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.

nonfiction

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.

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.

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.



memoir · nonfiction · religion · religious memoir

This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost- Carolyn S. Briggs

I’m a sucker for a good memoir about leaving a religion or religious group. It’s always been my favorite genre of books, and I’ve been known to shove one of those books to the front of the line whn it comes to what I’m reading next. I’m contemplating the why of it; there’s something about belonging to a community and suddenly (or gradually) finding oneself not merely embraced, but suffocated by it, that draws me in. I’m not particularly religious, nor have I ever truly belonged to a group, religious or otherwise, so maybe it’s just the intrigue of the unknown. Whatever the reason, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs was right up my alley.

Ms. Briggs grew up in Iowa, a late bloomer who lived in the shadow of her younger sister until puberty caught up with her and she blossomed at age 16. By 17, she began dating the lead guitarist in a popular local band, and the two married not long after they graduated high school, since Carolyn had become pregnant. When a close friend finds Jesus at college, Carolyn and her husband Eric begin seeking as well, and before long, their entire lives are centered around their new faith. They pass out Bibles everywhere they go, include tracts with the bills they mail out, and pepper their speech with “I’ll pray for you” and “Praise Jesus!” Within this intensely religious way of life, Carolyn finds a passion, one that she doesn’t feel for her husband, and the identity she left behind to become a married teenage mother and housewife.

As the years pass, her doubts and sadness over her lack of longing for her husband only increase, and it’s only when Carolyn returns to college in her 30’s that she’s finally able to shed the burden her faith and way of life had become. It’s clear that she’s outgrown not only the stringent beliefs and restrictive lifestyle her religion had stuffed her into, but her marriage as well, and she begins down a new path, one full of intellectual curiosity, where she’s allowed to seek happiness and fulfillment in all corners of the earth.

The bulk of this memoir focuses on Carolyn’s life as a “Jesus freak,” as she called herself, and later on, a fundamentalist (although she never seems to stray into some of the practices commonly associated with fundamentalists; there’s no mention of skirts/dresses only or homeschooling, for example, though she does mention that some of the families in the church refuse vaccines because God will protect their children). I found the descriptions of her day-to-day life and how she lived out her faith- and her doubts- interesting; I find great satisfaction in learning about the lives of people who are different from me, and I very much enjoyed reading about the many different versions of Bible study she attended, the growing number of children Carolyn’s fellow church sisters kept producing, how deeply she struggled with her doubts about her faith, and the sorrow she experienced over the complete absence of desire she felt for her husband. Her story is not dissimilar to Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home. Both women who came to fundamentalism in their teens, who filled their lives with religion and babies and who struggled with doubt and truly loving their spouses, until they realized they were living a lie and had to make serious changes, despite the difficulty doing so presented. And, obviously, both really great reads.

I enjoyed this. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the struggles of a young woman substituting religion for so many other things in life, watching her grow and change and finally outgrow and move on from her earlier choices. I’d love to read more of what Ms. Briggs’s life has been like since she left fundamentalism behind.

Apparently there was a movie made based on this book, called Higher Ground. I vaguely remember hearing about it years ago and looking it up, but I had no idea it was connected to this book until I scrolled through the Goodreads reviews. I’ve now got it cued in my Amazon Prime watchlist, although who knows when I’ll get to it- we’re currently finishing up season 10 of Supernatural, so we’ll be spending a little more time with that. If you’ve seen this movie, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Follow Carolyn S. Briggs on Twitter here.