When I was in high school, I had a very brief brush with a Christian cult. I had no idea they were a cult. “Cult” to me meant Moonie mass weddings, Scientology scams, and murder-suicides in remote jungles. Cults didn’t look like churches.
This cult looked like a church. The local congregation of this seemingly ordinary non-denominational church met every Sunday in a junior high school auditorium. I went to one service and never returned. All I remember was the pastor, in the middle of his sermon, making fun of Mormons. It seemed so uncharitable, so unchristian, and I didn’t want anything to do with them after that.
A high school friend of mine got sucked in to that “church.” And she ended up losing her faith because of it.
Reading Elizabeth Esther’s powerful, harrowing memoir Girl at the End of the World, I get a better idea of what my high school friend, and so many others like her, went through. This is not an easy book to read. It is filled with stories of emotional and physical abuse, psychological control, and suggestions of much deeper, darker secrets. What makes it even more difficult to read is that Elizabeth’s cult, The Assembly, is also her family. It was founded by her grandfather and her father was a prominent pastor. So to break with the “church” she also has to break with her family.
We first meet Elizabeth as a nine year girl old ready to die for Jesus. She is on a street corner waving a bible and warning each passer-by to get right with God because the Rapture is coming soon, and if they don’t get saved now they might get “left behind” tomorrow. A nine-year-old girl who thinks the world is going to end before she grows up. That alone could be considered child abuse. But she doesn’t know any better. She is—in her own words—”brainwashed.”
Once she’s old enough to attend high school, her father makes a surprising decision. He sends his home-schooled daughter to a public school. This is where she slowly begins to see what the world is really like, and how different it is from what she’s been taught. Her father’s intent was to use her as a “missionary”—to “save America from godless liberals by winning their children for God.”
Instead she begins to see how much more the world has to offer beyond the walls of The Assembly. She discovers her love of writing, joins the high school newspaper, and begins to plot her “escape plan.” But escape is harder than she imagines, and it takes finding a kindred spirit in the most unlikely of places—her church—to finally make the break.
Girl at the End of the World is a stunning book. Heartbreaking in places and hilarious in others, it is the brutally honest story of how something as beautiful as the Christian faith can be twisted into something so ugly and harmful. It’s a letter to anyone growing up in an abusive, controlling “church” that there is a way to be free without sacrificing your faith.