Fifty Shades of Fiction

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Am I coming out as a secret fan of Fifty Shades of Grey?

Well, the books began as a fan-fiction retelling of Twilight. I will say that I don’t like Fifty Shades as much as I liked Twilight. 

And I utterly despise Twilight.

No, I’m not a fan. I did try to read the first book. The writing was abysmal, the characters were intolerable, and having been fed toxic patriarchy in my younger years, the forced-submission stuff made me want to cry. A good sex story shouldn’t make you cry.

So why have I linked to the video below? Well, sorry, it’s actually not as salacious as secret sex dungeons and thinly-veiled abuse. I’m linking to one section of it where he talks about fiction vs. reality, because I think this is an area where people haven’t really thought through things.

I’ve heard many times, “How can a woman support the #metoo movement against sexual harassment when she reads things like Fifty Shades of Grey?” Or any erotic fantasy, really, because the genre so often blurs the line between consent and compulsion. This argument frustrates me. What people enjoy in fiction is often exactly the opposite of what they want in reality. In fiction you want conflict, drama, danger, and uncertainty. In real life, you want trust, reliability, peace, and security. Granted, I look askance at the fact that Fifty Shades was ever so popular because, really, it’s a very terrible series on many levels. But I don’t think that enjoying erotic fiction means a woman has no say in whether her boss can pat her butt or require sexual attention for her to keep her job.

The video explains it better, though. Why do we look for situations and stories in fiction that we don’t want in real life?

If you’ve got time, I recommend watching the whole thing, because he goes on to take apart 50 Shades (book and movie) and explain why it doesn’t work even in the context of fiction.

(Note: I have friends who like Twilight and Fifty Shades. Especially for Twilight, it really seemed to hit people on some deep level while they were dealing with difficult issues in their lives. I have no idea why, mostly because they can’t tell me either. They like it, I don’t, we’ve agreed to disagree.)

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A Bride By the Book

You are married now.

You have just taken the name of the most wonderful man in the world and are happier than you have ever thought possible.

You are sure of many things about your marriage. It isn’t going to turn sour and commonplace. The years will be vibrant and alive, exciting adventures of love. Christ is going to have first place in your home. The spiritual roots will be deep and strong. you are going to keep your home what it ought to be by being a sweet, agreeable, efficient wife and homemaker.

So begins The Bride’s Book of Ideas: A Guide to Christian Homemaking by Marjorie Palmer and Ethel Bowman.

The whole reason I have the book is because of a Facebook photo that makes the rounds occasionally. It purports to be advice to a 1950s housewife, and is incredibly blatant about the fact that the wife’s entire purpose is to make her husband’s life comfortable and stress-free. That was the job of a good wife, definitely; but I wonder if it was ever really stated so baldly. Someone said that the advice was from a Better Homes and Gardens bride’s book, so I went looking for it. Couldn’t find that book, but I did find The Bride’s Book of Ideas and ordered that one instead.

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Then I found out that I’d gotten the 1985 version. I developed a burning need to read the 1970 version — so I got that one, too.

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I was looking forward to comparing the two volumes and soundly mocking all of the advice therein. The updated version has a much-improved layout and design, with a few wording changes here and there; but the substance is the same as the earlier one. The first part contains advice to new brides on such practical matters as choosing insurance, finding a family doctor, first aid, kitchen essentials, how to set a table to entertain guests. The rest of it consists of easy recipes to get a new wife started in the kitchen.

So it’s with some disappointment that I report that, by and large, The Bride’s Book of Ideas is fairly tame and actually kind of useful.

But it is of its time, and I can poke a little fun at that.

(Note: I’ll refer to both volumes as one book unless I’m quoting from a specific edition.)

Marriage Advice
Naturally, the book has some space devoted to motherly wisdom, The Precepts of a Happy Home. Most of the points under this heading are unobjectionable:

Be content with what you have (1970 warns against buying too much on “the installment plan.” 1985 cautions against credit card debt.)

Treat your husband with courtesy and respect and expect the same from him. Despite this even-handed heading, the actual advice is aimed only at the wife, reminding her not to take advantage of her husband’s love by giving way to anger and frustration, and to practice the Golden Rule. Obviously it’s a bride’s book, so it’s talking to her; and I don’t disagree with the advice at all. But this is an example of the kind of wifely advice that persists even today in Christian circles, directed only at the wife with no discussion of her husband’s behavior toward her.

Don’t let disagreements and differences go unresolved. This is probably the area where my husband and I have had to do the most work. We don’t fight, therefore we don’t face conflict, therefore we don’t resolve problems.

(The book concerns itself quite a lot with keeping home like “sweet and harmonious,” which sounds great. But sometimes “harmonious” really means “not facing conflict.” Trust me on this.)

The two points that irked me were ones that I heard as a bride myself, but haven’t found to hold entirely true.

Give the Lord his rightful place in your marriage. “If you want God’s help in making your marriage successful, you must give your lives completely to him.” The authors warn against a new couple being so caught up with each other that they let church attendance become sporadic, and daily Bible reading and prayer turn meaningless and indifferent.

No argument that this can happen to a new couple — but because they’re too in love with each other to let God in? Seriously? What a way to instill insecurity in a new wife, by telling her not to love her husband too much or God won’t bless her marriage.

And, of course — Remember that your husband is the head of the home. The two editions have an interesting little wording change:

1970: Some brides resent a subordinate role and are determined not to allow this antiquated precept to have any place in their lives.

1985: Some brides resent what they view as a subordinate role and are determined not to allow this “antiquated” precept to have any place in their lives.

Note the 1985 version implies that it’s really just the woman’s perception of subordinate role. By the time I was hearing marriage advice as a teen in the 90s, teachers fell all over themselves to explain how it’s not really a subordinate role at all! It’s a blessing! It’s an honor! I kind of prefer the straightforward 1970s version.

Both versions put these upstart brides in their place by adding, “But God charges the husband with the responsibility for making major decisions and being the spiritual leader of the home.” I can see some basis for the “spiritual leader” argument, but where exactly does God state, “And husbands are to make all the major decisions, because I won’t bless a marriage where the wife has an equal say.” Hint: he doesn’t.

So, anyway, if you “practice these precepts,” your marriage “will be happy and will bring honor and glory to God.”

Housecleaning
They cheerfully advise the new wife to do some special cleaning in addition to her regular cleaning — and remind her not to neglect the out-of-the-way areas because she’s building good habits for the rest of her life.

“If you have a job, as so many of today’s brides do…”

Then your husband should pitch in and help? Ha ha! Nope..

“…the [housework] must be condensed into after-work hours.”

My friend Karen pointed out that it’s actually very nice when a couple can split the earning duties and life duties between them. But I thought it was interesting how these authors never stopped to re-evaluate a woman’s responsibilities in the case of an outside job. The house is the woman’s responsibility, the end and amen.

Cooking for Husband
This is a different heading than just “cooking” because the book makes it very clear that a “sweet, agreeable, efficient wife and homemaker” will feed her husband well.

And let me say that in nearly 17 years of marriage, the fact that I feed my husband well has contributed strongly to our happiness.

But this book gives menus not just for suppers… but for breakfast and lunch, too. Like, complete menus that include a beverage and dessert. I laughed out loud when I saw the breakfast menus. DJ and I agree that we don’t think I have ever cooked him breakfast. If he worked close enough to come home for lunch, I’d have something for him — but to be honest, I’m pretty glad I don’t have to worry about it.

The authors acknowledge that in this day and age, the wife might herself work outside the home as well. So they provided the menus so…

… So she and her husband could take turns doing the cooking?

Ha ha! Nope.

… so the good wife can get these meals cooked and on the table. After all, the book admonishes, “You may not be able to prepare a large meal every night, but it is wise to do so as often as possible.”

Wise to do so. They don’t say it, but everybody knows a hungry husband might go astray or something.

Entertaining
I found this section interesting mostly because of the obvious change in social rituals. There’s a discussion of the proper places to seat guests at the table. I’m not sure DJ and I ever worried about where we placed guests. In fact, we’ve always preferred to eat in the living room because it’s more comfortable.

There was also some helpful advice about what to keep on hand “in case of unexpected guests.” I discussed this with DJ, and we agreed that we have no idea why this is a big deal. Did people really just drop in unannounced, stay till suppertime, and expect to be fed? Plus think badly of the housewife who didn’t have enough food on hand to feed them? Judging from the book, this was a real source of anxiety to some women. The authors suggest keeping some staples on hand for quick meals, namely:

Instant mashed potatoes
Small box of dried milk
Tin or two of canned meat, ham, Vienna sausages, or tuna
Can of baked beans
Box or two of fancy crackers
Cake mix
Canned pie filling to top the cake
Can of fruit cocktail (You can leave this in the freezer for weeks; remove both ends of can, slide out fruit, slice thick or thin, put on salad plate, top with a dab of mayonnaise, and NO GUEST WILL EVER WANT TO SHOW UP AT YOUR HOUSE UNEXPECTEDLY AGAIN. Ahem. I added the last part.)

Cooking
Most of the book is devoted to recipes for everyday meals. And it’s very useful in that respect — assuming you crave mid-century Midwestern American food.

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, grilled cheese, canned tomato soup, fried halibut, buttered frozen peas, orange-cream jello salad, macaroni-tuna salad, hamburgers, ham sandwiches, broiled franks wrapped in bacon, tossed salad, celery and lettuce wedges, baked green bean casserole…

This book is not one of culinary adventuring. The one section devoted to “Foreign Dishes” (1970) or “International Dishes (1985) lists five recipes, one of which is “Italian Spaghetti” and another of which is “Vera’s Chow Mein.”

I can laugh at the food, but this book was written by women who had grown up in the Depression and married sometime around World War II. Good, solid, easy-to-store food was what they prized. My grandmother cooked this way, my mother somewhat, and I still do a little.

Still… a snack of chocolate-covered Wheaties is kind of sad. And I’m not really tempted by “frank boats,” which appear to be hot dogs filled with American cheese and topped with a sauce of pickle relish, “catsup,” Worcestershire sauce, and dry mustard. Is there a more of-its-time recipe than Chicken a la King, a casserole consisting of chopped chicken and cream of mushroom soup?

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Marjorie and Ethel would get a real kick out of today’s recipes that take nine ingredients to create a dish that isn’t even actually what the title says it is.

The Bride’s Book of Ideas is dated and, in these days of Googling whatever information we need, obsolete. Still, I’m glad I have both volumes. They take me back to the world of a bride whose priorities were a vibrant spiritual life, a happy husband, a clean house, and friends over for good food. And what do you know — that’s really very  much the same life I want.

“Using [this book] should help make you a gracious hostess and a better, more efficient wife.”

So there you go.

Untwisting Scripture: A book for you

Yield your rights.

Don’t become bitter.

Don’t take up an offense on behalf of someone else.

If these phrases kicked you in the gut… do I have a book for you!

If, however, you nodded along, knowing they are true Biblical principles… well, then, I definitely have a book for you.

Untwisting Scriptures by Rebecca Davis takes a few “Christian” teachings that have been used to confuse and silence abuse victims for many years, and shows how they’re not even valid Biblical concepts. The book grew out of blog posts that Davis wrote as she learned more about people — mostly women — held captive by abusive theology.

Her tone is quiet and straightforward; she doesn’t indulge in snark or personal attacks. She doesn’t have to. All she has to do contrast actual Biblical context with actual teachings, such as this quote from the once-vaunted Bill Gothard from his 1984 Basic Seminar:

“Just because you are alive, you probably believe you have the right to be accepted as an individual, to express opinions, to earn and spend a living, to control your personal belongings, and to make decisions. You expect others to respect your rights.”

Spoiler: Gothard and the others quoted in this book don’t think you have a valid argument. Also spoiler: many of the people who teach these things either protect abusers, or are abusers themselves. Not a coincidence.

In this small book, Davis untwists a lot of strands. From the difference between human rights and human desires (looking at you, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth) to the fact that the Western church doesn’t know how to deal with grief and therefore labels it “sinful,” to the fact that we are supposed to take up the causes of the weak and abused and oppressed—there’s a lot to take in.

(And it’s not her fault that the chart on Page 59 made me want to fling the book away from myself in self-defense. I saw so many charts and graphs in my Bill Gothard days that they just look menacing to me, like the king snake that’s colored like a coral snake.)

Davis made one layout decision, based on early feedback, that vastly improves the reading experience. She set off the false teachings in gray boxes. It’s easy to identify the quotes she’s disproving… or, as she suggests, easy to skip over them entirely if you just don’t want to read the words. Even I, years away from that bondage, still felt the weight as I skimmed those twisty teachings.

I will say that this book targets a specific subculture. Those of us who sat under the teachings of Gothard, Bob Jones University, Nancy (Leigh) DeMoss Wolgemuth, and their ilk will recognize the phrases and terminology. Those outside of this small circle won’t find them as immediately recognizable. But these ideas permeate American evangelicalism. It’s a good bet you’ve encountered the teachings even if you don’t know the names and the terms.

Untwisting Scriptures came out in 2016, not even a year after I released The Fellowship. I mention the timeline because that’s why I didn’t pursue the book when I first encountered it. I was weary after years of struggling through twisted Scriptures. I thought, “So glad somebody is addressing these problems. I’ve already dealt with them. Time to move on.”

When Davis and I connected this summer over our books, I had “moved on” enough to come back to these concepts with renewed passion. So many others are still hurt and grieving. They need to hear a voice that untwists the bonds and gives freedom.

Rebecca Davis’ book is a voice like that. Check it out.

Women Deserve Better than Equality

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I have a friend who deliberately trolls his own Facebook page. He’s like Elizabeth Bennett, to whom Darcy remarked, “you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own.”* 

The other day he posted “To nobody’s surprise, the new Doctor Who is a woman.”**

TWO HUNDRED COMMENTS LATER

My friend pointed out that the decision to feature a female Doctor in the upcoming season of the show is consistent with the established storyline, it was time for a change, it could be fun, etc. But one Random Internet Person came back with argument after argument. This person*** approached it from twenty different angles, all of which tended inexorably toward the conclusion that it was a bad idea to cast The Doctor as a woman.

The Random Internet Person’s last gasping attempt — or, at least, the last one I read before getting on with my life — was a classic patriarchy  move: Women Cheapen Manhood

“It is bad writing and alienates female fans who liked the male archetype the Doctor filled, young male fans looking for a role-model, and older male fans who are trying to relive their childhood.”

You see what’s at stake here. Women need men to admire. Young men need men to look up to. Old men need men to look back on. Only a man can satisfy these deep desires! Set up a woman for men to admire and emulate, and manhood will suffer.

But most people who make this argument are dimly aware that it’s kind of insulting to women, maybe suggesting that they are inferior or something. So the Random Internet Person jumped to another classic patriarchy trick: Women Deserve Better Than Equality

“Women deserve strong original female characters rather than rehashes of male characters.”

See? Women are so special and so precious–so not inferior to men–that they should exist in their own specially-created sphere that doesn’t threaten the established male world.

If you spend any time around patriarchy, you’ll discover that it’s a widely-held belief that patriarchal men are extremely fragile. No one can shatter that brittle manhood faster than an incautious woman who thinks she walks on equal footing with him.

Watch any argument about women’s roles in life, and I guarantee you’ll find these two tricks played with infinite variations. So thank you, Random Internet Person, for so baldly stating what other, more polished patriarchy people manage to disguise more effectively.

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*This friend, although a man, actually wouldn’t mind being compared to a sharp, witty, and honest female character.

**I’m not a Doctor Who fan because I don’t watch shows. So I honestly don’t have much of an opinion on this new development. I am, however, friends with lots of Doctor Who fans, and am interested to find out how the new season goes.

***I’m not identifying whether Random Internet Person is a man or a woman because either gender can adhere to patriarchal teachings. In fact, in my experience, it’s the women who enforce it most stringently on a personal level.

 

The Parable of the Hidden Figures

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie Hidden Figures. I thought I’d state that outright before I got into my detailed discussion of it. (Otherwise known as “SJ can’t watch a movie without completely picking it apart.”) (I’m a terrible movie date.) (But I don’t give spoilers.) (And DJ still loves me anyway.)

Hidden Figures is a parable for white people.

Granted, it’s based on black people’s experiences. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all actual black women who achieved success in the halls of NASA, which in the 60s was simply clogged with white males. The reason I say it’s a parable — a fictionalized story meant to illuminate truth — is because the movie shows what ought to happen rather than a strict adherence to what probably really did.

The black community knows exactly what life was like in the early 60s. They don’t have to be reminded of segregation, demonstrations, violence against them, and the quiet but suffocating refusal to allow black professionals to advance in their careers. The white community is the one who needs to see it and feel the futility and injustice. This movie does that. By giving the viewers three good women to sympathize with, we “become” those women and understand the obstacles they faced. This is the power of fiction.

But, being a Hollywood parable, we get the advantage of seeing it play out before our eyes. The entire movie takes place over a period of about two years. In theater time, of course, that’s about two hours. So in two hours we get to see these women pursue their dreams, demonstrate their capabilities, and win the respect of those around them. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. Just that the results weren’t so gratifyingly immediate.

Another “parable” aspect was that the movie showed several white characters who saw their error and paid due respect to their black colleagues. It made the movie easier to watch for those of us who have a sneaking fear that we would have upheld that system had we lived then. The white community of that time, while definitely top-dog, was also under pressure. They lived under the regime of a segment of society that truly despised anyone who wasn’t white; for the ordinary, peace-loving person, it was a risk to cross racial lines.

So really, the white response in that movie was much more mid-21st century than mid-20th. And while it’s not exact history, I think it was a good way to show how we today ought to respond.

(Another 2010s vs 1960s aspect of the movie was that nobody smoked. In reality, you probably couldn’t walk into any of those offices, men’s or women’s or white or colored, without forcing your way through the smog of cigarette smoke.)

All that said, I truly enjoyed the movie.

It follows the storylines of the three women, all with different ambitions. Dorothy wants the title and pay that comes with the supervisor job she’s already doing. Mary wants to become an engineer, a near-impossibility for a negro woman in segregated Virginia. Katherine — who is really the focal character — is a brilliant mathematician assigned to calculate the numbers that will get John Glenn into space.

Apart from the story, the movie is visually fun to watch. They recreated the 60s in good Hollywood style. The dresses, hair, decor (all that ugly dark paneling!), and technology looks just right. Which probably just means that it looks like what I vaguely remember of “old lady houses” and other Hollywood sets, but anyway.

The family life is portrayed as warm, with young black men who want the very best for their wives and children. Religion is present, acknowledged but not overdone. The pale colors of the surrounding set often highlighted the brown skin of the women. A few camera shots managed to communicate, “Look at aaalll these men! White men! It doesn’t look quite right, does it?”

It’s easy to see the frustrations these women faced at work, from Dorothy’s sweet but chilly white superior, to Mary’s sassy fashionista facade covering her stifled ambition, to Katherine’s half-mile hike to the Colored Bathroom every day. (The director is furious when he finds out her plight. “At NASA, we all pee the same color!” is one of the best declarations of equality in the movie.)

The story touches only lightly on the oppression, violence, and injustice of the era. And I think that some people were happy to ignore that reality yet again. I saw one comment about the movie that said,

“Those women were facing real issues. But they were faithful and stayed on task, and presto! It all worked out.”

No, honey. The “presto” part is because this movie isn’t history, it’s a parable. If you come away thinking that they had it “kind of bad,” then you need to do a little research. Ever browsed photos of of riots, attacks, and black men hanging from trees? They had it “kind of bad” in the same way that cancer makes you “a little sick.”

These women were extraordinary, and it leaves me wondering how many more black men, black women, and simply women in general, didn’t manage to break through with their gifts and abilities. It was a time of smothering injustice, and it’s not all resolved yet. I hope this movie, with its funny moments and gentle indictment of white superiority, can inspire the white community to understand and acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and show them a way to amend the wrongs of the present.

White Oblivion

stocksnap_q621it4pyjThis past Monday night, we listened to an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s profound and poetic “I Have a Dream” speech, read in a raspy Batman-like rumble. (DJ has a cold.)

Most of it went right over the kids’ heads (although Bookgirl probably caught a lot of it this time around). I’m glad that DJ makes a point to read it every year anyway. He and I need to hear it and understand where we’ve come from.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in South Mississippi. We were a lower middle-class white family, somewhere between belle and redneck. The “desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” that King references in his speech wasn’t the Mississippi I knew. I was vaguely aware that things had been bad “back then,” but it wasn’t anything I recognized in my world. The white community didn’t teach its next generation hate and anger.

It taught us oblivion.

We — my white friends and I — didn’t understand how recently segregation had been the order of the day. It simply wasn’t discussed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dismissed with a slight shrug of distaste. I didn’t know anything about Rosa Parks until my sixth grade English teacher, a black woman, dedicated a day of class to her. Thanks to Norman Rockwell’s painting, I knew about Ruby Bridges and integration, but not the seething hate that surrounded her. I was married before I learned about the Detroit race riots (thank you, Dreamgirls). It was last year while researching for a story that I looked up “race relations 1972” and discovered that things were still really nasty in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand a lot of things. And as I got older, none of these facts were concealed from me. The white community simply didn’t bring them up.

Later in the evening of MLK Day, I got myself some ice cream and sat down with what I consider leisure reading — a 1963 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. At first the significance of the publication year didn’t occur to me. But I began reading an article about how families could make the most of their money, and King’s words came back to me.

I read, “It’s sad but true that a great many homes in America today are below the standard of what their owners should have and can afford.” And a thought crept in, You don’t mean the “the negro’s basic mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” do you?

I read, “A packaged weekend ski trip that includes bus transportation, four meals and two night’s lodging, rental of ski equipment and tow charges, costs only $37 per person…” Assuming you aren’t denied those meals and lodging.

I read, “Traveling by car offers the advantage of convenience and savings on transportation costs for a large family… Motels and hotels charge about $9.50 a night for two…” Two WHITE PEOPLE. The words were a roar in my head.

This magazine, a “family magazine” for “Americans today,” was written only for white people. And I’d never really thought much about it, because I’m part of the club, so it’s easy to assume that everybody gets the same benefit.

Outright black oppression at the hands of white supremacy isn’t really history. It’s still living memory. It’s a charred field barely covered over with new growth. More and more I realize that we can’t expect our nation to “move on” from a catastrophe that’s still hot to the touch.

I want healing. I want to see things change. And I’m trying to start with myself. I never singled out other races for hate and disgust. I’ve worked hard to shed some toxic ingrained attitudes of white supremacy.

But I can honestly say that what I’m mostly guilty of is something that’s harder to see in the first place. I’m guilty of oblivion.

So this year especially, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m glad that we still have his words that make us stop and acknowledge the truth we’d been taught to ignore. May oblivion not blind us to the plight of our neighbors and fellow humans.

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.

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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.