In her new memoir, fathermothergod, My Journey Out of Christian Science (2011, Crown), Rye writer and mother of four Lucia Greenhouse chronicles the tragedy she experienced as a young woman because of her parents’ strict adherence to Christian Science.
“Journey” is too mild; the central conflict in this story is more like a nightmare. In another author’s hand, the book may have been a Christian Science/parents/world-in-general bashing. But Greenhouse is far more thoughtful and compassionate. Beautifully written, this touching memoir explores love and devotion between parents and children, and how flawed parents, even with good intentions, can destroy their families.
We met over coffee in Rye, where she lives with her husband and four children, to discuss her book. Here are some highlights from the interview.
A lot of contemporary books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written about some of the other more esoteric religions—Mormonism, for example. The 19th Wife by Ann Eliza Young (2009) comes to mind. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Christian Science. Why?
Lucia Greenhouse: You’re right. But there’s an excellent book called God’s Perfect Child written by Caroline Fraser in 2000. She grew up in the church but writes about it from the perceptive of a journalist. She covers everything from the history of Mary Baker Eddy and the beginnings of the church all the way though the legacy for families who have been derailed by this religion. Also, in its heyday of the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, Mark Twain and Willa Cather wrote about Christian Science. Mark Twain’s book on Christian Science was a satire. Willa Cather wrote several essays that were serialized in McClure’s magazine and subsequently published as a book, in which she went into extensive research on the history of the church.
But other than that, there’s been very little else written. In part, that’s because the church has gone to great lengths in the past to prevent negative books from ever getting published, which is a fascinating story in itself. Also, the church has been successful in presenting a very positive image through The Christian Science Monitor, a well-respected, great international newspaper. It’s one of the church’s most visible PR tools. In each issue there is only one article on religion and the rest is very good analytical reportage.
For people who left the church, it’s a very frightening thing to speak out against it. I am getting letters from readers everyday sharing their own difficult experiences in the faith, and how they are only now coming out of isolation to talk about it.
What gave you the courage to speak out?
Everyone deals with tragedy differently, especially family crises. I have always written to sort things out, so I knew I would write about it. After my mother died, I felt that if I didn’t deal with what happened in a serious way, it would ruin me. I knew I wanted to get married and have children and that I might never achieve these if I didn’t face this now. So six months after her death, when I was 24 years old, I quit my job at Vogue and took a year off to write this book. Since I kept a journal on and off from about fifth grade on, and since the events were still fresh in my mind, I was able to complete a skeletal draft in that year. After the year was over, I got a job at an advertising agency and focused on reintegrating myself into the life of a recent college graduate.
What was the impetus for finally publishing it?
Sometime in 2008 I think it was, I asked my brother Sherman to read fathermothergod. After reading it, he told me that I should go forward. I knew I couldn’t consider publishing it without his blessing.
Were you relieved when the book went to print, having sat with it for so many years?
No, I did not feel a relief when the book went to print. I felt a rather heavy, impending doom. I lived in (irrational?) fear of dire consequences of publishing the story, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. For some reason, I never anticipated that.
What were you afraid of? Reactions from your friends, the community, the Christian Science church?
One of my biggest fears was how the book would be received by the community here. Until it was published, I was my kids’ mother and my husband’s wife. And this is not the sort of story that you bring up at a dinner party. I worried that people would be critical of the choices I had made and that I would feel exposed or vulnerable. But everybody’s been so great. I get the equivalent of condolence notes from people who read the book and even people who knew my mother but not the circumstances surrounding her death. The support that I’ve gotten here in Rye and across the country has been one of the greatest things.
You mentioned in the book that it took so long to complete it because of the shame and guilt you felt. I wondered if, in addition, you needed the security of the home you created as an adult–your husband and children– apart from that of your parents, in order to feel safe enough to send this story out into the world?
Absolutely that helped. I have a very supportive family. One of the best things was when I needed to write some of those difficult dark scenes, as scary as it was, I knew I could come out of it to my kids and my husband. It made it much easier to write the story.
Has your extended family been as supportive? I know you met with your sister, and your aunts and uncles before you published the book.
They embraced it at first but I didn’t go to them asking “Is it OK with everyone?” When I met with them, I was ready to publish the book. The only person with whom I discussed it earlier on was my brother. But I published this book when I was ready. My only regret is that my family wasn’t given the same luxury of deciding their own readiness.
You titled the book after the Christian Science prayer Father-Mother God. Did that prayer have a particular place in your memory?
“fathermothergod” is the way I remember hearing the title “Father-Mother God” –all as one word smushed together–long before I ever saw it in print. It is the Children’s Prayer, written by Mary Baker Eddy. We said it every night before bed, and to this day it evokes happier memories from childhood. So yes, it did resonate more than, say, the Lord’s Prayer, even though I think even Christian Scientists would say it is a pretty lightweight prayer as far as those things go!
I found your story to be so painful and beautiful because of its contradictions. You had a happy childhood. Your parents loved you. You had a close extended family in the early years. You describe that Christian Science gave you the feeling that you could “achieve anything.” Yet your parents endangered you and your siblings on a daily basis by their strict adherence to Christian Science. How did you process this complexity?
Certainly, there are some very positive aspects of the religion. For example, it preaches that you are “God’s perfect child,” that you can achieve anything. My parents were always reinforcing this in us. They raised us to believe that we were never limited in any way, which is all part of the church’s theology. It gave me a lot of strength and comfort as a child. So as a result, I had a wonderful childhood. But don’t forget, my siblings and I were also lucky in that we never experienced real illness that would have required medical intervention. Things might have been different if that had happened. I wasn’t able to process the complexities until I was older and realized the hypocrisies.
When your mother got sick, your father kept telling you that if you prayed more, went to church more, and read The Lesson, your mother would get better. To an outsider, can you see that that seems like a form of emotional child abuse?
Luckily I was old enough when my mother got sick to have developed my own skepticism of the religion. Had I been a younger child, these statements would have scarred me more. I was told by my father go to church and read The Lesson, but I never did because I thought it was crap. That’s not to say I didn’t pray, I just didn’t pray the way Christian Scientists do. What my father was telling me was an integral part of the church’s theology: denial of symptoms and that all sickness is a result of faulty thinking. It was not malicious on his part. He was a flawed human being, as we all are in some way, and I do believe he was a victim of the religion as much as my mother.
How has the Christian Science community responded to your book?
They’ve been very careful. By being silent, they are staying under the radar. At one of the first readings I did outside Buffalo, they showed up- about 6 or 8 members. The local newspaper wrote an article and in the spirit of fair-mindedness they called the church to comment. So I knew church members would show up. I was terrified. During the Q&A, one member questioned me on my memory, asking if I had taken notes during certain scenes. Then a third generation Christian Scientist stood up and said that he and his family have always relied on faith and what makes me think it’s OK to say that the church is an anachronism? And I replied: “With all due respect, if you put Christian Science in its historical perspective, it was started by Mary Baker Eddy at the end of the 19th century before there were x rays, antibiotics, and even before doctors washed their hands. So there was a real reason to be suspicious of medicine at that time. Sometimes you were better of saying a prayer than going to a doctor.” I think that really shut them up. It went very well but the event coordinator afterwards said, “I thought I was going to have to step in and break things up.” Since then there have been a couple of minor confrontations by individual church members, but nothing like in Buffalo.
The church itself has not responded. They are probably being very careful not to give me a hook.
NOTE: Ms. Greenhouse will be reading from and discussing fathermothergod at a luncheon hosted by Big Brothers Big Sister, on November 17th from noon to 2 pm at Coveleigh Club in Rye. For tickets and more information called 914.305.6876.
Greenhouse will also appear at the Bedford Free Library for a reading and conversation on November 17th at 7pm. Registration required. For tickets and information call the Bedford Library at 914.234.3570.
Melina Maresca lives in Rye and loves books. firstname.lastname@example.org