Girl at the End of the World by Elisabeth Esther. Convergent Books, 2014. 224 pp.
Elisabeth has written a poignant memoir, one that will likely ring true with many other survivors of fundamentalist cults.
Elisabeth’s grandfather started a group called “The Assembly,” and her parents served as leaders.The book title comes from The Assembly’s focus on eschatology and the imminent end of the world. Members constantly prepared themselves for an apocalyptic event; separated themselves from mainstream cultural practices, clothing, and entertainment; and practiced communal living and evangelistic zeal. Elisabeth herself lived in a torment of anxiety that she would be left behind.
I found the second half of the book more helpful than the first. While Elisabeth’s childhood in the cult was poignant and heartbreaking, I felt she tended to editorialize with her modern-day level of awareness and a snappy sarcasm which for me created a disconnect. She wasn’t wrong to do so, I just found it harder to connect with her character in the first half of the book. Sarcasm is fun to read, but it can hold feelings at arms’ length.
I noticed a shift in tone halfway through the book. Less humor, more depth of feeling and dawning awareness of the evils of her cult. Her description of meeting her husband, Matt, and their early life in The Assembly was for me very powerful. Elisabeth is candid and does not sugarcoat the mistakes she and Matt made as they struggled to fit into The Assembly and eventually struggled to leave. And it was a struggle. This is so helpful to see, because by definition cults are hard to leave. It is encouraging to hear of a couple who courageously chose to leave, even as we see what that decision cost them.
There is always a cost to leaving a cult. Sure, you gain freedom, but freedom comes with a price when you leave a group like The Assembly where you’ve spent a lifetime surrounded by friends and family, without learning the normal common sense and coping mechanisms that help navigate a complex culture.
Elisabeth’s struggle with PTSD is very real and brave. Her journey of healing is ongoing, even ten years after leaving. In this, many ex-cult members can relate. I can.
Some evangelical readers may find Elisabeth’s entry into the Catholic Church troubling. I find it honest and hopeful, though I struggle to understand Elisabeth’s reverence of Mary as sympathetic mediatrix. Psychologically, I get it. Theologically, I can’t go there. But no one is asking me to.
Overall, an honest look at a life with more than its share of pain, yet a courageous journey to freedom, reconciliation, and healing. I pray for every blessing on Elisabeth, Matt, and their family as they continue their journey with Jesus.
Love the book reviews. You’re an excellent writer.