Friday, July 11, 2014

‘Girl at the End of the World’ (Book Review)

You might be familiar with the name of Elizabeth Esther. Anyone scouring the internet for information about authoritarian cults, the “quiverfull” movement, courtship and betrothal, modest dressing, and patriarchy in general would likely come across her name, although she was never really part of the homeschooling movement. Elizabeth Esther has spoken out a lot about authoritarian cults and the Pearl method of child abuse…er, discipline. During the brief time I read her blog, I was curious about her personal experience with the things she criticized. Perhaps she was waiting for a better time to share her story, such as now.

Presenting Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future (Convergent Books, 2014): This brief memoir tells of the author’s childhood, marked by brainwashing, humiliation, and physical and emotional abuse disguised as discipline. The Assembly is a cult that demands complete allegiance, and as the granddaughter of its founder George Geftaky, the pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. She found comfort in inflicting severe punishments on her cat, became addicted to masturbation, and developed a case of what appears to be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Most would agree, that’s one messed up childhood.

However, unlike many a cult member in history, we might say Elizabeth Esther was extremely fortunate. Having the benefit of a somewhat sympathetic mother, she had educational opportunities that might have otherwise been closed off to her as a female in a patriarchal cult. While some girls fear being forced into a marriage to someone they hate, she entered into a parent-approved love-match with a man who later developed his own misgivings about their religion and left with her. And while many ex-cult members remain estranged from their families for the rest of their lives, she has had the joy of forgiving and reuniting with her parents.

While controversial for sure, Girl at the End of the World is likely to become a favorite for many readers. The story is engaging even if the chapters, arranged more by topic than chronology, make for a choppy reading. At the end, there are some questions that may be appropriate for Bible studies and book clubs, and readers will likely find endless possibilities in topics for discussion: children’s roles as missionaries, fathers’ disrespect for teen daughters’ bodies, Roman Catholic Mariology embraced as a reaction against patriarchy, etc. I’m very happy that Elizabeth Esther finally decided to share her story, and I hope that even readers who might disagree with how it has turned out will still appreciate her message.