My Review of Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther
Posted on March 21, 2014
Readers are often drawn to memoirs that are either very close to their own experiences, or else very different from their own experiences. There is comfort for a reader in discovering a narrative that matches their own; their is thrill is unraveling a narrative that is foreign and bewildering.
I suspect that many people who pick up Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther will be those who have experienced some level of fundamentalist Christianity. Maybe they were part of a fundamentalist cult or organization, or perhaps they were just raised by parents who fully embraced the parenting methods of Michael and Debi Pearl. This is the book’s most natural audience, and it’s where I fit–although I would never claim to have been part of as rigid a community as this author, and I never experienced abuse at the hands of my parents.
While folks who are disinterested in spiritual memoirs might not be willing to give the book a chance, and might never notice it, there are still many irreligious individuals who might be intrigued enough to pick it up or download it. This is because it is so different from their own lives. Lots of people who grew up outside of the religious right/moral majority/Word of Faith/evangelical/charismatic/Jesus Movement are curious about a way of life that seems so strange, manipulative, abusive, and cult-ish.
Girl at the End of the World is the first-hand account of a woman who was raised in The Assembly, a Christian group that lasted from the 70s-early 2000s and must be called a cult by any person who is looking at them objectively. (They sound a lot like Faith Assembly, the cult my parents were members of when they were first married.) The group was founded by her grandfather, George Geftakys, and so there was a lot of pressure on Elizabeth’s family to be the perfect Assembly family. The perfect Assembly family had contingency plans for the Rapture. The perfect Assembly family punished its children with daily spankings to drive out rebellion. The perfect Assembly family avoided becoming contaminated by “the World” and its evil ways. The perfect Assembly family was a terrifying place to call home. In the one environment where a child should find peace and love and comfort, Elizabeth found fear, anxiety, guilt, and punishment.
One of the most haunting images of the book is that of the author at five years old, squatting over a hand-dug toilet trench at summer camp, ready to receive a paddle spanking to her bare bottom because she is “rebellious” in her inability to poop into the trench. Another is when Elizabeth has children of her own and is expected to begin using corporal punishment on her one-year-old daughter, who has reached for chocolate against instruction at her first birthday party.
“Oh, don’t take the chocolate away!”
Startled, I glance up. Grandma is gesturing at me to move the bowl back to its original place. “Keep the chocolate in front of her. This is a perfect opportunity to test her obedience.”
The room falls silent. In a group, grandma usually remains quiet and simply watches everyone. But when she does speak, everyone is expected to listen.
“You need to purposely cross Jewel’s will,” Grandma explains, scooting forward on the couch. “You should set up little temptations to test her obedience.”
I feel all eyes swivel toward me. Heat flows up my spine, and it is suddenly difficult to breathe. I watch my hand, as if in slow motion, slide the bowl of chocolates back within Jewel’s reach. I know it is pointless to look to Matt for help–it’s very clear who is in charge here: Grandma Betty.
My daughter’s birthday party is no longer a celebration. It is a child training lesson. . .
Jewel reaches for the chocolate again. “No touch,” I say, my voice trembling.
Jewel pauses and looks back at me with her big blue eyes. There are bits of cake in her blond curls and a smidge of frosting on the little dimple in her chin. Please, baby girl, don’t touch it.
Jewel looks back at the chocolate and then grabs the bowl.
Grandma sucks breath through her teeth. “Oh, my, my, Jewel. You just disobeyed your mother!”
Is that excitement I hear in her voice?
The abused child, now given the opportunity to take the first step toward abusing her own child. What a haunting, haunting pairing of moments.
The two questions I want to answer with this review are:
What does Girl at the End of the World provide to former or current fundamentalists?
What does Girl at the End of the World provide to folks who have never been a part of a fundamentalist or abusive religious community?
For people who have moved out of fundamentalism–or are considering such a move–Elizabeth’s book may provide something really important: a voice that says, “Your faith can survive.” Many of the narratives I’ve read in which people leave fundamentalism end with the storyteller leaving her faith. I respect those writers’ journeys, but I also know that some of us are never going to be shake our faith entirely. When we embrace it, it troubles us, but when we reject it, it haunts us. Elizabeth provides us with insight into the mind of an intellectual, logic-driven, curious woman who searches for faith despite the fact that other faith-holders caused her so much pain in her childhood. I love the moment near the end of the book when she realizes that her religious upbringing has centered entirely on the theological arguments of men–what would her faith look like, she wonders, if she stopped listening to the dominant voice of American Christianity: the men? It is from there that she discovers Mary.
This narrator’s voice in A Girl at the End of the World is one of, “I’ve been there.” She wrote on her blog that publishing the memoir feels like being naked, and that much is true–there are things in the book that I can imagine were quite difficult for her to reveal. I would think that was especially true of things that we are trained in fundamentalist churches to think of as shameful, like masturbation, physical intimacy with someone who isn’t your spouse (even if that intimacy is as innocent as having your ankles caressed), and self-harm. That nakedness does not leave the reader with a feeling of icky voyeurism. Instead, it is artfully done so that the reader feels that the author has revealed herself, but not in a showy or over-sharing way. Elizabeth tells us the stories we need to know in order to understand her life and her psyche. She doesn’t tell us stories in the way that some memoirists are guilty of, splattering emotions on the page for us to try to make sense of. I’ve read a lot of memoir, including spiritual memoir, and this is very well done.
What does this book do for people who have been a part of communities like this? It tells them that they are not alone. It shows them that their story can be told artfully. It may even be therapeutic for some readers. I hope that it causes others to question some of the beliefs they have taken for granted or parenting strategies they might not have realized were so harmful. It can be challenging and beautiful to find one’s own experiences staring back at them from art, and that is what this book might be for many readers.
What does the book give to those who come from outside of this environment?
Sometimes, narratives of cult experiences can be confusing for unfamiliar readers because the world of the cult is simply not explored in enough detail. Sure, there are the troubling details of abuse and manipulation, but not an exploration of why those things were allowed to flourish. Julia Scheeres’s A Thousand Lives, which tells the story of Jonestown, does a great job explaining why a thousand people became the victims of Jim Jones’s homicidal leadership, and in Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther explains the why of the Assembly’s abuse. Everything she experiences as a child is tied in with the direct teachings of the cult, which means that an unfamiliar reader is more likely to understand what the Rapture has to do with spanking or why a nine-year-old would be preaching on a street corner.
The book also does something interesting: it shows that for my generation of Christian fundamentalists (the last of Gen X, just before the Millennials arrived), there wasn’t such an extreme focus on The Big Two of current fundamentalism: abortion and homosexuality. Sure, those issues were discussed in the 70s and 80s and 90s, and those of us raised in fundamentalism during those decades just knew that those things were very, very wrong, but there was much more attention paid to the ideas of the End Times, healing, confession of sins, and preaching the gospel to an unsaved world. This book all but ignores these two major issues that most people outside of the church would assume are the defining factors of fundamentalism. The absence of those two topics from thebook shows how things have changed. It shows that being anti-gay and anti-legal abortion are newer on the fundamentalist landscape than many of us realize or remember. They are so important now to a certain segment of Christianity that they dwarf everything else. If you want to read an interesting take on why conservative Christianity took aim at these two issues, check out Mel White’s 2006 book Religion Gone Bad. Spoiler: certain Christians used these two issues to create fear among believers and gain additional political power.
I recommend Girl at the End of the World for its honest, intimate telling of the fundamentalist Christian experience. I recommend it for Elizabeth Esther’s thoughtful voice. I recommend it for the fact that to some, it may serve as a warning of which way not to go, and for others, a celebration of how far they have come.