Nonfiction November: Being the ‘Expert’ on Women’s Religious Memoirs


This week of the month-long challenge is hosted by JulzReads. I’m a total memoir junkie and gravitate towards ones written by women: sometimes those whose lives are completely different to mine (medical crises, parenting, etc.) and sometimes those who’ve had experiences similar to mine (moving to a new country, illness and dysfunction in the family, etc.).

In my late teens I fell into a crisis of faith that lasted for many years – or maybe is still ongoing – and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction. I’m always looking out for memoirs that discuss religious conversion, doubt, or loss of faith.

I know we don’t all share the same obsessions. (The bookish world would be boring if we did!) It’s possible this topic doesn’t interest you at all. But if it does, or if you’d like to test the waters, here are 15 or so relevant reads that have stood out for me; I think I’ve only written about a few of them on here in the past.

[Note: I highly recommend any autobiographical writing by Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, and Kathleen Norris; although all three write/wrote about faith, their engagement with doubt doesn’t quite feel specific enough to get them a spot on this list.]

Most of the books below I read from the library or on Kindle/Nook, or have lent to others. These are the ones I happen to own in print.


Recommended from This Year’s Reading

Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler: An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by prosperity theology: the idea that God’s blessings reward righteous living and generous giving to the church. If she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, and about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future, in a style reminiscent of Anne Lamott and Nina Riggs. 

The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen: Opening Your Eyes to Wonder by Lisa Gungor: Like many Gungor listeners, Lisa grew up in, and soon outgrew, a fundamentalist Christian setting. She married Michael Gungor at the absurdly young age of 19 and they struggled with infertility and world events. When their second daughter was born with Down syndrome and required urgent heart surgery, it sparked further soul searching and a return to God, but this time within a much more open spirituality that encircles and values everyone – her gay neighbors, her disabled daughter; the ones society overlooks. 

In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult by Rebecca Stott: This is several things: a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to cancer and eliciting her promise to finish his languishing memoirs; a family memoir tracking generations in England, Scotland and Australia; and a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave. Stott grew up with an apocalyptic mindset. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she learned to trust her intellect and admit doubts. 

Educated by Tara Westover: You might be tired of hearing about this book, but it really does deserve the hype. Westover’s is an incredible story of testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. After an off-grid, extremist Mormon upbringing in Idaho, hard work took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. She writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education. This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read. 


Recent Releases (all came out on Nov. 13th)

A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel: From rural Indiana and an apocalyptic Christian cult to New York City and Orthodox Judaism by way of studies in Jerusalem: Himsel has made quite the religious leap. She was one of 11 children and grew up in the Worldwide Church of God (reminiscent of the Exclusive Brethren from Stott’s book). Although leaving a cult is easy to understand, what happens next feels more like a random sequence of events than a conscious choice; maybe I needed some more climactic scenes. 

Why Religion? A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels: Pagels is a religion scholar known for her work on the Gnostic Gospels. As a teen she joined a friend’s youth group and answered the altar call at a Billy Graham rally. Although she didn’t stick with Evangelicalism, spirituality provided some comfort when her son died of pulmonary hypertension at age six and her physicist husband Heinz fell to his death on a hike in Colorado little more than a year later. She sees religion’s endurance as proof that it plays a necessary role in human life. 

When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss by Jessica Wilbanks: Like me, Wilbanks grew up attending a Pentecostal-style church in southern Maryland. I recognized the emotional tumult of her trajectory – the lure of power and certainty; the threat of punishment and ostracism – as well as some of the specifics of her experience. Captivated by the story of Enoch Adeboye and his millions-strong Redemption Camps, she traveled to Nigeria to research the possible Yoruba roots of Pentecostalism in the summer of 2010. 


Read Some Time Ago

Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer: A bookish, introspective adolescent, Bauer was troubled by how fundamentalism denied the validity of secular art. All the same, Christian notions of purity and purpose stuck with her throughout her college days in Baltimore and then when she was trying to make it in publishing in New York City. Along the way she flirted with converting to Catholicism. What Bauer does best is to capture a fleeting mindset and its evolution into a broader way of thinking. 

The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis: In a graceful and painfully honest memoir, Mirvis goes back and forth in time to contrast the simplicity – but discontentment – of her early years of marriage with the disorientation she felt after divorcing her husband and leaving Orthodox Judaism. Anyone who has wrestled with faith or other people’s expectations will appreciate this story of finding the courage to be true to yourself. 

Between Gods by Alison Pick: At a time of transition – preparing for her wedding and finishing her first novel, set during her Holocaust – the author decided to convert to Judaism, the faith of her father’s Czech family. Ritual was her way into Judaism: she fasted for Yom Kippur and took her father to synagogue on the anniversary of her grandfather’s death, but also had the fun of getting ready for a Purim costume party. 

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: Riley was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but turned her back on it in college. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” She concocted the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before she turned 30, and spent 2011–12 visiting a Hindu temple, a Buddhist meditation center, a mosque, a synagogue, a gathering of witches, and a range of Christian churches. 

Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner: Some people just seem to have the religion gene. That’s definitely true of Winner, who was as enthusiastic an Orthodox Jew as she later was a Christian after the conversion that began in her college years. Like Anne Lamott, Winner draws on anecdotes from everyday life and very much portrays herself as a “bad Christian,” one who struggles with the basics like praying and finding a church community and is endlessly grateful for the grace that covers her shortcomings. 

When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman: Zierman was a poster girl for Evangelicalism in her high school years. After attending Christian college, she and her husband spent a lonely year teaching English in Pinghu, China. Things got worse before they got better, but eventually she made her way out of depression through therapy, antidepressants and EMDR treatments, marriage counselling, a dog, a home of their own, and – despite the many ways she’d been hurt and let down by “Church People” over the years – a good-enough church. 


Read but Not Reviewed

Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross 

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor 


On my TBR Stack

Not pictured: (on Nook) Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther; (on Kindle) Shunned by Linda A. Curtis and Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent. Also, I got a copy of Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood for my birthday, but I’m not clear to what extent it’s actually about her religious experiences.


Could you see yourself reading any of these books?


34 responses

  1. Not something I’ve had to grapple with but I’m sure it can’t be easy for you. I hope these books have offered some help and solace.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always helpful to know that others have wrestled with the same issues.


  2. I love memoirs, found a few more titles here of interest. Thanks for adding to my to read pile!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you found a few books that piqued your interest!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can definitely see myself reading “Educated,” not only because of the integrity of her reputation, but also because of your testimony.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  4. I could see myself reading some of these, especially Educated. I too love memoirs of both my experiences and those completely different to mine. I love them so much my blog is nonfiction only and a large majority of those are memoirs. Thanks for sharing your recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to find a fellow memoir fan 🙂


  5. Is that the Carlene Bauer who wrote Frances and bernard? I love that book! I do tend to love fiction with catholic themes. But haven’t read many memoirs like this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sure is! I adore that book. Do you have a Catholic background?


  6. Wow – this is NOT a topic I expected to see in this round, but it’s very interesting. And 15 books!!
    Although I’d seen the hype around Educated, I’d not put it on my TBR list – until now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could make book lists all day 😉 I’ll be interested to see what you make of Educated if you do get around to reading it.


  7. This is not a topic I thought I would be interested in but you’ve sold me on nearly all of these – the Stott on particular. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m pleased you’ve found some books you’re interested in. Stott’s is one of my top reads of the year.


  8. Rebecca, I had no idea you were interested in this topic! I am not a huge fan of memoir (although I do prefer those written by women when I do read them), but I am certainly interested in issues around loss of faith, crisis of faith and conversion to new religious movements. My Ph.D, thesis was on Japanese new religions in Europe and how they attract followers and what kind of followers and why. I’ve read a couple of the books you mention above, and am intrigued by a few more: Educated and The Book of Separation, in particular.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t know about your academic background. That sounds fascinating! Re: Japanese beliefs, have you read Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry? (I see you reviewed Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss, which I was also going to recommend. Both were 5-star reads for me in the last year or two.) I did an English/Religion double major in college in the States.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I want to read Ghosts of the Tsunami, don’t know how I’ve missed it so far (hard to find, I believe). I’ve been reading a lot this year about the execution of the final members of the Japanese cult who released sarin gas in the Tokyo metro (and thus unwittingly led to concern about this area and to funding for my Ph.D.)

        Liked by 1 person

  9. great topic! I have not read any, I have read many books by women on religion, though not memoirs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m certainly interested in reading more about Julia Child. Thanks for the recommendation.


  10. I read Girl Meets God years ago and liked it. I kept meaning to read more by her. Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think her faith writing is very accessible.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I haven’t picked up Educated yet, thought I really want to, and now I have to add In the Days of Rain to my list. It sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really is. I was intrigued by the details of life in a cult and what it’s like to break free from one.


  12. Interesting suggestions. I have a similar religious family background, so this type of memoir always intrigues me. I found a couple on your list to put on my own TBR, so thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hah – perfect list. Love a good religious memoir (and yay for two of Lauren’s books being on your list!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! She’s fab. I know you also read the Scheeres. Any others you’re familiar with?


      1. Not apart from the Elizabeth Esther, which I thought was okay but not brilliant.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. The only books I’ve read on this topic are a few recent reads about cults, which I suspect are less nuanced and more anti-religion than some of the books on your list! Pastrix is probably the only exception and I found it less serious than I might have liked. This is definitely a topic that interests me though. Despite not being religious myself, I’m fascinated by the relationships people have with religion. What a great list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Cults have been an odd recurring theme in my reading this year too, both fiction (e.g. The Incendiaries) and nonfiction. I’ve read a different book by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints, but never thought about adding it to this list.


  15. […] Phelps-Roper [October 8, Farrar, Straus and Giroux / riverrun] Ties in with my special interest in women’s religious memoirs. “In November 2012, at the age of twenty-six, [Phelps-Roper] left [Westboro Baptist Church], her […]


  16. […] special interest in women’s religious memoirs led me to list this among my most anticipated titles of 2018. I had it on my wish list for quite a […]


  17. […] fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve […]


  18. […] Nonfiction November: Being the ‘Expert’ on Women’s Religious Memoirs (November 2018) […]


  19. […] is hosted by Veronica of The Thousand Book Project. (In previous years I’ve contributed lists of women’s religious memoirs (twice), accounts of postpartum depression, and books on […]


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