So if you happen to be somebody who writes about spiritual abuse and recovery from legalism (just as a random category), you probably have a huge personal library of books on the subject, right?
Well, I guess so. If you’re not me.
I haven’t actually read piles of books on the topic. I seek out actual personal accounts. I also tend to find themes of self-empowerment, grace, and freedom in books that don’t have anything to do with cults.
But there are a few particular books that stayed with me and influenced how I wrote The Fellowship. You might enjoy the same elements I did.
The Gift of Sarah Barker, Jane Yolen.
I discovered this book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember many specific details, just that it hit me deeply.
Set in the 1800s, it’s the story of a teenage girl, Sarah, whose mother brought them into a Shaker cult (not to be confused with the Quakers, a completely different sect). This sect taught that sexual love in any form was sinful—they didn’t even allow marriage. (Not surprisingly, the Shakers died out, although Aaron Copeland immortalized their catchy tune “Simple Gifts” in his Appalachian Spring.)
Sarah tries very hard to fit into the sect; but her imagination, her longing for a life beyond, and her attraction to one of the young men keep sabotaging her own efforts.
This book could have been a story of oppression and sexual darkness. But Yolen instead showed many warm moments in the community. It wasn’t all bad; I understood why Sarah doesn’t really want to leave until she has no real choice.
The book seems to be out of print now, which is a shame. It’s worth tracking down.
When Sparrows Fall, Meg Moseley
I don’t like Christian fiction in general. The genre tends to feature flat characters, trite storylines, and pre-packaged answers. Several years ago, I opened Sparrows expecting more of the same.
I was very happily disappointed.
This is the story of Miranda, a young widow with several children whose pastor has decreed that their church is relocating to another state. He pressures her to sell her property, give the money to the church, and move with the rest of the congregation. Miranda has spent her whole married life being a submissive woman, but she digs her heels in and won’t sell.
Then she suffers a bad fall. In the city a few hours away, her brother-in-law, Jack, gets a call saying that he’s been named guardian of the children while she recovers.
Jack shows up to do his duty by his half-brother’s family. He quickly gets drawn into the weird world of Miranda’s church. He challenges the church’s beliefs, goes out of his way to help her and her family (and oversteps the line a couple of memorable times), and eventually finds out the secret that keeps Miranda tied to her house and her life.
I fell in love with Jack, grieved and then cheered with Miranda as she rediscovers herself, and identified with much of the spiritual abuse. I finished the book with new inspiration. If this was Christian fiction, then I could write it. Specifically, I could write that story inside me that just kept eating at me.
The Devil Wears Prada,* by Lauren Weisberger
I happened upon this book, having heard nothing of it, and pretty much inhaled it. At the time, I wasn’t really sure why it drew me in and then stayed with me. I don’t care about the world of high fashion and I didn’t have grand ambitions to work for New York magazines. The main character — although about my age when I read it — lived such a different life from mine it was laughable. (She sleeps with her boyfriend before they’re married? She has her own apartment in the city? She wears pants and sexy clothes without worrying about modesty?)
Years later, I understood its appeal to me. The book shows how a well-meaning person can get trapped in a subculture where everyone obeys an all-powerful leader. And not just trapped, but voluntarily submitting to it–even while hating parts of it. It also showed the fallout among those she loved. Her choices came with a real price.
All that said, I remember this book as a pretty light read with some pretty funny spots.
Ella Enchanted*, Gail Carson Levine
This retelling of Cinderella is one of my all-time favorite books. Ella was “blessed” by a fairy with the gift of “obedience.” She must obey any order given to her. Obviously this presents small problems — anybody can boss her around — and very large problems — anybody can order her to kill, steal, and destroy. She keeps the curse a deep secret. But things get complicated when she befriends and then falls in love with Prince Charmont… and then her malicious stepsister finds out the secret. She has to cut off all contact with Char for his own protection, and then must find a way to break the curse.
This book plays into the cult theme with the idea that Ella must obey, but finds little ways to get around it just to retain her own self. It’s also got some of my favorite lines in it, like, “I’m afraid of heights. And it’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten taller.”
Girl at the End of the World , Elizabeth Esther
Several years ago, I followed Elizabeth Esther’s blog. I knew she grew up in her grandfather’s cult. Compared to what she went through, my experience was Lite Spiritual Abuse with Low Sodium and No Added MSG.
I also knew she wrote a memoir of her experiences. But I was immersed in writing my own book, and besides, I knew hers would hurt to read.
I should have trusted the blogger I knew back then. Elizabeth writes honestly with a twist of snark that makes it all easier to take in. Her experiences were painful—I am still cringing before Grandma Betty’s ice-blue eyes that demanded complete broken submission about once a week. But Elizabeth also gives moments of beauty, like when she and her husband first connected under a sky of stars. She highlights a few bright, caring people who passed through her life and left a mark of grace on her.
Girl is quick read, except for the frequent necessary pauses to put down the book, dash outside, and breathe in a big gulp of fresh air. As I read it, I was struck by the parallels between her “Assembly” and my “Fellowship”—the fear, the control, the in-jokes, the tight community, and the secrecy.
These books helped me understand and process the world I came out of. After all, it doesn’t matter what the outward trappings are; if a system has one person in authority with no accountability, they all operate from a rotten core.
And here’s to recovery that involves good dialogue, a tight story, and no out-of-context Bible verses.
*Movie? What movie? I ignore movie versions of books I like.**
**Except The Help, which was well done. Hunger Games was all right, although I saw only the first one. I liked the first two Narnia movies, hated the third one. Divergent was a disaster. I saw all of the Harry Potter movies, but I won’t sit through them again. I watched all nine hours of The Lord of the Rings twice, and God says I don’t have to watch them again.