Saturday, November 30, 2013

Behind closed doors by Ngaire Thomas

Ngaire was born into an Exclusive Brethren family in the 1940's in New Zealand and lived an Exclusive Brethren life until she was expelled with her husband in the 1970's.  Her autobiography details, in a straight forward and direct fashion, her upbringing within the confines of a religious group that is patriarchal in nature and encourages women and daughters to be quiet, obedient, and submissive.  It was an upbringing that Ngaire struggled with because she was not a submissive personality - instead she challenged the norm and pushed boundaries, a challenge for her parents, and her behaviour brought her into conflict with the elders of the church on more than one occasion.  The bright light for Ngaire was her marriage to Denis and their children - but that was not the end of their troubles.

Ngaire found ways to bend the rules so that she was not suffocated by the rules of the church, rules that changed over time - changes brought about by the Men of God who directed the rules of the church.  Eventually Ngaire and Denis were "withdrawn from" - essentially removed from the memory of the church and all its members, any member of the church who saw them would act as if they did not exist.  This was a difficult time for the whole family as life on the outside of the church is challenging and isolating, especially with the ties they still had to the church.

Behind closed doors is a fascinating read because it is a New Zealand story, but also because when I was at school there were a relatively large number of Exclusive Brethren in my various schools.  The girls stood out because they had long hair and wore scarves, and because their skirts were long and they always wore long sleeved blouses.  The boys also stood out because of their neat hair cuts and because they didn't not swear and rough house with the other boys.  It was fascinating to read more about the Exclusive Brethren, and it is clear to see why they would have had problems with this book - I was only able to find a second edition of the book, the first edition was apparently challenged by the Exclusive Brethren and was edited before being released as a second edition.  There are times when it feels as though something is missing, or that something has been skipped over and this may be because the editing process was not as robust for the second edition - something left out in the rush to edit and get the second edition out.

Behind closed doors is a very personal story, and at times you can feel the pain of Thomas as she describes a particularly difficult period in their lives.  While this is a commentary on one family's relationship with the Exclusive Brethren, it does not feel like an attack on the church, it is more an explanation and examination of a relationship that was very difficult for Thomas and her family.  There is mention of the dreaded c word (cult) and the dreaded s word (sect), but Thomas doesn't pass judgement on the Exclusive Brethren, instead leaving the reader to make their own decisions.  I would not pass judgement on them either, but reading Behind closed doors is very much like reading other books about extreme religious sects and cults that I have read about recently, and I would have no problem describing them as a controlling religious sect - mainly because of the large number of rules and because of the use of isolation and ostracism to control members of the church.

Ngaire Thomas died in 2012 and Behind closed doors was the only book she wrote.  If you are interested in learning more about Exclusive Brethren and other religious sects then there are plenty of other books to read.
  • Banished: Surviving my years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain
  • I fired god by Jocelyn R. Zichterman
  • Beyond belief: My secret life inside Scientology and my harrowing escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill
  • Behind the Exclusive Brethren by Michael Bachelard
  • Shackles broken, bound by love (Bound by love) by Hannah Hales
Reviewed by Brilla

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