I know what some of us are thinking when popular blogger Elizabeth Esther talks about being raised in a cult. We’re thinking: Really? A cult? Is that what we’re calling fundamentalism now?
And the answer, in this particular case, is a resounding yes. Yes, that’s what we call fundamentalism if and when it also involves the systematic abuse of children, including the tempting of infants with candy and subsequent spankings to “mat train” them like dogs—although most pet owners would consider that too cruel, even for an animal. It’s also what we call fundamentalism when inside that particular strain of fundamentalism the single and self-appointed leader is considered “prophet, priest and king” with absolute authority over his follower’s lives and marriages that comes “straight from God” and cannot be questioned without fear of retribution or shunning.
Some of us might not like that cults exist within Christian fundamentalism, but that doesn’t change the fact that they do, just as they do within almost every religion. And we should also understand that this particular group—know simply as the Assemblies (no relationship to the Assemblies of God)—was being called a cult even before Elizabeth left it.
The sad truth, as readers will discover from the very first chapter, is that Elizabeth is not exaggerating or sensationalizing in the least when she talks about the fact that her childhood and young adulthood were spent deep inside a cult.
As readers, we first meet Elizabeth at age nine, preaching hellfire and brimstone on a street corner for her parents, who she would do anything to please, much like every girl that age. But by the end of the first chapter we’re seeing beyond the brainwashing. We’re seeing a little girl who doesn’t want to earn frozen lemonade by shouting Romans 3:23 at total strangers from atop a milk crate. She just wants “a television, a Happy Meal and a Christmas Barbie.”
I have to admit. The first chapters are a hard read because of the abusive, warped spirituality that was Elizabeth’s childhood—even when peppered with her brilliant (and, let’s face it, resilient) wit. Author and blogger Sheila Wray Gregoire has said that she just wanted to “hug that cowering desperate girl” from these pages, and I have to echo that sentiment with—as Elizabeth herself would say—my whole heart. I wanted a time machine as I read. I wanted to be God for just a moment. I wanted to run back into Elizabeth’s childhood and rescue her from countless moments of shame and, yes, torment that she was forced to endure in the name of becoming a purified, sinless, worthy follower of Christ.
Her story shifts as she grows older and stronger, and as readers we get glimpses of the Elizabeth we now know online, but we also get glimpses of what that kind of childhood does to a person. As she wrestles with panic attacks, self-harm and despair on her long, long road to a fuller, happier life—first as a teenager and then as a wife and mother—we see the reality of PTSD in all its awful glory as well as the incredible courage and the years of slow and steady determination it takes to leave that kind of toxic, authoritarian faction of faith.
I wish I could share with you how she finally made her way out of the cult her own grandfather started, but what would be the fun in that? I can only tell you that once Elizabeth reached her high school years I couldn’t put the book down. (Favorite chapter 9 quote: “I have no idea who Brandon, Brenda, Dylan and Kelly are, but is sounds as though they really need Jesus.”) The rest of the book I devoured—deliciously and satisfyingly—in one cozy, cookie-butter-fortified (natch) sitting, with an occasional Kleenex for my tears.
Her story is raw. Her story is painful. But her story is also redemptive and beautiful and encouraging in the best ways, and you don’t need to have been raised in a cult to relate to Elizabeth’s trials and triumphs. Her situation might have been unique, but her damaged emotions, her often unhealthy coping mechanisms, and her determination to find physical and spiritual healing are more universal. If you haven’t had a hard life, maybe you’ll pick up some empathy and new insights through the lens of these fascinating pages. And if you have walked a difficult road, I think you’ll see a new author to love, a new take on hope, and inspiration on your own path to freedom.
My advanced review copy of Elizabeth Esther’s Girl at the End of the World was free, but I can honestly say I’d have bought it and written about it either way. I’ve been fascinated by (and waiting to read) Elizabeth’s full story since I first discovered her through this blog post, which chronicles a pivotal moment for her that she does, in fact, touch on in the book. I first found that post a year or two after it was written and have been following her writing ever since. Though her popularity has boomed, she remains approachable and friendly, always growing, always vulnerable and her recent Gentle Lent series and her personal commitment to encouraging others this month has been beautiful.
Girl at the End of the World can be pre-ordered today on Amazon.com or found in bookstores this Tuesday, March 18, 2014.