Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Girl at the End of the World

For I don’t know how long I have been seeing this picture on Patheos when reading the several blogs I follow there. It looked interesting, but I wasn’t particularly moved to read the book. 

Then one of the bloggers I follow on twitter retweeted something that sounded interesting from someone called Elizabeth Esther, and I began following Elizabeth Esther, too. I shortly discovered that Elizabeth Esther is the author of Girl at the End of the World, so I decided that if I could find it at the library, I’d read it. A trip to our library’s website revealed that yes, they had the book (2 copies), I could put a hold on one and have it sent to the library closest to me, and a few days later, there it was. Forty some odd years ago when I got my first (barcodeless, cardboard) EBR Parish Library card, I did not envision such efficiency. Now I’m looking forward to the day when a drone drops the book off at my door.

The book is a memoir of the author’s upbringing in an Apocalyptic church, one started and run by her own family. 

I was raised in a homegrown, fundamentalist Christian group—which is just a shorthand way of saying I’m classically trained in apocalyptic stockpiling, street preaching, and the King James Version of the Bible. I know hundreds of obscure nineteenth-century hymns by heart and have such razor sharp “modesty vision” that I can spot a miniskirt a mile away.Verily, verily I say unto thee, none of these highly specialized skills ever got me a job, but at least I’m all set for the end of the world. Selah.
This excerpt from the back cover sums up both the book’s content and the author’s breezy style, a style that covers a world of heartbreak. In one sense the book is an easy read: it’s written simply, there are no mind boggling statistics or difficult academic concepts to absorb, and it’s broken into short chapters. In another sense, the book is a difficult read, as books about abuse and suffering always are, especially if any of it happens to resonate with some of the reader’s own experiences. Rachel Held Evans described the book as, “the sort of book you plan to read in a week but finish in a day.” My experience was the opposite: I planned to read it in a day but had to keep putting it down because it got to be too much, so it took me closer to three.
Part of what made the book so difficult for me was that the author does not belabor her experiences. Her matter of fact style in describing what she went through (multiple daily spankings, being made to quit an after school activity she loved and needed to get into a private college because it interfered with her numerous chores at home, having a teacher question her science project because when she measured her resting heart rate it was over 100) more than anything she actually says conveys how the bizarre can seem normal when you are raised with it.
In the end, Elizabeth Esther was able to make her way out of the cult she was brought up in, find a new way of living with her husband and children, and even make peace of a sort with her parents. I find it interesting that for her, finding her way to the Catholic Church was part of her healing path. My relationship with my stepmother was a stormy one, but the one thing I am immensely grateful for is that she sent me to a Methodist church and not the Catholic one I had been baptized into. Well, that, and the whole saving my life thing, but it’s pretty much a toss-up in my eyes.

Fortunately, neither Elizabeth Esther nor I are tasked with selecting each other’s spiritual path, and her reasons for becoming attracted to Catholicism make perfect sense to me, even if it’s a path I wouldn’t have chosen. In the end, that’s what makes the book so heartening, the message that we can overcome childhood brainwashing (the author’s own term, from the Prologue) and look at the world through our own eyes. I do recommend reading the book, whether in a day or three or even a week. 


  1. I'll have to see if our library has it. I doubt it - it seems like something that could be too esoteric for them, but who knows. They did after all have Greg Egan (Australian science fiction writer, very unknown here), which surprised me a lot.

    I don't know how I'd go reading it either. I've read some of Razing Ruth, and Libby Anne and a few of the others, and some of that I find extremely difficult to read. I have to admit I find this whole "hey, let's live like we're not actually in the 21st century!" thing really, really hard to take. Also anything where children are hurt currently triggers me, which doesn't help.

  2. I was thinking about this more last night. The sentence "multiple daily spankings" should really be "multiple daily beatings". It's terrifying really - how often are kids naughty enough to be spanked more than once in a day? Especially kids growing up in families where violence is common?

    I do wonder how kids on the autism or ADHD spectrum cope in families like these. I watched a documentary on ADHD recently, and one of the therapists said "the families that come to us have tried everything, they've tried beating it out of them and found it doesn't work..." The families shown were mainstream families (for lack of a better word) - they ran the gamut from working to upper class, and they were trying so hard to do the best for their kids despite it being really, really hard.

    And yet, I'm guessing there's families out there still trying multiple daily beatings, just to see if that helps. *sigh*

    Reading some of the stories, especially the parts about thanking the person doing the beating "sincerely" and with a smile made me cringe. If these were adults - well, it could be a consensual part of the relationship or it would be termed abuse. With kids I can't see how it's anything other than abuse.