Educated by Tara Westover had been on my reading list for quite some time. Now with my second semester of graduate school finishing up I read the memoir within a week. Besides being on both Bill Gates’s and Barack Obama’s night stands it was one of New York Times’s ten best books of 2018.
While the hunger for knowledge is captivating, there is the thread of pure survival that makes this memoir so compelling.
Tara Westover is the youngest of seven children growing up Mormon in a survivalist Idaho family. By the time Tara comes around her mother has almost given up on the notion of homeschooling as the kids are needed in the junkyard by Tara’s dad.
This memoir is about Westover’s journey obtaining an education, going from thinking Europe is a country to receiving a PhD from Cambridge. While the hunger for knowledge is captivating, there is the thread of pure survival that makes this memoir so compelling. For Westover to achieve her educational success is not just to get up to speed with her peers but to face family resistance, abuse and rigorous beliefs. While reading this book I felt Westover was walking a tightrope. She could fall off on either side at any moment.
Scrapping and handling iron and steel, the children find themselves seriously injured on a regular basis. Since the family doesn’t believe in conventional medicine, mother treats the wounds with herbal remedies.
“I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.”
Tara’s older brother Shawn emotionally and physically abuses her. His manipulative abuse looking similar to that of an abusive partner. Hours later he would apologize, give her a gift or convince her she was the one that had it all wrong. For years Tara convinces herself there was nothing wrong in the way he treats her. She would laugh it off; it was all innocent play. She writes: “I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.”
I read a short review of this memoir from a reader that said they were a bit frustrated with Westover’s naivete and belief in her parents after she left her family home to study. I didn’t feel the same way. I know how hard it is to rid yourself of childhood beliefs. Even when confronted with new rationale and contradictory evidence it can take a long time for thought patterns to change. Westover was raised in a family that was taught to be self-reliant in an us-vs-them world. The loyalty towards her family must’ve been enormous.
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Westover writes: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” Coming myself from a black-and-white background I understand what she means. Westover doesn’t dwell on her Mormon or religious background. Although her father’s survivalist end-of-times beliefs stem from religious fundamentalism, Westover doesn’t blame religion in her memoir but speaks of mental illness. It’s her dad’s strong voice and conviction that silences others. There is no room for growth, no searching of other’s truths.
When Tara finally does see that how her family lived was not congruent with how she wanted to live her life she writes: “although I had renounced my father’s world, I had never quite found the courage to live in this one.” She hadn’t been vaccinated, for example. Fear instilled in us by our parents is nothing to laugh about. Knowing something and living something are two different things.
Westover’s discovery of feminism is one example. In the UK she learns of the theory of feminism. Returning home to Idaho she’s witness to a domestic issue between her brother Shawn and his wife. She isn’t able to apply her newly acquired theory quite yet. She doesn’t advise the wife about women’s rights and standing up for herself. Tara falls back into familiar patriarchal ways. Because that feels safer for her in that moment in that place.
When Westover confronts her parents with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her older brother they deny. They try and turn her siblings against her. With some they succeed, with others they don’t. It’s a familiar story. Is it shame that makes the family so desperately want to alter reality for everyone else? They tell people it’s because she isn’t on the righteous path. This is an easy claim. If you’re not a church member any more, you’re an easy mark. Of course it’s you, you’re on the wrong path.
Tara Westover beats many odds to get an education. I find myself in awe of her strength to stand up for herself, questioning everything she was taught and building a successful life in a world she was told to fear.
Last night we were talking with a group of friends on why people are drawn to religion or cults. I was born into religion and as such didn’t make a conscious and informed decision to join a church, but I do have thoughts on this.
Why do people join groups and clubs of any kind? We understand that a sense of belonging and community is a basic human need. There is the social need to share experiences. So is the need to feel special and being acknowledged. We can grasp that symbolism helps us understand difficult concepts and we hold on to relics in hopes they guide us through hard times.
I want to speak to something else though. As humans evolved through millennia we gained the capability to understand and feel our imminent death. The thought of a limited lifespan scares most of us. We want to create something, leave something behind so we can be remembered for years past our deaths. Moreover, we want to live forever. Death scares us.
Religion says we are more important than other life on this earth; it feeds into the human ego.
Religion feeds into this. Religion promises eternal life in one form or the other, it may be reincarnation, heaven, a different spiritual form. Religion says we are more important than other life on this earth; it feeds into the human ego.
When I was seven, or eight, or nine, I studied a prophetic timeline endlessly, rolling it out on the green wooden toy chest in our living room in Birdaard, The Netherlands. I looked at the past, but also at the future. I was delighted I would be part of the rapture—I had to be, I prayed daily to be saved—so I didn’t have to experience the great tribulation that would hit the earth as God would distance himself further from his creation.
My mother would explain how good it all would be afterwards. A new earth—the old one would’ve been destroyed in wars and by Jesus himself—all animals and people would get along and we wouldn’t miss loved ones. Yes, I did have questions then, many of them: “What about the kids who didn’t believe? What about the people in this and that country whose faith was in other Gods?”
for my life to matter, I needed to live right now, here in this moment on earth.
For me, one of the most difficult things of leaving religion behind was to come to terms with the notion that there just might not be anything beyond death. That dead is just dead, as we see all around us in the natural world. Dust to dust. This explains why I explored paths around spirituality and reincarnation; all fascinating views. I wanted to believe there was more. I wanted to matter. I wanted my life to matter. But for my life to matter, I needed to live right now, here in this moment on earth. I needed to stop focusing on something I had no control over; something that may or not may be, a spiritual life beyond death.
We want to see our loved ones again. That is a reason to believe there is a life beyond this one. I feel compassion around this. But maybe, this is just it. Which is why we really have to make the most out of this life and love the crap out of the ones surrounding us.
A couple of weeks ago, I stood before the Pacific Ocean at the southwest corner of Washington state. “How great Thou art,” was the line I was singing to myself as I felt pure awe for the power I was facing. If I have religion, it is this: The ocean, the birds, the nature surrounding me.
My grandma died on Christmas day. Lunch time. A choir sang Christmas carols in the hospital cafe downstairs as her last breath escaped her tired body.
I wasn’t there: I was only six years old. That night in the dark, my mother knelt at my bed. She told me my grandma had gone home to be with grandpa who’d preceded her only four months prior. For two weeks my mom had sat and slept at her mother’s side in the decorated hospital. She’d prayed for her mom to stay and finally let her go.
“I’m an orphan now,” my mom would often say. It was something I’d never really understood until much later. How could my mom, a strong grown-up, be an orphan?
She dreaded the month of December, every year. Hearing Christmas songs made her tear up.
But still, a Christmas tree would appear. We’d have candles, a meal, a celebration with church and school, a book to read.
I tried to fool myself, but that only works for so long.
I think about this now. A season, an anniversary date, a song can cause such a sudden and overwhelming emotion that it can halt your breath. Losing someone during the holidays and then being reminded of it every year as you watch stores being decorated, hear songs played on the radio, must be especially gut wrenching. No wonder my mom dreaded Christmas season.
I didn’t think I was sentimental about dates nor the holidays, until recently. I tried to fool myself, but that only works for so long.
Years of having celebrated Christmas with the kids as a family produced warm fuzzy memories for me. As a mom I shaped a family tradition. Arriving as an immigrant to America without any family nor support, I felt it important to create traditions; you become dependent upon one another. I knew this would change as my kids grew into adulthood, went to college and moved away, yet I didn’t anticipate the effects this would have on me internally. I have always shrugged emotions off: I’m down to earth, I’m not bound to traditions, I’m an atheist.
I didn’t want to buy in to it: the commercialization, the designated date of family celebration.
Watching TV this Christmas Day and overhearing my girlfriend say her sister was spending time with her ex-husband’s family and their children I suddenly started crying. Just a comment. That was all it took. I had been feeling it of course - the absence of my children, the laughter, playing games together, the silliness. Yet, I didn’t want to buy in to it: the commercialization, the designated date of family celebration. Easier said than done when scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, watching TV commercials and all you see are “happy” family get-togethers.
Holidays are hard for different people for different reasons. These last weeks I’ve heard from people who can’t go home as their families don’t accept their sexuality, their partner, their religion or other life choices. Some can’t afford to visit family. Others lost family.
The Hallmark movies aren’t real life. The Instagram photos showcase the best sides of families. Facebook pictures let you see what people want you to see. This much I know.
Just - reach out to others, especially now.
In "Deconstructing My Religion" CBS tells the stories of Ex-Evangelicals: a diverse group of people who left the Evangelical faith of their youth.
Before I watched the special, I had read about it. Mostly positive feedback; people in my community of ex-fundamentalist Christians are happy to see more recognition about the issues we are experiencing in and out of the church when leaving.
I’d read one negative article written by Julia Duin. She called the CBS special a “tiresome diatribe on sex and evangelicals.” Her main criticism of the show was that the special appeared to be one-sided: only people who’d left the evangelical background were interviewed. I thought she had a point and decided to watch the show with an open mind. After all, I believe in fair and objective journalism.
Watching the special it occurred to me that this show was purely about people leaving the Evangelical church, the why of it and the trauma involved. This didn’t require the views of people still in the Evangelical church, as it wasn’t about the people who stayed. The topic was about deconstruction of religion.
Julia Duin comes across as defensive of Evangelicals. She says she didn’t encounter the purity culture (a movement to pledge in sustaining from sex until marriage) in the ’90s even though she covered religion. That makes one wonder. I lived in The Netherlands, even though purity rings were not a thing in my religious community, the purity mentality was preached in evangelical circles across the nation. Ten years ago, my daughter’s friend in Texas was given a purity ring by her brother.
Duin speaks of the movie “A Thief in the Night,” the ’72 movie about the Rapture that terrified young children. She finds it hard to believe that this movie is still being shown in churches today. Well, you better believe it. If it’s not this movie, there are a whole series of new "Left Behind" movies to show to youth groups.
Duin expresses her judgment when she says of Linda Kay Klein, writer of the memoir ‘Pure’: “More than one-third of the show was her complaining about how her rigid upbringing constrained her ability to sleep around later in life.”
Well, I saw the show, and I can tell everyone that Klein was not speaking of “sleeping around,” but even if she did, that would be her prerogative and it sounds like Duin missed the message here.
Duin has a case of plain envy, which she freely admits to: “Of course I am very envious of how Klein got a free 26-minute book trailer on prime time. Guess it’s who you know (and who you want to attack).”
“As I watched, I kept on wondering: What is the purpose of this show?” Duin asks.
Well, since you’re asking…
Chris Stroop, creator of the Twitter hashtag #EmptyThePews said it well: “Making it easier for others to leave and find community.”
Broadcasts such as these bring to the forefront issues that are still very much present in fundamentalist Christian and Evangelical religious communities. People who leave, do so with difficulty and pain. They pick up their lives, find new communities, but still carry the weight of traumatic messages.
As Julie Ingersoll, PhD. says in the special: “Voices critical of the movement deserve to be heard.”
Stroop, Ingersoll and Blake Chastain, host of the Exvangelical podcast, agree that people who left can be seen as stakeholders as they know the Evangelical movement from the inside out.
Ingersoll points out that we are in a critical point in our nation. Ex-Evangelicals are calling our attention to authoritarian threats and outdated concepts that are problematic to democracy.
What hurts me about Duin’s article is her lack of recognizing the trauma people have experienced in churches and the long-lasting effects thereof.
Linda Kay Klein speaks of PTSD symptoms when she talks about shame and the recovery from purity culture. Duin hears “sleeping around.”
Stroop and Chastain speak of watching Rapture movies. They recall stories of kids coming home from school thinking they were “left behind” when their parents weren’t there.
Duin dismisses this “I find it hard to believe churches were still showing that film two decades later, much less that there were huge swaths of evangelical youth who were harmed by it.”
I get it, Julia Duin, you choose not to see the weekly or daily indoctrination that youth across the nation and world are subjected to. You choose to dismiss the psychological effects this has on developing brains. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
In Fact, a new documentary is in the make. Former Evangelical Pastor Andy Herndon is telling the story of the Exvangelical community in “The eXvangelicals.”
More and more of our stories are coming out. They are stories of how we overcame feelings of shame and guilt. They are stories of how we are finding new communities and are redefining ourselves. They are stories of abuse, trauma and anxiety. They are stories of rejection, of loosing faith and finding faith.
There was a time in my life in which I thought I was alone. I thought no-one could possibly understand my fears. I hardly understood them myself. In the last couple of years, I have come to know a community of people who came from different religious backgrounds. As I opened up to them I noticed the similar fears and traumas we had in common. I can’t express how valuable it’s been to me to have gained an understanding of myself through the greater Exvangelical community.
She sat on a low adobe wall; a slim elderly woman wearing a flowing skirt and a sun hat. Her long silver locks fell into her face as she pulled weeds from a garden patch behind her and slid them into a linen bag. She looked up as I strolled by in my shorts, tank top and a camera slung over my shoulder. She had one of those faces that instantly lit up as I said hello. “You have a good day now,” she smiled a wide smile. But then, as if reconsidering, she said “how about I wish you luck today - good luck!” I smiled back and wished her the same.
Maybe this is a sign that I’m on the right path
It was not the first time this week that a fleeting thought entered my mind: ‘Maybe this is a sign that I’m on the right path.’ A thought I’d like to dismiss quickly. I am an atheist and do not believe in signs or the spiritual. I believe in solid science. I believe in randomness, but also in cause and effect.
Nevertheless, as I continued walking the cracked sidewalks of Santa Fe, I felt less self-conscious with my camera. I felt a little brazen even; walking up private driveways to take a shot of a turquoise door or a flower in bloom.
Change is not always chosen. A lover takes their life, a partner dies of cancer, we are laid off. We are forced into difficult instant decision making.
Then there are the changes that develop over years, we awaken to them. A seed grows slowly, we don’t even know it has been planted at all. As it grows, we start feeling the shape of it, it’s edges, it’s urges, it’s questions. We look for the answers, but not necessarily in the right places. But the need for change does not let up, it keeps nudging us, annoyingly so. “I am doing all I can,” we say, “What else is there?”
the need for change does not let up, it keeps nudging us, annoyingly so
One day you might be running your daily mile or driving to the grocery store and a thought just pops in your head. “Why don’t I just…” You immediately want to dismiss the thought. “That’s crazy; I can’t do that!” But the thought is there. You keep going back to it. You twist the thought around. You go online and read more about what you can do with it. Finally, you talk it over with your friends and partner. “I’m thinking about making a change, what do you think...”
You could make a mistake. You are about to take a risk. There is no way of knowing. No-one ever knows what happens next, whatever path you are on. So, you take a shower and a walk. “How about I wish you luck today – good luck!” - the beaming silver-locked lady says. I don’t believe in signs, but I do believe in the wisdom that comes from the generous elderly.
Yes, I’m late in the game. I full well realize this. It was a conscious decision for me not to watch Hulu’s popular show The Handmaid’s Tale. The reason you see was that I am trying to avoid movies and TV-programs that might trigger me into panic attacks. Once my body is in panic mode it takes some time to process what took me there.
Why - you might ask - could the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, be a trigger for me? Well, I wasn’t sure myself – but in my Life After God community I had concluded that it potentially could be. The setting is a Christian fundamentalist community in which the value of women is reduced to property. The few fertile women left live a life in sexual servitude justified by texts from the Bible. Resisting people are beaten down harshly. I didn’t want to take my chances watching the series and be confronted with upsetting materials – especially with violence against women in an oppressing Christian setting.
We hear how rights that have been fought hard for may vanish from under our eyes.
One afternoon last week I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and saw another reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. I say ‘another’ as it wasn’t the first one I had seen these last couple of weeks. As Trump is about to announce his pick for a judge for the Supreme Court we read stories about the possibility of Roe vs Wade being overturned. We hear how rights that have been fought hard for may vanish from under our eyes.
“I think I’m ready to see The Handmaid’s Tale now” I said to my girlfriend. That same evening we started the show and we’ve seen a couple of episodes since. One night, before I fell into a restless sleep, the image of a hanging woman kept haunting me. She had been condemned of having a same-sex relationship. I may not see the whole series. For now, the show seems oddly relevant, or in my girlfriend’s words “Trumpian.”
the image of a hanging woman kept haunting me
In a recent article in the Daily Mail it is mentioned that one of Trump’s potential picks for the Supreme Court vacancy is Amy Coney Barrett. Coincidentally, Amy Barret is a member of the Christian group People of Praise, which is a highly controversial group that served as an inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s book. Atwood waited three years before publishing The Handmaid’s tale as she thought her book was just too out there. But then she realized that certain things in her book were happening. In some religious communities the term ‘handmaids’ were used for women. Women were encouraged to be silent and to be submissive to their husbands.
“But why can’t women speak in church?” I asked the question for the ‘-th’ time. My mother responds with the verse in which apostle Paul writes to the early Christians in Corinth. It tells how women need to remain silent, be in submission as the law requires. It is there, black on white, in the Bible – the word of God. I can, and will, ask again. I may get a verse from Timothy or Peter, but it will boil down to the same answer. There may be a picture even; Jesus above man, man above woman. There may be some explanation of how women testify through their obedience and how they watch over the children.
In The TV-series there are several moments when the question is presented “how did we let this happen?” The answer seems to be that there was a takeover that happened in stages; The House, The Senate, The Supreme Court.
Their ideal world is a nightmare for others.
Yes, The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction. But with fiction come insights. The Christian right have gone to great lengths to justify immoral behaviors to vote in a candidate that would back up their agenda. They continue this trend and tell themselves that their God is in control. This to me already sounds like a dystopian story. Their ideal world is a nightmare for others.
Therefore, I started watching The Handmaid’s Tale, a potentially triggering show. I want to learn and not be complacent. We can’t afford it.
About forty minutes into Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix standup special she addresses her difficult coming out story. Jokingly, Hannah recalls a visit with her grandmother who asks her if she is dating a special gentleman. Hannah admits the reason she hadn’t come out to her grandma all these years was because she still carried shame with her.
Hannah Gadsby grew up in Tasmania in the Bible belt even though her parents did not raise her with religion. In her teens a prickly national debate on the topic of homosexuality was a major news headline. About seventy percent of the public believed homosexuality was a sin and should be criminalized.
“When you soak a child in shame they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thoughts of self-worth”
By the time she was an adolescent, Hannah says, the damage was done, the homophobia from the outside had rooted itself within her.
At this point in the show Hannah captures the audience with her intense eyes, one cannot help but feel for the child in her. “When you soak a child in shame they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thoughts of self-worth.”
She speaks about the metaphorical closet, but I can see the young teenager in the closet so clearly; feel the shallow breaths, the small space it occupies, crouching down on the wooden planks – there is no place for her in this world.
“Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in”
Hannah continues “Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in.” I try to let the words sink in.
Hannah is on a roll and I swallow hard. “When you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes…as natural as gravity.”
The show continues, but I know I need to go back to this. Hannah makes the point that we need to rethink how we debate difficult topics. When I think back at my youth certain topics were immediately judged; same-sex relationships, masturbation, sex before marriage, bars, dancing, certain clothing, certain gender roles, racism. I can remember feeling shame very early on, as well as self judgement. The lasting impact of this has been detrimental.
“I need to tell my story properly"
I cried for Hannah Gadsby. I still do. I know parents are of the best intent. We, as a global society need to do better though for our children. Shaming and judging are not the way. What does it accomplish really?
Today it is Pride in Santa Fe. I am still not comfortable with the 'gay scene', so to speak. I want to be, but I am not. That is why I am not always at the dances. That is why I sometimes leave with a panic attack.
In Hannah Gadsby’s words “I need to tell my story properly.”
The scenes in the memoir Joy Unspeakable are so vividly described that at times I laughed out loud while in other moments I was holding back tears.
Joy Hopper’s moving story starts with her adoption into a fundamentalist Pentecostal family. Hopper takes the reader through her childhood and awkward teenage years and into her marriage to a controlling and abusive husband.
How did Joy manage to cope with the restrictive beliefs of her childhood? Moreover, why did she stay in a loveless marriage? Joy says her positive attitude provided her with rose-colored glasses with which she could see and explain the world. In every negative experience was surely a positive lesson God was teaching her.
“As sure as I’m standing here tonight, one of you will probably die before camp next year. Are you ready to meet Jesus?”
Joy is an engaging writer and infuses her story with humor and a refreshing candor.
As a teenager Joy decides to be baptized and she colorfully describes the experience after being submerged: “I labored off stage, sloshing and leaking and dripping all the way to the exit door, where I had to descend a very narrow flight of wooden stairs. The next thing the congregation heard was a thump, fa-thump, fa-thump, fa-thump fa-thump, fa-thump bang…. Why couldn’t God just send a sweet dove to land on my head to show his favor?”
With her story Joy addresses how fear-inducing techniques are used within a church. In one chapter she describes attending a church camp in which the youth pastor urges the youngsters to get right with the Lord. He continues to tell the kids about a former camper who hadn’t been ready to commit to Jesus and who had died the following day on his way home. “Look around!” he [the youth pastor] continued… “as sure as I’m standing here tonight, one of you will probably die before camp next year. Are you ready to meet Jesus?”
“I look back to this time with deep sadness, realizing I had been denied a basic human need in the name of pleasing an emotionally abusive god"
Being fully indoctrinated Joy wants to live in the faith and avoid hell at all cost. She writes about worrying concerning sins not yet forgiven as well as the imminent rapture. One paragraph that stood out to me was also from her teenage years. She relates how she doesn’t join in regarding a dance exercise at school because of her religion. At the time she feels she needs to stand up for her belief and that separating herself from her classmates is a small price to pay for eternal happiness (rose-colored glasses). She writes “I look back to this time with deep sadness, realizing I had been denied a basic human need in the name of pleasing an emotionally abusive god who demanded I feel humiliated and alienated as a test of my allegiance. This is toxic religion at its very core.”
It wasn’t easy to read the writer’s life with her abusive husband and as a reader I wanted to scream “run away!” Joy details through honest story telling why she stayed in the relationship. The book provides a window into the minds of fundamentalist Christian thinking and the reasons why it is difficult to get away from rigid belief systems.
once you start pulling on a loose thread of a tightly knit sweater it doesn’t take much for it to unravel
I highly recommend this memoir to anyone who is curious about fundamentalist Christianity or who grew up in a similar environment. What happened to Joy? Well, once you start pulling on a loose thread of a tightly knit sweater it doesn’t take much for it to unravel into a heap of fibers. And then – you can make it into something else entirely.
Zondags gaan we tweemaal naar de kerk – het is eigenlijk geen kerk, we noemen het de Vergadering, als in Vergadering der Gelovigen. De Vergadering probeert zo dicht mogelijk volgens de apostel Paulus’ beschrijving van de eerste gemeenten te komen, zonder dominee of een leidinggevende organisatie. Daarvoor rijden we naar de stad en daarom wordt er wat over ons gefluisterd in het dorp – er zijn immers al twee kerken ter plekke, de Hervormde en Gereformeerde kerk?
Mijn moeder blijft meestal thuis want zij voelt zich ‘er niet bij horen’. Dus dat betekent dat ik als enig meisje in het mannen gedeelte zit bij mijn vader en broers. Ik voel me tussen het gebrom van de mannen tijdens het zingen niet erg op mijn gemakt en steel zo nu en dan een blik naar het vrouwen gedeelte waar dochters samen met hun moeders gekleed in passende rokken zitten en melodieus meezingen. Mijn oma zit er ook, haar armen over elkaar hoog op haar ronde buik. Ze draagt rechte bloemetjes jurken en dure hoeden met veren. Althans, mijn moeder zegt dat de oma er een kapitaal voor uitgeeft en dat het toch om eenvoudigheid moet gaan. Een doekje op de kop moet goed genoeg voor De Heere zijn, hoewel de vrouwen die dat dan weer doen er toch wel wat armoe-zalig bijlopen. Er is ook een jonge vrouw met breed gerande hoeden die korte rokjes en hoge hakken draagt. Dat lijkt ook nergens op, volgens mijn moeder, maakt de mannen alleen maar gek, en haar man preekt bovendien zondags ook nog. De meisjes hoeven hun hoofden nog niet te bedekken – dat kan later, als ze er zelf voor hebben gekozen. Sommige meisjes beginnen ermee zodra ze besluiten zich te laten dopen en anderen wachten ermee totdat ze het Avondmaal gaan aanvragen.
Heel soms kondigt Mem aan dat ze toch maar even meegaat op een middagje, en dan zit ik vol trots naast haar. Ze kauwt tijdens de hele dienst op fruitmentos en blijft zitten onder het zingen en de gebeden. Ik stel me voor dat ik net als de andere meisjes ben. Heit glundert onze richting op – maar zodra we thuis zijn zegt Mem dat die-en-die helemaal geen dag heeft gezegd, en dat ze er toch maar moeite mee heeft als de oudsten vroom aan het preken zijn terwijl er nooit geen belangstelling voor ons wordt getoond. Mijn vaders blik verandert dan en hij is weer de in zichzelf gekeerde man die wij kennen. Dan weet ik dat het weer een tijdje zal duren voordat ze meekomt.
“De Vergadering is een goed plekje, maar is een heel moeilijk plekje”, dat zegt Mem veel, dat heeft ze weer van haar moeder gehoord. Ondanks dat Mem niet gedoopt is en ook niet aan het Avondmaal gaat, dat elke zondagochtend wordt ‘gevierd’, heeft ze wel de meeste historische verhalen over de Vergadering. Ze verteld over de ooms en bekende broeders die grote evangelische tentdiensten hielden en Johannes de Heer liederen zongen rond het traporgel waar Beppe op speelde vroeger thuis op de boerderij. Zij was verliefd op een wereldse jongen in het dorp, die Elvis Presley liederen zong met zijn gitaar – Love Me Tender. “Maar daar kwam Heit op zijn brommertje aan”, vertelt Mem, en Beppe vond Heit toch wel een hele goede en vertrouwelijke jongen.
’s Ochtends snijd ik de korsten van mijn boterham en doe er niks op. Ik speel Avondmaal, en breek een stukje van het brood af en stop het in mijn mond waarna ik het bordje doorgeef aan een denkbeeldig iemand, wij knikken eerbiedig naar elkaar en sluiten onze ogen om de diepe betekenis van dit brood te overdenken terwijl we aan het kauwen zijn. Voor jaren, eet ik mijn brood zo – telkens het bordje doorgevend aan de persoon naast mij.
My mom called them jokingly ‘little goats’, as they walked single file, from tall to small, into the Brethren meeting hall. Admittedly, the girls did resemble the goats from my illustrated fairy tale book; pointy faces with handkerchiefs as head coverings and long checkered skirts. I loved looking at the youngest girl who had dimples in her cheeks and smiled with her head cocked to one side. The mother patiently adjusted the handkerchief over her daughter’s white pigtails as the girl repeatedly tore it off while looking over shoulder at us, the teenagers in the back making faces at her.
The family was a bit odd, even to Northern Dutch Brethren standards. For one, they seemed more conservative – already the young girls were wearing head coverings, which usually started for adult or adolescent women once they officially partook in the weekly ritual of communion. The husband, brother W. was German and came from a closed Brethren branch known to be more restrictive. The wife opened up at times and revealed that she was not allowed many freedoms such as wearing jeans or cutting her already thinning hair. Secondly, the family would disappear from the church for months, then reappear and ask for help, as in financial assistance. This would be a conundrum for the church. They were required to help those in need but questioned whether they were enabling a man who was using the church as a social security policy.
Such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod.
As long as brother W. said the right words he was a true church member. Brother W. suggested songs to sing, spoke prayers and participated in the communion. The one son they finally had, after all daughters, got to wear a little suit to the services and one could not help but smile. I remember studying the girls and feeling sorry for them. I wondered if they were being teased at school – such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod in approval.
Once my dad came home after visiting the family. “It is weird,” he said, “the kids all had to bow to me in greeting.” My dad was trying to tell brother W. that this wasn’t necessary, but W. didn’t want to hear any of it and made every kid bow for my dad, hands clasped together, which made my dad feel uncomfortable.
Was the church a safe haven for men like brother W.?
This week the news came out regarding the Turpin family in California. “How is it possible nobody has reported anything?” This was a common sentiment upon hearing the news. The religious Turpin family home schooled their children and lived in a neighborhood where houses are close in. When the 17-year old daughter managed to call 911 the police found the rest of the children malnourished, shackled and locked into the home. It turns out neighbors did notice odd things; the children hardly ever being out or being out at late hours and not responding to conversations. One comment made me think about the family in my church so many years ago “When kids are being that obedient, it is a clue something is wrong.”
Brother W. was tried and sentenced a couple of years ago. There had been sexual misconduct in the family, to what degree I’m not sure. Was the church, the church I grew up in, The Brethren, a safe haven for men like brother W.? Protected by a community, the Bible, brothers and elders as long as the right words were being spoken and heard? Did the church not look at the signs – the extreme requirement for obedience and submission that point to abuse? Did they refuse to see the signs? Was my church culpable to abuse?
We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
I know that in today’s world there is more awareness around abuse and signs around it than 30 years ago. However, families such as the Turpins still live among us. There is no excuse to provide them a safe haven or turn away from signs when we see them – we need to take a risk and report them. We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
Last I heard Brother W. is participating in communion again. “God forgives everything,” The Brethren teach. “Not that” I say. We need to protect the children.
Pietje - say Peach-a!