Theology

"Girl at the End of the World" by Elizabeth Esther

girl at the end of the world

I started reading Elizabeth Esther’s blog around this time last year. I don’t remember how I found her– probably by following a long trail of link-crumbs– but the second I stumbled into her talking about Michael and Debi Pearl and Victoria’s Secret panties, I was hooked. When I found out that she was writing a book, I knew I wanted it. When I found out that she was writing about her “escape from fundamentalism in search of faith with a future,” I knew it would be a book I’d need to read.

I was right.

I got it in the mail a few weeks ago, and I finished it by that night because I couldn’t put it down. Handsome (my partner) would try to ask me a question and I would just make a shushing motion and then read him a quote, mostly because I wanted to start running through the streets reading it out loud, but that would be crazy.

Fortunately, I have a blog, and I can run through the internet’s streets shouting about this book.

There were so many moments when I had to stop and cry because all I could think was I’ve been there, I know this, I know what this is like, this is what it’s like SOMEONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE.

When she described Sister Kathleen I thought of one of the women in my church-cult. She was bright, and vivacious, and she laughed as loud and as free as she wanted. She did her hair in fancy up-dos. She wore makeup. She came to church once wearing a slightly-shorter-than-knee-length chiffon skirt that scandalized the 12-year-old version of me, and yet . . . I wanted to be her. She was bright and lovely. She was my Kathleen.

She told of how she started seeing boys for the first time, the first time she had a crush, the first time she fell in love, and I remembered sitting in the Palm’s Grille with my first ever crush and he’s promising to write me letters and my heart is turning over in my chest because a boy just promised to write me letters, oh, what does this mean, could he be the one, no, don’t think about that you can’t give your heart away like this.

Then she talks about how her father forced her to resign from the positions she’d earned at school, and my heart stops. And I start crying. Because I know that feeling. I know the weight of that boulder crushing my chest. I wish it wasn’t something I could understand, but oh I do.

That is what Elizabeth captured. She took all those moments– all the heart-thrilling, heart-shattering moments– and wrapped them up in a book. She wrote a book about what she went through, but it is also a book about what we went through. There are burning-bright memories in the minds of every child who grew up in cultish fundamentalism, and they are so bright we flinch away from them, so gharishly vivid we don’t know how to put them into words.

She gave that to us. She gave us the words.

But the most wonderfully beautiful thing about what she’s written is that it isn’t just a book for us. I believe it could be powerful and healing for many of us, but it’s also for the not-us.

I’m looking across the living room at my partner as I read it, at my wonderful partner who loves me but doesn’t understand. It’s good that he doesn’t know this, that he doesn’t have to carry this, but there are times when he looks at me and his eyes are sad because I am at the dining room table trying to eat a grilled cheese sandwich and I can’t because I’m sobbing into my tomato soup because the pastor made a joke about spanking infants in the sermon that morning and all I can see are terrified baby eyes staring at me.

If you care about someone who grew up in a spiritually abusive church and you didn’t– you need to read this book. It’ll show you the way things probably were for them.

If you’re a pastor, you need to read this book, because it will open up an entire world of hurt and suffering and pain that is mind-bendingly difficult to understand unless you’ve been there. Elizabeth will take you there.

And she’ll show all of us what it looks like on the other side. The still-hurting, still-healing side, but also the getting better side.

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  • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I read it in a few sittings on Wednesday and have been slowly digesting it ever since, not wanting to talk or even write about it much because it stirred up so many memories, so much grief and hurt and anger. The scene where she was forced to give up her own dreams for her life, and the scene at her one-year-old’s birthday party, were particularly upsetting. But I love it because it revealed so much of what’s wrong with this sham culture masquerading as Christianity, and also because it gave us a relatable and inspiring heroine who finally had the courage to fight back.

  • I stopped going to church when I was about fourteen. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I figured out that life could teach me much more than any angry man behind a pulpit. I was lucky enough to have a mother who agreed. I’m glad you finally found a book that tells the story you lived.

  • I just finished this last night! While I didn’t grow up in that kind of environment, I’ve done a lot of research on cults and her whole book had so many red flags. One of the things that’s kind of lacking in cult literature is stuff written by people who were raised in it from the start, and that’s why I got the book in the first place… but Elizabeth really drew me in in a big way.

    What I found interesting and incredibly sad were all the ways her mother essentially tried to be her friend, and be on her side, and be loving and caring in secret… and then immediately give in and tell tales to her father or refuse to stand up for Elizabeth, even when she knows what’s about to happen will hurt her badly. It really showed how poisonous only having one person allowed to make important decisions really gets.

    I loved her ending to the Sister Kathleen chapter; “I hope she’s somewhere singing Verdi.” That made me tear up, because I hope so, too. Cults tend to draw people who are “in between”; something terrible has happened to change their entire life, or they’ve just graduated college but haven’t really entered the world, are between high school and college… have just retired but don’t really know what to do with their time… and I saw that reflected in Elizabeth’s parents in a big way. They were both “in between” things, and trying to figure out some stability.

    It’s a short book, but a powerful one. I was very impressed.

  • Well, this sounds like an important read to me. Thanks for the heads up, Sam.

  • I’m so glad you loved it, Samantha! It’s a very hard read in someways, but so very healing, too. I really hope this book gets into many, many people’s hands who need it. Thanks for writing a review!

  • Samantha, thank you so much for introducing this book. I checked it out on Amazon and it looks great! It is now on my ‘to read’ list. Thanks!

  • Such a heartbreaking book. I’ve read a lot of narratives of people leaving fundamentalist communities, and sometimes the stories feel forced. Or, they’re written by someone with an interesting, marketable story but who isn’t a *writer.* Fortunately, Elizabeth Esther has an interesting, marketable story, and she IS a writer. Most exciting, though, is the fact that she has written a narrative that stands on its own as literary art, but that will support people who have left these kinds of communities–or are trying to.

  • Thanks for sharing…will be checking it out.

  • I too just recently finished reading Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther!

    When I was reading her book I shed a lot of tears. But is also given me new fire and resolve to keep speaking out…
    I can’t recommend this book enough. Although it might cause some emotional pain for some of us, it has been a very healing experience for me – reminding me of the sickness that I left and to have hope for the future.

  • Upon your recommendation, I have purchased and read the book in 2 days! It was a great read. I also recommend the book to anyone and plan to pass it on to my 25 year old daughter next!

    I have left a very conservative church after 25 years of being associated with it. It is really all I know of Christianity. I am very thankful that I never experienced the kind of abuse Elizabeth Ester did. The messages I received were much more subliminal than what she experienced, and therefore, for me, were much harder to identify and pinpoint.

    However, I also homeschooled all of my children and was a in the homeschool community for 18 years beginning in 1993. This puts me squarely in the ultra-conservative quadrant of an already conservative church. As I reflect, I now see that many of the overt teachings about submitting to your husband and how to discipline your children really came for the homeschooling community and not necessarily my church. From the homeschoolers I learned about the Pearls and Goddards and etc. but never subscribed to their teachings or read their books. But it was in my periphery and I was friends with other mothers who espoused these teachings.

    I’m a nonconformist to my core, so as soon as everybody else is jumping on a bandwagon, I feel compelled to resist. Maybe that trait (that I always regarded and was imputed to me as a weakness) really saved me and my children from abuse!!

    My kids are now 26, 25, and 21. I was constantly put down by my homeschooling peers (other homeschooling moms) for not making my children “submit” enough, or not being “submissive” enough to my husband, for being too independent, too strong-willed, too opinionated. When people would read the newest book by an author such as Debbi Pearl and passed it around the homeschooling circles, I asked questions such as “why?”. My philosophy was always that I wanted my children to be figure out who THEY were, what THEY were good at, and what THEY wanted to do, not have some so-called expert tell me how to raise my children.

    Also, I thought the curriculum that everyone was using was expensive rubbish. BJU and Abeka were the only curricula available when I first started homeschooling, and upon perusing a friend’s copies, decided that their biased rewriting of history and science was ridiculous, and instead got a public library card (for free) and lots of actual books and that was our curriculum.

    I was called a bad mother and a bad wife more times than I can count. When my husband of 21 years left our family, one person said, “No wonder he left. She has always been so independent and strong-willed.” Then I was basically kicked out of our homeschooling group.

    I’m not really trying to pat myself on the back. I’m filtering what I lived through and the information I learned from Elizabeth Esther and I am feeling…well…validated. I was criticized and shunned by my subculture for so long because I followed my instincts and could not be other than myself no matter how much I wanted to fit in. And now I see that, for me and for my children, I did the right thing after all.

    The way I escaped was that I was basically kicked out of the homeschool group,and although I was hurt at the time, is okay. Then I finally left my conservative church, too, due to a patriarchal system that silenced and shamed and shunned a 17-year-old rape victim…and that was the last straw.

    The real reason I bought Elizabeth’s book was that I wanted to find out where she went from there, and by extension, where do I go from here?