memoir

Book review: Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer

I’ve made it clear many times on this blog that one of my favorite kinds of books to read are memoirs about people’s experiences leaving religious groups (the more restrictive the better, but I’m open to any kind of exodus here). What makes some people leave, when others can’t imagine departing? Are there differences between the messages sent and what is received? What are the factors that aid in leaving, where is the breaking point, how do they rebuild their lives in the outside world? The psychology behind all of this fascinates me to no end, and I was so pleased to be offered a review copy of Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer (Arcade, 2020). I don’t know that I’ve ever hit the ‘reply’ button in my email so quickly.

Caitlin Myer was born in the late 60’s into a Mormon family whose mother was plagued by bipolar disorder, spending much of her time closed in her bedroom and closed off from the hearts of her six children. Amidst that constant pain, Caitlin loses her best friend at age 7 to leukemia; her older cousin begins molesting her later on that same year. In a culture, both religious and secular, that pushes girls and women to focus on becoming wives and mothers to the detriment of all other accomplishments, she flounders, grappling for purchase onto any male that pays her the least bit of attention, regardless of the healthiness of that attachment. Often, the attachments cause her pain and impede her growth, and even leaving behind the restrictions of her birth religion and the chaos of her family doesn’t help. It’s only after years of struggle, painful life experience, and medical challenges that Caitlin begins to grow into the self she always knew she could be, beyond the restraints placed upon her as a child- not in a perfect manner, but with the deep wisdom that comes realizing that the only way to survive is to change the course of the story itself.

Wiving is prose that reads like poetry. Caitlin Myer has created a raw memoir, a full-on confessional in which she divulges her deepest secrets, with the effect of a mosaic, tiny bits and pieces that collectively add up to a singular whole of a woman who has suffered greatly to find her place in the world. Her early childhood, lost in a sea of siblings with parents focused solely on their own survival, led her to fill this void and seek out approval in the only arena she had been taught was acceptable, at the foot of any man who paid her the least bit of attention. “I never felt like I got enough attention,” she writes. “Maybe nobody ever does.” It’s hard to imagine how Caitlin’s parents could have done better in the circumstances in which they lived and were raised themselves, especially within the confines of her mother’s bipolar disorder and the lack of effective treatment at the time, but this does veer into the territory of cautionary tale for today’s reader.

Her condemnation of the patriarchy, both religious and otherwise, is worthy and on point. “It is simultaneously expected for a woman to arrange her life around a man’s needs, and shameful for her to do so,” she writes, a message echoed daily in opinion pieces which outline the impossible demands on all women- be feminine and sexy, but not slutty; have children, but not too many; have a job, but also be a perfect homemaker; be educated but don’t display your wisdom. “We have made a bright line between wife, whore, victim, and set each against the other, but they all grow from the same story,” she tells us, and it’s the truth. These patriarchal messages come in many forms, but they all absorb in a similar fashion, and the stories they create play out across cultures and societies in nearly identical ways. While Caitlin’s story isn’t a unique one, her telling is, skipping back and forth in time to create a raw tapestry of pain and growth, of decisions colored by the desires of others and choices made in the wake of her own hard-won sophistication.

This is not an easy read. There are obvious content warnings for molestation and sexual abuse, neglect, sexual assault, long-term illness and death. Ms. Myer’s pain is fresh and raw on every page, and it’s impossible not to grieve along with her for all that she’s suffered under the guise of becoming the perfect woman in the eyes of the societies in which she’s moved.

Wiving will take you on your own road of self-examination, of dissecting how the patriarchy and its constrictive rules have affected your life, life path, and behavior. We should all be as fortunate as Caitlin Myer to arrive at a place of such profound awareness and self-acceptance.

Thanks to Caitlin Myer and Kristen Ludwigsen of Mindbuck Media for the chance to read and review an advance copy of the book!

Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy is available today, July 28, 2020.

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.

memoir

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.

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.