It is hard to leave a cult. Apparently. I’ve never done it. The Children of the Faith series is by iconic New Zealand children’s author Fleur Beale. I mainly read this series (which I refuse to call the I am Not Esther series because that sounds wrong to me somehow) because it was recommended in the 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Grow Up book and I always felt like I should have read it in my childhood, but I never did. It’s good to support New Zealand authors and all that. I thought the discussions of faith might be interesting too.
This trio of books is made up of I am Not Esther, published in 1998; I am Rebecca, published in 2014; and Being Magdelene, published in 2015 (this is high-key just based on my memory of the copyright, so could very well be wrong). In the story timeline, the events of I am Rebecca occur 4 years after I am Not Esther, and Being Magdalene four years later again. I find it interesting how contemporary stories manage time next to publication, and the slow integration of technology wasn’t hugely noticeable, because the cult that all the titular cultures belonged to didn’t have technology so it didn’t make much difference.
If you read these books because you want a gritty and psychological examination of cults, you will probably be disappointed. These books aren’t gritty. They’re about children who are angry, frustrated, loving, sometimes faithful, always willing to ask questions. These books are relatively gentle, and possibly somewhat naïve in terms of how these things actually work; does therapy really fix everything? and given the New Zealand mental health crisis, how did these characters get such good access to therapists? (but it’s not like I’m an expert so).
There are a lot of books about cults, and they are widely read. To the ‘average person’, I guess it can seem quite mysterious as to why people listen to ridiculous and oppressive things and go along with them; it does to me. From reading this, and other books about cults, I think it’s something to do with the security of not needing to ask questions; of having your path set out for you. There are discussions of this particularly in Being Magdalene; as the Children of the Faith shatter—and those who have left feel the repercussions—but there is also the chance to create something new (with all the risks that that entails.
Cults also change over time, which is shown well over the series. I watched the film Jonestown, about the Kool-aid cult, a while ago, and this seems similar. A community where one leader listens to God and tells other people what to think warps as the leader becomes stuck on their own power, and grasps more desperately for total control. In I Am Not Esther, the children of the people go to mainstream school and have some interaction with the outside; Rebecca and Rachel go to sell eggs at a farmer’s marker; but Magdalene and Zillah can hardly access the outside at all. That said, through the series as more and more people from the central family (all the titular characters are related) leave, the ones who stay become braver about being against the way they live. I wish that Luke and Abraham’s change of heart/mind had been better chronicled because I thought it was quite interesting how they could use the computer, drive their siblings around, and go to MacDonald’s. This is the part of the narrative where a more thorough examination of gender would have been appropriate—why the boys got privileges that the girls didn’t, and why that was, instead of this being an invisible and unexplained part of the cult’s fabric.
To me, the best book in this series was I am Rebecca, because Rebecca changed a lot more than Magdalene. Esther was coerced into going to live with her cult-family members, and Magdalene was already quite against the cult—they changed in different ways, which I’ll get to. But Rebecca genuinely wanted to be ‘good’, to live by the rules of the children of the Faith, and she felt that the hymns and rules gave her life structure and meaning. But then, slowly, they didn’t. There was a lot more world out there than she counted on—and if being good, if helping the angry and fearful and frustrated meant having to leave, then maybe she would.
Esther’s journey is more of an escape narrative. There are a few moments, like when she is learning the Psalms, horrible ones and beautiful ones, that she sees why somebody might choose to live in that way. And Magdalen’s story is more about escaping trauma, and the pain of what she has tried to bear for the sake of the people who she loves.
Of course, there has to be a change in a book. And in cult books, that means either the cult breaking or the person breaking (or being broken I guess). So there is a sameness to these narratives—especially because each character ends in the exact same (physical) place, having to cope with the same betrayal of family and self, reconciling themselves to normality.
The strength and weakness of these three stories is that they don’t touch on some of the worst things about cults. This is why they work well as childrens books; but I wish that a little more depth had been lent to the aren’ts and why they joined the children of the Faith and changed within it. Still, each book is compact and quick to read—and it feels good to have read such crucial NZ kidlit.
What are your favourite books about religion? and have you read these ones? tell me in the comments!