food grown straight from their own gardens, being able to take care of their own needs with building and repairing, a close sense of family and community. There’s a not-too-graphic scene that depicts, off-camera, the death of animals, and while the reader isn’t witness to it (Lyla understands what’s going on when she wakes up in the middle of the night and runs to the commotion at the barns), there’s some description that might be hard to read for younger or more sensitive readers.

There is a sequel and it sounds like something I’d be interested in, but given the reviews, I’m thinking it’ll be better to just leave this series where it is and not continue on. If you’ve read the second book and want to change my mind, i’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!

Visit Amy Christine Parker’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


The Polygamist’s Daughter- Anna LeBaron

Ahh, the joy of reading on my new Kindle, the latest paperwhite version that replaces my original Kindle Keyboard, which had been giving me problems for a year or so, constantly restarting on its own out of nowhere. (#readerproblems, amirite???) This new one is lovely, and the reading experience is divine. I feel like I will miss the buttons on the side in the winter; I loved how I could keep my hands under a blanket or in my sweatshirt sleeves and still turn pages, but at least I’ll still be able to only poke a single fingertip out and still read, right? (#winterreaderproblems) While The Polygamist’s Daughter by Anna LeBaron with Leslie Wilson (Tyndale House Publishers, 2017) wasn’t the first book I’ve read on my new Kindle, the experience is still pretty novel. 🙂

Anna LeBaron, whose first name is pronounced like Anna in Disney’s Frozen, grew up as a member of a polygamous cult that broke away from the traditional LDS church. If you’ve read anything about these groups before, you’ll recognize her last name as belonging to the group depicted in Jon Krakauer’s stunning work of nonfiction, Under the Banner of Heaven . The LeBaron group has been plagued by murderous leaders and followers who are all too happy to aid them. Anna is the daughter of Ervil LeBaron, who died in prison when Anna was still young. Her father, was, of course, polygamous; Anna has over fifty siblings and barely ever spent any time with him before he died.

Her family was often on the run from authorities for one reason or another, so Anna was regularly with a few siblings in the care of adults other than her mother for long periods of time, often with less-than-spectacular results. She was horrified to learn that she’d been promised to the husband of one couple she’d been staying with (whose wife treated her terribly) as soon as she came of age, and there are some creepy grooming scenes in here. Despite being surrounded by so many people, Anna grew up feeling alone, and when her mother makes plans to send her back to the creepy grooming husband/mistreating wife couple in Mexico, Anna decides to make a break for it and it’s in living with her sister and her husband that her real life outside the cult begins.

Anna’s story is fairly typical for ones coming out of this particular cult, though she chooses not to focus on the rampant hunger that so many of the other former members say plagued their childhood. She joins a Christian church after leaving her mother, but this is presented in a way that implies it’s just part of her story; there’s no proselytizing, which I appreciated. Anna doesn’t seem to be terribly aware of the more dangerous elements of her family’s religious group, at least not when she’s younger (this changes when she moves in with her sister and her sister’s husband, and especially after tragedy strikes), which gives her an interesting perspective towards members of her group who had carried out Ervil LeBaron’s demands for murder. To her, these people were not the murderous monsters who had caused a human being’s death, but the people who loved her and cared for her during her childhood. How she was able to maintain that perspective baffled me a little bit; Anna doesn’t seem at all naive, so perhaps it’s just a matter of wanting to see the good side of the people you have left.

Not at all a bad book; Anna is obviously an intensely brave woman who has been through an enormous amount of trauma and yet managed to make a healthy life for herself on the outside. She’s a great example of resiliency and determination, if you’re needing more of that from your reading, and if you’re looking for another peek into the LeBaron group, it’s a great book for that, too.

Visit Anna LeBaron’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Breaking Free: How I Escaped My Father- Warren Jeffs- Polygamy, and the FLDS Cult- Rachel Jeffs

Gather ’round, friends, it’s cult time again!

If you’re new here, hi, my name is Stephanie and I’m deeply fascinated by all things cults and closed or insular groups (religious or otherwise, although adding in the religious factor does make the topic way more intriguing for me). I’ve got a document on my computer titled ‘Cult Books’ (although to be fair, some of the books on the list are just ‘I left this religion and here’s my story’ books, which I find equally interesting), and I whip it out and wave it at just about anyone who expresses even a vague interest in cults.

Because that’s a normal thing to do. Totally.

So when I came across Breaking Free: How I Escaped My Father- Warren Jeffs- Polygamy, and the FLDS Cult by Rachel Jeffs (HarperLuxe, 2017) last summer, I had to add it to my TBR, because duh. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, has long been a horror-filled obsession of mine; it’s not the polygamy that interests me (I mean, it does, but it’s not the main factor), but more the secretive nature of the group, its customs and mores that differ from the way you and I live. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, has been in the news for being the human version of a toxic waste spill almost all my adult life, and while I didn’t think I could find him even more despicable, Rachel Jeffs has proved me wrong.

First off, MAJOR content warnings for this book. Warren Jeffs is a molesting piece of crap, and while Ms. Jeffs never veers into graphic description of the sexual abuse she suffered at his hands, neither does she back down from exposing exactly what he did to her. (And it wasn’t just girls, either, as Brent Jeffs, nephew of Warren, bravely pointed out in his memoir Lost Boy, co-written with Maia Szalavitz.) If this is something you’re not able to read about without experiencing distress, be kind to yourself and choose something that lets you breathe easier.

Breaking Free is Rachel Jeffs’ life story in the FLDS. She was the daughter of Warren Jeffs and his second wife Barbara Barlow (her sister Annette also married Jeffs; their parents, Rachel’s grandparents, were not happy about their daughters not being able to chose their own husbands and subsequently left the FLDS…leaving their daughters behind…). If you’ve read other accounts of life in this group, her tale is fairly typical: unaffectionate and overworked mothers, an abundance of siblings, never enough food, jealous sister wives taking out their anger on the hated wife’s children, terrible illnesses and near-fatal accidents treated with herbs and prayer. Rachel was eight years old when her father began molesting her; this abuse stretched on for years. At one point, she told her mother, who marched off to speak with Warren; the matter was never spoken of again, and the abuse continued.

Although Rachel stopped attending school after eighth grade, at age fifteen, she taught third grade at the Jeffs Academy in Short Creek- for no pay, of course. And at age 18, her father married her off to a man with two other wives. Rachel didn’t want to be married, but in the FLDS, women suffer from an extreme lack of agency. She was fortunate that Rich, her husband, was a decent guy whom she eventually came to love and who never forced her to do anything she wasn’t ready for. So many women in this group aren’t so lucky.

Warren’s control over the group expanded exponentially. While I was aware of his increasingly bizarre rules and restrictions (laughter is a sin! Parents aren’t allowed to hug their children!), I hadn’t known much about how he kept his followers always living on the edge, constantly moving them around and separating families (some permanently) as punishment for often minor (or even imaginary) infractions. Before his eventual cross-country game of hide and seek with the Feds, followed by life in prison, he became even more sexually creepy, implementing something he called ‘the New Law of Sarah, which allowed him to have multiple naked wives with him at one time, all in the name of God, to give him “heavenly comfort” as he solemnly atoned for the sins of the people. This law required the women to sexually touch and excite each other as well as Father with the promise that they were all working together for Father’s benefit as ‘God’s servant.‘” For a person who preached that even thinking of the opposite sex before marriage was a sin, it’s awfully convenient how a quick ceremony can turn hordes of women (Ms. Jeffs counts his wives, some as young as twelve years old, at at least 78) into his own personal harem. This is horrifying.

It’s not until Jeffs, exerting his draconian control even from behind bars, separates Rachel from her husband and children multiple times, for long periods of time, that she begins to consider that life on the outside may have something to offer. Rachel fled with her five children to her grandparents’ (the ones who left the FLDS, remember them?) in Centennial; they were still polygamous but not FLDS. With their help, and the aid of an organization called Holding Out HELP, Rachel Jeffs was finally able to break free from the community that had caused her so much pain.

There’s no co-author mentioned, and I’m going to assume that this isn’t ghostwritten. That said, having been subjected to the FLDS brand of education and barred from reading anything but FLDS religious material and the books she was able to sneak, Ms. Jeffs tells her story in an engaging and intriguing manner. Her writing style puts you right there with her, surrounded by sister wives in pastel dresses. Not all of her story is unhappy; she writes of the good times she had with her sisters and sometimes even her sister wives, and speaks happily of many aspects of her childhood, including her skill at playing the violin (which would eventually help her to earn money after her escape. Practice those instruments, kids!). Breaking Free does go a little deeper into the nightmare that was living under the control of Warren Jeffs, so if you’re at all interested in cults or the FLDS, you don’t want to miss this one.

Ms. Jeffs is more than just a victim of her father and the predatory culture in which she was raised, and I admire her courage, strength, and ability to change when she realized the need. Not everyone, not even in regular society, can do that, and I find her growth inspiring. I’m so glad she’s been able to move beyond her past (with all of her children by her side) in order to live a more authentic, free life and to share her story with the rest of the world. I only wish I had that kind of courage.

Follow Rachel Jeffs on Twitter.

Check out her Facebook page here.

Christianity · cults · fundamentalism · Lilia Tarawa · memoir · religion · religious extremism

Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult- Lilia Tarawa

I’m suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper fascinated by cults and insular religious groups. There’s something deeply intriguing to me about people with secretive rituals and beliefs, turning their backs to outsiders. A few months ago, based on a suggestion from someone on Facebook, I put the documentary Gloriavale (available through Amazon Prime) on my watch list, and my husband and I finally got around to watching it a few weeks ago.

Now, when it comes to different beliefs and practices, I’m usually cool as a cucumber. I have zero problem with other people believing in things I don’t, participating in things that don’t resonate with me, etc. Variety is indeed the spice of life, and I enjoy my life pretty darn spicy. But Gloriavale Christian Community is straight-up bananapants in a way that extends far beyond their religious beliefs. If you haven’t watched this documentary, drop everything and watch it YESTERDAY, because they’ve got people named Hopeful and Courage, schooling that ends at 15, arranged marriages for teenagers who touch each other for the first time at the wedding ceremony (those first kisses, GACK! Those VOWS! Holy squirmfest watching that, Batman!), immediate consummation of the marriage offscreen while everyone waits for the teenage couple to get the job done, families with 16+ kids, the list goes on and on. It’s quite possibly one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever watched (and I say that having watched Abducted in Plain Sight this past weekend…), and so of course I was thrilled to find that Lilia Tarawa, who was born at and grew up in Gloriavale, wrote a book after her family had left, titled Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult. And lucky for me, my library had an e-copy. It took a few weeks for it to finally be available, but I actually shrieked with joy when I received the email that it was finally MINE. (You’ve done this too, admit it!)

Daughter of Gloriavale doesn’t disappoint, starting with its foreward from Fleur Beale, whose name I immediately recognized from having read I Am Not Esther years ago (if you can get your hands on a copy of this, I highly recommend it. It was one of the best books I’d read that year), which is a middle grade/early YA novel that deals with a young woman who becomes unwillingly involved in a strict religious cult. Lilia Tarawa, however, was born in Gloriavale, the granddaughter of its founder (a man who changed his name to Hopeful Christian and who was both an obvious narcissist and a sex offender who served time in prison. I’m sure you’re shocked). Lilia was the third eldest of what would eventually be ten children, the last of whom was born after her family had left the group.

Gloriavale (you can see their website here) is an intentional, fundamentalist Christian community. Everyone wears the same things; they all work at church-owned industries (where no one earns a salary) or, in the case of the women, labor away at domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning, or childcare on a massive scale for the community; there’s no access to the outside world and things like books and the internet are highly censored. Parents and children sleep in one big room, as Hopeful Christian preached that it was just fine and dandy for children to see their own parents having sex. There are communal showers with shared bars of soap; women must remain submissive at all times to all men; children’s school reports are read out loud at the communal meals where everyone eats at the same time. Women are discouraged from showing any affection or emotion; men are responsible for everything and will be harshly rebuked in front of the community if a member of their family commits a transgression. Children are punched and beaten with leather straps as discipline. Families change their last names in order to strengthen their Christian walk (Lilia’s family’s last name in Gloriavale was ‘Just’) and give their children names of virtues or qualities they want their children to have; when mixed with their last name, the effect can be…striking. Willing Disciple, Steadfast Joy, Dove Love, Watchful Steadfast, these are all members of Gloriavale. And at age eleven, Lilia assisted in the birth of her cousin, a sweet baby girl named..Submissive. Yikes.

It’s no surprise when Lilia’s siblings start running away, and while Lilia is adamant about not hurting her parents in that way, she’s got questions. And it’s the beginning of the end when her family receives permission to live outside the commune, because Lilia gets a taste of what freedom truly means.

It wasn’t all horror and sack dresses. Music, parties, community shows, and days of fun were part of life at Gloriavale. Families gathered for (highly censored) movie night in the big hall. The community would erect waterslides for the children to go down (the girls still wearing their regular clothing, of course, because nothing says fun like swimming in an ankle-length dress), and the children would gather for soccer games and instrument lessons. But it wasn’t enough. It never is, when you can’t truly be who you really are.

Phew. Reading stories like this make me grateful that I never had to escape from such an insular community. Lilia was luckier than most; she had taught herself website coding and design and had skills that could translate to the outside world (and even then she still struggled. It’s terribly difficult to throw off the yoke of oppression, and Lilia was extremely lucky that she had such a great support system. Others, such as the Lost Boys of the FLDS or people who leave Hasidic sects, aren’t always as fortunate. Far too many succumb to addiction to help them cope with the loss of their families and community). Most people who leave Gloriavale do so with little in the way of life skills and possessions; fortunately, it seems there are people helping those who leave. And people are leaving- one article from 2015 claims that at that point, 65 people had left in the eight years prior. In a community of somewhere over 500 people, that’s not an insubstantial number, and I can only imagine that the numbers have grown since then.

Daughter of Gloriavale is an personal look into a tiny, heavily restricted community that few will ever have the chance to venture. I’m so thrilled that Lilia made it out and has been able to forge the kind of life that feels authentic to her. I watched her TED talk yesterday and you should too, because it’s deeply moving and gives yet another glimpse into what life in Gloriavale is like. Lilia Tarawa is a woman of fire, strength, and conviction. I can’t get enough of stories like these, and I’m so glad Lilia decided to share hers.

Visit Lilia Tarawa’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

cults · nonfiction · religion

The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief- Chris Mikul

Sometimes, books that come to me via interlibrary loan are loaded down with cover-obscuring official paperwork!

The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief by Chris Mikul is a good book to look into if you’ve never read anything about extremist groups but your curiosity is piqued. After a brief introduction about what a cult is (and there’s some argument about the term), Mikul begins a chapter-by-chapter peek at an odd mix of groups who engaged in theft, intrigue, and murder under the guise of religion, some more seriously religious than others.

Some of the groups were well-known: the Manson Family, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, the Branch Davidians. Others, I’d known only because this area is an interest of mine, like the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, Jeffrey Lundgren and the Kirtland Cult, Nation of Yahweh, the Church of the First Born of Lamb of God. Still others were new to me: Mankind United/Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule (interestingly enough, Wikipedia has no page for this), MOVE, Roch Thériault and the Ant Hill Kids, Thuggee. Honestly, this book kind of makes it seem like the potential for the existence of extremist groups is endless, and that’s a little scary!

Each chapter is a brief look into a different group. It’s too short of a book to really go into any deep discourse, but if you’re looking to expand your knowledge on religious extremism (or at least groups who claim religious belief and then do terrible things in the name of said religion), this isn’t a terrible place to start. Personally, this is a subject I’ve been interested in for years, so the majority of this book didn’t cover any new territory for me, but it wasn’t a disappointing read.

autobiography · nonfiction

Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults- Paul Morantz with Hal Lancaster

Paul Morantz, author (along with Hal Lancaster) of Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults, has led an intriguing life. A lawyer by trade, early on in his career, he became the go-to man when it came to litigation against cults and abusive, insular groups. This led to an attempt on his life by Synanon members, via a rattlesnake (de-rattled for stealthiness) placed in his mailbox.

Among the groups Morantz litigated against were the aforementioned Synanon (whom I had never heard of before I listened to the Let’s Talk About Sects podcast a few weeks ago; if you’re interested in cults, sects, and insular groups, this is a fabulous podcast. Synanon then showed up in this book, and, thumbing through the book I picked up from the library yesterday, it’s mentioned in there as well. Funny how that happens), the Center for Feeling Therapy, the Unification Church (more commonly referred to as the Moonies), Rajneeshpuram (another one I’d never heard of), Scientology, the creepy, rapey preacher-psychotherapist John Gottuso, and he was the lawyer for a father whose son had been kidnapped by (and was later murdered at) Jonestown . He helped to turn the tide for Patty Hearst‘s appeal, had a brief fling with a woman who practiced Nichiren Shoshu, and exchanged emails with members of Anonymous. His career has been jam-packed with death threats and forays into the depths of groups who engage in brainwashing as a primary tactic in order to entice people to join. A movie about his life definitely wouldn’t lack for drama.

I struggled a little reading this book, and I’m not certain as to why. The material is certainly fascinating, but something about the writing style just didn’t appeal to me. The end chapter edges into a slippery slope argument about some ACA legislation in regards to those boogeyman death panels that never materialized (I mean, more than they already exist in insurance companies that deny treatments), and which seemed a little out of place for the book in general- I feel like a better editor would have cleaned a lot of that up. Part of the blame might also be on me; it’s a difficult time of year to try to focus on a heavier read, so it may be that my brain just wasn’t cooperating like I wanted it to.

While reading through this book’s explanation of brainwashing techniques, its history, and how it’s used by these groups in order to control their members, I was struck by how similar some of the tactics are that I’ve seen used by multi-level marketing companies (and there’s even a bit in this Wikipedia article about how the use of cult-like tactics by MLM companies is a common complaint against them, so I’m not alone in thinking this). The constant scripted social media posts (chock-full of emoticons throughout!), the monthly or yearly conventions where the sellers are pushed harder to achieve the goals the organization has taught them to have (goals which will, of course, benefit the top of the organization more than they benefit the individual sellers), it fits right in with what Morantz writes about in this book. Yikes.

This is a worthy read if you’re into cults and insular groups, and I’ll be waiting for that movie about Mr. Morantz’s life!

Visit Paul Morantz’s website here.