Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: God and Family

Plot Summary:

  • Michael realizes he’s been incredibly bad at actually taking care of Angel.
  • He takes her to Sacramento, where he buys her fabric for clothes.
  • He takes her to church, where she has a panic attack.
  • On the way back to the farm, they meet a family in a broken wagon.
  • Michael offers to let them stay in his cabin, informs Angel they’ll be sleeping in the barn.
  • Angel has a flashback to when Duke had her sterilized.

***

This section brings us back to more character introspection instead of action; Francine halts plot movement in order to have the space to tell us how Angel and Michael feel about everything instead of integrating that into the storytelling. I know I’ve started basically every review post saying “this is a badly written book,” but it’s true, and I just keep being reminded of it. So, I’m passing that on to you, dear readers.

Chapter seventeen opens with how guilty and dirty Angel feels– she “wanted to make up for what she had done, and sought to do it by labor” (211). This is, clearly, Francine beating us over the head with the salvation allegory she’s worked into Redeeming Love, and is condemning Angel for thinking that works can earn forgiveness. It’s also making sure we the reader know that Angel has done something that needs forgiveness– and we should all be at a loss for what, but we’re not. Angel has done nothing. She was abducted, and escaped her abuser at the first opportunity … and then was forcibly dragged back again. As Francine’s readers, though, we “know” what Angel did “wrong.” Satan told her that she deserved independence and freedom, and she believed his lie. She’s not just Gomer, now– she’s also Eve (217).

This is where Angel begins accepting Michael’s abuse. He’s forcibly demonstrated that she can’t escape him, no matter how she resists. He won’t use her name, he won’t let her leave, he orders her around (“Go to bed” [212] and “You’re going with me” [214]) and neither verbal or physical refusal stops him. He will simply overpower her; she has no choice left but to accept that this is her life now.

So, like most abuse victims, she turns to scrupulousness. If defiance won’t work, maybe doing everything she can to make sure her abuser is happy will. He told her that the garden was her responsibility (212)– so maybe if she works the garden perfectly he’ll see her as a human being worth respecting. If she anticipates his desires, if she makes the cabin comfortable, if she cooks flawlessly and obeys instantly … maybe just maybe he’ll “forgive” her and stop his abuse. If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because this is the method advocated by every single complementarian marriage-advice book on the planet. The way to a happy and healthy marriage is by being the perfect homemaker. If you’re not dutifully submissive and fulfilling your patriarchal gender roles, your husband will be unhappy and angry and take it out on you. It makes sense that this is the path Francine has Angel take.

***

This section largely deals with Angel’s understanding of religion and God. Frustratingly, her point of view is basically a badly-informed evangelical stereotype of Catholicism, and what’s “wrong” with her understanding of God is “Catholic.” She has a “Catholic” understanding of the Garden of Eden, her interpretation of Bible stories aren’t evangelical so they’re wrong, and of course Catholics don’t read their Bible.

What we as the reader are supposed to take away from this part of the story is that Francine’s view of God is horribly wrong. Evangelicals of course know that God wants to have a relationship with us, that he loves us, that forgiveness and grace are freely available if we just say the word. Angel, however, think that God is angry and wrathful and vengeful, and is waiting up in heaven to crush her “like a bug” (227). She even introduces the Problem of Evil:

Michael took her hand again and wove his fingers with hers. “God had nothing to do with it.”

Her eyes felt strangely hot and gritty. “He didn’t stop it either, did he? Where’s the mercy you’re always reading about? I never saw any given to my mother.” Michael was silent for a long time after that. (229)

Honestly, this is the first thing Francine’s done that I’ve somewhat appreciated. Angel’s life, as Michael described, has been “hell,” and God in his heaven had never intervened. This is a legitimate question, and one I’ve never satisfactorily answered for myself. Redeeming Love doesn’t provide any answers, either– at least not here. I imagine we’ll get the “free will” answer at some point.

However, what Angel and the reader are supposed to understand is that God is not like her father, or Duke, or any of the men she’s known– God is like Michael. God is forgiving and loving and wants to know us, like Michael loves and forgives and wants to know Angel. The problem with all of that, of course, is that Michael is an abuser. Angel thinks that God is waiting to crush her like a bug … and Michael is waiting to drag her off to anything he so wishes. Evangelicals talk a big talk about how amazing their God is, but when the rubber meets the road and they start talking about what God is like in practice and not just in theory, he really is just a bully. He abducts grown women — repeatedly– orders them around, and overcomes all resistance with physical force.

Angel is not wrong about Michael’s God.

***

The last message that Francine wants to beat us over the head with is how wonderful complementarianism and gender roles are. The Jewish storekeeper thinks “As gentle a man as he was, as tender was his heart, there was nothing weak about Michael Hosea” (223), which we know from the fact that Michael took on all comers in a barfight and walked out unscathed. Later we meet the Altmans, and we get this description:

The Altmans fascinated Angel. They all liked each other. John Altman was clearly in charge and would tolerate no disrespect or rebellion, but it was clear he was not held in fear by his wife and children. Even Jacob’s [eldest son] rebellion had been handled with good humor. “Whenever you don’t listen, there’s going to be stern discipline,” his father said. “I’ll supply the discipline, you’ll supply the stern.” The boy capitulated and Altman ruffled his hair affectionately. (240)

Through the pages that introduce the Altmans, we get a picturesque, Rockwell-style happy family. The siblings all get along splendidly, and the father is respected, obeyed, and adored. Michael is basically enraptured. He wants them to live in his cabin until spring and be his friends– without bothering to consult Angel, he just decides— maybe even buy the farmland right next to his! They’re just such wonderful people, wouldn’t that be grand? It’s clear Michael thinks they’re the perfect family. He even falls asleep whispering about how he wants one basically just theirs (241). A family where his word is law and everyone is just so dang happy about it.

Which is of course where we get hit with a double-barrel flashback to Angel being sterilized. I can’t wait to see where Francine goes with that.

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  • Beroli

    I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the sterilization will be magically reversed. Mainly because that’s the worst possibility I see here. If Rivers goes with adoption, with Michael saying “oh well, I can live without children,” or even with a vaguely scientific handwave, she will have surpassed my expectations.

    • Well, her birth name is Sarah.

      • Kennedy

        Oh no. That definitely seems like the most likely outcome here. Yikes. Yikes yikes yikes.

      • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

        Why do I just know that doesn’t mean she will successfully talk Michael into impregnating the maid.

        • hahahahah WELLLL

          spoiler: she leaves him so he can impregnate the Altman’s daughter, Miriam. Miriam marries Paul, though, so.

        • Good one!

    • Jackalope

      Did they even HAVE female sterilization back then? I just did a quick search online but don’t remember the exact dates for this book so not sure what would have been historically plausible. That’s always been something I wondered about that particular detail.

      • RavenOnthill

        No, probably not. Lister was just discovering antiseptics in the period of the book. The widespread practice of sterilizing surgical instruments came into practice in the late 1800s. Without those practices, very few women would have survived sterilization.

      • Technically, it existed. The first successful ovarectomy was in the late 18th century, but nobody was even talking about something like tubal litigation until 1881– let alone doing it– so that wasn’t available in the 1850s.

        The procedure in the book makes it seem like the doctor does something through her vaginal canal and cervix, though, which hardly seems like it could sterilize her. But, I wouldn’t be exactly surprised if there was some backwoods torture thing they did to women that fucked up their uteri so much they couldn’t get pregnant.

  • Kennedy

    I appreciate you doing this review series so much! The deconstruction of these ideas is so important.

    On a related note- one of my roommates is apparently reading this book. I saw it in her room when I went in there to talk to her yesterday, and I had two immediate responses 1) YIKES, and 2) maybe I should send her the link to the review…

    Of course, this is the same roommate who went to a leadership camp and came home to tell me the most amazing story (/s). Apparently the main speaker was someone who had a “troubled upbringing” and believed he was gay for most of his life, and then went on to be converted and marry his wife and have lots of perfect children and etc. I can’t remember, but I think he also was heavily involved with drugs before his conversion to Xianity and straightness? And now he’s associated with Focus on the Family, or something? I can’t remember the details, it was a year ago. But it obviously stuck with me. I was sitting there through the whole long, elaborate retelling, completely terrified by this whole perspective. So she seems to be on board with a lot of the damaging ideas from fundie Xianity, even though she wasn’t really indoctrinated from a young age.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Is there anything in this book that isn’t based on some misguided attempt to present a modern day version of an Old Testament story? We’ve got the obvious Hosea story. We’ve got a recapitulation of the Garden of Eden. We’ve got “Road House,” which I realize isn’t in the Old Testament, but it’s still pretty derivative.

    When you first started describing this section, I actually thought the whole redemption-by-works thing was the author’s criticism of Judaism based on the evangelical mischaracterization that Jews try to “earn their salvation” by following the Law. I hadn’t even considered the Catholic angle, but that makes a lot of sense. Plenty of veiled critique to go around, I guess.

    I will say that the passage you quoted about the problem of evil is actually a little bright spot. Angel brings up a great point, and Michael has nothing to say. This is actually really great. 98% of the things evangelical Christians say in response to questions like that would be greatly improved by just silently being with the suffering person and not trying to come up with “answers.”

  • Til

    I honestly feel like the saturation levels of this abuse=love crap in America’s subconscious is why trump is where he is today.

    And why he has such strong evangelical support, despite not following any of their rules.

    • I completely agree. Many teens, especially girls, take evidence of controlling behavior as an index of “how much he loves me” and I gently try to explain that, no, sadly, it is a display of temper about them not conforming to what he wants.

  • RavenOnthill

    “Evangelicals of course know that God wants to have a relationship with us, that he loves us, that forgiveness and grace are freely available if we just say the word.”

    Sounds like a stalker.

  • Morrow

    John Altman was clearly in charge and would tolerate no disrespect or rebellion, but it was clear he was not held in fear by his wife and children.

    Yup, this is the evangelical fantasy.

    It’s been a few years since I stopped believing the BS, and these days, statements like this one completely baffle me. If someone is “clearly in charge” and tolerates “no” disrespect or rebellion, I simply cannot believe that fear does not enter into the equation. Here’s how the sentence above should read:

    “John Altman was clearly in charge and would tolerate no disrespect or rebellion. His wife and children had long since learned not to let their fear show at any time, under any circumstances.”

    • Madeline Costa

      Yes! Your rewording is perfect!

      • Morrow

        Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Ysolde

    This reminds me of one of the biggest problems I had with Southern “Born Again Christianity” back when I was young. God was always supposed to be loving and forgiving and yet if you didn’t believe you got sent to hell for an eternity. It sort of reminded me of a gangster movie where as long as you did what the Mob Boss wanted you wouldn’t have bad things happen to you.

    • I share that same upbringing, and one of the things about it that drove me away from the whole concept was how it not only oppressed women; but also men.

      While men were given the power to control women, this turned out to be mostly the power to make women so unhappy they leave. No one wins.

      • Ysolde

        It ended for me slowly with my desire for all things feminine. My father threw me out and my grandparents in NJ took me in. They took me to the doctors who disgnosed my gender dysphoria and they accepted that I was their granddaughter and not their grandson.

        • Even as a straight cis-woman, that upbringing made me feel like I was some kind of mutant; instead of simply being an intelligent, independent, and creative person, which what I am.

          • Ysolde

            Honestly it was awful in so many ways. I remember my step sister was forced to forgive her original father for abusing her. She never really got over that and ran away sometime after I left the house. I still don’t know where she is or if she’s alive…

          • That is awful. I’m glad your grandparents were there for you.

          • Ysolde

            Me too. I remember the moment most clearly when my Grandmother all 4′ of her was on the phone with my father to determine if I might return to Oklahoma with him. He accused her of “stealing his son” and she unloaded on him in Italian and then English finishing with “I’m keeping my granddaughter!”

            That moment of pure unadulterated love and acceptance will always be in my heart.

  • Madeline Costa

    “So, like most abuse victims, she turns to scrupulousness. If defiance wonโ€™t work, maybe doing everything she can to make sure her abuser is happy will.”

    This spoke to me so much. I felt this my entire childhood and teenage years. Maybe if my mom didn’t read books like this she would have left my dad sooner and saved us a lot of grief. Even though I have a healthy marriage I still find myself trying to do this. Old habits are hard to break!

  • In literally any other context, this would be a horror story. What the fuck, fundamentalism.

  • A family where his word is law and everyone is just so dang happy about it.

    Which is dependent on everyone doing everything exactly right for it to work at all. Humans being what they are, such a setup invites disaster.

    I was thinking recently that it’s a view of human relationships that is by and for 15 year old boys. We now have scientific evidence that the brain is entirely reformed during the teen years, and (I’ve raised teens and seen this in action) large parts of it “go offline” and kinda stop working ๐Ÿ™‚

    In practice, everybody just shuts up and does as they are told and the Big Responsibility of the MAN to be a perfect human is hand-waved away if he doesn’t make it which he doesn’t because no one can.

    But he sure does want to be the God in Miniature that such rules are meant to enforce.

    I loathe Complementarianism! I deliberately married a feminist and have been very happy that way.