Monday, December 4, 2017

Sins of the father by Fleur Beale

The full title of this book is Sins of the father: The long shadow of a religious cult: A New Zealand story and it is focused on the children and grandchildren of Neville Cooper - the infamous leader of the Gloriavale Christian community in New Zealand.  This community has come under a great deal of scrutiny, particularly in the past few years, as former members of the community talk about what life is like in the closed religious community.  

I have read quite a few books about cults and extreme religious communities because it's important to understand how these groups form and how they control people so you can help friends and family if they fall under the influence of such a group.  I read Daughter of Gloriavale a few months ago, and that was how I learned that this book existed and I was very keen to get my hands on a copy because I was hoping that it would provide more detail and a different perspective on the community.  

Despite looking forward to reading the story of Phil and his family I have to confess to a feeling of disappointment and distance from their story, mainly because it was written by someone else about them - rather than in their own voices.  Don't get me wrong, Fleur Beale has done a great job of bringing their story to life, but it sounds rather clinical and distant and lacks an emotional hold for you to latch onto and get involved in their lives and what happened to them.  Other stories of this type are from the first person perspective, even though some of them use a ghost writer to help them achieve this, and it just adds more weight and humanity to the story.  Having the story unfold in the voice of someone else as a series of events lessens the impact - although there are some very emotional scenes and moments that certainly hit you very hard.

Gloriavale has gone on a charm offensive, opening their doors to film crews who have recorded aspects of their daily lives - creating a vision of a Christian utopia where everyone in the community comes together and thrives.  As this book was published in 2008 it is quite likely that some of their charm offensive is to try and soften the blow of this book unveiling what life can be like for people living in the community.  What comes across quite clearly in Sins of the father and Daughter of Gloriavale is that in the beginning the community was exactly what it presents itself as, a Christian community where everyone works together to provide for the entire community, but both books show how the complete power of their leader Neville Cooper/Hopeful Christian has warped the community and the lives of the people living in it.

This is not the most compelling read, Daughter of Gloriavale does a better job of bringing the personal heartache to life, but it is a glimpse into what the community is like and that the people closest to Neville Cooper are the ones who faced the most pressure to conform.  One of the most telling things about life in the Gloriavale community is that so many of Neville Coopers children and grandchildren have left the community - that speaks volumes about what his family and other members of his community face.

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