“Being the Expert” on Women’s Religious Memoirs Again: Unfollow & Leaving the Witness
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?
“All to Do with the Moon”: Four Books with Moon in the Title
I happened to read two books with the word moon in their titles within a couple of weeks in September, which prompted me to ransack my shelves and find two more. While these four are in completely different genres – one women’s fiction, one poetry, one memoir and one Booker-winning literary novel – they are all by women (naturally more in touch with the moon?) and all worth reading. In the weeks that I was undertaking this mini reading project, I couldn’t get Krista Detor’s song “All to Do with the Moon” out of my head (on this video, a live recording of the entire “Night Light” suite of three songs, it starts at about 6:15). She’s one of our favorite singer-songwriters, though, so this was no problem.
The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg (1996)
This is my second contemporary novel from Berg. I find her work effortlessly readable. She’s comparable to those other Elizabeths, McCracken and Strout, but also to Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler. This one reminded me most of Tyler’s Ladder of Years in that both are about a middle-aged woman who takes a break from her marriage to figure out what she wants from life. Nan, “a fifty-year-old runaway,” takes off from her suburban Boston home and drives west, stopping at motels and cabins, eating at diners, and meeting the locals; eventually she gets as far as South Dakota. Her narration is in the form of letters to her husband, Martin, alternated with italicized passages from her journal. She reflects on everything that has made up her life – her upbringing, her marriage and other sexual encounters, raising her daughter, Ruthie – as well as on the small-town folk she meets in Iowa and Minnesota. The moon is a symbol of the femininity Nan fears she’s losing through menopause and hopes to reclaim on this journey.
The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch (2017)
This was a lucky find in the clearance section at Blackwell’s on my Oxford day with Annabel. It’s a beautifully produced book from Autumn House, the small Pittsburgh press that released my favorite poetic work of last year: The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. This was Bloch’s sixth and final book of poetry, published in the year of her death. She writes in the awareness that this cancer will be her end and doesn’t gloss over losses of function and dignity, but still finds delight in life through her family, writing and Jewish rituals: “Never forget / you were put on earth to gather joy // with melancholy hands” (from “Instructions for the Bridegroom”). A favorite poem was “The Will,” in which she imagines how the physical and intangible relics of her life will be distributed (“My plans and projects I hereby bequeath to the air / of which they were conceived. … Let the doctors pack up my heart / and keep it humming for the right customer.”).
Off-topic note: This was typeset in Mrs Eaves, which may well be one of my favorite fonts.
To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn (2018)
My 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 while and then, when I saw it available for a bargain price online, snapped it up for myself. Lisa Kohn grew up in the New York City environs, the child of hippie parents she called Mimi and Danny rather than Mom and Dad. After their parents divorced, she and her brother lived in New Jersey with their mother and went into the City to visit their father, who was very lax about things like drugs. By the time Kohn was 10, her mother had gotten caught up in Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.
I knew next to nothing about the “Moonies,” so I found it fascinating to learn about this cult led by a South Korean reverend who let it be assumed that he was the new incarnation of Jesus Christ and the flourishing of his family on Earth would usher in God’s Kingdom. The Church became Kohn’s whole life until internal questioning set in during high school, and by the time she went to college she was adrift and into drugs instead. The book recreates scenes and dialogue well, but I found myself losing interest once the cult itself stopped being the main focus.
Readalikes: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)
Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world – or at least, the world as she’s seen it. She’s been an author of popular history books (one of which, on Mexico, was made into a film), but she’s also been a daughter, a sister, a lover and a mother. As the book shifts between the first person and the third person, the present and the past, we learn volumes about Claudia and how her memory has preserved the layers of her personal history. There are a couple of big reveals, about her relationship with her brother Gordon and her time as a Second World War correspondent in Egypt, but what’s more impressive than these plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.
I made the fine choice to start reading this on holiday at the Jurassic coast in Dorset, which was fitting because Claudia grew up in Dorset and uses ammonites and rock strata as recurring metaphors. This won a well-deserved Booker Prize and is the best of the five Lively books I’ve read. I wasn’t particularly taken with the first couple I read by her, so I’m glad I tried again this year (with Heat Wave and then this). It’s just a shame that the copy I found in the free bookshop where I volunteer has such a dreadfully inappropriate cover, making it look like contemporary chick lit rather than serious literature.
Some favorite lines:
“Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested.”
“In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”
“Once it is all written down we know what really happened.”
A note on the title: From the context, it seems that a moon tiger was a special inflammatory device, maybe like a citronella candle, used to repel mosquitoes and other insects.
Other ‘Moon’ books I have happened to review:
Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
October Recommendations: Ashworth, Donoghue, Kay & McWatt
Intricate essays about writing in the wake of trauma, a feel-good novel about an odd couple on a trip to France, hilarious festive outtakes from a career in medicine, and a race-themed family memoir: I have four very different books to recommend to you this month. All:
Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth
(Coming from Goldsmiths Press [UK] on the 15th; already out from MIT Press [USA])
Like Anne Boyer’s The Undying and Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, this is an incisive memoir-in-essays about the effects of trauma on a woman’s body. Specifically, Ashworth’s story starts with her son’s birth in 2010, a disaster she keeps returning to over the course of seven sinuous personal essays. A routine C-section was followed by haemorrhaging, blood transfusions and anaphylaxis. The effects lasted for years afterwards: haunted by the sound of her blood dripping and the feeling that her organs could fall out of her abdomen at any time, she suffered from vomiting, insomnia and alcoholism, drinking late into the night as she watched gruesome true crime films.
Ashworth toggles between experience, memory, and the transformation of experience into a written record. She admits she has lost faith in fiction, either reading or writing it (she is a lecturer at Lancaster University and the author of four novels). Her Mormon upbringing in Preston is a major part of her backstory, and along with her childhood indoctrination she remembers brief stays in a children’s home and in the hospital with chicken pox.
The essays experiment with structure and content. For instance, “Ground Zero” counts down from #8, with incomplete final lines in each section, then back up to #8, with each piece from the second set picking up where the first left off. Slashes and cross-outs represent rethinking or alternate interpretations. “Off Topic: On Derailment” encompasses so many topics, from excommunication to Agatha Christie to rollercoasters to Charles Dickens, that you have to read it to believe she can make it all fit together (elsewhere she muses on Chernobyl, magic tricks and hating King Lear).
“How to Begin: The Cut” started as a talk given at Greenbelt 2013, when I was in the audience. I especially loved “A Lecture on Influence,” a coy self-examination through creative writing lessons, and “How to Fall without Landing: Celestial City,” a meditation on the precariousness of the human condition. Her frame of literary reference is wide and surprising. This also reminded me of Sight by Jessie Greengrass, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott; I would recommend it to readers of any of the above.
Some favorite lines:
“My God-hurt head has a hole in it or needs one; to let the world in, or out – I can’t ever decide.”
“how to write about everything? How to take in the things that don’t belong to you without being poisoned by them? How to make use of the things that live inside, those seedlings you never asked for? How to breathe in? How to breathe out? How to keep on doing that?”
“Some days it feels like writing truthfully about her own life is the most subversive thing a woman can do.”
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Akin by Emma Donoghue
(Coming from Picador [UK] on the 3rd; already out from Little, Brown and Co. [USA])
I’ve read Donoghue’s six most recent works of fiction. Her books are all so different from each other in setting – a one-room prison in contemporary America, bawdy 1870s San Francisco, rural Ireland in the 1850s – that it’s hard to pin her down to one time period or roster of topics. She never writes the same book twice, and that’s got to be a good thing.
Akin gets off to a slightly slow start but soon had me hooked. Noah Selvaggio, a childless widower and retired chemist in New York City, is looking forward to an imminent trip to Nice, where he was born, to celebrate his 80th birthday. He never guessed that he’d have company on his trip, much less a surly 11-year-old. This is Michael Young, his nephew Victor’s son. Victor died of a drug overdose a year and a half ago; the boy’s mother is in prison; his maternal grandmother has just died. There’s no one else to look after Michael, so with a rush passport he’s added to the itinerary.
In some ways Michael reminded me of my nephews, ages 11 and 14: the monosyllabic replies, the addiction to devices and online gaming, the finicky eating, and the occasional flashes of childlike exuberance. Having never raised a child, Noah has no idea how strict to be with his great-nephew about screen time, unhealthy food and bad language. He has to learn to pick his battles, or every moment of this long-awaited homecoming trip would be a misery. And he soon realizes that Michael’s broken home and troubled area of NYC make him simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than your average kid.
The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly here and makes for many amusing culture clashes, not so much France vs. the USA as between these Americans of different generations. The dialogue, especially, made me laugh. Donoghue nails it:
[Noah:] “The genre, the style. Is rap the right word for it? Or hip-hop?”
[Michael:] “Don’t even try.” Michael turned his music back on.
(At the cathedral)
[Michael:] “This is some seriously frilly shit.”
[Noah:] “It’s called Baroque style.”
[Michael:] “I call it fugly.”
But there’s another dimension to the novel that keeps it from being pleasant but forgettable. Noah’s grandfather was a famous (fictional) photographer, Père Sonne, and he has recently found a peculiar set of photographs left behind by his late mother, Margot. One is of the hotel where they’re staying in Nice, known to be a holding tank for Jews before they were sent off to concentration camps. The more Noah looks into it, the more he is convinced that his mother was involved in some way – but which side was she on?
This is feel-good fiction in the best possible sense: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy. With its spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes, I can easily see it being made into a movie, too. It’s one of my favorite novels of the year so far.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Twas the Nightshift before Christmas by Adam Kay
(Coming from Picador on the 17th)
If you’ve read This Is Going to Hurt, the UK’s bestselling nonfiction title of 2018, you’ll know just what to expect from the comedian’s holiday-themed follow-up. It’s raunchy, morbid and laugh-out-loud funny. In the seven years that Kay was a medical doctor, he had to work on Christmas Day six times. He takes us through the holiday seasons of 2004 to 2009, from the sickeningly festive run-up to the letdown of Christmas day and its aftermath. With his Rudolph tie on and his Scrooge spirit intact, he attends to genital oddities, childbirth crises and infertility clients, and feebly tries to keep up his relationships with his family and his partner despite them having about given up on him after so many holiday absences.
This will be a stocking-stuffer for many this year, and I can see myself returning to it year after year and flicking through for a laugh. However, there’s one story here that Kay regrets omitting from This Is Going to Hurt as being too upsetting, and he also ends on a serious note, urging readers to spare a thought for those who give up their holidays to keep our hospitals staffed.
A favorite passage:
“A lot of the reward for this job comes in the form of a warm glow. It doesn’t make you look any less tired, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it’s worth a lot less than the social life you’ve traded it for, but this comforting aura of goodness and purpose definitely throws light into some dark corners and helps you withstand a lot of the shit.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt
(Coming from Scribe UK on the 10th)
“What are you?” This question has followed McWatt since she was eight years old. When her third-grade teacher asked the class if they knew what “Negro” meant, one boy pointed to her. “Oh, no, not Tessa,” the teacher replied, following up with a question: “What are you, Tessa?” But it has always been hard to put her mixed-race background into one word. Her family moved from Guyana to Canada and she has since settled in England, where she is a professor of creative writing; her ancestry is somewhat uncertain but may include Chinese, Indian, indigenous South American, Portuguese, French/Jewish, African, and Scottish.
The book opens with the startling scene of her grandmother, a young Chinese woman brought over to work the sugarcane fields of British Guiana, being raped by her own uncle. “To strangers, even friends—on some days also to myself—I am images of violence and oppression. I am the language of shame and destitution, of slavery and indenture, of rape and murder. I am images of power and privilege, of denial and shades of skin, shapes of faces,” McWatt writes.
Her investigation of the meaning of race takes the form of an academic paper, Hypothesis–Experiment–Analysis–Findings, and within the long third section she goes part by part through the bodily features that have most often been used as markers of racial identity, including the nose, eyes, hair and buttocks. She dives into family history but also into wider historical movements, literature and science to understand her hybrid self. It’s an inventive and sensitive work reminiscent of The Color of Water by James McBride. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading (or feels they should try) interrogations of race.
A favorite line:
“as I try to square my politics with my privilege, it seems that my only true inheritance is that I am always running somewhere else.”
I won a signed proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Have you read any October releases that you would recommend? Do any of these tempt you?
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.]
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?
Rebecca Stott, Duke Special & More at Greenbelt 2018
After five years away, we finally made it back to Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer arts festival held on the grounds of Boughton House, on the Bank Holiday. The festival is a mixture of talks, music, performances and more, and given how much we’d paid and how far we’d traveled just for the one day, we tried to pack in as much as possible.
We started the day with “Beyond Forgiveness,” a presentation by Jo Berry and Pat Magee. Berry’s father, a Tory MP, was killed when the IRA bombed the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984. Magee spent 14 years in prison for his role in the bombing. When he got out of jail, he met Berry at her request and they talked and listened to each other for several hours. For the first time, Magee said, he could see her father as a real person and realized that the IRA had been just as guilty of dehumanizing and misrepresenting people as the English were. Berry, too, felt that “I’d met my enemy and seen his humanity.” The two have now shared a stage more than 200 times, speaking about the value of empathy in healing broken relationships while also addressing imbalances of power that lead to violence.
To my surprise, cookery displays and musical comedy seemed to be the order of the day. A model kitchen is a new addition to the festival, giving celebrity chefs hour-long sessions to demonstrate a particular dish. Jack Monroe, promoting her new book Cooking on a Bootstrap, cooked a sausage lasagna. She made us all laugh with her idea of “the inverse sausage fallacy” – the cheaper a sausage is, the better it tastes because of all the salt, sugar and spices added to cheaper bits of meat. She started writing recipes when she was a single mother on the dole, and so she encouraged audience members to donate nice things you would like to eat, as well as everyday hygiene products, to food banks. For a “What Vegans Eat” session, Brett Cobley (aka EpiVegan) made a pea and asparagus risotto and answered questions about protein sources, egg replacements, plant milks and harder-to-find ingredients.
Uproarious musical comedy came in the form of Harry & Chris, who made up impromptu raps about New Year’s Day, the Teletubbies and phobias, and Flo & Joan, who sang about divorce statistics, unnecessary inventions for women, and sex robots (the show was fairly crude and came with an 18+ warning). The overall musical highlight of the day was Duke Special, a Greenbelt favorite we’ve seen play quite a number of times now. His pop combines his smooth Belfast tenor with music hall and Big Band stylings, and his songs are often drawn from poetry and 1920s–40s songbooks. His latest project, Hallow, is a beautiful set of Michael Longley poems set to music. He played “Another Wren” and “Emily Dickinson” from that album, various covers (including two bizarre ditties by Ivor Cutler), and crowd favorites “Last Night I Nearly Died,” “Freewheel” and “Our Love Goes Deeper than This.” We also sampled performances by Martyn Joseph, Wallis Bird and CC Smugglers.
Duke Special was a good bridge between music and literature. From the literature program I also saw Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg speak on “Things My Dog Has Taught Me about Being a Better Human,” the title of his recent book. (His dog Mitzpah had a special dispensation to join him on stage; no animals are allowed on site otherwise!) The rabbi spoke about lessons in listening, attention, trust and seizing the moment. Mitzi and his previous dog Safi have also given him a connection with the rest of creation. Although he lives in the London suburbs and has an inner-city synagogue, they have accompanied him on long walks in Scotland and Germany. Wittenberg was a warm and witty speaker and I very much liked the sound of his book. It could make a good follow-up to The Power of Dog.
My other festival highlight was Rebecca Stott, in conversation with Radio 4 presenter Malcolm Doney. I read her Costa Prize-winning memoir In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult in April and it’s been one of my stand-out reads of the year so far. The book conveys a huge amount of information about the Exclusive Brethren and Stott’s family history but never loses sight of what is most important: what it was like to be in a cult and have your life defined by its rules and its paranoia about the outside world. Stott remembers 6 a.m. Sunday communion services and her constant terror of being left behind in the Rapture.
Unfortunately, the talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading her book. The interviewer, catering to those who haven’t read the book yet, led her through her whole story bit by bit, and because I’d read it fairly recently it was all familiar. However, Stott spoke wonderfully and was full of wry compassion for her younger self. I was most interested to hear about the book’s aftermath: she’s received 300 letters from ex-Brethren that her daughter is transcribing to send to a Brethren Church archive in Manchester. When asked during a Q&A where she sees cult tendencies today, she mentioned Trump supporters!
Whereas I read In the Days of Rain from the library, I happen to own two Stott books I haven’t read yet, so I cheekily brought along my paperback of Ghostwalk for signing. She was intrigued to see the older cover design and told me she thinks the prose style in her debut novel is much richer than in Rain, and she hopes I’ll like it. I thanked her for the talk, told her how much I’d enjoyed her memoir, and recommended her two books vaguely about cults: Educated by Tara Westover, which she already knew well, having done some events with Westover, and The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, which was new to her (my blog tour review is coming up on Monday). I caught myself using the word “brilliant” three times in speaking about Stott’s work and these other books – nuance and vocabulary alike clearly go out the window when nervously speaking to admired authors!
Some readers of this blog would have been delighted by the event I rushed to straight after Stott’s talk: Jon McGregor giving readings from Reservoir 13, with Sigur Rós-esque backing and interlude music from Haiku Salut. I heard about the police reconstruction with actors from Manchester, and collecting bilberries on the heath in August. Unfortunately, I found it just as dull read aloud as I did when I tried the book last year, and I left early.
During bits of down time I pulled out a Katherine Mansfield story collection I found in a charity shop last week and read “Bank Holiday” and “The Garden Party.” The former is a very short piece whose carnival atmosphere rises to a note of indeterminate striving:
“And up, up the hill come the people, with ticklers and golliwogs, and roses and feathers. Up, up they thrust into the light and heat, shouting, laughing, squealing, as though they were being pushed by something, far below, and by the sun, far ahead of them – drawn up into the full, bright, dazzling radiance to…what?”
It was my first time reading the famous “The Garden Party,” which likewise moves from a blithe holiday mood into something weightier. The Sheridans are making preparations for a lavish garden party dripping with flowers and food. Daughter Laura is dismayed when news comes that a man from the cottages has been thrown from his horse and killed, and thinks they should cancel the event. Everyone tells her not to be silly; of course it will go on as planned. The story ends when, after visiting his widow to hand over leftover party food, she unwittingly sees the man’s body and experiences an epiphany about the simultaneous beauty and terror of life. “Don’t cry,” her brother says. “Was it awful?” “No,” she replies. “It was simply marvellous.” Mansfield is especially good at first and last paragraphs. I’ll read more by her someday.
How did you all spend your Bank Holiday? / How do you plan to spend Labor Day?
Did any reading get done?
A Trip to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town
Wigtown is tucked away in the southwest corner of Scotland in Galloway, a region that doesn’t draw too many tourists. It did remind us a lot of Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales, what with the dry-stone walls, rolling green hills with more imposing mountains behind, sheep in the fields, and goodly number of bookshops. Wigtown is a sleepier place – it’s really just one main street and square – and has fewer bookshops and eateries overall, but the shops it does have are mainly large and inviting, and several are lovely bookshops-cum-cafés where you can pause for tea/coffee and cake before continuing with your book browsing. It rained for much of our trip and even snowed on a couple of brief occasions, but we got one day of very good weather and made the best of all the rest.
Day 1, Monday the 2nd: Six-plus hours of driving, partially in the sleet and snow, saw us arriving to our spacious and comfortable B&B by 6 p.m., giving us an hour to freshen up before dinner in the dining room. Cullen skink (leek and potato soup with chunks of smoked haddock); pork chops in a mustard cream sauce with roast parsnips, boiled potatoes and carrots, and mashed swede (aka rutabaga); and chocolate cake with gingerbread sauce. All delicious!
Day 2, Tuesday the 3rd: Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, accompanied by plenteous tea and toast. Off in the drizzle to see some local sites: Torhouse stone circle and Crook of Baldoon RSPB bird reserve. Nice sightings of whooper swans, pink-footed geese and lapwings, and a panoramic view of Wigtown across the way. Back to the car in the steady rain to find that we had a flat tire. Thanks to our foot pump, we got back to the W. Barclay garage in town, where they ordered a new tire and fitted the spare wheel. In the afternoon we drove to the Isle of Whithorn to see the 13th-century St. Ninian’s Chapel ruins and St. Ninian’s Cave. In the evening we went to Craft for beer/cider and the weekly acoustic music night, which, alas, just ended up being two old guys playing Americana songs on guitars.
Today’s book shopping: Glaisnock Café, where we also stopped for coffee and a tasty slice of courgette and avocado cake; The Open Book (run by Airbnb customers – this week it was Maureen from Pennsylvania and her niece Rebecca from Switzerland; they’d booked the experience two years ago, and the wait is now up to three years); the Wigtown Community shop (a charity shop); and browsing at Old Bank Books and Byre Books.
Day 3, Wednesday the 4th: Vegetarian ‘full Scottish’ cooked breakfast to fuel us for a rainy day of bookshops and explorations further afield. 12 p.m.: return trip to the garage to have our tire fitted. All the staff were so friendly and pleasant. They seemed delighted to see tourists around, and were interested in where we came from and what we were finding to do in the area. Mr. Barclay himself had one of the thickest Scottish accents I’ve ever heard, but I managed to decipher that he thinks of Galloway as “the next best place to heaven,” despite the weather. We spotted a local ‘celebrity’, Ben of the Bookshop Band, in the Co-op, but didn’t say hello as he was trying to pay for his shopping and had the baby in tow.
In the afternoon we ventured to Newton Stewart, the nearest big town, to buy petrol, picnic supper food, and another secondhand book at the community shop there. We retreated from the sudden snow for a scrumptious dinner of smoked salmon, black pudding and haggis (all of them battered and fried, with chips!) at a diner-like smokehouse. Back in Wigtown, we got a mainly dry evening to do the Martyrs’ Walk. In 1685 two Covenanters (Scottish reformers who broke from Charles I’s Anglican Church), Margaret McLachlan, 63, and Margaret Wilson, 18, were tied to stakes on the mud flats and allowed to drown in the rising tide.
Today’s book shopping: THE BOOKSHOP. I’ve meant to visit ever since I read Jessica Fox’s memoir, Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, in February 2013. Previously based in California, Fox decided on a whim to visit a bookshop in Scotland and ended up here at the country’s largest. She promptly fell in love with the bookshop owner and with Wigtown itself; though she and Shaun Bythell are no longer an item, she has been a major mover and shaker in the town, playing a role in the annual festival and establishing The Open Book.
The Bookshop is a wonderfully rambling place with lots of nooks and crannies housing all sorts of categories. Look out for the shot and mounted Kindle, the Festival bed, the stuffed badger, a scroll of bookseller’s rules, Captain the cat, and a display of Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. Together we found £35 worth of books we wanted to buy – whew! – thanks to my husband’s niche nature books, and had a nice chat with the man himself at the till. He signed my book, commiserated with us about the weather and our trip to see “Willie” (Barclay), and gave us tips for what to see locally. You’d hardly believe he’s the same curmudgeon who wrote the book. Now that I’ve been to the town and the shop, it’s time for me to start rereading it.
We also perused the smallish but very nice selection at Beltie Books, where we made a welcome stop for a cappuccino and some cookies, and I bought a cut-price new book at the Festival Shop. (They stock books by festival speakers plus a curated selection of new releases.)
Day 4, Thursday the 5th: SUNSHINE, at last! After hearty omelettes, we headed to the hill that overlooks the town to get the best views of the week. On to Monreith for a charming coastal walk up to the Gavin Maxwell monument of a bronze otter. (He wrote Ring of Bright Water, which my husband brought along to read on our trip.) After a lunch stop back in town, it was out to the red kite feeding station about 40 minutes away – I came for the books; my husband came for the red kites. Though they’re common enough in our part of Berkshire, he was keen to see the site of another recent reintroduction. Wales also has a feeding station we visited some years ago, and on both occasions seeing dozens of birds swoop down for meat was quite the spectacle – though here you sit on an open porch, even closer to the action. We did a few other short walks in the area, finishing off with a sunset sit in Wigtown’s bird hide.
Today’s book shopping: ReadingLasses calls itself Britain’s only women’s bookshop. They stock Persephone Books direct from Bloomsbury, and they also have a large selection of secondhand books. This is the best place to go in town for a light meal and a snack. We had delicious homemade soup with soda bread for an early lunch, followed by coffee and tiffin. I bought a novel by Candia McWilliam, a Scottish author I’ve only read nonfiction by before.
At Curly Tale Books, the children’s bookshop next-door to The Bookshop, we bought a picture book about the local ‘belted’ Galloway cows for our niece. We didn’t realize the shop owner is also the author! She offered to sign the book for us, but we decided that a five-year-old wouldn’t appreciate it enough.
Day 5, Friday the 6th: Full Scottish breakfast to see us on our way, and a farewell to the two B&B cats, including the fluffiest cat on earth. To break up the rather arduous journey, we stopped early on at the Cairn Holy stone circle/tomb and the Cream o’ Galloway farm shop for cheese and ice cream. Home at 7:30 p.m. to find something from the freezer for dinner, unpack and shelve all these new books.
Total acquisitions: 13 books for me, 7 books for my husband, 3 books for gifts
Wigtown is more than twice as far away as Hay is for us, so we’re less likely to go back. (It’s also a tough place to find a decent evening meal.) However, I’d like to think that life will take me back to Wigtown someday, perhaps for the Festival, or for a stay at The Open Book – though I’d have to start planning ahead to 2021!
What I read:
Bits of lots of books I had on the go, but mostly a few vaguely appropriate titles:
Under the Skin by Michel Faber was the perfect book for reading on rainy Scottish highways. I’m so glad I decided at the last minute to bring it. Isserley drives along Highland roads picking up hitchhikers – but only the hunky males – to take back to her farm near the Moray Firth. It’s likely that you already know the setup of this even if you haven’t read it, perhaps from the buzz around the 2013 film version starring Scarlett Johansson. It must have been so difficult for the first reviewers and interviewers to discuss the book without spoilers back in 2000. David Mitchell, in his introduction to my Canons series reprint, does an admirable job of suggesting the eeriness of the contents without giving anything significant away.
Shelve this under science fiction, though it veers towards horror and then becomes a telling allegory. I knew the basic plot beforehand, but there were still some surprises awaiting me, and I was impressed with how Faber pulled it all off. Keep an eye open for how he uses the word “human.” This has a lot to say about compassion and dignity, and how despite our differences we are fundamentally the same “under the skin.”
An atmospheric line: “The fields all around her house were shrouded in snow, with patches of dark earth poking through here and there as if the world were a rich fruit cake under cream.”
Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller by Whitney Brown: For a TLS review. Brown, from South Carolina, trained as a dry-stone waller in Wales (where she fell in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her), but we saw plenty such walls in Scotland too. As an expat I could relate to her feeling of being split between two countries. (Releases May 17th.)
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult. by Rebecca Stott: I read the first two-fifths or so, mostly in the car and over our leisurely B&B breakfasts. One branch of Stott’s Exclusive Brethren family came from Eyemouth, a Scottish fishing village. A family memoir, a bereavement memoir, a theological theme: this brings together a lot of my favorite things. And it won last year’s Costa Biography Award, so you know it’s got to be good.
I also started two books by Scottish novelists, The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Accidental by Ali Smith – though I don’t know if I’ll make it through the latter.
Classic of the Month: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.
The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.
Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.
There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:
Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.
[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.
He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.
Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.
- Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
- In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s