‘Beyond Belief” explores 26 different women’s entries to, immersions in and exits from communities where religion permeates all aspects of life. The editors, Susan Tive, a grantwriter who left Orthodox Judaism, and Cami Ostman, a blogger who was once a conservative Christian, have created a volume “to spark a conversation about the commonalities of women’s experiences in restrictive religions.” Most of the essays are slice-of-life depictions of defining moments in these individuals’ religious lives and as such offer only brief glimpses into much longer journeys. Yet the moments are well chosen, illustrating in particular the conflicts women face because of gender subservience imposed by religion.
Religious rituals, connecting individuals both to the divine and to one another, initially drew many women to their chosen faiths, including Leah Lax, who spent 30 years in Hasidic Judaism as a closeted lesbian. Escaping a troubled home and a nominal religious upbringing, she finds transcendence while watching Hasidic men dance. Momentarily forgetting that she has just been told that women must remain silent, she imagines herself “in the middle of those dancing men, my hand on a sweating back, feet swept up in the beat” and “not a woman on the sidelines.” Other women describe rituals as more alienating, ranging from self-flagellation to speaking in tongues. Caitlin Constantine, a former Mormon, writes of baptizing by proxy a list of women dead for more than 400 years, in order to save their souls for heaven. Dizzy from being dipped 12 times into a baptismal pool, all in the name of a dozen women from the 1600s named Anna, she wonders about these women’s own religions and tries “to ignore the newly formed questions swarming my mind.”
Conflicts over sex, usually tinged with shame and visions of hellfire, figure prominently in the book. Former nun Mary Johnson recalls that she “hadn’t imagined that my own human needs for intimacy would clash so dramatically with rules demanding the denial of every human desire.” Several of the authors had to sublimate their needs for same-sex relationships, whose consequences of “eternity in a pit full of wailing, burning sinners” are even more severe than the punishments of this lifetime. Upon finding out about her relationship with another young woman, Pamela Helberg’s father brings her to the office of her pastor, where the two men pray, speak in tongues and “command the demons of homosexuality to leave her now.”
The final third of the book covers women’s “exodus” from these religious groups. One of the most moving accounts comes from Donna M. Johnson, who grew up in the orbit of a traveling evangelist and charismatic faith healer with whom her mother secretly had three children. Initially escaping by way of an early marriage, Johnson is intermittently drawn back to the group, in between going through a divorce, alcohol and drug addiction, and chronic illness. But the ultimate alienating vision, which “haunted, inspired, and remained with me through years of agnosticism,” is the image of the revival tent, “stretched out along the outskirts of town where the trash and outcasts congregate.” The tent pulls in everyone: “old and young, black and white, poor and poorer,” yet Johnson is always outside watching, and she finally realizes that outside is where she belongs.
Upon exiting, many of the women are at loose ends, unsure of how to navigate the secular world. In the collection’s one humorous essay, former Jehovah’s Witness turned stand-up comic Kyria Abrahams talks of the “grown-up, classy world” in which she has just begun to make her uncertain way. “It’s a world where regular people watch R-rated movies and use Ouija boards and sleep in on Sunday mornings,” she writes, “instead of knocking on people’s doors to tell them about Armageddon.”
Whether the religions themselves are “extreme,” as the subtitle suggests, is debatable, since most of the essays in this book are concerned with conservative branches or offshoots of the three major monotheistic world religions. To be sure, many of the writers have been deeply scarred by their experiences. Julia Scheeres, for example, was sent as a teenager to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic, a place where students experienced “the Christian staff slamming them into walls, whipping them with a leather strap until their skin broke, and molesting them while they slept.” Others were more generally traumatized by the intolerance and rigidity of their religious communities. Yet to a very pious person, some of the narratives may seem more descriptive of a devout existence than of an “extreme” religion. Only one piece covers an experience with a cult: Yolande Elise Brener’s essay on being a member of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
Most of the essays are absorbing and well written, particularly those that describe immersion into deeply religious communities whose practices outsiders may know little about. Some readers, however, may find the brief vignettes frustrating, since they do not allow the writers to cover the entire arc of religious experience. Fortunately, many of the women have also written full-length memoirs, which are listed in an afterword. Overall, however, “Beyond Belief” offers rich and tantalizing glimpses into women’s ambivalent experiences with extreme religious practices.
Rachel Newcomb teaches anthropology at Rollins College and is the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco” and a novel, “The Gift.”
The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions
Edited by Susan Tive and Cami Ostman
Seal. 313 pp. Paperback, $16