I just revisited a book I read once several years ago, and it’s hard to tell who’s changed more–me or the story. It’s the YA novel I Am Not Esther, by Fleur Beale, and my second reading of it was much more shocking than my first. I remember feeling a little guilty checking it out at the library, because it looked like it portrayed the protagonist’s Christian relatives in a negative light. And when I brought it home, I probably hid it, in case my mother went poking through my stack of library books, as she sometimes still does. I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable at different points in the story, and I loved the book, but I felt bad for loving it. When I came to the last page, I observed how terrible twisting the Bible’s teachings could potentially be, and I was bored with myself for letting that be the end of it, but to venture any further was to wander into dangerous territory.
But I never forgot it, and it came up in various “OH-there’s-a-book-you-should-read” conversations with different people, and suddenly I missed it very sharply and wanted to read it again. And it became very clear how different I am from the reluctant religious adherent I once was. And how different that grudging follower was from the back-talking, ever-questioning xhild I was before that. When I was six, for instance, I took no sass about God being male (or even Jesus, come to think of it. One lunchroom altercation involved me arguing emphatically that Jesus was most definitely a girl) or how, even if God hypothetically were male, that would mean boys were better than girls. At that age, I wanted to be a Hindu. I liked reincarnation and I liked the magic of India as seen through the lens of my PBS station. I gave flippant answers to my Sunday school teachers’ questions about hell. And then somehow I became this person who–though bitter about it, and though it launched my first bout with depression–accepted the hierarchy inherent in complementarianism. Christianity bored me like no other, but I was beaten, and I was told so often that if I left, or even questioned, then I’d live a meaningless life, probably become a criminal due to my moral foundation suddenly whipping back and forth like a windsock, and when it was all over, suffer eternal punishment.
And now, heh. Now I’m much closer to my xhild-self than I have been in years. When I like something, I like it. I don’t have to run it through a Does This Thing Meet Fundie Standards? test anymore. I think allowing myself to be honest is helping me heal, putting those once-buried parts of me back where they belong. And I like this book. It’s not that all of the details of the characters’ lives and religious practices are so very similar to the way I’ve grown up–I’ve always been free to wear jeans (though I did have to fight to be able to wear them to church); we watch movies, we read newspapers, we listen to music. But the underlying principles, oh yes. The doctrine, the ideology. It’s painfully familiar to me. And maybe it’s accurate to call the sect described in these pages “extremists,” but really, they’re just carrying out my family’s religious beliefs to their inevitable end. Where do you draw that kind of line? Why is this a cult, this religion of fear and shame, if the religion of my family is not? They may look a little different on the outside, but they believe the same things. It hurt like hell the second time around, but maybe it will also help me heal the wounds I’m going to inflict.
I Am Not Esther is about Kirby, a young girl who’s suddenly and unceremoniously abandoned by her mother, left in the care of relatives she was never told about, relatives who belong to a very strict fundamentalist sect of Christianity. (Or you could call it a cult, that works too.) They rename her Esther and try to tame her. She resists and rebels, but they pull her in, quietly, gradually. It’s not that they manage to win her over; it’s that the treatment of her cousins, some of them young children, is dependent on Kirby’s behavior and adherence to the rules. If she wants to find her missing mother, she has to bide her time.
And it’s about Daniel, Kirby’s oldest cousin. He’s grown up in this religion, it’s all he knows. His family is so deeply invested. His future is already planned. He doesn’t always believe his family is right, and he wants to chart his own direction. But a lifetime of indoctrination, of having his obedience linked to the happiness of others, is hard to break. There are always reasons to stay, to put off leaving just a little longer.
The twins and Maggie helped me cook dinner. Uncle Caleb came home earlier than usual and went straight in to Aunt Naomi. He stayed there for ages, and we could hear him praying. “I think she should see a doctor,” I said to Daniel.
“She is my mother, and I cannot do anything,” he said softly, as if to himself.
“Do you know what you’re going to do?” I asked, after glancing around to make sure nobody was listening.
He nodded. “Yes, but I will not do it while my mother is unwell.”
“Be careful,” I said. “You can always find a reason for not doing something as difficult as that.”
One story seen through two sets of eyes. Two rebels with very different backgrounds. Everything looks a lot more black and white from the outside. People who’ve never been entangled in anything like this often don’t understand what the big deal is, why leaving is never just leaving–why it can mean losing all your ties, and why you’d care anyway, if your family was really that narrow-minded. Why people can’t just agree to disagree. I wish the whole world thought that way. I wish books like this could be shelved in science fiction.