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Thoughts on "Girl at the End of the World"

The Girl at the End of the World

In Girl at the End of the World, my friend Elizabeth Esther’s gutsy memoir, we hear the story of her escape from the fundamentalist cult of her childhood, and her ongoing process of healing from spiritual abuse.

Despite the many heartbreaking scenes, some of which haunt me, I finished the book with a great sense of hope.

I want you to buy this book and underline passages and give it to your friends. So I’ll have to keep some secrets. But I do want to talk about one scene that resonated with me.

Elizabeth is dropping her young daughter off for church summer camp. She has finally escaped and cut ties with the cult she grew up in, but she has found that removing herself from the cult wasn’t enough. She still has to do the hard work of healing.

“I scan the bus windows looking for her face. She is bouncing up and down, talking with her friends. She spots me waving and blows me a kiss. The bus rumbles away and parents cheer.

Their cheering startles me. They’re all smiling, convinced their kids will have a wonderful time. They’re so trusting.

Some of the parents are chatting about upcoming vacations and what a great day it is for frozen yogurt. They are relaxed and happy.

I can’t imagine feeling that way. To me, it seems like I’ve just survived a life-threatening event.”

I hear you, Elizabeth.

I feel this way when I take my daughter to the nursery at church. While other parents are smiling and excited to hear a sermon by themselves while their children learn God’s Truth, I’m panicking. My hands sweat and my heart pounds. I make excuses – I’m a germaphobe, I’ll say, or I’m just too attached and hate leaving her side. But that’s not the truth.

I am afraid she’ll be indoctrinated.

I am afraid church nursery staff will indoctrinate my toddler daughter, who is not even talking yet.

An irrational fear, but one based in experience. When my parents waved me off to summer camp, they didn’t suspect I’d come home traumatized by what I had seen happen “in the Spirit.”

I feel this way when my friends in ministry talk about the upcoming teen conferences they are “pumped” about. When they share their passion for “making disciples,” my stomach clinches.

I hear “making disciples” and I think “brainwashing.”

With each youth conference I attended as a “pumped” teen, I came home a little more screwed up, a little more sick, little more manipulated. Brainwashed.

As I try to make sense of my past, I am drowning from these kinds of triggers, alone in a sea of Happy and Trusting Christians.

I forget that the words “youth conference” and “children’s church” and “church camp” and “youth group” don’t cause anxiety attacks for the majority of people around me.

I am like Elizabeth Esther, feeling like she can’t breath in a church parking lot while the other parents are cheering and talking about frozen yogurt.

But Elizabeth Esther showed up. And I am showing up. I am showing up at the feet of Jesus, saying take this from me. Someday I will be free, and healed, and whole.

I may never be one of the parents talking about frozen yogurt. But that is OK. I’ve realized that that is not the goal.

The real goal is finding a way back to God – as Elizabeth puts it – when all the old paths are blocked.

I will always carry my history. Not too long ago, it consumed me; now, I am learning to carry it in my pocket, to own it, to use it, to remember. I will pull it out like a pocketknife if I sense it is time to cut chords with an unhealthy spiritual leader. I will use it like a corkscrew to unwedge a friend who might be stuck in a familiar, destructive place. I will use it like tweezers to dig out the lies thrown at me about a God of limited grace.

I will gaze at it sometimes, like a wallet-sized photograph. This is where you came from, I will think. This is how far you’ve come.

EE

“Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behaviors. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts and choices that identifies a cult.” -Elizabeth Esther, “Girl at the End of the World”

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24 Comments

  1. LizBR on April 2, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    This is a lovely meditation on showing up and facing fears. I hope we all find that facing our fears is worth it. Elizabeth’s story implies that it is.

    • Carly Gelsinger on April 2, 2014 at 7:30 pm

      Thank you, Liz. Hard but worth it. When you get the chance to read Elizabeth’s book, let me know your thoughts.

      • LizBR on April 2, 2014 at 7:33 pm

        Oh, yes! I read it and thought it was really great. Here are my thoughts: https://lizboltzranfeld.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/my-review-of-girl-at-the-end-of-the-world-by-elizabeth-esther/

        The short of it, though, is that I think it’s really useful for people who have gone through fundamentalist experiences, but also for outsiders who want to have a better understanding of how a culture like that works.

        It’s such an artfully done book.

        The one thing I think it does better than a lot of other books on similar topics is that it explains to an unfamiliar reader WHY there are connections between things like believing in an impending rapture and, say, spanking children.

        • Carly Gelsinger on April 2, 2014 at 7:38 pm

          Yeah she did a really great job connecting the behavior to the worldview. Not only was this fascinating, but it helped us to have empathy for all the characters, even her parents. Her parents were abusive because they were brainwashed by an oppressive theology. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. LizBR on April 2, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    This is a lovely meditation on showing up and facing fears. I hope we all find that facing our fears is worth it. Elizabeth’s story implies that it is.

    • Carly Gelsinger on April 2, 2014 at 7:30 pm

      Thank you, Liz. Hard but worth it. When you get the chance to read Elizabeth’s book, let me know your thoughts.

      • LizBR on April 2, 2014 at 7:33 pm

        Oh, yes! I read it and thought it was really great. Here are my thoughts: https://lizboltzranfeld.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/my-review-of-girl-at-the-end-of-the-world-by-elizabeth-esther/

        The short of it, though, is that I think it’s really useful for people who have gone through fundamentalist experiences, but also for outsiders who want to have a better understanding of how a culture like that works.

        It’s such an artfully done book.

        The one thing I think it does better than a lot of other books on similar topics is that it explains to an unfamiliar reader WHY there are connections between things like believing in an impending rapture and, say, spanking children.

        • Carly Gelsinger on April 2, 2014 at 7:38 pm

          Yeah she did a really great job connecting the behavior to the worldview. Not only was this fascinating, but it helped us to have empathy for all the characters, even her parents. Her parents were abusive because they were brainwashed by an oppressive theology. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. christine on April 2, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Little bit of wisdom I read today: Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our lives.

  4. lthompson513 on April 3, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Very interested in this book now! I can relate on the periphery–a few similar experiences with youth conferences and camps, but nothing that causes that sort of anxiety now. I have plenty of anxiety from other past experiences, though, as you know, and reading about your courage to “show up” is inspiring.

    • Carly Gelsinger on April 3, 2014 at 12:12 pm

      I really think Elizabeth’s story can speak to people with anxiety caused by anything, not just spiritual stuff. I hope you read it and let me know what you think.

  5. Jesus Tavern on April 3, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Here’s my question… Why do we still attend these churches? We’re all in the same boat. My wife and I struggle with this as well. I literally can’t listen when we go to church on Sunday mornings. I have to distract myself by reading my Bible to remind myself of the passages in scripture that contradict what these churches say and do. I have to fight the church indoctrination by telling my kids every night at bed time, “You’re awesome. You can do anything.” Because I know they hear the opposite in church.

  6. Jesus Tavern on April 3, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Here’s my question… Why do we still attend these churches? We’re all in the same boat. My wife and I struggle with this as well. I literally can’t listen when we go to church on Sunday mornings. I have to distract myself by reading my Bible to remind myself of the passages in scripture that contradict what these churches say and do. I have to fight the church indoctrination by telling my kids every night at bed time, “You’re awesome. You can do anything.” Because I know they hear the opposite in church.

    • Carly Gelsinger on April 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      I know, man. I no longer attend “that kind” of church, but even just a year ago I was still trying. I finally gave myself permission to leave. I still attend church, just not Scary Church. I just can’t do it. What kind of church do you attend?

      • Jesus Tavern on April 7, 2014 at 7:41 am

        We started attending a different church recently that is a little bit better I guess. My wife likes it which is enough for me. I still just shut my ears and read my Bible to myself. Plus, its like a free date with my wife : ) Rock concert, special speaker, grape juice, cracker… I guess you can call it Brunch and a Show with free childcare.

        Our main goal is to turn Jesus Tavern into an actual place asap

  7. Jacob Tucker on April 4, 2014 at 7:55 am

    Just recently my brother-in-law said that he was going with a church group to South Padre Island over spring break to witness to people there and I was like, “Oh God no….”

    I felt bad for reacting like that, but this post helped me know that there are others who go through the same thing. Thanks for articulating that feeling of dread by association because of our past experiences.

    BTW – I read “Girl at the End of the World” and even though most of us didn’t go through the extreme situations that Elizabeth did, I think many of us can identify with it at some level. Highly recommend it.

    • Carly Gelsinger on April 6, 2014 at 9:29 am

      I chuckled because the “Oh God no” reaction is just so familiar to me. Thanks for writing.

  8. Jacob Tucker on April 4, 2014 at 7:55 am

    Just recently my brother-in-law said that he was going with a church group to South Padre Island over spring break to witness to people there and I was like, “Oh God no….”

    I felt bad for reacting like that, but this post helped me know that there are others who go through the same thing. Thanks for articulating that feeling of dread by association because of our past experiences.

    BTW – I read “Girl at the End of the World” and even though most of us didn’t go through the extreme situations that Elizabeth did, I think many of us can identify with it at some level. Highly recommend it.

    • Carly Gelsinger on April 6, 2014 at 9:29 am

      I chuckled because the “Oh God no” reaction is just so familiar to me. Thanks for writing.

  9. Kelsey Munger on June 12, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    “I forget that the words ‘youth conference’ and ‘children’s church’ and ‘church camp’ and ‘youth group’ don’t cause anxiety attacks for the majority of people around me.”

    Oh, can I ever relate to this sentence! I have a couple of friends who are heavily involved with their churches youth groups. And it’s so, so hard to hear about it. I have PTSD as a result of by dad being abusive towards my mom, and sometimes hearing about youth group truly freaks me out almost as much as when I’m watching a movie and something related to domestic violence suddenly comes on the screen. Massive triggers. I can completely relate with the panic attacks that can follow.

    Thank you for writing this very honest piece, Carly. I really appreciated it.

  10. Kelsey Munger on June 12, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    “I forget that the words ‘youth conference’ and ‘children’s church’ and ‘church camp’ and ‘youth group’ don’t cause anxiety attacks for the majority of people around me.”

    Oh, can I ever relate to this sentence! I have a couple of friends who are heavily involved with their churches youth groups. And it’s so, so hard to hear about it. I have PTSD as a result of by dad being abusive towards my mom, and sometimes hearing about youth group truly freaks me out almost as much as when I’m watching a movie and something related to domestic violence suddenly comes on the screen. Massive triggers. I can completely relate with the panic attacks that can follow.

    Thank you for writing this very honest piece, Carly. I really appreciated it.

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