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 · 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.