I recently read Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman and Escape by Carolyn Jessop. Both were stories of horrifying realizations, unmet need, and breaking away from a stranglehold of fundamentalism, one ultra-orthodox Jewish, the other FLDS Mormon polygamy. Then I had a week of insomnia, nightmares, paranoia while taking showers (which happens sometimes, probably related to surprise beatings I got while bathing growing up), and seeing little things that looked like mice dart by in the corner of my vision. Turns out I actually did have mice, a whole furry-headed family of them, likely polygamous and definitely bent on multiplying, gorging themselves on rice and non-kosher corn nuts in my pantry. Despite these PTSD “triggers,” and the fact that I was interrupted five times (omg, 5!) by young mice squeaking pitifully on the glue traps I’d set down, I thought the books were awesome. I also rid my home of what I can only imagine to be an impending infestation bordering on a plague of biblical proportions. (Note: Apparently if you have an unfinished basement it’s common to get mice moving in when the weather gets cold. Being from the delta south, where we do not have basements for geological reasons, it only reinforced my thinking that these basement things are very suspect. Anyway, glue traps are a humane option for the mice, as pouring vegetable oil over the trapped mouse allows it to be
anointed, err to unstick itself and be released, greasy and alive, into your local park, wooded area, or least favorite neighbor’s front yard.)
Anyway, it’s nice to read stories by other people who came out of indoctrinated spaces and raised hell. It makes me feel more normal. (Actually, raising hell might be a poor choice of words, as that’s what they feared they were doing when they left these oppressive lifestyles.) What I mean to say is, they put a stop to passively living under the insane rules they were raised with, let other people know what was going on, and worked hard to remove themselves and their offspring from the situation of abuse. Both books left me saying “yeah, you go girl!” in my head.
I was surprised to learn that Unorthodox had become a New York Times best seller, as the writing struck me as very ordinary, but the story itself was powerful and I learned about Jewish fundamentalism, which I was previously unfamiliar with. When I read how terrible Carolyn Jessop’s sister wives were to her in Escape, I wanted to hear about some of the mean, bitchy things she did back. I was disappointed she left that out because it seemed they were all capable of coming up with really good vicious stuff that would put most reality tv living situations to shame. Throwing another wife’s laundry on the floor and spanking her children while she was asleep?!
I was thankful that my family, although they belonged to a Christian Home Educators Fellowship (CHEF) group and a succession of nondenominational churches for a while, did not live in some compound-type community that normalized this stuff. While many Quiverfull families like to live out in the country, my parents only dreamed of it, instead living in a cramped yet ordinary-looking suburban-style neighborhood with houses on each side, neighbors who did not share my family’s beliefs and would occasionally raise eyebrows or make comments that tipped me off to how weird it all seemed. Reading these books also made me thankful for a few other strange things, namely that nobody censored my reading material, forced me to obsessively track my menstrual cycle, or hurriedly married me off to some creepy guy twice my age. I was also thankful that my parents were the first generation of my family to get into this Quiverfull stuff, starting around 1980, since it didn’t even really exist before the late 1970’s, and that both sets of my grandparents thought it was even nuttier than strangers did. Because my grandparents and extended family did not share my parents’ beliefs, they were the ones to finally put a stop to the most blatant craziness of it, particularly the homeschooling, isolation, and material neglect, and though they did not know the full extent of the physical abuse, lobbied for us kids not to be so harshly punished.
In both books, all were obsessed with the so-called “purity” and “modesty” of women and yet also obsessed with sex and women as objects of desire and baby-carriers in what I found to be an all-too-familiar and disgusting way. Birth control wasn’t straight up put out there as a sin, but it was used in a hush-hush manner and after marriage both women felt incredible pressure to sexually please their husbands, even when it went counter to their own wishes and physical desires, and also produce a large brood of little ones. Education with or about outsiders was not viewed favorably, so Feldman went to Satmar schools and FLDS started homeschooling once the infamous Warren Jeffs came into power. It was after going to college that Feldman left the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and Jessop started getting ideas after a few family members defected and she made friends with a non-Mormon handyman at the hotel she managed for her husband. So yeah, not surprising that it was higher education and work (two things many Quiverfull families actively discourage for women) that helped them get out. I also noticed that the FLDS use “worldly” in pretty much the same context as Quiverfull people (i.e. “of the devil” rather than “cosmopolitan”), which initially gave me pause and then made total sense. So yeah, too many similarities. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism is fundamentalism.
Anyway, the stuff that surprised me the most was just how much pushback and concerted hatefulness these two women received from their respective former communities since writing their books. Ms. Feldman has websites dedicated to hating on her and smearing her name, so much so that just about everybody who positively reviewed her book got letters and phone calls from angry ultra-orthodox urging them to reconsider, and they also went on amazon.com to write more nasty things about her book and give it one star. What they mostly said was that she was ungrateful, ignorant, gossipy, had an atypical experience, and that her mother was a lesbian, and she was a liar because she didn’t include the date of her parents’ divorce or the existence of her sister in her memoir. If she anticipated so much hate and character assassination, I can see why she left her poor sister out in an effort to protect her!
Carolyn Jessop’s backlash experience is even more chilling in that light, since her eldest daughter, Betty, was manipulated by Carolyn’s ex-husband, now living with at least sixteen wives, into returning to FLDS at age 18, testifying against her mother in court, and saying her mother’s account “made her laugh.” Wow. People can snark all they want about liberating the daughters of fundamentalists, like on the Free Jinger website, but after reading this I totally wanted a “free Betty” campaign for real. Betty may be a grown woman now, but it’s apparent that she and those other poor ladies live like pastel-colored mice in a giant glue trap.
I am happy to say that so far this blog is getting more readers than I imagined or expected, yet I have not received any hatefulness, only support and encouragement for speaking out, but I imagine that that’s partially because my family stopped going to church and homeschooling long ago, my writing is still just one little speck in the big old Internet, and I intentionally haven’t shared this with anyone who I know would try to use some sort of lashing out, threats, or guilt to try and muzzle me. I imagine that it is prudent to still expect backlash though. The pattern appears quite clear – young women leaving and speaking out against any sort of fundamentalist culture doesn’t seem very well received by people who still live that lifestyle or have something to hide from when they did.