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.”