Saturday, September 30, 2017

Daughter of Gloriavale my life in a religious cult by Lilia Tarawa

It seems as though every country has at least one religious group that takes things to extremes and is branded as a cult - and in New Zealand one of those groups is the community that lives at Gloriavale.  For most New Zealanders it a place they have heard about in the news, or they might have seen one of the documentaries that shows the wholesome and spiritual side of the community - but in the case of Lilia Tarawa it was a life she lived.  In Daughter of Gloriavale she describes her life in the religious cult, and as she tells her story she also weaves through some of the history of Gloriavale and the man who leads them. 

It is a personal story, and also a story about the people in her life - people who have stayed with Gloriavale and people who have chosen to leave.  As you read through her life and the changing landscape of the Gloriavale it becomes clear that the community definitely falls under the definition of a cult - there is a charismatic leader who demands absolute obedience of his followers, the children are conditioned from a young age to be obedient and follow the faith, and leaving is very very difficult.  One of the things I noticed reading through is that in the beginning Gloriavale was a place of faith and genuine Christian living - everyone worked together in their faith, no one went without, and people believed in what they were doing.  Over time you can see that this changed to the elders making the decisions, and that social control became more stringent and controlling - that people lived in fear of consequences and in fear of their faith rather than celebrating it.

This is a personal story and at times it stretches belief, not because I doubt that the events happened, but rather because the author uses a conversational style - and it stretches the imagination that a young child could remember a conversation so clearly decades later.  This is not the first time I have struck this with a recounting of childhood and it struck a flat note with me then as well.  Taken as a whole Daughter of Gloriavale is not so much the story of escaping a religious cult, it is more about a young woman raised in an oppressive and controlling community that comes of age and makes her own way in the world.  It is however, also a fascinating glimpse into the world of Gloriavale and what happens when the cameras aren't rolling for positive publicity.

In some ways it was a relief to find that this memoir lacks the sexual abuse and physical abuse of other stories about religious cults - and while psychological abuse is just as damaging, it is a little less harrowing for the reader.  It is interesting that Fleur Beale has written the introduction to Daughter of Gloriavale, as she is the author of I am not Esther, which I had initially thought was about the Exclusive Brethren, but it has become clearer that she was referencing the community that became Gloriavale.  I have also discovered a book written by Fleur Beale about the community that has been added to my reading list to see what comes next.

Hopefully stories like Lilia's and other former members will encourage the government to investigate the community at Gloriavale, particularly in relation to the way they claim benefits on behalf of their community.  Faith and religion should have freedom in our country, but not at the expense of the people in that religion - and Lilia's story shows that Gloriavale does thrive at the expense of the people who live there, especially the children, and that families are being torn apart by the extreme views of the elders.  Hopefully when 'Hopeful Christian' leaves this world his cult will die with him and the people of Gloriavale will be free to continue the good parts of the community, and hopefully leave the bad parts behind.

If you are interested in reading more stories from people who have been raised in extreme religious groups or cults then try some of these stories.  Some of the stories are disturbing because of their references to sexual and physical violence towards women and children, so reader beware that there will be some unpleasant (but not gratuitous) reading ahead.  If you would like to read more then try:
  • The witness wore red by Rebecca Musser with M. Bridget Cook
  • Stolen innocence by Elissa Wall
  • Parents who kill by Carol Anne Davis
  • The little prisoner: A memoir by Jane Eliott
  • Behind closed doors by Ngaire Thomas
  • Beyond belief: My secret life inside Scientology and my harrowing escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill
  • Banished: Surviving my years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain
  • I fired god by Jocelyn R. Zichterman
  • Behind the Exclusive Brethren by Michael Bachelard

Reviewed by Brilla

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