Thoughts on "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.
“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”