New eBook Release

Confession: my announcement actually has nothing to do with criminal camels. I bet you already knew that.

I’m just puzzled dromedaries can’t behave is the mnemonic device I use to remember the titles in my new short story collection.

That’s my real announcement.

I’m launching a new ebook next month.

Six original short stories that will make you laugh, probably won’t make you cry, and will remind you of your own world.

I’ll be posting Frequently Asked Questions to talk more about it. But you’ll definitely want to get a copy, trust me.

Proving the Red Pen Wrong

I try not to talk shop too much on my author blog. But I love the writing process, and occasionally I break down and indulge myself. If you’re a writer, you’ll understand. If you’re not, well, I’m sure this can apply to your life somehow– if you try hard enough. Isn’t that how we were taught to accept everything our authorities ever said to us?

ball-pen-1186363-1280x960If you’re a writer, you need an editor.

Yes, you’re a good writer. Nobody else can tell your story like you can. Your grasp of grammar is legendary. Writing is your passion.

I know! Me too! Guess what—we still need an editor.

Writers practice a form of telepathy, really. We allow others to see what exists only in our heads. Unfortunately, the connection tends to be glitchy. Some ideas come off half-formed, and there’s usually an unpalatable amount of self-therapy involved. Most people find it hard to grasp exactly what we’re trying to say. It’s the editor’s job to clean all that up.

Now, I really love to whine about being edited. For one thing, it’s expensive. You pay a good editor real money. But more than that, the process is painful. Every darn time. Getting a marked-up document back is demoralizing, embarrassing, and frustrating.

But after the initial shock… it’s also challenging. My life coalesces around a single, burning goal. I’m going to prove my editor wrong.

She thinks this plot point doesn’t work? Yes, it does. I’ll show her it does.

She questions whether a character would say this? Yes, he would. Maybe not quite like that… I’ll make it fit him.

She says this isn’t the word to describe this feeling… um… well, okay, she’s right that time. But only until I clarify the emotional tenor of the scene, and then she’ll be wrong.

I’ve worked with Lee Ann at Illuminations Editing for both my novel (released last year) and my short story collection (to be released this year). It’s been a bumpy ride in spots—okay, fine, I cried a couple of times over my marked-up document— but overall extremely rewarding. Going through my story document this morning, I pulled out a few editorial comments to illustrate what I’m talking about.* This, writer friends, is what you pay an editor to do.

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After knowing Curtis for 12 years, I doubt Jordan would actually verbalize a fear of being annoying. After all, this is how she would have always talked around Curtis. Dane made her second-guess herself, but I think it makes more sense to have her self-doubt happen below the surface.

Almost nobody else would pause at a quick exchange of dialogue and think, “Hm, I bet that emotion ought to be internalized instead.” But it does make more sense for that character, and the more consistent I am, the stronger the story is. I took out the spoken dialogue and just left Jordan’s inner voice.

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I deleted this exchange because it sounded forced and unnecessary.

The irritating really great thing about a good editor is that she pinpoints areas you already know are weak. I didn’t like that exchange either, but thought it was necessary. It wasn’t.

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“Went through” sounds vague. Depending on how you revise this sentence, you may need to remove the paragraph break and/or rewrite the next sentence so that the action connects and builds properly.

One of the rewarding aspects of a working author-editor relationship is how I can be nudged into a little more creativity.

The offending sentence read, “I went through my purse for my phone.” I could just ignore her comment. What reader is going to stop and think, “Went through is so boring. I hate these stories.” But… what if I made my character dump out her purse, and her phone slides underneath the coffee table? More energy, more interest. That’s better, and I always want the story to be better.

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This does not sound like a Makayla gesture or Makayla words—or maybe the gesture doesn’t sound right because the words aren’t how she would describe it.

In one particular story, I had trouble staying in voice. I kept barging in and talking like myself instead of like the narrator. Lee Ann never let me get away with it, either. I took out the gesture and reworded the dialogue so that it was no longer me talking.

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But just like I don’t ignore my editor’s suggestions, I don’t take all of them either. I’m the ultimate authority over this piece. She highlighted an entire passage with the comment:

This is all unnecessary to the story.

It wasn’t unnecessary. I needed to wrap up a loose end, and I needed to give a character more space after his introduction in the beginning of the story.

The trouble was a telepathic glitch—I’d written it sloppily, so it didn’t ring true for Lee Ann. So I cut down the dialogue and condensed the action. The scene doesn’t drag anymore, but the information remains.

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It’s a lot of work to revise a manuscript, maybe harder than writing it to start with. But if the marked-up manuscript is painful, there’s nothing quite like getting it back with, “You fixed everything. I love reading your revisions. It’s like magic.”

I proved her wrong. Life goal achieved.

 

*Lee Ann approves of “show, don’t tell.” When editing my novel, she had to mention it so often that she finally just shortened the comment to “S,DT” to save us both time.

Inviting In the Blacks

love-1-1314956-1280x1920Up until two or three years ago, I thought racism had pretty much died out.

It was an easy assumption for me. I, a lower-middle-class white girl, grew up in a small Mississippi town only a generation or two removed from segregation. I attended junior high in the “old black school,” and teachers rode us hard to eradicate any use of racial epithets (black or white). The KKK was a thing of the past, and generally deplored among the people I knew. I vaguely knew there had been bad times “back then,” but in my growing up, I heard of only a few incidents that seemed to stem from racial tensions.

I was friendly with several of the black kids, but not close enough that we went to each other’s houses. White girls still didn’t date black boys (I do remember a mild furor when a white friend accepted a black friend’s invitation to a school dance). The churches were divided down pretty straight racial lines; I just always thought it was because blacks worshiped much different than whites did (which actually is true) so we just all preferred our own style.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how separated our world was. The more I see the disdain that my social class held for “them.” But among my parents and other adults, no one taught me malice or hate.

So I took the example of my teachers and parents and went farther. I taught myself to ignore skin color. My kids grew up without hearing anything about how “black people are like that.” Further, I assumed that all the whites of my generation were doing the same thing. We wanted to move beyond the horrors of the past, right?

My first clue that racism was a still big issue should have been when I was writing my novel. When I was sketching out its early drafts, I looked at my cast of characters and realized that they were all white. That’s standard in Christian fiction, and it annoys me. I really wanted to include non-white characters, but immediately ran into a problem.

The Fellowship is a highly insular Southern church founded and run by a white family. This type of church hardly ever includes black families. If I introduced a non-white character, I had to have a good backstory to justify it. But I wanted to avoid the issue of racism because that’s not what my book focuses on.

So I cheated.

I wrote into the story that by the late 80s, black families were admitted into the church and even allowed to marry into the white families. My heroine, Bekah, grew up under these conditions so is basically colorblind. It made me sigh that the only way I could deal with all characters on an equal footing, with only a hint of racism, was to create a utopia that doesn’t actually exist.

I knew it was a stretch. But I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch; we were already well on our way to that point, right? Especially among Christians whose very theology taught us that God looked on the heart, not the outward appearance?

The internet has broadened my circle to take in the black community and what they have to say. The ugly truth filtered in, one heartbreaking bit at a time. It’s easy to “get past” racism when you don’t really live under it.

I’ve changed a lot of my thinking and I’m paying attention to the discussion raging around us. I’m not taking sides except to acknowledge that for generations, whites have enjoyed power and privileges far above their non-white fellow citizens. In a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom, we were wrong. I’m sad for my friends whose skin color eclipses their personhood, and regret how oblivious I was (and am).

But do I regret my decision to make the Fellowship a slightly implausible haven of racial equality? Not at all. Because just like my story gives hope of recovery from spiritual abuse, I like its picture of a world where a person’s skin color is merely another physical trait, not an indication of character.

Here’s to the future.

The Fellowship is available in paperback and Kindle.

Marriage Mind Games

ball-1418250-1279x850A godly wife is submissive. A godly husband is a leader. This is the ideal model of marriage, as laid down by a God who likes making his children play mind games.

It’s not news that I’m no fan of the patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. I sat through hours of the instruction as a teen. I even tried it when I first got married, with pretty terrible results. It causes more harm than good most of the time. But don’t take my word for it—here’s an article from one of the bastions of submissive womanhood, Above Rubies, with a rundown of how the game goes.

I found the article when someone shared it on my newsfeed, after Above Rubies posted it on their Facebook page. Considering that the working title of my novel was Somewhere Below Rubies, I’m obviously not the target audience. But it’s exactly the kind of stuff I was taught, and obviously still going strong.

You can read the whole thing here. Here on the blog, I’ll provide excerpts. With commentary, naturally.*

The author leaps into motion with the starting gun:

… God spoke to me and said, “Val, you cannot teach this message… Because you don’t understand submission!” Now I don’t mind admitting that I was shocked.

“Lord, do you realize that I’m Val Stares from Above Rubies? I’ve always encouraged submission.” “Yes,” was the reply, “but you still don’t know how to submit.” By now I was on the defensive. “But. Lord, you know that every time I want something, or desire to go somewhere, I always ask my husband first.”

“And what is his reply?”

“He says for me to please myself. Oh yes, he always adds, ‘You usually do.’ I don’t know why he says that because he’s already given me permission to do what I think best.”

Her husband’s reply is an interesting detail. Does he mean it casually, as a lighthearted way to say, “Yes!” or as an unstated resentful way to remind her that she doesn’t really care about his opinion? I’d think that God, who surely has as much basic education as a first-year marriage counselor, would suggest that she ask her husband what he’s really thinking.

But no. The patriarchal God rarely goes in for direct, heart-to-heart talks. That spoils the game.

“If you are serious about learning submission, Val, I want you to go to your husband and tell him that from now on he needs to answer you, “Yes” or “No.” If he says that you can please yourself, then you will take that as his disapproval and will stay home or go without. There is to be no pouting, no banging doors, no attitude of annoyance or hurt when this happens.”

So “God” has laid down the ground rules. Val runs out to the shed where her husband spends a lot of his time, and tells him her new revelation. He laughed—“You’ll never be able to do it!”

About three weeks later, a visiting speaker came to town.
Note the passage of time. Three weeks later.

Finally it was time to ask my husband if I could go. Out to the shed I went, told him what was happening and asked if I could go. As usual, I left everything until the last minute!
That little drop of self-blame is essential to the truly submissive woman’s worldview.

“Please yourself, you usually do.”
That’s how he answered. He didn’t say the magic words. Remember what he was supposed to say? “Yes” or “No.” Anything else meant he didn’t actually approve and she had to stay home. Because God said so.

I raced into the bedroom and pleaded with God, “He’s forgotten he has to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Can’t I just remind him?” “No” came the answer to my heart…
Because if you did that, it would totally ruin God’s fun.

Around the time I should have left for the meeting, my husband walked in to find me cleaning. “I thought you were going out to a meeting,” he said.
This is a major play right here. She explained how he had really forbidden her from going because he didn’t use the right words. And her husband got mad. He yelled at her that if she wanted to be so stupid and stay home, then fine, stay home!

It was then that the full revelation of what God was teaching me became clear.
I don’t know about you, but I’m revelating all over the place here.

I’m getting the impression that Val is an energetic, take-charge kind of person. Women who run ministries usually are. And she married a low-key, easygoing man. This is a perfectly normal and acceptable personality pairing—except in patriarchal/complementarian circles. In those circles, a take-charge woman has to force herself to be indecisive and subservient, but in order to do so, she’s got to compel her easygoing husband to order her around. However, according to God’s fun little game, she can’t say that.

So Val decided for some reason that her husband’s dismissive “Please yourself, you usually do” wasn’t up to par. She made up a code that he had to follow to show he was really leading her. Meanwhile, her husband thought he’d given her permission to do something she wanted to do, only to discover that she’d denied herself and blamed him. No wonder he was mad.

Oh, hang on. That’s not at all what Val concludes. Instead, she chalks up a major score in the mind game.

I had overridden my husband’s decision so many times that he was now robbed of any desire to lead. He must have felt so cheated. Now, by God’s hand, he was responsible for me staying home, but what hurt me most was the realization that it was me, the Christian wife, who had robbed him!
It’s a homerun, folks!

 My husband is a cautious man and rather slow at making decisions. My impatience at waiting for an answer caused me to make more and more decisions myself and he would go along with me for the sake of peace.
Or maybe he figured out a long time ago that you manipulate the situation to get what you really want, so his actual opinion didn’t really matter.

 I stayed home for several weeks after that, while we both learned our respective roles.
While he learned your official change in the rules, you mean.

So that’s the story part. Now she’s got to get into the doctrine part to justify why they dodge and block instead of talking things out like responsible adults. She quotes some usual verses on submission (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18) and adds all the usual explanations:

God is not telling husbands to make us obey or make us come under their authority. We do it because we love God and our husbands, and because He has asked us to. It is our choice.
Even though in her own story, she had no choice once “God” told her to do it.

In my mind I saw my broom raised to a horizontal position above my head. The handle was labeled, “My husband’s Authority.” I could see that if he were in his rightful position, I would be able to walk beneath it in an upright position. This upright position was one of honor, security, love–and a surprise I didn’t expect or notice until much later–power!

This is one of their favorite plays. They insist that a woman who doesn’t make any decisions on her own, but lets her husband dictate everything, is in fact very powerful. They point to Esther, who had enormous influence over the king. That’s the kind of influence a truly submissive wife has! All she has to do is go into every situation thinking, as Esther did, “I’ll ask him about this. If I die, I die.” What’s so hard about that?

Just because the things I wanted to do were good things, didn’t necessarily mean they were what my husband wanted to do. He could have other plans.
Not that she asked if he had other plans. Not that he told her he had other plans. They are very careful not to mess up God’s favorite sport.

But God wanted me to measure myself by the attitude of Jesus.

We read about Jesus’ example in 1 Peter 2:18-23, “For what glory is it, if when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps…Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously….Likewise, (with the same spirit of Jesus) ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the Word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation (the manner of life) of the wives.”

This is actually what 1 Peter 2:18-23 says. It’s written to servants (slaves, as translated in the New International Version).

“18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

21 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:

22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:”

It looks a whole lot like she tacked on 1 Peter 3:1, the verse about wives, without saying so. Not only is she quoting Scripture out of context, she just created her very own Frankensteinian context! Slam dunk!

What happened to that feared and dreaded “door mat,” the so-called intimidated mousy wife who gets no say? It was a lie. It had no substance or power. I can now stand up straight, and walk upright, secure and loved under his protection. On this side of submission, I have more say because my opinion is of greater value than before.
In a spectacular leap of logic, she concludes that by not expressing her opinion on anything, it has greater value. Touchdown, baby! GOOOAAALLL!

One word of warning– submission is a daily practice, not a one-time act. I have to daily check my attitude and the humility of my heart.
But it’s even harder to work every day at communicating with each other, balancing each other’s desires with your own needs, taking care of misunderstandings as they happen. No guarantees, no formula to fall back on—just love, effort, and God’s grace.

But in the long run, your marriage grows stronger when you don’t depend on formulas, but take the risk to meet as equals and face issues together.

We serve a God of grace.

Not a God of mind games.

Game, set, match.

 

*Should I apologize for the unholy mixing of sports references? That would suggest that I’m sorry for it.

A Little Collection

In a completely self-indulgent blog moment, I’m posting pictures that remind me of my novel.

Writers are always — yea, even obsessively — looking for and collecting characters, settings, and elements from their stories. That means we find pictures of houses, random items, and, ahem, actual people who don’t actually know that they are being collected.

Case in point, I’m a little sad that I missed the chance to get a picture of a young woman in a red jeep the other day. It was a perfect Bekah picture. Unfortunately, the light changed and I had to drive away. Stupid traffic laws.

Anyway, here are a few little things from my Fellowship collection. You do have to have read the novel to appreciate them. (Haven’t read it yet? Click the link to get your copy.)

This unsuspecting couple at a coffee shop became Bekah Richards and Ty Williams. They’re not dead ringers for those characters, but they capture the right spirit. I’m going to pretend that’s iced tea in those glasses, though. Bekah’s is unsweet, of course.

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Another time, at a festival in another town, I came across Rob Branner. (The actual man had a British accent that was just devastating. But I bet Rob’s Southern drawl isn’t too shabby either.)

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Graveyards are a hobby of mine. No, really; my husband and I even walked through one during our honeymoon. I wander through the headstones, noting distinctive names, and wondering about the people’s whose lives have already come and gone.

It was at this cemetery, four or five years ago, that I found the perfect name for my church founder.

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I (reluctantly joined the trend and) color. I particularly enjoy pictures that let me think about the people who live in my head. There’s a marshmallow-roasting scene in The Fellowship, in which Bekah says she likes her marshmallows “burned.” Rob replies that the proper term is “Flambe.” When she eats the black, crispy, gooey marshmallow, Rob remarks, “That’s revolting.”

That line is actually a kind of an inside joke between DJ and me. On one of our early dates, I took him to Dairy Queen, where we both got Blizzards. I spent more time talking than eating, until my Blizzard melted. DJ — who, by the way, still didn’t have my official answer that we were actually a couple so needed to play his cards just right — looked at the brownish sludge in my cup and said, “That’s revolting.”

And I fell hard for that confidence.

In honor of that scene, I gave Bekah (in the red coat) a burned marshmallow. But this isn’t the scene from the book, which takes place in the summer. This is later, after the novel has ended but the characters live on to have marshmallow roasts over a fire pit.

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When I was working on the picture, however, I pointed out the tray in the lower right corner. I thought it was cheese and crackers, but I couldn’t figure out what the cylinders were supposed to be. Sushi?

DJ said, “I think they’re marshmallows, since you’ve got the graham crackers and chocolate…”

And I started laughing. I’d colored the roasting sticks green because I thought they were celery:

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Graham crackers, chocolate, marshmallows, and celery… now that’s revolting.

A Review: “Gave Me a Deeper Understanding”

Gretchen Louise at Kindred Grace has posted a review of The Fellowship. 

Different people notice different aspects of the story. Some have remarked on how easy it was to get to know the characters. Some recognize specific teachings or experiences. Some love the often-irreverent humor, and a lot of people held out hope that it wasn’t really lost. (What wasn’t? Hm, looks like you should read the story.)

What Gretchen highlights is the fact that “the familiar” is a very strong force. It’s often easier to stay in a bad but familiar situation than risk a new, possibly better, one.

But I think what stood out to me most in The Fellowship is how comfortable the familiar could become. As much as Bekah loved the taste of freedom, the rules that had bound her for so long were so very compelling… At the same time, I was given a much deeper understanding into the mindset of those who are unwilling to leave unhealthy and even dangerous situations.

Read the entire review here, and linger to browse her beautiful site.

A Review: Written with Grace and Finesse

Carrie over at Reading to Know has reviewed The Fellowship. She was pretty reluctant to read it; after all, a book about this topic (spiritual abuse in a seemingly godly community) at this time (Gothard, Phillips, Driscoll, Duggars…) can’t be anything but an excoriating vendetta in 331 pages, right?

Carrie writes:

I was prepared to be on my guard when reading this book but I should have known that Sara would have me relaxed within just a few chapters. Although the point of the book is clear – to poke holes in a lifestyle of legalism and show its dangers – she does it with grace (har, har) and finesse. …I was hooked on the story of Bekah from the get-go. …Sara tells her story well and with her usual good humor which had me laughing out loud for several minutes once or twice. And again, I heard her arguments as to why there is a great need for those who have grown up in the ATI (or any legalistic) culture to see and understand grace.

I didn’t write a vendetta; I wrote a real story about realistic people. I wrote it so that those who were in a “Fellowship” can see that they were indeed wronged; and so those outside can understand what it’s like to be on the inside.

Check out Carrie’s entire review. And browse around to see what else she’s been reading. You’ll be there a while.

Speaking of College

Allison from Presentmindedly just read The Fellowship and commented with the perspective of an “outsider.” I asked if I could turn her comment into a post.

For a little background, Allison and I grew up in the same hometown–attended the same church, in fact–but our paths didn’t cross too much. Public schooled while I was homeschooled, she was a few years ahead of me: always determined, ambitious, and very kind to the younger girls. Recently I was thrilled when she said she was reading the novel, and as usual I find her perspective very valuable.

Her words are in bold, and I’ve added my own observations in plain text. I’m not commenting to disagree, but to discuss two sides of the question. It’s a sort of call-and-response post, I guess.

Allison:
I understand how young people told that they can’t attend college and having that option for their future totally removed from them would want to explore the option of going to college, and how women might see a need for college so that they have a way to support their families should their husbands pass away (or leave).

Sara:
In the Fellowship, Bekah knows that college is not an option if she wants to remain in good standing with the church. This aspect of the Fellowship reflects my own experience with IBLP, which discouraged both young women and young men from seeking higher education. (But it was especially forbidden for women.) A lot of heavily-controlled religious systems push the line of thought that college introduces young people to worldly ideas, which shipwrecks their faith. When it comes to questions about their future, these groups insist that God will provide whatever training is necessary to make a living as an adult.

Most of us spend our 30s scrambling to catch up, or living with the insecurity that one twist of fate could leave us unable to support ourselves and our families (again, especially women).

And we think, if only we’d been allowed to go to college…

Allison:
In my experience and observation, though, college is not necessarily an avenue for job training or even job preparation. I write this as a summa cum laude graduate of the Honors College at University of Southern Mississippi, with a degree in Environmental Biology and a minor in Chemistry.

All those A’s, all that studying, all those classes and labs, and all it really prepared me for was–wait for it–more school. I had no desire to go to grad school and wanted to be a missionary at that point, anyway. At Awards Day at the end of my senior year, my father asked (with slight disappointment), “You’ve never wanted to go to med school, have you?” Nope, never had. Got accepted to grad school but declined it because I went to Romania to serve for a year.

Many people I know graduated with degrees that, while perhaps fulfilling on personal levels, didn’t necessarily prepare them for a job. I had a delightful professor who once quoted somebody else (no idea who now) in one of our classes… “College is the babysitter for tomorrow’s workforce.” I took offense at the time, but I kind of get it now.

Sara:
Although it doesn’t come through strongly in my novel, I’m very disenchanted with the college system. I love the idea of alternative training and seeking knowledge outside the approved channels of learning. But that’s a harder road to walk, and most of us weren’t actually given the choice. We were forced to walk it… often by men who were actually interested in keeping their empires going.

It’s also easier to have the degree and say, “I didn’t need it,” than feel trapped by a life where you can’t seem move ahead without that degree.

Allison:
College did give me opportunities to grow personally and spiritually and to grow up. To discover more about myself, to learn more about how to think critically and to engage in the world. But it wasn’t particularly fun, and although I met great people, I don’t have lifelong close friends from college (and I had counted on that). It was honestly often lonely and lots of hard, hard work. So it provided opportunities for personal challenge and development.

Sara:
This right here is part of what many of us feel we missed out on–some much more extremely than I did.

My parents didn’t forbid college; we sure didn’t have a lot of extra money and I wasn’t gung-ho to go. They believed that the program we were in was a viable alternative (It looked very good on paper, as the saying goes.) So we all bought into the idea that traditional college wasn’t worth considering.

So all that growing, figuring out who we are, what we believe, thinking critically, and engaging in the world — that’s part of the “college experience” that we feel we were denied.

The truth is, of course, that you don’t need college for any of that. But in our subculture, the reason that college was discouraged or even denied to us was to keep us from developing, exploring, and engaging. So that’s how we think of it: if I had been allowed to choose higher education, I might have been allowed to grow.

Allison:
But what college did not give me was what I expected going in–-training, credentials, and an open door to a career of helping protect God’s green earth in some way. God used college in my life, certainly; but I don’t think of my degree as something to fall back on. And I’m not alone in that.

I suppose I’m just bringing this up because I sensed several times that there was a thought in the story [of The Fellowship] of college giving women (and men, too) abilities to provide for and support their families that they couldn’t get without a degree.

Sara:
This was my personal insecurity shining through. I’m entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to bring in income. I consider myself very well-educated; but I don’t have the degree and work experience for a decent job. We do have life insurance (again, possible because of DJ’s money, not mine); but still, if something happened to DJ, I’d be trying to find a minimum-wage job to support myself and my four children.

My dad died when I was three, and my stepdad died when I was twenty. I have no illusions that God keeps men alive just to support their families. For those who have read the novel, this situation is spelled out pretty clearly in the story.

Allison:
Certainly some degrees are necessary for certain jobs–social work, teaching school, physical therapy. But most degrees don’t carry with them an accompanying certification.

Because I’ve been to college, I think “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But if I hadn’t been to college, I’d probably think, “I wonder what I missed.”

Sara:
I didn’t have enough room in the novel to explore college vs. alternative education. My point wasn’t that Everyone Should Go To College, but that the Fellowship limited and controlled the lives of its people by refusing to let them make their own way in life.

I posted Allison’s comment here as encouragement to those of us who have come out of a controlling system. College wouldn’t have eliminated our struggles, just given us a different set of problems. It’s tough living with the consequences of a choice we didn’t really get to make. But once we’re free from whatever “Fellowship” once controlled us, we really do have the freedom to make our own choices, learn from our own mistakes, and build our own lives.

A Reading List

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.