I’ve 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 read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
“God hates f*gs.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.
By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.
Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.
All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.
Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.
With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah
Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.
Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”
As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.
The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.
Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.
Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.
Can you see yourself reading either of these books?
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.]
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.