I read this book in two days.
I never read anything in two days—not ever. I am a tortoise of a reader, trudging along the highway with innumerable hares haranguing me as they hurry past me. Most books take me weeks or months to mull over. As a writer, I am also pretty pokey. But as a reader and writer, all issues of speed aside, I can write the following with some certainty:
Girl at the End of the World is no slow-burner. Elizabeth Esther lights the fuse in the first chapter, and it burns with surprising speed and splendor throughout the whole book. I only put the book down to tweet about my reading experience, and to deal with a husband and father’s inescapable obligations.
It seems strange when I say I enjoyed reading this book, as Elizabeth’s life in The Assembly—the cult that has her in its grip throughout her young life—seems anything but enjoyable. But the writing itself feels so effortless, so graceful, and is seasoned with enough humor and wisdom that reading it is indeed a treat.
I also could not help but admire the guts it must have taken for Elizabeth to revisit her troubled story and extract meaning from it for the benefit of others who might have been damaged by religious extremism. I mean, memoir-writing is a harrowing business as it is, folks. I struggled to write my own memoir (Nightmarriage), and it was a whimsical specimen of the genre. Writing about such painful experiences and making them palatable for others simply could not have been easy for the author.
On a personal note, as I read I found myself relating to the book in strange ways. I attended a fundamentalist church for about a year, but did not know it was a fundamentalist church until shortly before I left. “Fundies” don’t post signs or placards on the exteriors of their churches that read, “Come join us! We put the ‘fun’ in fundamentalist! And the ‘mental,’ too!” For the longest time then, I could not put my finger on what bothered me about that church. In the end, I realized the brand of faith practiced there was not faith at all, but a mystery-stifling, punishing certainty that made me feel like I was in a spiritual chokehold.
I saw traces of the things I processed during and after this experience—magnified times ten to the Nth power, of course—in Elizabeth’s book. She is clearly a champion. A survivor. An overcomer. A brave soul.
What makes Elizabeth’s journey most amazing of all in my eyes is her emergence from the wreckage of this cult as a person of faith. Instead of casting out baby Jesus with the religious bathwater, she turns to Mary and the Catholic church instead, and finds healing and wholeness there. “I’m drawn to Catholicism because Catholics embrace mystery,” she explains to her husband in one exchange. “They have this deep reverence for the mysteries of life and the ways of God. There’s room to breathe, you know?”
Apparently, there is enough room to breathe there for her whole family, too, as it sounds like they all end up attending by the end. Elizabeth and her husband, Matt, who sounds like an amazing person, have five children together. That Elizabeth and Matt met in The Assembly, but remain together, is amazing, too. I suspect they bonded in an amazing way simply by rinsing all of that brainwashing shampoo out of their noggins together.
Worth reading. Worth buying. Worth sharing with others who have been damaged by religious extremism. Highly recommended.